Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 34, October 2003

 

 

Aakash Singh

 

Kojeve's Masters and Slaves, Kurosawa's Samurai and Farmers

 

 

_Seven Samurai_

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Japan, 1954

 

As Japan's most famous international classic, Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film _Seven Samurai_ (_Shichinin no samurai_) suffers no shortage of commentary or criticism. Set in 16th-century Japan, when society was irrevocably and swiftly changing, with the noble class near the point of extinction, the film (co-written by Kurosawa) portrays a small farming village besieged yearly by bandits, who carry off their women and plunder their crops. Out of desperation, the farmers recruit samurai to protect them, repaying them only with meals. The samurai, led by Kambei, who pitied the plight of the farmers, include a young disciple called Katsuhiro, a master swordsman named Kyuzo, Kambei's long-time friend Shichiroji, the clownish Heihachi, the empathetic and astute Gorobei, and a man who pretends to be a samurai -- although he fools no one -- whom we later discover to have been a farmer's son, though not from the village concerned (who gets dubbed Kikuchiyo). [1] The seven samurai, together with the farmers, manage after a long battle to overcome the bandits, albeit with heavy casualties.

 

The innumerable interwoven themes of the film have each been given some treatment in reviews: the samurai 'concept' in relation to Hagakure, or the _Book of the Samurai_; Kurosawa's treatment of nature -- farms, fields, flowers, and every variation of light and weather; the battle scenes which make this film a classic 'action drama'; the societal inequality and the subsequent 'humanism' of the film as a whole; the moral clash and tension between farmer and samurai embodied in the character Kikuchyo, the farmer-samurai; the musical motifs; and many others, even some fanciful notions, like essays on the symbolic use of horses in the film, or on homoerotic innuendo among the samurai.

 

Nevertheless, despite the nearly exhaustive commentary on these themes and the film's many sub-plots, I do not think that the closing scenes of the film have either been sufficiently explored or adequately understood. I refer primarily to two events: 1, the farmers' sowing, accompanied by drum-backed song, made possible due to the village's victory over the attacking bandits; and 2, the head-samurai Kambei's resigned final statement that it is the farmers who have won and not the samurai. The sowing scene has even been regarded by some critics as superfluous to the main theme of the film. But if this scene, along with the other shots in the last few seconds of the film, were taken to form a uniform statement, then Kambei's declaration that it is the farmers and not the samurai who have won could actually be clearly comprehended as a precise identification of what has unfolded through the drama of this film -- it is, in short, the briefest answer to the question: What is the film about?

 

If we posit that the over-arching action of the film presents the victory of farmers over samurai, as opposed to the prevailing description of the film as portraying the victory of the farmers and samurai over the attacking bandits, then we as viewers and interpreters of the film would be in a position to comprehensively and even systematically organize all of the innumerable interwoven themes of the film -- themes and sub-plots which have hitherto merely been arbitrarily stressed or underplayed, or even less critically simply enumerated by one critic or another. The virtue of this interpretation of the film is that it not only serves to organize and make integral the films sub-themes, but also helps to resolve long-standing debates occurring in both Japan and abroad, such as the argument over whether Kurosawa ought to have closed the film with a wedding between the young samurai Katsuhiro and the farmer-girl Shino with whom he had been having an affair. In his review of the film, the American film critic Roger Ebert asks: 'Should the hero get the girl?' If we understand the film, as Ebert does, to present a cooperation of farmers and samurai with the aim of repelling bandits, then we cannot definitively answer whether there should or should not have been a wedding -- either would have been arbitrary, or at best a resolution of one of the film's many sub-plots. However, by arguing that the film uses the cooperation of farmers and samurai to conquer bandits as a *means* to present the real end, the victory of farmers over samurai, it becomes clear that such a wedding was precluded in principle.

 

The reason that the central, overarching theme of the film has hitherto been missed by critics has to do with its esoteric source: the Master-Slave dialectic of the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel's _Phenomenology of the Spirit_, as interpreted by Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve, [2] and presented to Kurosawa by second or third-hand accounts, such as through the early writings of Japanese novelist and dramatist Yukio Mishima, who had been influenced by Kojeve's work. Let me dampen the initial shock the reader must experience at the assertion that Kurosawa's great Japanese classic is developed around a theme of German philosophy radicalized by an existentialist interpreter. First, while I do not have the space to go into details here, it should be kept in mind that Hegel's _Phenomenology_ had been introduced into Japanese philosophy quite early in the century, with the development of the Kyoto school. As is widely known, Nishitani and Nishida's works were strongly influenced by Hegel, and Japanese intellectuals, like Mishima, were well aware of every sort of interpretation and reinterpretation of Hegel's thought by the time of the Second World War. Second, Kojeve's interpretation of Hegel's _Phenomenology_ was by far the most popular and influential such interpretation, gaining international attention and acclaim after the War. Japanese thinkers were well aware of Kojeve's _Introduction to the Reading of Hegel_ long before Kojeve made his famous voyage to Japan in 1959. Finally, by the time Kurosawa become aware of the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic, it had already been thoroughly 'domesticated', not only through the popular writings of the Kyoto philosophers, but also in the growing *bushido* literature, reinterpretations of the Hagakure (literally, 'Hidden Leaves', now often referred to as _Book of the Samurai_) which appealed to the Master-Slave dialectic to explain the extinction of the cult of the warrior.

