Seven Samurai (1954) directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Any one who calls himself a true movie buff has that one film that he loves the most. It’s a film that the buff discovers at some cathartic point in his life, and a film that from that moment on he reveres forever.
I discovered my film on a rainy, gray, amber autumn Sunday afternoon on the Connecticut shore line, at the very end of a really bad, dangerous, but rather exciting love affair. She was vivacious. She was wild. She was crazy. She was gone. My heart was shattered. I was abandoned. I was hopeless. I would never love again. My future – a monastery, far up in the cold north country, where I could sequester myself, and devote every fiber of my being to living out the rest of my life like last act of a tragic Italian opera that promised no happy ending.
Instead, I went the video shop to rent a film. I needed something that would either restore my faith in the future, or drive me over the brink. There were no other choices.
On the main drag to the highway towards New Haven, just about a mile south of the Branford Town Center, there was a video rental place, whose name I’ve forgotten, that had one of the most incredible cinema collections that I have ever experienced. It was a treasure trove. It was also a place where I ran into all of my other movie buff friends. This particular afternoon, as I despondently trudged into the shop, I ran into Deangelina. Deangelina was a five foot-two perky little redhead with short cropped hair. Deangelina lived on the shore line in Guilford near the wetlands. Her primary life was graphics, the keyboard, and her horse. Her other life was film. She was a downright scholar when it came to film. It was an auspicious meeting.
“You look awful,” she said. “Heartbreak”, I sighed. “Ah,” she knowingly nodded. “You need a movie! What kind?” “That’s just it Deangelina, what kind?” I gestured dramatically. Deangelina’s thoughtful gaze met mine. “Follow me”. Deangelina graciously took my hand and lead me over to the “Special Rack” at the far left hand corner of the store. It had one shelf with no label. On it were fifty VHS tapes. Deangelina surveyed the shelf carefully. She took down two. Holding one up to my face she said, “If you’re looking for over-the-brink, then this is the one – Eraserhead – really early David Lynch. It’s apocalyptic. It’s a guaranteed mind melt. Or – if your looking for something that you can get lost in forever…” she pressed the other video to my heart…”then, watch this.” I looked at the jacket – Seven Samurai. I recognized the title. It was Akira Kurosawa’s first samurai epic. The film had a legendary reputation. In 1960, John Sturges directed an American Western version of the film called The Magnificent Seven… It was a good Western. I saw it several times. But, I had never seen its parent, Seven Samurai. Deangelina gently placed my hand over the video, removed hers, leaned into me on her tip toes, and quietly cooed, “Watch it.” And so, I did on that rainy, gray, amber autumn Sunday afternoon on the Connecticut shore line. The experience was uplifting. For three-hours and twenty-seven minutes I lost myself in an incredible story. The despair of recent days quietly ebbed.
The plot of SevenSamurai revolves around a Japanese village victimized regularly by an onslaught of thieves and renegades. It is the end of the 16th century, turbulent times during which ruling families brutally fight each other to establish superiority. The country side is devastated by constant warfare. The rural village is the most vulnerable. Ambitious samurai roam the country in hopes achieving fame. Others ply their marital skills simply because it’s a living. The elders of the village decide to hire samurai to ward off the bandits. However, as compensation they only have food and shelter to offer. Nevertheless, a contingent is sent to a busy town frequented by samurai. Armed only with a barrel of their best rice they intend to recruit “hungry samurai.” They find seven who follow them to their village. There they fortify it, train a small rag-tag army, and fight off the bandits.This may seem like a very familiar plot. It is the typical quest story where men are recruited to accomplish a dangerous mission. The premise has been used in films like The Dirty Dozen, Guns of Navarrone, The Magnificent Seven, The 13th Warrior and Inglorious Bastards. In 1954, however, Akira Kurosawa was the first to introduce this premise. Originally, the script was intended simply to portray a day in the life of samurai. However, after discovering a bit of medieval Japanese history, where an actual village had hired samurai to protect them during harvest, Kurosawa decided instead to adopt this theme for his film. He gathered a cast of the best Japanese film actors of the day (Toshiro Mufine became internationally renowned), left the studio soundstage, and decided to film outdoors in authentically recreated sets. The project nearly bankrupt Toho Studios. However, when the film was released it was an international hit. It not only caught the attention of critics and audiences, but moved on to be the most imitated motion pictures in the history of cinema.
This is a very carefully constructed drama that meticulously maps out a plot that offers the spectator an intimate three hour glimpse into human nature. It is not only cinematically riveting but also classically theatrical. The film is made in black and white. The music (written specifically for the film by Fumio Hayaske) effectively underscores the subtlest elements of the story. The dialogue is simple, straightforward yet movingly intelligent. In this film, the samurai are not merely muscle bound mercenaries adeptly displaying their machismo. They are men, who because of ambition, tradition, or condition are left with only one recourse in life– to do what they do best – to fight, to live, or to die. Each of them is possesses his own unique way of reasoning and coping. Furthermore, the villagers are not just a band of pitiful, hapless souls. They seem humble but they are also clever, stoic, deceitful and heroic. There are no minor characters in this film. Even the extras have personal histories etched into their faces that provide depth to the story. The film also contains one of the most exciting battle scenes that have ever been staged in cinema. One particular battle, which takes place entirely in the rain, has been relentlessly copied in many action films that have followed since then.
Seven Samurai was the one film in my life that cured me. It has been many years since I first saw the film. Many more wild, crazy, dangerous love affairs that left me wonderfully shattered and broken hearted have passed. Deangelina, my video muse, eventually moved to San Diego with her horse to teach music and to work on a ranch. I moved out to Colorado. I have watched Seven Samurai many times since then. I can now view the film without ever even glancing at the subtitles. It is the most treasured item in my personal film library. It has never failed to cure me when I need it most. I consider it the greatest film ever made.
Of course, this is only my personal opinion. Watch the film and judge for yourself.