the seven samurai

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Seven Samurai: Drama Though Action

@wearesamurai

“[…] Kurosawa focuses less on the action, and more on the consequence of the action.

Throughout most of the set pieces, Kurosawa amplifies the death of each antagonist by having the camera show the demise of every single bandit. How this typically works is that we begin with a shot that shows the samurai attacking, but then, very importantly, cut to the following shot which shows where the bandit will fall before they actually do.

So not only do we see the full action, but also the full consequence, as opposed to cutting too soon and interrupting either. And it’s in the moments that show reprecussions when most of the drama lies. Without them, we aren’t being confronted with the reality of the situation, instead just presented with the glamourised version of the violence.

This all may sound obvious, but it is relevant because the majority of modern action films almost fetishise the way they shoot the protagonists. Look how often the camera is locked onto the main characters, in order to capture every flourishing move they perform. They’re almost never out of frame, and we hardly get to see the result of what they’re doing. Kurosawa on the other hand makes a point of showing the audience the effects of the characters’ heroism, and so we can gauge the enormity of their task. […]”

The Rogue comments: With apologies to MCU fans, I am in PERFECT agreement with this wonderful drag against the standard modern, big budget, flashy, exaggerated, narcissistic, shallow, hollow, and heartless action film-making. And that fellow’s so polite! I wouldn’t be. Actually, I won’t be. You have been warned.

First, small nitpick: The Matrix shouldn’t be lumped with the other action films mentioned, because the flashiness of bullet time and the camera’s focus on the protagonists’ cool moves (all at the expense of the world around them) actually have a function here, and a purpose, and a thematic resonance: in the Matrix, external reality literally doesn’t exist.

So despite superficial similarities, there’s just no relation with your vanilla superhero universe, where “gawking at the protagonist” simply reveals the true nature of the film: a glorious wanking experience (sometimes politely called “power fantasy”). And who wants consequences to mess with THAT? I don’t want consequences in my porn either, I just want fancy poses.

Damn that’s hot.

And here’s the funny thing. When this is the language of action sequences (the sum of cinematography, direction and editing is, of course, a language), then any concern for consequences that’s afterwards inserted via plot or dialogue becomes utterly weightless. It’s a subset of “the medium is the message” phenomenon, it’s just not convincing. Nobody cares enough. Nobody wants the superheroes to stop being cool - their coolness isn’t a means to an end, it’s an end in itself, it’s THE end. So whatever they accomplish, and at whatever cost, matters little. Because when it’s all over, we’re right back where we started, unchallenged and unchanged: we just want them to be cool and badass all over again in the sequel.

Whereas in Kurosawa’s film-making, where the results and consequences of violence remain in the foreground as much as the violence itself,  all the thrill and tension of the action culminates in the sheathing of the sword. Figuratively, or (in the case of Sanjuro) literally and explicitly. And it’s not an empty gesture, it’s proper catharsis. It drives home everything that preceded it, and completes the audience’s transformation.

Sanjuro was spectacularly cool throughout the film (and more badass than all the Avengers lumped together, if you ask me), but now that it’s done, we’re not in the same place we were at the beginning. Because we’ve seen the results with our own eyes, and we’ve counted the bodies one by one, and we do NOT want him to be “cool” and “badass” all over again - that would be pointless.

We just want that sword of his to remain sheathed…

P.S. For a very different but equally brilliant diametrical opposite of today’s flashy, narcissistic, shallow, hollow, and heartless action film-making, see also: Mad Max: Fury Road.

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Film Posters by Adam Juresko for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

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Let’s Talk About Movies:

Motifs, Symbols, Metaphors, and Allusions
The art of filmmaking by Akira Kurosawa

A figurative technique can be defined as an artistic device in which an object suggest abstract ideas and emotions over and beyond what the object literally means. A good example of the shifting implications of a symbol can be seen in the uncut version of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. In this movie, a young samurai and a peasant girl are attracted to each other, but their class differences present insurmountable barriers.

  • Kurosawa emphasizes their separation by keeping them in separate flames, a raging outdoor fire acting as a kind of barrier. (Frame 1 and 2)
  • But their attraction is too strong, and they then appear in the same shot, the fire between them now suggesting the only obstacle, yet paradoxically, also suggesting the sexual passion they both feel (Frame 3)
  • They draw towards each other, and the fire is now to one side, its sexual dominating (Frame 4)
  • They go inside a hut, and the light from the fire outside emphasizes the eroticism of the scene (Frame 5)
  • As they begin to make love in a dark corner of the hut, the shadow cast by the fire lights on the reeds of the hut seen to streak across their bodies (Frame 6)
  • Suddenly, the girl’s father discovers the lovers, and now the billowing flames of the fire suggest his moral outrage (Frame 7)
  • Indeed, he is so incensed that he must be restrained by the samurai chief, their images almost washed out by the intensity of the fire lights (Frame 8)
  • It begins to rain, and the sorrowing young samurai walks away despondently (Frame 9)
  • At the end of the sequence, Kurosawa offers a close-up of the fire, as the rain extinguishes its flames (Frame 10)

(Giannetti, Louis D. Understanding Movies second edition. New Jersey, 1976.)