 

There is commentary on Kurosawa's film that points out the link with Hagakure. The Hagakure was composed at a time (1716) when feudal Japan had been at peace for nearly a century. This long peace strained the status of the samurai as it undermined their utility. In this context, bandits would have served to prolong the existence of this dying class. But what commentary linking _The Seven Samurai_ with Hagakure fails to explore is the way in which Hagakure was read in Kurosawa's time -- this is crucial. It is the reinterpretation of Hagakure (which took its lead from Kojeve's work) that characterizes Kurosawa's use of it, and allows us to see that the ultimate battle that Kurosawa portrays in his film is not one of samurai and farmers against bandits, but rather, more subtly and insightfully, the class of samurai (Kojevean *Masters*) against the class of farmers (Kojevean *Slaves*). Let's first look at Kojeve's basic thesis, and then see how it plays out through Kurosawa's film.

 

In Kojeve's interpretation of Hegel's philosophy found in his seminal _Introduction to the Reading of Hegel_, the concept of *desire* is key. Desire is what is responsible for self-consciousness in man. Desire is defined as lack, which is filled in by a certain activity, activity being a negation of a given reality: the *I* of Desire is an emptiness that receives a real positive content only by negating action that satisfies Desire in destroying, transforming, and assimilating the desired non-I. But animals, of course, also have desire. For desire to be distinctly human, it must be directed toward another desire. Because human consciousness requires the desire of another desire, being human presupposes being social, presupposes that there are others. The human is self-conscious, and ultimately he will be not only self-conscious, but also conscious of his inner freedom, of his individuality, of his history. This leap from the spark of self-consciousness in man, the advance made from animal self-sentiment, to his awareness of his freedom, individuality and historicity occurs because of Kojeve's linkage of human desire to 'recognition'. That is, when one desires the desire of another, one desires to be desired, or what Kojeve identifies as desiring to be recognized.

 

Kojeve's explanation of recognition occurs in the context of the famous fight-to-the-death, the heart of the Master-Slave dialectic that Kojeve is discussing. For desire to be truly human it must not only be orientated toward another desire, it must also win out over animal desire(s). That means that truly human desire would overcome the most basic and most significant animal desire, the desire to preserve life. Truly and thoroughly human desire means desire orientated toward another desire without concern for the preservation of life, without concern for one's animal desire -- in other words, desire seeking recognition even at the risk of life. Two men, or two desires, confront one another in this fight, and one of the two will establish himself as the superior, the other as inferior: he who is not willing to sacrifice his life in this struggle, giving in to the other, establishes that he is still bound to the natural, still essentially slavish; while the other, willing to sacrifice life for a non-vital end, recognition, establishes that he is master over himself, and master over the other. Thus, while the master will be recognized by the slave, the slave will not be recognized by the master.

 

Since according to Kojeve, man is only satisfied through recognition by one whom he recognizes, the master is not truly satisfied by the recognition of the slave. Nevertheless, the master forces the slave to work for him, and thus the master has the benefit of enjoying and consuming the product of the slave's work -- the master idles away his time in partial satisfaction; the slave toils away in service to the master. While the slave works, he works upon (i.e. he becomes master of) nature. The slave became a slave because he was subject to nature, or unwilling to sacrifice his life for a non-natural end. Through work, however, the slave overcomes nature, and overcomes his own nature as well: in order to work and produce a product for the consumption of the master, the slave must repress his natural instinct to consume the material. The master had overcome nature and himself by risking his life for a non-vital end, had become master over the slave, who had shown his slavishness by being tied to nature. Now the slave overcomes nature and his own nature through work. The master's action was destructive simply, while the slave's action, work, destroys in order to create -- he does not destroy but rather he sublimates. Progress, technological and historical, requires this sublimation that is work, which is to say that it presupposes the era of mastery and slavery. The master remains identical to himself, he is required to spark the historical process, but he doesn't get anywhere. The slave will ultimately become the 'absolute master', satisfied by a universal recognition, rather than the sort of first-moment master who is doomed to remain unsatisfied.

