I recently got the new Criterion Collection version of Seven Samurai. It is a great film—maybe even Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film. It certainly isn’t my favorite, however; Yojimbo is a lot more fun. But it is masterful filmmaking. This latest edition includes a tag-team commentary by five experts: Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie, and Joan Mellen. I am kind of a fan of Prince, and would have been content just to have him for the almost four hour film. But it is very edifying to get all the different input, especially from Joan Mellen. But I want to discuss the commentary from the original release, which is done by Michael Jeck.
At the beginning of the film, the bandits look over the villiage and decide not to attack it until the barley is ripe. They all ride away. Jeck comments, “Now why are they galloping? It was only on the fifteenth viewing that I thought even to ask the question. Of course, because it makes it more exciting. But it took me fifteen viewings because Kurosawa is so subtle and begins in medias res.” Oh my!
This bit sums up the entire commentary. Right off the top, you have to ask: was it really necessary to throw in that Latin phrase? Wouldn’t it have been easier and better to just say that the film starts right in the middle of things? But okay. Film commentaries are generally pretentious endeavors. But it doesn’t exactly bode well for the rest.
What is most troubling in this commentary is that he makes a big deal out our Kurosawa’s decision to have the bandits gallop away. I feel quite certain that he did that because that’s just the way it is always done in movies. Yes, it is exciting. This is why it has been done at least since The Great Train Robbery, back in 1903. It would have been silly if the lead bandit had said, “We will return when the barley is ripe. Now everyone off your horses! They are tired and need to rest!” The reason that Jeck didn’t note why the bandits galloped away until his fifteenth viewing is because it is in no way worthy of note.
And this gets to the heart of what is wrong with Jeck: he accepts the auteur theory. This is the idea that a film is the result of the director’s creative vision. There is much to be said of the theory. In most regards, it is the director who has the final say as to how things are done. But as we learned with our “decider” President George W. Bush, there is a big difference between coming up with your own ideas and just selecting from three that Vice-President Cheney presents to you. This is normally the way that directors work with all of their department heads.
It is true that Kurosawa has a distinctive look to his films. But this is not entirely due to him. It is also thanks to Takashi Matsuyama’s art direction. And the cinematography of Asakazu Nakai. And the amazing costume design in Seven Samurai by Kohei Ezaki. And his many other experts and actors. Certainly, the films have qualities that only Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune would add. Unfortunately, Jeck tells us over and over that this or that was put in the film because Kurosawa wanted it that way. Surely, this is not always true.
There is something to say for Jeck, I suppose. I remember going to see Fargo with a friend and she asked me a telling question afterwards. The film starts with a car driving toward the camera. It dips below the horizon and then back above it because of the changing elevation of the road. She wanted to know if that just happened to be the way the road was or if it was planned that way. I told her it was planned that way. But that is as far as I’m willing to take it. It might have been planned from the start. It might have been the image that the Coen brothers started with. It is also possible it was something improvised by the second unit cameraman. “You know, if we set the camera here, we’ll see the car, then it will disappear, and then we’ll see it again.” The truth is that there are a lot of really creative people who make films, and it is an insult to them to turn directors into gods who come up with every good idea in a film. Just the same, damned little that appears on screen is an accident.
What is most sad about the commentary is that Michael Jeck has a lot of knowledge to offer. He understands Japanese history and so he explains many things that a western viewer would miss. And mostly he is right on about what is important from a film standpoint. But there are only so many times that I can be told that it is windy because Kurosawa wanted it that way rather than it just being windy on the day of shooting.
Of course, you should own this version of Seven Samurai. And Yojimbo. And Sanjuro. (Use the links above to buy it from Amazon and you can donate a few nickles to this site.)