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Seven Samurai: Great Art vs. Great Discussions

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    Great Art vs. Great Discussions

    In either the Lord of the Rings or in the Hobbit (or both-I’ve read them so often, for so many years, that I’ve forgotten where the following lives) Tolkien says that difficult times make for great stories, but that pleasant times go by so quickly, and there is often very little to say.

    It may be that Tolkien is revealing a dynamic at work that has relevance to a discussion of art. Perhaps very good works of art have so few flaws that there isn’t a toe hold for the rock climber/critic…that it is truly an uphill battle to find a chink, and that artificially-created chinks (real rock climbers do this all the time, and I would argue so do critics) …well, just feel artificial. (I think of this in relation to Michelangelo’s famous fresco portraying the Creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel ceiling. A doctor sees the penumbra surrounding God as reminiscent of a brain, and says that Michelangelo is symbolizing the brain as creator. It’s not quite as outrageous as Dan Brown trying to convince us that one of the figures in Leonardo’s Last Supper is Mary…I confess I always wonder why people don’t find it odd that one of the apostles would just conveniently NOT BE AT THE LAST SUPPER…which one skipped out? …and what, he had a dentist appointment? What is the reason for the absence? Seems like a theory that is stupid beyond comprehension…for me, anyway). But, sometimes, careful analysis can reveal hidden motives, meanings, or define the aesthetic experience in a newly articulate way. There is some delight in climbing the wall, and finding toe holds-especially those overlooked by others, or in pointing out good, supporting hand-holds to one’s friends. That can be delightful, and can give one the feeling or really “getting somewhere”.

    We know that Kurosawa himself batted us away from theory like flies from honey. He seemed to think most theories about his films were wrong. When interviewed, he talked anecdotally about making films, but even then, was less articulate about what it is to create than others (many of whom are not quite as wonderful as creators). He had no acolytes or students to speak of. In that, he is not unlike Michelangelo. However, artists copied Michelangelo…and in that way he had students. In that way, then, Kurosawa was a teacher…the American film The Magnificent Seven is a kind of homage to Kurosawa’s genius…and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns owe an unpayable debt to Kurosawa, too, (as we all know so well, to the point of nausea).

    And yet, many of Kurosawa’s films are created with internal conflicts and struggle (not unlike most of our own lives, perhaps) and this dynamic creates fascinating opportunities for discussion and analysis, not to mention empathy and emotional engagement. If Seven Samurai is a film with its internal bits in accord with one another, then there is little to speak of except to admire the harmonious execution of the film…and, while I am open to the possibility of someone thinking the film crap or boring (remember, all my friends have had their patience tried by my trying to make them watch Kurosawa) I would stand with those who think that Seven Samurai is a masterpiece.

    So, the next question becomes, What is a masterpiece? I’m sorry to see that Clark’s book on that topic is out of print and only available used, because, slim volume though it is, it does broach that difficult subject: “What is a Masterpiece?” and gives some direction toward answers.

    Sir Kenneth Clark (deceased, but once a towering figure in art-Director of London’s National Gallery, and author of the seminal Public Television series “Civilisation” and of a book by the same name) was an erudite, thoughtful man conversant with a wide range of visual art. In his book he gives us some criteria with which we may begin to evaluate art. Most importantly, he describes a masterpiece as a title awarded over time by a consensus. It’s not a single opinion-it’s a time-tested collection of opinions. Excellent point!

    And, how to tell if something has masterpiece quality? Well, masterpieces seem to share some common traits:

    One of my favorites listed by Sir Kenneth Clark is that a masterpiece is a “confluence of memories and emotions forming a single idea”. That, in a nutshell, describes the “coming together” or “harmonious” relationships in the masterpiece of layered meanings and emotions, taken from both the artist’s own experience and times, and relevant to those of his viewers and appreciators.

    Another criterion revealed in Clark’s book is: a masterpiece can be the sum total of all the skill of an artist in one work. Here’s where the technical lives. Vili said:

    “…In fact, on the contrary many of these technical innovations, including the use of slow motion or many of the camera angles and movements, end up distracting me quite considerably.”

