By Aravindabharathi R
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Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ is a film from a different age, a classic which many have heard of but few have seen. Although it is a long, long movie – clocking in at a staggering 207 minutes, it is the longest among all of Kurosawa’s films – there isn’t a time when one feels that the movie is too slow or long.
Set in feudal Japan, the first shot is of a band of armoured horsemen coming to a halt on the hills overlooking a village. They see the fields and decide to return to raid the village when their barley is ripe. When the villagers learn of this, they call a council, and, after a heated discussion and a consultation with the village elder, decide to hire samurai to protect themselves. “Whoever heard of farmers hiring samurai?” asks a villager when the decision is made; their ideas of the samurai are clouded by the awe and fear they have for them. Their fears are justified when, soon afterwards, the first warrior they approach is so offended by their offer of food for work that he beats them up and chases them away.
Their luck changes for the better when they encounter an old Ronin (a masterless samurai) who is not only compassionate and understanding but also unorthodox – they first see him disguising himself by shaving off his hair which gives him his status as a samurai in order to save a child’s life – who agrees to help them.
The initial scenes have a hushed, contemplative quality, giving us a feel for the desperation of the villagers. In the first thirty minutes, we are introduced to the questions that the movie will ask and the issues that it will raise in the subsequent three hours. One of central issues of the movie is that of power and social obligations. When it is hard for one samurai to find a trustworthy colleague, how will a group of poor villagers find seven of them willing to defend them in return for food? The most the villagers are able to offer their would-be protectors are a couple of frugal meals every day, but in return they must teach the villagers to guard themselves and also risk their lives for them. As the old Ronin advises the villagers, they need to find samurai who will fight “for the hell of it”.
One of the main reasons for Seven Samurai’s reputation as a timeless classic is the performances of its actors. It is because of them that even someone with no knowledge of what feudal Japan was like can understand the story. Credit for this must also be given to the director, Akira Kurosawa, who did something no Japanese director had done before. He created dossiers on each character in the movie with every detail of their personalities he could think of – from their favourite foods and hobbies to their mannerisms of speech, to help his actors become the characters they were playing.
No review of this film will be complete without a mention of the brilliant cinematography. The beautiful cinematography will come as a surprise to modern audiences used to rich, full colour shots and dazzling CGI spectacles. Although the movie is large in scope, concerning the people of an entire village, many shots in the movie feature just one or two people. Amidst the chaos and confusion caused by the raiders, it grounds us in the reality of their situation and reminds us time and again that the story is, fundamentally, one of the human condition.
Seven Samurai was one of the earliest movies to use the idea of a rag-tag bunch of fighters being brought together for a mission. The basic character types of the seven samurai – the jaded master and his enthusiastic young disciple, the group jester, the silent warrior and the man who must prove himself – have been used time and again, from the early Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Inglourious Basterds. It has been called, among other things, “the first modern action movie”. Many of the storytelling techniques will be familiar to modern viewers, but only because they have been imitated, parodied, and paid homage to by innumerable later films.
Aravindabharathi R is a second year student of the Department of Biotechnology, a field he chose hoping to become immortal. In his alone time, he likes to engage in armchair philosophy, sarcasm, and film criticism. Being a big fan of science-fiction, he plans to create an off-world human colony someday.