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‘Seven Samurai’ at 70

NEW YORK (AP) – Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. But despite its age, the vitality and fleet-footed movement of Kurosawa’s epic is still breathtaking.

To watch it again is to be swept along, all over again, by its flowing action and breadth of vision. Just as swiftly as Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), the noble samurai leader of the seven, sprints this way and that in the climactic battle, Seven Samurai moves – man, does it move. It flies through rice fields and down wooded pathways. Kurosawa’s camera doesn’t anticipate where the action is running so much as chase headlong after it.

For many of its admirers, Seven Samurai has likewise been a kind of pursuit. It’s not that Kurosawa’s movie is so elusive – it’s a fairly straightforward tale that states its meaning plainly. Its mystery is more the kind reserved for a grand monument whose existence seems as unfathomable as it is undeniable.

Seven Samurai, a 207-minute epic about a 16th-Century farm community that turns to a band of samurai to defend itself from marauding bandits, has seemed to always be here. It’s about as lodged in movie canon as possible.

Any beginner list for world cinema probably includes it. In the every-decade Sight and Sound poll of critics and filmmakers, it’s slid slightly but not much. In 2022, it ranked number 20, fittingly right alongside Apocalypse Now, whose director, Francis Ford Coppola, is one of Kurosawa’s most devoted acolytes.

Takashi Shimura and Yoshio Inaba in a scene from the 1954 film ‘Seven Samurai’. PHOTO: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: Photos show scenes from the 1954 film. PHOTO: AP
PHOTO: AP

Coppola and his contemporaries like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas worshipped Kurosawa. Scorsese once described “the shock of that level of mastery” when he encountered Kurosawa’s movies in the 1950s.

Later generations of filmmakers have had similar reactions. Alexander Payne called Seven Samurai a thunderbolt that changed his life. After seeing it as a young man, he said to himself: “I will never climb a mountain that high but I want to be on that mountain.”

“No one has come near it,” the critic Pauline Kael wrote years ago – a judgement that still holds.

Affection, of course, isn’t universal for Seven Samurai. Some quarters of critics will always prefer Ozu or Mizoguchi. Kurosawa’s appeal in the West has always been in part because he, himself, was steeped in Hollywood genre films.

Kurosawa, who made Seven Samurai after the masterworks of Rashomon (1950) and Ikiru (1952), was influenced by John Ford’s films. Westerns, in turn, took after Kurosawa’s masterpiece, beginning with the 1960 John Sturges remake, The Magnificent Seven, a film that took the American title from the initial United States release of Seven Samurai, for which Toho Studios cut 50 minutes.

The long influence of Seven Samurai can be seen everywhere from the sideways wipe transitions of Star Wars to Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. And, given how many movies since have taken more superficial approaches to its band-of-warriors-assemble narrative, a pessimistic view of Seven Samurai could lament it as a forerunner to today’s spectacle-first big-budget movies. Shot in 148 days spread out over an entire year, Seven Samurai was at its time the most expensive Japanese film ever made, and one of its most popular at its box office.

But Seven Samurai shouldn’t have to pay for its paler imitations. Watching Kurosawa’s masterpiece again, what’s startling is just how much it remains in a class by itself. You could point to particular elements – The choreography! The rain! Toshiro Mifune! – but it goes deeper than the vast sum of its many parts.

When Kurosawa decided to make what would be his first samurai film, Japan was just emerging from post-war American occupation. The samurai film had gone somewhat dormant during that period, and Seven Samurai would help re-establish it.

But Kurosawa’s film, which was written by him with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni after a lengthy period of research, juggles themes of individualism and sacrifice for the common good that resonated in post-war Japan.

Seven Samurai, though, is closer to movie myth than local legend. Its ultimate battle line isn’t between the samurai-assisted villagers and the bandits but lies in the tension between the samurai and the villagers, who anxiously hide their women from the hired warriors and who, in the end, celebrate a victory that’s different than that of the samurai.

“In the end, we lost this battle, too,” a surviving samurai said.

Seven Samurai, hopeful and tragic at once, is less about a battle of good versus evil than it is a timeless soldier truth.

The samurai don’t, as the villagers do, return to normal life. And for those that perish face down in the mud – moments that Kurosawa pauses to linger on, a perspective Michael Mann would later adopt in the deaths of Heat – destiny is particularly cruel. In this eternally kinetic film, its moments of stillness are often the most profound.

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