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Seven Samurai (1954)

by on 2011/08/26

“When you think you’re safe is precisely when you’re most vulnerable.”

* * *

My notes alone on Seven Samurai are over a thousand words, so I think we’d better skip the usual anecdotes and get to the crux of the critique.

In the interest of generosity, I’ll begin with a compliment. I really enjoy “men on a mission” flicks. Still, you could categorize other plots that way: The Dirty Dozen, Inglorious Bastards and, appropriately, an inheritor, The Magnificent Seven.

What Seven Samurai does unusually well are its visceral battle sequences. They compensate for delay, rarity, and brevity with a somewhat disorienting, visceral grit which convincingly conveys the impression of combat.

End of compliment.

For all practical purposes, I disliked everything else about the experience.

We’ve seen its story many times since 1954, in the aforementioned Magnificent, its sequels and TV show, Battle Beyond the Stars, A Bug’s Life, and the anime series Samurai 7: poor villagers hire seven men to protect them from aggressors. My issues are not with the concept, however, but with its execution.

Most of this version’s revisitors demonstrate the antagonist threat. Samurai does not. Bandits do not actually attack the village at the outset. What then justifies the villagers hiring the seven? Further, Magnificent makes the point the “bad guys” are starving to death. This detail lends a sense of pathos, if not our sympathy. Samurai only speculates on the point — and briefly, at that — over three hours in.

Thus, what have we learned? Apparently, a pre-emptive strike is honourable, and intentions must count for nothing.

Perhaps I cannot reconcile such values with my own. In a later scene, a small group of samurai scout the enemy encampment. They find their opponents asleep with some kidnapped villager women. Do the heroes return with information? Do they free the discovered captives? No and no. They set fire to the building, killing the foes who flee through the door.

Yes, the women die too.

As if to set the cultural mode, we are lectured earlier on not to fixate on the fate of the females. “Fool!” the village elder admonishes one man who’s concerned about his daughter. “Your head is on the block and you worry about your whiskers?” To be a wife or daughter in this town is surely the nadir of life.

Another lesson: women are less important than men, disposable even, and certainly not an influence on honour. Leave your chivalrous gallantries in the rubbish tip.

Which brings me to my third major issue, perhaps the most difficult one for me to dismiss or justify: the characterizations and acting.

Overall, it’s very uneven. Melodrama I can take. Over the top is occasionally fun. Goofy has its place in a comedy. But when all of these tendencies collide in a single disastrous heap, the results are sufficiently distracting to derail the piece as a whole. Such is the case in Samurai. As noted in the eerily similar The Searchers, some of the cast exhibit a kind of behavioural distress. Hyperactivity reigns supreme, in moments of joy and despair. Nearly everyone seems to scream and cry at the slightest provocation.

As with many things, there are exceptions, the samurai Kambei (Takashi Shimura) being one. Still, every time I began to feel the experience stabilizing, something irritatingly shrill would disrupt the tone yet again.

Sadly, more often than not, the legendary Toshiro Mifune was to blame. A prolific and respected star, I enjoyed his lead in Yojimbo. Here, however, his Kikuchiyo single-handedly brings it all down. His drunken, lying selfishness is a valid character trait, but the mugging slapstick expression of it is a relentless and tiring impediment.

It is claimed before his “testing” scene that a true samurai will not drink to ineptitude, but he does, and the others overlook it. He is warned to put the group’s needs first and, predictably, he does not; inexplicably, he is forgiven. His persistent giggling lunacy does nothing to help anyone but — chuckling like Robin Hood’s Merry Men — his fellows indulge him time and again.

I was fundamentally frustrated by his unjustified existence, and not because his mannerisms were “too crazy” for my liking. What character or narrative function do they fulfill? Is he speaking unpopular truths like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? Not consistently enough to safely believe anything. Are his utterances an interpretive wisdom, as with Chance in Being There? Again, no. Does his behaviour serve a practical purpose, as with Murdock in The A-Team? Definitely not.

So why is he perpetually lauded and placed ahead of Isao Kimura’s Katsushiro? The youngest member of the group is repeatedly rebuffed. He is left out of several initiatives despite proving himself constantly.

The lesson is a frustrating one. Youth is worse than being crazy, and competence isn’t a factor either way.

In fact, “frustrating” says it all. I have trouble expressing how much my opinion diverges from the critical norm. I cannot toe the line and be honest as well. While Seven Samurai may deserve acclaim for the “firsts” it has introduced, it hasn’t aged well, not at all.

I’ve done a lot of investigation, hoping to change my own mind and, unfortunately, nothing I have come across has convinced me otherwise. It’s acknowledged as a classic, and worth a look to judge it for yourself. Personally, however, I found it slow, uneven, far too long, and rarely redeeming enough. It has wildly inconsistent performances, and dysfunctional character handling. I now understand the reasons why the acting has been criticized and — though I disagree with censorship — I sympathize with the impulse in this case.

I’d hoped disliking Rashomon was anomalous when I so loved Yojimbo, and now Seven Samurai has cast more doubt in my mind . . . profound, unexpected, and disappointing doubt, with a bad bald cap, drunken clumsiness, and no pants.

* * *

Unrated but contains coarse language and violence

207 minutes

  1. Reggie Rock permalink

    They don’t kill the women coming out of the bandit fort, they push them out of the way. You can clearly see their swords shining in their hands as they hold them out of the way of the women.

    • Hacker Renders permalink

      Yes, but I didn’t write that the samurai killed the women; I wrote that women die too. In fact, it could be argued that killing them may have been more merciful than leaving any to die in the fire.

      To make the point clearer, I’ve updated the preceding paragraph, changing people to foes.


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