This week, we hit post 75, which felt like a bit of a milestone so I wanted to do something significant. So I decided going with my favorite film of all time and pairing it with another film from the director’s countryman might work well. This week’s films are:
Yasujiro Ozu – Tokyo Story (1953)
Akira Kurosawa – Seven Samurai (1954)
These are both considered some of the greatest films of all time, and quite likely the two greatest films that Japan has ever produced. And as far as I’m concerned, the two greatest films from each of these directors. We’ve covered both before, Ozu with the silent crime film Dragnet Girl, and this blog was practically created to celebrate Kurosawa’s work. We’ve covered Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, Yojimbo, and, in our very first post, Drunken Angel.
I’m not as well-versed in the work of Ozu, but I have seen Tokyo Story before many years ago and really loved it. Seven Samurai is my favorite film of all-time, and despite it’s 3.5 hour running time, I’ve seen it at least 6 or 7 times.
Normally, when I have a much longer film to watch, I don’t watch them back to back, but in this case, Time conspired against me, and I had to watch them back to back. I thought it would be a struggle, but with these two films, it was quite an experience.
Let’s get into it.
Tokyo Story (1953)
An elderly Japanese couple, Shukichi and Tomi, from a small village plans a trip to Tokyo to visit their children. They see their son Koichi, a doctor, their daughter and Shige, a hairdresser, along with Noriko, their daughter-in-law, who’s husband died in the war. They struggle to understand their children’s lives in the big city as Koichi and Shige try their best to keep their parents entertained while not sacrificing their own lives. What will they make of their time in the big city?
This film is directed by Yasujiro Ozu, and stars a cast of Ozu regulars, like Chishu Ryu, and Setsuko Hara. Ryu, interestingly was only 49 at the time, but he’s playing someone much older, in their late 60s or 70s. But until I looked it up, I had no idea. He does an amazing job playing a much older man, bringing a lot of physicality to the role. He moves like an old man, and reacts like an old man.
The film opens with the couple at home, prepping for their journey. We meet their youngest daughter, Kyoko, who still lives at home. One thing that I struggled with early in the film was how the familial relationships worked. In the early scenes, I didn’t know if Kyoko was their daughter, or perhaps just a neighbor who helped them out. They mentioned another man, named Keizo, who turns out to be a son who works in between their village and Tokyo, who they were also meeting on the trip. When they arrive in Tokyo, they meet everyone, Koichi, Shige, and Noriko at Koichi’s home, with Koichi’s wife taking care of everyone. The translation at least didn’t make the relationships clear and I was very confused for the first 20 minutes of the film. Eventually, these relationships became clear. It’s possible that a Japanese audience would have naturally understood all of these relationships from context clues, but for an American, it took awhile.
The film plays like a slice of life of Japanese families of this era. We see How Koichi’s children interact with their mother, what a night at home is like, how everyone gets ready in the morning, and how everyone deals with having visitors. On their first morning, Koichi is planning to take his parents and children out, being a small-town doctor, he is called to a patient emergency, and the trip is cancelled.
In a very touching scene, Tomi, the grandmother takes her small grandson out and tells him about her hopes and dreams for him, along with the concern that she won’t be there to see it. This becomes a running theme throughout the film. There’s a very strong vibe from Tomi that this trip is her last opportunity to see all of these people and do all of these things. She is very aware of her own mortality throughout the film.
The parents are very understanding of their children’s busy lives. The children though seem unwilling to sacrifice any of their time or careers for their parents. Shige, for example is portrayed as very put upon, and always trying to find a way to keep her parents entertained as long as she isn’t personally inconvenienced. When her parents move to her house after visiting Koichi, she asks her sister-in-law Noriko to take them out for the day. Noriko asks for the day off and happily agrees.
Noriko is my favorite character in the film, and the one I find most interesting. She sacrifices the most time for her in-laws, and has the most interesting story. During this day with her in-laws, we understand her story better. She married the couples second son just before he was drafted, and he was killed in World War II. This brings us to another major theme of the film, the aftermath of the war. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in the film.
