When you doodle on a scrap of paper as your bank keeps you on hold it is a doodle and not art.
The difference is clear.
I love movies…loud, messy, silly, slight, nonsensical, irrelevant, meaningless, stuff your face with popcorn movies. I’m not a complete snob. Not a complete snob. I am a snob, but there is room in my heart for fluff…my inexplicable defence of Shampoo should be all the evidence anyone requires to prove that point.
But movies are not the same thing as cinema.
Cinema is art.
Film elevated above the inconsequential doodle of “Star Wars” or “The Fast and the Furious”. I don’t doubt that those films are massively popular…although that is as inexplicable as my adoration of Shampoo…and that they bring huge joy to millions but, and I really don’t want to upset anyone, they are of no real value.
Occasionally these two worlds collide.
The thrills and spills of the multiplex blockbuster meet high art.
Akira Kurosawa is an artist.
An artist who could paint beautiful, provocative, delicate, detailed, challenging and thoughtful pictures on the silver screen. An artist who could force an audience to think differently. An artist who could leave you breathless with one swish of his directorial brush. An artist who has, simultaneously, given you almost every popcorn thrill you have ever delighted in and been the inspiration for every genuinely artistic movement and moment in cinema.
“Seven Samurai” (1954) is set during the period of great social and political upheaval in Japan’s Sengoku period, a period which is also defined by near constant military conflict. Intrigue, brutality, death and violence marked the lives of everyone. A group of impoverished farmers live in fear of the return of a horde of bandits who have promised to return to their village come harvest in order to take the spoils of the fields. Knowing that this will mean the end of their village and the loss of many lives the farmers decide to find ronin (Samurai without masters) to help defend their homes.
From this simple story Kurosawa weaves a tale that is rich in comedy, highly stylised, visually stunning, filled with epic fight scenes and, crucially, that never treats the audience as idiots. Everything is done for a reason, nothing is out of place, this is art brought to life by a creative genius.
Takashi Shimura plays Kambei Shimada, the leader of the disparate and desperate band of seven samurai the villagers manage to persuade to help them. He is full of grace, compassion, intelligence and elegance. He is symbolic of the very best of the Japanese character and represents the moral heart of both the film and the nation. While chaos reigns all around him Shimada remains alert and noble, his example rallies and inspires everyone to rise above their own limitations for the good of the many.
The greatest actor ever to have passed across the screen is, as anyone with eyes to see knows, Toshiro Mifune and here he shows, again, why he is deserving of that accolade. Playing Kikuchiyo he is a vagabond, a wild card, a devil may care, temperamental scoundrel. Kikuchiyo isn’t actually a Samurai but this act of dishonesty is not a mark on his character but rather evidence of the good that lies within him, he is willing to do something dishonourable in order to help achieve something grand and worthy.
These two seemingly irreconcilable characters represent the conflict that lies inside so many of us; the quiet desire to be noble fighting with our more basic desires. The two can exist simultaneously and together they can help us to achieve great things.
The film is filled with iconic moments and breathtaking beauty. Take this scene where Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) becomes embroiled in a duel with an arrogant fool. A man who is blinded by his own stubborn belief in his own limited abilities and by his own pride is taught a devastating lesson by a quiet, humble but masterful swordsman. It is worth noting that this entire scene plays with no score, only the sound of silence, occasionally broken by birds. Kurosawa wants you to be focused on what is happening, understands that music would lessen, not enhance, the impact of what occurs;
This is social commentary done with a quill and not a hammer. The soul of a nation captured in one man and the brutal decay of what made the nation great in the first place captured in another. A stark choice in front of you; what sort of country do you want to live in? What sort of person do you want to be?
Kurosawa himself came from a samurai family, this was a world that even when he was born in 1910 was still very much a part of Japanese life. His samurai heritage saw him take up Kendo swordmanship as a child. It was from his father too that he learned to appreciate certain aspects of Western culture; including cinema. This blend of tradition and modernity helped to create in Kurosawa the characteristics and values that would see him become the greatest film director of all time, matched only by his countryman Ozu in terms of impact on the form.
What “Seven Samurai” gives the audience is a blend of those same qualities; tradition and modernity. It is a tale of history, family, loyalty, social commentary (as seen above) and all delivered with a rush and a push of such force that it leaves you giddy. It became, of course, the template for very many Western films and western films. Most obviously “The Magnificent Seven” which saw Yul Bryner cast in the Shamada role and, unusually for Hollywood, they managed not to dance on the grave of a past classic. It isn’t the same film, it isn’t of the same cultural or artistic value but it is a respectful and loving homage to the original.
It isn’t just me who sees Kurosawa as the greatest director in film history; Bergman saw his film “The Virgin Spring ” as; “…a lousy imitation of Kurosawa”, Fellini described him as “…the greatest example of what an author of cinema should be”, Satyajit Ray said of “Rashomon”; “…proof of a director’s command over every aspect of film making”. I could go on…pick a director who has made a film you adore and they have watched, admired and been inspired by Kurosawa.
If, like me, you are currently living inside your own home you could lift your spirits by watching “Seven Samurai” but be warned, nothing else will ever satisfy you in the same way again.