The Seven Samurai is Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s finest work and made an easy transference into a Western, The Magnificent Seven, six years later. A Samurai answers a village’s request for protection after he falls on hard times. Kurosawa’s characterization of the six Samurai and the farmer’s son who wants to join them is peerless- as is his direction of the samurai and cavalry action.
Don’t be put off by the surface of an almost four-hour, black and white, subtitled film set in sixteenth century feudal Japan- The Seven Samurai is not only a great film in its own right but the source of a genre that would flow through the rest of the century. Film critic Michael Jeck suggests that this was the first film in which a team is assembled to carry out a mission- a theme we can see in films right from the early Westerns to modern films such as ‘Fast and Furious’ and even ‘The Avengers’.
Despite the length, the film moves quickly thanks to clear and defined storytelling and action scenes with a thrilling sweep. Kurosawa photographs men in action near better than anyone- one of his trademarks is the use of human tides, the camera sweeping through the action as people move, flowing from high to low rather than cutting into separate shots.
There are visual patterns within the film- at the start of the first battle with the bandits, the villagers rush around in panic and Kambei orders his samurai to calm and contain them, herding them under cover. Later, as just one bandit has been left, the villagers rush forward with delayed bravery to kill him. Now the samurai hurry to push them back.
This is a blockbuster in every sense, being the most expensive Japanese film ever made after everything was shot on location. It is also an epic period film (called a ‘jidaigeki’ in Japanese) that pits Takashi Shimura’s wise, zen-like leader against the wild intensity of Toshiro Mifune’s son-of-a-farmer samurai. They are employed along with five other swords-for-hire (of mixed ability) to protect a farming village from raiding bandits.
The film is also funny- occasionally darkly comic. When asked how many enemies he’s recently killed, one samurai responds: “since it is impossible to kill them all, I usually run away.”
Director Kurosawa was from samurai stock himself and wasn’t afraid to demolish the mythical status cinema had attributed to samurai figures.
Although the film is anchored in ancient Japanese culture it argues for a flexible humanism in place of rigid traditions. The samurai and the villagers who hire them are of different castes and must never mix- indeed these villagers have previously been hostile to samurai. Yet the bandits are an even greater threat and a value is added to the samurai along with resentment as the villagers are forced into hiring them.
The Samurai live through this resentment and open hostility as they risk their lives because that is the job and nature of the samurai. The bandits equally persevere, despite the village now being well defended. Both sides are bound by the roles imposed on them- a masochistic dedication to the implementation of complex social obligations is a basic cultural trait of Japan and Japanese cinema. The characters perform the roles they have been assigned.
Yet, two of the movie’s significant subplots deal with rebellion against social tradition. The boisterous showoff, Kikuchiyo, was not born a samurai but jumped caste to become one- he can barely ride a horse because his childhood gave him no opportunity to learn. There is also a forbidden romance between another samurai and a village girl but a farmer’s daughter could never marry a ronin!
When their relationship is discovered towards the end of the film, on the eve of the final battle, there are arguments in the village to “understand the young people”- although the appeal to romance is deigned for the modern 1950s audience and unlikely to have been uttered in the 1600s!
Should the hero get the girl? Japanese audiences in 1954 would have said no. Kurosawa spent the fifty years of his career arguing against the theory that the individual should be the instrument of society.