Akira Kurosawa's action adventure classic Seven Samurai is one of the most popular and influential films in the world. Seven Samurai was the first samurai film that Akira Kurosawa had ever directed, and it was not only Kurosawa's longest film clocking in at three hours and twenty-seven minutes including an intermission; it was the longest film since 1939's epic Gone With the Wind. It was said by the critic Michael Jack that the source of Seven Samurai pioneered the action adventure genre and invented the story of a group of heroes recruiting and then training to carry out an important mission. Films like The Guns of the Navarone, Oceans Eleven, and The Dirty Dozen were all taken from this original plot device. Even John Sturges The Magnificent Seven is an American remake of The Seven Samurai; which makes sense since the source of Kurosawa's material is based on the American westerns of John Ford. Kurosawa once wrote in his memoirs, "There is one person, I feel, I would like to resemble as I grow old: The late American film director John Ford." Because Kurosawa's films were so heavily influenced by American westerns, he was heavily condemned by the Japanese for being 'too western' and 'old-fashioned'; which made it hard for him to find funding for most of his pictures. All the familiar ingredients of the American western can be seen at every turn in Seven Samurai. Whether it's the heroic and courageous samurai (the gunslinger), the attack of the bandits (the Indians),or the ultimate showdown in which bravery and virtue prevail in the end. Kurosawa once stated, "Good westerns are liked by everyone. Since humans are weak, they want to see good people and great heroes. Westerns have been done over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved. I have learned from this grammar of the western." Akira Kurosawa is probably the most famous foreign director in America and it's mostly due to his large fan base towards his samurai films. Besides Seven Samurai, several of Kurosawa's samurai films were remade in America including Yojimbo which was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, Rashomon which was remade as The Outrage and The Hidden Fortress which inspired George Lucas to create the story for his science-fiction blockbuster Star Wars. But what makes Seven Samurai hailed as one of the greatest films in the world goes beyond how influential the film is. It's universal themes on rebellion against social tradition and of honor and duty is what makes the film powerful and timeless to audiences. But let's be honest, the film is so well-loved by many for the same reason George Lucas's Star Wars and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings is, and it's because it has so much variety to offer to a large mass of its audience. Seven Samurai has colorful and classic characters, suspense, romance, drama, humor and a lot of great action. Like George Lucas's Star Wars or Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings; Seven Samurai is the type of film where fans can easily point out their favorite characters and favorite scenes. Of course Toshiro Mifune's character Kikuchiyo is probably a favorite among most people because of his popular attributes. He consists of being the Han Solo type character, the rebellious rogue who doesn't work for anyone and plays by his own rules. This is probably Toshiro Mifune's best performance besides Yojimbo; and his character brings a comedic spark to the already lush storyline. I personally love Takashi Shimura's performance as the samurai leader who is strong, confident, loyal and humble; which is a complete character transformation from his old withered character years earlier in Kurosawa's masterpiece Ikiru. Each samurai's distinctive personalities traits in the film, like the strong wise leader, the rebellious good-natured rogue, and the young naive apprentice; along with their own fascinating back stories, martial arts skills, and philosophies, is now a common plot device in mainstream movies, which is a standard formula that has gone all the way back since the classic heroes of comic-books, literature and folklore.
1. Kambei Shimadu (Takashi Shimura)-The leader of the group and the first recruited by the villagers, he is a wise but war-weary soldier.
2. Katsushiro Okamoto (Isao Kimura)-A young untested warrior. He comes from a warrior family and wants to be Kambei's disciple.
3. Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba)-He is recruited by Kambei and is a skilled archer, he acts as the second in command and helps create the master plan for the village's defense.
4. Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato)-He was once Kambei's lieutenant. Kambei meets him by chance in the town and he resumes this role.
5. Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki)-Recruited by Gorobei. An amiable though less-skilled fighter. His charm and wit maintain his comrades' good cheer in the face of adversity.
6. Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi)-He initially declined an offer by Kambei to join the group, though he later changes his mind. A serious, stone-faced samurai and a supremely skilled swordsman; Katsushiro is in awe of him.
7. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune)-A would-be samurai (right down to the false noble birth certificate) who eventually proves his worth. He is mercurial and temperamental. He identifies with the villagers and their plight.
