Besides technique, however, there’s something else about [Seven Samurai] that defies analysis because there are no words to describe the effect. What I mean might be called the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place, and the image I always think of is that wonderful and mysterious scene in Zéro de conduite where it is apparently Sunday, Papa is reading the paper, and the boy’s little sister moves the fishbowl (hanging on a chain from its stand) so that when her brother removes his blindfold he can see the sun touching it. The scene moves me to tears and I have no idea why. It was not economical of [Jean] Vigo to have included it, it “means” nothing–and it is beautiful beyond words.
Part of the beauty of such scenes (actually rather common in all sorts of films, good, bad, and indifferent) is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates… but their mystery. They must remain unexplained. It has been said that after a film is over all that remains are a few scattered images, and if they remain the film was memorable. That is true so far as it goes, but one must add that if the images remain, it means only that the images were for some reason or other memorable. Further, if one remembers carefully one finds that it is only the uneconomical, mysterious images which remain.
Kurosawa’s films are filled with them… For example, in Drunken Angel there is a scene where [Toshiro] Mifune lies ill in the room of his mistress. [Takashi] Shimura comes in and does not wake him buts sits by the bed. He opens the girl’s powder-box. It has a music-box inside and plays a Chinese tune. While it is playing, he notices a Javanese shadow-puppet hanging on the wall. While looking benevolently at the sleeping Mifune (and this is the first time he has been nice to him–when he is asleep and cannot know about it), he begins to move the puppet this way and that, observing its large shadow over the sleeping gangster. While one might be able to read something into the scene, it is so beautiful, so perfect, and so mysterious, that even the critical faculty must hesitate, then back away.
Its beauty, certainly, is partly that in the closely reasoned philosophical argument that is this film, it is a luxury–take it away and it would never be missed. It gives no information about plot or character. Kurosawa’s films are so rigorous and, at the same time, so closely reasoned that little scenes such as this appeal with the direct simplicity of water in the desert. There are many more… but in no other single film are there as many as in Seven Samurai.
What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical–that is, those which apparently add nothing to it… there is the short scene where a prisoner has been caught, and the oldest woman in the village–she who has lost all her sons–is called to come and murder him. She marches slowly forward, hoe in her hand, terribly old, terribly bent, a crone. And though we sympathize, the image of one of horror–it is death itself because we have seen, and will see, men killed and think little of it, but here is death itself with a hoe, mysterious, unwilled. Or, those several shots of the avenue of cryptomerias, and two bonfires, one far and the other near. This is where the bandits will come but we do not yet know this. Instead the trees, the fires, the night–all are mysterious, memorable. Or, that magnificent image we see after Mifune has rescued the baby and burst into tears. The mill is burning and Mifune is sitting in the stream, looking at the child and crying. The next scene is a simple shot of the water-wheel turning, as it always has. But the wheel is on fire. Or, that curiously long close-up of the dead Mifune. He has stolen some armor but his bottom is unprotected. Now he lies on a narrow bridge, on his face, and the rain is washing away the dirt from his buttocks. He lies there like a child–all men with bare buttocks look like children–yet he is dead, and faintly ridiculous in death, and yet he was our friend for we have come to love him. All of this we must think as we sit through the seconds of this simple, unnecessary, and unforgettable scene.