Film Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

Also known as: Shichinin no Samurai (Japan), The Magnificent Seven (US premiere title)
Release Date: April 26th, 1954 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Katō, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Kokuten Kōdō, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Eijirō Tōno, Jun Tatara, Atsushi Watanabe, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yukiko Shimazaki

Toho Co. Ltd., 207 Minutes, 160 Minutes (international), 202 Minutes (2002 re-release), 150 Minutes (original cut), 190 Minutes (1991 re-release), 207 Minutes (restored), 202 Minutes (DVD)

Review:

“What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all!” – Kikuchiyo

Akira Kurosawa is absolutely one of the greatest film directors to ever live. Hell, he could be the best but there are other elite talents in that discussion and taste is subjective.

But for a man that is such a master of his craft, it is hard to imagine that there is one film that stands above all the others. This is that film.

Seven Samurai is at or near the top of most legit film critics all-time best lists. It is cinematic perfection, a film of the highest artistic caliber. I can’t call it my favorite of all-time but it is definitely the king of Asian cinema and boasts a story so rich and beloved that it has gone on to inspire countless other movies, television shows, novels, comics and stage plays.

I know that I am really talking the film up but what I’m saying is not an oversell. From top to bottom, everything about Seven Samurai is top notch. So good, in fact, that it is hard to break it all down and review it.

The direction is superb, the acting is captivating and convincing, the narrative and the plot’s pacing are intriguing and perfect, this boasts incredible cinematography, lighting, shot framing and employs an understanding of mise en scène that allows this film to exist on a level that most other filmmakers will never be able to achieve.

Seven Samurai is truly a perfect storm. It is one of those films that I assume that everyone claiming to be a “film aficionado” has seen.

Sure, it is very long, which is something I tend to be annoyed by with many films but there isn’t a dull moment and every scene has genuine purpose.

But I also get that a three and a half hour, subtitled, black and white movie about samurai and farmers in 1500s Japan won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s also not as action packed as action fans would hope for but the combat situations are still quite compelling.

This is a drama more than it is an action or adventure story, however. But that is also why this stands shoulders above other films in the jidaigeki genre. Seven Samurai is about life, perseverance and heroism. It is a tale that most people are familiar with and should love.

If you’ve made it this far in life and have never seen the film but fancy yourself a real film fan, you need to correct that injustice. You owe it to yourself.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other films by Akira Kurosawa: The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha, Throne of Blood, Ikiru, Rashomon, etc.

Film Review: Sanjuro (1962)

Release Date: January 1st, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Based on: Hibi Heian by Shugoro Yamamoto
Music by: Masaru Sato
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi, Yūzō Kayama, Reiko Dan, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, Takako Irie, Masao Shimizu, Yūnosuke Itō

Kurosawa Production, Toho Co. Ltd., 95 Minutes

Review:

“You tired of being stupid yet?” – Sanjuro Tsubaki

Sanjuro is a sequel to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which was such a success for the director and Toho that the script for the novel that this was based on, was rewritten to include the famous Toshiro Mifune character from the previous movie.

Yojimbo would go on to inspire Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” character over his trilogy of films. It would also inspire countless other spaghetti western movies and other samurai films, as well. But this here, is the one and only true sequel to the Yojimbo story.

The best part of this film is that it was a sequel made by the original director, a true auteur, and its original star. Granted, Kurosawa and Mifune were no strangers to one another and worked on several films together.

This isn’t the masterpiece that Yojimbo is but it is still a damn fine motion picture of the highest caliber for its time and for its scant budget when compared to the rest of the motion picture landscape, which was dominated by bigger budget Western films.

In this story, the famous ronin helps a group of young samurai combat a corrupt politician, who is involved with organized crime and who has framed and imprisoned the uncle of one of the samurai. The story has several twists that make it interesting and unpredictable. Most of the time, Sanjuro puts a plan in motion and somehow the young samurai find a way to muck it up. It isn’t until the end, that they follow Sanjuro’s orders and succeed.

While this is a serious drama, it is also comedic at times, which was a great strength in Kurosawa’s storytelling ability. He lets you know that his characters exist in a somewhat harsh world but he keeps things fairly grounded and lighthearted enough to not allow his films to get too dark. I’ve always been a person that has dealt with pain and tragedy by using humor. So, in a way, Kurosawa’s style speaks to that part of me and I think it speaks to others in the same way.

