Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What Do You Do With a Drunken Samurai?

Last night I had a chance to see a 35mm print of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai shown on campus. It was the third or fourth time I've seen it in thirty-odd years, and it was a good time to see it because of the thinking I've been doing about violence in films and fanboys' celebration of it.

Seven Samurai was originally released in 1954, and it quickly became a classic. Kurosawa wanted to flesh out the samurai genre, which was already a standard of Japanese cinema, as martial arts was in China and the Western and crime film were in Hollywood. It's the story of a small village, ravaged by bandits in the late 1500s, whose people decide to hire samurai to defend them. Seven are willing to take on the job, a motley crew like the ensemble in a World War II picture: they range from the grizzled veteran and the hero-worshiping young novice to the drunken clown (played by Toshiro Mifune with enough mascara at times to double for Joan Crawford). The samurai organize the villagers and lead the defense, killing off all forty of the bandits and suffering some losses themselves. The survivors go on.

The finished product is 207 minutes long, almost three and a half hours, and it moves along steadily, expertly, at times creakily. Some of the plot devices, like a doomed romance between the youngest samurai and a village maiden, are just too obvious, but they don't get in the way. There's always the problem, when you watch an older film, that what seems like a cliche now may not have been one when it was made. In terms of the story (as opposed to technical aspects such as cinematography), I don't think that's true of Seven Samurai, but Kurosawa -- who also cowrote the script -- and his cast handle these elements with such conviction that they mostly work. And when you consider that the film is almost sixty years old, it stands up remarkably well.

Still, watching Kurosawa's old samurai movies brings home just how much cinema has changed in the intervening decades. Audiences expect brisker (not to say manic) pacing, less character development, and more gore. Seven Samurai's characters don't really develop -- those who live to the end are pretty much the same people they were at the beginning, even the novice -- but we do learn more about them and their backgrounds; that is, we get exposition rather than development. There are no real surprises, but then surprise really isn't the goal.

I recall one geekboy who argued online that because he personally fell asleep (or claimed he did) while trying to watch Seven Samurai, it was therefore inherently a boring movie. I pointed out that very many people did not fall asleep while watching it, so he was wrong. Granted, a 207-minute-long feature is a long slog, but as many viewers and reviewers have said, Seven Samurai moves along quickly. Sitting down in the theater last night, I was a bit worried about what I'd committed myself to, especially since I'd seen it before, but the time passed easily and without boredom. I couldn't help wondering what the many younger people in the audience, who'd grown up with a whole different kind of action movie, thought about it. The showing was sold out in advance, and I had to wait to get a ticket, but the film is a known classic and I'm sure instructors had recommended it. Were the kids disappointed? I don't know.

Consider: Seven Samurai is in black and white, in the old boxy screen ratio (1.33:1.00) of the days before Cinemascope and other widescreen formats. It must have cost a lot to make because of the extensive sets, the costumes, and the large cast (a hundred or so villagers, the inhabitants of the town where the samurai are hired), plus fight choreography and fire and rain effects (the final showdown takes place in a pouring rainstorm, probably machine-made). But one special-effects expense was conspicuous by its absence, namely blood and prosthetics. There are no geysers of blood or swords stuck into eyes, no lopped-off limbs or impaled torsos. A lot of characters are despatched by sword and spear, but the effect is theatrical, stagy. There's no attempt to make the violence look "real" by today's standards (though today's screen violence is increasingly unreal). So I was surprised by this online reviewer's assessment:
The fighting is brutal and Kurosawa doesn't sugarcoat it, men really die. The battle culminates in a final skirmish in the rain, leading to a bittersweet ending that comments on the nature of conflict and the price paid by those who undertake it. There is no easy victory. The saber rattling is tone deaf.
No, men don't "really die" in this movie; at least he didn't say "literally." It's just pretend death; it's a movie, okay? (And "skirmish" is really not the right word for the battle in the rain.) Often the camera "looks" only glancingly at the fighting, and the swords and clubs flail around without seeming to connect with anyone; only the agonized (but still stylized) screaming of the wounded tells you that the weapons found their mark. Fake blood is used very sparingly, only once or twice in a very long movie. It's reminiscent of classic Hollywood Westerns, where men who've been pumped full o' lead simply contort themselves and fall, with no blood shed, let alone exit wounds. But the fighting looks messy and brutal and no fun at all, which is probably the effect Kurosawa wanted. I just think it must seem tame to contemporary audiences.

Another specifically Japanese aspect of the film is the amount of male nudity, or rather exposed male flesh. Male peasants working in the fields often wear no more than a loincloth which shows off their buttocks, and there was one closeup shot of a man's backside and thighs that I don't think lingered on his body merely incidentally. Toshiro Mifune, playing the wild samurai, shows off his body quite a bit. It's not a great physique by 1950s Hollywood standards let alone today's defined, gym-toned buffness, but it's still impressive. As the samurai are on their way to the village, Mifune strips down to what this writer calls "a g-string" to frolick in a stream and catch fish for lunch with his bare hands, while the others (fully clothed) watch from above with amusement. Later he steals some armor from the bandits, a corselet almost like a Merry Widow, that covers his torso and allows his buttocks to peek out coyly below; he spends the last half hour or so of the film in this outfit. I'd be wary of reading too much homoerotic subtext into all this, including the young novice's hungry hero worship of the older fighters, if it weren't for the fact that Japan generally, and the samurai in particular, have a long tradition of male homoeroticism and hot man to man action. It needn't take place only within a minoritizing gayish framework (though it can do so, using different terms and categories than the contemporary American ones), so it shouldn't be ruled out in Seven Samurai.

Still, the (almost entirely Western) audience last night only giggled at Mifune's nudity -- and to be fair, it is clearly supposed to be as much a comic as an erotic element, though the two don't exclude each other -- as they did at the peasants' antics, though those are also double-edged in a different way. Kurosawa's peasants aren't simple, uncomplicated bumpkins: they have a darker side that keeps them from becoming caricatures. It's one of the great strengths of the film.