    I dare say that once the shots have been pointed out to you, they do figure prominently. But, on a good day, when you can revisit the film as if seeing it for the first time, without being “talked to” in your head by all the criticism you’ve read about the film, you just simply fall into the movement of the story, and camera angles, slow motion, multiple cameras…it all is seamlessly forwarding the story. It is a film I have watched many times-and to be perfectly honest-it took many viewings until I COULD pay attention to the technical details. I kept forgetting to be aware, and kept falling into the spell of the film, engaging in it, delighting in it, feeling it.

    I believe, that, following Kenneth Clark’s definition of masterpiece, that Seven Samurai has been admired by a couple of generations, already, and although cinema is a young art, it has been admired and called a “masterpiece” by a consensus over time. On the two criteria listed-the confluence and sum total of skill- the work succeeds brilliantly.



    Oh, and one thing that loops the conversation back to Jeremy’s salient point about the film being about great good men-

    Sir Kenneth Clark, in his book, “What is a Masterpiece?” states that, because the masterwork shows us what it is to be human through making an individual experience so tangible it becomes universal, and because it does it with such skill that it raises our hopes about what it is to be human-the masterwork restores our confidence in, and respect for humanity.

    In other words, what a masterwork does is what we SEE happen in Katsushiro’s eyes brimming with respect and admiration for Kyuzo as he returns with the gun he scores off the bad guys through his comsummate skill-Kyuzo’s example has raised the spirit of Katsushiro. That’s what good art does, too!



    Coco: It’s not quite as outrageous as Dan Brown trying to convince us that one of the figures in Leonardo’s Last Supper is Mary…I confess I always wonder why people don’t find it odd that one of the apostles would just conveniently NOT BE AT THE LAST SUPPER…which one skipped out?

    I think that the argument there is that Mary was one of the apostles, a view somewhat common with those who take take their Christianity from the Gospel of Mary. I also remember some talk about a strange disconnected hand which holds a knife, seemingly belonging to no one present at the table.

    Anyway, I read about these things before the Dan Brown book, and having not read Brown’s work I have no idea exactly how he has employed the old conspiracy theories. I’m afraid I’m a snob big enough to practically ignore the book and tell people to read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum instead. 😉

    Coco: We know that Kurosawa himself batted us away from theory like flies from honey. He seemed to think most theories about his films were wrong. When interviewed, he talked anecdotally about making films, but even then, was less articulate about what it is to create than others (many of whom are not quite as wonderful as creators).

    While I think you are right about the fact that Kurosawa didn’t really discuss his films, and often noted his disagreement with the type of theorizing that was applied to his films, I don’t remember him ever actually telling us not to theorize.

    Over and over again in his interviews, when asked about his methods or messages in film making, Kurosawa makes the point that underneath it all he doesn’t really consciously know what he is doing, or what he is aiming at (see for example Cardullo, 174). Indeed, if he had an actual statement to force upon his audience, he “could do so in words, and it would be much cheaper and quicker to paint those words on a sign and carry it around for all to see” (in Cardullo, 185).

    Kurosawa also often noted, especially so towards the end of his career, that forcing a message on his audiences like that would be counter productive, as the audiences are too intelligent not to react negatively about such preaching. Similarly, a film at least for the older Kurosawa could not change the world through this type of direct statements (see Cardullo, 140; Cardullo, 174).

    But this is not the same as saying that he doesn’t have something to say. Instead, at least I interpret his comments as suggesting that there is something that he wants to say, but there is no way he knows of really verbalising it. Therefore, he needs to show it. And that is the fuel feeding the process of his film making.

    And if there is a message (or messages), I doubt Kurosawa would be against us discussing them, theorizing about them. If it was difficult for him to get across what he meant to say, it is understandable if it is no less difficult for us to decipher what the possible meaning(s) of a given work could be.

    In fact, although Kurosawa was not very fond of theorizing critics, I feel that his dislike of them was not so much the result of the act of theorizing itself, but rather because of the way he viewed it was usually done. In another interview printed in Cardullo, Kurosawa critisizes Japanese critics not only for being too full of themselves in their jargon and ego-boosting reasons behind their criticism, but more crucially also for being too lazy and seeing the films too simplistically, i.e. not theorizing enough (!): “I have felt that my works are more nuanced and complex, and the critics — especially the Japanese ones — have analyzed them too simplistically.” (142)

    Therefore, while I obviously cannot speak for Kurosawa himself, I think that the notion that he wouldn’t want us to think about and discuss his films, seems fairly absurd.


