Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni
Running time: 207 Minutes
Year of Release: 1954
To sum up: A small Japanese village suffers as the same group of roving bandits ride in every spring harvest and take them for all they have. Fed up with this equivalent to an annual IRS audit, they decide to take a stand and hire samurai to fight for them.
There are times when a movie is not enough. Sometimes one needs more than a movie. Sometimes one needs to see a film; a motion picture; something that rises above the category of a mere movie. The Seven Samurai, an incredible film directed by the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, is like that. It's a film that is like an exquisite meal served at a fine restaurant; leaving the viewer satiated long after by its textured richness. It's a welcome break from the mediocrity that so often exists in the film industry.
To say that the film is legendary is a bit understated. Even a casual movie fan has, at least, heard of it and knows it to be an important film. And like many classic films, its story structure is so influential that it was destined to be imitated. It's an idea film. In the way that Die Hard has spawned a host of imitators, (Die Hard on a bus, Die Hard on a boat, Die Hard in a fridge), Samurai has served as a template for fifty plus years; most notably in the classic western The Magnificent Seven, but also in the areas of comedy such as The Three Amigos, science fiction in Galaxy Quest, or even animation with A Bug's Life.
On its surface, the film is a simple, straightforward tale. It tells the story of a small village of poor peasants, under constant attack by roving bandits, who continually ride in and steal what they need. Wailing and crying in the middle of the village, lamenting the inevitability of the bandits return, a few braver souls, tired of being pillaged, decide to take a stand. Showing the movie, My Bodyguard, they convince the village elder, Gisaku (Kokuten Kodo) that they need the help of those that are bigger and stronger than they, those who are trained to fight. They need Samurai to fight the bandits. And so a few of their number go out to recruit willing ronin (leaderless samurai) to defend their village. A desperate task made even more hopeless as they have nothing to offer beyond food and shelter. Surprisingly they are able to recruit someone: Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura). Shouldering a world weary jadedness, tempered by a smiling noble warmth, he becomes the leader and recruits the other six to the task of aiding the villagers. All of this is true (except for the My Bodyguard part).
As stated, the story is simple. The execution, however, is wonderfully complex. Once the Samurai are recruited, Kurosawa quickly sets up the logistics of the confrontation by having them walk through the village, and with the aid of a map that is simply delineated by North, South, East, and West, determine how the village will most likely be attacked and how they should prepare the defenses accordingly. This simplifies everything for the viewer, who now has a template of how things are laid out and what they can expect to see in the coming showdown. Having established this, Kurosawa is free to pile on layers of drama and intrigue.
The fun here is that The Seven Samurai is not a simple adventure film, where the point is to excite the audience with visceral thrills (though there is adventure and excitement). At its heart, the film is a character study about different types of people, living in the immutable social castes of classical Japan, and how they relate to each other when desperation brings them together.
First we have the village peasants, preyed upon by the bandits and with no way of defending themselves. Living in this oppressed world of fear has produced an environment of universal distrust towards almost everything that exists outside of their small enclave. So much so, that they even fear the very Samurai who are there to protect them. Upon their arrival, the would-be rescuers are greeted by an empty village. Many fear for what the Samurai will do to the women, with one father going so far as to make his daughter disguise herself as a boy. The peasants recruit the seven because they need them, not because they want them.
At the other end we have the Samurai, who in their own way, can be viewed as victims themselves. Though, culturally, they are the power base with some tied to warlords, others leaderless, or even part of a raiding group of bandits, their life is far from glamorous. By choosing the samurai life, many find themselves penniless, some even willing to take on menial tasks just to get some food; often with the person that they do the work for being of lower social standing. Unlike the villagers, the samurai are victims of circumstances that they have created themselves. But each wears their station and honor with pride. Only corruptible human nature defines how they will pass through this world. Thus it is interesting to try to understand why each of the Samurai accept the request of the villagers, when there are no riches or real glory to gain.
