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Seven Samurai: Spectacular Kills, Lonely Deaths

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    Vili Maunula

    As Joan Mellen notes in her part of the Criterion commentary track, the four samurai who die in the movie each die of a gunshot. She suggests that on the one hand, this could be a reference to the manner in which the introduction of guns began to change the samurai values and their way of life while, on the other hand, it can also be seen as enhancing the mythical qualities of the samurai — these guys are so good at what they are doing that the only way to harm them is with new, foreign technology.

    I don’t intend to disagree with Mellen’s views, but would like to offer a third possible interpretation, this one based on comparing the samurai’s deaths with other deaths depicted in the movie. When we do so, an interesting picture begins to emerge — the samurai’s kills are emphasised, while their deaths are curiously downplayed.

    The first death shown in the movie is perhaps also its most memorable one. This comes about 24 minutes into the film, where Kambei, disguised as a monk, kills a thief hiding in a shack. While the kill itself is not shown, the thief staggers out into full view before he dies, and then collapses dramatically while onlookers hold their breath. Throughout this scene, Kurosawa plays with slow motion, emphasising the spectacular nature of this otherwise rather unimportant death.

    Roughly 25 minutes later, or 49 minutes into the film, we get a similar slow motion effect as Kyuzo chops down a samurai who has challenged him into a duel. Again, we have the “chorus” of onlookers in the background gasping for their breath, and again the death is very memorable indeed.

    It is more than an hour later, at about 2:11, when the next deaths are shown. These are the deaths of the scouting bandits. While the first two are killed quickly, the third one is brought into the town and killed off-screen by the village’s old woman, while assisted by the villagers. Although this death is not shown, it has the power to remain very vividly in one’s memory.

    Seven minutes later, at the end of the scene at the bandits’ camp (2:17), the first of the samurai is killed. There, Heihachi dies of a single, very sudden gunshot. Although his demise is mourned, the death itself is fairly unspectacular, and I would argue far less memorable than the ones described above. Moreover, the impact of his death is lessened by our (and the samurai’s) discovery of Rikichi’s relation to the woman in the bandit camp — so much so that when Rikichi cries out this truth, Kyuzo lets go of Heihachi’s body, which falls into the ditch. (As an aside — why don’t they make any effort to rescue the woman later?)

    Six minutes from there, Gorobei shoots down a bandit measuring the village moat. It is a kill patiently set up by the camera, and while not spectacular, the image of the arrow penetrating the bandit’s chest is nevertheless aesthetically pleasing.

    This is followed by the bandits’ attack, during which a number of bandits are killed. The chaos of the battle offers very little in terms of spectacular kills — men are simply chopped down.

    Even then, more time is actually spent on the bandits’ deaths than is on Gorobei’s, who dies off-camera at the end of the battle. In cinematic terms, deaths don’t come much lonelier and unspectacular than that.

    In the next wave of bandits, which takes place in pouring rain, we have a few rather famous shots of Kambei using his bow to kill a few bandits.

    In the same wave, at 3:18, another stylised slow-motion death occurs, as Shichirochi downs a bandit with his spear.

    This is followed by Kyuzo’s death at 3:19, and it is the visually strongest of the samurai’s deaths so far. There, the mortally wounded Kyuzo staggers forward in the rain before collapsing — yet, his demise in the mud ultimately comes across as more pathetic than it does spectacular.

    Immediately following this is the death of Kikuchiyo. So far, with the help of my descriptions, I have tried to illustrate how the samurai’s deaths are far less spectacular than are the deaths that they inflict. Kikuchiyo’s death embodies this idea rather beautifully. There, I feel that the focus is actually far less on his death, and much more on the heroism of his killing the bandit leader. When his death does become a reality to the viewer, the image is a lonely one — Kikuchiyo lying face down in a pool of water, as the rain pours down on his naked backside. Nothing spectacular there.

