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Seven Samurai: The Individual and the Collective Observed

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    Perhaps Kurosawa’s most interesting and satisfying creation in Seven Samurai is that of the collective created by individuals all working together toward a common goal. What makes the story interesting is that Kurosawa pulls no punches about self-interest and the different views of the goal as perceived by different individuals involved in the effort. I cannot help but think that Kurosawa must have drawn from the experience of creating films-a group of individuals working together toward a goal-to look at how people work together and illuminate the dynamics so brilliantly. There are two primary divisions-the social classes of samurai and peasants. But, there’s more. There are samurai gone bad-the bandits as cause of all the angst, and there is the unusual character of the samurai-wannabe, Kikuchiyo. That’s not even really the end of it. There are the townspeople-some who are merchants, some wandering through. A wider world is shown.


    The lens that closes in also pulls away, and we, as viewers, are even treated to a voyeuristic samurai showdown, where we observe characters observing other characters. In fact, the complexity of humans observing others is one of the marvelous illuminations of the film-when Gambei shaves his head he is observed by a crowd including Kikuchiyo (and, of course, us). The complexity of the watching includes a sense of being watched back (it makes Kikuchiyo self-conscious for about a half minute) and it makes us aware of our own watching, although, in those moments, we fade into the “general crowd” the collective-and Gambei’s look hits Kikuchiyo, not us. We see Katsushiro watch the development of the bandit’s downfall due to Gambei’s swift actions. The watching is woven throughout the film. I forward that when we observe the samurai duel, we become much more empathetic toward Gambei and Katsushiro. We observe them observing, and feel we get to “know” them on some intimate way-perhaps because we not only see them when they are completely unselfconsciously taken by the duel, and also, by the fact that we get to learn of their reactions on their return. Just a brilliant way to make us care about the two! I immediately feel such respect for Gambei, and sympathy for the young and inexperienced Katsushiro who seems as if someone hit him in the head with a two-by-four. We assume this is his first encounter with any such sight.

    In fact, the first part of the film is all about observation: they are looking for samurai, and the pageant that walks before the doorway includes a flash of Tatsuya Nakadai (evidently his first length of film as an actor-but he isn’t memorable, is he? We never get to know him!) And, the “interviews” with Gambei include a hidden-from-view Katsushiro as trickster-tester. Again, the voyeurism is given a “job”-and I think, in some ways, an audience almost feels that they are not just watching, that watching is working toward a goal. Kurosawa elevates the act of observation-a good way to again audience trust!

    When Kyuzo observes Shino and Katsushiro in the woods, and observes the taking of the food to the grandmother-again, there is a sense of intimacy that pays out when Kyuzo returns from his night of stealth raiding the enemy camp and returning with a gun. Katshushiro looks at him with bright eyes brimming with boundless respect-it has elevated Katsushiro’s spirit to know that such excellence exists! And, we get a sly smile from Kyuzo as the youth bounces off. Then, we are still intimately close to Kyuzo… a shrug…as he brushes off fame and flattery for blessed rest. Kyuzo has been “seen” by Kikuchiyo, and acknowledges this-I tend to think his shrug lets the admiration fall into his heart and settles it so that he can gain unselfconscious sleep.

    The film, in fact, ends with observation-at a slight distance. From the base of the cemetery, the remaining samurai look over at the peasants planting in the flooded rice paddies. The peasants act in harmony, sing together-the collective is healed, and the individuals have their place in it-Shino and Rikichi are both picked out-but they are in harmony with the others in the rhythm of planting. They don’t seem to see much of anything, and don’t even acknowledge the samurai. So, seeing and observing is indicative of a higher consciousness. It is the observation of Gambei that draws a message from the experience. Looking at the peasants, then at the mounds of the dead samurai, he states his much-commented on observation (you know it, and I have nothing original to say about it, so let his words stand).

    Other works in other media that use a similar strategy toward the individual/collective include; Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings …although in the earlier work, Tokien had trouble creating individuality for all those dwarves! Only a few are truly memorable, and not for much: Bombur is really fat and Thorin is the king-of-the-dwarves-in-diaspora, so he tends to be a little more well-drawn than the others, and Fili and Kili are young, and along with Balin and Dwalin and Oin and Gloin have rhyming names! I can’t even come up with the rest of the dwarves easily right now…and I see I’ve only named eight…so, maybe Kurosawa is also clever about the number of different personalities best suited for this kind of tale. Oh and Bifur and Bofur… then, I forgot the forgettable last triad: Dori, Ori and Nori).

    I’m going to put the kibosh on all the criticism that denigrates the farmers as a collective without individuals-that’s far too simplistic an analysis, and does not account for the surprisingly large number of peasants who figure as individuals in the story.

    In fact, our first long-shot scene of the peasants wailing on hearing the bandits plan to return shows them as a mass-but quickly jump-cuts closer to reveal individual responses to the news. Manzo-ever afraid of being the nail that gets pounded down-begs to lay low, and Rikichi jumps up and stomps away from the group-already, within a few shots, the individuals begin to assert themselves. How is it that critics don’t understand this?

    We have paranoid Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara! His “bit” is his fear of samurai corrupting his daughter) and Shino, his daughter who falls for a samurai, Yohei, (played by the incomparable Bokuzen Hidari-whose face is a universe of pain and humor) Rikichi (the kidnapping of his wife makes him burn for revenge) and Rikichi’s wife (who dreamily allows the bandit hideout to burn, but, forced by the heat to try to exit the building confronts her husband with horror), Mosuke (whose outlying home is burned by bandits) and Gisaku (the old patriarch of the village) and the woman who is speared, but has strength enough to hand off her child to Kikuchiyo . All the criticism is wrong-it’s not the peasants who are without characterization, backstory or individuality-it is the bandits who are merged into a faceless mask (and a study of propaganda art would show you immediately how demonization works on a visual level- you just strip people of their individuality then distort and exaggerate to make them monsters). I’ve said enough, or not enough, but I am out of steam.


    Vili Maunula

    Coco: Tatsuya Nakadai (evidently his first length of film as an actor

    According to IMDb, it was actually his second.

    Coco:I’m going to put the kibosh on all the criticism that denigrates the farmers as a collective without individuals-that’s far too simplistic an analysis, and does not account for the surprisingly large number of peasants who figure as individuals in the story. … How is it that critics don’t understand this? … All the criticism is wrong-it’s not the peasants who are without characterization, backstory or individuality-it is the bandits who are merged into a faceless mask

    While I do agree with these sentiments, I am somewhat curious as for which particular critics you are referring to here? It cannot be that “all the criticism” is wrong here, as at least Prince, Richie and Mellen all acknowledge the individuals in the peasant group, and I think also the facelessness of the enemy.



    Mmmnn, Vili, tomorrow is our new president’s inauguration-today is Martin Luther King Junior day-and I have a ridiculous amount of work on desk for tomorrow’s study abroad fair, without the usual help of some staff-so, I will have to say that the critics noted were Japanese critics-

    I apologize for stating something without attribution, and will try to refrain from doing so in the future unless I can be clear.


    Vili Maunula

    Oh yes, indeed. Japanese critics. I should actually probably have made that connection. You are right, there apparently was that reaction to Seven Samurai. Now it all makes sense — for a moment there, I was left wondering if I had missed something major in the western criticism. 🙂

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