Blog of Frederic Erk, technical writer and translator,
Engineering & Military Simulation
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Essay - Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, 1954
Akira Kurosawa’sSeven Samuraiis a masterpiece of harmony and artistic accomplishment, brought to life with the vivid and forceful genius of a director at peace with himself and his performance. A true work of art, it is a carefully and methodically adjusted masterwork, based on a classic story of war and justice, of struggling humanity and survival, pregnant with a Shakespearian conception of nature, revealing the generosity of well-tilled earth or the magic spell of silent forests, where visual symbolism paves the way for metaphysical redemption.
Though simplistic in appearance, this story of seven samurai hired by farmers to defend their village and crops from rampaging bandits has universal, even mythological, significance. This is the story of mankind, always at struggle with itself for survival, and yet also looking for metaphysical redemption, which is, according to Kurosawa, only to be found in powerful harmony with nature. Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the older Samurai, who describes himself (a man of few words!) as a veteran of many lost campaigns, has the wisdom to recognize that only the farmers will eventually win this fight, because their relationship to life (and nature) is a fundamental one still unsoiled by social considerations or obsession for personal accomplishment, which is sadly the case for the Samurai. Although farmers and Samurai share the daily burden of fighting for their lives, only the farmers can provide the necessary condition for a lasting and constructive prosperity in the troubled and violent time of feudal Japan, whereas Samurai have to find redemption through Taoist acceptation of vicissitude, or put their sword to the worthy cause of social justice.
To Kurosawa, the Samurai and the farmers constitute the opposite extremes of social spectrum in feudal Japan, and yet this relationship is fundamental to the balance and sanity of the whole Japanese society. In Yojimbo (1961), another work by Kurosawa, the wandering Samurai Sanjuro (masterfully played by Toshiro Mifune), is also fighting to restore peace and order as the essential basis for social reconstruction and prosperity in a town. Violence is not gratuitous, but constitutes here a necessary catalyst for promoting social progress and prosperity. Unfortunately, this promising future is always jeopardized by social derelicts, in this case bandits or thugs of war, who are the product of social injustice and misery, which is in turn a consequence of feudal wars and the warring ambitions of the ruling class. Indeed, whereas farmers provide food to the whole country (this fundamental activity is acknowledged in Japan by measuring a Samurai’s revenue in rice bushels), Samurai do live and die for and by the sword, which can either disembowel, provide social status or lead to Zen philosophy! To Kurosawa, the sword is only a tool, but what a tool when it is pregnant with responsibility for the welfare of the whole society, like the plough of the farmer! Both modern and practical, this interpretation escapes the traditional scope of movies featuring battling samurai and their infatuation with “Swords of Doom” (another Japanese classic movie of the era).
The Ronin, a Samurai without a Master
Kurosawa’s seven samurai are poor and wandering wolves, or dogs of war, clinging to their swords, tired and famished, walking like tireless insects, and yet still full of bravado in their relentless quest for social promotion, or perfection in the accomplishment of the Way of the Sword. This constant motion from one appointment to another, from war to fragile peace, from prosperity to despondency, constitutes a life cycle, only interrupted by brutal death or dishonor, which are equivalent to the Samurai. This frenetic activity is visually demonstrated by Kurosawa in the scene showing the samurai roaming the town, back and forth in front of the camera, like flowing water announcing a tidal wave. This element of unpredictability provides also the introductory theme of Yojimbo, in which the hero is throwing a stick in the air to decide upon his direction. Fate, or chance are part of the Samurai way of life. This instability is essential to the slow maturation of the whole story and its culmination in a cathartic ending. These seven Samurai constitute indeed an improbable association of personalities, from the apprentice to the proficient killer, and the energy resulting from their encounter will ignite passion and fury, even in the patient souls of farmers, used to watch life go by in terms of seasons and harvests.
This dramatic display of energy is pregnant with visual symbolism, from the samurai’s improvised banner to the oversized sword wielded by a frenetic Kikuchiyo (Mifune), the would-be Samurai who is in fact an angry and revolted son of a farmer. The geometrical figure of the circle is also omnipresent, from the assembly of the farmers pondering the decision to hire samurai to the zooming in on the battling bandit horses, literally dancing circles during the final fight. Likewise, the slow rotation of the wheel of the village water mill symbolizes the wisdom and knowledge of the ubiquitous village elder who lives there. Even the mountains encircle the village like a giant theater, and this circular disposition is mirrored in the layout of the village itself, as if Kurosawa not only wants to direct our eyes to the place where the final action will eventually take place, but also to suggest the idea of an arena, open to the ambiguous scrutiny of men and Gods. It is also the visual symbolism of the Cauldron, which in Taoist philosophy represents the maturation of life.
