Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Seven Samurai (1954)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #17 (tied with Persona)

Despite the conventional wisdom that gargantuan running times are an audience repellant, epics have been a cornerstone to the development of cinema as both a commercial enterprise and a creative exercise. Some of the most popular films of all time, such as Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, and Titanic all clocked in at over three hours, and critically-acclaimed films such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Giant also pushed the limits of audiences' bladders. Of course, not every film should be so long, but history shows that audiences are willing to see epics, and the films themselves have often been cinematic achievements worthy of discussion.

At 207 minutes (three hours and twenty-seven minutes), Seven Samurai is legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's longest film, as well as his most ambitious. The film follows the plight of a 16th-century village that will be raided by bandits for their food and more. To defend themselves, three of the villagers seek the help of masterless samurai (ronin), since they will be the most willing to help. The seven, led by Kambei (Takashi Shimura) and hotheaded Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), train the villagers in combat, and soon the showdown against the bandits finally arrives.

Seven Samurai has been cited as one of the most influential epics of all time, and for good reason. It features one of the most prominent examples of the hero being introduced through a separate act of daring, as Kambei corners a thief who has taken a child hostage and then rescues the child before the three villagers approach him. This is an approach that has been followed by any number of later action films, perhaps most notably the James Bond films. Both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have described Kurosawa as an inspiration and influence, with Lucas's Star Wars even being a loose adaptation of Kurosawa's 1958 film The Hidden Fortress. And Seven Samurai itself was adapted into the Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven, which in turn spawned a number of other "gathering of heroes for an epic battle" films.

Kurosawa's greatest achievement with this film is how despite its epic length and scope, it maintains a sense of intimacy. The film takes the time to introduce each character, and gives each of the seven samurai enough shading that the audience forms an attachment to them. Depth is given to the villagers, too, as the audience is fully invested in the final showdown. As these things go, there's an awareness that not everyone is going to get out alive. And when they do fall, the audience feels their loss.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the following shot:

The camera frames the three survivors in the vertical spaces between the graves of the fallen samurai, with the graves of the villagers between them on the horizontal plane. It's a simple image, but it immediately evokes the ambitious scope of the film by including so much within the frame while still highlighting its emotional focus in the way the survivors solemnly look upon the graves. The shot feels at once grandiose and small, epic and intimate. That Kurosawa stretches this duality over the course of the entire film is a testament to his considerable talents, and the film's deserved place in the cinematic canon.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: La Jetée (1962)

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