“Seven Samurai” - Akira Kurosawa (1954)

Near the top of any list of greatest Japanese films has to be Seven Samurai (1954), a 3½-hour epic set in the 16th century [1]. The film, written, directed, and edited by Akira Kurosawa, had such an extended  global influence that it was soon blatantly copied by John Sturges for his American Western hit The Magnificent Seven (1960), and it gave rise to an entire genre of long-odds, dangerous-mission films.  The reasons for its widespread popularity, however, are probably varied, because there are several contrasting dimensions to the film.

The story concerns a peasant farming community in the late 16th century in Japan during the Sengoku period (the Japanese “Warring States Period”).  During this time the social order was disrupted and powerful daimyo (Japanese warlords) lost their holdings, leading to the unemployment of many samurai (the professional warrior class in Japan). Of these masterless samurai,  generally known as ronin, some of them turned to a life of crime, which intensified the lawlessness of this period. In these circumstances gangs of armed bandits living in the mountains conducted regular raids on local farming villages in the valley and lived off the plunder they obtained.  At the beginning of Seven Samurai, peasants from the farming village of interest in this story get wind of the plans of the local brigand gang to conduct a brutal, marauding raid just as soon as the farmers bring in their next harvest.

The distraught panic-stricken farmers, knowing that the murderous brigands will steal most of their food and perhaps many of their women, go to the very old “wise man” of their village seeking his advice. This wizened and cunning old man advises them to go to the commercial town in the area and hire some poor ronin to serve as defenders of their village. The villagers have little money to offer, but the old man reminds them that many ronin are hungry these days – they should be able to  find some samurai who will work for food.

This sets the stage for the rest of the narrative.  We have now learned that there will be a war when the brigands make their upcoming raid to plunder the village harvest and that the farmers intend to defend themselves with hired samurai.  Since a battle is inevitable, Kurosawa takes his time building up to it.  The film story then unfolds in three stages, each more than an hour long:
  1. Recruiting the samurai to defend the village
  2. The recruited samurai and the villages prepare for the war
  3. The actual war between the village and the brigands
One of the aspects of Seven Samurai that makes it an enduring classic is its depiction of a large cast of relatively fleshed-out personages, comprising seven samurai and five key villagers of interest.
The Samurai:
  • Kambei (Takashi Shimsura) is the first ronin hired and is given the task of hiring the remaining six samurai.  He is not young – probably in his forties – but he is firm, honorable and thoughtful.
  • Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) is good-natured and experienced. He is the first one hired by Kambei and ultimately becomes the second in command.
  • Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is a less-skilled samurai, but his amiable and witty social skills are considered to be good for group morale.
  • Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato) is Kambei’s old comrade and former right-hand man.
  • Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) is taciturn and slight of build, but he is an awesomely skilled and fearless swordsman
  • Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) is young and untrained, but seems to have had a civilized upbringing.  When he first sees Kambei, he immediately asks to be his disciple.
  • Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) – is an untrained peasant braggadocio who pretends to be a samurai warrior.
The Principal Villagers:
  • Gisaku is the canny elder who advises the villagers
  • Yohei is a timid villager whose frightened visage seems to represent the timorous frailty of the entire village.
  • Rikichi is an energetic villager whose wife has previously been abducted by the brigands.
  • Manzo is a cautious villager worried that the samurai may seduce the village women, one of whom is his daughter Shino.
  • Shino is the attractive daughter of Manzo and by means a shrinking violet.
Stage 1: Recruiting the Samurai
The first hour of the film concerns the depredations suffered by the farm village at the hands of the bandit gang.  On the advice of the eldest villager, some farmers from the village, Manzo, Rikichi, and Yohei go to the local market town to recruit some “hungry samurai”.  After some initial failures, they manage to recruit a senior ronin, Kambei, who immediately attracts the fawning worship of the young, would-be samurai, Katsushiro.  Katsushiro pledges to be Kambei’s disciple, and after some reluctance, Kambei eventually accepts him.

