A Dumézilian Trifunctionalist analysis of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai

By Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV

A fantastic, emotional, jarring, and superbly shot movie:

About 10 months ago I saw Akira Kuraswa’s Seven Samurai (Japanese: 七人の侍, Hepburn: Shichinin no Samurai) for the first time and it has been troubling me because I have not been able to figure out an anthropological analysis of the movie. I also have not been able to identify a Freudian psychoanalytic perspective to the movie as well. However I was thinking when the movie ended and everyone returns to their respective roles including the love interest of the samurai, there must have been a psychoanalytic or a deeply anthropological analysis to the movie.

However what strikes me is that there was no tripartite arrangement to be found within the movie. There are no three classes expressly exhibited within the movie. You have the samurai that clearly represent the warrior class and you have the peasants and farmers and craftsman of the village asking for help from the samurai who represent the productive class. However, you don’t see the priestly class really taking any role.

However recently I have been reading into the anthropological analysis of tripartite arrangements in Indo-European society. Indeed Japan is not generally considered to be part of Indo-European society but I think it’s interesting to use that as a paradigm to interpret the movie.

In Dumezilian trifunctionalism, you have three classes.

But there is an explicit missing class — the priestly class. And it must be missing in this movie. The priestly class represents sovereignty. In the movie, sovereignty is lost. There is a breakdown in society. That is why the bandit clan can invade and pillage the village. The samurai as a warrior class is deeply intertwined with the priestly class. But the warrior class is not the priestly class.

The warrior class needed to establish sovereignty. That is what the movie is about. Society has broken down. The village as a representation is invaded. Society is destabilized because there is no warrior function and no priestly function.

In the city, the seemingly homeless samurai represents the breakdown of society as well. One class can not survive without another. The samurai could find a lord to serve. The lord would be a member of the priestly class.

In the end of the movie, society is re-established. Even the love internet returns to her singing role in the realm of the fertility goddess. The samurai return to their warrior function. And for now the stability of society is reestablished even though a priestly class does not explicitly exist as physically manifested.

The idea hit me:

The movie fascinated me. I have been thinking about it on and off for months. I saw it in early 2022. And this idea came to me the day before Thanksgiving — November 23, 2022.

The thing was that I recognized that the female love interest of the young samurai had a ceremonial role to return to. And it was a beautiful scene in the end when she momentarily hesitates to speak to him. But then she decides not to. The samurai wants to speak to her. It is the painful experience of your love interest not speaking to you. But then she beautifully and happily returns to the life of the farming society.

The samurai as well return to their respective roles. The return of the warriors to their duty is not seen as a happy one. They look t the graves of their fallen comrades. That cinematographic moment of the samurai looking up to the mounds is an emotional one. The cinematography is done so well. There is a wide horizontal shot of what the samurai are looking at. The samurai are looking up. The samurai are below the mound. The samurai look up.

This scene indicated to me something powerful. Both parts of society — the warrior and the farming class returned. But where is the priestly class?

The lack of the priestly class indicated something. I was not sure what. What I discovered on November 23, 2022, when the idea hit me is that the idea of the priestly class came from the destabilization of society. Because there is no priestly class is why society is unprotected. If the sovereignty of the priestly class existed, then the farming village would have likely been safe.

Dumézilian Trifunctionalism:

Georges Dumézil originated this theory as a formulation in the field of anthropology — specifically within the study of comparative mythology. Dumézil’s key formulation is that Indo-European societies — starting with Proto-Indo European societies — organize the realm of human social interaction into three functions. Those three functions represent to the religious, the warlike, and economic duties key for social organization. Each of these functions operate separately. This organization of human activity leads to a hierarchy. The first function is the priestly function relates to the notions of the sacred but also relates to aspects of custom, law, and order. The second function is the warlike function related to military activity and defense of society. The third function is the productive function related to agricultural productivity.

“ “Cleric, Knight and Workman representing the three classes”, a French School illustration from Li Livres dou Santé (late 13th century, vellum), MS Sloane 2435, folio 85, British Library/Bridgeman Art Library; losslessly adapted from https://web.archive.org/web/20060115103059/http://www.uflib.ufl.edu/hss/medieval/. An inhabited initial from a 13th-century French text representing the tripartite social order of the Middle Ages: the ōrātōrēs (those who pray — clerics), bellātōrēs (those who fight — knights, that is, the nobility), and labōrātōrēs (those who work — peasants and members of the lower middle class).” Image and description from Wikipeida. I claim no ownership.”

Dumézil identifies the earliest manifestation of the tripartite distinction in Proto-Indo-European mythological constructs. Each portion of society had a link to a god to represent that social group’s function. Dumézil identifies these functions in cross-mythological schemes. Dumézil analyzes the myths as representations of the values in society. Such an idea is not unique to Dumézil. Indeed, interpreting myths or religion as a way to justify society relates to a long tradition of societal and anthropological analysis.

