Movies & TV

From Under A Rock: Seven Samurai

April 14, 2017 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Seven Samurai  

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Wayyyyyy back in 2015, one of our earliest editions of this column saw Michael introduce Aaron to his favorite movie of all time; Alien. At long last, the tide has turned, as Michael gets to see Aaron’s favorite film.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael chose The Abyss. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock to show him Seven Samurai.

Seven Samurai
Released: April 26th, 1954
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni
Starring:
Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo
Takashi Shimura as Kambei Shimada
Isao Kimura as Katsushirō Okamoto
Yoshio Inaba as Gorōbei Katayama
Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyūzō
Minoru Chiaki as Heihachi Hayashida
Daisuke Katō as Shichirōji

Aaron Hubbard: Seven Samurai is my favorite movie; it’s the granddaddy of the modern blockbuster, and it holds up astonishingly well. I’m a huge fan of epic stories, complex character dynamics, and films that have historic importance. This checks all of those boxes, and it does so with Akira Kurosawa’s outstanding directing. I fell in love with it right from the get-go and had to talk about it with Michael, so here we are.

Michael Ornelas: I don’t do well with old movies or long movies, and this was both. It was also fantastic, so there’s that. This would be a must-own for me if the blu-ray didn’t cost $35, but I definitely already plan on revisiting it at some point.
Seven
Magnificent Storytelling
Aaron: Aside from the overall quality of his films, Akira Kurosawa is probably best known for working with his writing team to tell fresh, epic stories. George Lucas borrowed liberally from The Hidden Fortress for a little sci-fi flick named Star Wars .Seven Samurai has been remade many times, from the official remakes like The Magnificent Seven to the unofficial tributes like A Bug’s Life. The story of helpless farmers recruiting warriors to protect them from bandits, the soldiers meeting each other and working with each other, and eventually fighting back and winning at great cost is just outstanding. It was a huge concept for a film in its time, and you see the influence in modern films like The Avengers, which uses a very similar structure to tell the story of Nick Fury recruiting six superheroes to protect the world from invading aliens. Same story beats with a different coat of paint. It’s timeless.

Michael: I’ve discussed with you several times that I’m usually a fan of films I’ve watched first as opposed to films that were made first. Well this movie is one of the few exceptions. Despite its age, I never really felt like I was watching an old movie because I was wholly immersed in the story and the characters. It is a very long movie and arguably a little too slow, but the cast of characters allowed me to just relax and enjoy the scenery. The sense of familiarity I got from the movie because of the references mentioned (The Magnificent Seven and A Bug’s Life) made me realize that it’s not always a given that a more modern perspective will allow a film to surpass the original. This is a case where the original is still the best iteration of the story being told.

Aaron: I think what stands out for this is that the first hour or so is dedicated to introducing characters and giving them their due. We see that Kambei Shimada is willing to appear like a commoner to save a child from a bandit. We see Kyūzō’s duel, we see Kikuchiyo drunk and poorly forging his identity. But we also get to know the villagers; the Old Man had a great introduction, Yohei is memorably terrified the whole time, and we see Manzo and his daughter’s story set up early on. It’s a long movie, but that’s because it makes sure each act gets its due and nothing feels shortchanged.
Samurai Group
Character Chemistry
Michael: This movie’s real strength, in my opinion, is the bond formed between the characters. All the characters’ interpersonal relationships are different with one another and it’s a fascinating, heartwarming, yet sometimes frustrating experience. They feel like so much more than characters — they are people. Everyone has a motivation, and some of those motivations conflict with one another, while others complement. It sounds so easy to do on paper, but executing it and making it compelling is what separates great storytellers from the rest of the pack. I didn’t care much for Kikuchiyo because he lied to the samurai originally, he was hot-headed, and he was irrational, but I can’t imagine this story being told without him. On the other side of the same coin, Kambei was calm as a cucumber and had the discipline necessary to uphold the samurai code, if you will, and his ability to juxtapose some of the other characters in the cast’s eccentricities makes him the crucial baseline character (and those are usually my favorites).

Aaron: It’s interesting that you said “easy on paper”; Kurosawa created extremely detailed biographies of the characters for his actors. Each of the samurai had a guideline for what they wore and ate, how they walked, talked and behaved when greeted, and even how each tied his shoes. It might seem like overkill, but helping his actors live those characters really helps each stand out. As for my favorite Samurai, Kyūzō really sticks out. He rarely says anything, so when he talks, it matters. He’s a total badass, but I like that he’s willing to take Katsushirō under his wing. Speaking of Katsuhirō, he’s someone I really connect with; his awe of the samurai, but his realization that villagers don’t see him as one of the heroes when Shino tells him to “act like a Samurai”. That romance is the toughest part of this movie to watch, especially when Manzo finds out, but I also think it’s necessary for the story. I also think it’s a major mark in this film’s favor that I genuinely cared when each of the four samurai died.