To interview further candidates for the mission, Kambei stations Katsushiro behind the door of a local shop and instructs him to club the candidate from behind as soon as he enters the premises.  The idea is that a properly trained samurai would fend off such an attack.  And sure enough, Kambei soon finds Gorobei, who passes the test.  The swaggering braggart Kikuchiyo, however, fails badly.  Eventually Heihachi, Shichiroji, and Kyuzo are also encountered and brought on board, and now the six of them set out for the village.  Kikuchiyo, who has been rejected, follows along behind them hoping to gain acceptance as the seventh member of the group.

During this part of the film, we become acquainted with the personalities of each of the samurai.  They all evince a bearing and professional pride that makes them stand out from others – they follow a code of honor associated with their training.  But each one is different.  Kambei is thoughtful, Gorobei is amiably confident, and Kyuzo is stoic.  Kikuchiyo stands out as an insolent, mocking buffoon who sports a bearing entirely at odds with that of the professional samurai. 

Stage 2: Preparations for the Battle with the Brigands
When the samurai arrive in the village (with Kikuchiyo following), the residents are all hiding in their dwellings fearful of the warriors coming to their midst. However, when Kikuchiyo tricks the villagers into believing that the bandits are about to attack, they all run out of their houses in terror and realize that they must trust the newly arrived samurai.  This piece of showmanship is enough for Kikuchiyo to gain acceptance into the samurai team.

The rest of this part of the film shows the preparations for the battle that we know will eventually take place.  The samurai spend time trying to train the villagers to use spears in a coordinated way so that they can form a wall of lances.  Meanwhile Kambei and Gorobei inspect the outskirts of the village and plan how best to set up defenses.  They will set up barricades at some entry points, and they will flood another place by diverting a local stream.

But much of this section is devoted to contrasting the comportment of the villagers and the samurai.  The samurai are not really that physically imposing, but they are disciplined and organized.  The villagers, on the other hand, are a sniveling herd of sheep, frightened by their own shadows and continually bemoaning their woeful conditions.  To some extent we might think that Kurosawa is exaggerating this contrast for dramatic purposes, but there may well be a ring of authenticity to all this.

Kikuchiyo stands in the middle between the samurai and the farmers.  He is continually making a fool of himself by his swaggering antics, which reveals his peasant origins; but he is also strong and fearless, attributes not possessed by the other villagers.  I have a problem with Toshiro Mifune’s portrayal of Kikuchiyo, which is so far over the top that it becomes irritating and a manifestly ridiculous form of ham acting.  Nevertheless, Mifune’s boorish antics do tend to elevate the stature of the other samurai by comparison.

There is one interesting dramatic segment in this section showing Kikuchiyo displaying to the other samurai some mail armor and headgear that he has discovered hidden away by the villagers. The villagers had apparently acquired this armor by killing runaway samurai who had wandered into their domain in the past. To Kikuchiyo this is a valuable find.  But to his comrades it is dishonorable to wear the armor, and it is a reminder that the supposedly peace-loving villagers can be pernicious when it serves them. Kikuchiyo, desperately seeking acceptance from the other “authentic” samurai, is again humiliated, and he then gives an emotional tirade about the hypocrisy of those ronin who have just scorned him.  Coming from a peasant background, himself, Kikuchiyo tells them that he knows that the villagers are no worse than others, and in fact whatever bad behavior they have has been shaped by the past cruelties their kind has suffered at the hands of oppressive outsiders, including samurai.

Another dramatic thread that both links and contrasts the samurai and peasant cultures is the secret romance between Katsushiro and Manzo’s pretty and passionate daughter, Shino. Shino is attracted to the handsome and well-bred outsider, Katsushiro, and does everything she can to urge on her reluctant and inexperienced suitor.

All this time Kambei and the others make plans concerning how the seven samurai, with the help of the villagers armed with sharpened poles for spears, will try to stop the band of forty brigands.  Kambei’s plan is to conduct a war of attrition, gradually killing off the bandit gang, one by one.

When the samurai discover evidence of some bandit spies on the outskirts of the village, Kikuchiyo, Kyuzo, and Katsushiro go out to hunt them down and kill them. This mission turns out to be a display of Kyuozo’s amazingly skillful lethality, as he dispatches two of them with just a couple of sword strokes. 

