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Seven Samurai: Of Myth and Realism

A black and white still from Seven Samurai

What makes a story truly timeless? What is it about a work of fiction that makes it a defining part of the culture of an entire civilization, and for generations? Like all authors of classics, Akira Kurosawa’s works dive straight into the core of humanity with an unerring aim. His path as an auteur, though, is unique in how effortlessly it reconciles opposites. Far from the cinema of today, where a terribly abstract existential black hole threatens to suck all the essence out of artistic creativity, Kurosawa reconciled complex views by seemingly passing them through a filter of pure creative spirit, creating an image that was a crystal-clear reflection of life itself. 

Kurosawa often faced criticism in his own home country, where audiences and critics called him out for failing to express pure Japanese heritage in his work, and for pandering to Western tastes. He vehemently denied these charges; yet he was candid about taking inspiration from those sources. From Shakespearean epics in films like Ran to Dostoevsky in The Idiot, he took inspiration where he found them. In adapting those stories to the Japanese context, his films outlined complex stances on the nation’s history, appearing to glorify while at the same time criticizing its excesses — giving hope while at the same time protesting. In style, he is recognised with a similar addendum: a master of cinematic spectacle who deeply understood the foundational beats of cinematic storytelling, and who took the time to let the story’s emotions breathe and gain vitality. 

The ‘50s was a golden period in Kurosawa’s career, where he spread himself across myriad genres, striking gold each time, and also creating some of his most well-known hits. Released in 1954, Seven Samurai is inarguably his most successful and influential commercial film. But seen from the wrong end of history, with the disadvantageous hindsight of countless derivatives devoured, what stands out is the peculiarity of its spirit — the duality of realism and fiction it juggles in the same hand, like wave and particle; and the line it draws in the sand, between what it gave for the evolution of cinema, versus the secrets it left out in the open, which can never be converted into a mass consumption formula. 

Seven Samurai is essentially a story about heroes — it has even been called the first modern action movie. The miracle that Kurosawa achieves here is that he places these classical heroes in a fictional universe whose rules are very grounded and realistic — not in any exaggerated, deconstructive neo-genre sense, but rather through an all-encompassing mundanity where every movement and every action grows with complete meditative clarity, roots first then the stem, with focused intention. Envisioning the excruciating nature of such an exercise at crafting lifelike fiction evokes all sorts of parallels; the unfathomable mindset of a master calligrapher at work, or a zen master busily staring into the wall. 

A black and white still of Seven Samurai

One at a time, each individually planted seed grows until a veritable garden of meanings are set up, interacting with each other yet complete on their own — and all of this happens at a lifelike pace. The movie spends much of the three-plus-hour runtime tilling the soil, taking deep breaths through all the steps that go into staging a defense. Recruiting the seven samurai takes up the entirety of the first half, while a good deal of the second half is spent with Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the veteran samurai and leader of the troupe, enumerating and implementing all the discrete strategies to be put into place before the bandits come to rob the farmers of their harvests. And when the penultimate battle takes place, it’s not one big showdown, but rather a messy, exhaustive affair lasting two days, two nights, and then a third morning.  

And yet it is tough to point out a single moment or scene that feels like it doesn’t belong in the movie. Here arises that mysterious line demarcating the secrets of Seven Samurai from its benefactions: where it builds human drama and develops memorable characters, without pretense, yet demonstrating that fathomless creative genius where strokes of brilliance cross over the line to become textbook cinematic templates. All brilliant solutions are graceful, and multiplicative in their benefits. Examples of this tenet are found in many instances across the movie — the way Kambei’s character introduction establishes his traits through a single solemn act; Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) the maverick taking on multiple roles in the village as comedic foil as well as the inspirational figure, and ultimately becoming symbolic of the conflict between samurai and farmers with his tragic backstory; and the animosity between the peasant class and samurai coming to life through naturally developed conflicts that take ugly forms at their height. 

A story becomes a timeless template when it reaches to the heart of the human experience — whether it is an endlessly recurring journey, or a core human sentiment. The desire to witness larger-than-life heroes is one of these instincts, an especially insatiable one for the modern cinema audience, which led the way to the massive precedence of action cinema in modern culture and entertainment. Seven Samurai’s influence upon this all-important genre has become so encompassing that it is almost nebulous, a subconscious part of the entire tapestry. The kind of creative mastery required to conjure up such a universal template in fiction certainly gives one pause. That the movie creates these complete journeys while also weaving in a complex message of hope and humanity amidst an equally staggering realism in its portrayal of historical wrongs is a feat that is unthinkable.


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