Seven Samurai and genre theory
I am always reading CAG blogs, and there is some great stuff. I have tried a few times to create my own, and failed miserably every time, nothing unique. Shipwreck makes great game reviews...can't do that. Shimrra (and others) provide us with laughs, I'm not to funny from the keyboard. We have been chronicled to Dv8mad's life, mine is not that interesting.
When pulling my all-nighter, I decided I will try to make blogs on a more theoretic, analytic, and thought provoking approach to games and movies, something different that has been done before. Now, movies are easier than games, and this first volume has to do with a movie. Hopefully, if this continues, I can do something with a game next week.
And, I am sure some of your are thinking, "This is CheapAssGamer, nothing about movies in the title," but, we all love movies here to don't we.
So here I sit, 7:45 am, on one snowy ass day in New Hampshire, beer in my hand, sandwhich (turkey, ham, cheese and hot sauce) on my desk, and chew in my mouth (Skoal straight of course), and I just finished my first entry into this blog.
I probably should have spent this time and done an essay I have due for class today, but, I am really banking on school getting cancelled.
I understand this is a VERY long post, and by no means do I expect anyone to read it, but, if you do, congrats, and thanks I guess. Like I said, who knows, if I'm not to lazy or busy (which I never am the latter) than maybe I can spit out some more of these.
(I am not very good at making these blogs attractive, any tips are welcome)
The Western Frontier: Shogunate Japan
Epic. It has become the most overused (and most times incorrect in its use) word in the english language today. So, when movie critics used the word ‘epic’ to describe Akira Kurosawa’s timeless classic, Seven Samurai, in 1954, one can be assured that it was done so in proper context. Seven Samurai (which takes place in the Shogunate era of Japan), in a very basic description, is the story about a land of farmers in search of help. Every year a band of thieves raids their village and steals their crops; leaving them impoverished, inadequately fed, and empty on morale. A handful of farmers head into the local town in search of samurai willing to help their cause, while receiving food as the only form of compensation. The farmers eventually stumble across a samurai, named Kambei (Shimura Takashi), who agrees to help them. Kambei recruits a group of six other samurai, all with their own motives. Kikuchiyo is the son of a farmer, and a ‘wannabe’ samurai. Katsushiro begs to become Kambei’s apprentice, while Gorobei is the first to join, and a very jolly fellow. The samurai Heihachi feels that his swordsmanship would be put to better use hacking bodies as opposed to wooden logs, and Shichiroji has known Kambei from previous battles. The most skilled samurai to join the group is Kyuzo, who joins to further his fighting ability.
The movies scope was labeled monumental, the cinematography stunning. The acting was described as believable and heartfelt, while the characters emitted a sort of depth only found in a handful of classics. But what could be said about the genre of this film? Under which categorization did Seven Samurai belong to? The breadth of this movie, and the themes which are covered, are so diverse, that any theorist, or movie critic, can argue that Kurosawa’s film can be categorized to essentially any genre.
Let us look at some of the typical hollywood genres Seven Samurai can be associated with. When watching this film one can argue comedy, due to the outlandish behavior of Toshiro Mifune’s character Kikuchiyo. Action, the general plot of the movie involves a rag-tag band of samurai to battle a group of 40 thieves. Another genre which this film can belong to is drama; the tension and back stories of all the farmers proves to be very gripping. Seven Samurai can also be taken as a love story; the young idealist Katsushiro (played by Kimura Ko) must battle between his desires for a woman and his commitment to his master, Kambei. There are other genres that one can argue this film is linked to. Each characters motive, ideologies, and back story (both samurai and farmer alike) feed into the inability to properly label Kurosawa’s epic.
However, when talking about theory, it is almost impossible not to mention the work of film theorist Rick Altman, who gave us differentiating views of genre, the semantic approach, and the syntactic approach. Altman proposes, that too often (and typically in America) we avoid theoretic approach to film (Braudy & Cohen, 2004, p.680). His presumption is correct, and while, at times, it can be deemed valid to sit back and enjoy film solely as entertainment, approaching film with a theoretical mindset can heighten the experience gained from enjoying the work of a master auteur.
Altman approaches the semantic/syntactic genre theory by proposing the semantic approach strengthens the already sustained checklist of current genres, seeking areas of the film which agree with these pre-determined building blocks; while the syntactic approach acknowledges the deeper structure of a film, analyzing, and dissecting the film, looking for aspects which may not appear (on a literal level) to belong to the genre, but ultimately serve as the same purpose/function. In using these theoretic approaches to genre, therein lies an aspect of analysis that one may sacrifice. In using a semantic approach, the viewer gives up his explanatory power, the power to delve deeper into the text. While using the syntactic approach one looses his ability to incorporate the film into a broader (more defined) sense of scope. Due to this give-take (complementary) relationship, Altman argues that genre study is most effective when both approaches are combined (Braudy & Cohen, 2004, p.684-685).
To better understand the semantic/syntactic approach, I will use Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film, The Dark Knight. When analyzing The Dark Knight in light of semantics we would categorize it as a crime/film noir. The film is about a masked crusader (partially) working with the law to bring criminals to justice in a crime filled city. On its basic level, which the semantic approach enables us to do, The Dark Knight sustains its credentials as a crime movie because it checks all the boxes of this genre. On a character level we see Nolan’s movie abide by the rules of the crime/film noir genre. Good and bad is clearly distinguishable, even though many argue Batman straddles the line, there is no doubt that he acts in the name of noble morality. In the end, the criminals and gangsters are all brought to justice by those upholding the law of the land. One can say that the relationship in the film lies between the characters, between the right and the wrong. Setting and cinematography wise, the movie is mostly set at night, with a heavy focus on shadow and mystery.
