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Seven Samurai: Why no personalities for the bandits?

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    Ugetsu

    Its been many years since I saw Magnificent Seven, but from memory, one of the most significant differences is that it focused much more on the bandits, with of course a great performance from Eli Wallach.

    It is one of the noticeable features of Seven Samurai that despite its length and the great care in the characterizations of all the Samurai and many of the farmers, the bandits are left as shadowy characters, only really distinguished by their helmets. This was, presumably, deliberate.

    Can anyone shed some light on why AK might have chosen to do this?

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    cocoskyavitch

    Interesting question, Ugetsu. In another post I mention the process of demonization, which has to do with depersonalization. We understand how it works, and I am certain that Kurosawa meant to have the bandits be simply “bad guys”. Kurosawa is not really interested in this film in the bandit’s motivations, or choices-they are a condition, like weather-with which the seven samurai and villagers must deal.

    But, then, in relation to Eli Walach’s memorable performance, the question might be: Kurosawa’s depiction of the fine line between good and evil is explored so fully in so many of his other films as a choice-why not here?

    The substance of many of his films focusses on choice-sort of a non-Christian temptation of St. Anthony as motivation for filmmaking. So, why not here? Why simplify the bad guys?

    Well, one thing-it would surely be a different film Probably a really good one but different.

    Perhaps Kurosawa wanted to explore the nuances of choices for “good”. After all, we get incredibly fine distinctions drawn between “good” actions-that Kikuchiyo is berated for leaving his post even though he scored a gun and killed some bad guys-is one example. It is as if Kurosawa is exploring hierarchies of “good”. I wonder if he is even questioning the possibility of “good”?

    (I don’t know about you but I always get the creeps in the scene where the old grandma kills a bandit with her rake-her “right” to vengeance for the destruction of her family. Yikes. That scene makes question the “goodness” of the villagers. Kambei, at first, wants to keep the prisoner safe. But, his wishes are overruled by the mob. Very disturbing stuff.)

    Maybe Seven Samurai is actually a pivot point in Kurosawa’s career. He is dealing with issues of obolescence, death, but I don’t think he revisits the earlier structural oppositional forces of his films again until The Bad Sleep Well-and by the time he gets there, the morality play is desperately complicated (that’s usual) but ends badly for the “good guy”. Hmmm. Seven Samurai ends badly for the good guys, too, right?

    Maybe this is where Kurosawa begins to question the possibility of any action being “good” in a n absolute sense?

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    Vili Maunula

    I would actually say that there is quite little proper characterization in Seven Samurai on either side of the good/bad divide. As I wrote earlier, I wouldn’t call the samurai very “round” characters at all — each individual can pretty much be summed up with a word or two. They are more like idea(l)s picked out from some sort of a factory of stock characters, than well developed complex living and breathing human beings.

    I would say that Kikuchiyo, Katsushiro, Rikichi and to a lesser extent Shino are characters that could easily have been made more complex, all inhabiting conceptual places that put them between the different groups (farmers, samurai, bandits). With none of them, however, the films really delivers a round character (and probably for a reason). Only Kikuchiyo approaches something like “momentary roundedness” during his “what farmers are like” speech, but even that doesn’t really feed into the rest of his scenes in the movie, leaving him ultimately quite simplistic a character (and in my view also annoying as hell).

    But even then, the bandits certainly are even more nameless and faceless than the other characters. Coco’s point about demonisation through depersonalisation is, I think, very valid here. I would also like to remind that throughout his film Kurosawa’s gangsters, the 16th century version of which the bandits really are, tend to be quite simplified and generalised.

    Also, I guess the bandits here are comparable to a force of nature — it could, in this sense, be a hurricane or an earthquake that the samurai are fighting against. Just like we don’t care about hurricanes, we are not supposed to care about the bandits, or at any point start to think that each killed bandit means another dead human being. Similarly, the bandits never stop their attacks, even when it really doesn’t make any sense for them to continue pushing into the village.