    Vili: In fact, on the contrary many of these technical innovations, including the use of slow motion or many of the camera angles and movements, end up distracting me quite considerably.

    I dare say that once the shots have been pointed out to you, they do figure prominently. But, on a good day, when you can revisit the film as if seeing it for the first time, without being “talked to” in your head by all the criticism you’ve read about the film, you just simply fall into the movement of the story, and camera angles, slow motion, multiple cameras…it all is seamlessly forwarding the story.

    Actually, while there may be a bit of that as well, what I rather meant was that many of the camera movements obscure the action, make it more difficult to follow, while the pacing is uneven, the rhythm seems broken, and in general I just feel uncomfortable with the flow of the film.

    This has kept me thinking, and there are a few more thoughts that I may offer about the matter in a later post, once I sort out those thoughts and see whether there is anything to be gained from them.



    My prejudice shows: I believe there is such a thing as cinematic beauty (Kurosawa’s lovely phrase) and visual meaning (Gombrich’s brilliant phrase) and that really great films do have meaning-it is just that, mostly, language is a blunt instrument for translation. The whole “a picture is worth a thousand words” thing. Ya know?

    I’m thinking the whole “paint it on a sign” story is Kurosawa’s rephrasing (maybe rediscovering) the “if you could say it you wouldn’t have to paint it” thing.

    Burroughs talks about the fascism of language…you drive past a “McDonald’s” and the word is formed in your head…there is a different world-one that is connected to visual meaning in a visceral way.



    Oh, I believe in cinematic beauty too, and I totally believe that art has the ability to express something that words cannot. For one, our mental concepts, composed of neural connections, do not perfectly match the vocabulary that we have at our disposal, and although we can usually vocalise a perfectly functional approximation of what we meant to express, it is not always quite as easy. Secondly, it is often much easier and more straightforward to show than explain.

    But I still insist that we shouldn’t stop trying to talk about art.

    You see, I consider art criticism to have at least two major functions. One is the “advertising” function, in which we go around pointing at works and artists and saying “look, that’s a really interesting thing, take a look”. Without this “recommendation service”, we would be left having to discover everything by ourselves.

    The other function is to point at things within a single work and say “look, that’s a really interesting thing, take a look”. And also, “look, this is how I see this, how do you see it?” Here, we help one another by offering observations and points of view that the others might not have considered.

    As I keep saying, I don’t think that a single work of art has a single valid interpretation. (This doesn’t mean that I would think all interpretations to be valid.) Yet, even if we were interested in just one view, for example that of the artist, I feel that some discussion of the work would be needed. While our words can still only be approximations that perhaps cannot quite express an artist’s intentions even if we somehow “figured out” what she meant, we can still talk about how we see it, and by doing that help each other in this quest.

    Maybe it’s helpful to think of it this way — when writing about art we are not actually taking the reader to the Knowledge. Instead, we are rather just giving directions: “if you take a left after that tree, walk about ten minutes down into that valley and you’ll come to a stream, then follow that downstream for a while, and there it is, as I see it, behind a huge rock”.

    Ultimately, as I see it, theorizing about art is an exercise in widening your world view, a chance to learn something new, and an opportunity to reconsider the world and your place in it.



    I’m just the devil’s advocate for visual meaning, Vili.

    There is tremendous value in discussion! Heck. That’s why I am here. Opposing views can illuminate assumptions, prejudices, blind spots, obscured truths…absolutely!

    I’m just kinda circling back to the idea that great discussions and great art are not necessarily the same thing. And, that great art need not be the source of great discussion! It’s allright to stand in awe of Michelangelo’s Moses and just soak in the energy and vibe of the “thingness of the thing”.

    This is related to your thinking that because you’ve not read great discussions of Seven Samurai, it is, perhaps, not a great film. It is important to note that this is not a cause and effect relationship. If you don’t like Seven Samurai, fine. You don’t “get it”-and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way-you are entitled to your opinion. I mean you are not receiving the aesthetic pleasure and meaning that others do on a non-verbal basis. Without ever discussing the film, I still love it. For me, there is a very beautiful, pleasing structure to the film as a whole, a delight in the individual characters, pleasure in the beauty of the cinematography, satisfaction in the use of unconventional and new techniques such as slow motion and multiple cameras (the tools suit the expression).

    I just wanted to separate the “discussability” v.s. “aesthetic pleasure” issue.

