'Though I Look Like Hell...': The Season of the Samurai
Halloween! Where did you come from? Do I wish I could remember how I’ve spent the month I should have been indulging in all things gruesome. The books I’ve devoured are off theme – Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale is taking longer than I thought, highly recommend Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings if you like your horror more grounded in the repulsion of mankind as it lets down young women day in and day out. Instead I’ve been piling up movies that terrify and wonder if I have the resilience to watch them late into the night or would I rather just curl up with a hot chocolate and sit through classic Yvette Fielding screaming into her microphone when the ghosts belly gurgles. I have barely watched any films that are new. Saw Halloween 3: Season of the Witch if that counts but I don’t get it (or why it is the way it is), so maybe it doesn’t. Oh, and Michio Yamamoto’s answer to Hammer Horror in the mildly underwhelming Bloodthirsty Trilogy – looks great, would try again (The Buddhist Trilogy has straight up ruined me for the year when it comes to Japanese cinema, nothing can compare).
October has lacked enrichment of the frightening kind. I haven’t even managed the classic Disney original movie Halloweentown (1998) yet! Like, I need to get my head checked because my life has no meaning if I haven’t seen Debbie Reynolds magic her grandkids into danger on the ugliest broomsticks ever to grace the small screen. I learnt the most important message of inclusivity from that film… (or not, we have to imagine I gained some moral standing from watching it every year for the last sixteen years.) I have a line up for Halloween day. If I can do it is another story.
I did go to the pictures the other day. Another 'other' of some time ago I suppose, but what can you do about that? All the ‘other’ days have blended marvellously into one; it’s a miracle more adults have not flung themselves into vast into deep it’s of misery to escape the revolting passage of time. They probably do but mask it as mindfulness. As honest as I am, I'm gonna be more honest and say I’ve been jumbling though things and wondering where the timeline of my existence lies. I can’t seem to find it. I'd like to think that accounts for the lost weeks. To be fair, I thought it had been a brief time between my last stuff but…
Anyway, I forget what day it is but a while ago I went to the pictures. I had a nice time.
(Maybe I should be writing about Halloween…)
My sister and I were riding a gnarly wave following our Picturehouse trips to the Wong Kar-wai season (It was amazing – Wong and his music taste is designed for the big screen – Maggie Cheung, Faye Wong, Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung absolutely smoulder even after all these years – Thank the powers that be for Doyle & Wong meeting - California Dreaming is not played too much but Dreams should just be played on loop for all eternity). Upon the conclusion of In the Mood for Love (2000), dabbing at our cheeks like grieving widows and pretending that we had Cheung’s wardrobe to go home to, I was alerted to some rather good news. The Rediscover Japan season had arrived. To make up for BFI’s lost seasons last year due to the ‘C’ word, Picturehouse Cinemas are showing three films by Yasujiro Ozu films and Akira Kurosawa.
No brainer, I think; not to my purse.
There was one I knew I had to see above all else. Shrewdly considering all reasonable outcomes with regard to travel, investment and the dirty ‘M’ word, we booked. We were in for an event. We were whole heartedly in for Seven Samurai.
Of course I have talked about this film before. I’ve ranked Kurosawa’s films (Top 15 Akira Kurosawa Films) because I’m a total weeb for the man’s work. His collaborations with Toshiro Mifune are genuinely mind-blowing and the films were way ahead of their contemporaries across the globe, not to mention that they exude pure watchability. And Seven Samurai is a total beast of a film. Released in 1954, the films a perfect introduction to the magic that Kurosawa weaved on screen; Mifune as the mad dog peasant desperate to be a Samurai and Takashi Shimura (another regular) as the wise Ronin Kambei Shimada who brings all the warriors together to defend a poor village against the menacing bandits in Feudal Japan. The concoction is pure bliss. Clocking in at almost four hours, somehow it begins to border on divine.
