July 29, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: The Legend of the Seven Samurai

A few years ago when I watched ‘Seven Samurai’ for the first time, I could hardly appreciate its greatness. The poor print and watching it on my laptop did not help. Recently I revisited the movie on big screen. In all these years, it kept growing on me. I have watched more than 600 good movies since my first watch of ‘Seven Samurai’, and I have not watched anything close to it. In fact, in all of my cinema experience, despite its elements being borrowed by several other movies, I have not seen a movie that could match this Kurosawa classic in its achievement. Today, I can sit through its 210 minutes every time it is screened near me. Some movies are made of the stuff of legends.

‘Seven Samurai’ can easily be considered as great an achievement of cinema as it could possibly be. The very idea of something like this is intimidating, an action-adventure period epic set in a village, with a long running-time, huge ensemble of cast, big budget, and gigantic ambition. At its inception itself, it goes beyond most of the movies ever made. And then by crafting it with timeless storytelling devices without missing on its incredible artistic appeal, Akira Kurosawa ended up making an extremely entertaining film that could appeal to all, and thus exploring the medium of cinema to its fullest. It was the biggest blockbuster of Japanese cinema when it was released. However what makes it timeless is the strong socio-cultural context and a philosophical undertone, that gives the movie its exotic yet universal appeal. Close to six decades later, it remains one of the most influential films in the history of cinema. Cinema would have shaped itself differently, if this movie were not made.

A village in medieval Japan is oppressed by a group of merciless bandits. The helpless villagers decide to hire a group of Samurais to help them protect their next harvest. What follows next is ‘Seven Samurai’, one of the first action-adventure movies, featuring elements that were to become repeating motifs of the genre. The introduction of the action hero through a sub-plot totally unrelated to the movie is a celebrated style today; it started in this movie with the introduction of Kambei, the leader of the pack, played masterfully by the versatile Takashi Shimura. Building up of a team for an upcoming task is another celebrated plot element. It takes close to one hour for Kambei to get his Samurais together and head for the village. Then we witness the strategizing – how they plan to defend the village. The storyteller shares these wonderful details with us, using maps, showing the training of the villagers, and constantly teasing us with the sense of ‘something is going to happen soon’. This main narrative graph of the film is refreshingly intersected with some extremely involving sub-plots, interwoven elegantly with the central spine. The forbidden romance between the youngest Samurai and a village girl, the story of the peasant whose wife has been abducted by the bandits, the old woman who avenges the death of her son in a chilling scene, and the occasional hinting at the back-story of Kikuchiyo, played by another Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune, add so much to this otherwise straight-forward story. These sub-plots, I suppose, appeal to you more when you watch the movie for the second time, like various other elements that keep coming up in the subsequent re-watches.

Universally loved and respected, ‘Seven Samurai’ is also one of the most watched movies. It is not surprising that Hollywood and Bollywood never cease to pay homage to it. ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘Chinagate’ are the closest adaptations. But you will find ‘Seven Samurai’ in ‘Sholay’ and ‘Lagaan’, and ‘Guns of Navarone’ and ‘Dirty Dozen’. George Lucas admits to have been influenced by the Samurai epics of Kurosawa that inspired him to create ‘Star Wars’. As I write these words, the signature tune of the movie fills my ears and my mind, and I am looking forward to experience the movie again, with hundreds of people, in a darkened theatre, on the big screen – this is one movie that goes beyond celebrating the medium of cinema, it actually fulfills the invention of motion picture.

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