Note: A slightly different version of this piece was written for another, long defunct blog. My apologies to anyone who may have read it before.
One of the hallmarks of a legitimately great movie is the ability of that movie to reveal hidden depths after multiple viewings. The greatest movies are bottomless wells in this way. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is one such film. It still functions as one of the best action films ever made. It still functions as an archetypal hero’s journey. It still functions as a probing drama. It reminds me of the description John Steinbeck gave for East of Eden in his introduction to the book: it’s a box into which Kurosawa poured everything that he was.
With this week’s viewing, I noticed that it functions as epistemological inquiry. It never dawned on me before that great whacks of the film are based on misrecognitions. This begins practically at the outset, in which a bundle of twigs turns out to be a peasant carrying a load on his back and continues through Takeshi Shimura’s samurai masquerading as a priest, Toshiro Mifune masquerading as a samurai, and so on. When this thought dawned on me, my first instinct was that it was accidental until I caught myself in the realization that Kurosawa also made Rashomon, in which epistemology is the whole point of the movie. Once this thought occurred to me, I started to realize that most of Kurosawa's films are based on epistemological themes, from the mistaken identity that sets off High and Low to the impostor in Kagemusha. It's the director's dominant theme, it seems, usually hiding behind the other concerns that are in the foreground.
I also noticed that the camera occasionally functions as an echo of the blocking of the characters. During the duel near the beginning of the film, the camera moves not like a camera on a track, but like an additional samurai, watching the action. It mirrors the hyperactive loser of the duel, actually, and when he dies, the film speed slows down, as if the camera movement during the duel and the film speed during the aftermath have put us into his skin. Interesting. I was also very conscious of the way Kurosawa frames shots of groups. Groups of non-samurai always seem to be in motion, fleeing something or running towards something else. Samurai almost never hurry, and are often static against the tide of villagers or bandits. Kurosawa–in this film in particular–is often compared to John Ford, but a more apt comparison is Howard Hawks, who composed shots of groups as a means of building communities. Kurosawa rarely separates the seven samurai when they are in a scene together–he generally keeps them all in the same film frame, even at the end when four of them are marked by gravestones.
I could probably spend a lifetime with this film.