The metaphysical significance thus suggested is instrumental to the dramatisation of the whole story. The very number of the samurai, seven, is intentional and serves the purpose of reinforcing religious symbolism. To the three main locations described in the movie correspond their respective population, depicted with the eye of an impressionist. The town where the farmers recruit the samurai is a violent place where murder and misery are commonplace. Here man is truly a wolf to man, and the role of woman is one of pleasure and utility. The river canyon and forest are, respectively, desolate and barren, and mysterious and sensual. Both provide shelter to social dereliction. By contrast, the village is a luminous and peaceful place suggesting harmony with the rhythm of nature, and Kurosawa depicts the farmers with the loving eye of a young Bruegel.
Nature not only actively contributes to the visual dramatisation, but is also an essential active part of the story. To Kurosawa nature represents both the promise of food and social harmony, which is visually represented by well-tilled earth and fertile fields surrounding the village, and brutal retribution to man’s evil deeds. Outside nature, there is no redemption. The farmers, looking for samurai in the town, discover a cruel world of poverty and vice, where money and violence rule. Rainstorms punctuate crucial moments of the film, such as the desperate nights spent by the farmers as outcasts in the town, and during the epic final fight. Rainwater, in its fury, cleanses the world and leaves earth fuming in its wake. Kurosawa rain water is inky black. Like blood, it has the tang of violence. The forest is a symbol of fear and enchantment, whether providing shelter to bandits or hiding lovers from their families. This is also the place chosen by Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), the proficient killer, to exercise under the black rain, as if the very energy of his strokes require the murmuring company of trees under the rain. The valley of flowers has disturbing erotic connotations; it is a land of many spells that hosts the forbidden romance between Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a budding samurai, and Shino (Keiko Tsushima), the beautiful daughter of a farmer. Even the barren landscape of the river canyon provides a dramatic background to the bandits’ violent and disrupted life. To Kurosawa nature not only emphasizes man’s virtues or vices, but also mirrors his inner soul, with moments of pure shared joy under the sun during the journey to the village, or anxiety and violence under the rain, or in the shade of the mysterious forest where a mortal game of hide and seek takes place.
This visual climax is truly brought to life by the body language of the protagonists. Farmers’ faces are lined with fear and doubt, and their gaping mouths and wide eyes are those of animals, used to heavy duty, servility and fear. Their lot is one of concern for the matter of sun or moon, rain or draught, and they feel powerless against evil and violence. Coolies, by contrast, behave like monkeys, half-naked and with bearded faces, always offensive to strangers as if they were motivated by an animal instinct of territoriality.. Their passions and revolt are shown in wild gestures, brutal pleasures, and ape-like postures. Women, though almost absent, are unforgettable as iconic Madonnas bearing the suffering of man’s violence, or sheltering the magic of shared love. Their body language is inspired by the Kabuki tradition, where the strength of a woman is symbolised by grace and honour.
The Samurai, by contrast, are more introverted. Their willowy features and ascetic faces suggest contained energy and stoic discipline, as well as permanent exposure to danger; their eyes always scan for a potential enemy. Kambei, the senior samurai and leader, has the forbearance and nobility of a weathered oak. Shimura’s magnificent interpretation of the character is that of a man who has lost his illusions of success, and yet who is ready to fight to the bitter end for his own ideas, without any personal reward. Mifune’s performance is by contrast all the more frenetic and youthful, especially when compared to Miyaguchi as Kyuzo, the ultimate samurai warrior, whose body has become a mirror to the sword he wields with such deadly proficiency. And yet it is Mifune as Kikuchiyo who constitutes the key character of the film; as a would-be samurai who is actually the only son of a farmer, he candidly personifies the violent duality of the Japanese soul, shifting between youthful enjoyment and murderous determination. His very unpredictability provides the catalytic element to an epic ending of death and courage for samurai, farmers and bandits alike.
The movie ends with the extermination of the bandits and the restoration of peace. It is a characteristic moment of catharsis and philosophical insight for a visionary Kurosawa, who has witnessed the folly of war. The closing scene is one of departure for the surviving samurai, and of renaissance for the farmers, whose ecstatic dance of joy in the rice field is a ritual dance of rebirth and hope under the sun. It is no surprise that women are an essential part of it, as if Kurosawa wanted to highlight this essential bond of life with music and dance. To this Dionysian celebration, amplified by the tectonic rhythm of Fumio Hayasaka’s musical score, the contrast with the departing samurai is all the more sobering in its simplicity. True to the samurai’s sense of destiny, like water retiring after the storm, they leave their dead companions resting under the hill as silent guardians and, soon, part of the valley’s myths and fallen gods. Beyond the tragedy of the scene, Kurosawa’ soul is with them, as the heir to a lineage of samurai. The whole movie is indeed a celebration of the eternal soul of Japan, divided as it is between the samurai’s quest for perfection and the almost maternal love of farmers for well-tilled earth and lasting peace. It is also a strong warning against the devils of our minds, which lead to destruction and devastation when farmers neglect their fields and samurai conquer anything but their inner stoic balance. Visually and metaphysically, Kurosawa has depicted the Rites of Spring of the Japanese soul, and thus delivered a message of peace of universal significance to all of us, especially in our troubled times.