Monday, January 05, 2009

#2 all time Favorite Film. (Tie) Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai and Ran (Ran "chaos", "revolt")

I have been a fan of films from Japan for the last few years now. I am amassing a nice little collection of them on DVD. In the last few years I have made some friends who, also like films from Japan. I will usually get them into a few of the different films that I have seen and liked from Japan (Battle Royale, Godzilla, Battle of the Sea of Japan and a few other ones) When I feel that they have a good idea about these films, I always hand out DVD copies of these 2 films together and I ask them to please watch these 2 films back to back.

I ask that they watch Seven Samurai first, because, the director of both of these films, Akira Kurosawa, directed "7 Samurai" first as a young man and as an old man he directed "Ran" This is also why I made my # 2 selection a tie also. I look at these 2 as 1 huge film with 2 very different parts but when shown together, you get a true appreciation for Kurosawa's genius.

Now, to be honest, for a long time, I refused to even watch these 2 films because they weren't in English and that they did not have any monsters in them. My thinking was, How can a film from Japan be any good if it not in English? I had allowed myself to listen to people who said that all films must be dubbed into English.

So for a long time, I would never watch the Seven Samurai. I would instead watch the American remake The Magnificent Seven. This was a cowboy film, They spoke English and I loved it. Until I ordered "The Seven Samurai" on DVD.

I had heard that this film was a classic and that it needed to be seen, but back then all that was around was an US version 141 minute copy of the film that was missing about 60 minutes from the original version. I had a Saturday evening off and I went to watch it on my DVD player.

I honestly could not believe what I was seeing. I felt like a complete idiot after the film was over. How in the heck could I have ever praised the inferior "The Magnificent Seven" and passed on the original. I then went online to see what other films this, Akira Kurosawa, had directed. (Ever since that day, I have refused to watch TM7 and have taken it out of my DVD collection.)

I went to the video store and I saw that "Ran" was available to be rented on DVD. I rented the film and, even though it was the crappy Fox Lorber version, I could see a great film, it just needed a better DVD presentation.

Plot for Seven Samurai. (Wikipedia)

A gang of marauding bandits approaches a mountain village. The bandit chief recognizes they have ransacked this village before, and decides it is best that they spare it until the barley is harvested in several weeks. One of the villagers happens to overhear the discussion. When he returns home with the ominous news, the villagers are divided about whether to surrender their harvest or fight back against the bandits. In turmoil, they go to the village elder, who declares that they should fight, by hiring samurai to help defend the village. Some of the villagers are troubled by this suggestion, knowing that samurai are expensive to enlist and known to lust after young farm women, but realize they have no choice. Recognizing that the impoverished villagers have nothing to offer any prospective samurai except food, the village elder tells them to "find hungry samurai."

The men go into the city, but initially are unsuccessful, being turned away by every samurai they ask — sometimes very rudely — because they cannot offer any pay other than three meals a day. Just as all seems lost, they happen to witness an aging samurai (Kambei) execute a cunning and dramatic rescue of a young boy taken hostage by a thief. In awe, they ask him to help defend their village; to their great joy, he accepts. Kambei then recruits five more masterless samurai (ronin) from the city, one by one, each with distinctive skills and personality traits. Although Kambei had initially decided that seven samurai would be necessary, he leaves for the village with only five companions because time is running short. A clownish ersatz samurai named Kikuchiyo, whom Kambei had rejected for the mission, follows them to the village at a distance, ignoring their protestations and attempts to drive him away.

When the samurai arrive at the village, the villagers cower in their homes in fear, hoping to protect their daughters and themselves from these supposedly dangerous warriors. The samurai are insulted not to be greeted warmly, considering that they have offered to defend the village for almost no reward, and seek an explanation from the village elder. Suddenly, an alarm is raised; the villagers, fearing that the bandits have returned, rush from their hiding places begging to be defended by the newly-arrived samurai. It turns out that Kikuchiyo, until this point merely a tag-along, has raised a false alarm. He rebukes the panicked villagers for running to the samurai for aid after first failing to welcome them to the village. It is here that Kikuchiyo demonstrates that there exists a certain intelligence behind his boorish demeanour. The six samurai symbolically accept him as belonging with them, truly completing the group of wanderers as the "seven samurai."

