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Seven Samurai: Slow motion death sequence

by Michael Frierson

The influential Japanese filmmaker Akra Kurosawa brought aestheticized violence using slow motion to the attention of the world beginning in 1954 with The Seven Samurai (Kurosowa, 1954) which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and was nominated for two Academy Awards. The scene that caught audiences’ attention, and evolved in to a cinematic trope in action films, was Kurosawa’s use of slow motion to suggest the death of a thief.

Apparently unarmed, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an oldlerl rōnin, approaches the barn where a child is being held hostage by a theif, and lifts the door open. The camera remains in a continuous shot from outside the barn as Kambei tries to reassure them he is only a priest with food for the boy.

The thief tells him to throw the food in, which Kambei does. Waiting for a beat, he then rushes in. Kurosawa now begins to cut back and forth between the the barn and the horrified crowd. We see the crowd surge with alarm, and the next shot of the empty barn door extends time, holding it for what seems like an interminable moment—in actuality :03 seconds--before we see the thief stagger to the through the threshold in slow motion.

As the child continues to cry off camera, time slows almost to a halt, as five shots come in quick succession, alternating between crowd looking on in shock, and the thief staggering forward in slow motion, unbalanced on his feet and rising to his tip toes to try to stop his forward motion.

A closer shot of the thief stunned, trance like, holds him in slow motion, before we cut to the child’s mother who rushes forward to the barn. Kambei emerges, hands her the baby, and drops a bloody sword to the ground. The thief collapses in a heap, and Kambei becomes the focus of admiration.

The pacing of this scene, the feeling of tension and release created by the thief’s slow motion stagger, alternating with the regular speed shots of the onlookers, and ultimately his collapse, is remarkable.

Seven Samurai: Slow motion death sequence

Kurosawa uses slow motion to depict the moment of death of a brigand who is holding a baby hostage.

from Seven Samurai (1954)
Creator: Akira Kurosawa
Distributor: Toho
Posted by Michael Frierson