Saturday, February 25, 2006

Reflections on The Seven Samurai

SevensamuraicoverI recently watched one of my favorite movies of all time, Akira Kurasawa's The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai). After several years of deciding that it was too expensive to purchase - it is a part of the Criterion Collection so it is $35-$40.00 for one DVD, which always struck me as a little excessive - I finally decided that it was time to own it.

I say it is one of my favorite movies of all time, but I wonder if anyone else has had the experience I have with my favorite movies? I go through spells when the movie seems absolutely perfect, and I'm just in awe of the masterpiece, and then I see the movie again at another time, and it strikes me as disturbing, or not entirely convincing, inauthentic. For instance, I often cite La Double Vie de Véronique as my favorite movie of all time. I just love the cinematography, the way the movie effectively builds up to climaxes, like the scene when Véronique and Veronika almost meet, the music and how well integrated it is into the plot, and the mystery that is created with all the details that pose an endless series of open questions: Why did he put that there?, What does that mean? The first time I saw the movie I left it with such an incredible amount of enthusiasm, that I ended up watching it again on the very same night, and a half dozen times afterwards with hardly any decrease in fascination. But then, a few years later I went back to it and found it discomforting, and even a little disturbing. Some of the sexual asymmetries struck me as troubling, and I even felt it was overdone at moments. But, I suppose the lesson to draw from this is that there are no pleasures in life that are completely fulfilling, everything wanes from time to time.

I actually had a little bit of this feeling when I was watching The Seven Samurai again last night. For instance, some of the crowd scenes seemed less convincing than I remembered. A small detail, yes, but one that I had never observed before. Yet, even so, I ended up being genuinely moved by the movie again. I tried to describe to a friend a few weeks ago what I found remarkable about this movie. The first thing that comes to mind is just what a well-told story it is. Kurasawa is the consummate storyteller. He knows precisely the pace that things should move so that his audience stays interested in the story, but at the same time he manages to prevent the feeling that everything is moving too fast. The fact that I still have this reaction after having watched it dozens of times seems a testimony to the precision of its forward momentum. Many movies I've watched seem to move at the right speed initially, and then on the second or third viewing they seem too fast. I suppose other movies have given me the opposite impression: they seem too fast and then after seeing them a few times they seem OK. An instance of the latter would be the first installment of Jackson's Lord of the Rings, and an instance of the former would be Nirgendwo in Afrika, which is still one of my favorite movies despite the fact that the pace feels uneven now.

Another feature of Kurasawa's storytelling ability is the fact that he also is an expert at appealing to the audience's curiosity. For instance, Kurasawa makes very effective use of curiosity in the long scene in the beginning when Kambei, who may well be considered the lead character in the drama first appears. Yes, we only meet the lead character after twenty minutes of the movie have passed, and when he appears, we have no idea who he is. And this impression is reinforced by the fact that Kurasawa presents us with a band of spectators who also have very little knowledge about what's going on. The constitution of the crowd in itself is quite remarkable. It includes the villagers in search for their samurai, and Kikuchiyo and Katsushiro, two characters who will also be significant in the movie. And we learn so much about the characters in this sequence. For one thing, we are introduced to most of their mannerisms: the impulsive and excited Katsushiro who leans forward with excitement at the action. The odd Kikuchiyo - masterly played by Mifune - who stands in contraposition to the samurai in the way he embraces his emotions, and his emotional conflict and lack of control are conveyed through the abruptness and unconventionality of his motions. And the careful and calm Kambei who says little, but nonetheless knows exactly what to do. I suppose this is another thing that Kurasawa manages to elevate to an art in itself: the mannerisms of the characters. Some of these: like Kambei rubbing his head, Gorobei rubbing his chin, or Manzo with his awkward poses are constructed like character motifs in an opera - they are epithets that quickly reveal the characters emotions, thoughts, and personalities. I wonder if Kurasawa's ability here is at all linked to aspects of traditional Japanese drama, since these dramas also use small hand gestures and motions to convey different character types? Just a thought.

