Original release: April 26th, 1954
Running time: 207 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, Keiko Tsushima
The phrase “class warfare” has become increasingly audible in the public discourse of recent years. Around the same time the world became widely aware of the global (western) financial crisis, Barack Obama was elected President of the US and we got David Cameron on this side of the pond. Since then, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, ‘class’ has become a contentious subject. Both sides of the political spectrum have accused the other of waging this weaponless, but potentially destructive conflict.
While this political rhetoric can sometimes be mere tactic to slander the other side, class is as real as it can be especially to people in the lower segments of social hierarchy struggling to make their way up – and struggling only to survive at times. Thomas Jefferson agreed and so does Warren Buffett.
Perhaps mainly because of the times we live in and the public rhetoric that my political junkie self has been listening to, class was all I could think of when watching Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai recently. Widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, introducing several plot points that subsequently became uniform in the action cinema of the future, it needs very little introduction, if any.
Taking place at a time of hardship where even the elite are beginning to feel the effects of what seems to be a ‘feudal recession’, the center of the story is a small farming village under imminent threat of a marauding gang of looters planning to attack the village after harvest. In their desperation, the farmers turn to the elite samurai for help – an unusual and almost inconceivable move that’s made possible by the fact the samurai too are going through a difficult time.
Seven Samurai is essentially the story of two classes – who would not have to interact in this manner under normal circumstances – gradually learning to understand one another and gaining the ability to cooperate for a common goal.
When we look at Kurosawa’s film from the perspective of class, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a key character exemplifying the missing link between samurai and farmers. There’s much distrust between the two groups as they attempt to form an alliance and would-be samurai Kikuchiyo, who secretly has an ancestry of farmers, puts both sides in their places with his temperamental, larger-than-life personality. He’s accepted as one of the elite, but vehemently defends the farmers when they’re found to have attacked, killed and robbed stray samurai in the past.
Kikuchiyo scorns the samurai for ignoring the circumstances of how the warrior class contributed much to the desperation and hardship the farmers have to face and effortlessly turns the samurai’s anger into shame. The elite learning to see through the eyes of the working class, and in turn seeing an unflattering image of themselves as distant and uncaring figures occasionally harassing farmers, is a key moment in establishing a connection between the two classes.
Although the connection is established successfully – the result of which is shown in the film’s memorable climax in a series of superb battle sequences with farmers and samurai beating back relentless attacks on the fortified village – Seven Samurai is nevertheless not a liberal fantasy where we all love one-another happily ever after. Almost immediately after the battle, Kurosawa shows the widening of the inevitable gap between the two groups. Takashi Shimura gives a brilliantly subtle performance as the wise leader of the samurai Kambei Shimada, who displays an element of bitterness in the aftermath of the showdown. Looking at the farmers going back to their everyday lives and the graves of his fallen comrades, he says:
There are many good reasons to see Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai if you haven’t yet; it’s the first epic story of the gathering of heroes and warriors to overcome a grave enemy that’s become a recurring cinematic theme, which we most recently saw in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012). Superb cinematography combined with engaging story and characters with the added bonus of hilarious comic sequences all make it the classic it’s become.
However, what I took away from the film, watching it now in the second decade of the third millennium, was the story of different classes learning to work together and understand each other when times are hard. I would love to see something similar materialising in today’s reality – the elite of today still seem to hold on to the prejudice that working people are useless freeloaders, evidence of which was recently leaked in a secretly recorded video of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressing his views about 47% of his country at a private fundraiser.
Prejudiced views are plenty on the other side as well, the elite having an image of people who don’t know much about real work merely rigging the system against the working class; a widely accepted view based on small snippets of information. Perhaps, this would be a good time for everyone to watch Seven Samurai.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.