“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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.