Where to start?
Well, first of all I’m completely unqualified to talk about this film critically. And I don’t mean because I’m a layman whose only field of expertise is coin-op arcade games of the late 80’s. I mean it because I’ve seen it only once. So, what follows in this article is probably nothing more than first impressions. I’m guessing a film of this magnitude, with such a massive imprint on the collective conscience and memory of the movie-going public both foreign and domestic, requires repeat viewings or else it will always elude me.
Not only have I seen it just once, but that one time was in the past week. As well I should swallow swords and tell you what it tastes like right?
Now that I’ve established my impotency in the face of this cultural monolith let’s continue with the critique shall we?
Um, again, where to start?
I guess we have to start with Katsushiro. Young, untested, naïve, idealistic, uncertain, pure hearted, capable of greatness, boyishly handsome. Everything that I can identify with. No, but seriously, most of us, by necessity, must identity with Katsushiro. He hasn’t seen much, so we get indoctrinated along with him. He’s our only way into this vast and exotic world of stern-faced ronin, bad news bandits, puerile peasants and the feudal socioeconomic conditions of 16th century Japan which bind them all.
Without Katsushiro we probably never get close enough to Kambei, the Obi-Wan before Obi-Wan. Early on, everything we learn about him is gleaned from how he teaches young Katusushiro, either by word or action. Kambei is the character who’s stuck with me the most. That may or may not change with another week of digestion, or upon repeat viewings, but as of right now, it’s Kambei.
There’s a moment right before the intermission where he reins in the self-interested peasants who’ve gone wayward, aligns them in military formation and delivers a short concussive speech to steel their frayed nerves for the coming battle. It’s a chilling moment and easily surpasses the more syrupy calls to battle given by say Mel Gibson in Braveheart or Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings.
After the intermission, the second half of the film is dominated by the transformation of the impetuous Kikuchiyo from a would-be Samurai into a full-fledged warrior full of honor, courage, loyalty and sacrifice. He proves to be every bit worthy of the Samurai class in spirit if not in name or birthright.
Make no mistake, Toshirō Mifune, the actor who portrays Kikuchiyo, is the star of this show. His performance is truly iconic, suffused with equal portions humor and humanity. Forget the emotional aspect, his sheer physicality is a thing to watch. If there is anything like screen presence then Mifune has it in spades. The man is a force of nature and darn near rivals the driving rainstorm that envelopes the penultimate battle for visceral impact.
And yet, Kambei sticks with me. I can’t explain why. I guess I have to go back and watch it again.
(10 out of 10)