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Why Seven Samurai remains relevant

April sees the iconic film’s 61st anniversary. Alan Stewart can’t get enough of the film that gave birth to Westerns as we know them.

Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai.

Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai.

If you haven’t seen Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 seminal Seven Samurai film, then you’re really missing out.

The premise is painfully simple. A group of bandits is extorting a 16th century village to the point of starvation.

Desperate, the villagers seek out the help of warriors to fight on their behalf only able to to pay them in food. One by one they manage to recruit a group of seven samurai to the cause, who seem more driven by purpose than reward.

It’s got everything: a villianous group of outlaws terrorising the weak and innocent, a cluster of unlikely heroes, drawn from all walks of life, romantic entanglements, tense nail-biting moments and a clash of action towards the end.

It’s also the film that pioneered the concept of recruitment scenarios, where the leader, Kambei, moves from scene to scene seeking like-minded ronin to join this enterprise by they old friends or mysterious strangers.

We are treated to a short introduction to each character and what their particular skill they bring to the collective.

This is an establishing character technique that is prevalent especially in heist movies - the brains of the outfit fresh out of prison visits all his old buddies to see if they’re up for one-last-job.

The first half of the film is purely meeting the pickpocket, the safecracker, the driver and so on, before the actual nitty-gritty of the plot even begins.

Sounds familiar? See Oceans’ Eleven, The Sting, The Italian Job – play with me and name a few other examples – Usual Suspects, Guns of Navarone, Armageddon and, to some extent, the Avengers movie.

All these elements aside, what really draws me to this film is the theatre of it. Kurosawa made this back in the black and white days of 1954 when special effects were limited to producing real physical things like rain or fire and editing was limited to simple cuts, wipes and fades from one scene to the next.

The film depends on you supplementing the scenes with some of your belief, much like theatre does. If you’ve ever watched a play you’ll find it very easy to suspend disbelief and let your mind build more layers than what is presented on stage.

There is a scene in Seven Samurai where the group is trying to figure out how they are going to tackle the potentially fatal problem of three bandits armed with muskets watching the village from the hills.

With no more than a ‘leave it to me’ Kyouzo, the master swordsman, runs out the gates alone into the evening mist.

Action has become so overwhelming, it’s almost tiresome – it takes a very special film to reinvent the Hollywood action sequence

The camera watches him disappear into the dark and then focuses entirely on the amazement of his companions and the slack-jawed villagers.

The scene fades away slowly. We then fade back in to the same gates the next morning, as Kyouzo returns walking casually.

He hands over two muskets to Kambei and says simply, “Killed two”, before settling down in a corner for a nap.

Not a single member of the audience doubt that his man is a master swordfighter, and a badass to boot.

And this is why this film holds my affection: the theatre happens entirely in our mind.

Hollywood today spells out everything for us. Every fight sequence is a choreographed ballet of gunfire and martial arts, where all parties seem inexhaustible or able to fore-see the attacks of a dozen or so adversaries in advance.

Heroes will take a beating or a bullet and yet have the willpower to push on until the next scene, where they’ll be a little better, or the scene after that where the only damage they sport is to their clothing.

Action has become so overwhelming, it’s almost tiresome and we’ve seen it all before so we always know what to expect.

It takes a very special film to reinvent the Hollywood action sequence – like say, The Matrix – but for the most part we’ll be fed the belief that every hero and primary adversary is tough as nails and a master hand-to-hand martial artist.

When Kyouzo runs off into the mist we do not cut to a montage of him fighting a motley bunch of opponents in a synchronised clashing of swords and flying spins and creative use of environment to cut away things, for other things to fall onto opponents and so forth.

We simply watch him return, successful in his mission, and the wonder and respect the other characters demonstrate is all we need to know: this guy is badass. Goosebumps.

Seven Samurai is also gritty and realistic, expect a Game of Thrones measure of death in this movie. You’ll also have to contend with subtitles unless you speak flawless Japanese.

If you don’t think you’re up for that then pick up any of the many films that copy the story. The most famous is The Magnificent Seven, retelling it as an American Western, but there is also Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and a slew of East European and Italian variants.

Me, I’ll stick to the source material.

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