An extract from J M Coetzee's new book, Diary of a Bad Year, appeared in the NYRB for 10 July.
The Seven Samurai is a film in complete command of its medium yet naive enough to deal simply and directly with first things. Specifically it deals with the birth of the state, and it does so with Shakespearean clarity and comprehensiveness. In fact, what The Seven Samurai offers is no less than the Kurosawan theory of the origin of the state.
The story told in the film is of a village during a time of political disorder—a time when the state has in effect ceased to exist—and of the relations of the villagers with a troop of armed bandits. After years of descending upon the village like a storm, raping the women, killing those men who resist, and bearing away stored-up food supplies, the bandits hit on the idea of systematizing their visits, calling on the village just once a year to exact or extort tribute (tax). That is to say, the bandits cease being predators upon the village and become parasites instead.
One presumes that the bandits have other such "pacified" villages under their thumb, that they descend upon them in rotation, that in ensemble such villages constitute the bandits' tax base. Very likely they have to fight off rival bands for control of specific villages, although we see none of this in the film.
The bandits have not yet begun to live among their subjects, having their wants taken care of day by day—that is to say, they have not yet turned the villagers into a slave population. Kurosawa is thus laying out for our consideration a very early stage in the growth of the state.
[For those unfamiliar with the film in question, what actually happens is this:
A group of bandits gallop to the top of a hill overlooking a village. One says something like: Let's attack! The leader says: No, we raided them in the autumn. There's nothing there. Let's come back after the rice harvest.
The bandits gallop off. Two peasants who have been hiding in the bushes go back to the village to share the bad news.
At the risk of stating the obvious, not only do we see nothing in the film of the bandits fighting rival bands for control of specific villages, we also see nothing of the system of "pacified" villages descended upon in rotation. The political philosophy is the product of Mr Coetzee's unfevered imagination.]
The main action of the film starts when the villagers conceive a plan of hiring their own band of hard men, the seven unemployed samurai of the title, to protect them from the bandits. The plan works, the bandits are defeated (the body of the film is taken up with skirmishes and battles), the samurai are victorious. Having seen how the protection and extortion system works, the samurai band, the new parasites, make an offer to the villagers: they will, at a price, take the village under their wing, that is to say, will take the place of the bandits. But in a rather wishful ending the villagers decline: they ask the samurai to leave, and the samurai comply.
Having seen how the protection and extortion system works??????? The new parasites????? offer, at a price, to take the village under their wing???????
The bandits started out with a band of 40. The samurai start out as a band of (the title of the film is a useful aide-memoire) 7. 4 die. 7 - 4 = 3.
During the recruitment of the samurai Kurosawa goes to a great deal of trouble to emphasise that the band is really too small for the job; 7 is not enough. Given that premise, it would have been ludicrous for 3 to propose themselves as protectors against any further marauding bandits who might happen to come along. Emphasis is also placed on the fact that the farmers are unable to pay: they can offer nothing but food. It would have been equally ludicrous for the samurai to offer to stay "for a price" when the point is made repeatedly that what the farmers have to offer is not worth the risk. If Kurosawa had introduced the development proposed by Coetzee he would have thrown away the moral and practical difficulties which he had placed at the centre of the film. Unsurprisingly, he did nothing of the kind.
2 of the 4 killed die in the final battle, a last stand in the mud and the rain. The master swordsman is killed by a bullet from a hidden bandit. The impostor, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), tracks the bandit down; he is shot in the stomach but manages to kill the bandit. The young aristocrat, Katsushiro, rushes wildly through the rain, shouting Where are the bandits, where are the bandits -- and is told they're all dead, there are none left to kill. He sinks to his knees, howling, in the mud. This is, of course, a splendid opportunity for Kurosawa to share with us his thoughts on Hobbes, but he passes. For reasons best known to himself, he, um, cuts to a scene of the villagers planting rice shoots. Kambei: We lose again. The remaining 3 samurai look up at the mound where their comrades are buried.
Coetzee is ascribing to Kurosawa an artistic practice which is, in fact, highly characteristic of his own work: a propensity to substitute philosophical discourse for attention to plot and character. This is the sort of thing that goes down well with the Nobel Committee, who do dearly love worthy books that tackle Big Issues -- but it is not Kurosawa.
Coetzee's summary ("band of hard men", "unemployed samurai") misses out precisely the resistance to stereotype through attention to detail which is one of Kurosawa's hallmarks. Kikuchiyo is not a samurai; he's a farmer's son who picked up a sword and decided he liked swaggering around with it. Katsushiro comes from an old samurai family, but he has never killed a man. Heihachi is found chopping wood; he attributes his survival to the fact that, "since you can't kill them all, I usually run away." Kyuzo, the master swordsman, "isn't interested in killing people, he just wants to perfect his art." Rikichi, the farmer who first wants to fight the bandits, is as brave and reckless as Kikuchiyo -- but he doesn't force his way into the band of samurai. The question of what it means to be a warrior, of who is entitled to fight, is explored in one episode after another. (It would be easy to go on at very great length.)
This is an example which shows exactly what an editor might contribute to a book, and why the common practice of selling books to editors with no relevant knowledge is so damaging. The Last Samurai was acquired in the US and the UK by two editors who had never seen Seven Samurai, and who saw no need to do so before commenting on the manuscript. It's possible, of course, that Coetzee's editor knew the film well, objected to this nonsense, and was stonewalled by the author. It's more likely, I can't help feeling, that the editor hadn't seen the film and assumed Coetzee knew what he was talking about. When I was discussing possible publishers of Your Name Here with my last agent, Warren Frazier, I said I would like to talk to editors who knew at least some of the films and books that had inspired it (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita were the most important films, there were rather a lot of books); he either didn't know or wouldn't tell me.
Well, well, well. There's a book by Agatha Christie of which I remember nothing but the title: Why Didn't They Ask Evans? What can I say? Why didn't you ask Evans, Mr Coetzee? Why didn't you ask Evans?
[A reader comments that the views appear in essays by a character and may not be Coetzee's; that C would be unlikely to make such mistakes about so well-known a film. Yes; it may be that the views of the JC in the book are not those of JC. On the second point, though, people often seem to allow memory to rewrite SS long after they've seen it, sometimes influenced by better familiarity with The Magnificent Seven. (JC's comment about the band of hard men, for instance, makes better sense if we think of TMS, which simply gets rid of the character of the young aristocrat who has never fought before, transferring his love interest to the Horst Buchholz character based on Kikuchiyo. My own memory of TMS is a bit vague, but I also seem to remember that it keeps the wood-chopping episode but transfers it to Charles Bronson, getting rid of Heihachi's line about usually running away. [Could be wrong about this.]) So it may be, in fact, that the mistakes mentioned are not JC's; on the other hand, they are not unimaginable as misrememberings of a film seen long ago.]