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Seven Samurai (1954)
Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai) is a 1954 Japanese adventure drama film co-written, edited, and directed by Akira Kurosawa. The film takes place in 1587 during the Warring States Period of Japan. It follows the story of a village of farmers that hire seven masterless samurai (ronin) to combat bandits who will return after the harvest to steal their crops. Seven Samurai is described as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made, and is one of a select few Japanese films to become widely known in the West for an extended period of time. It is the subject of both popular and critical acclaim; it was voted onto Sight & Sound's list of the ten greatest films of all time in 1982, and to the directors' top ten films in the 1992 and 2002 polls. A gang of marauding bandits approaches a mountain village. The bandit chief recognizes they have ransacked this village before, and decides it is best that they spare it until the harvest in several months. A villager happens to overhear the discussion. The news leaves the villagers divided about whether to surrender their harvest or fight back against the bandits.
Akira Kurosawa had about a decade of work -- nothing you've likely heard of -- under his belt by 1954, when he stormed the world with this masterpiece. 3 1/2 hours long, it's a western with a feudal 1600s Japanese sensibility, a format he'd return to frequently. But here it's at its simple best. Some may claim Seven Samurai is complex, but that's hardly truthful: It's about a village of farmers, who learn of an impending attack by bandits intent to rob them of their barley crop... again. They decide to fight back by recruiting seven samurai to teach them to fight, protect the village, and slay the bandits for good. Some will be heroes, some will perish. But we know all along that our samurai will win the day for the village somehow. And that's the gist.
Perhaps the most brilliant part of the film has nothing to do with its action scenes, pacing, script, or photography (all of which are top notch). It's the characters that stand out so memorably. Young Shino (Keiko Tsushima), who seems to be falling for one of the local farmgirls, jeopardizing the battle. The wise leader Shimada (Takashi Shimura). And of course the show-stealing Toshirô Mifune, playing an arrogant and uncontrollable ronin looking to outdo his compatriots and get as much glory as possible.
As the samurai interact and, eventually, do battle with the bandits, we get to know and understand them. And yet not a lot of dialogue is spent in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa is much more likely to let a panorama or some swordplay do the talking, as all good westerns should.
My only complaints are slight: That Samurai has some choppy parts in the beginning that could have been helpfully edited down, and the film's romantic subplot is difficult to fully understand without deep knowledge of 1600s Japanese courting customs. No biggies, really. You won't have time to care about it. The movie sucks you in so thoroughly you're actually pissed when you have to swap in a new disc during intermission. (Remember... 3 1/2 hours.)
Criterion has just reissued Samurai (spine number 2!) on a three-disc DVD set with a load of extras: two audio commentaries, a lengthy making-of featurette, a two-hour interview with Kurosawa, and a documentary about the samurai of the era. Plus you get all the usual stills, trailers, essays, and more, all bound up in a handsome package. Highly recommended.
Aka Shichinin no samurai.