DVD Review: SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)

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Seven Samurai Review

Review: Seven Samurai (60th Anniversary Edition) / Cert: PG / Director: Akira Kurosawa / Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni / Starring: Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, Yoshio Inaba, Daisuke Katō, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Toshiro Mifune, Kokuten Kodo, Bokuzen Hidari, Kamatari Fujiwara, Keiko Tsushima, Yoshio Tsuchiya / Released: April 21st

In 1954 Japan’s Toho Studios produced a groundbreaking movie. Western cinema had inspired it but the film returned the favour by becoming a massive influence in the West. But you might be surprised to learn that at no point did it feature the destruction of Tokyo by an oversize reptile.

Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) is an epic story set in the late 16th century and dealing with the rigid divisions in Japanese society by way of a rollicking adventure. Villagers under threat from marauding bandits decide to hire samurai for protection even though all they have to offer is rice. But at a time of continual civil war, a masterless samurai from a defeated clan was common and social conventions prevented him from taking work outside the traditions of his warrior caste. These “ronin” often became bandits exactly like those threatening the village but others went hungry and it is from this group our villagers recruit, one by one, their prospective saviours.

Recruiting a team of disparate characters to carry out a mission is a standard trope today in anything from The Dirty Dozen (1967) to The Monuments Men (2014) but, movie historians would have you believe, it started here. Even our introduction to the group’s leader, Kambei (Shimura), in which he saves a kidnapped child by subterfuge and skilful violence represents the start of that Bond-esque tradition of meeting our hero embroiled in another adventure irrelevant from the main plot. But who cares about all this “influence” nonsense? That’s not a good enough reason to watch it. Is it any good? Dear Lord, yes.

Movies like this make the reviewer’s job rather difficult because lists of superlatives and cries that “they nailed it” aren’t very informative. But despite making many more samurai flicks, Kurosawa aced it first time. This latest (and very good) print from the BFI is just shy of four hours but you won’t notice the length. Kurosawa seems to delight in the conventions he’s just created and keeps it tight until he blows you away with action scenes that could be out of Saving Private Ryan. With the samurai’s detailed defence planning and Kurosawa’s use of multiple cameras and depth of field, we can tell exactly what’s going on in what could easily be confusing sequences. Half a million was a big budget back then and the use of non-studio locations adds to the feeling of authenticity. From now on all climatic battles would be fought in the mud.

We suspect there are two groups out there: Those who haven’t seen Seven Samurai but have heard it’s good; and those who have seen it and know it’s good. You need to join the second group. Believe the hype.

Extras: Original Japanese theatrical trailer / The Art of Akira Kurosawa (2013, 48 mins) / Fully illustrated 16-page booklet with essays and credits

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