Introduction to Seven Samurai
Director: Akira Kurosawa; Japan, 1954
HUM 210 Online Course Pack - Fall 2006 - Prof. Cora Agatucci
Internet Movie Database: Shichinin no samurai
Asian Film Connections: Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)
MLA Style Works Cited bibliographical citation - film, DVD, videotape:
Seven Samurai [Japan: Shichinin no samurai].
Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Wr. Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu
SETTING & BACKGROUND
Medieval Japan: Sengoku Period - 16th
Century (i.e. 1500's Common Era)
SENGOKU Period, 1467 -
"Time of the Country at [civil] War" - aka:
ONIN [civil] WARS
Film critic Joan Mellon ranks Seven Samurai among those rare "[g]reat works of art in the epic mode" that "chronicle the historic fate of entire societies, cultures, and communities. . . . at moments of historical transition" (6). "Kurosawa . . . evokes the cultural upheaval which followed the fall of Japanese militarism in the sixteenth century, no less than that of the moment [1952-1954] in which he made the film, the aftermath of the American Occupation [of Japan after the end of World War II]" (Mellon 7).
CLASS SYSTEM of JAPAN:
Sengoku period Japanese society was divided into a rigid
four-class system designed to limit (upward as well as downward)
social mobility (Enrique 133):
"The samurai even by law could
not become farmers . . . .
"A true samurai wanted nothing more
than to be attached to a daimyo and a castle,
Civil wars that plagued medieval Japan during the Sengoku era, resulted in death for many Japanese feudal warlords (DAIMYO) and in destruction of their castles and fiefdoms. Samurai warriors (similar to European Medieval knights) who had pledged their loyalty and used their swords in service of these defeated daimyo, suddenly found themselves without a lord to serve and honor, without a daimyo to reward them or to provide them sustenance. Such lord-less samurai became known as ronin (literally, "wave-men"), left to float about on the waves of fortune, as it were; cut adrift to wander and eke out a living as best they could. Some of these ronin became Bandits, using their skills in warfare and violence to prey upon seemingly defenseless farmers, like the villagers in this film. Other ronin, such as Kambei and the other seven samurai, sought to support themselves in more upright ways, applied their skills to more honorable causes. and remained true to the high values of Bushido (see below).
While farmers suffered from the lawless violence of feuding daimyo and outlaw ronin during the Sengoku era, its weakened centralized government and regional chaos also relieved farming communities from strict and consistent taxation; and farmers, like those in the film, became adept at survival, taking advantage of opportunities to prey upon wounded and dying samurai who wandered onto the farmers' lands, "stripping them of their armour, hoarding food and sake . . . as Kikuchiyo reveals in the culminating moment of the first half of the film" (Mellon 17). After bringing out the farmers' stash of confiscated samurai armor and weapons that would help in defending the village, Kikuchiyo is offended when even normally good-natured Heihachi explodes: "I'd like to kill every farmer in this village." Kambei must explain the samurai's response to Kikuchiyo: "One who has not been hunted [by farmers] would never understand." Then it is Kikuchiyo's turn to explode: "What should a farmer do?" It is ruthless, warring samurai and outlaw ronin [like the Bandits] who destroy farmers' villages, steal their food, kidnap and rape their women, who have turned many farmers into "beasts." One message of Seven Samurai is that violent excesses by both warriors [samurai] and farmers during wars of this turbulent period beget inhuman behavior, and deepen class difference and animosity.
BUSHIDO: The WAY of the WARRIOR
[Bushi = Warrior
Excerpts from Hagakure: The Book
of the Samurai, first published in 1716, a
widely read Tokugawa-period guide to samurai ethics (Enrique 135):
"[B]eing a samurai was a matter of
birth, . . . you didn't choose to be a samurai,
"Kurosawa's abiding admiration for the dedication of the samurai class at its most authentic permits them to become heroic not merely in battle. It reflects, too, his respect for his father, 'a strict man of military background,' as [Kurosawa] would later write in his Autobiography. The family traced its ancestry to a famous Genji warrior, and as a child Kurosawa's father still wore the topknot, the emblem of the samurai class" (Mellon 9; emphasis added). Mellon interprets the driving wind that "surges through the action" and punctuates many key scenes of Seven Samurai, as symbolizing the "winds of change, of fortune and of adversity" (24): in particular, "It is a wind heralding the loss of samurai culture and the endurance of the peasantry" (24).