    If we knew more about them, the film might run the risk of us caring about the bandits. And in the end, I suppose that we are not meant to have the final scene of Stray Dog in our heads here, with Murakami there sympathising with Yusa and making us wonder about the reasons why evil exists in this world. Seven Samurai doesn’t really seem to want to go there, but has its focus elsewhere.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Vili calls Kikuchiyo “…annoying as hell”. I forgot that before I fell in love with Mifune I thought he was some kind of noisy monkey, and quite repellent. Good reminder, Vili.

    It all ends up being personal choice, of course, but I have ended up really loving Mifune’s over-the-top performances. I actually relish them where once I was like, “what is all this crazy noise about?” Odd, isn’t it, where we end up?

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    Vili Maunula

    Indeed. I actually love Mifune’s performances, and can see the brilliance of his acting skills also in Seven Samurai. I just think that the character itself is far too over-the-top and distracting here.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Yep, I can see that, Vili. Before I could identify Mifune, when watching the Samurai trilogy (Musashi Miyamoto) I thought that in the first film the scenes of Mifune (I didn’t know his name, then) jumping around in the brush like an animal…were headache-inducing. Also, I couldn’t understand why a handsome man would make himself so ugly. In Rashomon (I didn’t know he was the same guy) he was handsome and sexy (to me) in the dozing-against-the-tree-panther-tiger-lion way, but so repellent in the confrontation-with-the-samurai scenes. I remember this although I no longer feel it.

    It is impossible for me to go back to evaluating Mifune in Seven Samurai on a pure performance basis-unfortunately, my vision will never be really “pure” ever again-all that I know, have read, and have seen of his work conspire to make me not only an admirer of his work, but a fan. SO STUPID. It really cannot be much help in life to invest a dead movie star with a kind of “beloved” status, can it?

    “Knowing” Mifune as an artist is now compromised or altered by seeing the entire arc of his life, from baby pictures to his last images, looking at his entire body of work and knowing of his eventual decline and illness…putting all the little tidbits together…that his parents were Christian makes the “Merry Christmas Everyboutty” scene in Scandal funnier, and the motorcycle ride with the Christmas tree! How nuts is that? Knowing that Mifune will be ill in his older age, and may have had undiagnosed Alzheimer’s makes me scan his eyes to see if I can determine anything…in his later interviews I look at his face to see if I can understand how he feels, or what he is thinking.

    So, even an over-the-top performance becomes a performance in the ouvre of a person I deeply admire and becomes something beyond reproach. In this, I am a fan and not a critic. I’ll have to admit it!

    Where I can be more critical is in the work of others, and here, Vili, we’ll just have to agree to disagree-I think that the characters are very well-drawn as “men” in a traditional sense-that is: defined by their actions-and it certainly is an almost dialogue-free way of getting to know them. We extrapolate from bits and pieces concepts of whole men that feel to me quite convincing.

    That’s not so different from real life. We don’t know every single detail of another person before we have a sense of them as human, fully-rounded, living life. I think it’s fair to say that most of our ideas of others are constructs. And, some of those constructs are based on slender bits of information. I dare say we Yanks chose Obama as president in part because we thought he had certain characteristics (some of the characteristics we might think of as those of a Kambei. And now, we are praying that he does!). If you are thinking it is a dangerous game we play imagining we “know” someone based on little information-I will agree. And, yet, we do it. On not only a personal , but on a national (and, I think, international) scale.