This film was released just 8 years after World War II, which of course Japan lost after being hit with multiple atomic bombs. During the war, Japan was known for fighting to the bitter end, refusing to surrender until faced with complete destruction. That must have been a major emotional blow to the national psyche, and I think that we’re seeing a lot of that in this film. Noriko still speaks fondly of her husband, though he died 8 years ago. In quiet moments with her in-laws she tells them about his adult life, things they didn’t really know. She seems incredibly happy and content to spend time with her in-laws. I believe it’s because she misses her husband, and her in-laws are the only time she really gets to remember him.
Conversely, when Noriko and Tomi have some alone time, Tomi tells her that she wants her to remarry, and not spend her life mourning her lost husband. It’s another very sweet scene. Tomi wants Noriko to be happy, and is concerned that she hasn’t remarried out of respect for what the family might think.
Noriko is also interesting because she seems the be the only one of the children to sacrifice her own time to the parents, even though she isn’t their blood relation. It’s never made entirely clear to us whether Shige and Koichi are being unreasonable, or if they really can’t possibly give up work for their parents. Again, it’s possible this is very clear to a Japanese audience, but from my perspective, it definitely seems like they’re unreasonable. In order to get them out of their hair, Shige suggests sending the two of them to a spa for a few days, splitting the cost with Koichi. But when they get there, it’s clear they don’t fit in. It’s a spa for young people who want to stay up all night and party. For Shukichi and Tomi, they seem miserable there. After they take a walk by the beach after a night of no sleep, they decide to head home early.
Shige informs them that she wanted them away because she was having other guests over. This leads to the couple separating for the evening. Tomi staying with Noriko, and Shukichi hanging out with old friends from their home town.
This leads to another of the most interesting scenes in the film, where in Shukichi gets drunk and talks with his friends about his disappointments. One of his friends lost all his sons in the war. Another friend is disappointed that his son hasn’t made it as far in life as he did. Even Shukichi laments that Koichi is only a neighborhood doctor.
This really reveals the main thrust of the film. It’s largely about how parents view their children, and how children view their parents. The children want to live their own lives, separate from their parents, and the parents are still invested in their children’s success. They live on through their children.
The parents decide to go home after 10 days in Tokyo, and Tomi makes a strange statement at the train station, telling all the children that she probably won’t visit Tokyo again and the children don’t need to visit, no matter what happens. There have been many hints dropped in the film that Tomi might think she’s about to die, and this is one of the strongest. Paying off these hints, when she returns home, she becomes deeply ill and falls into a coma. The family comes home, and waits for her to pass.
Here we see a different side of the family, all coming together to deal with a crisis. Rather than seeing Shukichi out of his element, we see the rest of the family out of their element.
Once again, Noriko shows herself as the most interesting character. Once Tomi dies and the funeral has passed, Shige, Koichi, and Keizo, who we only meet in a couple of scenes all immediately return to their lives. But Noriko stays behind for a few days with Shukichi and Kyoko. Here, the themes of the film are reiterated. Kyoko complains to Noriko about how selfish the other children are. But Noriko explains that they have their own lives that they have to live.
And Shukichi reiterates to Noriko that she should move on with her life, and remarry. In the end, Shukichi goes back to his daily routine, this time without Tomi, and everyone else goes back to their normal lives. The film ends with Noriko returning to Tokyo, with Kyoko watching the train go by from the schoolroom window where she teaches.
Seven Samurai (1954)
A village in medieval Japan must deal with regular bandit attacks. However, when they get advance warning of an attack coming once they harvest their crops, they decide to hire samurai to defend them. They find the noble and experienced samurai Kambei gathers a group of seven samurai, including himself and builds a defense for the villagers. Will they be able to withstand the assault of the bandit army?
The film is directed by Akira Kurosawa, and stars Kurosawa regulars like Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, and many others, like Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara. Mifune and Shimura are two of the greatest Japanese actors of all time. Mifune in particular is known for his range, and his incredibly facial expressions. I’m also always impressed by the physicality he brings to his performance. In this film he plays Kikuchiyo, the last samurai selected, who essentially forces himself into the group. Kikuchiyo is headstrong, and desperate for praise and attention.
