I came to Seven Samurai "backwards," having seen The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges' 1960 remake, first. I recall a vague sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment after watching the Sturges version – and it wasn't until I watched Kurosawa's original treatment of the same material that I realized what was missing. Seven Samurai allows the characters and situations to breathe, while The Magnificent Seven rushes things along. Seeing the two movies back-to-back makes for an excellent study in film technique. The Magnificent Seven is a good movie, but Seven Samurai is a masterpiece. Watching them together illustrates why this is the case. Because of Seven Samurai's length, it has been released in a number of different edits, ranging from just over two hours long to the full, 207-minute cut. Accept no substitutions – get the whole thing, as presented on the Criterion Collection DVD. You won't regret it. The film zips along and you'll hardly recognize the passage of time. The shorter versions eliminate important character-building sequences, thereby reducing the production to a muddled spectacle. Of the various Kurosawa films on my Top 100 list, this one ranks the highest. I prefer it to Rashomon, although a good case could be made for either as Kurosawa's greatest film. And, although I had to rank one higher than the other, there's no reason not to see both.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Seven Samurai tells the tale of a 16th century Japanese farm community that, led by a band of seven warriors, defends itself against a gang of pillaging robbers. When several of the village's men, lead by a hot-head named Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), grow weary of the annual raids of the bandits, they decide to act. Since the citizens do not have the martial ability or skill to fight, Rikichi seeks mercenary samurai who are willing to defend the settlement in return for food and lodging. The seven men who accompany Rikichi home are a diverse lot. They include the sage Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a great leader of men; Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a burly clown whose prowess with a sword does not match his arrogance; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a quiet master swordsman who lets his weapon speak for him; and young Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who idolizes Shichiroji and Kambei. Also in the party are Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), and Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba). After teaching the men of the town how to fight and preparing the village for its defense (building fences, flooding the rice fields, and tearing down a bridge), the seven samurai await the inevitable coming of the 40-odd bandits and the battle that will determine the peasants' future.
Seven Samurai is richly deserving of its high place in cineaste circles. Despite its epic length and scope, the key to the movie's success is that it focuses on a small group of characters. The narrative is straightforward, allowing numerous opportunities for elaborate action sequences. In fact, the bulk of the movie's second half is comprised of battle scenes. These are clearly delineated and exactingly choreographed. Kurosawa, a meticulous craftsman, does not rely on editing sleight-of-hand to present fights. His stylistic imprint is emblazoned upon every frame. Seven Samurai is a grand epic – a big, splashy motion picture that runs well over three hours and never flags. The intermission is almost superfluous; we are so caught up in the story that, by the time it arrives, it's more of a nuisance than a welcome break. Seven Samurai has the kind of momentum that many long movies lack. Despite its length, it is a perfect example of economy – there isn't a single wasted shot. Seven Samurai is an unforgettable masterpiece – the work of one of the world's greatest filmmakers at the height of his powers.
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