Stage 3: The Battle
Following Kambei’s strategy, the samurai send out another team of saboteurs (Kyuzo, Katsushiro, Heihachi, and Rikichi) to reduce bandit numbers by making a sneak attack on their fortress in the hills.  They manage to burn down the fortress, but we also see that Rikichi’s wife had been made a captive sex slave of the gang, and the attendant dishonor causes her to choose immolation rather than escape.  Although a number of bandits are killed on this mission, there is also a disastrous outcome: Heihachi is killed, and now there are only six samurai.

The samurai now know that the brigands are in the possession of three muskets, and these represent a serious problem to them.  In fact guns were introduced into Japan from the West only in 1543, but they quickly became popular as instruments of war.  So for the historical setting of this film some forty years later, guns were the latest high-tech weaponry. To respond to this extraordinarily lethal menace, Kyuzo calmly sets out alone on the seemingly impossible mission of capturing one of the guns.  Amazingly, he returns to the village later that evening with a captured gun in hand and silently hands it over to his mates. Kyuozo’s characteristically calm and expressionless professionalism in the face of extreme danger draws worshipful admiration from Katsushiro.

Now the real battles begin.  The brigands make repeated mass attacks on horseback in attempts to overrun the village.  The village defenders employ Kambei’s strategy of attrition: allow one or two horsemen to enter the village and then set up a wall of spear-equipped farmers to block further entry.  This enables other villagers to swarm around and kill the horseman who has gotten inside.  The battles go on and on, as bandits and villagers are gored, hacked, and stabbed to death – all  in the midst of a pouring rain that further contributes to the atmosphere of chaos and mayhem.

In the end, all the bandits are killed off, and only Kambei, Shichiroji, and Katsushiro survive among the samurai. But the village is saved.  In the final scene, Kambei and Shichiroji are amazed that they have lived through it – "again, we have survived", Kambei says in astonishment. The villagers go back to their customary farming activities and all but forget about the samurai who have saved them.  Katsushiro looks on at Shino toiling away in the rice patties and mournfully wonders at the vast cultural gulf separating them as the film ends.

Many people were probably attracted to Seven Samurai simply because of its extended battle scenes. After all, the film was made not so long after World War II and the Korean War, and films depicting the violence and heroism of war seen from the perspectives of multiple participants was particularly popular in those days. But Kurosawa’s film is more than just a rambunctious war movie, and his epic tale of struggle brought out some interesting social themes, too. In particular, we have the ongoing social contrast between the samurai culture and the farmer culture. The first two-thirds of the film elaborate that theme and builds up the tension for the brutal battles that will come later. 

To portray in a natural and dramatic fashion the dynamics of the social contrasts on display, Kurosawa skillfully employed a range of camera techniques, which are so effective that the viewer can get a feeling for much of the storyline without referring to the dialogue at all. For example there are numerous extended tracking shots that follow the vigorous action of a contest as it moves past a background of onlookers. There are also many in-depth camera compositions showing some action on the part of members of one group (samurai or villagers), while members of the other group watch in fascination. In order to manage all of the staging that arose from these complex interactions, Kurosawa employed multiple camera setups for many of scenes, which enabled him to compose sequences in the editing room that maintained the desired visual tempo.  Kurosawa also mixes long shots of action with point-of-view reaction shots that highlight the dramatic effect.  In fact the naive young warrior Katsushiro is primarily used as an ingenue who is emotionally dazzled by what he sees and through whom we vicariously share such amazement.

With respect to the social contrast between the samurai and the farmers, there are subtleties here worth considering.  In fact there are questions that may arise in the mind of the viewer as the story unfolds:
  • Why do the samurai take on such a dangerous mission merely to be paid three square meals a day?  They certainly weren’t starving at the beginning of the film.
  • Why do the brigands continue their relentless attacks, even after they can see that this particular village is now well defended by skilled samurai?  In the end, the brigands are completely exterminated.  Why were they so stubbornly persistent?
  • The relentlessly brutal killing via swords and spears seems almost to be a theme in itself.  Some of the time the samurai seem to make a joke of all the killing, as if they are somehow emotionally detached from the bloodshed.
If we compare Seven Samurai to an American Western film, the seeming similarities may be deceiving. In the American Western, the cowboy/gunslinger is a lone individual, the hero who follows his own path.  He is contrasted with the townspeople who follow the institutional rules of the community. Thus the American Western pits the individual (reckless and heroic cowboy) against the collective (civilized but boring).  The cowboy doesn’t follow the social rules of the community, he is a free soul.

