Thursday, December 2, 2010

More Top Films and Kurosawa: Shichinin no samurai

The Seven Samurai is in some ways the pinnacle of Japanese and action films. It was filmed in 1954, the same year as Godzilla, but this film is in a whole different class. It is one of the most influential films of all time. Most of the conventions of the genre were created for this film, and at three and a half hours it is able to contain all of them. In spite of the fact that it is an “action” film, it has several delicate and insightful plotlines.

The leader of the samurai, Kambei, is introduced saving a young boy from a kidnapper. To do so, he disguises himself as a priest. To most of us in the west today, that does not hold much meaning. However to the highly stratified Japanese culture of the 16th century, the haircut that Kambei subjects himself to is the height of dishonor. He shows that true honor is seen in a person’s actions and not the external forms that people impose on us. Relational behavior is more important than some legalistic code. Throughout the film, Kambei’s hair returns as he leads the samurai in defending the poorest of the poor classes against bandits.

This emphasis of individual over cultural strata is continued in the stories of some of the other samurai. Kikuchiyo is a farmer’s son who wants to be a samurai, even though his people and family were destroyed by that class when he was a baby. He learns the hard way, though, that individual glory at the expense of the group is a costly pursuit. The class system is certainly wrong, but the good of the community needs to be protected. Katsushiro is an aristocrat also wanting the life of a warrior. When he falls in love with a farmer’s daughter, he begins to understand just how bad a life the farmers have.

The seven do what they do in part because it is all they can do. They are warriors and they must fight or starve. That is why they take the job for nothing more than three meals a day. However, we also see very plainly that these samurai see the value in the lives of those they are defending. They know that their own class of people has often been no better than bandits to the farmers, and that this is wrong. They fight and die for the farmers. The few that live in the end admit that it is the village and not the samurai that have won. The simple life of the peaceful village will return to normal, free of the fear that the bandits brought. There is no more need for warriors, at least for now. In an era run by the warring classes, this was a step in the right direction.

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