This film’s action and violence come off as mostly PG rated. Then, in the final showdown, there is a moment where it literally feels like the screen goes red with blood, even though it is still presented in black and white. The final blow to the enemy was violent but effective because it eclipsed anything else in the film and is sort of shocking the first time you witness it. But it is an amazing and beautiful sequence, captured by Kurosawa’s magic.

Sanjuro may even feel a bit more polished than Yojimbo. It doesn’t feel as gritty, anyway. Some of that could be due to a lot of the movie taking place at night where I remember Yojimbo being brighter and happening much more during daylight hours. Plus, Yojimbo was dustier and had the look that would become synonymous with all the spaghetti westerns that tried to emulate it’s visual presentation.

Both movies work so well together and they also compliment each other. Sanjuro gives a little more depth and character to the famous Mifune ronin. If anything, this just enriches the world that Kurosawa gave us in his previous film.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: Yojimbo (the film before it), as well as any Kurosawa jidaigeki picture.

Film Review: Yojimbo (1961)

Release Date: April 25th, 1961 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Music by: Masaru Sato
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Eijirō Tōno, Kamatari Fujiwara, Takashi Shimura

Kurosawa Production, Toho Co. Ltd., 110 Minutes

Review:

Akira Kurosawa is one of the five directors in my Holy Quintinity of Auteur Filmmakers. He is absolutely one of the greatest directors to ever live. While it has been awhile since I worked my way through his entire oeuvre, it is Yojimbo that I have always had the fondest memories of.

I am working through Kurosawa’s films in an effort to review them but we will see where this ranks once I release my list of Kurosawa films, ranked from greatest to still damn good – because he is incapable of creating bad pictures.

Yojimbo is also one of the most influential films ever made. That might even be an understatement. To start, Sergio Leone’s near masterpiece A Fistful of Dollars is a loose remake of Yojimbo. That film spawned a trilogy starring Clint Eastwood in his most iconic role. The other two films were For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which is arguably, the best film ever made. That trilogy, The Dollars Trilogy, went on to spawn a bunch of ripoffs in the spaghetti western genre throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Those films were eventually ripped off by Quentin Tarantino and a bunch of other modern directors. Ultimately, Yojimbo, a Japanese film that was released 56 years ago, still influences the film industry today on a global scale. Its effects will always be felt. Not a lot of movies can achieve something like this. It is important to know the history of these things and to give credit where credit is due. Yojimbo was a total game changer in 1961.

All that being said, it was great revisiting this film, as it has been some time since I’ve seen it. I lent my Kurosawa collection to a friend several years back. That asshole fell off the face of the Earth and ended up moving to Denmark. I’m sure my DVDs went with him. I will track you down, Svend!

If you have seen A Fistful of Dollars, the plot here is basically the same. A stranger strolls into town and discovers that it is overrun by human vermin. He takes it upon himself to rid the town of the human vermin and save its people from tyranny. To do this, our hero joins one gang and then switches to the other and vice versa. He displays his bad assery by besting the best thugs these gangs have to offer. He also uses his influence and skill to play both gangs against one another. The plot is very layered but well-written and executed. Eventually, his scheme is figured out and he is overwhelmed and beaten nearly to death. He recovers, hides out in a nearby shack and returns, killing all the bad men and returning the town to the nice people. Then our hero walks off into the sunset to probably find another town to save from evil.

Yojimbo is a manly man’s movie but it can be enjoyed by anyone that has a love for justice and for pieces of crap getting wiped off of the Earth’s crust. It is perfectly paced, immaculately shot and well acted. Toshiro Mifune has a certain amount of gravitas and this is probably the most gravitas he’s every freely waved around, as he cuts through vermin and becomes a one man army against not just one but two large gangs of violent evil scum. It is like Death Wish 3 set in feudal Japan but with a lot more talent behind and in front of the camera. I personally feel that Death Wish 3‘s last twenty or so minutes are the greatest action finale ever ingrained on celluloid. Apart from that, it doesn’t hold a candle to Yojimbo, just to be clear.

By the time this film was made, Akira Kurosawa was already a master. He had already made Seven SamuraiThe Hidden FortressRashomon and a slew of other classics. Yojimbo is excellence in execution. It was a perfect collage of all the techniques Kurosawa had mastered on those other masterpieces. To be honest, there really isn’t a negative thing I can say about the film. Seriously, I tried to pick things apart while watching it and I mulled it over for hours. Yojimbo is a perfect film or at least, as perfect as a film can get.

There was a direct sequel made a year later, which is just a bit of a step down but it is still pretty amazing too. It’s called Sanjuro and I plan to rewatch that one again soon in an effort to review it.