But don't look for easy answers. Director Kurosawa casually parcels out information about his characters throughout the film. However, unlike many films, it is accomplished situationally, not theatrically. By this I mean that there are no speeches, no pontificating, no extrapolations of comments, and as in real life, there is sometimes no closure to conversations or situations. The closest thing that approaches a speech is when Kambei reflects, more to himself than anyone else, “Train yourself. Distinguish yourself in war. Become somebody, maybe a warlord! But time flies. Before your dream materializes, you get gray hair. By that time your parents and friends are dead and gone.” Because of this approach, Kurosawa leaves it up to the viewer to learn about and understand his characters. At one point in the film, one of the samurai is sulking in the graveyard, a few hours after some villagers have died due to his error. Another arrives to comfort him, saying nothing and merely offering him a jug of sake. The sulking one grabs the jug and bitterly takes in all he can, letting it run down his cheeks and all over his clothes. Again no dialogue is exchanged but the wonderful acting clearing emotes all of the emotions that are felt.
The main enjoyment of the film is the crafting of the characters. There is some development of the villagers, particularly the afore mentioned father and daughter; the timid, amusing, and completely lovable Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), who manages to find a degree of courage; and the closed-mouth Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who holds a secret anger close to his heart and rebuffs all attempts to get him to reveal the source of his inconsolable bitterness.
But the majority of the character development is given to the samurai. While, all are distinct, there are a few who stand out and are the focus of the film. The highlight, by far, is the main Samurai, Kambei Shimada. With never a false step, Shimura's performance gloriously carries the story as he creates a character that is thoroughly complex; whose wise, yet powerful demeanor provides a brilliant center for the film. We watch this man take on a job that offers no money and glory, and wonder why he did. Starting with his introduction, in which he disguises himself as a priest to rescue a child being held captive by a thief, we learn that he does things because it’s the right thing to do. This is a clue as to why he takes on the non-glamorous job of helping the village, and like many of the character revelations in the story, it is presented without commentary.
Also interesting is Kambei’s reluctance to take on the young Katsushirō Okamoto (Isao Kimura) as a pupil. It was in a comment on the youth's enthusiasm that the above quote from Kambei comes. He's lived the life of the Samurai; viewed it from the inside, and knows the truth of it. In the end, like many youth throughout time, Katsushirō, sadly, has to learn this for himself.
The third, most flamboyant, and quite possibly insane Samurai is Kikuchiyo played by the great Toshiro Mifune. He is notable for playing the thief in what may be Kurosawa's most famous film, Rashomon. At first, appearing silly and drunk, the Samurai want nothing to do with him. But they have little choice as he follows them to the village and essentially forces his way into their little band. With his falls, stumbles, and outrageous demeanor, his character could easily have been only comic relief. But Kurosawa provides this character with layers of complexity, and like the others, he is far more than meets the eye. Upon their first arrival in the village, when the confused samurai are greeted by empty streets and hiding villagers, it is Kikuchiyo who brilliantly finds a way to introduce the two groups, and displays a way he can help the samurai, because he understands the villagers in ways the samurai never could.
The other Samurai are not developed as fully, but they are able to convey a true sense of full personalities as apposed to being types. My favorite is Kyuzo, played with a quiet efficiency by Seiji Miyaguchi, and exudes a humorless, casual professionalism in being a thorough bad-ass. There's Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), a cheerful man who is an old friend of Kambei; he joins because of the camaraderie that they share. Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki) is also a happy man who would rather share a good joke than share a good fight. And rounding out the band is Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba ), a clever strategist who assists Kambei in the planning of the defense of the village.
The Seven Samurai is beautifully photographed. Whether in the lustrous beauty of the sunlit wood or the boggy muddiness of the rain-soaked village, Samurai is steeped in a visual realism that helps ensure the feeling of authenticity that its world has. The battles are stunning and feel almost random, lacking in an overt feeling of choreography; a type of action rarely seen in film at the time. Though the film agrees that fighting is sometimes necessary, it also ensures that we see that it is chaotic, dirty, bloody and exhausting; in direct contrast to most epic battle films.
To say that the film is a must see is beyond stating the obvious. But just in case: This is a must see film!
Just think, without this film we would never have been able to bask in the glory of Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars.
See these samurai at least seven times.