In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Akira Kurosawa was one of the directors — with Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and Satyajit Ray — whom Anglo-American critics used to prove to the intellectual establishment that films were art. This meant, to those who considered the exercise worthwhile, that he dealt with "themes" that any English professor could certify as important, and that his films were so obviously stylized that no one could doubt in them the presence of an artist.
The British magazine Sight and Sound had as much as to do with creating the old canon as any single journal did, and a recent issue attests that the canon is alive and well. In a 2002 poll of international directors and critics, 12 directors and 15 critics named Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai as one of the 10 best films of all time. On the directors’ poll, it tied for ninth place.
Although George Lucas and Steven Spielberg didn’t submit ballots, a main reason for the endurance of Kurosawa’s film is, I suspect, its reputation as a touchstone for the two Americans, under whose sufferance the Japanese master has benefitted from a new orthodoxy. On the Internet Movie Database, Seven Samurai now ranks eighth (tied with Star Wars) among the top 250 movies as chosen by the site’s registered users. The film’s reissue in a new print, with newly translated subtitles, clinches it.
Okay, Seven Samurai is, no argument, a great film — but that means what, exactly? Perhaps this: from a simple story (in 16th-century Japan, seven out-of-work samurai defend a farming village from bandits without reward and at the cost of four of their lives) of immense resonance (the samurai stand for a fading tradition of personal honor; the farmers will survive into a diminished future), Kurosawa has crafted a highly legible entertainment.
Legibility is what Kurosawa is all about. Nothing in Seven Samurai reaches the screen without having gone through a massive simplifying process, which produces a film that’s all overpowering verticals and horizontals, drawn-out and reiterated effects, and one-note characterizations. In a typical Seven Samurai shot, groups of people are forced to mime consternation, amusement, or understanding; one of the general impressions left by the film is of faces lined up in medium shot staring insanely or frowning. There’s something comic about Kurosawa’s quick-read abstractions, as in the Sternbergian steaminess of the bandits’ lair, all legs and arms draped about.
It’s no wonder Spielberg and Lucas love Kurosawa so much: Seven Samurai and, at a much lower level, The Hidden Fortress are prototypes for the kind of filmmaking with which the two Americans reinvented popular cinema: a style in which movement is constant, surface complexity readily grasped, and ambiguity minimized.
It’s a male cinema, and maleness limits Seven Samurai. The feminine, when it surfaces, is excessive and scandalous: a girl viewed salaciously by the camera as she washes her hair; a face gleaming with lust in huge close-up; the extended-time close shots of a kidnapped sex slave waking to find the harem on fire. As often in Kurosawa, female sexuality is disconcerting (compare his portraits of mad and malevolent women in Throne of Blood, Red Beard, and Ran). It seems less damning of the film that the farmers are portrayed as cowards and opportunists (since, as the samurai leader concludes, the victory belongs to them, in a historical sense, and Kurosawa is one of those for whom the winner loses) than that the women are shown as freaks.
The movie compels admiration. It wastes no time getting to the main idea of each scene, and each idea adds to the meaning of the whole. The battle preparations are absorbing, and the visual force of the scenes of action and violence is undeniable. Through the performances of Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa makes Seven Samurai a logical and beautiful study of complementary tragic heroes. But within his work, Ikiru and High and Low offer more complex experiences and are relatively free of the director’s greatest fault: his compulsion to give the audience as little choice as possible in reading visual information and interpreting a story.