Thematic Analysis Of Kurosawa
’s Sanshiro Sugata And Seven Samurai Essay, Research Paper
It is not difficult to speak of thematic dualities in Akira Kurosawa’s Judo Saga (Sanshiro Sugata, 1943) and Seven Samurai (Scichinin no samurai, 1957), and upon inspection, a thematic presentation evolution is identifiable. This giant of the world cinematic community has inspired much discussion, much praise, yet little unified thematic analysis. This, however, seems strangely fitting, since Kurosawa himself is unwilling, and perhaps unable to define his thematic or stylistic intent any more than we the viewers can pigeonhole his reluctance.
Donald Ritchie (one of the few authors to actually assess the director’s work, and because of this whose views and critical opinions I will be referring to throughout) contends, “Aesthetics presume a system, a style presumes an expression, and a reflection of the man himself. Neither are of any interest to the actuality of the film to be made.” This alluding to the objectivity of what is “real” compared to what is implied, or presumed. There is a distinct dichotomy at work within Kurosawan films, a didactic presence that insists the practicality of the image – observed, unquestioned – and the intent – abstract, philosophical.
In reference to heroes in Kurosawan films Richie explains, “[Kurosawa's] heroes are always completely human in that they are corrigible. The Kurosawa fable shows that is difficult indeed ‘to know’; but at the end of the picture the hero has come to learn that ‘to know and act are one and the same.’ The Kurosawa villian is the man who thinks he knows, who thinks he is complete.” This is a running theme throughout Kurosawa’s films, particularly in those which combine jidai-geki with gendai-geki (chambara), such as Sanshiro Sugata and Seven Samurai. In the former, Sanshiro is the hero who learns humanity. In Seven Samurai, it is Kambei who teaches it. Both heroes act out of “goodness,” to be sure, but each must sacrifice their beliefs, thier honor, even their status in order to do so. Essentially, they discard the illusion of heroism to achieve its reality, though adding grey shades to our pre-conceived notions of heroism.
This is a popular concern of Kurosawa’s. His heroes are almost always performing acts leading us the viewers to doubt thier intentions: Sugata’s haughty fights in the villiage square; Kambei performing an act of deception by shaving his head. Stephen Prince in his book, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, acknowledges Kurosawa’s heroic mode, insisting that the hero serve humanity. This is well demonstated in both films: Sugata sacrifices victory of Higaki’s challenged match by sparing his life, and Kambei removes his top-knot (a great sacrifice for a samurai) in order to save a baby, to serve humanity.
Bert Cardullo, in his excellent essay, “The Circumstance of the East, the Fate of the West,” uses Seven Samurai’s plot structure to distinguish fate from circumstance, “Seven Samurai is a film about circumstance, or about man and his relationship, at his best, to circumstance; it is not a film about fate. In tragedy, man acts, often stupidly if inevitably, and then reflects on his actions, wisely. In the work of circumstance, man acts wisely in the face of the stupidity and unpredictablility of circumstance…[it is] real or tangible; man is most often defeated by it. At his best, he meets it (the adverse kind, that is) on equal ground, and if he does not triumph, he does not lose, either. He distinguishes himself in the fight. That is all, and that is enough.”
Seven Samurai’s setting and structure are more tangible (in America) than that of Sanshiro Sugata due to its universal plot line; Kurosawa uses this strength to draw us into his film. Viewing Sanshiro Sugata, one feels like an outsider, however Kurosawa does a much better job enthralling our interest in Seven Samurai. Never are we tempted to give over to the supernatural for direction. Instead, the farmers take matters into their own hands, acting out of their circumstance, determining their own fate, and gaining our admiration. In contrast, Sugata relies on advice from his elders, Mr. Yano and the priest, jeopardizing his fate, mutely asking for help.
Kurosawa’s strength in both films is his ability to underpin a strangely intangible sense of doom. In Kambei’s first scene of Seven Samurai, after he kills the madmad with the baby in the shed, an unflinching slow motion shot follows the dying madman as he erupts from the shed and stumbles into the dust. This is one of the few times in the movie that one suspects special effects, providing insight of the director’s playful deceit. It is reminiscent of Momma’s death scene in Sanshiro Sugata, the camera following him in slow motion through the air – the window frame drifting down – the subtle settle of death. Kurosawa strips away any and all illusions of heroism and leaves only death in these scenes.
In both movies, Kurosawan death weighs heavy. The heroes and the villians feed off each other, dissolving heroism, and leaving suffering. Such is the case in Seven Samurai. Kikuchiyo, lying face down in the mud, his buttocks bare and rain-soaked; the image is undeniably child-like. In his last, desperate act of heroism, he has killed the bandit chief, but as the rain washes over him we can only remember the baby lying in the water, the reality of violence and death all around him. In Sanshiro Sugata, the final fight scene is less fluid, however, the visual impact is still present. Higaki has just been thrown by Sugata, yet he wants more, he thinks he knows, he thinks he is complete; the image is best described as desparate. He stumbles, then falls, sliding down the soakened hillside. With violent storms brewing above, the scene belittles both Sugata and Higaki with a great force, death.
The rice planting ceremony in Seven Samurai allows for a recapitulation of the film’s most central thematic elements. Says Kambei, “And again we have lost. We lose. The farmers… they’re the winners.” Realizing his role, Kambei accepts that there is no end, only the means; the illusion of heroism has been broken by the reality of the loss they have endured, the empty triumph they have gained. Kurosawa closes with the dual images of the rice planting ceremony and the four graves of the samurai; life/death, heroism/humanism, all laid out in a juxtaposed, concrete portrait.