    Anyhow, there is enough for me to embrace and like about the characters in Seven Samurai to say that Kambei is wise, solid, noble, intelligent, compassionate and a great leader, and moreover, his look back at Kikuchiyo as he prepares to face the kidnapper-that look was thorugh Mifune to me as well, and so, I feel personally involved! It’s not language that makes me know him-it is his look and what he does! I also remember that Heihachi has a great face that makes me smile, and that his butt cheeks are described by big dirty marks on his kimono, and that he has a personality that seeks fun, and he comes up with some funny bits and some lame bits, but also thoughtfully extends compassion to the desires of young Katsushiro and pleads his case to Kambei (with like five words “so let’s treat him like one” well, five in English). Katsushiro is young, inexperienced, filled with optomism, hope, and a certain youthful tenderness, but a desire too, to become noble like Kambei and skilled like Kyuzo. Kyuzo’s persona is about discipline-discipline of emotions (although he laughs with the others) the discipline of his mastery of the sword, and although he is a person “damped-down” by his own restrictions, he is also alive with intelligence, observation, and the faith in his way of living to a code of honor. Gorobei, to me, has one of the most agreeable faces! His smile makes me happy, (How strange Kurosawa took a dislike to the actor playing this role-Inaba evidently was singled out for abuse) and trust, immediately, that he is a man of his word and will faithfully execute whatever Kambei asks, and that he is a deep enough person to see that Kambei is remarkable man with an outstanding character. Also, we watch Gorobei stop to smile over children playing. He’s a good guy!

    Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato-who I am used to seeing as a bad guy in a lot of movies!) is Kambei’s trusted right-hand man. The respect each has for one another is unquestioned. They need little dialogue with one another, and know each other’s minds.

    These are delicate distinctions in character, and I am actually surprised how little dialogue is required to flesh out these individuals in a convincing way. It is like “animal knowledge” rather than intelligent discourse. Actually, when Kurosawa refers to cinematic beauty I think that part of what he is referring to is the ability of images to tell a story without words (or with very few).

    Joan Mellon talks extensively and lovingly about the friendships that form a core of what those who admire the film love about it. ” It is a version of love at first sight. Gorobei and Kambei will remain inseparable as long as both are alive in this paean to male friendship. ‘Oh, Gorobei, Gorobei, Gorobei, Gorobei,’ Kambei cries when he sees that his friend has been shot. It is Kambei’s moment of deepest pain in the film.”

    And, finally, I want to say, Rikichi strikes the true note of loss-and he is the reason for the film-he is the concentrated pain of all the farmers have lost over many raids. When Heihachi tries to befriend him at night by the watch-post, there is the tenderest scene illustrative of how difficult men find it to admit pain and loss…!

    It’s like flogging a dead horse to belabor the point, Vili, so I will only say that greater minds than mine have admired the development of distinct characters in Seven Samurai. I will only give a few links then shut up.

    “…has never been surpassed in terms of sheer power of emotion, kinetic energy, and dynamic character development.”: http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Samurai-Criterion-Collection-Spine/dp/0780020685

    “…are brought to life for the spectator through the dynamic and highly charged emotional conflicts of individual characters in the film.” : http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/00/9/seven.html

    “…performance styles from mute-stylized (Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyuzo the swordsman) to operatically intense (Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo)”: http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/17/10_samurai.html

    “This three-hour ride—featuring legendary actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura—seamlessly weaves philosophy and entertainment, delicate human emotions and relentless action into a rich, evocative, and unforgettable tale of courage and hope”:

    http://www.criterion.com/films/165

    “…each with distinctive skills and personality traits.”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Samurai

    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20010819/REVIEWS08/401010356/1023

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    Vili Maunula

    Perhaps it’s a matter of terminology, Coco. I don’t disagree with your views of what the characters stand for, but for me something like the fact that Kambei “is wise, solid, noble, intelligent, compassionate and a great leader” does not make him an interesting, fully developed individual, but rather a very common stock character. If we went to a children’s playground and observed a role play of “cowboys and indians” (or its modern, politically correct equivalent), I am pretty sure that we would be able to spot a Kambei right there.

    So, what I meant earlier is that the characters in Seven Samurai are not very complex, that’s all. And while they have personalities, they are quite simplistic and one-dimensional.

    Note, however, that I am neither suggesting that it would (or for that matter should) really be the film’s intention to make its protagonists more than stock characters. The focus, as far as I can see, is elsewhere, as it tends to be in action-oriented films. Or, that at least is my take on things.