ZEN BUDDHISM in Late Medieval Japan
But it was especially Zen Buddhism that appealed to the warrior class and flourished during the Sengoku period. "In its pure form, Zen was and remains an austere faith, emphasizing the practice of meditation as the route to the ultimate truth beyond the illusions of the world. Unlike other salvationist sects [like Amida Buddhism], which permitted the individual to escape from suffering by putting his faith completely in some other being or thing, Zen emphasized personal enlightenment through individual discipline." According to Professor Patricia O'Neill, samurai were attracted to the following elements of Zen:
ZEN and CULTURAL DEVELOPMENT
Japanese Film Genres & Kurosawa's Film Style
"'Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice,' Kurosawa remarked in an interview, making a knowing dig at his staid rival, Yasujiro Osu (one of whose films was actually called The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice). 'I think we ought to have richer foods, and richer films. So I thought I would make this kind of film entertaining enough to eat.'" (qtd. by David Ehrenstein, liner notes accompanying Seven Samurai - DVD). In Seven Samurai, Kurosawa works with but transcends the conventions of established Japanese film genres.
Seven Samurai can be classified as historical fiction. One established Japanese film genre is the Jidai-geki, the period/costume film. "Set in the past, it exposes the meaning of history, enlisting for its surface action the lesser form of the chambara, or sword film" (Mellon 12, emphasis added). [Chambara is more popularly known as the Samurai film, a type Mellon equates to "the Japanese B-Western" (12).] Jidai-geki typically evokes the "beauty of lost life and feeling" of a past time before the intrusion and influence of the West (Europe, U.S.) changed modern Japan, and often features Tate or "action in sword" (Iwamoto). Unlike U.S. Westerns, "Jidai-geki do not glorify the landscape. The theme of duty versus inclination . . . pervades all of Japanese cinema . . . " (Mellon 69).
According to Iwamoto, a variant of the historical period/costume drama is Yazuka (usually set in Meiji Restoration days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), characterized by four pairs of confrontations: old vs. new, social/economic conflicts of interest, refined vs. rough, and harmonious vs. disharmonious. The theme of wandering or roaming people (like the ronin) - Michiyuki, "a trip to the death," is repeated in many types of Japanese films, reflecting a Buddhist-influenced world view and aesthetic consciousness of the transience of life and acceptance of death as trivial. In Yakuza films, keeping an obligation to the end (often meaning defeat and ruin) is a moral imperative; in Bushido, the code of warriors (samurai), true loyalty requires submission (to its consequences, even death) (Iwamoto).
Joan Mellon maintains that Seven Samurai is also Ofuna-cho, a "home drama" about "people like you and me": The character "Kambei is not merely a samurai leader, a warrior of consummate military accomplishment, but a man who has grown old in service without fulfilling the ambition of his youth to become a 'warlord' [daimyo]" (12). Seven Samurai also breaks from the seriousness of these other Japanese genres by offering a great deal of comedy, "with satiric scenes, verbal jokes, wit, irony and broad humor" (Mellon 9).
Iwamoto identifies two special characteristics of Japanese film: "suppression and excess." Suppression "means to push down expression" - to NOT ex-press (push outside) but to "in-press" (push inside) - to suppress "is to control and make calm," to not "express some desires or feelings, and to not explode." "Excess means to push fervently an expression . . . outside, to express some desires or feeling, and to go off." One source of dramatic and creative tension in Kurosawa's films might then be the balanced interplay between suppression and excess, "between inactivity and activity," visually expressed in "vivid contrast of light and shadow, and the dynamics of motion" (Iwamoto). In terms of characterization in Seven Samurai, one might identify the character Kambei with suppression and, at the other end of this dynamic continuum, the character of Kikuchiyo with excess. As Mellon observes, Kikuchiyo is "incapable of restraint, the member of the group whose every emotion is visible" (12).]
