Of Rock Stars and the Rest of Us; The Seven Samurai’s Western Revival

“Find hungry samurai. Even bears come down from the mountains when they are hungry,” states the Old Man of the beleaguered village in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

In the next scene, in a nearby town, four peasants look for samurai who would deign to fight for them against ruthless bandits. But would a noble samurai ever care about these peons, who wear loser homespun clothes and can’t help show how weak they are with every grimace and bob of the head toward their betters? A fan of John Ford’s westerns, Kurosawa one-ups Ford’s economy and subtlety of visual cues to create the “types”–in this case the helpless and hapless peasants and the arrogant yet epically awesome samurai–and to portray the classic western genre’s conflict between average people and the epically gifted ur-humans, the gunslingers. Who, give or take a few hundred years and geographic distance, are classic samurai.

Hope and longing shine through the faces of these peasants. Much is at stake, the viewer knows: if the villagers can’t defend themselves against the bandits, they will die.

Samurai after samurai walk, saunter, and swagger by the peasants…

until at last the bravest of the peasants begs one for help, only to be spurned. “I am a samurai!” the insulted warrior proclaims. That is reason enough for the peasant to cower in the dust, afraid for his life, to be spat on and called a fool. Will the peasants find a samurai who will agree to help them? And if they do, will it be possible to forge a potent partnership between noble and peon, the powerful and the powerless, the talented and the willing, the brain and the heart? Well, duh. We’re talking Kurosawa here, so yes…and no. An action flick, at its heart is the story of  how that conflict plays out, especially the gifted Toshiro Mifune, who plays the sloppy, volatile tragic buffoon, who wants only to be a samurai and becomes that, as well as the bridge between the proud warriors and the suspicious peasants.

But wait, I’m supposed to be the western wingnut, you might say. Well, I spurn you if you deign to mutter that under your breath. Anyone worth his or her sushi would know about the symbiotic relationship between Kurosawa and the western genre (hello, spaghetti westerns!). And he didn’t have to stretch to find the historical parallel to 1870s America. Late 1580s Japan had its share of warrior/common people conflicts. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty widespread phenomenon, even now.

The samurai the peasants watch, like the gunslingers of American westerns, have a lethal grace and confidence that intimidates those lesser than they are (read: the average human being). The samurai who agree to help the village have that, as well as a nobility, disguised within a fierce fight-for-the-hell-of-it persona, brilliantly played by Kurosawa stalwarts like Takashi Shimura, the grizzled veteran who longs to rest but fights “one last time” for the right cause,

and Isao Kimura, who plays the youngest samurai, with a rockabilly pompadour that somehow distracts from his traditional shaved head. (Hello, Handsome!)

The beauty of Kurasawa’s film, aside from its ambitious scope and awesome action, is in the subtly textured portrayals of these people. The camera lingers on the faces of the peasants, on every wrinkle and grimace and tear, not flinching from their pitiful state (much as Sergio Leone does with his wonderfully grizzled peons). The samurai look like Botoxed rock stars in comparison, but they also bring pathos to their scenes; their yearnings–to be respected, to achieve perfection, to do what is right–are revealed slowly as the climax nears. And when the dust clears from the battlefield, the real conflict takes the final steps in its own journey that began with the fear and hope of the villagers, and the arrogance and honor of the samurai.

Worth a yearly pilgrimage, this film. And now me hungry as a bear, for popcorn.



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