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We examine three characteristics of Seven Samurai, the magnum opus of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Kurosawa’s works are foundational to a wide variety of film techniques and tropes. While Kurosawa himself considered Ran to be his best film, Seven Samurai is the particular expression of his unique genius that changed not only film but storytelling as a whole. We will see three examples of this: Kurosawa’s dedication to purpose, innovation on previous filming methods, and use of characteristically Japanese concepts to enrich and diversify the techniques available to writers.
While producing Seven Samurai, Kurosawa made no compromises on his vision of excellence. He refused to accept anything less than the best from anyone, including himself. With a visionary leader at its helm, Seven Samurai rose above its relatively humble concept, a band of out-of-work warriors defending a poor town from bandits, to unimaginable heights. It is no coincidence that this theme is the foundation for many other movies and even novels; the genre was, in a sense, created by Seven Samurai. In pursuit of his art, Kurosawa took four times as long as originally budgeted to film Seven Samurai; the production studio financing him, Toho Studios, shut down the film twice. Kurosawa, already an experienced and profitable director for the studio, responded by taking no other work and instead going on extended fishing trips until Toho Studios increased his budget. The final battle scene of the film was shot in the dead of winter and in a heavy sleet storm; Kurosawa refused to leave the location until filming was finished, getting so cold that some of his toenails fell off. Kurosawa also insisted on repeatedly working late nights in editing, when every other director at the time waited until shooting was finished to edit. This dedication, stubbornness, and self-sacrifice were inspiring to the cast and crew of Seven Samurai and were directly cited by them as inspiration for their own excellent performances. Toshiro Mifune, himself a legend, was so inspired by Kurosawa’s stubborn willpower that he stayed in character the entire time he was on set.
In regards to filming itself, Seven Samurai innovated in many notable ways. The most prominent of these were the use of telephoto lenses, multiple shots of every single scene, and pervasive, true-to-life practical effects. Telephoto lenses are now so ubiquitous that most people without technical training do not know that cameras used to have different kinds of lenses. What sets telephoto lenses apart is that they produce the same “zoom” effect of vastly larger simple lenses through careful construction of compound lens arrangements and housing; telephoto lenses are an absolute necessity for “zooming in” without changing cameras. Seven Samurai was not the first film to use telephoto lenses, but it was the first film to use them for every shot, in every camera, and to utilize zoom in and zoom out as elements of the film directly. This brings us to the second point of innovation: Seven Samurai was also the first film to use multiple cameras for each shot. Before Seven Samurai, scenes were shot from multiple angles using one camera: the scene is shot once, the camera is moved, the scene is shot again, and so forth. Live television had previously used multiple cameras at once, such as in the first television drama, The Queen’s Messenger, in 1928, but Seven Samurai was the first film to do so and, more importantly, to use multiple cameras with radically different angles and shots. This allowed Seven Samurai to show the same spectacular scene from the perspective of multiple characters and was critical to making its ensemble cast really shine. Practical effects differ from special effects in that practical effects are made during filming, rather than post-production. Live elements are used, such as real explosions, fire, and weapons. Mock combat by real actors, as opposed to computer-generated images, is also in this category. The great majority of the effects in Seven Samurai are practical, with the post-production effects limited to scene transitions and strategic cuts to make the actors less skilled in martial arts seem more formidable in their roles. Even then, the martial arts used by the characters are real and entirely period-appropriate, a special school of Japanese fighting methods preserved since the 1400s and enshrined in law as an intangible cultural asset since 1960. The weather was the actual weather in the filming location. In fact, the entire set for the movie was purpose constructed in full scale, a reproduction of an actual 16th century village, without a single miniature used. One of the major scenes involves a large fire burning down a building; that building was constructed and actually set on fire, twice, during filming. All of these practical effects come together to create a film of compelling realism, such that even today watching Seven Samurai feels very much like actually being in that place, at that time. Seven Samurai set the standard for excellence in combat scenes so well that entire fortunes have been built on its example; to name just one, George Lucas changed his original plans for Star Wars completely in order to emulate the realism and storytelling power of Seven Samurai.
Finally, we come to the Japanese-ness of Seven Samurai. Through this film, the virtues, aspirations, and even sorrows characteristic to the Japanese people were introduced into the world of cinema, adding to the richness of diversity that makes film such a wonderful medium. Naturally, it is a period piece, set in the waning years of the Sengoku Jidai, a time in Japanese history roughly equivalent to the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe and the Three Kingdoms period in China. The old order, over a thousand years in age, was dying and being replaced by the new, and the country was ravaged by all manner of calamities. Because of this equivalency, the time period and historical aspects of Seven Samurai do not, in fact, make it especially Japanese. Instead, we see in Seven Samurai distillations of what Japanese tradition considers to be worthy of admiration and respect, new takes on virtues that we are already familiar with. Courage, loyalty, charity, and honor are all shown, but in Japanese fashion: the eponymous samurai are aristocratic warriors who could choose lives of luxury and wealth, but instead they choose privation and poverty because they refuse to accept wickedness in exchange for wealth. The film does not have a happy ending, and the reward for the virtue of the samurai is the virtue itself. The heroes charge into certain death not for a reward nor even because it is “the right thing to do,” but because they have sworn to defend the villagers with their lives. These ideas are now relatively common in world cinema, but it is in Seven Samurai that they first left Japan and inspired the world. We also see the peculiar concept of mono no aware displayed prominently in several places. Mono no aware literally translated into English means “the pathos of things,” but, like many other cultural idioms, its meaning is much deeper. It is, in fact, the Japanese way of dealing with loss and grief, of moving beyond the sorrow of now and into the hope of the future. We might summarize this feeling by saying that all that which begins must end, and we should be grateful for what we have had the privilege to experience, both happy and sad. Like all complicated concepts, mono no aware is impossible to describe with words alone. Seven Samurai uses film, and all of its powers, to communicate this essential part of the Japanese character to the viewer, and in doing so to share a truth that is inexplicable with mere language. Displays of truth like this are the essence of art and how it improves the human condition, and Seven Samurai brings forth understanding of truth like few films have even attempted, much less achieved.
In conclusion, Seven Samurai stands like a giant among films. There is nothing about it, as a film, that fails to be great, but here we have detailed three things that make it unique. The visionary brilliance and integrity of its principle author, Akira Kurosawa, was irreplaceable in time, as any great genius’s work must necessarily be. The technical aspects of film production in Seven Samurai were far ahead of their time and have been so rarely rivaled in excellence that they form the basis for the best modern filming techniques. Further, Seven Samurai introduced Japan to the world, not superficially, not with popular culture, colorful costumes, exotic music, or strange foods, but with art of such power and majesty that humanity’s understanding of its own nature was forever improved by the expression of a truth previously known only to the Japanese.
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