It is the middle of the sixteenth century in Japan, and a horde of bandits have descended from the mountains. Though they contemplate raiding the village, the chief decides to wait until after their harvest because they had attacked it recently. A farmer overhears the message and the villagers ask Gisaku, the village elder, what they should do. He tells them of a village that once hired samurai. As this village has since remained untouched by the bandits, he declares that they should follow their example. Due to the bandits’ merciless attacks, the village is on the brink of starvation, and they are out of options. With nothing substantial to offer, they will need to find samurai willing to work for a paltry reward.
After a brief period of fruitless searching, the group happens upon a wandering rōnin named Kambei. He immediately demonstrates his skill when he rescues a young boy who had been taken hostage by a thief. A young samurai by the name of Katsushirō then asks to become Kambei’s disciple while the villagers ask for his assistance. Though reluctant at first, he eventually agrees. Kambei then enlists the help of Shichirōji, an old friend of his whom he believed to be dead. From there, they recruit three more samurai, including the wily Gorobei, the rough, yet good-natured Heihachi, and the silent Kyūzō. They eventually welcome Katsushirō himself into the group despite his inexperience because time is of the essence. Shortly thereafter, a drunken man who fancies himself a samurai and claims to be named Kikuchiyo asks to be in the group. The six reluctantly accept him, and they march back to the village. Outnumbered, these seven samurai will need to do everything they can to ensure the farmers’ survival.
After Ikiru, director Akira Kurosawa wanted to make a film about a day in the life of a samurai. He was to rise from bed, eat breakfast, and go to his master’s castle. The film would then culminate in him making a grievous mistake and end with his suicide. As Mr. Kurosawa began doing research, he found he couldn’t find enough information to proceed with the idea. What he instead found was a story about samurai defending farmers, so he decided to make a film with that simple idea in mind.
Though the concept was simple enough, the shooting process proved troublesome. It was a production plagued with interpersonal drama, genuine accidents, and factors nobody could control. Mr. Kurosawa ended up not getting along with Yoshio Inaba, the actor who played Gorobei, yelling at him whenever he forgot his lines. By the end, nearly all of the actors aside from Toshiro Mifune, who played Kikuchiyo, had gotten into arguments with the director. The process became so stressful that Mr. Mifune threatened Mr. Kurosawa with a gun at one point. On top of that, filming had to be stopped several times due to a shortage of horses and actor Yoshio Tsuchiya and actress Yukiko Shimazaki getting injured filming a scene involving fire.
As if that wasn’t enough, Toho, the production company behind this film, halted production multiple times when it ran over budget. This forced Mr. Kurosawa to personally reason with the board of directors, all of whom were convinced that the company was about to make a flop. Not helping matters was that Ishiro Honda was in the process of making Godzilla around the same time. Creating both films simultaneously nearly forced Toho into bankruptcy.
As a result of these delays, the final scenes originally scheduled to be shot at the end of summer were instead filmed in February in freezing temperatures. Speaking retrospectively, Mr. Mifune recalled having never been so cold in all of his life.
By the end, this film had a budget of ¥125 million (roughly $1.1 million USD), took a year to fully shoot, and had a running time of 207 minutes, making it the longest film Mr. Kurosawa had ever made. The only way for Toho to remain solvent would be if this film, Seven Samurai, was a complete box office success. Fortunately for everyone involved, that is exactly what happened. Within the first twelve months of its release, the film grossed ¥268 million, making it Japan’s third highest-grossing film in 1954. In the decades since, it has been hailed as Mr. Kurosawa’s magnum opus. For anyone attempting to delve into Japanese cinema, Seven Samurai will be among the first films they learn about alongside other hallmarks such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story.
Before Seven Samurai, Mr. Kurosawa had proven himself a skilled director with the excellent crime dramas Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. With Rashomon and Ikiru, he took a step back and weaved introverted tales of quiet triumphs. The former showed just how differently everyone perceives the world while the latter featured a dying bureaucrat contemplating what he should do in his final days. The reason I mention this is because it’s incredible how much of a change of pace Seven Samurai is from anything Mr. Kurosawa had made before. What grabbed my attention immediately was Takashi Shimura’s performance. After playing the woodcutter in Rashomon and the ailing Kanji Watanabe in Ikiru, it was quite astonishing seeing him portray the skilled swordsman Kambei. From the minute he strikes down the thief holding the villager’s child hostage, you know that he is more than capable of being in charge of this perilous mission.
Naturally, no assessment of Seven Samurai is complete without mentioning Toshiro Mifune’s iconic performance as Kikuchiyo. Like Kambei, this character has a commanding presence, albeit in a much different fashion. He is a remarkable contrast to the calm, collected Kambei in that the second he heard the call, he jumped into action, ready to cut as many bandits down as possible. He is formally introduced after Katsushirō hits him on the head as part of a secret test. After he fails, you expect him to be a one-dimensional comic relief. This perception continues as you see him leave his post to ambush a bandit vanguard and taunts their marksmen. However, he is eventually revealed to be quite a dynamic character. One of his defining moments is when he tells the other samurai not to blame the villagers for stealing from nobles in the past. This is because the samurai rule forced them to become selfish and underhanded in the first place. It is exceptionally rare to see an off-the-wall character have that much depth to their character. By design, they’re intended to start and end the film in the exact same spot, yet in Seven Samurai, Kikuchiyo gets a remarkable arc, eventually maturing into the hero he always believed himself to be – if but for a fleeting moment.
Mr. Mifune would later cite Kikuchiyo as his personal favorite role. With the wild, almost Don Quixote-like samurai being such a popular character, it’s amazing to think that he was a last-minute addition. Mr. Mifune claimed that the film was original going to be Six Samurai and he would play Kyūzō instead of Seiji Miyaguchi. However, as Mr. Kurosawa and his fellow screenwriters went over the script, they realized that having six straight-faced samurai would make for a boring film. Their solution was to create a character that was more boisterous and unpredictable, hence Kikuchiyo.
Even the banner the samurai weave has a lot of personality to it with its simple, yet distinctive design. The character on the bottom is the hiragana letter “ta”, which stands for “tanbo” (paddy field). The six circles represent Kambei, Shichirōji, Katsushirō, Gorobei, Heihachi, and Kyūzō. As befitting someone who marches to the beat of his own drum, Kikuchiyo is represented by a triangle.
One of the most shocking things about Seven Samurai, and part of the reason why it has such an enduring appeal, is that it comes across as a deconstruction of the genre it helped make popular. Akira Kurosawa himself had samurai ancestors, and film scholars read this film as an apology. The seven samurai are not invincible warriors who can cut down swaths of bandits just by charging into them headfirst. They actually have to plan out their defense well in advance. Moreover, they aren’t romanticized in any way, being depicted as real people with their own share of flaws. Kambei even casts away the honor commonly associated with samurai by using an underhanded tactic – posing as a monk – to save the child at the beginning of the film. It doesn’t help that they were risking their lives every single day and changing professions wasn’t an option to them – even when left without a master.
One touch I liked is that the villagers, despite their initially cowardly nature are not entirely helpless; they’re lacking more in leadership than they are in courage. Once they have the seven samurai formally teach them how to defend themselves, they prove amazingly adept in combat. Along those lines, the bandits, though brutal in their tactics and given little development, are not the faceless, unstoppable goons most audiences are used to seeing. They are shown to be just as human, certain dialogue suggesting that some of them have joined up with the horde out of desperation.
More than anything, what I admire about this film is how it completely subverts the prevailing contemporary views on war. While the United States would glorify war to unrealistic degrees, Seven Samurai has no qualms depicting the harsh reality. The villagers successfully defend their village, but at the cost of many lives, including Gorobei, Heihachi, Kyūzō, and Kikuchiyo. Kambei even remarks that they themselves lost the battle, for the victory belongs to the farmers. Katsushirō doesn’t even end up with his love interest – a move considered unthinkable in Hollywood productions at the time. All of these minor touches add up, lending the final acts a degree of introspection many films before or since lacked.
Seven Samurai is a lot like Rashomon in that even if you have not seen it, I guarantee you’ve experienced a work it influenced. The most famous remake would be the 1960 American-made film The Magnificent Seven, which translated the story to be set in the Old West. Though the idea of recruiting warriors to defend a powerless settlement dates back to classical Greek theater, Seven Samurai made turned it into an enduring tale told countless times in various mediums. Because of this, it’s easy to get the impression that Seven Samurai has not aged well when the reality tells a different story. Yes, action scenes in the coming decades would become quite a bit more complex, and the themes present are familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in films, yet there are plenty of elements present in Seven Samurai that weren’t copied endlessly. While the basic plot will be familiar to a savvy viewer, they will be caught off guard plenty of times no matter how versed in the medium they may have been beforehand.
I myself wouldn’t quite name Seven Samurai Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film, but I absolutely believe it deserves its strong following. If you are at all interested in action films or want to brush up on the classics, watching Seven Samurai is mandatory. If you have yet to see a Japanese film, Seven Samurai would be an excellent one to start with. Filming Seven Samurai may have been an exhausting process for everyone involved, but they persevered and created something truly special.
Final Score: 8/10