A straightforward comparison with Seven Samurai would match the cowboys with the samurai and the rice farmers with the American Western townspeople.  But in Seven Samurai things are the other way around.  The samurai are the ones who follow a strict moral code, while the villagers are shown, collectively,  to be often liars, cheaters, and deceitful.  The samurai fight for the village, not for money, but because it is the way to live up to their honorable code of conduct that is based on firmly-held principles. 

For example, after Kyuzo heroically goes out and single-handedly captures one of the three rifles possessed by the brigands, Kikuchiyo seeks to duplicate that heroic feat in order to gain the admiration of the other samurai.  So he goes out and also captures a rifle, but in the event he abandons his assigned defense post, which exposes the village to attack at his entry point and leads to the deaths a number of villagers, including Yohei. Kikuchiyo is scolded by Kambei for being reckless and selfish. Essentially, Kikuchiyo was acting like a cowboy, and this was emphatically not the way for a true samurai warrior to act – they must work together for the common good. Similarly Kikuchiyo’s enthusiastic donning of the samurai body armor that the villagers had acquired by killing lone samurai in the past was rejected by Kambei and the other samurai because the armor had originally been acquired dishonorably.

So the issue of the individual versus the collective is not so simple in Seven Samurai. The seven ronin are portrayed as the ones who follow a relatively strict moral code, while the collective group, the farmers, are like a herd of sheep who have their heads down and do not see the higher values. The ideological battle between individualism and collectivism, an even bigger issue in the 1950s than it is today, was shown in a different light here, because the seven samurai were individuals, but they were presented as following an inner compass based on principle. The collective, on the other hand, was relatively unprincipled. The depiction of that social contrast is what helps make Seven Samurai a great film, but that doesn't mean I embrace one particular side of those contrasting elements. The samurai form of honor, which is without compassion and dedicated to killing enemies, is hollow. This form of heartless morality has not in general served humanity well, and therefore, to me, is not truly honorable. True honor is only deserved when compassion is part of the action under consideration.

In the final scene Kambei says to Shichiroji that, even though they have killed off the brigands, the two of them are again losers and the only the farmers have won. Of course, they knew from the start that that the outcome would not have been much better. But what Kambei is acknowledging is that, on the material level, following their moral code will not lead to material success. They have chosen a different path and are concerned with a different level.  But even on the higher plane with which they are concerned, I think there needs to be a bridge that can accommodate more inclusive engagement such as that sought by Katsushiro and Shino.

  1. I would also place it among the greatest films, period.

Akira Kurosawa

Films of Akira Kurosawa:

“The Silence” - Ingmar Bergman (1963)

The Silence was Ingmar Bergman’s third film in a sequence of small-scale dramas that have been referred to as his “Trilogy of Faith” and which included the earlier Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963). In each of these films, the action involves only a few characters and takes place over a period of no more than twenty-four hours. However, despite the "trilogy" designation, the three film narratives are unconnected, and by the time we get to The Silence, even the issue of faith seems to have disappeared from view.  Perhaps what really connects the three films is the frustrated concern about the absence of sincere human communication in the modern age.

The story of The Silence concerns the contrasting perspectives and personalities of two sisters who are returning home via the train and stop off for a day in a foreign city somewhere in Eastern Europe.  When I say “story” in this instance, I use the term loosely, because, just as in Winter Light, what we really have on view is just a collection of disparate episodes during a period of about one day that shed light on the inner makeup of the principal characters. Indeed, in The Silence very little happens and very little is communicated – silence mostly prevails – so it is intriguing that Bergman was able to craft a film that manages to sustain the viewer’s interest.  (In fact The Silence was one of Bergman’s biggest commercial successes, although that box-office popularity was probably mostly due to some of the film’s sexual content.)

