Wednesday, February 25, 2009

‘Kay, I Don’t Make Films, But If I Did, They’d Have A Samurai

Oh look, the day after Mardi Gras, must be time to try out another 40 day marathon of updates. Wonder how long it’ll last this year?

Movies come in a few flavors: Commercially Average movies that are forgotten a year later (most Comedies), Bombs that critically & financially flop (Delgo, just... Delgo), Guilty Pleasure/Cult Films that make up for questionable quality with enthusiastic moxie or winking self-awareness (Army of Darkness), Oscar Bait that tries to remind you that Cinema is serious business (critically acclaimed, frequently ignored by average filmgoers), Legitimately Good Movies that most everybody agrees are damn good times (Braveheart), Financially Successful Movies that Suck (The Phantom Menace) and the list can go on. However, there’s also a category of films that are regularly elevated above the rest of the pack. Movies that aren’t just Good, but also Good For You, in a creatively inspirational way. Transcendent experiences that click on the visual, acting, writing and basic concept level. Movies that good creative teams will try to spiritually emulate and bad teams will outright rip off (there IS a difference).

Which brings me to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Those who’ve seen this movie can see where I’m coming from. High Five your screen with me. Those that haven’t seen it, well, you actually have seen this movie, just wearing a slightly different hat with the same plot. A village is helpless to defend itself against raiders and sends out a few members to recruit some champions who’re willing to work for a pittance but all bring unique skills to the table. There’s usually seven of them. Adventure ensues, with doses of comedy then heartwrenching drama (particularly in the final showdown with the raiders). It’s a simple formula, that done right can yield awesome results, such as successfully transplanting Samurai from the Warring States Period to Cowboys in the American Southwest, but if done badly, provides a checklist for hacks to tick off.
But that’s not why this is a great movie. Seven Samurai is great because it throws in a whole mess of themes, from the coming of age of a young warrior to class conflict and so on, and makes them all work.

Released in 1954, it’s a black and white film in Japanese (natch), directed & co-written by Kurosawa and clocking in at a hefty 206 minutes in its original Japanese release, the move is an epic that gives the audience an intermission. It combines violent action scenes with grim resolve and dynamic visuals. Yes, it runs long, but every scene has a point. Is it perfect? No, there are flaws in every film, even this one (the love story angle is kind of *meh*), but that doesn’t matter when you get to the samurai themselves. Badasses to a man, the biggest badass of them all is Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo.

Kikuchiyo is, for all intents and purposes, insane. Laughing at bandits firing muskets at him, jumping around with the energy of a meth addict, shouting very loudly very often, and carrying around a gigantic Nodachi sword. Mifune goes full blast with Kikuchiyo, layering the character more than a simple berserker; giving him sympathy, a sense of humor, a temper, flaws and the biggest heart of the seven, and possibly one of the funniest true badasses of cinema. Mifune steals every scene he’s in, no question. Runner up goes to Seiji Miyaguchi’s Kyuzo, a stoic, frighteningly skilled duelist who volunteers one night to single handedly raid the bandit camp to claim a rifle and runs off into the darkness, leaving the rest of the heroes wait nervously (especially the youngest samurai). Some time later, he walks back to the village out of the fog, carrying a rifle. He drops the rifle, simply saying “got two,” and TAKES A NAP. Hardcore.

I suppose I should at least mention The Magnificent Seven, which is the 1960 American remake, which does not suck. In fact, it’s a classic in its own right, and features a team-up of domestic badasses by the likes of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner and James Coburn, but that I suppose would be a discussion for another time.

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