Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece further cements Kurosawa’s genius status first marked by Rashomon in 1950 and confirmed in Ikiru in 1952.
Here the great master has substituted the triangulation of the 2-3 bodies mixed in precise geometrical angles in various depths of fields—in favor of larger ensemble compositions—4, 5, 6, and yes, 7 figures and heads carefully layered and blocking each other throughout the frame. It is an awe-inspiring achievement in photography and composition.
The narrative seems to have its own gravitational pull it is so good-haha- only a handful of other films (The Godfather comes to mind) can possibly match it in its size, and yet its momentum and trance-like ability to compel
Mifune and Shimura are doing at, or near, career-best work here. Shimura as the understated hero—a sharp contrast to his slumped-over shadow of a man in Ikiru. Mifune is a bat out of hell- you can’t take your eyes off him which is actually almost in contrast to the way Kurosawa devised the visual scheme of the film with his ensemble compositions- haha.
The narrative structure is broken into pretty clear thirds, the gathering up of the samurai, the training and time at the village, and the epic battle
A triumph by Fumio Hayasaka with the outstanding musical score
There are 30 or more of these but it is absolutely worth highlighting and trying to capture a few: at 20 minutes, the 4 men are staggered in profile, another again at the 37 minute mark- four faces in the frame- sublime
At 41 minutes with the rice jar in the foreground
At 55 minutes Kurosawa obstructs the frame with wood and cuts the screen into thirds
At 67 minutes the figures on top of the hill approaching the village is a standout
At 70 minutes there’s a great sequence with the village elder with his profile in the foreground
An arrangement like bowling pins almost at the 88 minute mark with Mifune in front, two figures in the second row and three in the back row
Kurosawa’s use of slow-motion (several times, one at minute 23 right after Shimura stabs the kidnapper) would largely influence or define the genre for the back-half of the 20th century. The slow-motion death duel at 49 minutes is another example.
There’s a complexity to Mifune’s character I didn’t pick up on the first or second viewing. He’s an outsider to both parties- but also an intermediary calling out each side for their bull. Kurosawa very rarely goes to the close-up at all, but is smart to go to here in a few cases during Mifune’s lectures. He has such fervor, mixing in laughter, yelling, yet being very physical. He’s half-Jerry Lewis animated comic and half Klaus Kinski screaming his face off at Herzog in My Best Fiend
A set-piece used three times I believe is the cemetery on the hill- another breathtaking mise-en-scene and creation of a frame. At 140 minutes the blade is used in the foreground like a face in one of Kurosawa’s compositions
Kurosawa is a master of the action sequence often getting it in one sustained shot where most others would cut. Here it is in his decision to shoot largely in medium-long shots with longer take duration—a single pan of the camera or slight movement of the camera opens up so much extra room. I don’t think he’s editorializing with the general’s point-of-view (they’re all ants) like he does in Ran but the technique and skill is the same in both. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he clearly knows the ins and outs of the village set like the back of his hand. His confidence in the layout of the details of the village give the battles an unmissable element of realism to them—the pinnacle of this is in the choreography of the final battle in the rain- pure cinematic bliss.
I’m not sure we have Steve McQueen (Magnificent Seven made him a star), Leone (or Corbucci), Eastwood, Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, Peter Jackson’s LOTR, the finale of Bonnie and Clyde (a lynchpin for the New Hollywood), Sam Peckinpah or Heat without this film- and you could keep going- but I find some of the “influence of” praise of Kurosawa in general and this film specifically to be a little detrimental to the acknowledgement of the accomplishment of the director and film itself.
Well done. A fitting review for the GOAT.
Let me try to briefly summarize why I believe Seven Samurai to be the greatest of all films. Firstly, it is masterful in every dimension of filmmaking. The blending of wide-angle deep focus, and telephoto compression in the cinematography, the slow motion, the staging and execution of action within the frame, the editing, the design, the performances, the brilliant musical score… all of it is just filmmaking at the highest possible level. And it is also one of the greatest and most influential film narratives ever brought to screen. A 3.5-hour film that never drags, a sweeping epic that finds perfect balance with the intimate, a tragedy that finds perfect balance with the comedic… it’s no great surprise that Kurosawa saw Shakespeare as kindred. And to top it off, it features two of the greatest performances of its decade (or any other). The contrast between Shimura’s brilliant enfeebled performance 2 years earlier in Ikiru and the aged and wise but robust depiction of a samurai here is surpassed only by the contrast that exists within Mifune’s single performance where he moves effortlessly from comic absurdity to pathos, from swaggering bravado to pitifulness. I can think of no other film that does so much so exceptionally well.
@Matt Harris– thanks for the share here. Great work- especially breaking down the fantastic work of Shimura and MIfune. I didn’t mention it here but one of my favorite shot in The Searchers is a shot of the family on the porch and it feels like a shot inspired from Kurosawa. I know the lineage and influence goes the other way normally when thinking about those two but I don’t remember a composition like that from Ford prior to Seven Samurai.
Half-way through the decade and it appears you are correct about Kurosawa’s incredible run in the 1950’s (not the mention High and Low and Red Beard in the 1960’s). This has been a rewarding study indeed and when people starting asking me about the country with the best cinema- I need to include Japan whenever I talk about France, Germany and Italy and their rich traditions.
@Matt Harris – what are some other movies you like a lot. Do you believe 7 samurai is better than Citizen Kane and 2001: A space odyssey?
@Matt Harris — What are your best films of all time after Seven Samurai?
It’s been years since I dug through everything and made an all-time list. With a gun to my head my top 5 would be:
1. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)
2. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
3. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
4. Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)
5. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
And there’s at least a dozen alternates that I’m already kicking myself for not including.
Happy to hear the love for 8 ½, a truly incredible movie, the best Italian movie
This analysis made me want to see her again today.
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