Interestingly, Iwamoto accounts for Kurosawa's appeal to international and Western audiences because of his use of "excess of expression" - for example in "the emotion of energy like heavy rain, gale, the burning sun . . . ." - and in his "excess of a view of morality of enforcing humanism [and] of expression" that "make spectators embarrassed or moved."
PLOT SUMMARY & CAST of CHARACTERS
plot of Seven Samurai is deceptively simple. A
village of farmers has suffered the annual encroachment of a group
of forty ruthless bandits, who steal the harvest, kidnap the women
and wreak general havoc. In desperation, under the guidance
of the ancient village elder, the desperate farmers decide,
improbably, to hire samurai to save their village. There had
never before been a Japanese film in which peasants hired samurai,
or an evocation of the social upheaval which made credible such an
FARMERS of a Village repeatedly ravaged by Bandits
(Yoshio Tsuchiya): a firebrand
farmer who wants to fight, rather than give in to, the Bandits
when they return; and leads the farmers' expedition to hire samurai.
The film will eventually reveal why Rikichi is consumed by strong
personal motive for revenge against the marauding Bandits. Joan
Mellon calls Rikichi "an everyman, whose character deepens with
his suffering" (12).
For Mellon, the farmers are strong "because of their brute energy, determination and persistence," and "because of their usefulness as provides of food to the community," while "for all their nobility, even these [seven] samurai belong to an ethos of war and killing which ultimately does the society no good" (Mellon 65).
SEVEN SAMURAI, enlisted to defend the Village from Bandit horde
"Each character is distinctly complex
"Seven Samurai is above all a homage to the samurai class at its most noble" (Mellon 20).
LISTED IN ORDER OF RECRUITMENT:
Shimada (Takashi Shimura): The first samurai recruited and
leader of the
seven samurai, Kambei exemplifies samurai integrity and
selflessness. First introduced doing the unthinkable, Kambei has
his topknot cut off and his head shaved so that he can pose as a
Buddhist priest and save a child from a ruthless kidnapper/thief. Kambei also "embodies samurai
modesty," trying to dissuade young Katsushiro from following him, rubbing his shaved head whenever
"praise would embarrass" (Mellon 8). "Self-effacement is a
redeeming and vanishing trait, evocative of samurai modesty for
Kurosawa" (Mellon 8). Kambei is a mature "samurai leader, a
warrior of consummate military accomplishment, but a man who has
grown old in service without fulfilling the ambition of his youth
to become a 'warlord' [daimyo]" (Mellon 12). Although Kambei is weary of constant
warfare, he is the first ronin-samurai to accept the farmer's
mission, and recruits or attracts the other six samurai.
Under Kambei's leadership, the seven samurai will mobilize the farmers and
successfully defend their village against the
"The samurai become a family in
themselves and then integrate themselves
BANDITS & their horde
Bandit Chief (Shinpei
Takagi): "Only the bandits are flat, one-dimensional
characters, having completely surrendered all standards and moral
restraint" (Mellon 12-13)..
"That the bandits who prey on the peasants are themselves ronin [like most of the seven samurai] contributes to the dramatic irony which suffuses this film and highlights the theme that overwhelming change presses people into roles they would not otherwise assume" (Mellon 8).
"[T]he samurai are departing from the
stage of history . . . " (Mellon 66).
Bushido:"The Way of the Warrior." 1996. Asian
Studies, Matsushita Center for
You are here: Introduction to Seven
Disclaimer: Rest of handouts reveals plot in increments:
Samurai Film Notes, Part I
Samurai Film Notes, Part II
Samurai Film Notes, Part III
Samurai Film Notes, Part IV
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Last updated: 15 March 2010