"During the civil wars an endless cycle of conflict left in the countryside overrun by bandits. Peaceable folk lived in terror of the thunder of approaching hooves..."
The opening shot is a gang of marauding bandits approaching a mountain village. The bandit chief recognizes they have ransacked this village before, and decides it is best that they spare it until the harvest in several months. A villager happens to overhear the discussion. The news leaves the villagers divided about whether to surrender their harvest or fight back against the bandits. The women are crying yelling, "is there no God to protect us...land tax, forced labor, war, draught and now bandits! The Gods want us farmers dead!
Two of the main farmers named Rikichi and Yohei decide to go to the village elder, who declares that they should fight, by hiring samurai to help defend the village. Some of the villagers are troubled by this suggestion, thinking that samurai are expensive to enlist and believe they will lust after the young farmer's women, but realize they have no choice. Since the villagers have nothing to offer any prospective samurai but food, some are doubtful samurai would even take the job. The village elder tells them, "we fight. We'll hire samurai. Find hungry samurai." The men decide to go into the city, but initially are unsuccessful, being turned away by every samurai they ask; sometimes rudely.
Just as all seems lost, they happen to witness a samurai, named Kambei getting his head shaven to resemble a monk; to try to rescue a young boy whose been taken hostage by a thief. When confronting the thief, Kambei tells him he's only a monk as you see him quickly rush in and kill the man in slow motion; and save the young boy from being harmed. As Kambei walks towards town, a young samurai, named Katsushiro, asks to become his disciple. Kambei insists that he walk with him as a friend and tells the young samurai that he doesn't take disciples saying, "there's nothing special about me. I may have seen my share of battle but always on the losing side. Better not to follow such a unlucky man."
Then the farmers ask Kambei to help defend their village; and after some hard thinking he accepts but says, "They may be bandits, but they ride 40 strong. Two or three samurai won't suffice. Defense is more difficult than offense. You say there are mountains behind the village? Passable by horse? You're open to mounted attack on four sides. You need at least four men, one to guard each side. Two more to guard the rear. No matter how frugal our estimate, we need seven including me." Kambei, with Katsushiro's assistance, then recruits four more masterless samurai, each with distinctive skills and personality traits. Kambei has them tested as he has Katsushiro come at them with a surprise attack. If they are truly a samurai; they will see it and defend themselves.
Gorobei Katayama, clever and good-natured is the first one they recruit whose doing it not just for the cause but for Kambei's character. They then meet Heihachi, a good-humored Samurai with mediocre sword skills; and Shichiroji, an old friend of Kambei's. Kambei says to Shichiroji, "truth is, there's a tough battle ahead leading to neither money nor rank. This may be the one that kills us.".
Kambei then witnesses a master swordsman named Kyuzo, and asks him. Kyuzo at first rejects the offer but later comes back and accepts. Kambei had initially decided that seven samurai would be necessary, but he must leave for the village with only the four that he has chosen because time is running short. The villagers beg him to take young Katsushiro as well, and he reluctantly agrees.
The night before heading off to the village one of the peasants runs in and tells Kambei that he found his seventh samurai saying, "He's like a wild dog. Someone stopped the fight. They started drinking. I told him about you. He's on his way." Kambei decides to have Katsushiro give him the usual test of attacking him from behind; and when the man arrives all drunk Katsushiro hits him over the head without the man blocking it. The man all drunk yells, "who the hell hit me?" Everyone in the room starts laughing as they watch the drunkard stumbling and rambling saying, "I may look like hell, but I'm a real samurai!" The man then gives Kambei a scroll that he says is his family tree in which it lists all his ancestors. Kambei reads the scroll and says to him, "So this 'Kikuchiyo' here would be you? Kikuchiyo, born February 17, 1574. You hardly look 13 years old to me."
All the samurai's starts laughing at him telling him he stole the family tree. "Damn you!" the drunkard yells as he foolishly chases Katsushiro around the room. He then says, "screw samurai" as he collapses and passes out. Katsushiro asks Kambei if that man is a samurai and Kambei says, "in his own mind, anyway." That next morning all of them are off to the village and they notice the man who said his name was Kikuchiyo the night before following them from a distance. When making their way in the forest the samurai look behind them and no longer find him following them anymore thinking he probably gave up. Heihachi says, "Now that he's gone, it's almost a little...lonely."