Shimura on the other hand, generally plays a calm and solid character, sometimes with a particular character flaw. For example, in Drunken Angel, he plays the alcoholic doctor, just barely hanging on. But in this film, he’s purely heroic. In fact, he might be the most heroic character I’ve ever seen in a Kurosawa film. He simply will not give up on these villagers. It’s clear from the film that he’s trying desperately to make up for many past losses in various battles, but he uses this desperation for the good of the people. He’s willing to give up their lives, and his own life in order to bring victory, and thereby prosperity to the village, but allowing them to keep their harvest, and begin to plan for the future. But in reality, he doesn’t have any skin in the game, much like most of the other samurai. He’s simply there to win.
Kikuchiyo on the other hand, is much more closely aligned with the poor farmers and villagers. It becomes clear that his past isn’t as a soldier, but as one of these poor farmers. When he finds a cache of weapons that the farmers have, the samurai realize that these farmers have hunted down losing armies and killed stragglers for their weapons. In this moment, the samurai almost give up on the villager, having been on the losing side themselves. But Kikuchiyo screams at them in one of Mifune’s best moment. He admits that farmers are conniving, that they keep secret stashes of goods, and kill soldiers when they’re weak, but then he asks the important question: why? He points out that soldiers steal their food, commandeer their homes, rape their wives, all as part of their normal activities. The samurai realize he’s right, and get back on board.
The film is centered around this main storyline of the samurai protecting the villagers, but there are many other subplots that the film works in. But they all center around the initial distrust the villagers have of the samurai, vice versa, and how they eventually begin trusting each other. For example, Manzo forces his daughter Shino to cut her hair and dress as a boy in order to protect her from the samurai. But this is in direct opposition to another subplot, when Katsushiro, the youngest samurai who Kambei takes on as an apprentice discovers her real identity, and they fall in love over the course of the film.
And initially, when the samurai arrive in the village, the farmers are terrified of them, and hide, until Kikuchiyo sounds the alarm, and they all come running, begging for protection.
Over the course of the film, Kambei and the other samurai work with the villagers, transforming their village into a defensible position, and teaching them how to think like soldiers, forming squads. This of course requires some sacrifices. Kambei is a strong leader, making decisions for the whole, rather than for the few. He only shows animosity towards the villagers one time in the film, when one of the villagers, upset that his house won’t be defended, tries to convince everyone in his situation to rebel and try to defend their own homes. Kambei pulls his sword for the first time against the villagers, and tells them that he cannot defend 3 houses to sacrifice 20. It’s a really powerful moment in the film.
The structure of the film has been copied by many films over the years, most famously remade as The Magnificent Seven, but also used in A Bug’s Life. We first see the defenseless people look for help, having problem finding anyone who will accept what they have to offer, which is essentially food in this case. But then a team begins to form, and the group returns to their village, and struggles to defend them against a much stronger force. Having to rely on superior strategy while fighting their own internal struggles.
The seven samurai are all well defined characters, all with their own motivation. Kambei is the noble warrior, trying to make up for his losses in life. Sochiroji is his dedicated lieutenant, also hoping to revive his honor. Gorobei is a strong military mind, who becomes Kambei’s right hand man. Heihachi is a bit of comic relief, but glues the group together with his charm. Kyuzo is deadly and fearless, only interested in testing his own skills. Katsushiro is a young man out for adventure, inexperienced, but dying to prove himself. And Kikuchiyo is trying to reconcile his past as a farmer, and gain the praise and respect of Kambei, who he idolizes, though never fully admits it.
Much like Tokyo Story, this film was also made in the post-war era. It is not necessarily about the aftermath of the war, but I suspect that this film was a welcome dose of excitement for a country that had just had a major shock to it’s society. Just like Star Wars came out in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which America arguably lost, this film might have been the kind of escapism the country needed.
The film is incredibly complex, with many characters that we follow throughout the film besides the seven samurai. We have Yohei the farmer, played by Bokuzen Hidari, whose face is simply unmistakable. He goes through the entire film with this look that combines worry, confusion and fear, all at the same time. There’s also the old man of the village, who gives advice to the villagers, and backs the idea of hiring samurai. Then there’s Rikichi, who has one of the most tragic stories of all.
