Seven Samurai: Deconstructing Mythology

Two weeks ago I finally conquered a challenge I set myself many years ago.

As the credits to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) rolled with the defiant soundtrack of Fumio Hayasaka booming, I immediately navigated to a new IMDB tab. This is a ritual I usually undertake after any film; looking through every available production or trivia fact about the movie to add to my understanding of it. I believe the experience isn’t truly over until you know how the film was made and why it was made.

In many ways this parallels the same process detailed by the Ellis et all (2011) reading wherein auto-ethnographic researchers take the small revelatory moments or “epiphanies” that arise from the initial experience and further analyse them to make sense of the subject. For a filmgoer like myself, who’s exposure to Japanese film had been almost non-existent before this course, Seven Samurai provided a flurry of epiphanies.

Perhaps the most immediate revelation when watching the film came in the form of Kurosawa’s commentary on Eastern mythology. In recent years, the Samurai have been depicted in both eastern and western media as a beacon of altruism, confined by their strong moral code and entrenched spirituality. But Kurosawa has a very different view.

In the world of Seven Samurai, the Samurai are depicted as aimless warriors willing to fight for any cause if the price is right. This is made most evident at the beginning of the film when the impoverished villagers beg for assistance in the protection of their village and the majority of Samurai ignore them or outright decline immediately. Even the titular Samurai are only swayed by the promise of food, and not by moral enlightenment.

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One of the many villagers seen begging the Samurai for help in the film | Image Credit

Though I initially believed this to be an invention of the film to add to the desperation of the situation, it came as a shock to discover in further research that the Samurai were indeed considered social-climbers, rather than the noble “equestrian” class they are often depicted as today. In a particularly scathing account from Charles Sharam (2009) he writes:

“There was nothing loyal, chivalrous, or noble about these men. If anything, they were ambitious warriors who sought to enrich themselves above all else. They were not loyal to their masters by decree of some unwritten honour code, nor were they inherently good by any stretch of the imagination.” (Sharam 2009)

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Samurai were far from the altruistic warriors depicted in modern cinema | The Last Samurai (2003) | Image Credit

Although I had looked into Japanese history in the past, particularly the Satsuma Rebellion which effectively marked the end of the Samurai and was the subject matter for the 2003 film The Last Samurai, Kurosawa’s film further deconstructed this romanticised view of history. Suddenly, it made sense why the villagers were frightened into hiding as the Samurai arrive at their village in the film – the main difference between the Samurai and the bandit villains was the Samurai had social status behind them.

Considering how much of Kurosawa’s filmmaking career focused on Samurai characters such as Yojimbo (1961) and Throne of Blood (1957), as well as his personal connection in being a direct descendent of Samurai, it came as a great shock that Kurosawa was largely responsible for deconstructing the mythology surrounding them early on. Kurosawa, despite being a godfather figure of Japanese film, was considered more on an international filmmaker appealing to Hollywood and diverged greatly from what local filmmakers considered authentic Japanese film.

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Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) was a very divisive filmmaker in Japan | Image Credit

Further research into Kurosawa led to the shocking discovery that his deconstructionist and revisionist films were frowned upon in Japan, and despite introducing the world to Japanese film he was “often regarded with a cold, critical hostility by many of his own countrymen” (Donovan 2008, pp.15). In fact his international acclaim had largely drawn “condemnation by the Japanese intelligentsia” and his works had been rejected by the upcoming wave of Japanese filmmakers as the “irrelevant, reactionary” pieces that became a symbol of what “Japanese film had to overthrow” (pp. 15).

In this sense, Seven Samurai becomes an incredibly interesting auto-ethnographic piece to study. While my initial intention was to explore Japanese film in the most authentic way possible, by watching the films of a widely regarded Japanese filmmaker that I initially believed embodied everything about Japanese film, many have historically disregarded his work as being non-representative of the culture.

Even though there is a historical and social basis to Seven Samurai and Kurosawa’s other films, his cynically honest approach to demystifying Japanese culture, is an extraordinary revelation that adds further dimension to my auto-ethnographic study and provides a perfect platform for further research.

References

  1. Donovan, BW (2008), ‘The Master: Akira Kurosawa and the Art of Warriors’, The Asian influence on Hollywood action films, Jefferson, N.C., McFarland & Co, vol. 1, pp. 2-15
  1. Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1. Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095
  1. Sharam, C (2009), The Samurai: Myth Versus Reality, weblog post, 26 November, viewed 7 September 2017, <https://thegoldeneggs.wordpress.com>

 

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3 comments

  1. Once again, I have to tell you how much I enjoyed your autoethnographic take on ‘Seven Samurai’. Your personal revelation on Kurosawa’s critical representation of eastern mythology was really interesting to read, especially from someone who was also unaware of Kurosawa’s divisive nature. There’s a really interesting film essay (link below) on the criterion website that further discusses Kurosawa’s deconstruction of 16th Japan that you may find super interesting and possibly helpful for further research. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/443-a-time-of-honor-seven-samurai-and-sixteenth-century-japan. Really good job man!

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  2. Your revelation about the samurai’s being social climbers is quite interesting and something I was not aware. Throughout most films I’ve seen regarding samurai’s they have always been depicted as you mentioned ‘the altruistic and heroic’ much like the knight in shining armour.

    Do you think that the reason Kurosawa was acclaimed internationally but not locally may have been due to the depictions in the film? Over seas viewers might’ve enjoyed seeing the “other” through a story different to what they have seen already, while locally he was divisive because the people of Japan may not wanted to see the idea of Samurai’s distorted.

    “The problem that arises from this representation is that the film avoids challenging stereotypes of the ‘other’ and instead, encourages them.”(Smith, 2008). While this quote is talking about Japanese representation in Australian film it could be applied here. This could help to explain Kurosawa’s divisiveness, he challenged the idea of other and directly challenged stereotypes.

    Really good post, got me thinking about representation and interpretation through film.
    I found this article: https://goo.gl/8Lqi96 (from which I got the quote) about representations of the Japanese through Australian media. Maybe it could help in your research.

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  3. I like your deconstruction, you show how the romanticized version of the samurai in the West is depicted in a different way by Kurosawa, in a more accurate manner concerning historical facts.

    Although the West loves a simplified and incorrect version of the Samurai as honorable warriors who follow a moral code; that of course is not correct. The samurai even harassed the villagers on occasions, but were in fact loyal to their masters out of their own interest – until and if they rebelled.

    Concerning the moral code, there were some written codes of course, but I suppose they were not practiced at large; more likely by an intelligentsia which was litterate and few in number. You can check out “Hagakure, Book of the Samurai” by Yamamoto Tsunetomo .

    Japanese New Wave directod like Kikachi Okamoto and Masaki Kobayashi deconstruct the samurai codes and behaviour much further than Kurosawa, both are great directors so check them out if you want. Most particularly Okamoto’s “Sword of Doom”

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