Life Changing Movies: Seven Samurai

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So I was perusing Facebook today, as you do, and I came across a wonderful little nugget of information on the site’s feature of showing you things you posted on this day, over the years. Among a bunch of fairly inconsequential flashbacks, I saw this:

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Yes, five years ago today, at approximately 6:55 a.m., I finished watching a life changing movie: Seven Samurai.

So what is a “life changing movie” to a) address the wanky term, and b) further annoy Ian by using the word movie instead of “film”? Well, a life changing movie is a film that typically leaves me dumbfounded and/or moved as the credits roll, trying to process what I’ve just seen and how it affects my outlook on life. Seven Samurai ticked all those boxes, as I lay in bed at nearly 7 a.m. on October 21st 2011, wondering how I would get through my shift at work later that day, and also if I could ever make a film that good.

Spoilers: I can’t, and nor will I ever, but that’s okay. Seven Samurai completely opened my eyes to the seemingly never ending supply of great movies that history has to offer us, if we only make the effort to look for them. Made and released in Japan in 1954, Seven Samurai was one of many films from legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, another excellent movie in a string of classics he was pumping out, particularly in the 50s and 60s.

I’d vaguely heard of the film before, maybe from my dad who is a big fan of it, and I definitely remember reading about it in the TV guide one day in my youth and being mildly intrigued, but clearly not enough to watch a three hour film (and in black and white no less, yuck!)

I can’t remember what quite spurred me on to watch it in 2011, with a little help from my friendly uncle Don Load. At just under three hours it was quite an undertaking to watch, especially as I had chosen 3 a.m. to start this cinematic epic. I probably figured I’d get bored and just drift off to sleep, and while I did nod off occasionally, I was anything but bored. In fact, going against my usual “I’m sure I didn’t miss anything important” mentality when it comes to nodding off during films, I would jolt awake and rewind to make sure I was getting everything.

The story is set in feudal era Japan, and focuses on a quaint village that’s visited regularly by bandits, who take a sizable cut of their harvest in exchange for not attacking them. The villagers, driven mad with anger at the fear that has become instilled within them, and their shortage of food, decide they’re going to fight back. However they’re too cowardly to do it themselves, so the elder of the village sends a group into a nearby town to hire a group of samurai to protect them.

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Setting up the samurai characters, mostly ronins, wandering samurai with no masters, takes about a full hour of the film itself, and I love that. The pace is slow but it never drags, as the characters are fully realised, with their own motives for taking up the cause, and their own histories as baggage. We then see the samurai attempt to prepare the villagers for battle when the bandits return, and close out with the battle itself, which takes days and probably another full hour of the film’s lengthy running time.

Rich with Kurosawa’s masterful control of the frame, in gorgeous black and white, the film has such an energy. Whether it comes from the powerhouse performance of Toshiro Mifune (one of my all time favourite actors) as the wild Kikuchiyo, the movement of the camera, the stillness of a moment where a character meets his maker in dreamy slow motion (not used much at the time), the rousing score or Takashi Shimura’s calm yet commanding portrayal of the unspoken leader of the samurai, Kambei. And it’s funny too. I’ll take Toshiro Mifune getting wide eyed with glee when the women come out to harvest over any modern comedy film for a laugh or two. On every conceivable level, the film just excels.

Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchyio
Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo

It changed my life because it lead me to watching other Kurosawa films, which lead me to watching more foreign films, which broadened my horizons greatly and now I can consider pretty much any film from any genre, era or country interesting (within reason). This is something I couldn’t have said five years ago, and if my aspirations of making my own films are to really come to fruition, then I truly believe it will be because of the films I’ve attempted to educate myself with. Films I would have never given a second thought if Seven Samurai hadn’t broken down the door of ignorance in the corner of my brain that dedicates itself to my love of movies.

It also has presented me with one of the best kinds of goals. An unachievable one. I would love to make a film that suspends someone’s disbelief as much as I can mine with Seven Samurai. What I mean is, if it weren’t for the fact that Seven Samurai features many great Japanese actors, who I’ve watched and enjoyed in dozens of other films, I could probably believe that Seven Samurai was actually a four hundred year old movie.

The level of authenticity that is achieved with Seven Samurai is astounding to me, and the fantastical idea of Akira Kurosawa finding this lost film that was made in 1586, and passed it off as his own, is almost plausible. I believe every frame of the film when it comes to the setting and the characters, from the set design to the costumes, the way the actors embody their roles and the long drawn out battle that is the antithesis of a typical movie action scene.

Of course, the film isn’t perfect, no film is, but I still hold it up as the best film I’ve ever seen. Every time I watch it, it’s an event, and I remember it well. The first time I watched it was the only time I’ve ever seen it alone, as I always strive to pass on the experience to someone else, or make it as memorable as the film deserves. I can’t just pop it on any old day, I need to plan towards it, or have a damn good reason to give either of my two Blu-ray copies a spin.

The second time I watched it, I introduced it to my fiancee Connie. I could never be totally sure how much she really enjoyed it, but by this time I had imported the American Blu-ray version, which boasts the full 207 minute restored cut of the film, so she had sat through three and a half hours and not wanted to kill me. This was before she really started to embrace watching older films as well. We chronicled the experience in the below video.

The third time I watched it in Norway, where I had just recently moved, at the same time as my YouTube friend Matt, who was watching at home in the UK. We chatted intermittently throughout the film during his first time viewing and it was a cool way to share the experience. The fourth time I watched it with my mum, in an interesting double bill, in which she showed me The Magnificent Seven (the excellent US remake of Seven Samurai) and I showed her Seven Samurai. We enjoyed noticing all the similarities between the samurai and gunslinger characters from each version, and getting to share my love with the film with my mum was great.

The fifth time was much the same as the third, simultaneously watching with a YouTube friend, this time while on Skype with CP, who watched the film for the first time over in New York. Whereas Matt was somewhat of an Asian cinema aficionado, CP, as he sometimes puts it, “struggles to get into anything made pre-1970.” He ended up really enjoying the film, conceding that it was “quite alright,” a quote I will tease him with forever. I’m still hoping to somehow rope my dad into sitting down long enough to watch it with me, but that’s a work in progress.

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Seven Samurai also changed my life as it made me realise something quite important. Up until that point, the only films that I really loved, films that gave me so much pleasure from watching, were all genre films. Science fiction, fantasy, action, films with very specific goals in entertaining their audiences. Those films are still fine, and can still be great, but Seven Samurai showed me how a film that simply tells you a great story, with great characters, regardless of the setting, language or age of the movie, can be just as rewatchable, enjoyable, and entertaining. Nor are they just “slow paced foreign films.”

As a result I have found countless other films that give me the same kind of joy, that aren’t Back to the Future or Aliens (as brilliant as those films are.) Other films that give me inspiration for my own ideas for stories, whether they come to life through a novel or a film I’ll probably never get made. I’ll keep on chasing the endless dream and goal, of making a film as believable, disbelief suspending, entertaining, and everlasting, as Seven Samurai. I fully expect to never reach that goal, but it’ll be fun trying.

P.S. If you’re reading this and have never seen the film, don’t be shy, hit me up, and I’ll bring it over sometime.

P.P.S Here’s my “review” of the film, about sixteen hours after I had first watched it, for posterity.