Suddenly Kikuchiyo jumps out from ahead of them and tells them he's leading the way. When the samurai arrive at the village the villagers cower in their homes in fear, hoping to protect their daughters and themselves from these supposedly dangerous warriors. The samurai are insulted not to be greeted warmly as Kikuchiyo is laughing while Gorobei says, "this is a fine welcome." They go seek an explanation from the village elder. Suddenly, an alarm is raised; the villagers, fearing that the bandits have returned, rush from their hiding places begging to be defended by the newly arrived samurai.
In one of the funniest scenes in the film it turns out that Kikuchiyo had purposely raised a false alarm. He makes fun of the panicked villagers for running to the samurai for aid after first failing to welcome them to the village saying, "What's with the faces? Don't worry. No bandits have come. Remember how you welcomed us when we got here? But as soon as I bang on this, 'Samurai, sirs! Samurai, please!' You're practically groveling! Got what you deserved you mud snails." The elder walks up to Kikuchiyo and Kikuchiyo asks, "got a problem, gramps?" The Elder says, "no...all is well now." Shichiroji says to the group, "looks like he's good for something after all. There are seven of us at last." The samurai's starts laughing now realizing that Kikuchiyo is more intelligent then they originally thought accepting him now, truly completing the group of wanderers as the 'seven samurai.'
The villagers feed white rice to the samurai, which is precious to them as they only have millet for themselves. Later that next day Kyuzo, Kikuchiyo, Heihachi and Shichiroji are training the farmers to defend themselves with sticks; getting them ready for the upcoming battle. There's a funny scene of Kikuchiyo trying to train Yohei by mocking his fearful and weak facial expressions to the peasant children. During the farmer's training Kambei, Katsushiro and Gorobei are looking over the perimeter trying to map out the most logical ways of attack.
Katsushiro runs off into the forest picking flowers and runs into Shino a young peasant from the village. Shino had been forced to masquerade as a boy by her father Mazio who hoped the deception would protect her from the supposedly lustful samurai warriors. When she lies and says to Katsushiro that she's a boy he says, "Then where's your spear? Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?" while humorously he's holding flowers himself. He then chases after her and when catching her in a batch of flowers he finally realizes she's a girl. Later that day Kikuchiyo shocks the samurai when he is shown wearing and bringing in samurai armor and weapons. Gorobei yells, "those farmers killed samurai to get these!" The samurai are shocked and angry that the farmers have killed fleeting samurai in the past and Kyuzo comments on how he now wants to kill all the farmers in the village.
Suddenly Kikuchiyo starts weeping as he yells, "Well, that's just fine and dandy! What did ya think these farmers were anyway? Buddhas or something? There's no creäture on earth as wily as a farmer! Ask 'em for rice, barley, anything, and all they ever say is 'we're all out.' But they've got it. They've got everything. Dig under the floorboards. If it's not there, try the barn. You'll find plenty. Jars of rice, salt, beans, sake! Go up in the mountains. They have hidden fields. They kowtow and lie, playing innocent the whole time. You name it, they'll cheat you on it! After a battle, they hunt down the losers with their spears. Farmers are misers, weasels, and crybabies. There mean, stupid, murderers!! But tell me this: who turned them into monsters? You did! You samurai did! Damn you to hell! In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill 'em if they resist. What do you expect em to do? What the hell are farmers supposed to do? Damn it! Goddamn it!!"
The samurai all remain quite and then Kambei says to Kikuchiyo, "you were born a farmer...weren't you?" Now the samurai knowing Kikuchiyo's origin has Kikuchiyo angrily run off. The anger the samurai had felt now turns to shame, and when the village elder, alerted by the villagers that this revelation instigates, asks if anything is the matter, Kambei humbly responds that there is not. The preparations for the defense of the village continue, including the construction of fortifications and the training of the farmers for battle. Katsushiro, the youngest samurai, begins a relationship with Shino and on a rainy day Kyuzo goes up to the hill to practice and catches Katsushiro sneaking white rice to Shino.
