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.
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)
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.
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.
- 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
- 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
- Sharam, C (2009), The Samurai: Myth Versus Reality, weblog post, 26 November, viewed 7 September 2017, <https://thegoldeneggs.wordpress.com>