Picks and Pans Review: Seven Samurai
Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece on the absurdity and inevitability of war and humanity's apparently indestructible ability to survive has been released in its original, uncut, 208-minute version, 50 minutes longer than the one first shown in the U.S. It demonstrates why the starkly beautiful black-and-white film is often cited by cinema buffs as one of the greatest ever made. (It inspired the less classic The Magnificent Seven, which starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.) The story is set in 16th-century feudal Japan. A farming village is pillaged at every harvest by marauding bandits. The desperate villagers hire seven samurai warriors to protect them, offering only food and shelter as pay. The warriors are led by wise Takashi Shimura, the swaggering, buffoonish Toshiro Mifune and devastating swordsman Seiji Miyaguchi. Much of the film shows how these three leaders rouse the villagers from their nearly suicidal hysteria and gloom, training them to face the climactic invasion and its terrifying odds. Kurosawa's cinematography, capturing the eloquent faces, the feudal period textures, the look and sound of torrential rains, the farmers constantly scurrying through the dust, provides haunting touches. In one breathtaking scene, Mifune treads in a shallow stream toward a flaming waterwheel as a dying mother hands him her infant. In another, he races barefoot down a steep slope through a forest like a slalom skier. The last-stand combat, filmed in monsoon rains, with horses and falling bodies slapping up dense mud, must rank as one of the greatest battle scenes on film. Mifune and Shimura, who were part of Kurosawa's ad hoc repertory company, are magnificent. Kurosawa himself has so influenced major American directors that George Lucas and Francis Coppola helped finance Kurosawa's 1980 color film Kagemusha when he couldn't raise enough money in Japan. Seven Samurai remains in a class by itself. (In Japanese with English subtitles) (Unrated)
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