    I am also quite aware that there are plenty of people pouring praise on Seven Samurai, including on its characters. To be honest, I suspect that in the majority of the cases, this is due to the type of “fandom” that you mentioned regarding Mifune. And I see no problem there (except perhaps a slight lack of objectivity). I’m just trying to explain things from my perspective, which is that of a huge admirer of Kurosawa’s works who just cannot quite get his head around Seven Samurai.

    It may not make me the most popular boy in the playground, but here I stand, dammit. 🙂

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    cocoskyavitch

    You’re the most popular kid on this playground, Vili– and, that’s the advantage of building your own playground! Cool profile pic!

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks, Coco! You don’t know the trouble I went through yesterday to get that shot. Let me just say that our cats were absolutely fascinated by the flash light, funny camera noises and the little wrist loop that’s attached to the camera…. The first half a dozen tries ended up with one or two out-of-focus cats peeking in.

    Anyway, I consider it a worthy successor to my earlier “boy band” profile picture. And as you can see, I’m seriously in love with myself. 😉

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    cocoskyavitch

    You are hilarious! I don’t know what’s funnier…your comment about the “boy band” pic, the idea of kitty cats looking into the camera or you saying you are in love with yourself. I think the pic is awesome.

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    Jeremy

    Never mind, wrong thread.

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    cocoskyavitch

    This morning I was sure I had it-why, for goodness’ sake-sometimes I am as dense as dirt! Vili is not digging the synoptic character development.

    If you like synoptic character development you think it is economical and fitting-in short-perfect for the film.

    If you don’t like it you think it is lacking-and, because synoptic characterization works so well in action films-it’s been recycled so many times it has become a cliche. I get that!

    Or, I though I did. Until I thought about Yojimbo and Sanjuro. In the former, the character played by Mifune is intentionally a bit of a cypher.

    I am wondering if whittling down a character to the minimal essential is what Kurosawa was about?

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    lawless

    It seems like this thread has devolved into a repeat of the discussion over at “Is Seven SamuraiKurosawa’s Citizen Kane, which I just joined with a resounding “no”!

    Cocoskyavitch has given some of my reasons for saying no. With regard to the bandits, though, let me say that exploring their characteristics as individuals was not one of the film’s objectives. They are the ‘other’, the enemy, and other than the implied connection between them and the samurai (they wear samurai clothing, it’s obvious that some of them, likely started out as ronin; in fact, they may be the most egalitarian group of all, as they could be comprised of starving farmers who have become itinerant and ronin, and some of what they do – rape, pillage, loot – is what Kikuchiyo accuses samurai as a class of doing), they are not individualized.

    In addition to existing as ‘the enemy’, the focus of the fight, they also exist as a social class/group to be contrasted and included with the others. See discussion above about the social class from which they come. In this regard they are more predatory and opportunistic than either farmers, who kill and loot defeated samuari, much to the samurai’s consternation, or the samurai, who as a class hunt, kill, pillage, and rape farm communities.

    Kurosawa was famously anti-yakuza. He thought them not worth glamorizing and worked hard to de-mythologize them. He may have had the same impulse here. He saw nothing heroic about the bandit’s predation and exploitation of the farmers.

    Once you get used to Mifune’s performance as Kikuchiyo, it’s not jarring anymore. In fact I enjoy it. Not only is he funny, the overdramatics serve a purpose – first, to underline the difference in class, as no samurai would act like this; and second, the underline his liveliness, humanity, and reckless impulsivity, which the samurai have been trained to discipline and deny. He overacts to prove a point, such as when he sounds the alarm when they first reach the village and he makes the point that they are relying on the samurai they shunned when they first arrived. In the end, Kikuchiyo redeems himself for all his foolishness by killing the last bandit and in turn being killed.