As they prepare for the siege, the villagers and their hired warriors slowly come to trust each other. However, when the samurai discover that the villagers have murdered and robbed fleeing samurai in the past, they are shocked and angry, and Kyūzō, the most professional and calm of the samurai, even comments that he would like to kill everyone in the village. The always clownish Kikuchiyo passionately castigates the other samurai for ignoring the hardships that the farmers face in order to survive and make a living despite the intimidation and harassment from the warrior class (and in the process, also reveals his own roots as a farmer's son). "But who made them like this?" he asks. "You did!" The anger the samurai had felt turns to shame, and when the village elder, alerted by the clamor that this revelation instigates, asks if anything is the matter, Kambei humbly responds that there is not. The samurai continue their preparations without any animosity, and soon afterwards show compassion toward the farmers when they share their rice with an old woman who, her family having been killed by bandits, cries out that she merely wants to die.

The preparations for the defense of the village continue apace, including the construction of fortifications and the training of the farmers for battle. Katsushirō, the youngest samurai, begins a love affair with the daughter of one of the villagers who had been forced to masquerade as a boy by her father, hoping to protect her from the supposedly lustful samurai warriors.

As the time for the raid approaches, three bandit scouts are captured, and one divulges the location of the bandit stronghold. Three of the samurai, along with a guide from the village, decide to carry out a pre-emptive strike. Many bandits are killed, but one of the samurai, Heihachi, is struck down by gunfire. When the bandits arrive in force soon after this raid, they are confounded by the fortifications put in place by the samurai, and several are killed attempting to scale the barricades or cross moats. However, the bandits have a superior number of trained fighters, and possess three muskets, and are thus able to hold their own. Kyūzō decides to conduct a raid on his own to retrieve one of the muskets and returns with one several hours later. Kikuchiyo, jealous of the praise and respect Kyūzō earns, particularly from Katsushirō, later abandons his post to retrieve another musket, leaving his contingent of farmers in charge. Although he succeeds, the bandits attack the post, overwhelming and killing many of the farmers. Kambei is forced to provide reinforcements from the main post to drive the bandits out, leaving it undermanned when the bandit leader charges this position. Although they are driven off, Gorobei is shot and killed.

Apart from defense, the initial strategy of the samurai is to allow the bandits to enter a gap in the fortifications one at a time through the use of a closing "wall" of spears, and to then kill the lone enemy. This is repeated several times with success, although more than one bandit manages to enter the village several times. On the second night, Kambei decides that the villagers will soon become too exhausted to fight and instructs them to prepare for a final, decisive battle. During the night, Katsushirō's affair is revealed, and after an initial uproar, his amorous adventures provide comic relief to the embattled militia.

When morning breaks and the bandits make their attack, Kambei orders his forces to allow all 13 remaining bandits in at once. In the ensuing confrontation, most of the bandits are easily killed, but the leader takes refuge in a hut unseen. In an act of extreme dishonor, he shoots Kyūzō in the back from the safety of the hut, killing him. A despondent Katsushirō seeks to avenge his hero, but an enraged Kikuchiyo bravely (and blindly) charges ahead of him, only to be shot in the belly himself. Although mortally wounded, Kikuchiyo ensures he kills the bandit chief, finally proving his worth as a samurai, before dying. Dazed and exhausted, Kambei and Shichirōji sadly observe "we've survived once again," while Katsushirō wails over his fallen comrades. The battle is ultimately won for the villagers.

The three surviving samurai, Kambei, Katsushirō, and Shichirōji, are left to observe the villagers happily planting the next rice crop. The samurai reflect on the relationship between the warrior and farming classes: though they have won the battle for the farmers, they have lost their friends with little to show for it. "Again we are defeated," Kambei muses. "The farmers have won. Not us." This melancholic observation sheds new light on Kambei's statement at the beginning of the film that he had "never won a battle." This contrasts with the singing and joy of the villagers, whose figuratively life-sustaining work has prevailed over war and left all warriors as the defeated party.

Plot for "Ran" (Wikipedia)

It is a tale about the downfall of the once-powerful Ichimonji clan after its patriarch Hidetora decides to give control of his kingdom up to his three sons: Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. Taro, the eldest, will receive the prestigious First Castle and become leader of the Ichimonji clan, while Jiro and Saburo will be given the Second and Third Castles. Jiro and Saburo are to support Taro, and Hidetora illustrates this by using a bundle of arrows.[3] Hidetora will remain the titular leader and retain the title of Great Lord. Saburo criticizes the logic of Hidetora's plan: he reminds his father that he achieved power through treachery, war and bloodshed, yet unwisely expects his sons to be loyal to him. Hidetora mistakes these comments for a threat and when his loyal retainer Tango comes to Saburo's defense, he banishes both of them.

Following Hidetora's abdication, Taro's wife Lady Kaede begins to persuade him to take direct control of the Ichimonji clan, and engineers a rift between Taro and Hidetora. Kaede is a vengeful, manipulative woman whose family was slaughtered by Hidetora in his own rise to power and has thus dedicated her life to bringing about the downfall of the Ichimonji clan.

Matters come to a head when Hidetora kills one of Taro's guards who was threatening the fool Kyoami. When Taro subsequently demands that Hidetora confirm Taro's new standing and powers by signing a document in his blood, Hidetora reluctantly complies and storms out of the castle. He then travels to Jiro's castle, only to discover that Jiro is more interested in using Hidetora as a pawn in his own power play. During this time Hidetora visits Jiro's wife, Lady Sué. Like Kaede, her family was murdered by Hidetora, but she has embraced the gentle creed of Pure Land Buddhism and forgiven him. When Jiro refuses to allow Hidetora's warriors to enter the castle with him, Hidetora leaves, vowing never to see Jiro again. Hidetora's entourage is reduced to camping in the wilderness where they face the prospect of starvation because the peasants have been threatened by Taro not to provide them with food.

Meanwhile Taro's retainer Ogura arrives at the Third Castle to take possession of it. Refusing to serve him, Saburo's troops leave to join their lord in exile. Tango, following Hidetora in disguise, arrives at the camp to convince his lord to take refuge with Saburo. Hidetora, though ashamed of his mistakes, refuses to let go of his pride and, orders his samurai to burn the villages as punishment, over the protests of Tango. Influenced by his devious adviser Ikoma, Hidetora decides to go to the Third Castle, instead of Saburo, who has taken refuge with the neighbouring warlord Fujimaki, who early in the film had expressed admiration for Saburo's integrity. When Kyoami uses a jest to criticize his master's decision, he is violently reprimanded by Hidetora and left behind with Tango. Hidetora takes control of the Third Castle and settles in it.

Shortly afterwards, Hidetora and his retinue are attacked from within and without by the combined forces of Taro and Jiro (yellow and red forces respectively). Hidetora's retainers are slaughtered, his concubines kill each other in despair and the Third Castle is set on fire. As Taro's and Jiro's forces storm the castle, Jiro's Chief Retainer Kurogane surreptitiously assassinates Taro. Hidetora is left to commit seppuku (ritual suicide); however, to his dismay, Hidetora finds his sword broken and he cannot commit seppuku. Instead of killing himself, Hidetora becomes insane and wanders distracted out of the burning castle, unharmed by the attackers who, awe-struck by his transformation, clear a path for him.

As the castle burns, the deranged Hidetora wanders about during a storm in the grassy fields of the nearby mountains when he is discovered by Tango and Kyoami, the only people who have remained loyal to him. At first, regressing to childhood, he gathers flowers, ignoring his companions; then, suddenly overcome by a horrifying vision of all the people he has killed, he flees in terror. The three take refuge from the storm in a nearby peasant's home, only to discover that the peasant is Tsurumaru, the brother of Lady Sué, blinded years before on the Great Lord's orders.

Upon his return from battle, Jiro, as part of the plan made with his generals, publicly embarrasses Lady Kaede. The treacherous Ikoma and Ogura have given Jiro good service, as his generals in the recent campaign against their erstwhile lord, Hidetora. But now the traitors are themselves betrayed, when Jiro offers them presents in thanks but also in farewell, dismissing them on the grounds that having betrayed one master, they might betray another. Later, when Kaede enters, supposedly to congratulate Jiro for his new rank, she manages to overpower him. With a dagger pointed at his throat Kaede extracts from Jiro the truth about Taro's death, blackmailing him and becoming his lover. She demands that Jiro leave his wife for her. When Jiro offers to divorce his wife Lady Sué and marry Kaede instead, she demands he have Sué killed.

As Ikoma and Ogura are traveling into banishment, they are discovered and killed by Tango, who learns that Jiro killed Taro and intends to murder his father should he recover sanity. Kyoami and Tango decide that to ensure Hidetora's safety he must be taken to Saburo. But shame at his shabby treatment of his only loyal son prevents Hidetora from willingly reuniting with him. Therefore, Tango sets out to bring Saburo to Hidetora. Kyoami stays with the Great Lord as the old man descends deeper into madness, wandering into the remnants of the castle of Lady Sué's father - a castle he himself had destroyed.

Kaede swiftly becomes the real power behind the throne of the weak-willed Jiro, in her secret efforts to destroy the Ichimonji. Kurogane is given the order to kill Sué, but he refuses, blatantly bringing back the head of a statue and, through the story of a wily fox, warns Jiro not to trust Kaede. Having been warned by Kurogane, Lady Sué flees the Second Castle and, meeting up with her brother Tsurumaru, flees to the ruins of their father's castle. Along with an aide they barely outrun enemy forces sent by Jiro. But suddenly, Tsurumaru remembers that he has forgotten his flute; the aide leaves to retrieve it.

With Hidetora's whereabouts a mystery and his calamities and plight now well-known, Saburo's army (blue forces) crosses back into the kingdom to find him. Saburo's new father-in-law, the warlord Fujimaki (white forces), anticipates a major battle and marches to the border. Worried about his brother's actions and mindful of Saburo's alliance with rival warlords who want the Ichimonji lands for themselves, Jiro hastily mobilizes his much larger army to stop them. Meanwhile, Hidetora and Kyoami come across Sué and Tsurumaru at the Second Castle ruins, and Hidetora flees.

Saburo's and Jiro's forces meet on the field of Hachiman. Another rival warlord, Ayabe, shows up with his own army (black forces) on a hill overlooking the field; Fujimaki's forces remain poised on an opposite hill. Back at the castle ruins, Sué decides to retrieve her brother's flute herself. Tsurumaru tries to convince his sister that he does not need the flute, but Sué goes back anyway, leaving him with a scroll, illustrated with a picture of Amida Buddha. After arranging a truce with Jiro, Saburo finds Kyoami and rides off with soldiers to find Hidetora. Jiro breaks the truce and sends a gunnery brigade after Saburo and then orders an attack on Saburo's remaining forces. Saburo finally finds Hidetora, who comes back to his senses and repents. Despite their superiority in number, Jiro's army is decimated by arquebus fire from Saburo's army.

Word reaches Jiro and Kurogane that a large part of Ayabe's army has unexpectedly left the battlefield and is marching towards the First Castle. Thus, Jiro realizes, the army on the hilltop is a decoy. Jiro's army promptly retreats and flees back to the castle, as Fujimaki's army cheers from the opposite hilltop. As father and son ride contentedly together on horseback, Saburo is killed by Jiro's gunnery brigade. Overcome with grief, Hidetora finally dies, collapsing atop the body of Saburo.

Jiro's army barely makes it back to the First Castle, just as Ayabe's army arrives. A soldier arrives with the head of Sué, who has been killed with her aide and beheaded by Jiro's forces. During the battle against Ayabe's forces, Kurogane confronts Lady Kaede about her actions; she admits that she herself had planned for events to transpire this way all along, and so Kurogane beheads her in front of Jiro. The First Castle's defenses are ultimately overcome and breached by Ayabe's forces, the castle burned, and Jiro's death and the fall of his army are implied.

While Saburo's army mourn their fallen leader, the film ends with a shot of Tsurumaru, standing alone on top of the ruined castle of his father. As he wanders blindly about, he nearly falls from a ledge and accidentally drops the scroll given to him by his sister.

Now reasons why Seven Samurai works as a great film:

1. Seven Samurai was among the first films to use the now-common plot idea of the recruiting and gathering of heroes into a team to accomplish a specific goal, in this case, to save a village.

2. It shows that Farmers and Samurai must never be allowed to mix. One must remember that Japan had different castes and that the Samurai were at the top of it. If you watch the film closely, you will see that the villagers fear both, the bandits and the Samurai. This is why the foolish Samurai speech with the bell works, he is telling the people either work with us or you will be killed by the bandits.

3. The seven masterless samurai or ronin

The Seven Samurai are as follows.

* Kambei Shimada (島田勘兵衛, Shimada Kanbei?) (Takashi Shimura) — The leader of the group and the first "recruited" by the villagers, he is a wise but war-weary samurai.
* Gorōbei Katayama (片山五郎兵衛, Katayama Gorōbei?) (Yoshio Inaba) — The second samurai, recruited by Kambei. A skilled archer, he acts as the second in command and helps create the master plan for the village's defense.
* Shichirōji (七郎次) (Daisuke Katō) — The third samurai. He was once Kambei's deputy. Kambei meets him by chance in the town and he resumes this role.
* Heihachi Hayashida (林田平八, Hayashida Heihachi?) (Minoru Chiaki) — The fourth samurai, recruited by Gorōbei. An amiable though less-skilled samurai whose charm and wit maintain his comrades' good cheer in the face of adversity.
* Katsushirō Okamoto (岡本勝四郎, Okamoto Katsushirō?) (Isao Kimura) — The fifth samurai. A young unbloodied samurai from an aristocratic family who wants to be Kambei's disciple.
* Kyūzō (久蔵) (Seiji Miyaguchi) — The sixth samurai, who initially declined an offer by Kambei to join the group, though he later changes his mind. A serious, stone-faced samurai and a supremely skilled swordsman; Katsushirō is in awe of him.
* Kikuchiyo (菊千代) (Toshirō Mifune) — The seventh member of the group and the only one who is not actually a samurai. A would-be samurai (right down to the false noble birth certificate) who eventually proves his worth. He is mercurial and temperamental. Of all the samurai, he most closely identifies with the villagers and their plight. Always the show-off, his sword, an Ōkatana, is considerably larger than everyone else's.

