R0BTRAIN's Badass Cinema: Seven Samurai

First I’d like to welcome everyone to my first column and I wanted to thank Widro, Coogan and everyone for having me. I wanted to start this off with what is to me the best movie ever made. After that, more movie badasses from Bruce Lee to Bruce Campbell. It’ll be sort of like Ebert’s “Great Movies” list only with alot more punching and kicking. So let’s get on with it.

You’re a walking death machine. You live in a society where the highest ideal is to be the perfect practitioner of wholesale slaughter. Every day’s goal since the inception of your birth has been to refine every aspect of your being so as to make you the ideal warrior. So you’re a loyal subject. You do your duty. You fight the wars, but in the end your side still ends up losing. You’re out of the job and free to find another, but most lords won’t take you because who wants to hire a soldier who has already lost a war? So you just wander. You go from town to town. You do little jobs to get by. In the mean time, your journey for perfection continues. You keep training and training because you never know when someone will need a good fighter. So one day you’re minding your own business, righting wrongs when they need righting, and a skinny fellow runs up to you crying that he needs your help.

You find out he lives in a village where a bunch of scum ride in every year, take their women, their food and their pride. They need your help, and they need your sword. They are willing to pay you with three meals a day, every day so you can fend off an army of brigands and nothing else.

This is the world that Seven Samurai takes place in. It’s a world where there are seven bad-asses on your side and forty cutthroats on the other, and you seven are the only things stopping the annual raping and pillaging festival that’s about to take place. And why are you doing this? Is it for fortune and glory? Well, you’re not getting any money for this. You’re fighting battles, building walls, digging moats and for your troubles you get rice, three bowls of rice a day. And as far as glory goes, when this war is over all that will remember it will be you, any of your samurai comrades that happen to make it out alive and any villagers that want to tell a story to their grandkids. It won’t exactly be immortality. So why do it all? Why put yourself on the line for a bunch of people that don’t really want you there? You do it because its what you’re supposed to do. You do it because someone needs you to help them. You do it because doing it is part of the reason that you’re on the side of good instead of one the 40 pieces of scum that don’t know what’s about to hit them.

It’s in this world that what I believe the greatest film to ever be put to celluloid takes place. Some say Citizen Kane, some say Casablanca, and some say Vertigo, but for my money the title goes to Seven Samurai. There are no superheroes in this movie. There are no Neos, no Robocops and no Spidermen. Your epic heroes for this film are just out of work soldiers. These are guys that have fought for something all their lives and want to keep fighting for whatever cause suits them. Some fight to better themselves, others believe in their cause and some for the fun of it. The long running time allows for so much character development that few pictures can match the power this film does when its heroes do in fact fall.

One of the biggest cases made for this film’s prominence in the history of cinema is its influence over other films. From kid’s movies to the biggest war and fantasy epics, Kurosawa’s film has had a part in the impact of films that few others can match. According to many Seven Samurai is the first team up film of all time. This team’s ragtag bunches of heroes are the inspiration for impossible mission after impossible mission. This is a direct link to many films like The Guns of Navarone, The Wild Bunch, and The 13th Warrior. That’s to say nothing for direct remakes like The Magnificent Seven and A Bug’s Life. What’s that? Didn’t see A Bug’s Life coming? Just think about it. Invading Hordes and reluctant warriors that band together to vanquish them is the theme, just go with it.

Not to mention that Seven Samurai is THE masterpiece of a director that may have been the greatest of all time. Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Stray Dog, Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Ran are all classics. His films have influenced the works of Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese and Coppolla. Yojimbo was the basis for the Leone classic A Fistful of Dollars, the film that launched Clint Eastwood to stardom. Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress was the inspiration for Star Wars. Think of how many films Star Wars has spawned in its wake and that shows how film as a watershed, starts at its highest levels with directors like Akira Kurosawa.

My personal favorite aspect of Seven Samurai is how it tells a story within the huge backdrop of feudal Japan, but tells it so intimately. Few epics are able to manage this feeling of comfort within its characters to really flesh them out. In recent years the closest film to bring this aspect to screen is in my estimation Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The tone of both films is eerily similar in many ways. Within the brutal confines of World War II, Spielberg’s masterpiece brings the story of eight soldiers brought together to find a single soldier, but in the end the group must defend a small French village from the swarming Nazi army, enlisting the help of the starving soldiers left behind defending their post, much like the samurai recruit the villagers to help. This way of telling both stories that gives the big battles a more personal feel as the audience invests in the characters instead of them just being fodder for war.

