Seven Samurai

Many of today’s teenagers have never seen a classic foreign film. So what would be the best one to show a teenager if you wanted to pique his or her interest in foreign films? The best choice might be Seven Samurai (1954). Because Kurosawa was so strongly influenced by Hollywood films (especially the Western genre), Seven Samurai’s moral contrasts are immediately familiar. At the same time, this film is unmistakably Japanese in its approach.

Here’s what Japanese-film historian Donald Richie had to say in his seminal book Japanese Cinema:

In many ways, Seven Samurai is both the opposite and the continuation of Rashomon. The earlier film represents the limitations of the intellect: four stories, each completely intellectualized, all mutually incompatible, and all, in their way, ‘true.’ Seven Samurai on the other hand, steps beyond intellectualization. It says that only those acts which spring from emotion are valid acts; that action thus motivated is itself truth. This truth is one which remains, though universally applicable, particularly Japanese. It is one which is shared with Zen and with the haiku, as well as the films of Ozu and Kurosawa — the emotions comprehend where the intellect falters. The basic dichotomy is one recognized and insisted upon in Japan just as much as in the West, and Kurosawa’s humanism, his Dostoevsky-like compassion, remains his final and strongest statement.

Like Ford and Renoir, Kurosawa was able to portray his characters compassionately without resorting to clichés or overt sentimentality. At its core, Seven Samurai is an action film that abhors violence, a film about cooperation that celebrates individuality, and a film about the world’s heartlessness that encourages simple kindness.

Few films succeed so grandly both as visceral entertainment and as an artful commentary on the human condition. Both elements are bound together so seamlessly, it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. That may be the truest measure of the most successful films and novels — that we can be simultaneously entertained and enriched as though there was no difference at all between the two qualities.

Seven Samurai
(1954; directed by Akira Kurosawa; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $49.95 (Blu-ray), $49.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, March 23 at 10:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies