The program of samurai cinema at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) is well and truly over (May 16-June 1). Here are my reviews of four very different films; four very different film explorations of the samurai code.
Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)
Early in Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai)the wise Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) explains, ‘I’m not a man with any special skills, but I’ve had plenty of experience in battles … in short that’s all I am.’ Like all samurai warriors, he is a man defined by his actions. He doesn’t know who he is beyond what he has done. Underpinning this history is a courageous heart. Kambei understands that courage exists in doing what is right, not only what is just; that courage requires resolve, restraint as well as bravado, and above all, a willingness to sacrifice. Courage is the virtue that underpins all others in Akira Kurosawa’s (1910-1998) great action film.
Seven Samurai is not only one of the finest cinema examples of the samurai genre, but remains one of the greatest films ever made.
Its narrative is a simple one. With civil war rampant in late sixteenth-century Japan, a village of farmers finds itself under attack on a yearly basis by a group of relentless bandits. Increasingly desperate the villagers decide to hire seven masterless samurai (or ronin) to protect them from attack after the following year’s harvest. Unmotivated by wealth and fame, these men embody the samurai warrior code of Bushidō, dominated by honour, truth and loyalty, and a courageous spirit that guides their resolve.
Kurosawa made his 14th film as director while under the influence of the Westerns that flooded Japanese screens at the end of the Second World War, and especially those made by John Ford (Stagecoach, 1939). Kurosawa was already Japan’s most famous international director after films like Drunken Angel (1948 – his first pairing with Toshiro Mifune) and then Rashomon (1950). Following Seven Samurai he would go on to make further significant films, including The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961), but it is for this brilliant epic that he is most often lauded.
With co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, Kurosawa shaped Seven Samurai as an innovative mix of Western and Eastern film traditions. Released in 1954, after a 12 month shoot and a blown out budget, Seven Samurai soon became his most successful film to date and has gone on to influence countless films and filmmakers, most obviously, its direct remake, The Magnificent Seven (1960, John Sturges) starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.
Early scenes introduce us to the villagers and their desperate plight. Three farmers – Manzō, Rikichi and the older Yohei, visit the village elder, old Gisaku who encourages them to hire samurai to protect the village. Aware that they have no money with which to lure these men, Gisaku suggests they find ‘hungry samurai’ and offer them three meals of rice a day in return for their protection.
After several failed attempts to convince any samurai to help, a tired, zen-like ronin appears and rescues a boy who has been kidnapped by a thief. Shaving his head as if in preparation for battle, Kambei’s triumph endears him to the farmers who convince him to help their cause. Kurosawa switches his focus from the villagers now to Kambei’s attempts to recruit six other men. The samurai march into town with a Western-style swagger to a score by Fumio Hayasaka that plays heavily with Western tropes. It’s both a visual and aural reminder of the Western’s influence on Kurosawa but also the impact of his films on the Westerns (especially those of Sergio Leone) that would follow.
From the beginning, Kurosawa is keen to show us that each of the seven samurai has an individual personality. Even more, he explores how these personalities fit together and within the wider community of the village they will eventually fight for.
Kambei has eager assistance from the young, inexperienced Katsushirō (Isao Kimura), who wants to be his disciple and from an old loyal friend, Shichirōji (Daisuke Katō). Then there is Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) who is sociable and tactical, Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), who is kindhearted and witty, and Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), who is serious and highly skilled. The final recruit, Kikuchiyo (the extraordinary Mifune) is a farmer’s son posing as a samurai. He is clownish, drunk and reckless, but welcomed for his passion and strength.
Mifune’s Kikuchiyo is the source of much of the film’s surprising humour but also its emotional core. Kikuchiyo is a character incapable of masking his feelings and this emerges throughout the course of the film both in his favour and to his detriment. His identification with the plight of the villagers allows him to assuage their initial suspicion and fear of the samurai they so desperately rely on. Mifune is almost operatic in his intensity, giving a highly physical and memorable performance.
True to his code, Kambei is honest about what lies ahead, that this is a ‘job promising no pay or reward’ and that the most likely outcome will be death. Each samurai therefore fights for honour and perseveres with courage.
Kurosawa’s sympathy for his characters is one of Seven Samurai’s greatest strengths. Like all great films it strives to uncover something unknown about the human experience. Seven Samurai’s characters are all flawed in their own ways, but Kurosawa draws us into their lives so that the film becomes an epic on both a grand and intimate scale. In early scenes, we see close-ups on the villagers’ faces, their despair a subtle comment on the abuse human beings wreak upon each other. In a later scene, when Katsushirō expresses his admiration for Kyūzō, Kurosawa shoots the exchange in close-up, slowing down the action to a pure moment of honesty and respect.
In the middle of Seven Samurai there is a focus on preparations for battle. We see the samurai train the villagers and assist in the construction of forts. But there are also quiet moments of great beauty that reveal Kurosawa’s abundant humanism. In particular, a scene in which Katsushirō, who Kambei describes as ‘still a child’, walks through a field of flowers on the mountain and then lies down in them with an expression of serene contentment on his face, exemplifies Kurosawa’s ability to shift the film’s tone without losing any of its focus.
With the reappearance of the bandits, the film’s final third comprises of a series of battles that culminate in an extraordinary sequence shot amidst lashing rain. The sound editing throughout this sequence is astonishing – we hear rain, wind, the men’s feet trampling mud, the mud ripped apart by horses, threatening to squelch right out of the screen. The scene is visceral and immersive and has rightly earned its legendary status.
Like all the film’s battle scenes, the finale demonstrates the wide-screen influence of Ford. Kurosawa used multiple cameras and long (or telephoto) lenses to give the scenes their epic scope. His camera dives down and follows the flow of the action allowing for a sense of freedom in the visual storytelling that he had not previously employed.
But Kurosawa was equally influenced by Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory – the concept that the juxtaposition of opposite images through editing is crucial in affecting the audience’s response. In this final battle sequence, Kurosawa was able to contrast movement with stillness, rapid tracking shots and close-ups, which work in concert to amplify the film’s visual impact alongside its emotional one.
This impact is most profound by the film’s conclusion. With only three of the seven samurai remaining, it is clear that the sacrifice has been great for both the dead and the living. Kurosawa cuts between long-shots of the living samurai standing before the graves of the fallen, close-ups on their faces and scenes of the villagers, singing happily together as they prepare crops. Kambei notes, ‘Again, we’re defeated. The winners are those farmers, not us.’ The warrior life means they must move on, without their comrades. They are no longer a part of the village that once welcomed them with open arms. Their lives must go on, elsewhere.
In many ways, at 207 minutes, Seven Samurai must be considered an epic, but it is ultimately much more than an action film. Despite a high body count, Seven Samurai is not a film enamored with violence. Its central threads are tied to more mundane human experiences, to the rigors of social roles and obligations and the courage required to do what is right in the face of often unforgiving realities.
The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Conventional ideas about courage are blown apart in The Wages of Fear (La salaire de la peur), an existential thriller directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) that places man in a tense battle with his environment, his machinery and with himself.
A group of men are stuck in an isolated town called Las Piedras somewhere in Latin America. There are no trains and no highways out. The airport is close by but no one can afford the fare. Escape is always just out of reach. As the Corsican, Mario (Yves Montand, in his first dramatic role) notes, while standing beside an open grave, ‘It’s like prison here. Easy to get in … But no exit. If you stay, you croak.’ Most die of hunger while they lose the will to live. Men from all over the world, congregated here, in a place not dissimilar to hell.
The Wages of Fear has a startling opening scene – a close-up on cockroaches tied together and tortured by a half-naked child, battling each other in the dirt (a similar scene opens Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, 1969). The child turns his attentions to an ice vendor and a vulture swoops in. Clouzot establishes one of the narrative’s key ideas here of the harm men do to others when greed takes over. This is a man’s world – the film’s one female character, Linda (Vera Clouzot), Mario’s crudely discarded lover, is treated like a slave by her boss at the tavern, where she works and seems to provide other services too. Another character declares, ‘Women are a waste of time,’ and in the universe of the film, they are also disposable.
Clouzot’s film, adapted by he and Jérome Geronimi from Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel, La Salaire de la Peur, is built around human desperation. The Southern Oil Company (SOC) – one of the few employers in town – operates the nearby oil fields. As Mario observes, ‘Wherever there’s oil, there’s Americans.’ The Americans have plundered the land, exploiting its resources and its people. Soon enough this imperialistic tragedy is magnified by a fire at one of the oil fields in which several local men die. And then an advertisement appears: ‘Experienced drivers required for dangerous work.’
Many of the town’s itinerant men, including Mario, are lured by the promise of cash – $2000 a piece – to complete a high-risk job. Four men are needed to transport two trucks carrying nitroglycerine through the jungle to the oil field to try and extinguish the out of control blaze.
The film’s opening sequences, establishing characters and place are reminiscent of John Huston’s magnificent The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), starring Humphrey Bogart. Like the men in Huston’s film, the men in The Wages of Fear push themselves to their limits, but for what. Of the four men the SOC eventually hire, one can ask: Is there anything unique about them or are they just men who see no other way out; men with nothing to lose? Are their actions heroic?
Mario, an unlikable protagonist if ever there was one, has fond memories of Paris life around Pigalle. It seems he wants money to return to its pleasures of the flesh. Jo (Charles Vanel), a Frenchman, is an ex-gangster, with whom Mario quickly feels a strong bond. The Dutchman, Bimba (Peter Van Eyck), uses his experience with the Nazis as a touchstone for his current predicament; and the jovial Italian, Luigi (Folco Lulli), who has just discovered he is dying. We never learn what these men are doing in Las Piedras and we never will.
Clouzot presents a suicide mission – a 300-mile journey over treacherous terrain, rickety bridges, and always with that deadly cargo right behind them. Mario drives with Jo; Bimba with Luigi. The men, as the SOC foreman Bill O’Brien warns, are taking their lives into their own hands. If either truck overheats, the nitro can explode; if they hit even the slightest bump in the road, it might blow then too. And another man, Dick, has warned them:
‘You don’t know what fear is. But you’ll see. It’s catching. It’s catching like smallpox. And once you get it, it’s for life.’
The men’s journey through the jungle, sometimes at an excruciatingly slow pace, is a journey for each man into their own heart of darkness. Their courage and friendship is tested. Fear is with them at every turn, over every bump. They try to be brave, to behave as ‘men’ must, and to varying degrees succeed, except for Jo, who begins to feel the cold sickness of fear almost immediately and then sinks further and further into cowardice as the mission goes on. Each man has a ‘bomb on his tail’ as they race towards the money.
The Wages of Fear is distinct from Clouzot’s earlier films Le Corbeau (1943), Quai des Orfèvres (1947), Retour à la vie (1949) and the later terror classic Les Diaboliques (1955), for the extraordinary way it builds and sustains tension. The film is distinguished by three heartstopping sequences. One involves each truck having to make a turn so tight that they can only make it by backing all the way to the edge of a rotting bridge, suspended over the abyss. The second, and most intense, when an impasse appears in the road. A massive boulder has fallen from the mountains. Bimba and Luigi decide to blow it up and out of their way. Mario and Jo eventually catch up. What follows is almost unbearably tense, as Luigi creates a hole in the rock for Bimba to siphon some of the nitro into. He lights a fuse and the men run back. But worried that the explosion may trigger further rocks to fall, Luigi returns to extinguish it. The rock blows up, we don’t know if Luigi is okay. Throughout this sequence, and others, Clouzot launches a visceral assault on the viewer’s nervous system that is almost too much to take. The final nail-biter involves attempts to drive a truck through an expanding pool of oil. I’ll say no more than that.
The Wages of Fear is all oil and mud and washed out landscapes that look and smell hot. Armand Thirard’s cinematography is brilliant from the beginning, the scorching white light of the film’s opening third a perfect fit for the slowness of the narrative’s development. This is black and white photography that flattens out the landscape, giving it a tangible sundrenched appearance. When the ‘action’ starts, and the locations darken, the images take on an increasingly sinister and frightening aspect.
The Wages of Fear is an extremely unsentimental film. While performances from the four main men are all excellent, it’s a film in which we feel quite distant from each character. We are denied access to their subjectivity, their inner worlds. Yet these are not characters for which you feel nothing, it’s just that Clouzot seems to deny any responsibility for shaping what it is an audience might feel. Ambiguity is a powerful cinematic tool. When tragedy strikes it’s with a whimper not a bang – utterly unexpected and predictable both at once. Because of this it’s not simple to decide how to feel about it.
The men’s resolve is tested to the end. But it’s their physical courage, ultimately, that has been confirmed. There is little morality or moral courage on display. And by the film’s end, physical courage is also attendant on a certain amount of reckless stupidity. Whatever each man has risked has been purely out of self-interest; they have not behaved courageously or heroically on behalf of others or for the greater good. There is no heroism in death. As Jo concludes, fatalistically, in a bleak summation of the human condition, ultimately, ‘There’s nothing.’
13 Assassins (2010, Takeshi Miike)
Midway through Takeshi Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010), a man in a tavern jokes, ‘These days, swords are only good for cutting radishes.’
It might seem like a throwaway line meant for laughs but the question of what a samurai sword is good for seems to be the central problem Miike’s film sets out to solve.
13 Assassins unfolds in 1844 at the dawn of the modern Meiji era. The time of the samurai is coming to a close. It is an era, predominantly, of peace. Despite this the half-brother of the Shogun, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), behaves sadistically, raping and killing because he enjoys it and because he can. Shinzaemon Shimada (Kōji Kakusho), a weary and noble samurai (first seen quietly fishing), is called upon to restore honour to the land and assassinate him. Horrified by the extent of Naritsugu’s brutality after meeting a woman whose limbs and tongue he chopped off after he massacred her entire family, Shinzaemon doesn’t hesitate to commit himself to the task: ‘As a samurai in this era of peace … I’ve been wishing for a noble death. Now fate has called me here.’ And he decides, ‘I will accomplish your wish with magnificence.’
But it won’t be easy to get access to Naritsugu, who is surrounded by an army of men willing to protect him and die for him. Shinzaemon cannot do it alone. In the tradition of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Shinzaemon will assemble twelve other men, eleven samurai and another less skilled, but no less fierce, who knows the terrain. They will be thirteen assassins in total, setting out on a suicide mission.
Miike spends a considerable amount of time developing these characters, including the veteran Saheita who brings members of his dojo, and Shinzaemon’s nephew, Shinrokuro Shimada (Takayuki Yamada), who has strayed from the samurai code into a life of gambling and womanising. For him, this will be a redemptive mission.
There is also no shortage of exposition of Naritsugu’s barbarism. He is possibly the most despicable villain I’ve ever encountered in a film, fuelled by an uncontrollable madness that, justly, can only end in one way. He rapes, maims, kicks severed heads and kills on mass. Miike encourages us to have a very strong, primitive response to him that is set in motion early in the film when a samurai kneels in a courtyard and commits sepukku in protest to his horrors. It’s a gruesome scene but not in the way you expect; its terror contained in sound rather than vision, in the cool, precise starkness of its presentation rather than an excess of blood and gore.
By the time the film’s action sequences do start, such a significant portion of the film has been devoted to establishing characters that we have a very strong sense of what motivates the violence that unfolds. And this works in the film’s favour, providing a solid framework of honourable and dishonourable acts.
With films like Audition (1999) and Ichi The Killer (2001), Miike is no stranger to viscerally assaulting his audiences. He is a kinetic filmmaker but a thoughtful one. 13 Assassins’ much talked about45-minute finale is a carefully constructed and choreographed action sequence set around a small village that the assassins have ambushed where they know Naritsugu will be passing through. The 13 assassins think they will be confronted by only 70 men but instead find 200 waiting to attack. The scene is set for chaos, but while it is frenzied in parts it is never confusing. The audience is never unsure of what’s going on or who is fighting whom. Miike stages scenes with graphic intensity; heads roll, and thankfully many of the deaths take place off screen. But the violence is extreme, mostly, in its realism and by the film’s conclusion it feels like we are really looking at the aftermath on a battlefield, with its tangled mess of broken bodies, blood soaked earth and buildings, body parts fusing with mud. It’s completely unsanitised, as far as possible from the comic book violence we have come to associate with samurai films in the modern era.
While the Shogunate is corrupt, seeing its servants as property to dispose of as it pleases, the samurai remain honourable in their pursuits no matter how violent. The film’s final battle is staged as a battle for the honour of the samurai code itself. Miike plays this out by having Shinzaemon face off against a former friend and dojo colleague, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), who is now a loyal servant to the malevolent Naritsugu. The code enacted on either side of the conflict is the same; that ‘Dying for one’s master is the way of the samurai.’ Hanbei, justifying his atrocities says, ‘No matter how low I go, Hanbei Kito is a samurai. I won’t hand over my Lord’s head so easily.’ While we see each man fall squarely on either the side of good or evil, each believes he is fighting for the same thing, somewhat blurring that line.
13 Assassins evokes the rich history of samurai cinema but might be best approached as a revisionist samurai film. Set at the end of the medieval Edo period, the samurai was already an endangered species. Naritsugu questions, ‘What makes a samurai warrior? You men mindlessly chant ‘loyalty, duty’ like a Buddhist prayer …’ It is true that the men remain entrenched in a relentless honour code that will inevitably produce a bloodbath but Miike doesn’t navigate this terrain without questioning it. The most honourable and dignified death for a samurai was to die by the sword and they almost all do. But the words that echo once the film ends are Shinzaemon’s final words to his nephew, that ‘being a samurai is truly a burden.’ As Shinrokuro walks through the carnage, he continues to carry his sword even though it seems, just for a moment that he might abandon it to the mess beneath his feet. But it’s a burden he seems willing to continue to carry for now. A samurai sword is for justice, is for honour, is for life.
Shane (1953, George Stevens)
‘A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.’ These are words to live by. These are words that express a personal code for doing good deeds in the world, according to the hero of George Stevens’ great 1953 Western Shane.
We first see this lone hero (Alan Ladd) from a distance, captured in a long shot, his pearl-handled gun gleaming in its holster, riding down into a valley, the Grand Tetons (the highest mountain range in Northwest Wyoming) rising majestically behind him. It’s a striking opening scene. He moves slowly, like a golden-haired knight in fringed buckskin, making his way into the film and into our consciousness.
We see him as Little Joey Starrett (Brandon de Wilde) sees him. Joey has his unloaded rifle trained on a deer when he spots the man riding towards the family farm. He calls out to his father, Joe (Van Heflin), ‘Somebody’s comin’, Pa.’ To which Pa replies, ‘Well, let him come.’ Already there is an air of anticipation and mystery around this stranger and Joey’s immediately in awe, gripped by the fever of hero worship that will last the film’s entirety.
The man quietly asks if he can pass through their property. ‘Call me Shane’ he says, and endears himself further to the boy, identifying his shyness and attentiveness as admirable qualities: ‘I like a man who watches things go on around. It means he’ll make his mark someday.’ But Shane’s also jumpy. He has a history with that gun slung to his side. He doesn’t say what, but we know there’s something because of the speed with which he draws when Joey, showing off, cocks his rifle. When Joey asks, ‘Bet you can shoot … Can’t you?’ Shane replies, ‘Little bit,’ playing down his prowess. Joe’s wife, Marian (Jean Arthur) watches all this through the window inside their log cabin.
Joe and Marian are homesteaders in Wyoming, building a farm and a life for themselves in the state’s wide, flat plains; Shane’s a drifter, just passing through, bound some place he’s never been. But this time he’s going to have to rest for a bit. He’s immediately caught up in the war being waged between the cow ranchers, led by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) against the farmers, or ‘sodbusters’, as they are insolently called. Ryker wants their land so his cattle can roam freely; the homesteaders want their little claim and to be left alone to work it. Ryker and some men come to visit and the tense violent confrontation that ensues allows Shane’s cool demeanor a chance to shine. There will be more trouble throughout the film and Shane, like a samurai, will be ready for it. Joe is impressed enough to ask him to stay – not to fight his battles for him but to help him work the land.
There is a quiet intensity to these well paced, opening scenes in Stevens’ film. They introduce the film’s major characters and tell us almost everything we need to know about them. Shane enters the landscape of the film a lone ronin with little personal backstory (what we come to know is only ever implied), in the tradition of Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo (1961) but without the comedy. We don’t know what motivates Shane’s actions other than what his actions themselves tell us about the code he lives by. He comes into the lives of the Starrett family and the other homesteaders like a warrior for hire, ready to take on their cause because it is an honest and good one. And he fights for himself – because he’s looking to be redeemed.
Directed by Stevens between A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956), Shane,like these other major films, can also be seen as an exploration of the great symbolic myths of America. Here we have the duel between good and evil played out against the birth of the American West, the desire for community and family in conflict with individualism and greed. Shane rides into a lawless place (the law, we repeatedly hear, is many miles away, too far to come when there’s trouble) to create his own sense of right and order. It’s an archetypal story of frontier heroism, played out many years later in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985), which has a very similar plot and ending.
Shot on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the film’s cinematography is wide and rich. Stevens’ film is made up of mostly long and medium shots that locate his characters in a very specific space. Shane was the first film to be projected in a flat widescreen format – the panoramic screen invented by Paramount and installed at Radio City Music Hall for the film’s premiere. The screen was a perfect vehicle for such a cinematic film. The memorable score by Victor Young matches each sequence. In addition, Stevens made significant innovations in sound editing, especially with the explosive impact of gunfire.
Shane is soft-spoken and self-possessed and each member of the Starrett family finds themselves drawn to him. But Joey in particular is mesmerized by Shane’s gun belt despite Stevens making a point of having Shane remove it when he takes up residence in the Starrett barn. On or off, Shane’s ‘six shooter’ is the film’s defining symbol. When he isn’t wearing it he’s able to indulge in the quiet domesticity he seems to crave. Sitting down to eat with the Starrett’s for the first time he’s clearly at ease. After dinner, he goes outside and chops wood without being asked. He’s expressing his gratitude and revealing a commitment to being a good man.
Shane’s just as handy using his hands as a weapon. The extraordinary extended fight sequence at the saloon, when he’s called upon to defend the sodbusters honour, has him take on all the men, bare-knuckled. He’s small and scrappy but throws hard punches as Joey looks on, in awe, while eating a candy cane.
Sensing how far Joey has fallen (‘I love him almost as much as I love Pa’) perhaps because she’s also fallen just as hard (the unspoken desire between Shane and Marian is worth an essay of its own), Marian warns Shane, ‘Guns aren’t going to be my boy’s life.’ Shane makes the distinction between good and bad men and good and bad guns; that a gun is a tool like any other. Shane takes pride in showing restraint. But other characters equate gun slinging with murder and in the end that’s all it can be.
Shane’s honesty about who he is and what he is there to do determines the film’s outcome. He is a good man among bad men. And by the time he saddles up and rides into town for the film’s final showdown with the hired gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) he has accepted that the blood of past killings remains with him:
‘A man has to be what he is, Joey. You can’t break the mould. I tried it and it didn’t work for me … there’s no living with, with a killing. There’s no going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks. There’s no going back.’
So Shane can’t stay still, he has to keep moving forward. It’s the only honest way he can escape it. We don’t know where Shane has come from and we don’t know where he is riding off to or if he’ll even survive his wounds when he leaves Joey calling after him, famously, ‘Shane! Come back!’ All we know is he has left his mark on these people and he’s given them the chance to live even better lives than his.