During dinner Kyuzo makes a comment about the white rice to Katsushiro and when Katsushiro later confronts him on him knowing the truth about him and Shino. When Katsushiro asks Kyuzo why he didn't tell the others; Kyuzo says, "you want me to?". That evening Heihachi is seen making a banner to raise high during their upcoming battle and Kikuchiyo asks what the symbols mean. Heihachi points out the symbols that represent the field, farmers and village. Heihachi says the circles represent the samurai and Kikuchiyo says, "there's only six. You leaving me out?" Heihachi replies, "no, this triangle's Lord Kikuchiyo," as all the samurai's start laughing.
During the harvest while evaluating the perimeter Kambei realizes he doesn't have enough men to protect the three outlying houses. The samurai then ask the elder and all the other families who live in those homes that they have to move out. Many of the villagers at first resist not wanting to abandon their homes to protect other people's homes so Kambei makes it clear that they have to. "We can't risk 20 to save 3. And if this village is destroyed those three cannot survive on their own. This is the nature of war. By protecting others you save yourself." During the harvest all the women in the village are out working in the fields and it's driving Katsushiro crazy. "Where the hell you been hiding these girls?" he asks Yohei. Rikichi gets mad when the samurai's jokingly tell him he should find a wife and so he angrily takes off. Heihachi knows somethings bothering him so he goes off to find him and talk.
Months pass and the peasants start to wonder if the bandits will come at all. Things in the village start easing up between the villagers and the samurai as the women and children are entertained by watching Katsushiro trying to master a unruley horse and continually falls off. Because of the talk of the bandits maybe not arriving Kambei says, "when you think you're safe is precisely when you're most vulnerable." Shino and Katsushiro are out in the fields together one afternoon and Shino wishes she was a samurai and not a farmer knowing because of their class difference it's never going to work between them. As the time for the raid approaches, two bandit scouts are killed, and one is captured and reveals the location of the bandit camp. Before the mob of farmers kill the bandit they all back away and let an elderly lady who lost her son and home to them finish him off.
Three of the samurai, along with Rikichi and a guide from the village, decide to strike the location of the bandit's camp. During the attack many bandits are killed, but one of the samurai, Heihachi, is slain by gunfire after trying to pull Rikichi back from entering the bandit's burning house to save a woman from perishing in the flames. When asked why he was trying to go into the home Rikichi reveals that the woman who was inside was his wife, who had been kidnapped and defiled by the bandits. When returning back to the farm they have Heihachi's funeral. During the service Kikuchiyo gets upset and decides to hang the samurai banner up that Heihachi had made for them out of respect. Suddenly while on the hills Kikuchiyo sees the arrival of the bandits. "Goddamn, here they come!" he yells to everyone.
When the bandits arrive in force, they are confounded by the fortifications put in place by the samurai, and several are killed attempting to scale the barricades or cross moats. However, the bandits possess three muskets, and are able to hold their own. Apart from defense, the initial strategy of the samurai is to allow the bandits to enter a gap in the fortifications one at a time through the use of a closing "wall" of spears, and to then kill the lone enemy. This is repeated several times with success. Suddenly the villagers who lived in the three outlying homes start crying as they watch the Bandits burn them to the ground.
Kikuchiyo realizes there still is a family with a child in one of the homes and abandons his post to save them. Kambei chases after him and when Kikuchiyo makes it to the house the mother of the home walks out speared as she hands him her crying baby and collapses and dies. Kambei tells Kikuchiyo that they have to leave but Kikuchiyo starts to break down as he falls to his knees holding the crying baby saying, "This baby is me...This is just what happened to me!" Katsushiro makes a samurai dummy and uses it to figure out the Bandit's location. Kyuzo decides to conduct a raid on his own to retrieve one of the muskets and quickly leaves.
He soon returns with one several hours later and hands it over to Kambei saying, "two more down." Everyone especially Katsushiro looks at him in complete awe and Katsushiro walks up to tell him that he's a magnificent person and how he wanted to tell him that for a long time. After Katsushiro walks away Kyuzo smiles. Later that day Katsushiro goes on and on about how he's in awe of Kyuzo with Kikuchiyo sarcastically saying, "fascinating. I'm not bored at all, I swear." Kikuchiyo, jealous of the praise and respect Kyuzo earns later abandons his post to retrieve another musket, leaving his group of farmers in charge. In a hilarious scene Kikuchiyo steals the uniform of a dead bandit and when disguised walks up and sits down next to one without him noticing anything. The bandit soon realizes he is a samurai when he sees Kikuchiyo slowly pull out his sword, and he tries to take off but not before Kikuchiyo kills him.
When Kikuchiyo later returns to Kambei and the rest of the group Kambei is angry at him for abandoning his post. Kambei then says, "there's nothing heroic about selfishly grabbing for glory." Because of Kikuchiyo abandoning his post the bandits attack the post, overwhelming and killing some of the farmers. Kambei is forced to provide reinforcements from the main post to drive the bandits out, leaving it undermanned when the bandit leader charges this position. Although they are driven off, Gorobei is shot and killed and it is revealed that Yohei who became good friends with Kikuchiyo is killed protecting his post.
On the second night of the battle the peasants offer Kambei some sake before the last battle and Kambei says, "They have stockpiles just like Kikuchiyo said and tonight it all comes out." Katsushiro and Shino secretly see each other that evening with her fearing they might not live through tomorrow. After sleeping with one another Shino's father Manzo catches the both of them dressing and he gets hysterical as he starts beating Shino. Everyone starts gathering around to see what the commotion is and Manzo yells out, "what the hell's a farmer girl doing with a samurai?" Kambei stops Manzo from hitting his daughter and everyone then looks at Katsushiro.
Katsushiro ashamed of what he had done can't look at Kambei in the eye as he keeps his head down in shame. Shichiroji says to Manzo, "Manzo, don't be angry. When the dawn threatens our very lives, the weight of it makes us all a little reckless. On the eve of decisive battles this often happens, even inside castles. Remember what it was to be young. You can't blame them." Manzo still can't forgive Shino since his daughter is now damaged goods. Rikichi gets furious at Manzo's behavior because of him just losing his loving wife as he says to him, "what's wrong with two people in love? It's not like bandits took her!"
Things eventually calm down and at dawn Kambei instructs everyone to prepare for a final, decisive battle. He then turns to Katsushiro and says, "by the way, Katsushiro, we expect much of you today. As of last night you became a real man." Everyone starts laughing at Kambei's comment. When morning breaks and the bandits make their attack, Kambei orders his forces to allow the remaining bandits in the village at once.
In the ensuing confrontation, most of the bandits are killed, but the leader takes refuge in a hut unseen. In what is portrayed as a dishonorable act, he shoots Kyuzo from the safety of the hut, killing him. A despondent Katsushiro seeks to avenge his hero, but an enraged Kikuchiyo charges ahead of him, only to be shot himself but before dying kills the bandit chief. Dazed and exhausted, Kambei and Shichiroji sadly observe the dead as Kambei says to Shichiroji, "we've survived once again," while Katsushiro wails over his fallen comrades.
At the end of the film the battle is ultimately won for the villagers. The three surviving samurai, Kambei, Shichiroji and Katsushiro are left to observe the villagers happily planting the next crop. The samurai reflect on the relationship between the warrior and farming classes: though they have won the battle for the farmers, they have lost their friends with little to show for it. Kambei says, "In the end...we lost this battle too. I mean...the victory belongs to those peasants...not us."
Breathtaking, fastmoving, and overflowing with a delightfully self-mocking sense of humor, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is one of the most popular and influential Japanese films ever made. Released in 1954, this rip-snorting action-adventure epic about a sixteenth-century farm community led by a band of samurai warriors defending itself against a marauding army, sparked not only an American remake, The Magnificent Seven (1960), but went on to influence a score of other westerns, particularly those of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West). But to hear it from director Kurosawa, the most important inroad Seven Samurai made was on home turf.
“Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice,” Kurosawa remarked in an interview, making a knowing dig at his staid rival, Yasujiro Ozu (one of whose films was actually called The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice). “I think we ought to have richer foods, and richer films. So I thought I would make this kind of film entertaining enough to eat.”
The dish Kurosawa set before audiences was certainly different from what they had tasted up until then—particularly as far as period filmmaking was concerned. Instead of the slow, ritualistic, and highly theatrical style of the typical sixteenth-century saga, Seven Samurai moved with the sure swiftness of a Hollywood action epic, like Gunga Din or Stagecoach. The characters may inhabit historical settings, but their manner and bearing were, often as not, strikingly contemporary—particularly in the case of the buffoonish Kikuchiyo, the high-spirited would-be samurai played with great gusto by Toshiro Mifune. Most important of all was the visual style of the film which, thanks to Kurosawa’s use of multiple cameras, lent itself to many unusual editing techniques.
In the atmospheric opening scene, for example, the camera cuts closer and closer to a group of cowering villagers, dramatically underscoring their situation with deft simplicity. An audacious use of slow motion in the sword fight scenes of Chapters four and seven give them a highly sophisticated dramatic charge. And that’s not to mention the climactic battle scenes (Chapters 23, 25, and 28), whose brilliant staging and heart-stopping pace rival the finest work of Griffith, Gance, and Eisenstein.
But over and above these select bits of brilliance stands Kurosawa’s storytelling style. The film may be over three hours in length, but the pace never flags because the director at the helm has an uncanny sense of assurance in varying the action’s flow. We’re never retracing old dramatic ground, rather, we’re always moving forward.
Kurosawa wastes little time in setting up his premise. It’s essentially there in the film’s opening shot—an ominous vista of horses galloping against the horizon at daybreak. Once the villagers state their plight and decide the course of action they have to take, the film is off and running, as they go looking for the samurai warriors they’ll need to help them. This situation quickly devolves into a series of vivid dramatic turns, as we meet each of the chosen samurai and their leader (the great Takashi Shimura) sets about planning the strategy the villagers will need to fight the army.
It is at this juncture that Kurosawa adds a special flavor to the proceedings that sets them apart from any action film ever made. For the story of Seven Samurai isn’t one of simple Good versus Evil, as we learn when we’re told that these villagers have, in the past, preyed on the very class of samurai they’re now asking for help. And why are these samurai helping them, for virtually no pay, and with only a few handfuls of rice for food? Why, for the adventure of it all, of course. These men have seen many battles, but only in this one will they be truly able to test themselves. There’s no reward, and the odds against their winning are a good one hundred to one—and that’s exactly why they want to stay and fight. For these seasoned warriors long to experience that very personal sense of “honor” so prized by the Japanese.
Watching this raggle-taggle band of fighters defend the village makes for a climax as stirring as ever seen on a motion picture screen. But it’s only one part of an epic movie meal that is every bit as delicious as its filmmaker chef had planned.
The great German composer Richard Strauss was conducting his three-hour-plus Der Rosenkavalier when—or so the story goes—he turned to his concertmaster and said, “My, this is a long opera.”
“But maestro,” the man replied, aghast, “you wrote it.”
“Yes,” the imperturbable Strauss answered, “but I never thought I’d have to conduct it.”
In artistic matters, as in everything else, length is relative. Clocking in at three hours and twenty-seven minutes, Seven Samurai was to be the most popular—and longest—film of director Akira Kurosawa’s extensive career, but that didn’t stop it from making people uneasy. In fact, Toho Studios cut fifty minutes before so much as showing the film to American distributors, fearful that no Westerner would have the stamina for its original length. And the New York Times’s august Bosley Crowther did contend that “it is much too long for comfort or for the story it has to tell.” Yet, paradoxically, more than any other kind of cinema, long films done right have the potential to envelop you completely in character and experience.
The longest hit film since 1939’s three-hour-and-forty-two-minute Gone with the Wind, Seven Samurai came by its length honestly. The script took six intense weeks to write, with the screenwriters—Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni—forbidden visitors and even phone calls for the duration. Preproduction lasted three months, and the film’s 148 shooting days were spread out over an entire year, four times the span that was originally budgeted.
Unlike the often self-indulgent long films of today’s Hollywood auteurs, Seven Samurai uses its length creatively, not merely to burnish egos. Confident of his powers and not in any kind of a rush, Kurosawa proceeds like a master chef, allowing his ingredients to simmer and become tastier, tastier, and tastier still. And this particular story, the tale of a group of masterless samurai coming together to defend a village of farmers against the depredations of roving bandits, seems to demand just that kind of treatment.
Seven Samurai unrolls naturally and pleasurably, like a beautiful scroll or valuable rug, luxuriating in its elongation—it takes an entire hour just for the basic task of choosing the titular seven. Rather than try to ignore time, the film emphasizes its passage, underlining key scenes with a quiet but insistent drumbeat that could almost be a clock ticking off the inexorable seconds.
The film’s length works in its favor in ways both big and small: It allows the samurai leader, whose head is shaved in an opening scene, to gradually grow his hair back. It allows the eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers, as well as the villagers’ martial confidence, to grow believably over time. It also allows us to observe each of Seven Samurai’s many characters in the round, from every angle, to view them as individuals with their own backstories, philosophies, martial arts skills, and reasons for being there. We get to know them naturally, the way we get to know our friends: by putting in the time. We get to experience the emotional arc of the youngest samurai and to understand where the fury of Toshiro Mifune’s ragtag battler Kikuchiyo comes from. When the bandits finally do attack, our hearts are in our throats—we know the defenders so well, and we can sense that not everyone will survive.
The passage of time has one final advantage: it reflects the entirety of the agricultural year, from planting to gorgeous blossoming to harvesting. That’s critical, because the film’s final object is to reinforce the endurance of this kind of life, its toils and struggles. “In the end, we’ve lost this battle too,” one of the survivors says. “The victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.” By showing us nature’s passage as well, Kurosawa ensures that this message comes through loud and clear.
Seven Samurai was the first samurai film that Akira Kurosawa had ever directed and not only was it Kurosawa's longest film clocking in at three hours and twenty-seven minutes including an intermission; it was the longest film since 1939's Gone With the Wind. He had originally wanted to direct a film about a single day in the life of a samurai but later discovered a story about samurai defending farmers in his research. According to actor Toshiro Mifune, the film was originally going to be called Six Samurai, with Mifune playing the role of Kyuzo. During the six-week scriptwriting process, Kurosawa and his screenwriters realized that "six sober samurai were a bore—they needed a character that was more off-the-wall."
Kurosawa recast Mifune as Kikuchiyo and gave him creative license to improvise actions in his performance. The script took six weeks to write, with the screenwriting team of Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. After three months of preproduction, the film had 148 shooting days spread out over a year, four times the span covered in the original budget, which eventually came to almost half a million dollars. Toho Studios closed down production at least twice. Each time, Kurosawa would calmly go fishing, reasoning that the studio had already heavily invested in the production and would have to allow him to complete the picture.
The film's final battle, originally scheduled to be shot at the end of summer, was shot in February in near-freezing temperatures. Mifune would recall later that he had never been so cold in his life. Kurosawa refused to shoot the peasant village at Toho Studios and had a complete set constructed on the Izu Peninsula. Although the studio protested the increased production costs, Kurosawa was adamant that "the quality of the set influences the quality of the actors' performances.... For this reason, I have the sets made exactly like the real thing. It restricts the shooting but encourages that feeling of authenticity." He also began using multiple cameras to shoot his scenes in order to capture action sequences from various angles, a practice he would continue to utilize for the rest of his career.
The intense last hour mostly contains action and suspense with incredible cinematography and amazingly shot and edited action scenes of sword fights and battles. Kurosawa uses distinct composition in several of the frames during the action while at the same time always using deep focus on the background and foreground. Film critic Roger Ebert speculates in his review that the sequence introducing the leader Kambei (in which the samurai shaves off his topknot, a sign of honor among samurai, in order to pose as a monk to rescue a boy from a kidnapper) could be the origin of the practice, now common in action movies, of introducing the main hero with an undertaking unrelated to the main plot.
Now being a common plot device the character personalities in the film like the strong wise leader, the rebellious yet good-natured hero, romance between a local woman and the youngest naive apprentice and the nervousness of the common citizenry had appeared in other films before this but were combined in this film for the first time. The single largest undertaking by a Japanese filmmaker at the time, Seven Samurai was a technical and creative watershed that became Japan's highest-grossing movie and set a new standard for the Japanese film industry.
It's no surprise that Akira Kurosawa was heavily influenced by the American westerns of John Ford and because of that was heavily condemned by the Japanese for being too western and old-fashioned; which made it hard for him to find funding for most of his pictures. "Good westerns are liked by everyone. Since humans are weak, they want to see good people and great heroes. Westerns have been done over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved. I have learned from this grammar of the western." All the familiar ingredients of the American western can be seen at every turn in The Seven Samurai. Whether it's the attack of the bandits (indians), the brave samurai (the cowboy) or the ultimate showdown in which bravery and virtue prevail in the end. The Magnificent Seven was almost the exact same story except set in the west with the replacement of gunslingers instead of the samurai.
Kurosawa once wrote in his memoirs, "there is one person, I feel, I would like to resemble as I grow old: The late American film director John Ford." Critic Donald Richie has quoted Kurosawa's memories of meeting Ford. "From the very beginning, I respected him. I have always paid close attention to his films, and they've influenced me, I think, I finally got to meet him. It was in a London hotel, and I was having a quiet glass of wine. He came over and said, 'Hey, Akira! brought a bottle of scotch and poured us out really stiff drinks. In London he was very nice to me. He sent me chrysanthemums and treated me just like his own son. I like him-he's so mature, and, besides that, he looks just like one of the cavalry generals in his own pictures." Kurosawa admired John Ford so much that he apparently wore dark glasses in imitation of the great director, and when John Ford became the first recipient of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, Kurosawa was among the many who announced him to be the world's greatest living director.
Akira Kurosawa himself is now considered one of the greatest directors in the world and has made some of the greatest films. And yet critic Roger Ebert says, "Seven Samurai represents a great divide in his work; most of his earlier films subscribe to the Japanese virtues of teamwork, fitting in, going along, conforming. All his later films are about misfits, nonconformists and rebels." Kurosawa is mostly known for his westerns like Rashomon, Ran, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo. Very similar to the fans of John Ford with his westerns; not as many people acknowledged his work outside the samurai genre which is greatly unfortunate. Kurosawa has made some of the most powerful dramas that deal with the human condition like Red Beard, High and Low, Derzu Uzala, Stray Dog, and one of my top 10 favorite films of all time; Ikiru. Toho Studios originally cut fifty minutes off the film when screening Seven Samurai for American distributors for fear that no American audience would be willing to sit through the entire picture. A re-release version of 190 minutes was shown in the UK in 1991 and a near-complete 203 minute version was re-released in the U.S. in 2002 by the Criterion Collection.
Seven Samurai was voted onto Sight & Sound's list of the ten greatest films of all time in 1982, and to the directors' top ten films in the 1992 and 2002 polls. It is also ranked #1 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010. At the end of the film the battle is ultimately won for the villagers. The three surviving samurai, Kambei, Shichiroji and Katsushiro are left to observe the villagers happily planting the next crop. The samurai reflect on the relationship between the warrior and farming classes: though they have won the battle for the farmers, they have lost their friends with little to show for it. Kambei says, "in the end...we lost this battle too. I mean...the victory belongs to those peasants...not us." The last shot of the film is a shot of the graveyard on a hill overlooking the village. It is in this graveyard that the four slain samurai and those villagers killed in the battle have been laid to rest. Even though Seven Samurai is almost 3 and a half hours long the length is used creatively. It takes a full hour for the seven to be found and chosen; another hour or so to establish the characters and their personalities and the last hour in which most of the action takes place. The film's pace works perfect for several reasons. First off it allows the viewer to observe each of the seven samurai's character traits, back stories, martial arts skills and philosophies. As the film allows us to get to know the characters, the film allows the villagers and samurai to get to know each other; and when the final attack finally arrives we are at the edge of our seats sadly knowing not everyone will come out of this alive. Kurosawa's technique in his action shots often avoids quick cuts unlike the action films of today. Many characters die in Seven Samurai but the violence and action are not the real point of the movie. Kurosawa rarely ever gives the audience a close-up shot of the violence and the film never shows any blood or beheadings; because it would weaken the power of the story. What makes this film a more than just an entertaining action/adventure movie is its dramatic subplot on social roles and classes. The samurai at the end of the battle have lost four of their seven, yet there are no complaints, because that is the samurai's life and they accept that. The villagers do not want the samurai around once the bandits are gone, because armed men are a threat to the order; which is the nature of that society. When Kambei and Shichiroji are standing near the graves of their fellow comrades Katsushiro is standing off to the side between the farmers and the samurai. With this last shot you can see two genres at war with each other which is the western vs the samurai. At the end of a western Katsushiro would end up with Shino but the samurai genre wouldn't accept that and so Katsushiro is conflicted. And yet Kikuchiyo who was revealed to be an orphan peasant; in death became one of the samurai. These were the great themes Kurosawa would struggle with through most of his career. It's these great themes that make Seven Samurai as memorable and timeless as it is.