Friday, 26 September 2014

An appreciation of Seven Samurai in a social context

Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece

Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954, Japan) is perhaps your typical action genre film, with elements of good guys versus evil and dramatic fight scenes. But what underlines the represented action in the film is the humanist treatment of Kurosawa's subjects. The mission that fulcrums the plot and the action scenes form the basic foundation for our entertainment, but it is Kurosawa's fascination with Japanese social problems in both a traditional and contemporary perspective that drives the narrative.

Seven Samurai is set in sixteenth century Japan; an era of civil strife, lawlessness and fueding Samurai clans. A poor farming community who are repeatedly pillaged and raided for food by a group of bandits, decide to hire a group of wandering samurai to protect themselves from another imminent attack.

Through the first 20 minutes of the film director/writer Kurosawa identifies three key distinct social groups which include the bandits, the farmers, and the samurai. He then sets out to explore the relations amongst these groups and the permeability of these class lines.

The bandits who are our first point of trajectory, as antagonists don't feature as prominantly as the remaining two (they feature at the beginning and towards the end) but it is the threat of their arrival and their past deeds that force the samurai and farmers to force an alliance.

The relationship between samurai class and the farmers however furnishes the central theme of Seven Samurai. Their relationship which is although an alliance; is fought with mistrust, tension and antagonism. This allows Kurosawa to develop his humanistic counter thesis on the social caste divisions of that era and metaphorically combat the same divisions that still permeated Japan at tbe time he made this film. It is important to consider the rigid caste system of sixteenth century Japan when considering Seven Samurai's social issues.

If you were born a merchant, peasant or samurai, you were expected to remain so for the rest of your life. Transitions between castes were strictly forbidden. Thus a peasant wasbnot permitted to carry a sword, and a samurai was not supposed toearn a living from ma ual labour. These rules were strict and anyone found in breach of these rules would often face severe punishment. However there are many instances within the film where this taboo is challenged mainly as a direct result of the country's instability.

Kurosawa sets out to challenge this system by having different characters break from the divide. A pivotal scene occurs where having found armour hidden in the village the character Kikuchiyo (played by Toshiro Mifune) brings it to the attention of the other samurai hoping to gain their respect. The samurai believe the armour found, belong to murdered or wounded warriors by the farmers they have come to protect and thus berate Kikuchiyo and the farmers for this discovery. Through an emotional highly charged speech Kikuchio retorts to the samurai about their own prejudices towards the farmers and why tne y have a right to be mistrustful of the samurai. This is where Kambei the group's leader, realises who Kikuchiyo really is:

"Your'e a farmer's son aren't you?"

The fragile alliance between samurai and farmer litters the film throughout. The farmers are fearful of the samurai as shown when they all hide upon the samurai's arrival to their village, instead of treating them like the calvary with cheers or a parade, much to the samurai's disgust. Even one of the villagers sets about cutting his daughter's hair to make her look more like a boy, in fear that she will be raped by the samurai

The perception of the samurai by the villagers is not without reason. Before the civil war the samurai were a warrior caste employed by a shogun (warlord) to act as his private army. In return the samurai were housed, fed and made financially stable. With the advent of the civil war, many samurai became masterless (ronins) if the shoguns were defeated or killed. If it were not possible to find another shogun to work for, many samurai had few options. Few would degrade themselves with manual labour. They would either commit suicide (hari kari) or become bandits; turning their fighting skills to outlaw ends. Which is why the distinction between bandits and samurai are blurred.

The farmers, whose crops are constantly stolen, houses burnt and women raped and kidnapped, have difficulty in differentiating between samurai and bandits. For example, the discovery of the secret affair between Katsushiro (Isao Kimura); the young samurai and the village girl Shino prompts Shino's father Manzo to administer a public beating to his daughter; just before the samurais commence into battle. Kambei attempts to calm things down:

"At least she was taken by a samurai and not a bandit"

Though to this particular villager this comment seems meaningless.

The samurai on the other hand have a similar unflattering view of their counterparts. They see the farmers as greedy, crafty and murderous. In the scene where Kickuchyo brings them the armoury and weapons, one of the samurais is so outraged he threatens to kill every farmer in the village.

A large portion of Seven Samurai deals with the preparations of the samurai in the village for the battle with the imminent arrival of the bandits, and in turn to win over the trust of the originally fearful farmers. Dr Patrick Crogans said of the film:

" in thematic terms, the central hypothesis being 'tested' in this social experiment between samurai and the peasant class is the question of the possibility of class cooperation and harmony. The stakes are not only survival, but also social and by extension national peace and prosperity.