However, when dissecting the text even deeper, on a syntactic level, one may argue that The Dark Knight is, in actuality, a western. Batman serves as the lone ranger attempting to bring the ‘most wanted’ criminal in for judgement. Chief Gordon obviously acts as the sheriff, while the Joker and Batman’s lover serve roles as the outlaw and damsel respectively. Rather than have a literal ‘trusty stead’, Batman looks to his Batmobile to act as his locomotion. According to John Cawleti, in a western the hero encounters his uncivilized double. To combat this evil, the hero must combine outlaw skills with town morale (Braudy & Cohen, 2004, p.685). That is exactly what The Dark Knight does. The common theory (and school of thought) in the Batman universe is that Batman and The Joker are one in the same, excluding the fact that one acts for justice while the other for crime. Consistently throughout Nolan’s film we see Batman using his outlaw skills (fighting abilities) to take down the joker, while feeding off town morale (in the end the cities populants ‘come together’ to support Batman and diminish the Jokers hope that all civilization is as uncivilized as he). Finally, in my claim as The Dark Knight being a western, the relationship is not between the characters, such as in a crime/film noir, but between the community and individual, as it is so in a western film. Batman’s goal is to ultimately protect the city from crime, not bring foes to justice due to his hatred for them.
Now that we better understand the relationship between semantics and syntax, let us break down Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. When approaching this film using a semantic approach I would argue that it falls under the genre of adventure. Most would argue that we place this movie under the genre of a samurai film, however, the samurai genre is not regarded as a true genre in the eyes of many theorists, more so, it is thought of as an added layer of specificity to a genre (this can be a debate for another time). Even though the samurai, or villagers, do not cross landscapes more than a few days walk away, I would still consider it an adventure film (using the semantic approach of course). Seven Samurai is not a full blown epic, for both ‘warring’ sides are not grandeur in scale (7 vs 40). It is not a complete action movie, as the movie is not predominately action driven, and most definitely not thin in plot or character. The differentiation between an adventure film, and action film, is very sparse, but, due to the heroism of the samurai, and the ‘adventure’ of the farmers in seek of help, this film is best categorized as an adventure film. As a matter of fact, it is this search for heroes which differentiates Seven Samurai from an action film. The setting changes enough for this to be classified as an adventure movie. The farmers journey into town and back again. The samurai stray into the forest, and for one scene they actually take a horse-ride into the enemies base. And, of course, to properly complement the adventure genre, Kurosawa gives us portrait-esque shots of the land, surely creating a sense of adventure for the viewer.
Taking the same movie, but using a syntactic eye, I would classify Seven Samurai as a western film. Kurosawa, himself, has let it be known to the world of his great admiration for great American western director, John Ford, “There is one person, I feel, I would like to resemble as I grow old: the late American film director John Ford” (Cowie, p.14). So it comes as no surprise that many of Kurosawa’s films resemble westerns with a feudal setting. In the same article, Seven Rose Together, by Peter Cowie, Cowie breaks down the character similarities just the same as I would have,
“The familiar ingredients of the western can be perceived at every turn in this medieval allegory of good versus evil: the threat from bandits (read cattle barons or Indians), the heroic samurai who organize the villagers’ resistance (read long gunfighters and settlers), the showdown in which virtue and bravery prevail...The innate arrogance of Mifune matches the coercive presence of John Wayne in Ford’s world...Kambei, with his phlegmatic, often wistful approach to life, seems closer to Henry Fonda of Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)...The villagers, like the settlers, find it hard to take up arms against their enemies...” (13-14).
The character archetype between this feudal Japanese movie to the American western frontier is astonishing. It even carries over to the lone female star in the movie, Shino. In a western, the female tends to be used as a sex object, or very fragile and protected. In Seven Samurai we see Shino used as both- the object of Katsushiro’s desire, and a weak, overly protected woman; her father cuts her hair so she can more resemble a man in hopes of protecting his daughter from the bandits. Reverting back to John Cawleti, and his idea of the western criteria, his idea of a hero encountering his uncivilized double holds as true in Seven Samurai, as it does in The Dark Knight. The samurai in this film, ronin (masterless, wandering samurai) are, in a way, the heroic version of the masterless, wandering bandits. And, in the end, the heroes (our seven samurai), resort to combining their outlaw skills with the towns morale (and their spears as well).
In closing, I feel that the syntactic approach is best suited to analyze a film when dissecting its genre. Using this technic allows the viewer to more actively participate, and interpret the film in his own idea. When watching a film, do not look at the objects showcased in the movie as literal, but more as which function they serve. The common proverb, ‘if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, it must be a duck’ should not be ones inspiration when analyzing the contents in a film to determine genre. Seven Samurai truly is an epic masterpiece in scope, character density, pace, cinematography and historical reference. Many feel that this movie is the guideline in which directors should follow when making a film. If they have done so, then I am sure their films rank with the greats, such as Akira Kurosawa’s classic western tale, Seven Samurai.
Works Cited (for those stiflers on plagiarism)
Altman, R. (2004). A Semantic/Sytactic Approach To Film Genre. Film Theory & Criticism: Introductory Readings 6th edition (pp. 680-690). NY: Oxford UP.
Cowie, P. (0). Seven Rode Together: Seven Samurai and the American Western. Seven Samurai Eight Takes (pp. 13-15). NY: Criterion Collection.
|Comments (Total Comments: 2)|
|au7oma7ic - 12-09-2009, 08:39 AM|
|Shimrra - 12-09-2009, 09:26 AM|
|Recent Blog Entries by au7oma7ic|