Movies I Need To See Before I Die: SEVEN SAMURAI (1956)

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(This is a column where I review movies that I have never seen, but SHOULD have.  Being a film Geek, I have seen a ton of films.  But life is also very short, and for one reason or another, there are quite a few flicks that I have never got to.  Sure, it probably doesn’t matter if I ever see a movie like PARENTAL GUIDANCE, but a movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA…. well, I should have seen that already.  I’m a film geek for God’s sake!  I have now decided that I should get on that before I get too old.  I have compiled a list of films that I WANT or NEED to watch, and am going to start watching them when I have spare time.  So I will randomly be posting reviews of movies that I have always wanted or needed to see.  Enjoy!)

I’ve only seen a small handful of Kurosawa films.  I think the first one I saw was SANJURO, the sequel to YOJIMBO.  Most people prefer the original, but I actually like the second one better and is one of my favorite of his.  For me though, his best movie is THE HIDDEN FORTRESS.  I didn’t like THRONE OF BLOOD when I first saw it, but the more I think about it the more I like it.  I’ve also seen DREAMS (which is a mixed bag) and the eccentric, but enjoyable DODES KA’DEN.  And that’s it.  I really do need to see more of his flicks.  Which brings us to this one.  SEVEN SAMURAI is widely regarded as his masterpiece.  I don’t know why the fuck I haven’t seen this one yet.  It’s definitely one of the most influential films ever made, and was remade in 1960 as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (which I moderately enjoyed).  So now, after many years of wanting to see this, here is my review…..

Even though this is an epic film, the story is surprisingly simple.  A gang of nasty bandits plan to raid a village once they are done harvesting their crops.  The villagers know about this and decide to hire some samurai to defend their village.  They meets an older and wiser Ronin named Kambei, who reluctantly agrees to help them, getting only food for pay.  He then proceeds to recruit 6 more warriors.  Once the samurai are assembled, they go to village and prepare everyone for the confrontation with the bandits.  The film, of course, climaxes with a huge battle.

It sounds simple enough, right?  Then why is it so freakin’ long?  Well, there are several subplots going on in this movie.  And there is an attempt to develop all of the major characters, which is a very good thing.  Long movies do not bother me.  Sometimes, they can even seem short if I’m enjoying myself.  This one does FEEL long though.  But, it works.  There are many characters and they really do need to expand on all of them so we can cheer them on during the finale.

To be honest, it did take me a while to get into it.  because the movie has so many major characters in it, I had a difficult time keeping track of who was who.  There were a few characters that looked too much alike, so that was hard for me.  But, about halfway in, I started figuring things out and was able to enjoy myself.

The reason why I enjoyed it was because of the characters.  I really liked Kembei.  I love seasoned warriors who have seen too much war.  Takashi Shimura gives a calm, cool performance as Kembei.  And his introduction as he rescues an infant hostage from a bad guy……awesome!  There is also Kembei’s young prodigy, Katsushiro who falls in love with a young villager (whose father dresses up like a boy so the samurai wouldn’t notice her….whoopsie!).  I thought Seiji was a bad-ass character.  I loved the scene when he just decides to go grab a musket from one of the bandits, over enemy lines.  Great moment.  But the stand out, of course, is Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, a drunken warrior who has to prove himself.  His performance is much more lively here than I’ve seen from him in other films.  He’s usually more stoic, but here, he’s extremely energetic and has most of the film’s funniest lines and moments as he hoots and hollers his way through the movie.  He is the comic relief, but he’s still a bad-ass too.  It’s a very interesting character and a fun performance.

The film has a deliberate, leisurely pace, but that’s normal for Kurosawa.  His film’s have never been accused of being fas- paced.  The story is very detailed.  In fact, one could argue that it’s a bit too detailed.  There might have been a scene here or there that could have been trimmed.  But the movie does have a lot to offer in the way of entertainment.  The first half does a great job introducing the seven samurai, and the villagers.  I liked the dynamic between the 2 classes.  And there’s some good action moments during the finale.  However, I did think that there was going to be more action.  It wasn’t one big long battle, but a few brief battles spaced out.  Now, I won’t fault the movie for that.  It was just different from how I thought it was going to be.  In fact, I almost like this better because it showed how the samurai could beat a huge army of bandits using a certain strategy, by taking a few of them out at a time.  There were some great action sequences that had me geeking out during the finale too.

Kurosawa is a master filmmaker.  By this point, he was already a pro.  The movie looks simply gorgeous.  The sets and costumes are fantastic, and the photography is precise and inventive.  The only thing I would complain about is that occasionally the editing was a bit messy.  But maybe it was supposed to be so it could match the chaos going on in the movie.  The script is about as expansive as one could get.  The writers really made an effort to develop each and every detail.  Except for one.  There was a development brought to light that was quickly forgotten involving the samurai discovering that the villagers have killed visiting samurai in the past.  They were upset when they found out, but didn’t confront the villagers about it.  I’m not really sure what the point of bringing that up was.

It may seem that I’m nitpicking this film too much.  Well, if I am, it’s because that this is regarded as a masterpiece.  My expectations were set very high here.  While I think it’s a good solid samurai film, I have to disagree about that assessment.  It’s well crafted, but it does have some flaws.  And the fact that I had a tough time getting into it during the first hour was a problem.  However, I do think that I will like it much better the second time.  I am kind of like that with Kurosawa.  I didn’t love THE HIDDEN FORTRESS and SANJURO right away.  It took a few viewing of them before I really appreciated them.  So keeping that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if I felt the same with SEVEN SAMURAI.

I really don’t want to say I was let down by this film, but I kind of was.  I was expecting to love it!  But I only liked it.  However, like I said, I have a feeling that this will only get better with repeat viewings.  It’s well thought-out, expertly crafted, and contains some rousing action.  For me, though, the best thing about this movie was the well-developed characters.  I can think of a several samurai films that I prefer to this, but it’s still a solid film.   ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

 – Not rated but contains some language, brief nudity and some intense (but not graphic) violence.  It would probably get a PG13 if released today. 

- Running time: 3hrs 26min.

(SEVEN SAMURAI is available to rent on DVD from Netflix)

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Categories: Austin Kennedy, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Movies I Need To See Before I Die, Reviews

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1 reply

  1. So glad you finally got to see one of my favorite films. I am confident that your opinion will improve further as you watch it. The editing choices could often be found in many of Kurosawa’s films and I believe your instincts regarding their placement may be accurate.

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