Friday, April 22, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—S is For

Some Like It Hot, Seven Samurai, Seven, Saving Private Ryan, Scarface, Spider-Man 2, Snatch,  Superman (1978), Serpico, Solaris (1972)

      I mistakenly thought the glutton of great films ended at "R"... Big mistake. Yet again, I must cull as aggressively and shrewdly as I can. For starters, I'm purposely avoiding any titles that start with "The" because it would be virtually impossible otherwise (if you don't believe me, see the contenders above). I do realize I broke this rule a few times already, but those were three very special and extenuating cases for three absolute film classics. I've already awarded Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, so my pick's not coming from a galaxy far, far away. I love classic westerns—what can be better than the film that launched John Wayne's career—but sadly, Stagecoach doesn't earn my spot. And Some Like It Hot is a timeless comedy from the versatile mind of Billy Wilder, but it has been so long since I've seen it. It's a damn shame, I know. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis can disguise themselves as women once again, and tease me until I cry. It's the only proper justification for not granting Wilder a place in my alphabet.
      So that leaves us with...well, some of the finest films over the past 60 years: Seven Samurai, Saving Private Ryan, Snatch, Serpico, Spider-Man 2, Superman, Solaris, and Scarface. Does Spielberg win his record third Alphabetic title or will the legendary Kurosawa deny him the accolade? Will Tony Montana dive into a mound of cocaine and shoot up the scene if he doesn't get the nod or will Pacino go Serpico on us instead? Does Superman, the origin story that gave birth to the superhero film genre earn placement or will the new age superhero film Spider-Man 2 win out? How about Andrei Tarkovsky's brilliant psychological drama Solaris or one of my favorite British gangster films Snatch? Oh, and there's David Fincher's Seven. Wait, he already won a spot for Fight Club. Never mind. So many great films, and yet, only one can be named the champion of "S." Which film earns the top spot on my alphabetic podium? Hit the jump for the toilsome decision.

What a magnificent poster!

      And the winner is? Akira Kurosawa's epic tale, Seven Samurai.


      It's Sixteenth Century Japan. An impoverished village is the frequent victim of looters, a dastardly perpetration from a gang of ransacking bandits. Master samurai Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a man of high moral character, saves a kidnapped farmer's child. Impressed by his benevolence and bravery, a group of farmers, from the aforementioned poor village, implore him to defend their oppressed land from the plundering bandits. Kambei, a tough and weathered warrior, agrees to their desperate demand; although there is no material gain or honor to be gleamed from his heroic troubles. Soon, the honorable warrior attracts a pair of followers: a young samurai named Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who quickly becomes his disciple, and the impetuous samurai Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who assembles four other samurai, including Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a master swordsman, to round out the fearsome group of seven. Together, they consolidate the village's defenses and transform it into a formidable militia, while the menacing bandits loom nearby. Through a dazzling series of ensuing conflicts—the calculating result of strategic raids and counter-raids—the intensifying hostilities accelerate into one climactic, and unforgettable, gut-wrenching battle. 
      Kurosawa's epic yarn is primarily a study of honor and duty during a time when the old traditional order is crumbling. Kambie's valiant defense of the endangered village people for what amounts to a few bowls of rice is Kurosawa's greatest ode to the ancient order. But Kurosawa's tale is not simply a one-dimensional feel good tale of heroism. The antithesis of honor and duty is social rebellion. And Kurosawa harbors no restraint in juxtaposing a samurai's duty with a human's rebellion. The boisterous Kikuchiyo was not born a samurai, but he defies traditional hierarchy to become one. Moreover, the budding romance between Katsushiro and the village girl is forbidden. Despite their impassioned love for each other, social tradition dictates that a farmer's daughter cannot marry a ronin. Towards the end of the film, Kurosawa's thematic motives become even more transparent. His allusion to the archaic nature of a once prejudicial social arrangement is underscored by a passing pronouncement. When the two lovers are found together on the eve of the climactic battle, the villagers, for the first time, begin to examine the gross antiquity of their beliefs. They espouse the need to understand the young lovers relationship. Much like any classic fable, the characters in Kurosawa's film are like characters in a Greek tragedy.

      The spectacle of seven sword-swinging, bow-and-arrow footmen opposing a faction of forty mounted bandits is a beautiful sight to witness. When these seven samurai, of varied courage and disposition, take up arms against the marauding bandits, who come charging down from the hills, a cinema's love for epic adventure is born. The movie is long (two hours and thirty-eight minutes) with an intermission. But Kurosawa's story moves briskly because the storytelling is luminous, the characters are unambiguous, and the action sequences are thrilling. Essentially, Kurosawa laid the groundwork for the action-movie formula. Seven Samurai is the original, great bastion of action-adventure. It was truly the first film that explored the methodical assemblage of a contingent—an assignment born from the collective heroism of moral figures. 
      The acting is commendable. Kambei, the leader of the seven samurai, is a tough and weathered warrior. Shimura exudes a worldly calm and a tactical brilliance. Kikuchiyo is a boastful braggart. Mifune commands a rare form of humor as this crazy but courageous samurai. He plays the impulsive and brave showoff with a hint of rebellion and a social awareness—he's also not the greatest horseman. The one conspicuous female, Shino (Keiko Tsushima), conveys a sense of terror for the plight of her people. But she also radiates a silent passion, and she's aware that her forbidden affair jeopardizes the battle. The rest of the Samurais perform admirably, specifically Kimura, who inherits the role of disciple and lover. 