“This is the nature of war: By protecting others, you save yourselves. If you only think of yourself, you'll only destroy yourself.” – Kambei Shimada
With all this in mind, I was still overwhelmed by the turn out for the classic. I mean, how many people do you know that willingly watch anything longer than two hours (if it isn’t a Marvel movie of course…)? The time flew by, as it did the first time I saw it, and I was remind of what cinema was all about. The eerie sight of mounds silhouetted before, both alien and familiar at first deterred me as my mind screamed ‘disease’, and my mask was kept comfortably to my face, yet as time passed a became rather fond of the company. The sight of so many, all to see this old movie and subtitled no less.
The story has been retold over and over; with cowboys and bugs. Yet the best remains here. It’s simple and yet carries such enormous weight and meaning. A love story entwined in a tale of redemption, quests of honour and unity, how did he manage it? Heart-breaking, hard but inspiring. All the threads weave together, into a braid so solid and strong; it’s carried the picture for almost seventy years. There was no doubt of how much investment there was into all the characters’ lives, into the powerful story depicted. Simple as the story outline is, Seven Samurai is bursting at the seams with narrative richness that storytellers adore to this day.
Kurosawa’s technique is flawless. He pioneered action cinema before anyone else. In the final confrontation he set up multiple cameras, practically unheard of at the time and since seen over and over to capture that building collapsing in some mighty explosion (Lethal Weapon, you indulged yourself). The action is masterfully choreographed but never glorified. In his depiction of the violence, he remembers to recall the needlessness of war. With it, he paints a tragedy of sacrifice that is but a mere page upon the great tome of time, a conflict forgotten and met selflessly. His characters are not brave, they are dutiful and loyal. They are messy and complicated, and heaving with life. It’s something hypnotising.
And it’s funny. I forgot how much humour there was. Toshiro Mifune a revelation; wildly versatile he manages to be so much fun and still full of heart. His comedic timing is impeccable. His range is effortless. His physical prowess impressive, lean and practised, he makes every motion, leap, jump, slash and stab look as easy as a shutting one’s eyes. Mifune was a force to be reckoned with and somehow so modern, even now. The character of Kikuchiyo is the bond between the villagers and the samurai; his presence grounds these legendary figures and reminds them of the cost of their wars upon the weak; “But then who made them such beasts? You did! You samurai did it! You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labour! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! So what should farmers do?” He relaxes the peasants and plays with the children yet he’s unstable and reckless, teases the bandits at the risk of his own life and scurries away like some playful ape. In him is an unpredictable but never-ending delight. (All this coming from a person who is also head over heels in love with him; just look at him, how can you not be?)
That soundtrack. That cast. Those iconic images; the duel between the skilled warrior and the fool, the outsider following the band of men from far behind like a lost pup, the flag being erected on the rooftop overlooking the village, the discovery of samurai armour hidden in the village, the love affair blossoming in the field of flowers, the swords buried in the ground, the screaming child rescued from the burning house, grasped in Kikuchiyo’s arms so desperately (“This baby... It's me... It's what happened to me!”)… It’s just in another realm of greatness.
Then it was all over. I wasn’t ready. I wanted more and more, to begin the reel from the very beginning and indulge myself in those scenes, those characters, that world. Like a love affair reaching some abrupt end, I pined for something I was not ready to lose. Out there somewhere in the world, yet out of my grasp, I wanted to be lost in that world forever.
We erupted into applause.
Kurosawa was not a happy person, perhaps the harshest critic of his own work and considered too western by his Japanese audiences, he did come to know recognition in his later years. A failed suicide attempt in the seventies was a sort of revelation to the director who was enabled to, unlike many before and after him, to enter a new era of filmmaking in which he produced the classic epics Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). Knowing that his legacy remains so strong, despite the director’s misgivings, his sorrows, I got goosebumps. There was applause for a film older than most in that room, and moved it us.
This was a moment worthy of sharing, or so I thought it was. To see that love of cinema, of international and classic, so appreciated, it melted my heart. I enjoyed a film how it was meant to be seen, loved every minute of it and did not find myself longing for films like it but to see it all over again. For the first time. I fell head over heels. If they’re the only goosebumps I get this Halloween, so be it. Maybe they’re the sort of chills I need right now.