    If my observations can be maintained, there seems to exist a rather marked difference between the deaths of the samurai and those that they kill. The kills are emphasised, the deaths downplayed. I wonder, is this because we do not want to dwell too much on the death of our heroes, or because we want to emphasise their skills and not their failures? Or, is the contrast perhaps there to underline the fact that in the end these samurai all die completely alone, in a battle which, as Kambei notes, they cannot but lose?

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    NoelCT

    I think the first two deaths reflect the mythology of falling in battle. They start quiet, with only moments of swift action, and the slow motion allows us to take in every detail represented by the surrounding crowd of onlookers. As the film later shows us, duels in no way reflect the reality of a battle where people are scrabbling left and right and you have no time to fully appreciate the fleeting glimpses of fallen foes and friends. Yes, you get to take in their deaths after the fact, but the actual moments are almost lost in the stream of chaos. Duels are a false, controlled death. Battles are a real, reactionary death. That’s the impression I got.

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    Vili Maunula

    That’s an excellent observation, Noel. Note though, that there are a few more stylised, even slow-motion deaths also in the battle. But nothing on the scale of the first two deaths, of course.

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    NoelCT

    She suggests that on the one hand, this could be a reference to the manner in which the introduction of guns began to change the samurai values and their way of life while, on the other hand, it can also be seen as enhancing the mythical qualities of the samurai — these guys are so good at what they are doing that the only way to harm them is with new, foreign technology.

    I like this idea. It’s also interesting to note that the bullets always come (until the end) from unseen assassins. They stay out of the thick of the battle and remain nearly invulnerable as their comrades fall, one after another, to the samurais’ blades. This is a new tactic that comes with the new technology and I like how the only way they find themselves caught are when individual samurai, Kyuzo and Kikuchiyo, turn stealth and deception back against them.

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    Ugetsu

    I think another explanation for this is AK’s move (which we saw in Yojimbo) to a more realistic portrayal of fighting and war. The thing which most struck me about the portrayal of the battles when I first saw Seven Samurai was how closely the deaths resembled what military experts would consider what really happens in war. I’m not talking about the blood and gore aspects, more in respect of what actually causes most casualties. In most ‘primitive’ battles, Hollywood style duels and fights to the death only occur in formalised settings – when, for example, Celtic tribes would nominate champions to fight to settle a dispute. In actual battle, the primary role of the primary warrior was not to kill his opponents, but to wound them or force them to flee. From the Phalanx battles of the Greek States to the pike ensembles of late mid-century battles, surprisingly few deaths occured in the primary battle. The actual butchery involved in killing almost always occurs after a fighting unit has been forced into retreat or disarray – and then the killing is not done by the main armored warriors, but by the lighter auxiliaries or cavalry who catch up with the fleeing men and perform the grim task of finishing them off.

    Seven Samurai reflects this. It is only in the first two kills – both ‘formal’ type battles that we see a heroic, dramatic death. In the first battle, the Samurai simply slash down half dressed men fleeing a fire. The lost samurai is apparently cut down by a lucky or random shot (even in modern wars, I understand that the overwhelming majority of firearm deaths are caused by randomly shots, not deliberate aiming and targeting). In the final battle Kambei kills not with his sword, but with a weapon that would be looked down upon by true Samurai – the bow and arrow (I’m not sure how accurate this is, I undestand that the Japanese bow was quite puny, they never mastered the composite bow). The majority of bandits die not at a Samurai sword, but hacked down and speared by a mob of villagers. The remaining Samurai die as most fighters die – quite randomly, victims of sneaky shots or ricochets.

    I do think Kyuzo’s death is the most significant. He is the embodiment of the noble zen warrior. But he dies from the most un-zenlike weapon, a musket shot – and he flings his sword in a futile gesture of defiance at the unseen gunman. He is the last of a kind, and in his last moments he knows it.

    So my interpretation of AK’s choice of ending for the characters is that he wished to inject realism into the fighting to de-romanticise the fight itself. The characters are given nobility in their lives, but their deaths are just deaths in battle, nothing more or less.

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