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Kurosawa’s Art Essay Sample

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Kurosawa’s Art Essay Sample

            The films, the Seven Samurai and Rashomon are representative of Akira Kurosawa’s unique style. A style that may soon be lost in today’s anime driven world. Kurosawa’s realistic depiction of the Samurai and the oppressive social structures that perpetuated them are a nod to the peasants who suffered at the bottom of the hierarchy. In spite of the miserable fate that the Samurai endure in the movies the possibility of reform is suggested along with a suggestion that the viewer should not lose all hope in the world.

The Seven Samurai has all makings of a classic Samurai era film. There is a group of noble Gentleman warriors who are out to slay Barbaric Bandit. They are Helpless victims who are about to be overwhelmed by evil. Finally, there are classical duels where good triumphs over evil.

            However, if that was all Seven Samurai had to offer then it would not be a Kurosawa classic. Instead it would merely be a yet another hollow paean to the romanticized age of the Samurai. It gives a very different depiction of the Samurai and by making them more than just the straw person idols that they were in the past, Kurosawa succeeds in humanizing them and making them real person.

            From Kanbei down, the Seven Samurai are far from the Samurai ideal of the Gentleman Warrior. They are master less, poor and lacking in the finery and adornments one comes to expect from the Samurai class. In fact, one of them Kikuchiyo was not even a real Samurai but a mere imposter. The noble birth normally associated with the Samurai is not even given due course. Instead the only time it becomes an issue is when Kikuchiyo presents his falsified birth documents to prove his worth.

            As mentioned the Samurai were master less and poor. So severe was their hunger and poverty that they suffered themselves to be hired a mercenaries for the meager fee of just board and lodging. During the recruitment process we are given a glimpse of how Samurai were really like. Many Samurai despite being master less Ronin shunned the villagers’ pleas for help because they could only offer board and lodging as payment. In fact, the Seven Samurai are little more than ‘hungry samurai’ which is exactly the kind of warriors that the villagers sought. Only their respect for Kanbei and their own poverty drives them to make the desperate bargain. A far cry from the Idealized Gentleman Warrior of old who had nothing to worry about other than to train and prepare himself for war because his Daimyo or liege lord took care of everything else.

Set in the Sengoku Jidai, the century of war, the haughty warrior class are locked in an endless waltz of bloodshed while the food producing peasant, the true heart of Japan, are ignored though they always ‘win’ in the end. Unlike most other Samurai films set in the Tokugawa era, Seven Samurai is set in a miserable and chaotic time when Japan was in flux. This is probably why the films was so set because in during those years, prior to the Tokugawa era, society was already heavily stratified but the formal social structures were not yet as rigid as they would later become. For example, during the Tokugawa Kikuchiyo’ attempts to pass himself off as a Samurai would have earned him a death sentence.

            At the opposite end of the Social Spectrum are the peasants. In the movie the villagers certainly outnumber the bandits. There are only forty bandits and although the number of villagers is not stated it is safe to assume that there were more than forty of them. However, raised in a society where peasants are just peasants and the Samurai are supposed to do the fighting the peasants are helpless. Only when led by Samurai and given meager training are they even slightly inclined to fight for their lives.

The peasants are expected to show deference and respect to the Warrior class. In fact, in the movie The Last Samurai the peasants of Edo drop whatever they are doing and get out of the road in order to make way for Lord Katsumoto and bow at his presence. Reminiscent of what they would do for the Emperor. This deference is completely lacking in The Seven Samurai. They receive a cold welcome from the other villagers who fear them as much as they feared the bandits. In fact, when the Samurai arrive the villagers are in hiding and refuse to come out until Kikuchiyo draws them out by scaring them of the Bandits’ arrival.

            The peasants had legitimate fears. The class system made them utterly inferior to the Samurai. The Samurai could take their young women without dowry and this they feared greatly. Worse, in the past the wounded, fleeing Samurai were killed and robbed by the villagers giving them a reasonable expectation of revenge from the indignant Samurai who consider such a death beneath their dignity.

            A major theme that is subtly woven into the Seven Samurai is the shattering of the ideal that the Samurai are high and mighty and invincible. This is best shown by all the drama about the guns. Many of the tactics and special maneuvers’ employed by the Samurai have to do with disabling the guns.