 

The slave will be able to be fully satisfied at a given point in history -- at that point, however, he will cease to be a slave. Through work, the slave was able to achieve the same humanizing result that the master had achieved through the fight; that is, surmounting the given, natural conditions of existence. When the slave becomes conscious of the fact that he is transforming the given material of nature through work in the service of another, i.e. for an idea, then he becomes conscious of his freedom, and of autonomy. With the thought that arises from his work, the slave develops the notion of freedom, although being in bondage, the slave becomes more a slave by this realization than he was before he knew what freedom was.

 

The Slave is obliged to overcome mastery by a nondialectical overcoming of the Master who obstinately persists in his (human) identity to himself -- that is, by annulling him or putting him to death. And this annulling is what is manifested in and by the final fight for recognition, which necessarily implies the risk of life on the part of the freed Slave. This risk, moreover, is what completes the liberation which was begun by his work, by introducing in him the constituent-element of mastery which he lacked. Being both Master and Slave, he is no longer either the one or the other, but is the unique synthetical man, in whom the thesis of mastery and the antithesis of slavery are dialectically overcome -- that is, *annulled* in their one-sided or imperfect aspect, but *preserved* in their essential or truly human aspect, and therefore *sublimated* in their essence and in their being. We today are the product of this synthetical man. Kurosawa's film, then, presents a moment in the process of our historical development.

 

The Master characteristics of the samurai are presented in several scenes. Among these, there is one which contrasts the honor-bound samurai with the slavish farmers, when the samurai have captured a bandit, intend not to harm him since he is protected by his status as 'prisoner of war', and yet the farmers mutilate him anyway with hoe and pitchfork. There are of course several other examples of the different moralities, if you will, of the samurai and farmers. Further, that the samurai have overcome the fear of death is presented in a scene early in the film, where Kambei is listening to the recent exploits of his old friend Shichiroji. Shichiroji had survived a burning castle tumbling down upon him in his previous battle. Kambei asks, 'Were you terrified?' Shichiroji replies, 'Not particularly.' Kambei then suggests, 'Maybe we will die this time', to which Shichiroji simply responds with a smile.

 

On the other hand, the 'slavish' nature of the farmer is clear from the crying and wailing in the opening scenes of the film. It is captured profoundly by such camera shots as when (about 40 minutes into the film), one of the farmers fails to prevent the theft of the rice they use to feed the samurai, and Kurosawa shows him miserably picking up the few dozen remaining grains, which gleam white on the dirty black floorboards. In the battle, too, Kurosawa captures the crux of the issue in one shot, when he cuts to the frozen, terrified face of a farmer in close-up. The camera pans back slowly to show the villager gripping the end of a bamboo spear upon which one of the bandits is impaled. The villager is so shocked by what he has done that he cannot move.

 

Now, it is important to underscore that the Kojeve-influenced reinterpretation of the bushido phenomenon, most famously provided in Mishima's literary works -- as well as his life: Mishima committed ritual suicide samurai-style (*seppuku*) in the office of the General of Japan's Self-Defense Force -- is not simply a textual argument. Kurosawa shows the Kojevean thesis *filmicly*. Let's use as examples two of the most celebrated shots in the film. First, recall (about 47 minutes into the film) when the lean, sinewy master swordsman Kyozu is introduced. Kyozu sunders the less-skilled samurai in half in a battle of skill, honor, and prestige. Kyozu did not care to engage in the sword fight, since he knew from the earlier bamboo test fight that he would be the winner. The other samurai forces him; they prepare, and attack. The viewer does not know for certain what has happened, what the result is, for about two seconds. Then the less skilled samurai topples over slowly away from the camera. It's a great scene, the frame is tense and powerful. But one thing the scene shows is that mastery culminates in death, that its 'negating nihilism' (as Kojeve would say) cannot bring about the work that sustains and ultimately satisfies civilization. Of course, mastery is powerful and noble and superior, but it is also, in the final analysis, unsatisfying and insupportable.

 

Contrast this scene with another famous one. Recall (about 1 hour into the film) when Manzo, the father of the beautiful girl Shino, comes into his hut with a razor in order to crop her hair so she looks like a boy, since the samurai, notorious rapists, are soon to arrive. The frame shows her from behind, her curved figure filling the center of the screen, as she washes her long silken hair. A lovely, feminine figure, curves and softness. It's a beautiful but also tense 2-3 second shot, and it shows in some sense the essence of the slave: feminine and soft. Of course, by the end of the film, Shino is not wedded to the young samurai, though she has had an affair with him. This shows that even the young samurai cannot necessarily adapt, and instead like all his kind must become extinct. On the other hand, the farmer-girl wouldn't marry him (or rather, her father wouldn't let her), on the surface because of the class difference between farmers and samurai, but on a deeper level because the young samurai, like all samurai, has become useless.