Michael: That’s fascinating. And that goes to show that “make compelling characters” sounds like an easy idea, but there is soooo much that goes into it, that it’s anything but easy. We also haven’t even mentioned the first samurai death experienced in the film, that of Heihachi. That one hit me the hardest (probably because he was the most lovable of the characters). Every death gets its time to shine and I always appreciate when character deaths are treated with reverence and gravity, especially these characters that I spent three and half hours with and grew to love.
Farmers
Class Warfare and National Identity
Aaron: Purposefully or not, films are a product of the times they are made in. Akira Kurosawa made his films during Japanese reconstruction after World War II; the nation was in the midsts of huge cultural upheaval and shifting from centuries of feudalism to a democracy. Akira Kurosawa, influenced by American Westerns and the mythology of the cowboy, latched onto the samurai as a similar symbol of Japanese ideals. But he also knew that the “idea” of samurai was incongruous with the reality; samurai were not defenders of the people so much as enforcers of the ruling class. In Seven Samurai, Kurosawa brings together terrified farmers and directionless warriors, forcing them to fight for a singular noble cause.

Michael: The key word that helps show that his version of a “samurai” still holds that historical meaning is “terrified.” Those farmers are horrified when the samurai arrive, and it’s clear that is because of what the word typically means. I liked that this group of mostly likable and honorable men had to still prove themselves to the farmers. And I thought it was smart that it wasn’t just through being friendly — they were surprisingly stern when they had to be. The scene, in which the farmers whose homes were on the border of the town essentially quit the “home team” of the entire village because they were informed that their homes would likely be lost, really resonated with me because we saw that they were treated sternly and essentially were denied the right to quit. The message of “think about something bigger than yourself” and self-sacrifice is what wins out most at the end of the film, especially considering that the closing shot is on the grave sites of four of the samurai that died in the battle, showing in no uncertain terms that there was more loss than success for the samurais. Their duty was to protect the village though, and that is where they must take solace.

Aaron: Knowing the fear and tension added a new layer to the opening proceedings for me. The bandits were a major threat if the villagers were willing to bargain with the samurai. My favorite scene in the film is Kikuchiyo’s epic rant where he says everything wrong with the farmers, but then turns it on his head by correctly blaming the samurai for making them monsters. It felt relevant to a Japan that had followed its leaders into World War II, but it connects outside of that context. Probably the most disappointing aspect of last year’s The Magnificent Seven remake was the lack of this dimension, and no matter how fun that movie was, it just didn’t carry the weight of Seven Samurai or the original Magnificent Seven.

Ratings:
Michael: I loved this movie. It was long and old and tough for me to get through, but it was perfect. I’m a big fan of this cast of characters and while the story isn’t anything new (to me), it was at the time and its influence is spectacular. This made me want to dive into Kursawa’s other work because this was the first movie of his that I’ve seen. This movie deserves all the praise it gets.

A+

Aaron: Seven Samurai hits all the right notes for me. I love epic stories about great heroes, and I love stories that focus on character development and interpersonal dynamics. But even setting aside my natural inclination, the film has everything a great movie should have. It’s a must watch.

A+

Michael: As good as the film is, I’m still bitter that I’d have to spend $35 to own this on blu-ray.

Aaron: Yeah it’s way too much for that. I think I might pick The Magnificent Seven at a later date, because it’s one hell of a good remake.

Which version of Seven Samurai is your favorite?

Next week:

Michael: Next Saturday is Earth Day, so I’m picking one of the only movies I know about Earth Day! Even if it is one of the stupidest comedies ever made, it’s one I grew up on and is a sentimental guilty pleasure.
Bio Dome
Aaron: You know, in all honesty, it can’t be worse than Hop, the only Easter themed movie I know of.

Michael: Different holiday, but I’m willing to bet you’ll like it about the same.

What’s your favorite movie that you fully acknowledge is supremely idiotic?

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Aaron Has Another Column!
This week on Taken For Granted, I covered my other favorite movie, The Godfather. I’ll be looking at Part II on Monday.

Check Out Aaron’s Letterboxd!
Go here to see my star ratings for almost 800 films. Recent reviews include a string of Marvel films: Iron Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk.

10
The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
Akira Kurosawa's work is influential and excellent, and if you are a movie buff you owe it to yourself to dive into his work. Seven Samurai is a great jumping off point; outstanding characters, an epic story, a magnificent conclusion, and great work in front of and behind the camera. It's Aaron's favorite, so of course this gets one of our highest recommendations ever.
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Michael Ornelas