Skip to main content

Don't mess with me. I may look like hell, but I'm a real samurai!

Seven Samurai
(1954)

(SPOILERS) Hugely influential classics such as Seven Samurai are so well covered and thoroughly examined, there’s scarcely anything left to say about them. That being the case, I may as well begin with a negative: those influenced, including those remaking the film in inevitably inferior fashion, have been well-advised not to imitate its running time. Really, good as the picture is, Akira Kurosawa had no business making it three and a half hours long. It isn’t that it drags horribly (it doesn’t), but it’s so studiously unhurried that the indulgences are extra-obvious, and, while I would never condone cutting a movie against its maker’s wishes, I can quite understand why the scissors were pulled out in this case.


Nevertheless, it’s quite easy to see why this was the director’s favourite of his films, and why it remains his most popularly acclaimed (all those votes on IMDB can’t be wrong; don’t tread the message boards if you too think it’s a little on the extended side, though –  although, the inadvisability of posting comments probably applies to any movie there, unless you’re a masochist). On the positive side, the luxurious running time affords us ample time to get to know not only each of the seven, albeit some better than others (none are mere faces, though), but also insights into the attitudes of the villagers they vowed to protect; often petty-minded and vindictive, they are borne into a caste system they have no option but to endure (in a particularly chilling scene, an elderly village woman forks a captured bandit to death in vengeance for the murder of her son).


Notably, the bandits are almost entirely indistinct, save for the sensible decision at the outset to save their plundering until post-harvest. As such, the picture could perhaps have more clearly established that the distinctions (or lack thereof) the villages make between bandits and samurai are partly based on the two intertwining (that many a disenfranchised ronin would turn to banditry to support himself), even given Kikuchiyo’s memorable outburst concerning samurai leaving him an orphan.


The most indelible of the seven is, of course, Kikuchiyo, thanks to Tohsiro Mifune’s gusto-driven performance as the wannabe samurai who repeatedly proves how at odds with the reserve and discipline of the warrior (Kikuchiyo is out of his gourd early on, and in an amusing introductory scene is unsuspectingly bashed on the head by Katsushiro; all the other candidates have been wise to his hiding in wait far in advance). Mifune said it was his favourite role, and it’s certainly a tour de force of unbridle energy, almost exhaustingly so.


It’s also interesting, given how influential this is, that the loudmouthed braggart who ends up as the most identifiably heroic character (if not the soundest of judgment) has been diluted in later incarnations. The latest would be Chris Pratt in The Magnificent Seven remake, but there’s never any doubt about his skillset. It’s Kickuchiyo who ploughs on after being shot, running the chief bandit through, but early on we keep expecting the character to be run off, or proved a coward; at very least, to continue as a permanent joke ("You're so special, I represented you by a triangle" he is told of a banner in which the samurai are signified by circles). Hollywood isn’t generally inclined to go quite so far off the straight and narrow, even when in full blown anti-hero mode.


Other highlight performances include Takshi Shimura’s leader Kambei, shining with moral rectitude and wisdom, but also a quiet sense of humour (also amusing is how diligently he marks off the progressive body count on his chart), and Seiji Miyaguchi’s ultra-serious-minded Kyuzo, who allows himself a rare smile, when no one else is looking, after the permanently bedazzled Katsushiro has effusively praised his amazing skills again (“You really are great, Kyuzo”). Then there’s Kato Daisuke’s perma-smiley Shichiroji. Isao Kimuro also makes an impression as Katsushiro, although that may be because he’s given the most screen time, even more than Mifune; his tentative romance does rather go on.


It’s an inoffensive plotline, what with his frolicking amongst the flowers with Shino (Keiko Tsushima), but begins to feel repetitive when her father (Kamatari Fujiwara) starts wailing on at her the for the umpteenth time. A lot of that is down to Fujiwara’s one note, extreme-pitched performance, though. The coda, in which Shino rejects Katushiro to celebrate planting crops with her fellow villagers, emphasises the lonely lives the samurai lead (albeit reinforcing their nobility) and that, as Kambei notes, “The victory belongs to the farmers, not us”.


The bandits rock up with about an hour to go, which gives some idea of the extended running time, and Kurosawa’s rain-drenched action remains highly impressive. Earlier, we’ve witnessed a masterful first taste of his skilled staging when Kambei takes down a thief who erupts from a hut in slow motion (Roger Ebert has suggested this sequence is the basis for the hero being introduced in a signature, self-contained subplot, such as Dirty Harry, and that’s easy to go with), but the sustained carnage is something else. It’s notable too how much the combined martialling of the villagers contributes to the victory; while this element has remained in later versions, the focus has been appreciably more on the role of the seven.


Admittedly, I’m not hugely au fait with Kurosawa’s oeuvre, a scandalous omission I keep itending to remedy, but it’s immediately obvious that George Lucas’ indebtedness in respect of Star Wars (notably co-opting C-3PO and R2-D2’s roles from the peasants in The Hidden Fortress) extends to Seven Samurai, which he has also cited as his favourite film. Name the protocol droid does this weary reflection, by a Seven Samurai villager, sounds like: “We were born to suffer. It’s our fate”?


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

The past is a statement. The future is a question.

Justified Season Six
(SPOILERS) There have been more than enough damp squib or so-so show finales of late to have greeted the demise of Justified with some trepidation. Thankfully it avoids almost every pitfall it might have succumbed to and gives us a satisfying send-off that feels fitting for its characters. This is a series that, even at its weakest (the previous season) is leagues ahead of most fare in an increasingly saturated sphere, so it’s a relief – even if there was never much doubt on past form – that it doesn’t drop the ball.

And of those character fates? In a show that often pulls back from giving Raylan Givens the great hero moments (despite his maintaining a veneer of ultra-cool, and getting “supporting hero” moments as he does in the finale, 6.13 The Promise), it feels appropriate that his entire (stated) motivation for the season should be undermined. He doesn’t get to take down Boyd Crowder, except in an incarcerating sense, but as always he is sanguine about it. After…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you.

Mr. Robot Season 2
(SPOILERS) I suspect my problem with Mr. Robot may be that I want it to be something it isn’t, which would entail it being a much better show than it is. And that’s its own fault, really, or rather creator and writer-director of umpteen episodes Sam Esmail’s, who has intentionally and provocatively lured his audience into thinking this really is an up-to-the-minute, pertinent, relevant, zeitgeisty show, one that not only has a huge amount to say about the illusory nature of our socio-economic system, and consequently the bedrock of our collective paradigm, but also the thorny subject of reality itself, both of which have been variably enticing dramatic fodder since the Wachowski siblings and David Fincher released a one-two punch at the end of the previous millennium.

In that sense, Mr. Robot’s thematic conceit is very much of a piece with its narrative form; it’s a conjuring act, a series of sleights of hand designed to dazzle the viewer into going with the flow, rath…

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
(SPOILERS) In retrospect, 1973 looks like a banner year for the changing face of the horror movie. The writing was on the wall for Hammer, which had ruled the roost in Britain for so long, and in the US the release of The Exorcist completed a transformation of the genre that had begun with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; the realistic horror film, where the terror was to be found in the everyday (the home, the family). Then there was Don’t Look Now, which refracted horror tropes through a typically Nic Roeg eye, fracturing time and vision in a meditative exploration of death and grief. The Wicker Man, meanwhile, would gather its reputation over the passing years. It stands as a kind of anti-horror movie, eschewing standard scares and shock tactics for a dawning realisation of the starkness of opposing belief systems and the fragility of faith.

In comparison to this trio, The Legend of Hell House is something of a throwback; its slightly stagey tone, and cobweb…