The cast comprises five principal characters, two of whom only speak the language of the unknown foreign country and thus have no comprehensible verbal communication in the film:

  • Ester (Ingrid Thulin), who is suffering from some unspecified and apparently terminal illness.
  • Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), Ester’s young sister and mother of Johan.
  • Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom), the ten-year-old son of Anna.
  • The Waiter (Birger Malmsten), whom Anna meets and with whom she has sex.
  • The Hotel Porter (Håkan Jahnberg), an elderly bellhop who works in the hotel where Ester, Anna, and Johan stay for a night.

The film opens with Ester, Anna, and Johan shown in a railway car cabin.  The opening shot establishes the characteristic mise en scene of the film – it maintains a medium closeup (or sometimes full closeup) framing for more than two minutes by closely tracking various characters of interest as they move about. The succeeding shot is similar and also more than two minutes in duration.  The effect is one of claustrophobic confinement and self concern.  It is immediately clear that Ester is very ill, and they decide to make a stop off in the next city, Timoka, where they book a two-room suite at an old hotel.

Ester takes to her hotel room bed, where she is shown solitarily writing, smoking, and drinking vodka in another two-minute shot.  Meanwhile Anna decides to take a nap in her own bed with her son Johan.  Soon the contrasting natures of the two sisters are evident.  Ester is an intellectual and lives the life of the mind.  Anna is sensually self-indulgent and mostly concerned with her own bodily needs. Indeed her interactions with Johan throughout the film are quite physical – she often kisses him sensually, has him scrub her back when she takes a bath, and sleeps naked with him in the bed. 

Anna then dresses up and decides to go out into the town. At a local bar, she blithely allows the waiter to make a pass at her.  Later while sitting in the balcony watching a stage performance, she is abhorrently fascinated at the sight of a couple in the next booth brazenly making love. 

When Anna returns to the hotel suite, Ester asks about Anna’s soiled dress, and it becomes increasingly clear that there is open hostility between the two sisters. Anna is irritated by Ester’s queries and chafes at reporting what she does to her sister.  She toys with the truth, but eventually confesses that she had sex with the waiter she had just met.  Ester wishes to make peace and says that she only has love for her sister; she then caresses Anna so affectionately that it is suggestive of something more than just sisterly warmth.  But Anna spurns these entreaties for affection and goes out of the hotel again.

Meanwhile Johan has been wandering alone around the hotel corridors. He runs into a performing troupe of Spanish dwarfs who are staying in another suite, and although there is no verbal communication possible, they playfully communicate with him via gestures. 

Later back in the hotel suite, Johan reports to Ester that he has just seen Anna enter another hotel room with a strange man.  When Ester goes out and finds the room, Anna, instead of being shamefaced in front of her sister, puts on a shamelessly open display of sexual fondling with the waiter in order to torture Ester.  Ester leaves, and Anna proceeds to have animalistic sex with her all-but mute lover.

The next morning Anna coldly prepares to depart with Johan for home, while Ester is too sick to travel and will remain in Timoka for a few more days.  We are given to believe that Ester is near death and might not make it home alive. Before Anna and Johan leave, Ester hands Johan a “letter” and urges him to read it.  In the final scene on the departing train, Johan is seen reading the letter, which turns out to be some vocabulary words in the foreign language used in Timoka.

There is little narrative movement in The Silence, at least in connection with the external events depicted, and little seems to be resolved.  In some sense the narrative “journey” in the story, similar to the other films in Bergman’s trilogy, is one undertaken by the viewer in an effort to understand the psychological profiles represented by the characters. 
  • Ester represents a way of being based on high principles and the love of beauty. 
  • Anna, on the other hand, is instinctive and willful; she resists communications from Ester that arouse guilt feelings. 
  • Johan is innocent and open to being shaped by these psychological tendencies.