And then there is the cinematography. I've always been in awe of Kurasawa's use of the camera. With very primitive technology at his disposal, he manages to create completely convincing effects - or rather effects that are perfectly placed between the twin poles of realism and stylized drama. The rain sequence in Rashomon comes to mind here, and we have similar rain scenes here. But the most distinctive thing about the camera work is how the camera seems to linger over the scenes. There are moments when almost nothing is going on in the scene, and yet the camera stays focused on the characters for what seems like a half a minute. But this is the perfect compliment to the approach that Kurasawa takes, since it allows us to absorb all the mannerisms of the characters, their facial expressions, the darkness of the scene, the sparseness of the set. One scene that really comes to mind in this regard is the scene when we first meet Kyuzo. This is the scene when Kurasawa wants to convey to us the incredible skill of this swordman who will have a major role it what follows. We first meet him in a rather grand occasion. He has agreed to fight another samurai in the central square of the town. A large audience develops around the two samurai, including Kambei and Katsuchiro. Duel_wideIt is actually through Kambei that Kurasawa teaches us a little about how he wants us to view his characters. For initially, the differences between the two samurai are not particularly evident. They both fashion their practice swords in the same manner, they both enter the "ring" with equal confidence, and we might miss the difference between them. But by focusing on Kambei's eyes and the attention that he gives both swordsman we are taught to look at the smallest details of the two samurai. And to instill the point even further Katsushiro's attention is divided between the ensuing bout and Kambei's attention. And Kambei looks over the two swordsman equally, but then becomes fascinated by one of them in particular. So Katsushiro is also fascinated by this particular swordsman, and so we as an audience become fascinated. Then we note the differences. The fact that Kyuzo stands carefully and firmly in his position full of confidence, while his opponent is just slightly hasty, and holds a slightly more casual, less confident form. Then the first exchange occurs, and we might well draw the same conclusion as Kyuzo's opponent: it was a tie. But we don't, even if we missed the small difference in technique. And there is a difference, since as Michael Jeck (in his excellent commentary that comes with the DVD) points out, Kyuzo's opponent makes the same mistake Katsushiro does when he first attempts to hit the various samurai on the head with the stick in the trial scenes: he leads with his arms. You can make the same mistake in squash and tennis actually: it is very important in most racquet sports - or in fencing for that matter - that you use your body weight to your advantage rather than just using your arms. The fact that even these details are worked out with precision in the film is a testimony to Kurasawa's genius. But even if you missed this detail it is quite clear who we are supposed to be in awe of. Kambeilook We learn it from Kambei's attention, Katsushiro's attention on Kambei, and the slight difference in the samurai's stances. It's funny, in this entire sequence, hardly a single word is spoken. Almost the only complete line is when Kambei says before the final exchange: "It's so obvious." It is almost a self-referential line since not only does Kambei seem to be saying that the difference between the two is clear, but Kurasawa is almost asking us to reflect on his direction: haven't I made if obvious? But what a glorious scene, and the fact that it is presented in a rather taciturn manner is a good way of introducing the taciturn character of Kyuzo. The duel between two samurai, a sequence of more than five minutes with hardly a sentence being spoken, and yet in the course of it we instantly learn who Kyuzo is, and we learn to respect him, and what's more Kurasawa teaches us how to watch his movie.

I suppose another thing about this scene is it's realism. Unlike a Jackie Chan movie (And don't get me wrong, I do like Jackie Chan films), in which we see the most fantastic fighter in the whole movie do acrobats, and jumps, and motions that no human would possibly do in a real fight, here the violence is quick, and one gets the impression that although the samurai are willing to resort to violence, it's a last resort, because they recognize that there are real consequences to their action. How different this is from contemporary movies like The Last Samurai! Compared to Kurasawa that movie is a joke. Sorry, I suppose some people probably like Zwick's film very much. I suppose one could even argue that some of the bouts in that movie are more realistic in Zwick's film since they are not over in single strikes like most of the bouts in The Seven Samurai. But what realism Zwick's film gains from these details is lost in how distant Zwick's characters seem from real life. They just are so cliché and when there are emotional changes these changes just seem contrived. In contrast, Kurasawa says a lot of things about ordinary life in the course of his film, and his characters are far from cliché with rich and distinct personalities. If an emotional change occurs in Kurasawa's film, I can't help but see it as firmly rooted in the character's identities rather than in some contrivance of the plot.

And there are so many other things to talk about in this movie. The casting: just how perfect each of the characters is cast. The range of emotion: from the depth of despair in the beginning, to the laughter that Kikuchiyo provides, to the thrill of when Kyuzo comes back in the morning, to the shame Katsuchiro and Shino feel, to the anger that Kambei shows when several of his men desert, to the horror when we see that a prisoner of war is going to be brutally killed by an old lady in the village.

And finally, this movie seems deep with significance. It seems to raise questions about poverty, fairness, when violence is acceptable, when it is not, of the greed of some people, the cowardice of others, and the impulsiveness of yet others. A lot of issues about life can be seen as important elements in this movie. The movie also seems to capture some of the most admirable features of what I might call a "samurai approach" to the world we find in Miyamoto Musashi and others. I actually find some aspects of this approach quite appealing, and I often have recourse to samurai metaphors when I talk about what it is like to study academic philosophy. MusashiYes, it sounds a little like a joke, but I'm actually serious. It seems like a lot of things that are valued in this samurai approach can also be applied to academic study. For instance, I have a lot of respect for people who honestly care about the craft of philosophy when they are engaging in it: people who argue more for the learning that is possible through argument than for any superficial victory one might have in winning one. Compare Kambei's description of Kyuzo: "A man interested only in perfecting his skill." And also I tend to value the importance of choosing your opponents wisely (contrast the samurai who challenges Kyuzo to a real duel when he is not up to it), and not using excessive force when it is unnecessary. If you are in an argument with a student about the limitations of first-order logic, you don't bring up Gödel's proof, but something that the student could actually understand, even if it isn't entirely satisfactory in its detail. But if you are going to argue the same question with a logician, you have to be more careful. In fact, now that I think about it, it is striking how important the student-teacher relationship is to the approach to life taken in Kurasawa's movies, and indeed how important it is for much of the early literature of China and Japan, so perhaps the analogy with teaching philosophy is even closer than it appears. But the analogical considerations I mention could be brought to bear in just about any occupation that offers some space for self-improvement. Even in squash a value is put on doing something quickly and efficiently with precisely the amount of effort it requires.

Well, so these are just some thoughts about one of my favorite movies. If you haven't seen it, you should. Although as with all things, it can be disappointing if it is built up with too much hype. So, let me close by saying it is just a samurai movie.

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