March 11, 2011

#13: Seven Samurai (1954) conquers the West of the Far East

(Part of my series on watching every movie in the IMDB's top 250)

What do The Dirty Dozen, X-Men, The Sandlot, The Oceans 11(+ n) Series, and pretty much every heist movie have in common? They all owe their plot lineage to Seven Samurai.

Seven Samurai follows the plight of a farming village in Japan just after the Ashikaga shogunate of the 1500s, and their quest to enlist the support of Seven ronin samurai to help defend themselves against gangs of raiding marauders. What follows is a simple three-act set-up -- the conflict and recruiting, the development and cohesion, and the mission and farewell-- that has come to define such movies made subsequently. As in the modern movies mentioned above, each character is brought into the group because of the unique contributions that he can bring to the mission. The themes of honorable 'hired guns' coming to rescue innocents (especially helpless, undeveloped sexy female characters) from violent lawlessness are all common to American Westerns and therefore will be familiar to modern audiences. However, given the timeframe that the movie was made, it is clear that these themes are meant to send a political message against the samurai-inspired militarist ideals exhibited by Japan in WWII.

With an original run time in excess of 3 hours and 20 minutes, Seven Samurai really is far too long, but the story never drags. Each scene builds to an important goal: explaining the motives and histories of each of the Seven, showing the pitifullest of the farmer's plight, hinting at a briefly actualized romance. The character of Kambei Shimada, the master (though he never calls himself that) of the Seven, must already be in the pantheon of great cinematic teachers of morals; the other characters demonstrate a humour and manner of speaking that is surprisingly relevant. As a 'Samurai Western' it would be nothing without violence, which is still thrilling (if not graphic) today and must have been epic in its time.

As for the critiques, the Japanese language is not one that flows gracefully from the tongue, and three hours of it shouting while you try to read the subtitles can get tiring. The farmers are often too pathetic, the samurai too pushy, the drunks too shrill, and the other characters too eager to laugh at inappropriate and random times.

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