One might argue that to a certain extent it all seems excessively symbolic and schematic. The images of miliary tanks occasionally seen along the railway and in the city streets suggest the breakdown of civilized human relationships and a relentless movement towards violence. And what is the meaning and significance of the dwarf troupe? Their lives seem alienated, remote, and grounded in trivial role-playing – an unattractive portrayal of the social other.  And yet these diminished figures seem orderly and somehow innocent, too.  As for the Porter, he seems kind, but also clinical, as if he is a hospital orderly tending to a vast asylum of inmates.

One perhaps might liken the psychological types depicted here to those of other psychic dichotomies, such as Nietzsche’s separation of the Dionysian (Anna) and the Apollinian (Ester),  Herman Hesse’s bifurcated characters in his novel, Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), or even Sigmund Freud’s ego-superego-id structural modal of the human psyche. 

But Bergman’s The Silence has a mysterious expressionistic power that goes somewhat beyond these schemata. Sven Nyquist’s obsessively tracking camera, the internal sound of a ticking clock  (suggesting that time is running out?), and the many shots of characters shown via their reflection in a mirror all contribute to an atmosphere of threatening enclosure and isolation.  In addition the characterization of the psychic tendencies in the figures of two beautiful women, here superbly portrayed by Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom, takes the thematic elements beyond mere abstractions. Anna and Ester are not simply schematized conceptions, but are instead embodied, sensual beings. 
  • Anna has animalistic sex with the waiter, but she reflects on these things, too.  She sobs over her feelings of guilt towards her sister. But she also rails at her sister, “you always harp on principles!”  Then she hatefully asks Ester why she continues to live and doesn’t just get her dying over and done with.
  • Ester, the writer who seeks refined beauty and principles, still feels sexual urges, too.  There is another one of those long medium-closeup shots in the film showing Ester in her bed satisfying her sexual urges to a climax. Yet she only complains about this side of things: “erectile tissue, . . . it’s all a matter of erections and secretions!”  She goes on: 
    “I didn’t want to accept my wretched role. But now it’s too lonely. We try out attitudes and find them all worthless. The forces are too strong.”
  • Johan is innocent and unformed, but he certainly does not represent the ego portion of Freud’s triad. He is not a bad boy, but he could become corrupted by his animal urges. He points his toy gun at people in the hotel, pretending to shoot them. On other occasions he steals and hides some of the hotel porter’s treasured personal photos and later urinates on the wall in the hotel corridor.
So the ending of the film showing Johan reading Ester’s letter and learning some foreign words suggests that his soul will not be lost.  He seems to be tentatively headed down the path, like that followed by his sister Ester, of trying to make contact with others in order to find something meaningful in this chaotic and uncertain world.

“The World of Apu” - Satyajit Ray (1959)

The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959) was the third and final installment of Satyajit Ray’s masterful Apu Trilogy, the two earlier works of which were Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956). The three films are based on two famous Bildungsroman novels (Pather Panchali (1929) and its sequel, Aparajito) by Bengali Indian writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhya and concern the life experiences of the same fictional character, Apurba Roy, in early 20th-century India. An interesting and surprisingly successful aspect of this trilogy is that each of the three films is expressed in a different cinematic style and consequently conveys a different mood.  As a result, each of the three films can stand alone as a distinct work of art, and yet, when taken together, they combine into an even grander narrative.

From what I have learned about the original novels, it seems that Ray’s decisions concerning both the partitioning of the narrative into three stories and what material from the novels to leave out of his films were inspired [2]. The World of Apu covers the last two-thirds of the second novel, but it begins at just the right point.  Although Ray did not have professional filmmaking experience before launching his career in his mid-thirties with the production of Pather Panchali, he had long been a careful student of cinematic narrative, and he followed his own intuition. 

And rather than surrounding himself with a team of experienced professionals (as a cautious newcomer might do), Ray continued his practice here in The World of Apu of working with his own selected and largely self-educated production team, which included the production design of Bansi Chandragupta, the cinematography of Subrata Mitra, and the film editing of Dulal Dutta. And in addition, as with the preceding works in the trilogy, this film is graced by the enchanting, mood-inspiring music of Ravi Shankar.  These people were relatively new to filmmaking, but they had good ideas.  For example, Mitra and Chandragupta came up with the idea of bounce lighting [2], which has now become a standard cinematographic lighting technique. 