    Yeah, Mary as an apostle. Dan Brown’s writings are a great example of the ability of second-rate garbage to stimulate heated discussion. Probably my favorite part of Angels and Demons is the chapter where the art historian leaps from a helicopter, uses his jacket as a parachute, and lands in the Tevere. I think it would be even better if there were dinosaurs on the Isola Tiberina!



    Here’s an anecdote I will call “Great Art, Great Discussion and Totally Missing the Point”: Sarkis Sarkisian was an Armenian emigrant to Detroit from Smyrna, Turkey. In my art school the following story iused to be told about Sarkisian as a teacher at the top of his game:

    Everyone knew that Sarkisian had a discriminating eye and that he pulled no punches. If a painting was off, he told the student to trash the canvas and try again. Praise was rare, and when it came, you knew you had achieved something. Needless to say, as Sarkisian passed by your canvas, you felt his eyes on every brushstroke-it was nerve-wracking to wait for his pronouncement, then difficult to decode! Sarkisian’s accent was very heavy, and his message was usually even heavier! Some kids would start to tremble when he approached.

    One kid is painting away, thinking he might actually be accomplishing something, when he feels Sarkisian’s eyes on his painting. He freezes, and waits for the words. Sarkisian mutters one syllable and moves on. The kid thinks, “Ohmigosh, Sarkisian said, “s’GREAT!” Wow. He likes it! Amazing!” As Sarkisian moves off, he whispers the good news to his friend. The kid, now, is paralyzed by praise, He can’t paint a dot more…just feigns work until Sarkisian will pass by again…and, perhaps elaborate on the praise. The kid is on cloud 9. Time goes by in the classroom, then…

    The kid suddenly feels Sarkisians’ eyes on his back-but instead of approval he feels anger. There is a long moment then,

    Sarkisian says, “What the hell you doing? I told you…SCRAPE, SCRAPE!”

    Allright, silly story. I think the professors used it to compare themselves to Sarkisian-they were so much gentler than he.

    There is a point under all this,though-and that’s that someone truly experienced in seeing, may be able to see things completely invisible to someone inexperienced. Just as a writer can see lack of form, cliches, errors, faults in logic, grammatical mistakes, etc., I think that an experienced visual artist sees more and understands more visually than others. I think Kurosawa really did see more in film than I do-so I usually feel I am being “schooled” by him-but in the most delightful, most entertaining way! I trust his vision, and believe that he used techniques judiciously. And, here’s an odd one; THE ONLY “BAD” SHOT I HAVE EVER SEEN IN A KUROSAWA FILM IS IN The Idiot– there is that early scene with the horse that comes at the camera then the camera follows it as it moves away-only gratuitous pan I have seen that shocks me out of the film! And, I am so in awe of Kurosawa, I distrust my own judgement-it may actually serve to illuminate the mental state of the protagonist. I’m just not sure. I’m not able to say “SCRAPE” or S’GREAT” with any conviction.



    I didn’t mean to suggest that we must discuss art, just that we can if we so feel. Neither did I want to imply that great art needs great discussion, or that great discussion needs great art. I have nothing against just watching or listening or touching and just soaking it in — or indeed basing great discussions on the kind of weather we’ve been having lately.

    Until, of course, I don’t understand something. And when I don’t understand something I’m going to ask about it. I still don’t want to force anyone to stop soaking, but if someone has the time and the insight to help me, I will of course much appreciate it.

    Note also that my view of Seven Samurai possibly not being a great film is not primarily because I have not read great discussions about it. It’s rather because of me not being able to see its greatness, and then not having really yet heard a single (for me) plausible argument for it from others. I’m going to keep calling the emperor naked until someone can at least describe me what the clothes look like.

    Not that it is your duty to do so, of course.

    Neither does it mean that it cannot be great art to you. There are a great many things in this world that I don’t appreciate, but which I know others love and praise, and I don’t despise the others for that, or think ill of their judgement.

    If anything, I just feel a bit left out.




    “If anything, I just feel a bit left out.”

    Yep, I get that.

    But that’s how it works, Vili when you are not receiving aesthetic pleasure. It’s like the kid who couldn’t see what Sarkisian saw in his work. I well remember being absolutely dumbfounded in class when my professor would talk about things that I simply could not see. It was like they were talking another language. I was so incredibly at a loss to see what they were talking about. And, it was humiliating and frustrating. I really wanted to know, to understand.

