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See a cinematic classic from a post-Hegelian perspective. Danny O’Donnell reviews Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Akira Kurosawa’s rip-roaring action epic Seven Samurai (1954) also happens to be a goldmine of philosophical themes [and the template for the later The Magnificent Seven – Ed]. Apart from being a hugely entertaining martial arts extravaganza, its characters and plot introduce us to some major ideas.
The film follows the plight of a village of peasant farmers forced to find samurai willing to help them fight a group of ruthless bandits intent on stealing their crops and terrorising their families. It’s set in Edo-era Japan, a time of great change. Samurai find themselves unemployed as civil wars end with the absolute reign of the Shogun. Times are hard and samurai and peasant alike are desperate. With the chance of free food and for ‘the fun of it’ a group of samurai decide to take up the challenge of the peasants. They organise the villagers and fight alongside them against the bandits.
Kurosawa’s greatest action film has as its core the contrast of class on class; peasant and samurai represented in and overcoming their traditional roles of function and duty. There’s also lots of scope here to analyse identity and how it is forged. Is it society that forms identity; social and economic forces that create and determine views and fates? Or is it more of an individual experience, the subjective force of will in the world?
Among the many philosophers who have examined identity, G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) saw the role of class as facilitating the movement and growth of consciousness. This movement rests on the forces of reason in history. Hegel took these forces as working through the historical progress of ideas; first a ‘thesis’, then its counter-argument ‘antithesis’, and finally a new idea, the ‘synthesis’ – and then this dialectical process starts again. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel took identity or ‘social being’ as the mark on the individual of current ideas, themselves formed from years of growth through the dialectic. For Hegel, the ideas of society define social being. So ‘identity’ is determined by the progress of ideas, and knowledge is simply the current ‘truth’ along the path towards a distant absolute truth. In particular, Hegel’s dialectic sees history as the march of reason through the benefit of contemplation. The more time allowed away from everyday toil, the more the chance of thought and enlightenment.
Class for Hegel represents one set of ideas in contrast to another. Thus, the samurai are privileged enough to belong to a noble class of warriors, whose ethics are based upon duty and servitude to their lord. Hegel would see their position as simply a working part in the progress of consciousness; their sense of honour and duty would be explained in terms of determining factors for the progress of reason. The peasants however are at the lower end of the dialectic: their role is one of passivity; they spend life consumed by the day to day drudgery of rice production. They are unable to give birth to new ideas as they simply don’t have the luxury of contemplation.
These two classes are brought together by changes in Japan’s society. The peasants’ lives continue as they always have, but they are forced to seek help from the samurai against the bandits. The differences between the samurai and the peasants become apparent when the two groups meet. The samurai class are born from refined etiquette and high morality, and in a few scenes they make clear their contempt for the ‘lower’ lives of the peasants. Karl Marx (1818-83) talked about the forging of class consciousness; but unlike Hegel’s movement of ideas, for Marx materialism was the foundation of this. He saw Hegel’s explanation solely in terms of contemplative thought as not the full story. There are physical/economic explanations for class division. Thus Marx insisted that instead of the social-cultural environment being the determining factor alone, it was in fact the physical and economic environment itself that dictated the path of civilisation. So for Marx, identity is determined by the progress of ideas, but these ideas are themselves determined by material factors and the economic system of the time.
Marx would explain the attitudes of the two groups as typical of opposing classes. The Japanese feudal system worked in such a way that rice production was paramount, but the security of that production was in the hands of provincial lords protected by a warrior class. Therefore the peasants’ duties seem low in the order of society, but were in fact the basis of all society.
However, as the film’s plot develops so do the individual characters. So although the samurai and peasants are determined by economic factors, it becomes clear that individual qualities are important. There is the desperate but heroic peasant; with his wife abducted and his village at its knees he heads the search for the samurai. There is the samurai leader, Kambei, the personification of samurai virtue. He heads the action against the bandits and presents a purer version of the samurai sense of duty as he acts with the purpose of serving all society. All of the samurai have individual personalities and traits; but one has the distinction of not being a true samurai – a masquerading peasant. He wants to break the bonds of the peasantry and be respected. He admires the samurai and lies to become like them. He is the bridge between the two classes; through his character we can plainly see the forces of class determinism and subjective representation.
Philosophy returned to the individual after Hegel’s totalising system with Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1816). Schopenhauer examined subjective reality forged by the self: reality was for Schopenhauer represented by the individual’s mind. The self, in a world of objects, interpreted the world in pure subjectivity. So for Schopenhauer, systems and distinctions of class would also be a matter of subjective interpretation. Using ‘will’, a person could break down the barriers of determinism (for Schopenhauer, ‘will’ is the creative force underlying everything). Thus for the samurai the chance to help the peasants is at first a matter of frivolity, but as the battle continues the characteristics and motives of each of them are forged through action. Once totally free from the defining duties of samurai, the men fight for a different kind of honour.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote about the übermensch or ‘over-man’ who was strong enough spiritually to break the bonds of the prevailing social morality and become a person of unswaying belief who could not be corrupted. Nietzsche’s much-quoted statement that ‘God is dead’ is a declaration of the end of absolutes and idealisms. Likewise, in the film we see individuals rising above their determined roles of peasant and samurai. Though they keep their economically-defined characteristics, in the fight they find themselves with a chance to prove themselves beyond their class.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) was a great influence on the movement that would later be called ‘existentialism’. Kierkegaard’s influence led to the development of a branch of philosophy connected solely to ‘being’. He argued that truth could only be subjective, and that great systems only moved away from the individual where the greatest events in history really find their catalysts. Kierkegaard saw that the answers in life came only from events in the lives of individuals. So identity is also seen by Kierkegaard as the result of subjective experience. Identity turns inward and becomes ‘existential’ and interpretive. The key concept of existential thinking is the emphasis on the subject as the only cause of truth; that interpretation is reality. The film introduces subjective experience by placing its characters in an uncertain time in Japan’s history. In the midst of the economic determinism of feudalism, the Edo period has the nation in turmoil and thousands of previously-employed samurai are now wandering the land. Men who are highly skilled warriors with a morality based on obedience and unquestioning servitude no longer have a lord to serve. So individual actions now become important in a land of uncertain moral rules. A lone farmer decides to go to the towns and look for samurai, behaviour that requires bravery and individual action. The samurai themselves each have to make a choice about whether it is in their own interests to take up his challenge. Each has separate motives, all subjective. Without the previous all-encompassing security of class for the basis of rules and morality, the protagonists now have the responsibility to make decisions as individuals.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is perhaps the most famous existentialist philosopher. Sartre saw philosophy as a chance to make a difference in society; he argued that existentialism could be a basis for the realisation of a better way of life for all. In his 1945 lecture ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ Sartre laid down the foundations of existentialist thought, explaining why it could be used as a tool for better everyday living. Sartre explains that the basis of existentialism is ‘existence precedes essence’ – ie that the purpose of humankind is not predetermined, part of a preordained plan, but is actually what we make ourselves. In this way we cease to be determined (or controlled) and move to a position of ‘authenticity’. Allowing determinism as an excuse is a kind of weakness: just because we are called ‘samurai’ or ‘peasant’ doesn’t necessarily make us so; behind the mask we are all just human beings. To escape these labels is to create ourselves and to be free. In the film the samurai and peasants find themselves in a position to create themselves, through the turmoil of the Edo period. They have the opportunity to move beyond their class and be self-determining, authentic in their own right.
The characters in Seven Samurai each have a chance to move beyond their determined existence and become more, become fully realised individuals. The situation of protecting the village is dangerous, and the characters know that it could lead to disaster. The peasants have little choice and some almost resign themselves to destruction because of years of living in a passive state. This is part of their class distinction; their lives are given to the land and the uncertainties that come with it. In agreeing to fight they break this tradition. The samurais’ decision is a little different; they are used to fighting, but only for feudal duty and honour. Their choice to fight breaks with their own class, as it means using their skills for the benefit of the lower orders instead of the ruling elite. There are also many individual transformations in the film. The peasant samurai proves himself honourable and as good as any born samurai, but dies to obtain this proof. A young, naïve samurai finds love and experiences war. And the many peasants that were inexperienced in war manage to defend themselves and save their village. There is also collective transformation however, as the classes work together as one, using their individual skills for the benefit of all. In one crucial scene, the leader of the samurai forces some peasants to abandon homes that lie beyond the village. They must work together.
The film culminates in a last great battle. The samurai manage a strategy in which the bandits are allowed to enter the village only a few at time and are then killed. The samurai each use their skills learned from war, and eventually dispatch the bandits, but at the expense of many deaths. The peasants then continue their lives, and the remaining samurai leave, remarking that for the peasants nothing has actually changed. But we know as viewers of the film that a lot has changed, and dramatically so. The peasants now feel free and content in their lives released from tyranny. They created this new life by resolving to seek help and also by fighting for themselves. The samurai themselves could have died in battle for a lord, but instead fought for their own purposes as individuals, creating for themselves a stronger and more authentic identity. Thus, Seven Samurai is a study the forces of determinism on the individual, the potential of subjective will, and it examines ways in which identity can be formed. It is also of course a cracking good flick!
© Danny O’Donnell 2006
Danny O’Donnell is a philosophy graduate and wrote this while living in Japan.