You must remember these 7 men fight for this town for basically 3 hots and a cot,(3 meals and a place to sleep at night). The reason that they do it is because, Japanese society declares that they must do this role. They do ask why, they just do it and try not to die.

4. The love story: Now the farmers feared that the Samurai would try and take all of the young women so in the beginning of the film, when the Samurai arrive there are no young girls in the village. So when the town decides that they must work with the samurai, the audience sees that the samurai Katsushiro and a village girl fall in love, but the farmer's daughter cannot dream of marrying a ronin, once again because the culture would demand that she not.

5. The ending of this film: (From Roger Ebert's review)

Many characters die in "The Seven Samurai," but violence and action are not the point of the movie. It is more about duty and social roles. The samurai at the end have lost four of their seven, yet there are no complaints, because that is the samurai's lot. The villagers do not much want the samurai around once the bandits are gone, because armed men are a threat to order. That is the nature of society. The samurai who fell in love with the local girl is used significantly in the composition of the final shots. First he is seen with his colleagues. Then with the girl. Then in an uncommitted place not with the samurai, but somehow of them. Here you can see two genres at war: The samurai movie and the Western with which Kurosawa was quite familiar. Should the hero get the girl? Japanese audiences in 1954 would have said no. Kurosawa spent the next 40 years arguing against the theory that the individual should be the instrument of society.

This is why the ending was hard to understand the first time that I saw it. The bandits were killed off and the town was safe. The villagers did not want the samurai around because they are now a threat to the order, but there would not have been any order without the samurai. This is why the quote by the leader of the samurai was hard to understand...

"The farmers have won. Not us." This statement sheds new light on an earlier statement at the beginning of the film that he had "never won a battle." The town was at peace and they had their lives back, they had won the battle. The samurai had lost their friends and they were back to wandering around Japan without a master, a low samurai. All because society tells them that it must be this way.

With "Ran", this story is based on legends of the daimyo Mori Motonari, as well as on the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear. (but instead of daughters, this King has 3 sons.)This film was to be Kurosawa's last epic, After Ran, he directed three other films before he died, but none of them were on this large of a scale.

Kurosawa first got the idea that would become Ran in the mid-1970s, when he read a parable about the Sengoku-era warlord Mori Motonari. Motonari was famous for having three sons, all incredibly loyal and talented in their own right. Kurosawa began imagining what would have happened had they been bad. From Kurosawa himself.."When I read that three arrows together are invincible, that's not true. I started doubting, and that's when I started thinking: the house was prosperous and the sons were courageous. What if this fascinating man had bad sons?"

Kurosawa also once said that "Hidetora (the king) is me," and there is some evidence in the film that Hidetora serves as a stand-in for Kurosawa.[6] Hidetora's crest is the sun and moon, and the Chinese character of Kurosawa's first name "Akira" (kanji: 明) is combined from the kanji meaning "sun" (日) and "moon" (月)He also stated about the "King Lear" connection, "What has always troubled me about 'King Lear' is that Shakespeare gives his characters no past. ... In Ran, I have tried to give Lear a history."

While Kurosawa said that Ran is not a direct adaptation of King Lear, he did admit to being influenced by the play and incorporated many elements from it into "Ran". Both follow an aging warlord who decides to divide up his kingdom among his offspring. In place of Lear's daughters, Hidetora has three sons — Taro, Jiro, and Saburo (who correspond to Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia respectively). In both, the warlord foolishly banishes anyone who disagrees with him as a matter of pride — in Lear it is the Earl of Kent and Cordelia and in Ran it is both Tango and Saburo. The conflict in both is that two of the lord's children ultimately turn against him, while the third supports him, though Hidetora's sons are far more ruthless than Goneril and Regan. Both King Lear and Ran ultimately end with the death of the entire family, including the hapless Lord. (Wikipedia)

What I really liked about this film was the simple use of clouds in it. In many scenes Kurosawa shows that "Ran" (chaos) is about to be unleashed by the simple showing of different colored skies and clouds. It was so subtle that I did not get it until the very last cloud was shown at the end of this film.

If you are going to want to watch these 2 films, then please watch them back to back, so you can enjoy a true master, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, at his apex.

No comments: