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The Seven Samurai

I naturally resist attending films I know are good for me. I hate being told that I need to see, say, the work of a Godard or Kaurismäki. Knowing that some unwashed film student type will think less of me in part explains my consistent attendance at Wayans Brothers films. This is why I’m wary of telling anyone they have to see Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.

Why on earth should you have to see it (or anything for that matter)? Why should you sit through over 200 minutes of Japanese men fighting in the mud? Why should you have to suffer through the subtitles and the slow pacing and the often laughably melodramatic acting? Because it’s important. Is that enough?

The Seven Samurai is almost universally agreed to be the father of the action flick. It inspired not only John Sturges’ 1960 western The Magnificent Seven but Star Wars as well. Critics speculate that it established the trope of seeing a hero in action before he or she is assigned the plot’s central task. More important still, the cinematic effects employed by Kurasawa would ultimately influence anyone who has ever subsequently filmed an action scene. The long panning single shots he employs in his battle sequences and the use of slow motion and embedded cameras allow The Seven Samurai to transcend its age.

But still. Unless you’re a student of film history, what on earth do you care if it was the first or the 23rd to do any of that? Why not see Superman instead? The effects in Bryan Singer’s superhero epic reflect moden technology’s increasing proximity to the realm of eerie magic. Isn’t saying you want to see the film that started it all a bit like dating a Homo erectus for insight into human psychology?

In a way, yes. Nonetheless, there are two reasons to head to Cinematheque Ontario’s screening of The Seven Samurai tonight. First, because, Kurosawa’s script is an interesting piece of social critique, and second, because, despite the film’s age, its best shots are still more arresting than even the slickest CGI.

If you think you’re going to see a rip-roaring action flick of the Sly and Arnie variety, think again. Just because it’s the father of action films, doesn’t mean it has to be vapid. Kurosawa made Samurai because he wanted to make a movie about Japan’s past and one that called for a new humanistic approach to its future. The film’s plot is simple: a small village impoverished by banditry hires a team of freelance samuraito protect them. The villagers have nothing to offer but rice, but the samurai, lead by the simultaneously childlike and stoic Takashi Shimura, agree nonetheless. On the surface, this might seem a rather plain premise, but in the Edo period, where the film is set, farmers and samurai were never permitted to rub shoulders. They belonged to different castes. Suddenly, in Kurosawa’s re-imagining of history, class boundaries fall away in the face of necessity and a shared brotherhood. The town, which has traditionally feared and despised samurai, must open itself to the warriors; in turn, the samurai must learn to pity and protect the lowly farmers. Kurosawa uses sub-plots to bend social lines even further: an uneducated, unrefined buffoon of a farmer’s son (played by Tishiro Mifune) rises to the level of samurai; meanwhile, a samurai and a farmer’s daughter meet and fall in love, ultimately earning the community’s reluctant approval. Watching The Seven Samurai, it’s easy to see the director’s fascination with Shakespeare shining through.

If you’re willing to look this film in the eye (acknowledging its length and pacing and age for what they are), then there’s a great deal of value here. Far be it for me to tell you what to see, but this is a film that has insisted on its place in cinematic history. And one that demands viewing.

The Seven Samurai screens at the Cinematheque Ontario tonight.

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