 

The farmers can kill, they have learned to kill in a planned, organized, and effective way -- but they can also sow and reap. That ability to create and grow is shown in the images of Shino's curves and femininity (i.e. the ability to give birth), while the ability to kill is shown in the tough, lean figure of Kyozu, the master swordsman.

 

Showing the farmers' rising synthetic characteristics, their assimilation of the Master elements of the samurai, Kurosawa closes the film with the farmers sowing, accompanied by music and dance -- in short, victory. Interestingly, those who beat the drums and sing are those who were recognized by the samurai as having become brave fighters during the battle scenes. Still earlier, they were the ones who ate millet and suffered hunger while they cooked and fed the samurai steamy white rice. The farmers are now organized, happy, hard-working, etc. In other words, they are behaving in such a way that you would expect them to fight without samurai, next time there is an invasion. Thus the farmers are now able to defend themselves as well as grow food and do other 'slavish' things.

 

The next shot shows Shino walk past Katsuhiro, snubbing him in fact, as she joins in the sowing and singing, her voice first rising above those of the others, and then fading into the common song. The last shot shows that the head-samurai Kambei has seen and understood the significance of the drum and song-backed sowing dances, of Shino's snubbing of the young samurai, and of all of the events that have unfolded in the film. The samurai are slowly leaving the village, but where to? To seek other fights and perhaps even beg for food, as is their fate with the coming end of the era of mastery. Thus, Kambei states in the closing line of the film -- just before the camera gives us a view of the noble samurai graves standing symbolically over the many farmer graves -- that 'it is the farmers who have won and not us'. It's pure Kojeve, what he called 'the tragedy of the Master'.

 

This analysis of Kurosawa's film naturally raises an important question. Given that Kurosawa presents a philosophic notion as the over-arching structure of his plot, does this mean that critics are correct to say that he has sacrificed the development of particular characters for the sake of presenting general *types*, who consequently and disappointingly cannot be seen to be really flesh and blood persons? I would argue that just the opposite is true: Kurosawa's genius, his true achievement in the film, lies precisely in how he was able to develop his characters, and the character relationships, while at the same time showing the broader historical sweep within which all particular persons tend to get lost. Each time I see the film I notice more and more details that Kurosawa had packed into the drama, providing clues as to what motivated particular characters, providing what we would call, in short, their *personalities*, whether farmers or samurai.

 

Perhaps the finest example of this is the farmer-samurai Kikuchiyo. Kikuchiyo is a farmer's son who hates the samurai for having destroyed his village during his youth, but at the same time he hates the farmers for their weakness, pettiness, and duplicity. Kurosawa balances his particular personality, his overcompensation, bravado, and so on, with his *type*, the early or pre-mature and thus doomed synthesis of mastery and slavery. We can see this layering in the scene where Kikuchiyo cannot break in the horse -- as a farmer's son, he did not benefit from equestrian training. Or again in his conquest across enemy lines, when he managed to kill bandits and steal a gun, an achievement resulting not in praise by the samurai but in censure for having defied the rules and putting all at risk. These scenes, along with those where we come to learn about the farmer-samurai's parentage and the fate of his village, show how brilliantly Kurosawa has handled the difficult task of presenting a philosophic thesis (which tends to suppress personality) within a drama (which tends to present its story through specific persons). Further, Kurosawa managed this in the specific medium of film, replicating the layering of plot and theme by exquisite camera work techniques, such as deep-focus. Action develops and occurs in the fore- mid- and back-ground of several shots, suggesting that the story itself develops in several contexts simultaneously.

 

That Kurosawa captured on film the historical fate of the samurai within the philosophical context of the Master-Slave dialectic, unfolding in a drama with specific characters motivated by their own defined interests, is already achievement enough. That he managed in the process to produce one of the finest films ever made is nothing less than awe-inspiring. I find it amusing that awe, however, is far from the uniform reaction of critics. In his biography of Yukio Mishima, Peter Wolfe links him with Akira Kurosawa by referring to them as the 'two great distorters' of the bushido tradition in Japan. [3] What Wolfe complains of as distortion, I would rather celebrate as reinterpretation -- or what Kojeve himself called a *mise a jour*, a bringing up to date.

 

Humboldt University

Berlin, Germany

 

 

1. See <http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/cjs/films/reviews/pics/sevensamurai.jpg>.

 

2. Kojeve, _Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit_ (New York: Basic Books, 1969).

 

3. Peter Wolfe, _Yukio Mishima_ (New York: Continuum, 1989), p. 16.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Aakash Singh, 'Kojeve's Masters and Slaves, Kurosawa's Samurai and Farmers', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 34, October 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n34singh>.

 

 

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