Battles raged over days, weeks even. Masses of armies in garish colors clashed over white snow-fallen Japanese landscapes. Hundreds, thousands of men were considered as single units, flowing over hills into invading territories and blindly forcing attrition with no consideration for the blood that was shed or the bodies left behind. I snapped to, realizing that all of Japan was covered in gory red, signaling my victory. The game was over.
This wasn’t reality, and wasn’t even a movie, but a childish game played in a seventh grade history class. In it, my various classmates and I struggled for control of a map of Japan, split into dozens of true historical city-states representative of Feudal Japan. We started with 5 pushpins per person and one territory to our name, then expanded our control by gaining armies for answering questions correctly in class as well as good strategy within the game. It was a variation of the board game Risk, but performed on a scale in which pride could be earned across an entire classroom, not just a handful of friends. And to the best of my memory, I won this game, but could only wish that the rest of my middle school experience was just as triumphant. It wasn’t, but as most who get past the middle and high school years know, things get better.
It wasn’t until college that I first saw Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai, my first true Criterion Collection experience. Even now I remember recalling that that was the first time I understood what all those thumbtacks were truly supposed to represent.
Only, there was a huge difference. The metaphorical scale of the game I had played was epic and grandiose, calculations in my head have me imagining thousands upon thousands of soldiers across wide empty plains and marching through hidden forests, rivaling the number of trees in the wooded groves, but faceless amongst the crowds. Seven Samurai isn’t like that. While the film could be rightly called an epic—spanning a generous three and a half hours and telling a truly elaborate tale—the scale is actually pleasingly small when you step back.
Seven Samurai isn’t about armies at all, but about characters and people.
Considering the number of characters it has to develop, the film does so admirably. There’s not only the seven central samurai themselves, but also at least 4 important villagers as well. The enemies remain primarily anonymous, but considering our perspective in the film, this feels like the right way to go. True, many of our heroes are archetypes, and often they only have but a handful of scenes to establish and complete their arcs, but a good portion of them really are burned into my memory. Toshirô Mifune’s Kikuchiyo is one of the most fascinating tricksters I can think of on film, he acts as both the comic relief and yet still manages to pull on heart strings as the final bits of film spool out of the reel. Takashi Shimura’s Kanbê Shimada brings an equally affecting sense of nobility to the film, and I could go on and on about what marvelous characters these are to watch, and how each of them has his moment to shine.
Seven Samurai has some awesome battle scenes, but it’s moments like when Katsushirō expresses his pure admiration for Kyūzō that make those scenes matter. Then there’s the intimate nature of the battles themselves. Instead of looking at thousands of anonymous men on the battlefield—ones that just as easily could be a single red sacrificable pushpin—you know that there are just seven who can turn the tide of the battle, plus a handful of unskilled villagers.
The hours spent building up and developing the characters combined with the small number of warriors involved means that every time you see someone fall, it’s incredibly affecting. And for being so early in the development of the medium, Kurosawa has a masterful bag of tricks to pull from. On my most recent viewing, I was impressed by a shot in which Kurosawa took a moment, in the final breath leading up to the clashing of swords in a battle to give us the perspective shot of a single villager hiding behind a few pieces of wood, contrasting his shrouded view with dozens of horse hooves and running feet pouring into the town he calls home.
It’s just a moment—and just as soon the battle montages we know and love from the rest of the climax of the film interrupt it—but it’s a strong example of how even amongst the grand action this movie is really about character.
It’s no wonder that even though victory is had in battle, Kanbê still states coldly that the samurai are not the winners. Because when all is over, the samurai were still strangers in the village—without family, without a home, and without someone to love. The strategy won the day, but as people experiencing the human condition, they did not. And perhaps, looking back, my victory on the battlefield of the flimsy piece of paper taped to the wall of my history classroom was just as cold. I can’t remember a single friend that was made for the experience, or even a friendly interaction. To get to victory I must have torn down many a peer, removing them from the game. While I probably believed some pride would be won from the triumph, I doubt anyone who played this game would have any memory of doing it without reading these musings. I alone remember.
And it’s alone that I remember watching Seven Samurai for the first time, alone that I watched my first Criterion film, and alone that I’ve watched each Criterion entry since. It seems that’s how I prefer experiencing these films, in a dark room, enveloped in the way that the characters on grainy film, which appears so distant from the world as we know it, can somehow capture how life is. They’re most affecting that way, and as the credits roll, I usually feel noticeably different than when the movie began. Luckily, after it’s ended, I can press stop, turn on the lights, and go back to the world as I know it and the friends that make it bright.