1. Akira Kurosawa. Famous Japanese director whose films have an average length of over two hours, even if you're including his wartime quickies. I think this is actually his longest.
2. The Seven Samurai. Staggeringly influential 1954 blockbuster that's been accused of inventing the modern action movie and was at the time the biggest project ever by a Japanese filmmaker. Remade six years later as John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven, but it's also ended up being among others the father of an anime remake, a Roger Corman sci-fi version and Sholay (1975), the highest-grossing Indian film of all time. The original Japanese cut was 207 minutes long, but international versions got cut down. The US version took out more than an hour, although more complete versions are available on DVD. The fullscreen picture on my disc startled me, but then I checked and found that the original's aspect ratio was 1.37:1. I'm also glad to see that it's in black-and-white, since I think Kurosawa comes over better that way. Our brains process it differently to colour images. Kurosawa's compositions are so strong and important to his work that personally I think colour reduces their impact, although I tend to prefer black-and-white in general.
Having The Magnificent Seven on my pile, obviously I had no choice but to pick up The Seven Samurai as well. The idea of a three-and-a-half hour action movie sounded insane, but it works. It doesn't feel slow. Characters bark out their lines so fast that I'd have been lost without the subtitles, while the action really is action. I only saw the 190-minute cut, but even so it managed to feel like a movie that filled its running time. I'll admit that I haven't always felt that with Kurosawa. This is a story about seven samurai and all the villagers they're helping, so communicating all that properly is going to take more time than the usual "Two Heroes Who Don't Get On But Have A Job To Do". It takes an hour just to recruit the samurai and get them to the village, unsurprisingly since they're being paid in rice. It's startling when we see that at least one samurai has coins.
Comparing it to the Sturges remake is interesting. They're only similar until the fighting begins. Swords are better than guns. They just are. You can do battles, dramatic face-to-face combat and all kinds of stuff. They're personal. Guns on the other hand look rubbish. There's nothing dynamic about pulling a trigger, except that we've been conditioned not to realise this by the American nation and generations of movie-makers being in love with the bloody things. The history of Western cinema is pretty much an infinite parade of gunfights and if only by the law of averages a few of them have managed to be interesting, but what Kurosawa does in the second half of The Seven Samurai wasn't available to John Sturges.
This film gives us battle scenes. It becomes a war movie, basically. The Magnificent Seven never goes that far, choosing to fill the gap with plot and character work. It's more of a writer's piece, whereas The Seven Samurai is more primal. It's a film for the gut, not the head. A lot of this is pure cinema, telling the story through movement and visuals rather than dialogue. Significantly Kurosawa wasn't merely the director here but also editor and co-writer. The actors are important, but they're merely a part of the world around them rather than the only thing in it that matters.
To be honest, I prefer watching the remake's cast. Steve McQueen is twenty kinds of astonishing, Horst Buchholz is impressive and the only forgettable one of the seven is Charles Bronson. This film has no weak link in its performances and its actors all do solid work, but they're playing variations on the same basic type. They're samurai. They're proud and never show fear. Once they've made a decision, they'll stick to it. They'd never even think of abandoning the villagers. Admittedly the cowboys in Hollywood Westerns are just as iconic, but those had no Bushido code with a cultural lock on their actions.
Kurosawa was aware of all that. The actor who really stands out is long-time Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, the samurai who's not really a samurai. He's like a Fool, but even better. Shakespeare's Fools are wiser than their betters, but Kikuchiyo really is foolish. He'll put himself in danger without a thought. He's a braggart pretending to be something he's not, a man completely without filters, who'll do and say things that the other samurai wouldn't have dreamed of even if they'd been able to conceive of them in the first place. Yet he's also the film's conscience, haranguing both the villagers and his comrades. Buchholz does strong work in the Western version, albeit in an even more important role as a combination of both the clown and youngster roles, but Mifune is in another league. He's powerful and idiotic, hilarious and tragic. It's a terrific role and he's brilliant in it.
That's not to make this a one-man show, though. You'll go away remembering Takashi Shimura, who pisses all over Yul Brynner in the bald badass leader role. He was Kurosawa's other long-time stalwart. I also love Seiji Miyaguchi as the ice-cold professional who could take out the others even with one hand tied behind his back, although James Coburn was cooler. Despite what I said above, the samurai are very much individuals, all recognisable and all different from each other.
The story's emphasis is different. There's no equivalent of Eli Wallach's villain and we never get to know the bandits, who could just as easily have been zombies or a natural disaster. Mind you, I liked the film's answer to the question, "Why don't they give up and go looking for a village that doesn't fight back?" The remake ties this into something deeper, but this one is, um, very Japanese.
Instead of the bandits, the film's more interested in its villagers. They're certainly more richly realised than the remake's rather vanilla Mexicans. Stupid, bloody-minded and one bad harvest away from starvation, they're uneducated at times to the point of seeming almost feeble-minded, but also more dangerous. There's real tension between them and the samurai. This is a world where a samurai can behead any peasant he likes with impunity, while in return a village of peasants will ambush and kill samurai if they can catch them. That's how they got their secret cache of weapons. The samurai are practically a race apart, to a degree that prohibits even romance with them. Family and lineage is significant. It's a richly realised and scary world that I'm delighted not to have been born into.
Because of this, here the "it's the farmers who won" message feels natural. It's startling to hear a Japanese samurai extolling the peaceful life, whereas from the hero of a big Hollywood movie those words don't carry the same weight. I appreciate the sentiment in both versions, but here they really mean it. Don't forget, 1954 was less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I've been comparing the Kurosawa and Sturges versions of this story, but at the end of the day they both deserve their classic status. They're both genuinely great. The Western version does more with its characters, both in script and (more debatably) performance. Its cowboys are cooler. Its music is one of the classic film scores of all time instead of merely being good. It's also less than three and a half hours long, which I don't see as a negligible consideration. The Japanese original on the other hand is darker, more disturbing and was shot in "you have to see this" black-and-white by a genius.