    I am ashamed to say that I did not understand Max Beckmann’s work. It seemed particularly crappy to me, and not worth all the coffee-table volumes printed about it. For some strange reason, though, I decided I had better get up to speed, rather than dismiss it out of hand. I looked at it carefully. Like, really, really carefully. I read everything I could, learned about his career arc, his development, and analyzed individual works a long, long time, and let the images bump about in my head. And who knows when it happened? Beckmann became my close aesthetic advisor. Just one day I suddenly “got it” and it made sense-not in a logical way-but in a visceral way. The resistance somehow evaporated. Yeah, I completely believe it can work like that.

    As in my experience with Beckmann, you have some sense of the film being “overrated”. Forget all that. Ranking is mostly idiocy anyway. Look to your own responses.

    For me, as I sit here typing, I am drawing into that space behind my eyes the memory of the intermission, the music, and then, the second half of the film returning, the low shots looking up into Mifune’s face against the sky as he sees the women in the fields, and the cheerful, rhythmic harvesting music. I get a flash of Yohei’s slow grimace/smile. It seems very beautiful to me. It seems like the memory of friends.

    Listen, Vili, did you ever really look at Facebook,or listen to someone’s telephone conversation? Our lives are made up of mundane little interactions, really nothing at all in themselves. Ozu knew this. These small things resonate like canon booms in our souls when Ozu films them. When Kurosawa films them, it is the cumulative effect that ends up making me feel intimately involved with each of the characters. Small things become treasured memories, and for me, reveal character.

    An example of a small thing: when Kyuzo leaps up to practice his skills in the rain, I think he is, in part, getting away from Kikuchiyo’s bitching about wanting a woman. It’s annoying, and he probably also feels the same way, now that Kikuchiyo has brought it to everyone’s consciousness, but he doesn’t want to sit around lusting for a woman. Is he also following Katsushiro? It doesn’t seem like it, but there is that possibility…these small musings are the kinds we have about friends.

    I often think about Rikichi’s spitting out his anger at Manzo at the stream in the early part of the film. The closeup of the spittle on his lip-the light. For me, in that brief moment, I feel very intimately involved in what is happening. It is uncomfortable, this anger and discord between friends. Their situation is dire-I feel concern for them. And, right now, behind my eyes is the face of Rikichi up close. It means something to me, Vili.

    You’re brilliant…really brilliant and cool, Vili. You have your own responses, and they are yours. It’s allright to disagree on the value of this film! If you dislike it, that’s cool. If you rank it differently than others, that’s cool. But, if you really don’t “get it”, you need to look again, and again, and again over time until you see. And, if you really don’t “get it” admitting to that is very cool, too. I am so proud of myself for digging deep into Beckmann. It has proven to be one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made!



    Yeah, I think that you may well be right, Coco. In the history of cinema, Seven Samurai stands so large that its shadow may be what bothers me the most. Certainly, my posts this month have been largely directed at the question why this is supposed to be Kurosawa’s finest film.

    Oh, and I also want to say that I may have been quite critical of just about everyone’s views on the film, but those posts have by no means been meant as direct personal attacks on anyone. I’ve just been trying to understand the movie, and push your (and Jeremy’s) buttons to see if I can get something more out of the movie through your responses. It’s quite selfish of me, I know. 🙄

    And/or maybe it’s just that I’m not in the right frame of mind these days to appreciate films like Seven Samurai and Sansho the Bailiff. Both are supposedly masterpieces, yet neither has quite registered very high on my scale of film appreciation in the past couple of months.

    I would even say that I may be trying to approach films too logically these days, but then again I absolutely loved the Apu Trilogy, which I couldn’t say was the kind of a film that I would call thought provoking. It was just… well, stunningly beautiful.

    Ah, Beckmann… I don’t think that I say this often enough, but I do check all the names that you drop, Coco, and I have learnt a lot from checking them out. Beckmann, for example, is someone I couldn’t recognize by name, but once I googled him I did recognize some of his works. I don’t have much of an understanding of painting, but his style is something that fascinates me.

    What you went through with Beckmann, also I have done with a few artists, as well as other things. My longest battle was probably with David Bowie — it took me five or six years of repeated attempts to get into his music, until one day it all clicked! Maybe it’ll one day happen also with Seven Samurai? It’s now something like 15 years since I first saw the movie…

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