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October 29, 2012

Eleven Samurai

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Ju-ichinin no samurai
Eiichi Kudo - 1967
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

There is a remarkable shot in Eleven Samurai, one that clearly delineates the difference between classic filmmaking, and the kind of visual laziness that happens too often in contemporary films. The camera focuses on a forest road. Fog obscures the road. The shot is held for several seconds. Nothing seems to happen although one eventually hears the galloping of horses getting louder. Samurai on horseback faintly, and then more clearly emerge, in and then through the fog. The camera zooms back to provide a perspective of the samurai who are staging an ambush. It's the kind of filmmaking that is almost forgotten, where the filmmaker demands that the audience pay attention to what is happening on the screen, and done with a single take.

The story is inspired by a true incident that took place in 1839. While hunting, the younger brother of the Shogun crosses into the land belonging to a clan without permission. Shooting a farmer for being in his way, the vassals of that clan ask that the brother and his entourage turn back. The brother, seeing his status challenged, kills the clan's vassal. Even though the members of the Shogunate are aware of the crimes of the brother, it is the other clan which is to be punished with abolishment. A secret plan is hatched to take revenge.

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The third film of Kudo's samurai trilogy, there is some similarity in the setup and even the story to the two previous films. What is different is that a good portion of the film is devoted to the relationship between the leader of the samurai gang, Hayato, and his wife, Orie. The scenes of tenderness between the two, played respectively by Isao Natsuyagi and Junko Miyazono, are not often found in jidaigeki films. Hayato and Orie are not just spouses, but lovers in the truest sense, as Kudo cuts to extreme close-ups of hands caressing each other.

As in his other films, Kudo has extraordinary use of wide screen black and white imagery. Another forest shot could well have been inspired by Ansel Adams, with the various shadings, and the shafts of sunlight striking through the trees. Not one to make it easy for himself, his crew or the cast, Kudo places the final, extended fight sequence in the rain, in a muddy field. As in his previous films, Kudo also finds ways to film his characters in silhouette.

The music is by Akira Ifukube, best known for his score for Godzilla. Much of the music here is minor chord, and elegiac. Ifukube's music here is as recognizably his work in much the same way as one identifies the film scores of Ennio Morricone.

I unapologetically love wide screen black and white movies, which may partially explain why I usually enjoy Japanese movies from the late Fifties through the Sixties that used that format. There are Hollywood movies as well, notably Sam Fuller's Forty Guns and Jack Cardiff's Sons and Lovers. I bring this up because even though Eiichi Kudo is now being discovered by western viewers for his samurai films, he also needs to be acknowledged as a master of light and shadow.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 29, 2012 08:05 AM