So it is interesting that with the narrative material from a single author and the same production team, Ray came up with varying narrative presentations for the three films.

  • For Pather Panchali the narrative focalization is on five characters in the family – Apu, Harihar (the father), Sarbajaya (the mother), Durga (Apu’s sister), and Indir (the “auntie”).  The beauty of that story is how the various interrelationships of those five characters create a multi-layered perspective on the joys and woes of domestic life.  As such the film stands as one of a great and poignant cinematic expressions of family experiences.
  • In Aparajito, with three of the principal characters in the earlier film having passed away, the narrative focus settles down to the contrasting and ultimately irreconcilable perspectives of Apu and his mother, Sarbajaya.  Thus with this film the narrative scope has become much narrower and more personal.
  • And in The World of Apu, the narrative scope is narrower still, with the focalization taken from the single personage of Apu.  And with this penultimate narrative turn, Ray came up with one of the great existentialist works in film history.
All three of these films have existentialistic perspectives, but it is The World of Apu that embodies the true loneliness of and longing characteristic of the great existentialist films.

The story of The World of Apu goes through three main stages: (1) Freedom, (2) Engagement, and (3) Grief and Reconciliation.  With each of these stage Ray manages to capture something that, while realistically situated in an Indian milieu, is universal to the human spirit.

1  Freedom

At the outset we see that Apu has left his college in Calcutta (Kolkata) without completing his degree due to a lack of funds.  He lives in relative squalor – a cramped fifth-floor walk-up rented room in a building near the railroad tracks. Note that railway trains and rivers are continuing visual motifs throughout the Apu Trilogy. The railway, in particular, represents change, modernism, and unknown fate.  India was confronted then, as it has been for some time, with the relentless forces of change that were pushing it towards an uncertain future, and railway trains provided a powerful visual metaphor for this process and forces. 

Apu supports himself by giving private lessons for about 15 rupees per month, barely more than his monthly room rent of seven rupees.  So like so many young men in their twenties, he sets out looking for work and finding the available options unappetizing. He learns to his dismay that he could work as a school teacher for a trifling 10 rupees per month, or he could work like a slave in a sweatshop gluing labels onto jars all day.  So he keeps on looking.

Finally and to his relief, his good pal from college, Pulu, tracks him down and invites him out to eat.  Their encounter is beautifully filmed and well captures the carefree wonder of young men looking out onto the wide world and wondering where they will go.  Pulu has studied engineering and wears Western dress.  He is moving ahead towards a successful career.  In contrast Apu, who had originally studied science and mathematics, seems hesitant about what to do.  He wears the traditional Indian dhoti and is fascinated by the great works of Western fiction – he wants to be a writer.  When he tells Pulu about the protagonist of the novel he is working on, he says,
“He [the protagonist] has imagination, he’s intrigued by little things. He has greatness in him, perhaps.  He has the ability to create. But he doesn’t. Right, but that’s not a tragedy.  He remains poor, in want. But he doesn’t turn from life.  He doesn’t want to escape. He is fulfilled. He wants to live.”

This is really what Apu, himself, is all about, and Pulu chides him for merely writing autobiography. But Apu swears that his novel will have interesting plot elements, including love.  At this assertion Pulu scoffs that Apu has no experience of love and so cannot write about it.  Then he invites Apu to take a few days off and accompany him to attend his young female cousin’s wedding in the rustic village of Khulna.  Apu has nothing else to do, so off they go.

2  Engagement
Apu is warmly greeted by Pulu’s aunt, and the wedding festivities commence for Pulu’s cousin, Aparna. However, when the bridegroom’s palanquin arrives, it is evident that there is a serious problem: the groom is mentally disabled, and Aparna’s horrified mother emphatically cancels the wedding.  There is a further problem though: Indian traditional beliefs, heavily influenced by astrology, dictate that if Aparna doesn’t marry on that designated “auspicious” day, she can never marry. So the family beseeches Apu to stand in for the dispatched groom and marry Aparna. 

