I am, as an old friend is often wont to point out, a massive weeaboo (I prefer ‘Japanophile’, though that makes it sound like I should be arrested for it). It’s probably no surprise then that I’m a fan of Japanese cinema: if nothing else, even if the movie is bad, it’s a window into a culture I’m interested in and a location I miss living in. The weird part is that until fairly recently I hadn’t seen many Japanese films I could say were good without having to qualify it. When I was younger, Japanese movie imports seemed to entirely consist of Ring-style horror and Takashi Miike’s trashier films.
When I was studying in Japan I even picked a class on Japanese film, but the teacher literally slept through it – I mean head on desk, slept through it – and the entire semester consisted of two projects: shooting an amateur movie and doing a short presentation on an actual Japanese film. Neither of which the teacher had any input in or critique of, so everyone ended up covering rubbish. Of course, I knew there were important films out there; I knew that I was supposed to like Kurosawa, and that before making Battle Royale (which I loved as a teenager) Kinji Fukasaku made well-regarded gangster movies. I just didn’t know which movies I was supposed to watch, or how to get hold of them.
Fast forward a few years (or ten years. I feel old) and I’ve finally seen The Yakuza Papers / Battles Without Honour and Humanity, which sit atop my heap of favourite Japanese movies. Now I’m getting around to watching older stuff, starting with the box of Kurosawa Blu-rays that’ve been sitting on my shelf for two years.
Seven Samurai (1954) is tied with the oldest movie I’ve actually sat down to watch of my own volition (the original Godzilla, naturally). It’s black and white, and three and a half hours long, which seems insane; it even has a twenty minute intermission built into the running time. Putting aside the Peter Jackson-like length I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. Other than Clerks I don’t have much time for B&W pictures and unless I’m playing Shogun: Total War I’m surprisingly uninterested in jidaigeki – give me post-war crime and politics, not samurai.
Watching an older movie for the first time, especially one so universally critically acclaimed, can be a weird experience. Sometimes it can feel like an entirely academic exercise, studying some cultural relic. Seven Samurai actually reminds me of when I read Dracula and found it weirdly modern, because so many modern works riff on the framework it establishes. It’s maybe most famous for being remade as The Magnificent Seven, but the stuff it influences is everywhere (on a related note, I’m really looking forward to seeing The Hidden Fortress and understanding how it inspired George Lucas re: Star Wars). I now want to watch Miike’s 13 Assassins again, with Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo seeming to be a clear inspiration for the hunter/goblin character in that (not to mention the imagery of the clusters of swords planted around the villages in preparation for each movie’s final battle).
While I fear it may disqualify any future opinions I hold, I have to admit I don’t think it’s perfect. It’s too long without really justifying that length, and only a few of the samurai and villagers get any kind of characterisation despite that. As something so influential though it’s basically unmissable, while still being worth watching in its own right.
Seven Samurai / 七人の侍 (Shichinin no Samurai)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Japanese Release Date: 26th April 1954
Version Watched: The 2014 BFI Blu-Ray, Akira Kurosawa: Samurai Collection, 207 min
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