            Samurai being the ideal warrior are supposed to be invincible in battle. To a Samurai defeat involves facing a superior foe either an enemy with superior numbers or superior skill. In no time in the movie is it suggested that the Bandits are the peer of the Samurai. In fact, they are portrayed as little better than the peasants when it comes to fighting. The Samurai dispatch the more numerous bandits with practiced ease. A nod to their warrior skill gained from years of training.

            However, the Samurai suffer ignominious deaths. The four Samurai who are slain in the film are all killed by gunfire. No sword, or spear of arrow could master the Samurai. Instead it is the modern firearms that herald their doom. This is actually a subtle message from Kurosawa himself. Although preserving the warrior spirit of the Samurai will make us superior warriors, the truth is modern warfare and weaponry will winnow out this edge into nothing.

Homage to this idea of Kurosawa can also be found in the movie The Last Samurai. In the climactic final battle the Samurai are seen slashing through droves of well-trained, but still inferior, government troops. Few, if any, are defeated by the soldiers by use of bayonets. Instead the majority of Samurai are slain by means of rifle or artillery fire. The Samurai are even able to mount a final suicidal charge against the enemy before they are mowed down by the powerful Gatling guns.

Going back to the theme of oppressive social structures, when the Samurai learn of the ill treatment the village gave to Samurai in the past they are indeed angry and indignant. The are righteous in their indignation, the villager apparently stabbed the Samurai in the back helpless and weak as they were. Kikuchiy o, again displays his uncanny wisdom. He pleads with the other Samurai to stay their swords. He helps them realize that the oppressive social strata of the time are what lead the desperate villagers to such ends. After all, the villager’s poverty was obvious to them. The fact, the villages gave the Samurai the best food helped to assuage their indignation.

The battles were an ode to Kurosawa’s skill in filming. He pioneered many of the techniques on action films that would later be copied by many who came after him. As mentioned earlier the Samurai master the bandits easily in open battle. They even employ stratagems like forming a wall of spears to prevent too many bandits from engaging to them right away. To achieve the spear-wall effect, they trained the peasants in the ways of war. This was very much a taboo since only the Samurai were given the right to fight in those days. Still this was an indication that the Samurai were willing to be practical and break down class restrictions in favor of a practical battle strategy.

Four of the Seven Samurai are slain all by firearms. Of the four Kikuchiyo dies the most noble and respectable death. The phony Samurai lacking the high-birth of a proper member of the warrior class was the most worthy of them all. He is the one who successfully breaks the ice and convinces the Villagers to flee from their hiding places and meet the other Samurai. He was also the one who pointed out that the reason the fleeing Samurai are maltreated by the villagers is because they too absorbed cruel treatment from the warrior class. It was mainly through his wisdom and understanding, he is not actually a Samurai but a farmer’s son, that the Samurai and the villagers are able to work together in harmony. Truly, despite his unworthy roots and oafish behavior he is probably the most ‘Samurai’ of the seven. He dies a noble and worthy death avenging a fallen comrade and slaying the leader of the bandits. This elevation of Kikuchiyo is an expression of the fact that even those who were not of noble birth can in fact live up to the high traditions of the Samurai. In the movie his death is that of a friend going on a suicidal charge to recompense the death of a comrade. He even kills the most significant of the Bandits effectively breaking the bandits will to fight.

Kanbei the eldest of the Samurai is also elevated by his wisdom and foresight. In the beginning of the search for Samurai disguises himself as a monk to trap a kidnapper with an offer of food. To complete the disguise he suffers to have his top-knot, the symbol of his Samurai status, cut off so he can have the bald-pated head of a monk. This willingness to abandon pretenses of honor and dignity quickly gains the respect of other would be Samurai. Honor then, is not a function of fancy clothes or physical expressions of dignity and pride. Rather, honor is a grace found within the persons themselves. Just ask Kanbei, the top-knot would take years to grow back meaning he could not enter the Samurai circles with any honor for a long time.

The end of the movie displays the most poignant scene in the whole film. Four of the Samurai are slain but the village is successfully defended. Instead of showing gratitude, the villagers ignore the surviving Samurai and busy themselves with planting next year’s crop. Kanbei lament that “He has never won a battle” is given new meaning. Here we are treated to the possibility of reform. The Samurai have been enlightened by their experiences, reduced in number and still as poor at they were in the past, the are no better off physically or material. Spiritually they have gained new insights on life.

Sadly, the Samurai will respect and honor their fallen comrades as they should. But to the villagers the battle is almost instantly just a bad nightmare. They are so busy planting the crop for next year they can not even be bothered to give thanks to their saviors. But that’s really just the way things are. Peasant lot is so straight that they can not be spared the time. Once the danger is past it is time to go back to working the fields just as they have done for centuries and just as they continue to do to this day.