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    Greasy Rat

    ” They are the ‘other’, the enemy, and other than the implied connection between them and the samurai (they wear samurai clothing, it’s obvious that some of them, likely started out as ronin; in fact, they may be the most egalitarian group of all, as they could be comprised of starving farmers who have become itinerant and ronin, and some of what they do – rape, pillage, loot – is what Kikuchiyo accuses samurai as a class of doing), they are not individualized.

    Once you get used to Mifune’s performance as Kikuchiyo, it’s not jarring anymore. In fact I enjoy it. Not only is he funny, the overdramatics serve a purpose – first, to underline the difference in class, as no samurai would act like this; and second, the underline his liveliness, humanity, and reckless impulsivity, which the samurai have been trained to discipline and deny. He overacts to prove a point, such as when he sounds the alarm when they first reach the village and he makes the point that they are relying on the samurai they shunned when they first arrived. In the end, Kikuchiyo redeems himself for all his foolishness by killing the last bandit and in turn being killed.”

    Exactly! Thank you! I also think he’s actually a very rounded character, but that’s just my opinion. Sure, he’s broad and over the top, but so full of so much raw passion and earnestness that for me he’s impossible not to like.

    I actually think that characterising the bandits, or at least their leader, is what The Magnificent Seven did better. When Kikuchiyo goes and talks to a bandit, the bandit does indeed say that they are hungrier than the farmers. While it does blur the lines between the farmers, the bandits and the samurai all fighting for survival, and somewhat that Kikuchiyo turns out to be one, dresses like the other and pretends to be the third, only touches upon the subject before Kikuchiyo goes in for the attack.
    Chico doesn’t do such a thing in The Magnificent Seven. When he infiltrates Calvera’s camp, he sees the bandits talking among themselves and the film allows us to realize their situation. They are starving and destitute and have nowhere to turn, and Calvera is the one responsible for taking care of them, which actually brings them a bit of humanity. When Chico arrives on the scene, the bandits are talking about the losses they suffered in the first gunfight, and Calvera tells them sharply to forget about them, possibly, just maybe because he feels the losses too and doesn’t want to set a bad example to his men by showing grief or pity. He wants to focus on the future of the men who are still alive.
    Eli Wallach’s brilliant performance as Calvera also helps a lot. He appears in only a few scenes but he makes such an impression. His character is also more definite. He’s smug, he’s pompous, he’s overconfident, he’s friendly to his enemies, and yet he’s desperate to make a living, which is what Wallach saw when playing him. We enjoy him as he interacts with the farmers and with the gunmen and when he dies (which I noticed was a role reversal of the bandit leader shooting Kikuchiyo), I personally actually feel a little bad for him. We get to see the shock and confusion on his face as Chris shoots him. It’s those little things in Wallach’s performance and in the screenplay that give Calvera just that bit more character.

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    Greasy Rat

    When I first saw Shichiroji and Gorobei, I just considered them pieces of scenery, and to an extent I was right. They hung around in the background and didn’t do much. But watching it the second time around I picked up a couple more things about Shichiroji that I missed: his compulsive survival instinct, such as the last time he survived a battle, when he was hiding in a ditch as a castle collapsed, and that one instance where he flew off the handle when Kikuchiyo discovered the armor that the farmers have been hiding away. As for Gorobei, there still isn’t much to him, even though he does have a nice face and at one point he competes with Shichiroji’s faction for the loudest war cry which was cool.

    I personally also see Kikuchiyo as ambitious and altruistic, and he uses that to hide the pain and suffering he had to endure growing up an orphaned farmer’s son.
    I’ll make this point: his scenes are all great but they go by so quickly.

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    Greasy Rat

    Oh, and furthermore, cocoskyavictch made a very good point about Toshiro’s acting talent in Rashomon: “In Rashomon (I didn’t know he was the same guy) he was handsome and sexy (to me) in the dozing-against-the-tree-panther-tiger-lion way, but so repellent in the confrontation-with-the-samurai scenes”. You’re not alone in that view.

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