       Asakazu and Kurosawa's photography wonderfully conforms to the opportunistic moods, from brutally realistic to poetic. And, quite viscerally, nobody could photography men in action quite like Kurosawa. His purpose was not only to make a samurai movie that's anchored in ancient Japanese culture, but also one that embodies a malleable humanism in place of uncompromising traditions. He is a daring and inventive cinematic force, and his camera techniques speak to this bravado. He loves to mastermind shots in which the camera follows the rush and flow of action, instead of frequent ADHD-style fast cuts (which is a modern trademark). He also uses close-ups in some of the late battle scenes to convey a greater sense of intimacy and closeness. Moreover, Kurosawa has varnished a wealth of rich detail, which illuminates his characters and the kind of action engagements they must face. Consequently, the overt physicality of Kurosawa's action pieces make the film graphic in a firm, realistic-western style. Abrupt alterations of mood within scenes also help keep the viewer's expectations off-balance. 
      Kurosawa, considered the most Western of great Japanese directors, creates a memorably naturalistic, wonderfully entertaining action film, wherein the qualities of human strength and weakness are discovered in a crisis fraught with peril. With an intuitive awareness for balance and architecture, Kurosawa constantly employs deep focus to ensnare every ounce of action from his grand tale. Many characters perish but neither violence nor action defines his film. Seven Samurai is more about duty and social obligation. According to Roger Ebert, "The samurai lose four of their seven, yet there are no complaints, because that is the samurai's lot. The villagers do not want the samurai around once the bandits are gone, because armed men are a threat to order. That is the nature of society." The central truth of Kurosawa's film concerns the primordial responsibility of the warrior class and the civilian class, and ultimately, what measures must be adopted to facilitate a peaceful co-existence. Does the samurai get the girl at the end? You'll just have to see for yourself, but it might just be one of the greatest movie experiences of your life. And then, you'll go watch it again. Seven Samurai may not be Kurosawa's greatest film (there's Ikiru (1952) and Yojimbo (1961) ), but it is his most inspirational gift to cinema. 

*The wonderful Criterion trailer for Seven Samurai.

Source Roger Ebert quote:


  1. ah, SOME LIKE IT HOT is one of my most favourite classics ever. Love Lemon in it.
    When it comes to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, although it was great, and had great cast, I've always though BAND OF BROTHERS mini series was much better, and it also had an amazing ensemble cast.

  2. Nice choice! Haven't seen it in years, but it's one of the most important movies of all time.

  3. I was hoping for this one! The Japanese made some awesome films, which we have shamelessly copied. "The Magnificent Seven", though it doesn't rise above "The 7 Samurai", still echoes the theme, has Yul Brynner, and good cast.
    Let's see: the letter 'T'?

  4. Loved, loved this movie! Kurasawa is absolutely brilliant. His films were truly groundbreaking and ahead of their time. When one examines his work close beside Hollywood directors of the same time, he outshines most of them. Stupendous choice for S.

  5. I have never seen this. I don't typically watch films of this genre but I will have to give this one a try based your wonderful recommendation.

  6. Yay for Seven Samurai, Se7en, and Spider-Man 2! Not a big fan of Kurasawa, but his "Seven Samurai" is a timeless classic!

  7. This is another letter with so many potential movies - but you've pulled off another sterling pick! I've only seen Seven Samurai once - I loved it - but the circumstances were a little, dated, shall we say? I watched this with friends in high school - on Beta (!) on a double cassette pan and scan presentation. This was still a golden viewing experience - but I need to see this again on DVD or Blu-Ray - anamorphic and uncut. Another kick in the pants for me! On it!

  8. @ Dezmond

    Both are tremendous. I can't disagree too much with ya.

    @ Rachel

    Thanks! Kurosawa has inspired so many directors working today. His films deserve their own class of study.

    @ Susan

    Thanks! There was no way I wasn't going to highlight at least one Kurosawa film. The Magnificent Seven is an enjoyable movie, but it is blatantly derivative of Seven Samurai. But thanks for the suggestion.

    @ Melissa

    Thanks a lot! I know about your appreciation of Kurosawa. He's ambitious, inventive, and just amazing.

  9. @ Nicole

    Nice! I always hope I can inspire at least one set of eyes to one of my favorites. And thanks!

    @ Nebular

    "Not a big fan of Kurosawa"-really? I'm surprised based on some of your favorite movies. He seems to be right up your alley. But thanks for the nod of approval!

    @ Craig

    Haha, another classic recollection on your viewing experience. A DVD or Blu-Ray showing will thoroughly astound you. Kurosawa's brilliance will impress you just that much more.

    And thanks!

  10. I saw this movie after reading about in a film studies text book. A beautiful,dramatic story told with Kurasawa's artistic vision. Great choice! My letter S was Stranger Than Fiction, but I had a few runners' up as well: Some Like It Hot (My all time favorite comedy) Schindler's List (Spielberg's masterpiece), and The Savages (poignant film with Philip Seymour-Hoffman and Laura Linney)

  11. How about a musical - Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?

  12. @ Luana

    Well-said. Thanks for the endorsement. This film is required viewing for anyone who is serious about movies (as are all of Kurosawa's films).

    Great list, yourself! I love Some Like it Hot, and sadly, I've not seen Schindler's List since I was very young. I don't recall it as well as I'd like, so I'll have to revisit it soon.

    @ Bob

    Interesting choice. I've never seen it (I'm not the biggest musical fan), that's why.

    But thanks for the suggestion.