If Seven Samurai was a debunking of the myth of the idealized Samurai, Rashomon took them even lower. Rashomon begins with an equally dishonorable premise. A Samurai is murdered and his wife cruelly raped. During the trial conflicting accounts of the murder and rape are given. The rape varies from willing submission to actually sexual assault while the murder is either suicide, patricide or an honorable duel. In any case the Samurai is severely dishonored. His wife is raped before his eyes, mocking his warrior prowess at not even being able to protect his honor by allowing a bandit to have his way with the wife. Even if his own death was as ideal as the duel account, he still lost in battle to an unworthy bandit which is still humiliating for one of the warrior class. (Naruse 173)

The social order is given greater light in Rashomon. The Samurai are again expected to be paragons of honor, virtue and Bushido. The wife is expected to follow her husband’ s sterling example. While there is little good to be expected of the woodcutter, even less can be said of the Bandit. The priest is the only character in the story that came forth with clean hands.

I was most struck by the extreme prudishness that was displayed in the film. I mean, the wife was raped, or submitted depending on the version, by the bandit in front of her husband. This fact, alone was shameful and constitutes criminal behavior. However, if she was raped then carnal knowledge was without her consent. Yet regardless of the circumstance of her sexual encounter with the bandit she still considers herself shamed and dishonored. In fact, in her own account of the rape she asks her husband the Samurai to kill her to at least spare him and more dishonor.

The Samurai is equally prudish and uncompromising. Having seen first hand his wife’s incontinence he is shown as being unmerciful and cold. He would deny her even the grace of suicide and let her live out her shame. Incredibly, before his death the Samurai has more respect for the Bandit than his wife. When the Bandit offers to kill the wife or set her free the Samurai claims he almost forgave the Bandit. By comparison, he has no remorse or respect left for the wife that had so dishonored him.

This lowly view of the wife is repeated by the Bandit as well. After having carnal knowledge of the wife, he considers himself satisfied. However, the wife is so distraught that she asks her Husband and the Bandit to duel with each other to the death to save her from the shame of having known two men. The bandit arrogantly claims he defeated the Samurai in single combat and thinks little of the matter.

As mentioned even if his own death was as ideal as the duel account, he still lost in battle to an unworthy bandit which is still humiliating for one of the warrior class. The Samurai himself holds that he committed suicide which was probably the best course of action to preserve his honor after his wife had flouted it so callously. The dagger he used to commits seppuku would eventually lead to the resolution of the murder.

The woodcutter admits that he stole the dagger and this leads to the most likely conclusion that it was the Samurai’s account of his death that is true. His confession also leads to one of the redeeming qualities of the film. A baby is left orphaned with a ruby as an offering to whoever will care for him. The ruby is stolen by a peasant who is shamed by the others but is unmoved in his theft. Instead it will be up to the woodcutter, who already has six children, to care for the child. It would seem that this scene justified the theft of the Samurai’s dagger.

All told, Rashomon gives a jaded view of the strict moral strictures of the times. The wife, after being dishonored by the rape desires suicide from her husband as the only means of reclaiming even just a scrap of honor. It also presents an arrogant image of a Samurai who will not even soil his sword with the blood of the dishonored woman. Unfortunately, this low view of women will continue even until the Second World War. Comfort women were sent to the front to provide sexual comfort to the fighting men.

Akira Kurosawa was born in to a family of Samurai. He understood their traditions and the age old codes that they followed. His movies were, in a way an exposition of the fact that the Samurai were not perfect. They were also humans who committed mistakes and were subject to human failure.

In a way the Seven Samurai and Rashomon was a criticism of the militarized, imperialist culture than brought the Atomic Bomb to Japan. The Samurai was so idealized and idolized that the people grew up wanting to become Samurai themselves to the unfortunate ends of the Second World War. The movies can also be seen as a form of apology to the peasants and women who were probably the most downtrodden and oppressed people during those times.

While both films display oppression and injustice they also end with hope. For the Seven Samurai is it the hope that life will continue for the villagers because they are now safe from the bandit threat. The sacrifice of the Samurai was not wholly in vain. In Rashomon, despite the lies, indiscretions and crimes there is hope because a poor wretched woodcutter / dagger thief, is willing to care for a child not his own despite his own abject poverty.

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