Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: PFA Screens Seven Samurai Classics

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday December 01, 2006

Pacific Film Archive will present a series of seven samurai films beginning today and running through Dec. 17. 

Most of the films come courtesy of Janus Films, the great American distributor of foreign arthouse cinema whose 50th anniversary PFA has been honoring in another ongoing series.  

But the samurai series ain’t quite as highbrow as all that. Not on the surface, at least. These are popular entertainments, full of action and humor. But look closer and you’ll see films full of art and artistry, of complex themes and human struggle worthy of the highest forms of art, here dressed in violent period melodrama. 

Of course no samurai series would be complete without the best samurai film of them all, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Seven Samurai gave rise to an American version, The Magnificent Seven, but the western version pales in comparison to the original. Kurosawa takes his time with each character, presenting a fuller, richer, more engaging ensemble than the swaggering icons played by Yul Brynner et al.  

Kurosawa is represented in the series by two other films as well: Throne of Blood (1957), his samurai adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Yojimbo (1961), a brilliant and funny film inspired by American westerns and later remade as a western, albeit an Italian western: Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars. 

But most enlightening films in the series are the lesser-known classics of the genre.  

The series starts with this weekend with two films by Masaki Kobayashi, Samurai Rebellion (1967) and Harakiri (1962). 

Harakiri is a stunning film, a gradually unfolding tale of heartbreak and misfortune that builds toward a climactic act of revenge. Most of the film consists of conversations in which the characters play out a tense, strategic battle of wills, yet now and then the slow-burning tone is punctuated with scenes of sudden violence. 

Kobayashi and photographer Yoshio Miyajima establish themselves quickly as masters of interiors with an opening credits sequence of slow tracking shots which delineate the architectural splendor of a great mansion. The pattern continues throughout the film with beautiful but discreet compositions and graceful tracking shots through corridors and into rooms, with pillars and doors and windows and figures arranged perfectly like stones in a garden.  

Kobayashi often maintains a certain distance from his subjects, unobtrusively watching them as they go about their business. But when the action starts and the tone shifts, so too does the camera, zooming in like a Sergio Leone telephoto shot or tilting toward canted angles a la Orson Welles, signaling a shift in the dramatic action as well as the strategic repositioning of characters within fragile alliances. But Kobayashi also demonstrates his talent for outdoor shots with a one-on-one battle on a windswept plain that contains echoes of Bergman.  

The plot concerns the requisite lone samurai, this time seeking to destroy the facade of nobility and honor maintained by a great clan, and he does so, for the most part, without action but with words. It is like one of those extended endgame scenes in a James Bond movie where the villain stops the show to explicate in great detail for the hero’s benefit the machinations of his nefarious scheme. Only here it lasts two hours and results in a tour de force of swordfight choreography as Tatsuya Nakadai takes on the house’s company of samurai and by extension the entire feudal system. He smashes down doors, breaks through walls, smears the house insignia with the blood of his enemies and dismantles the interiors that Kobayashi had photographed with such care throughout the film, the architecture that had sustained the house and masked its cowardice.  

The series also features two films by director Kihachi Okamoto: Kill! (1968) and Sword of Doom (1966).  

While Kobayashi’s work embodies much of what of what is best in the samurai genre, the films of Kihachi Okamoto elaborately deconstruct these elements in gleeful parodies that, like the Italian westerns of Leone, are equal parts satire and homage. Okamoto’s Kill!, made just six years after Harakiri, picks apart the genre’s stock features and embellishes its humor-laced plot with a score that deconstructs the genre’s musical themes as well, combining Japanese instrumentation with the cartoonishly grand orchestrations of the spaghetti western scores of the 1960s. 

For more information on the samurai series, see Pacific Film Archive’s website: