The pictorial Shakespeare of our time

In praise of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

Sixty years ago, deep in the forests of the Izu peninsula about 75 miles from Tokyo, a film crew toiled on a purpose-built, full-scale replica of a 16th-century village. Among them was the man they nicknamed Tenno or “emperor”, Akira Kurosawa. The director was engaged in a year-long struggle with Toho Studios, the cast, crew and the elements. His budget grew to $500,000 (the highest ever in Japan at the time) and production was stopped twice, at which points Kurosawa went fishing until the studio came round to his way of thinking. At the end of the freezing, rain-sodden climactic shoot – torture for the actors involved – he possessed the rough material for Seven Samurai, one of the great hymns to the weaknesses and wonders of humanity.

Seven Samurai is hardly underrated. It’s always popping up in lists of the best films of all time. It is technically ingenious, a narrative tour de force and surprisingly funny (the leitmotif-heavy score also deserves more recognition). But it is most often referred to as an action movie template. Its legacy is the team-building adventure, notably copied in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and children’s animation A Bug's Life (1998) and used as a rough guide for a host of films from The Dirty Dozen (1967) to Avengers Assemble (2012).

I don’t remember what I felt the first time I watched Seven Samurai. But I remember the second time. It was as if I was peering through the layers of a moving palimpsest and behind each flashing sword, stirring speech or moment of slapstick there was another entirely different film. What that other film was about, I slowly but surely noted, was love.

The many loves of Seven Samurai roam like the great animals of the plains in relationships that shape and are shaped by their habitat. Kurosawa maps out human love just as the leader of the samurai, Kambei, maps out the village he has pledged to defend.

The plot is rudimentary. Rikichi, a farmer in rigidly feudal Japan, overhears bandits planning to attack his village after the harvest. He convinces the other farmers to let him employ masterless samurai to defend them (with food as payment). He then meets the ageing warrior Kambei, who agrees to help. They return to the village, prepare for battle then engage the bandits over several days of fighting.

Rikichi is the primum mobile, so it is fitting that love is his motivation. He carries a deep wound, revealed to be the kidnapping and enslavement of his wife by the bandits, and yet his generosity (such as when he gives his house over to samurai) provides vital momentum. Without his bravery, born from a yearning for dignity for himself and his community – and love for his wife – there would be no Seven Samurai.

In a nearby town, Rikichi and his companions witness an act of sacrifice that symbolises, in microcosm, what they are searching for. Kambei rescues a child from a kidnapper but his disguise requires the cutting of his samurai top-knot and therefore a loss of social prestige. His subsequent decision to help the farmers seems guided by the ghosts of war, as if his old limbs must keep stretching into the material world, seeking acts of penance for the horrors he has witnessed and no doubt inflicted. He accepts his poverty with a submissive rub of his head, liberated by the abandonment of hope. In Kambei (acted with moving nuance by Takashi Shimura, who had given the performance of his life as a dying bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s previous film Ikiru [1952]) Seven Samurai exhibits its purest love. Kambei may still need to eat and sleep, but he has become a societal nobody, pushing him towards a negation of the self that has a nourishing effect on everyone else.

Kambei also catches the eye of Katsushiro, a doting adolescent who begs him to take him on as a pupil. Kambei reluctantly agrees to let him assist the recruitment and from here three more down-on-their-luck samurai, Gorobei, Shichiroji and Heihachi, join the group.

Back at the village, Kurosawa exposes the problematic love of a parent for a child nearing adulthood. The farmer Manzo has from the start warned of the menace posed by nesting samurai to the village’s women and young girls. We now see he was thinking of his daughter, Shino. The scene where he forcibly cuts off Shino’s hair is laden with oppressive and possessive love. It is a tarnished emotion, but adds to the breadth of Kurosawa’s canvas.

From the moment the samurai arrive – reinforced by the master swordsman Kyuzo (another object of hero-worship for the impressionable Katsushiro) and the surly and clearly fraudulent Kikuchiyo – the two castes begin to grind against each other. But amid the threat of oblivion, those clashes become embraces and distrust turns into revivifying love.

Romance elbows its way in too: Katsushiro’s infatuation for Shino is born as he daydreams in the woods. He complains that if Shino is a boy, as she claims, she should be training with the others, not picking flowers, before looking down at the flowers he has himself picked during a teenage haze. Kurosawa's point is that first love has a particular knuckleheaded beauty that even war cannot bend. Their subsequent meetings not only allow their innocent romance to grow, but also encourage empathy for those suffering around them.

When the samurai learn from Katsushiro of a starving old woman whose family were murdered by bandits, they give her their food, while Heihachi offers comfort even as she professes her desire to die. Love, as the samurai witness and then experience, alters their behaviour. Another marker of their transformation from rolling stones to social dependents is their affection for the village children, who they entertain and feed amid the anxious waiting. Collective effort and shared responsibility flower with the harvest and as the samurai and farmers become bound by new ties of warmth and respect it is hard not to read a wider political message in this emotional evolution. As Kambei says to the farmers: “If you defend for all, each individual will be protected. He who thinks only of himself destroys himself.”