For all of his engineering education, Pulu is like the other family members around him and is still a captive of Indian traditions.  Apu protests, “are you still living in the Dark Ages?” (As a matter of fact I personally know many scientifically-educated Indians, some with PhDs, who even today adhere to the pseudoscientific principles of astrology and homeopathy.)

But then Apu begins to reflect.  He thinks that perhaps he should do something noble and selfless.  And so he decides to make a great leap of faith and do what only can be done in the reckless life stage of youth – he agrees to marry the girl.  The marriage goes ahead immediately, and Apu finds himself fumbling for words as he is finally alone with Aparna for the first time in the wedding chamber.  He seems shocked at what he has just done and wonders if his new bride, accustomed as she is to the luxury of her wealthy family, can stand living with him in his miserable city apartment.  But Aparna demurely assures him that everything will be all right. So they head back to Calcutta, where Apu now has a mundane but steady job as a typist waiting for him.

Although Aparna is very beautiful and looks like a princess, she adapts to the practical concerns of her new life in the city in short order. The rest of this part of the film consists of a series of gracefully crafted vignettes depicting how the two of them come closer together and fall more and more in love. Included in this sequence are tender scenes of the two of them waking up from their connubial bed, Apu teaching English to Aparna, as well as incidental pranks and interchanges that connote their growing mutual affection.

Finally the time comes when Aparna is expecting a baby, and she is sent home to her family in Khulna so that they can attend to the child’s delivery.  In her absence, the two of them post each other numerous affectionate letters, and throughout his days Apu daydreams about his beloved. This is beautifully conveyed by a scene of Apu rereading his wife’s most recent letter while commuting in the crowded city.  When he returns to his flat, he is surprised to see Aparna’s brother from her home village waiting for him.

3  Grief and Reconciliation
Aparna’s brother informs Apu that his wife has just died in labor during a premature delivery, although the baby was saved. Apu is disconsolate; all meaning in his life has suddenly disappeared. He contemplates suicide for awhile and then withdraws from everything.  He leaves Calcutta to take up an aimless life working at manual jobs in other remote towns, and at one point of despair tosses his once cherished novel manuscript down a wilderness hillside. 

After some years Pulu tracks Apu down in a remote coal-mining village and urges him to attend to his abandoned son, named Kajal. Apu is reluctant; for him Kajal’s appearance in the world led to his wife’s disappearance.  But he does go back and finds his five-year-old son to be neglected and rebellious.  In fact Kajal has an idealized image of his missing father and refuses to believe that Apu could be that person.  The final part of the film show Apu emerging from his emotional depths and trying to befriend Kajal.  Apu has come back to life, even if Kajal is only willing to accept him as a friend. The two of them set out together back to Calcutta.

Besides the technical and storytelling brilliance of Satyajit Ray and his production team, The World of Apu was immeasurably enhanced by the acting performances of Soumitra Chatterjee (Apu) and Sharmila Tagore (Aparna). Though Chatterjee’s physical appearance is disconcertingly different from that of Smaran Ghosal, who played the teenage Apu in Aparajito, Ray made an inspired choice in selecting Chatterjee for this film's Apu.  Chatterjee is perfect in the role and convincingly portrays the full features of Apu’s character – an artless young man at once innocent, ambitious, intelligent, and sensitive.  Chatterjee would go on to be a favorite of Ray’s and appear in many of his best films – usually in the role of a thoughtful and sensitive observer of life’s mysteries.

Sharmila Tagore, in the role of Aparna, is not only beautiful but also modestly magnetic.  Though she was only fourteen years old at the time of production, she was able to project a fully fleshed-out character with just a few words and graceful gestures. Ms. Tagore, by the way, is the great-great-grand niece of the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. She, too, went on to appear in a number of subsequent Satyajit Ray productions. 

The scenes with Chatterjee and Tagore together are the ones that stay most in my memory.

The narrative arc The World of Apu tells a timeless tale of youthful hope, early fulfilment, tragedy, and reconciliation.  The idea is not new and may seem simple, but the presentation is deeply moving and transcends all cultural boundaries. It still stands for me as one of the all-time great films.

  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 116-141.
  2. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflector_(photography)