This is my last installment of (Re)visiting A Classic and, as far as I know, the final article I will write for the Townhall entertainment section. This being the case, I wanted to make the finale of this series something special. I tossed around a few subjects for this analysis such as the underrated "Prince of Egypt" and the maybe-Christmas classic "Die Hard." I even considered Tommy Wiseau's disaster-opus "The Room" as a sort of anti-climax. However, I eventually realized that the perfect subject was sitting right on my shelves.
The one question you can never ask a film nerd is what their favorite film of all time is. We do not have an answer. You can ask us our favorite director, our favorite film within a specific genre or even our favorite set designer. But you cannot ask us what our favorite film is because we've seen too many to give a singular, honest answer. However, sometimes we can be objective enough to decide what the best film we've ever seen is, even if it's not necessarily our favorite. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you what in my opinion is the greatest film ever made: "Seven Samurai" by Akira Kurosawa.
A small village of rice farmers are threatened by the impending raid of thieves once the harvest season is over. Because none of them are warriors, they send two of their members to find samurai to help them. After finding a group of seven, they head back to their village to plan their defenses.
The part where the villages are trying to find samurai takes up about half of this three-and-a-half-hour film. That might sound like it'd make a sluggish experience and even though it feels that way in the moment, it's absolutely necessary. The arduous journey from finding the samurai, taking them back to the village and having them set up the village defenses lets us drink everything in. We get to know the characters and the relationships between them. We settle into the atmosphere to the point where we feel like we're in the world. It all builds up to a spectacular climax that makes you completely forget about the wait it took to get there. It's worth every second.
The acting is fantastic from the entire cast. It's one of those lineups where it's difficult to pick out a highlight because everybody brings their A-game. Takashi Shimura radiates weary wisdom and stern kindness as the leader of the seven. Toshirô Mifune displays energy, humor and tragedy as Kikuchiyo. Isao Kimura as Katsushiro portrays youthful naivety. I could go on, but you get the point; the cast is fantastic.
Before going into technical analysis, let's define some film school jargon for those of you who've never been or just forgot. Composition is basically how everything looks on screen: you need to use the foreground, middle ground and background in order to make sure nothing in the frame is distracting. Cinematography is just the way the camera is used; this involves angles, lighting, picture quality, focus, etc. Set and costume design are self-explanatory: making sure that the costumes and sets are convincing. In a period piece, this is especially important.
Kurosawa excels in every aspect of technical filmmaking. His shots are like paintings, the sets are beautifully crafted and the costumes are convincing. He carefully frames and lights every shot with meticulous precision. However, what Kurosawa excels at over everything else is his emphasis on movement. Whether he's moving the camera, his actors, the environment or all three, "Seven Samurai" is filled with a kinetic, emotional energy. This helps the audience from getting bored by adding flavor to the shot, but it never keeps the audience complacent. Filmmakers will often try to keep their audience from getting bored by adding pointless movement to their shots. Here, every movement is engaging and serves a purpose.
As with "The Third Man" a few months ago, my connection with the film is hampered not only by generational difference, but by cultural separation. The fact that the film is still affecting even without the cultural background is a testament to not only the timelessness of the story, but also Kurosawa's skill as a visual storyteller. However, there is still the fact that I can't completely understand it or potentially understand its whole impact.
The film was in production during a time when Japan was still trying to recover and rebuild themselves after World War II. They had been brutally defeated after the drop of the atomic bomb and were now under the control of their enemies. Their government, economy and even culture was being reshaped by the United States occupation led by General Eisenhower. For a country that, throughout the war, had been fed propaganda proclaiming that their empire would last forever and that the Japanese people were the ultimate race, it must've been crushing for them to be defeated. Maybe even humiliating.
While Kurosawa was reportedly supportive of the occupation's democratic ideals, perhaps he recognized an attempt to relate with the less content attitude of his audience. The story is about a group of militant samurai, a traditional figure prominent in Japanese history, fighting a tragic battle which they win, but which ultimately leaves them obsolete. I wouldn't be surprised if the initial audience saw this as a story of Japan itself; the samurai were the old Japan, proud, powerful and dignified. However, that world is now gone and a new one is coming in to take its place. It might be a more peaceful, prosperous world, but it's a world that has no place for their ideals.
When I say that "Seven Samurai" is the best movie ever made, I mean that it has everything a movie should. It has action, romance, brilliant technical filmmaking, great characters and an epic story. It make take you a few days to make your way through it all, but it's worth every single solitary second.