For the first function of the priestly activities, Dumézil identifies gods linked to Vedic India, the Mahabaratha, Norse Mythology, and Roman mythology. Respectively, in Vedic India, the gods Mitra and Varuna relate to the priestly function of sovereignty relating to notions of sacred and magical activities. But also the priestly function relates to justice and notions of law as outlined in contracts. Likewise, in the Mahabaratha, the hero Yudhishthira relates to the priestly function. In the Norse mythological tradition, Odin and Týr relate to the priestly function of law and a connection to the notion of the mystical or magical.

Roman mythology directly reinforces the idea of a tripartite system of the Archaic Triad of the divine Roman mythology — consisting of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. Here, of the gods in the Archaic Triad, Jupiter is most closely associated with the sovereign function relating to law, justice, and the idea of the sacred.

The second function deals with the military and defense of people. It relates to notions of physical activitiy and idea of nobility. Dumézil notes that in Vedic India, the gods associated with this function are Indra and Vāyu. Dumézil identifies the heroes Arjuna and Bhima as related to nobility and physical defense. In Norse mythology, Dumézil identifies the god Thor is most closely related to the physical activity of warlike functions. Finally, in the Roman pantheon, Mars in the Archaic Triad represents the warlike function.

The third function relates to the idea of fertility in social activity. Specifically, this fertility function relates to farmers and agricultural activity. But it also relates to craftsmen and merchants. Likewise, in Vedic India, the two Ashvins relate to the fertility function. In the Mahabaratha, the heroes Nakula and Sahadeva relate to the fertility function. In Norse mythology, Dumézil identifies several gods related to the function of fertility. Those gods in the Norse mythological construct are Freyr, Freyja ,Njord , and the gods Vanes. In the Roman Archaic Triad, the god, Quirinus relates to the fertile function.

Dumézil argued that the three functions of Indo-European society lasted naturally from the Middle Ages until 1789 when the French Revolution led to the abolishment of the tripartite Ancien Régime.[1] Dumézil argues that the Estates General of 1789 led to the end of the tripartie system.[2]

More recently, the French economist Thomas Piketty adopted Dumézil’s trifunctional understanding as well in his Capital and Ideology (2019) book on wealth and income inequality in the modern world. Reviewing Piketty’s work, Idrees Kahloon writes, “[a]dopting a theory of the French philologist Georges Dumézil, Piketty writes that early societies were “trifunctional” — in ways largely determined by birth, you were a member of the clergy, the warrior-nobility, or the peasantry.”[3] Kahloon points out that Piketty compares the notion of Dumézilian triuctionalinism as “similar, he notes, can be seen in “Planet of the Apes” and “Star Wars.””[4] Kahloon further identifies that Piketty notes that “[d]uring this period of limited mobility, inequality was justified by the notion that the castes were interdependent — like the limbs of the body.”[5] Piketty’s serious treatment of Dumézil’s theories shows that such analysis is warranted and makes sense within the conception of constitutional interpretation.

Concurrently, a society has all three parts within itself. One might expect that such a society acts justly if all the parts of the society act as each is meant to act. This is not always so.

[1] Dumézil argues that the Estates General of 1789 led to the end of the tripartite system. Bagge, Sverre. “Old Norse Theories of Society. From RígsÞula til konungs skuggsiá.” (2000).

[2] Dumézil expressly wrote, “le schéma tripartite est mort en Occident avec les États généraux de 1789, quand la noblesse et le clergé ont baissé le pavillon devant le tiers état. On a enfin répondu à la question : qu’est-ce que le tiers état ? Eh bien, c’était la ruine du système trifonctionnel.” Georges Dumézil, « Le parcours initiatique d’un “parasite” des sciences humaines » (interview de Didier Sanz), Autrement, Paris, passion du passé,‎ 1987, p. 57.

[3] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/09/thomas-piketty-goes-global

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/09/thomas-piketty-goes-global

[5] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/09/thomas-piketty-goes-global

Did the director intend for such an analysis?

There is a reasonable question of whether the director intended such an arrangement. Did Kurasawa as a director intentionally keep the priestly class outside of the movie? I don’t know if there is an answer to the director’s intentions. But I don’t think this matters.

In the same way that Slavoj Zizek interprets Freud in Hitchock. The idea isn’t that Hitchock explicitly wanted to incorporate Freud. The idea is that these principles are everlasting and true. And subconsciously, the movie director incorporates these principles in the creation of the movie or piece of artwork.

According to director and movie maker David Lynch ideas sometimes come to him. He doesn’t know where the idea comes from. Lynch analogies to “fishing” for his search for ideas. Is Lynch looking subscionsiuly? I am not sure. But the idea of looking through the subconscious seems to be a good an accurate way to articulate the idea of how these ideas from Freudian psychoanalysis to Dumézilian trifunctionalism are incorporated in movies.

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Charles Lincon

Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, Hegelian dialectics, Attic Greek, masters University of Amsterdam.