Rikichi is the first to have the idea of hiring samurai, and goes on the trip to town to recruit them. We learn early on that he’s uncomfortable talking about his wife, but it seems like a natural conversation topic to bring up. However, every time it’s brought up, he gets angrier and withdraws further. But finally, when the samurai decide to attack the bandit encampment to thin their numbers, Rikichi goes along. The samurai burn a hut where the bandits are sleeping, in order to cut them down when they come out.
But there are women in the hut as well. When one wanders out in the middle of the fight, Rikichi runs to her. Upon seeing him, she runs back into the fire, killing herself. Rikichi is pulled away, and finally admits that was his wife. She was stolen by the bandits, and kept as their prisoner for some time.
The battle begins in earnest soon after. The film does a very helpful thing here, where Kambei makes a chart of all the men in the opposing army, and crosses them off as they are killed. It gives us a clear visual reference to how the fight is going, and how much time is left.
But the fight isn’t without losses. I love this film so dearly, that I’ll stop my recap here. It’s an important one to watch, despite it’s length.
The Double Feature
Both of these are exceptional films, worthy of incredible amounts of praise, but one of the most delightful things about watching these together is the contrasts between them. The first thing that jumped out at me was the camera work.
Ozu sets up beautiful, perfect shots but his camera remains static almost the entire time. In fact, I only remember a single shot throughout the entire film that had camera movement.
In Seven Samurai however, it’s hard to find a shot that sits still. Even when there are shots with none or little camera movement, his characters are moving through the scene, often stopping in a position that perfectly completes the shot.
But this could be considered a difference of the genre these two films inhabit. Tokyo Story is straight drama. There’s no action, I don’t think there are even any real jokes in the film. We’re watching a family which has normal family problems. The magic of Tokyo Story comes from how skillfully Ozu reveals the lives of these characters. By keeping the camera still, Ozu gives us time to acclimate to the spaces and feel safe in them, so that we can reflect on our own family life, and relate to his characters.
Seven Samurai however, is a straight action film. It almost feels like one of the team based superhero movies that have recently come out like The Avengers. Even though the film is three and a half hours long, it’s incredibly fast paced. We get quick shots, including some pioneering shots cutting motion to motion that look amazing. The battle scenes are thrilling and visceral. There are lots of shots of arrows hitting people directly in the chest. This was achieved by placing a wooden block under the actor’s clothing and employing an incredibly skilled archer. It’s not quite as impressive as the arrow scene in Throne of Blood, but it’s still surprising when it happens. Kurosawa’s goal is to keep us in suspense, so that we can experience the visceral thrill of watching this small, inexperienced group of villagers find a way to defeat the overwhelming force a bandits, a group that has plagued them for years. We relate to the samurai because they’re noble and brave, and standing up for what’s right. We want to be like them. We relate to the villagers, because we’ve all felt helpless, and wished there was someone strong to protect us.
Regardless, both of these films are shot beautifully. There’s a twitter account called One Perfect Shot that posts stills of films that it considers perfect shots. It’s hard to find a shot in either of these films that isn’t perfect, as you can probably see from the screenshots I picked. I’d put almost any of these images on my wall as a poster.
Seven Samurai is one of those films I could write about forever. For example, I barely touched on Kyuzo, who is one of my favorite characters in the film, just quietly being excellent. But I only have so much time, so let’s wrap up.
In the middle of writing this blog post, I had a group of students come over to hang out, and give them some feedback on a recent project they worked on. In the last few years, I’ve really discovered my passion for working with students, and mentoring them. I think I have a real talent for it as well. These particular students are going through the same grad program that I went through, so I have a particular insight. In a few weeks, I’ll be traveling to Amsterdam to meet some grad students in a program there. So we’ll find out then if it’s a universal talent, or only applies to this program.
So what about next week? Oh what’s that Filmstruck? You added a ton of Ernst Lubitsch films to the library, many of which I’ve never seen or heard of? Yeah, you’ve got my back Filmstruck. Thanks gang. Next week’s films are:
Ernst Lubitsch – Die Austernprinzessin (1919)
Ernst Lubitsch – The Doll (1919)
I considered watching three films, because films in the silent era were generally very short, and these are no exception, but I decided to stick with the Double Feature moniker this week. But I will spending more time with this set of Lubitsch films.
This will also be our first week with two silent films. Should be a good time.
See you then.