Ah, “Seven Samurai.” At this point, it has been firmly and rightly cemented among the great, indisputable classics of world cinema. Without a doubt one of Akira Kurosawa’s crowning achievements, it exemplifies the capabilities of cinematic storytelling. Perhaps the best testament to that particular quality is just how incredibly entertaining the film is. Having introduced the now all-too-familiar premise of a leader gathering together a team to face a formidable challenge, it was the first large-scale action-adventure film of its kind, and is still quite possibly the finest one.
“Seven Samurai”’s story outline is simple enough – but deceptively so. A small farming village in sixteenth-century Japan is threatened by bandits who plan to attack its inhabitants and steal their food after the harvest. The imperiled peasants decide to make a stand and hire samurai to protect them. What makes this already intriguing narrative so much more complex are its moral themes, particularly those surrounding the relationship between the bandits, peasants and samurai. Kurosawa and fellow writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni cleverly refuse to create a world solely divided into black and white. Their peasants aren’t merely helpless victims, but also cunning survivors who have killed retreating warriors for their armor and supplies. They also express initially confusing ingratitude when they hide from and distrust the very samurai they look to for help. Yet in their fear-clouded eyes, the samurai and the bandits aren’t all that different from each other, as they have been threatened in the past by renegade samurai who have turned to preying on the weak, thus forcing the peasants to adopt their vicious tactics. All of this bursts forth in a magnificent, rage-filled monologue by Toshirô Mifune’s Kikuchiyo, who directs his ire towards peasants and samurai alike for their duplicitous, deceptive and destructive ways (partly justified by his own farmer parents’ deaths at the hands of bandits). It is in this chaotic and treacherous world that Kurosawa sets his tale, daring hope and virtue to prevail.
An integral part of “Seven Samurai” is its impressive assortment of unique characters who are beautifully developed throughout the film’s lengthy duration. Each of the seven samurai is fully realized with his own distinct personality (largely due to Kurosawa’s insistence on creating extensively detailed notes on each character), bringing a different dynamic to the team. Takashi Shimura wields a formidable aura of command as ideal leader Kambei, at once cool, confident, wise, humble and compassionate. Mifune’s Kikuchiyo is feral, boisterous and full of pride, yet just as eager to please and desperate to join Kambei as the young would-be disciple Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who is the teacher’s pet to Kikuchiyo’s class clown. Comprising the rest of the group is the expert swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), oddly dignified Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), good-humored Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) and Kambei’s old friend Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato). Together, they share a warm camaraderie that is strengthened by their common goal (which, in the spirit of true chivalry, they devote themselves to only in exchange for their daily meals) and poignantly represented by a banner, which even bears a special triangle symbol just for Kikuchiyo. Some of the peasant characters also firmly connect with the viewer, among them the cowardly, worrying Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari); intense Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) and Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara), the overprotective father of Shino (Keiko Tsushima), a girl whom Katsushiro falls in love with. That is just one of the smaller subplots explored within the film, others including the mystery surrounding Rikichi’s absent wife and an elderly woman whose family was killed by the bandits.
What makes “Seven Samurai” so engaging is not just its great story and characters, but the cinematic craftsmanship put into their presentation. Every one of the film’s components (including visual composition, editing, pacing, music and performance) is both strikingly deployed and works just about perfectly with the others. Nothing ever feels out of place or unnecessary – and for a film that clocks in at three and a half hours, that’s quite a feat. One example of Kurosawa’s brilliantly economic method of storytelling is the scene near the beginning in which a thief holds a child hostage in a barn. At once, it establishes Kambei, Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo’s characters, merges them with the peasants’ desperate quest to find samurai and delivers a compelling moment of screen suspense – all with a steady sureness and understanding of the medium that one can’t help but admire. In a similarly layered sequence, Kambei makes a tour of the town with a map, strategically assessing it (directly foreshadowing the battle to come) while also visiting each samurai as they begin preparing the peasants in their own individual ways. “Seven Samurai” is also a film of real substance, as Kurosawa mixes the natural forces of wind, trees, fire, rain and mud (represented through striking images and sounds); several cinematic devices including slow motion, dynamic camera movements and wipe transitions; and philosophical themes (like the prominent cyclical motif represented visually and thematically throughout the film) into one smooth, dense work.
Sometimes I regard “Ran,” Kurosawa’s 1985 take on King Lear, to be his single greatest achievement. Yet as polished and masterful as that film is, it is also incredibly cold and pessimistic, lacking the warmth and energy that makes “Seven Samurai” so appealing. So, considering that aspect on top of its exceptional filmmaking artistry, it is only logical that I (and, I’m sure, countless others) will continually regard it as the most impressive testament to Kurosawa’s immortal talent. The numerous references to food and cooking made in discussions concerning it are all too fitting, as, indeed, it provides a robust, rich and quite filling viewing experience. In short, it truly is a real feast of a film.