Author: the_mcgill

Hi, I'm Tom! I am a first year Bachelor of Communication and Media Studies (Dean's Scholar) student who hopes to get into filmmaking and one day become a writer/director. Please feel to come talk to me if you see me in person, and read through my blog posts on here. Just be out by 10. That's when the janitor will do his rounds.

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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Seven Samurai or Die.

“Do you want to watch Casablanca tonight?” asks my dad during the intermission of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).

At exactly one hour and forty-seven minutes into the film, I wasn’t even sure if I could stomach a movie for another week. I’d already spent longer watching Seven Samurai then the entire length of some modern films, and the foreboding drumming during the intermission informed me that I’d barely scratched the surface of this Japanese classic.

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The titular Seven Samurai | Image Credit

I want to make it clear at this point that I’m a dedicated film buff. I love any and every film that plays by it’s own rules. Whether the film runs for one hour or four, it’s of little concern to me. I’m focused on what the director has done with this extra space and whether or not the content merits an increased runtime. In the past I’ve sat through films like The Godfather Part II which runs well over three-hours and felt it needed to be longer.

What I’m trying to say is that “movie fatigue” has very rarely – if ever – set in when I’m watching a film. So these feelings I was having halfway during Seven Samurai were new and alien.

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Me halfway into Seven Samurai (1954) | Michael Corleone from The Godfather Part II (1974) – Image Credit

In all fairness, this was not my first “attempt” at conquering this film. Around three years ago during a classic film binge, I foolishly decided that diving headfirst into this three-hour foreign film should be my “introduction” to global cinema. That is the equivalent of skipping the game to play the final boss fight. You’re not going to have a good time.

When I finally decided to return to this classic in 2017, a nagging part of me was convinced that I’d fail again. The universe seemed to be giving me every reason NOT to watch this film, almost as if saving me from eventual failure and the dreaded thought in the back of my mind:

“Maybe you aren’t the cinema fan you thought you were?”

Finding a copy proved a challenge. At first I was interested in the Criterion Collection remaster; a high-definition restoration of the film that aimed to provide an experience closer to Kurosawa’s original vision. To my dismay however, as I’d learned in the past with such remasters, this was a US Exclusive Blu-Ray and short of ordering in a new player, there was no Region B (Australia Blu-Ray) alternative that I could purchase.

Attempts to track down the DVD copy from the local library also proved fruitless, as I remembered it was one of the reasons I couldn’t get into the film the first time around. Trying to ignore the blemishes and destroyed film reels hastily put together for hungry Western audiences had led to a poor version of the film at best. In fact that exact DVD copy of Seven Samurai, had been the film that convinced me to purchase exclusively Blu-Ray’s in the future.

With Netflix, the last bastion of hope, falling through I was promised the same fate any Australian is in these situations. I started looking for a copy to stream online – something I adamantly hate doing when it comes to classic cinema. With every copy either in perfect high definition without subtitles or not loading at all, I was preparing the inevitable message to Chris:

“Yeah this Seven Samurai thing isn’t gonna work”.

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Simulation of this moment | Image Credit

Then came my salvation, in the form of an extremely-cluttered website called KissAsian. This website had more ads then a Saturday night movie on Channel Ten, even with an ad blocker installed. But as I clicked play, I felt a tear of joy fall down my face. Not only was it a HD version of the film, it was the Criterion remaster I had desired.

The celebrations were brief, as I released that this minor victory meant the next three-hours and twenty-seven minutes of my life would be purely watching this film. I hovered over the play button, wondering whether I could leave it all for another day. My finger, however, betrayed me and hit the button.

I must admit, the first half of the film was much more engaging then I remember. Maybe my experiences with Gojira (1954) and Akira (1988) had rubbed off on me, but I found myself getting immediately invested in the characters and plot this time around, almost ignoring the fact that I was entering this world as a Westerner relying on subtitles. Though the film did have a tendency to drag in places I found myself, dare I say it, enjoying it.

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Who would’ve thought a big lizard would’ve helped desensitise me to Japanese film? | Image Credit

This was however, where the irregularities began. I would often pause the film to stretch my legs, grab some coffee, just to mentally catch up with the film. This is unheard of for me, particularly when I know the film has an intermission. When I watch a film at home I reach an almost pretentious level of wanting an “authentic” cinematic experience, wanting a completely unbroken, start-to-finish, viewing of the film. These small interruptions were almost involuntarily.

This brings us back to the intermission, a cross-roads in my experience with the film. I knew I was going to watch the rest, so as to not make the time I spent on the first half mean nothing, but I was exhausted. I don’t say this in a negative way, in fact it’s the complete opposite. The film demands you pay attention. The imagery, interactions and flow of the story take no prisoners, meaning looking away for even a second could lead to missing a vital plot point that won’t be spoon-fed to you again later.

Without wanting to compare Eastern and Western films, I’d grown up under the illusion that films should include “down-time”. A peaceful plateau in the action where our brains can just chill for a moment. Kurosawa has either never heard of it, or doesn’t care for it. The intermission comes as almost an act of mercy as if Kurosawa himself is watching over your shoulder saying “alright, take your piss and come back, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover”.

While the final half was somewhat of a race to the finish with my attention, I lapped up every second and was secretly growing so attached to the world that a part of me didn’t want it to end. But with the final shot I, like the remaining Samurai characters, were returning once again to the “real world”, having both shared in this brief fantasy.

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The ending of Seven Samurai | Image Credit

Seven Samurai was more then just a cross-cultural experience for me. It was a journey. I’m glad I finally was able to revisit this classic, and give it enough time to appreciate it’s nuance.

But now, like the end of a metaphorical rollercoaster ride, its time to quickly find a quiet spot to let my brain puke.