Kurosawa’s influence can be felt in the aspect of character as well. Both films feature a quiet leader in Ryan’s Capt. Miller and Seven Samurai’s Kambei by played wonderfully Tom Hanks and Takashi Shimura respectfully. Both men are acted with great subtlety and mystery. Their pasts are only hinted at and their orders questioned at times, but both men are utterly respected by their troops and both keep their groups together with strong leadership and conviction. With each film’s leader comes their right hand as well in the faces of Daisuke KatoÃ?´ as Shichiroji and Tom Sizemore’s Sgt. Michael Horvath. Both character’s are given screen time to establish their characters as faithful to their commander and their cause. Shichiroji desperately tries to keep the villager’s from infighting and Sizemore has a standoff with another team member that is one of the tensest moments in Ryan. Both films feature warriors at the top of their craft in Seiji Miyaguchi’s Kyuzo and Sharpshooter Pvt. Jackson as played by Berry Pepper. Kyuzo is established early in the film as the best swordsman of the group. His introductory duel in the beginning of the film is not flashy or violent. It merely shows the duel for what it is; a waste of life. It is simply choreographed and verily naturalistic. Kyuzo even refuses the duel at first, but then brings his brutal skill to the forefront after he is forced into confrontation. Barry Pepper’s Pvt. Jackson is an amazing character, delivering a righteous infliction of justice upon the Nazi enemy whenever called upon. As subtle as the Kyuzo duel is in Kurosawa’s film, Pepper’s dueling sniper’s sequence is one of the coolest moments in any war film. Both teams also have their share of jokesters and funnymen. Most of the moments of levity in both films are provided by Minoru Chiaki, Yoshio Inaba, Adam Goldberg, and a young Vin Diesel. All four men are so likeable in their films that when each die, Goldberg in particular, their deaths are moments of great sorrow.

Maybe the greatest comparison in characters of each film is that of two categories, the brash young upstart and the naive morally driven newcomer. For the first category Toshiro Mifune and Edward Burns both give maybe the performances of their careers. Mifune’s Kikuchiyo is an amazing character of depth. Not even a samurai, Kikuchiyo is a runaway peasant who desperately wants to prove himself to the rest of the team. He hates and admires the samurai on so many levels. He is brash and compulsive, so eager to prove himself at times, yet risking the lives of others to do so, earning himself disdain. Yet in the end, he embodies the samurai spirit gives everything he has for the cause of saving this village. Edward Burns’ Pvt. Richard Reiben is the only one of his troop to question the mission and his orders. He is confrontational and tries to even abandon his comrades, but later comes back to the fold to fight the good fight at the last stand against the German forces. Lastly Kurosawa regular Isao Kimura as the young Katsushiro Okamoto and Jeremy Davies’ Cpl Timothy Upham both provide the moral compass for each of their team’s. Both bring a naivety to their roles that make them easy to identify with. Neither man has ever experienced battle before, but is eager to prove his worth on the battlefield. Katsushiro is a young man of some wealth, but tries to not see class as the barrier that it was in feudal Japan. When love comes calling for Katsushiro in the film, we feel for him because the farmer’s daughter that entrances him cannot be his to love by law. Their fleeting moments of love painful to let go of after the battle is over. Upham is the interpreter for his group and wears his naivety like a badge of honor. Until the battles get hot and heavy, his belief in the goodness of man drives him. It’s this belief that causes him to fail his personal tests in battle but in the end helps him survive the battle at hand. It is these four characters that the audience will identify with more than any others in the film. They are the everymen that guide us through these epic journeys to their inevitable conclusions.

Both films put us in the middle of the warpath as they swirl around us. Kurosawa can be felt in Private Ryan’s tight close-ups and swirling camera. Kurosawa’s battles in Seven Samurai feel like their as big as any on screen before. The shortage of extras doesn’t matter because each time the camera moves there’s someone you care about on screen. The final battle feels like it has more swords and hooves than any Lord of the Rings battle. When one of them goes down, you feel it. The rain drenched combatants go back and forth and then finally the end comes after both sides lose almost everyone there is to lose. The end battle from Private Ryan becomes even more important to the audience than the D-day invasion due to the emotional investment we have in Capt Miller’s platoon and their search for Pvt James Ryan. Film as a medium is a watershed. Films are followed by other films that try to emulate it in some way over and over through time. At the top of that Watershed stands many filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Akira Kurosawa. And with Kurosawa atop this position the film that stands above all others as his masterpiece, is Seven Samurai.

So that’s it hope you guys enjoy.