The character that embodies this theory more so than anyone else is Kikuchiyo. Kikuchiyo plays a crucial role in bridging the gap between the disunity of the samurai and the farmer class. At first he is rejected by the samurai assembled to protect the village though out of all the samurais it is he that needs no persuading to help aid the farmers. He is regarded by the rest of the samurai as a poser; doubts arise ovr his whole identity (his birth certificate with the name Kikuchiyo is implied that it was stolen along with his samurai sword). Even when he is completley drunk, Kambei retorts that a true samurai would not allow himself to get to that state. What we come to understand later is that he is an orphaned farmer's son, with aspirations of being a samurai, which is a typical objective of the social mobility of that era mentioned earlier.

When he is finally accepted as a member of the group (the first step in challenging the social caste system) he then performs a go-between role between samurai and the farmers. It is he who gets the scared farmers to come out and greet the samurai upon their arrival (by comically ringing the alarm distress bell) and while the other samurai are making war plans, he attempts to initiate himself with the farmers by performing manual tasks.

Stephen Price's summary of a Kurosawa hero can be put to Kikuchiyo's role: "Kurosawa's heroes must separate themselves from established social groupings through a structural embodiment of inner wisdom. Enlightenment will not be found within an oppressive society, but only through individuals' separation from it, and his character may return to the social order and attempt to reform it.

Although Kikuchiyo is a member of this particular group of samurai, the other samurai treat him more of as an outsider. The war flag which shows a representation of the samurai and farmers is a visual document of this. Whilst the farmers are represented in caligraphy, six cirlces represent the samurai, and when Kikuchiyo inquires about his place on the flag; he is told he represents the triangle which sits atbthe bottom of the six circles. However, the triangle may symbolise neither samurai, nor farmer, but a new social class that transcends the two.

Kambei the defacto leader (played by the excellant Takashi Shimura) seems to have a particular disregard for Kikuchiyo. When Kyuzo ( a Buster Keaton-esque performance from Seiji Miyaguchi) comes back from the bandits camp with a gun having successfully killed three bandits he is unanimously congratulated. When Kikuchiyo embarks on a similar purpose and comes back with a gun he doesn't get the same response. Kambei criticizes him for leaving his post and putting the village in danger. There are many other minor instances of Kambei's mild contempt for Kikuchiyo.It is only when Kikuchiyo is killed (whilst disposing of the last bandit) that Kambei truly appreciates Kikuchiyo's worth. He is a farmer's son, but died a samurai.

Writer/director Akira Kurosawa who was from a samurai background, acknowledges the dissolution of class and counters this to Bushido; the samurai code of ethics, which was a common trait amongst samurai warriors in pre-sixteenth century Japan.
When the farmers first set about hiring samurai to protect their village they encounter one who is so incensed with the offer of a bowl of rice a day as pay, that he becomes aggressive. The scene emphasises a common perception of the samurai of someone obsessed with status or material gain.

Kambei offers the flipside to this debased version of bushido. His version concentrates more on Zen teachings, which dealt with being selfless and altruistic and concentrating on the concept of helping the helpless. In one scene which endures him to both Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo we see him acting out of unmotivated goodness to save a child kidnapped by a thief. Kambei orders some of the town's people to cut his hair, so that when he approaches the thief trapped inside the barn he can deceive him into thinking he is a priest. For a bald appearance is normally one attained to that of a holy figure The act of a samurai cutting his hair resonates importantly with Zen based bushido. A samurai's hair piece (always long especially at the back) is deeply important to his appearance, status or class. Having a bald samurai can be seen to be as a disgrace as it implies he has been demoted from rank. But to voluntary 'disgrace' himself sacrificing perception, honour and status shows how Kambei has little regard for these social ideals. Prince concurs that:

"The samurai's obligation to serve his lord, into the hero's obligation to serve humanity"

Thus the farmers have found their first "hungry samurai"; someone with exceptional ideals and persuade other samurai to follow him. Kambei's acceptance to work for only a few handfuls of rice is a poor prospect for any warrior. He has also on the contrary proved Manzo wrong; who pointed to the reality of class cooperation, when he doubted that any samurai would fight for such a prospect alluding to samurais as money motivated. In the end Kambei's and the rest of the samurai's decision to help shows that these warriors as selflessly heroic.

Kurosawa Composing Movement by Every Frame A Painting:

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