– Tom

You, Me and Autoethnography.

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2005. Popcorn litters the floor of a Batman Begins session. The murmuring of patrons gradually fades out into the lobby.

“Ready to go?”, dad shouts over Hans Zimmer’s thundering score.

I wasn’t. For the first time ever it had clicked in my head that cinema wasn’t just a form of entertainment, it was it’s own world. People dedicated their lives to these visions. It felt like a language I always knew existed but finally understood.

These “epiphanies” – described as “remembered moments perceived to have significantly impacted the trajectory of a person’s life” (Bochner & Ellis 1992), are essential to auto-ethnographic research. In the simplest terms when these autobiographical details of one’s life are compared to ethnographical information of a similar or opposing cultural context, the resulting research “illustrate facets of cultural experience” by familiarising both “insiders and outsiders” (Ellis et all 2011) with cultural characteristics. Overall providing an account of social science borne out of the researcher’s results.

For me, film is inextricably connected to auto-ethnographic methodology. Filmmakers re-contextualise their personal and cultural contexts, to provide the audience with a intimate glimpse at their personal beliefs and values through the story and characters. Through doing this they are able to transcend cultural boundaries, while still presenting a uniquely personal product.

A prime example of this is Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation.

Though the film explores the alienation and subsequent familiarisation of Japanese society through the central characters of Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the film is ultimately a manifestation of Coppola’s own personal feelings of being lost during her twenties. In technical terms, the ethnographer injecting autobiographical information into the research to give it a personal resonance.

Autobiography: Bob is confronted with an image of himself on a billboard, surrounded by the alien streets of Tokyo.  Represents Coppola’s western context in eastern. Metaphorically representing the potential for one context to meet another, or potential for an individual to become a part of a culture.

Ethnography: Charlotte physically explores “traditional” Japan. Reference to Coppola’s attempts to connect with the culture, ultimately existing as a passive participant who quite literally observes it from afar. Represents the “process” of researchers during their investigations.

Auto-ethnography (Product): Bob and Charlotte, though never quite connecting with Tokyo, ultimately appreciate the culture that surrounds them and ultimately their place within it. Coppola coming to peace with being the outsider.

 

I believe this demonstrates auto-ethnography methodology in it’s purest and most literal form; as “both process and product” (Ellis et al 2011), but largely one of observation. Auto-ethnography is engaging with one’s own familiarities and then contrasting and comparing it to the unfamiliar to give your initial contextual framework greater definition, while having grown appreciation for the “other”.

DIGC330 has already provided this shift for me, through the screenings of Gojira (1954) and Akira (1988). While previously I felt my knowledge of film was comprehensive, these films have totally shattered my understanding of the medium. They have demonstrated that there is more to the genre then Hollywood, and by extension more than the culturally-exclusive framework I had been approaching film through.

I feel like that nine-year-old kid all over again, discovering film for the first time, my entire language being challenged. Yet this is the ideal birthing ground for auto-ethnographic research.

References:

  1. Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. 2011 ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1, viewed 10th August 2017, http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095
  2. Lost in Translation 2003, motion picture, Focus Features, directed by Sofia Coppola.

 

Hello Asia, My New Friend.

Okay, I’ll be honest.

When I say I’m interested in Asian culture, I mean I’m interested in the Asian culture that has been presented to me through Western media. More specifically, cinema.

In the case of Japan – the first country that comes to mind when I think of the term “Asia” – most of my exposure has come specifically from a Western viewpoint. Films like Lost in Translation (2003), The Last Samurai (2003) and even Kill Bill Vol. 1&2 (2003-2004) have all evoked a sense of unrequited nostalgia and sentimentality within me for a country and culture I’ve never experienced.

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Terence Young’s Red Sun (1971), an example of the hybrid Eastern influences I’ve grown up with.

This sense of the exotic “other” has only been emphasised by my cultural context. Growing up in Australia, the product of English and Scottish ancestry – a heritage of which I often joke makes me “the whitest guy ever” – I leap at any glimpse of a different culture.

In this sense Ishiro Honda’s cult classic Gojira (1954) is both an intriguing revelation and stark reminder of my unawareness of Eastern film. First and foremost, despite being an avid film fan who would choose to take their stack of Blu-Ray’s to a deserted island over food and water, this was my first complete experience with an Asian film. I make no secret of the fact that my previous attempts to power through Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) have been less than successful, and my promise to explore the catalogue of Hayao Miyazaki has gone unfulfilled.

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Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Previously my closest brush with Eastern film.

My predetermined assumptions that I’d feel like an outsider, desperately attempting to piece together intertextual references to a culture I’d never experienced went unfounded when watching Gojira. The film is not only an allegorical masterpiece, using Godzilla as a big and scaly metaphor for nuclear war, but the characters and themes are universally relevant today. If anything, this film felt more like a reflection of the world I am acquainted with than the spandex-wearing demigods of modern Hollywood.

Even from a filmmaking perspective Gojira rejected my assumption that 1950s science-fiction films were all low-budget B-grade schlock. While Godzilla is somewhat ridiculous in appearance, and the acting is occasionally a little over-the top, the film also represents some cinematic breakthroughs. The set design for one is jaw-dropping for the 1950s. My mind jumps to the climax of the film where Godzilla is crashing through the streets of the city. When you realise this wide scope of carnage and destruction is actually small-scale models mixed with footage of the actors, a technique which is still adopted by Western filmmakers today (i.e. Batman Begins), you realise that the tropes and techniques we are acquainted with all owe a great debt to this film and it’s ilk.

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The legend himself, the original Godzilla.

Gojira is a mere drop in the ocean of the Asian media I am yet to explore, but thanks to the film the floodgate is now well and truly open.