Friday, March 19, 2004

DVD Review: Seven Samurai

Most of you have seen this movie, believe it or not. It was remade in America as The Magnificent Seven. Great movie.

So why should you see The Seven Samurai, the Japanese original? It's over three hours long, in black and white, set in feudal Japan and has subtitles. Is it that good? The short answer is: YES! This movie is an epic adventure about the struggle between good, less-good and evil. It's about how society depends on cops/soldiers, but holds them apart.

A group of bandits are overheard making plans to raid a village when the harvest comes in. The villagers relunctantly decide to hire some samurai (think of them as roaming, authorised, cops for hire) to defend themselves. The rest of the film follows the characters as they approach the climactic battle -- touching on themes of love, respect, deception, community, honor and duty.

Frankly, it's only the subtitle issue that should stop you. Yeah, the movie has some talky parts and the titles fly by thick and fast. Nothing I can do there, sad to say. But the cinematography is spectacular, making use of deep-focus to give tremendous depth to the image and allowing for several planes of action to be on the screen at a time. Akira Kurosawa's direction is always sure, keeping the movie steadily moving along. For such a long movie, I never got bored! One event unfolds into another, and then at the halfway point some deceptions are revealed which re-energises things. By the time the big showdown comes, you realise that you've been expertly wound up with anticipation.

That battle doesn't disappoint. Like all battles fought with swords, sticks and fists, it takes time, ebbing and flowing with the exhaustion and determination of the combatants. Horses run back and forth, villagers run back and forth; the camera sweeps along with them. Not only that, but a massive rainstorm turns the final push into a mudfest, actors running knee-deep sometimes in the water and muck.

Several characters stand out, starting with the dejected, humliated villagers seeking help, only to show how devious and dismissive they can be when things look up. They first hire the magisterial, silent Kambei, who is never less than a well-respected, canny warrior. Throughout the movie, he is the center of the samurai. There's the cold and ruthless samurai, precise and minimal in all he does, even to his emotions. There's the young samurai, eager, well-bred, but still the kid; his journey is that of becoming a man. There are a lot of people to keep track of, and sometimes it's not easy, but by the hour mark, they are all individuals.

I want to focus on the volcanic Toshiro Mifune as the rogue samurai Kikuchiyo. We first meet him and he's a capering, rude, pushy buffoon. Mifune plays him broadly and for comic effect; he is, in fact, much of the movie's comic relief from the building tension. His face is like pliable rubber, his body a puppet he flings around, his physical movements as fluid as a monkey's. Being a bumpkin, he's also coarse and insulting. But he has a canniness and depth that surprise people time and time again. Mifune is a wonder to watch: think of a cross between John Belushi and Jim Carrey. His character's journey lets him play nearly every emotion, and he's superb.

So go, rent. If you can handle the subtitles, you will not be disappointed. Engaging characters, great set-ups and situations, beautiful historic detail, and a narrative that drives you inexorably to its end. Highly recommended!

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