Before the onset of the fighting Heihachi makes a banner with symbols for the samurai and the farmers, a mark of solidarity that flies proudly until their bittersweet triumph. It is infinitely more than a representation of martial brotherhood. Judged by the conduct and sacrifice of its jovial creator, it represents everything being discussed here – the multitudinous loves of disparate and desperate people.

If Kambei represents the selfless, then his foil, Kikuchiyo (played by Kurosawa’s muse Toshiro Mifune) stands for something selfish, though more recognisably human. Kikuchiyo sulks, mocks and disobeys but his sense of personal desperation is thinly disguised.

The most magnificent scene in the film is when Kikuchiyo produces a huge cache of armour, swords and spears, previously hidden by the peasants, in a bid to impress the other six warriors. The disgusted samurai quickly realise the only way the villagers could have come by these weapons is by killing and looting other samurai, but their opprobrium prompts Kikuchiyo into one of the great cinematic speeches, with Mifune at his most brooding and animalistic.

He speaks directly to the camera (ie at us) in a tirade against the peasants for their conduct. “What did you take farmers for? Saints? They are the most cunning, untrustworthy animals.” This switches suddenly into a confession of his hatred for the samurai, blaming their wickedness for the villagers’ behaviour. “Who made animals of them? You did.” The samurai are, he suggests, little better than bandits themselves. This hard truth is digested in shameful silence, broken, fittingly, by Kambei with tears in his eyes.

“You are a farmer’s son, aren’t you?”

It is a moment of great unburdening and the love it forges makes victory over the bandits possible. It is also the moment of enlightenment for the audience and draws out our affection for the characters. The sound of a stream rolling on and on is heard throughout Kikuchiyo’s unravelling and the stretched seconds of calm that follow. It is an exquisite experience for the viewer.

If Seven Samurai has “a weakness” it is probably related to the single biggest criticism of all Kurosawa’s work, namely the perceived shallowness of his female characters. This is usually accompanied by a comparison with his near contemporary Kenji Mizoguchi, whose mothers and wives, often in historical dramas, carry the emotional and dramatic burden of their films. However, amid all the existential masculinity the two most important women, one half-drawn (Shino), one little more than symbolic (Rikichi’s wife) – do at least offer some acknowledgment of women’s suffering, particularly their abuse at the hands of men across all society.

Even the final battles evince the transformative effects of love. Kikuchiyo’s journey back to his roots started with contempt for the farmers, which of course, since he is a farmer, is self-loathing, but ends in love and sacrifice. The more he “becomes” a samurai the closer he gets to the peasants and, ultimately, his true self. When he rescues a baby from a burning watermill he holds the child and screams: “This baby. It’s me. This is what happened to me!” From this moment he is one of the seven, but he has been an orphaned farmer all his life.

The focus of his contempt throughout is the pathetic Yohei (think Private Godfrey from Dad’s Army) so the fact that Yohei’s death is the cause of Kikuchiyo’s greatest pang of love and subsequent valorous apotheosis is a poetic masterstroke by Kurosawa. The man who, for Kikuchiyo, embodied everything that was miserable and wretched about the peasants was the man he most wanted to protect. From here his love becomes a thirst for reckoning.

As the battle fades only three remain: Katsushiro, trembling with terror and impotent rage, Kambei and his old friend Shichiroji. After the funerals the farmers sing as they reconvene a more familiar fight with nature in the paddy fields. Katsushiro’s love for Shino is so strong he stays in the village, effectively renouncing Kambei, who offers the famous final lines: “We’ve lost again. The farmers are the winners. Not us.” His exit is overwhelmed by the joyous chorus of the peasants – back down on their knees in the dirt.

Steven Spielberg called Kurosawa “the pictorial Shakespeare of our time” and the comparison is not a frivolous one. As with Antony And Cleopatra and King Lear, at his best Kurosawa entwines politics with the intimate and philosophical like so many möbius strips. We know Kurosawa felt a kinship with Shakespeare through his interpretations of Macbeth (Throne Of Blood, 1957) and Lear (Ran, 1985), but the closest he came to matching the range and humanity of his hero was in his co-written screenplay for Seven Samurai. And like Shakespeare, however distant and alien the characters and setting appear at first, their transposition in the minds of the audience to whatever the “present day” may be confronts us with the alarmingly familiar: ourselves in the mirror. The critic Donald Richie said of the historical setting: “Kurosawa can go beyond reality and try to find out what is there.”

Kurosawa’s achievement is that the effect of these expressions, this compassion, is cumulative. In a world of violence, division, insecurity and injustice, love pervades, even if it does not always prevail. Kambei leaves unloved, but his purpose was to make a sacrifice that meant everything to the communal farmers, however meaningless in the world of an itinerant loner. Only his selflessness can sustain him at the end of this drama. Like the replenished rice in the flooded fields, life goes on. Love goes on. Seven Samurai is a lyrical, visceral song to that inalienable fact.

Twitter: @geochesterton 

A scene from Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film Seven Samurai (Photo: Getty Images)

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser