Considered by many to be the crowning achievement of an already pretty impressive filmography for Kurosawa, Seven Samurai tells the story of a town in feudal Japan that every harvest is pillaged by bandits who come to rape, kill, and make off with the people’s crops. Looking for protection, the townsfolk hire seven ronin (samurai without masters) who ready the town for a defence against the invaders. This plot’s become such a staple of cinema that numerous films have adapted it including The Magnificent Seven, The Three Amigos, to even Ocean’s Eleven and A Bug’s Life.
But I can completely understand why. The assembling of heroes to take down a larger threat is a really appealing concept. Hell, it’s even become a common device in comics. I doubt ideas like The Avengers would exist if not for Seven Samurai. And I was surprised how engaging these heroes were. First off is Takashi Shimura as Kambei the leader of the seven. He’s the classic aged warrior with a dedication to justice who recruits the other six. He conveys a genuine wisdom and quiet skilfulness almost reminding me of Mr. Miyagi. And of any of the subsequent versions of this story, he’s the one I could most convincingly follow into battle. But the character the film is most focussed on is Kikuchiyo played by Kurosawa’s favourite actor Toshiro Mifune. Mifune’s been the lead of many of Kurosawa’s best known films: Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, and Yojimbo to name a few. And in Seven Samurai he’s the outsider, a peasant claiming to be a ronin because of a family scroll he’s stolen. Initially he seems like a comic relief kind of figure, not seeming to take the quest as seriously as his compatriots but being obsessed with becoming part of the team anyway. And there’s an over-the-top drunk scene early on. But gradually he matures as a character as his arc becomes a main focus and the others wind up learning from him. A particular moment of this that stands out is when Kikuchiyo reminds the others that the situation of the village they’re protecting is indirectly the fault of warring samurai. Because Mifune was the biggest star of this film, I was surprised he didn’t get the love interest. I guess it shows further that not being a Hollywood film, Seven Samurai doesn’t abide by Hollywood conventions. It’s instead the young somewhat inexperienced but honour-bound Katsushirō played by Isao Kimura who falls for the local girl. As for the others, there’s Kambei’s old friend Shichirōji played by Daisuke Katō, Heihachi played by Minoru Chiaki, the good-natured and witty one in the group, Gorōbei played by Yoshio Inaba, an archer with a cheerful disposition, and Kyūzō played by Seiji Miyaguchi, the stoic but extremely skilled swordsman, whose memorable introduction to the story has been repeated in The Magnificent Seven remakes through knife-fighters Britt (James Coburn) and Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee). Even though some of the team are developed more than others, you still can engage with most of them and some particularly Kambei, Kyūzō, and even Heihachi for me, I want to know more about them. The comradery is very believable even with Kikuchiyo who the others mostly laugh at until he proves himself, and you legitimately want them to succeed when the bandits return -not just because the bandits are dicks, but because this team is so likeable.
The main thing that separates Seven Samurai from all its imitators and what’s one of its best qualities is its seriousness. Both Magnificent Seven films are kind of campy and goofy, the villains just moustache-twirling evils who need to be put down, and the drama between the Seven themselves isn’t that compelling. You just want to see a large-scale gunfight from these cool guys. But Seven Samurai isn’t that simple. It’s really got something of an epic scale, and while there are a number of lighter moments mostly from Kikuchiyo and Heihachi, it digs into the drama and the stakes of the situation. When recruiting the ronin, Kambei makes it clear they’re likely not going to survive the task (something that I like makes Gorōbei even more willing), and as is the case with most of the films that imitated it (including even Saving Private Ryan) only three of the team survive. And at the end it legitimately feels like a hollow victory because we’ve gotten to know the guys who’ve died. Which is what the aim of a movie like this is supposed to be. Like The Magnificent Seven that follows it, the film goes out on a shot of the graves of the fallen. And one of the survivors even goes so far to say “we lost the battle; the victory belongs to the farmers, not us.” The movie gets serious in other regards too. There’s one actually kind of tough scene especially, where a villager forcefully shaves his daughters’ head so she can pass for a boy and thereby have less a chance of getting raped. And the way the scene opens purposely on her washing her hair only to soon show her turmoil as she tries to escape this sentence, it’s pretty affecting and shows just how drastic things are in this village, and how despicable the bandits are. One of the main characters dies trying to rescue a villager and his captive wife. It’s pretty grim. The film gets in some good commentary on human nature when a bandit prisoner is executed, something the samurai consider dishonourable. And while you can understand the villagers retaliating after so much misery has been brought upon them, you question whether they’re now doing any better. It’s also worth noting that while the bandits have a leader, he doesn’t play nearly as big a part as Eli Wallach or even Peter Sarsgaard. The villains are more a unified force of nature which is why it’s all the more important the village is defended by another unified force, one with more humanity capable of both recognizing their heroism, and their faults.
I’d also like to address a couple of the technicals of this movie. It may not have the sweeping grand landscapes and locations or just massive scale in terms of manpower and technology that epics being made in the U.S. by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, and David Lean at around the same time had, but it still has a grandness to its story (as well as a typically epic long run-time). It’s hard to believe this story now so commonplace had to originate somewhere, it’s such a classic and not only does Kurosawa do it first, but he does it so well. The fight choreography is also really great, again the introduction of Kyūzō really stands out to me, and the final battle is terrific with both the ronin and the bandits putting up good fights. The fortifications are impressive as are the actions of the villagers fighting alongside the ronin. I also like that in keeping with realism, this is a battle drawn out over a number of days, like a proper medieval siege, and we get to see the cost. Again, in something like The Magnificent Seven we see the heroes who fall, but not a whole lot of the devastation that’s caused to the civilians. In Seven Samurai, a whole family perishes before Kikuchiyo’s eyes and though he saves their infant, it still scars him. Mifune is much more likeable and much more interesting in this film than his previous collaboration with Kurosawa in Rashomon. He gets some significant moments of development and while he’s often irresponsible and cocky to his own detriment, he redeems himself by the end.
Seven Samurai is justifiably the classic it’s always hailed as. Having been familiar with the story through a number of the imitations that have since been made, I was pleasantly surprised with how seriously it took its material, the implications of the story, characters, and time, and the characters themselves just as enjoyable as they need to be in films like these. I can’t say it has much re-watch value as it is very long-winded. But it is a pretty fantastic film with an instantly classic story, one that’s going to be retold until the end of time I expect. Though I doubt many will live up to the original.