Film4: Thursday 13 August, 11.25pm
Toshiro Mifune is the star name but he’s playing a wild would-be samurai who’s quite the joker. It’s the dignified, humble ronin Takashi Shimura who first agrees to help villagers abandoned by the authorities and being bullied by bandits. Akira Kurosawa’s sprawling masterpiece is the epic Japanese adventure famously remade in 1960 as the iconic Hollywood western The Magnificent Seven. The original is magnificent too, a fleet-footed spectacular told with great heart and humour: “We’d do better to give our crops to the bandits and hang ourselves.” A master of visual story-telling, Kurosawa greatly admired the films of John Ford and was viewed with suspicion in Japan as a too-heavily western-influenced director (as distinct from a director of westerns). Sparing with close-ups, and employing a dynamic, uncluttered style, his films found favour in the West following his international breakthrough with Rashomon in 1950. His black and white location photography was never more lyrical than in Seven Samurai, giving it a quality that’s at once mythic and poetic. He understood the human condition, too, and chronicled it with compassion, even amidst the chaos of 16th century feudal Japan. “I fear the next world,” says an enfeebled granny. “Perhaps that will be dreadful too.” The first hour of this breathtaking film details the recruitment of warriors for no pay or prospects, for work that’s dangerous. The second hour is preparation, training, and fortifying the barricades back at the village in the foothills. The third hour, the skirmishes begin, climaxing with muddy rain-soaked battles that Orson Welles would mimic in Chimes at Midnight. With music by Fumio Hayasaka that’s as rich and resonant as Elmer Bernstein’s famous themes, these hours fly by.