An Appreciation – Seven Samurai
If there is one word to describe Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai (1954), it is “epic.” Epic in scale, in ambition, in scope, and in length. At a meaty two hundred and seven minutes, the film is an adventurous experience in and of itself. However, Kurosawa was able to craft his project in such a way that the three and a half hours whip by without us noticing. It is one the best stories ever put on screen, made by a director at the very height of his powers. We become ensnared by the story of seven unemployed samurai, hired by the people of a poor village to help defend it from bandits. The characters are so perfectly realized, the action so expertly shot, the questions raised so thought-provoking, that I become both entertained and challenged by it with every re-watch. It is a movie that I have returned to routinely, each time my admiration of it only growing. Without question, it is one of the best movies ever made.
Most people may not realize this, but Kurosawa may very well be responsible for the modern day epic action movie. One of Japan’s most famous—and most Western—of filmmakers, Kurosawa made movies that not only had a tremendous amount of entertainment in their action, but also challenged the social structures of contemporary Japanese society. Perhaps that is why he was such a huge influence on American filmmakers, many of whom used his films as a basis for creating their own art. This film would go on to inspire the remake The Magnificent Seven (1960). Kurosawa’s film The Hidden Fortress (1958) would be a major inspiration for George Lucas in making Star Wars (1977). Kurosawa’s manipulation of storytelling techniques—such as an event told from different perspectives in Rashomon (1960)—would go on to influence modern films such as The Usual Suspects (1995). His Yojimbo (1961) would be remade into the classic western A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The ties can go on and on. In fact, the western genre owes a lot to Kurosawa. If you ever saw a western film that had a line of men slowly creeping over a hilltop on horseback, you are seeing a shot taken directly from this movie.
What makes Kurosawa such an interesting and engaging filmmaker are the moral questions that he infuses in many of his projects. In regards to this film, he focuses on the dynamic between social classes—that being the conjunction of poor villagers and the samurai without a clan—and deconstructs it. The Japan featured is one of harsh uprising; political and social upheaval has led to unrest and violence. Bandits have run rampant throughout the countryside, destroying and pillaging villages. Knowing that one particular village has yet to harvest their crops, the bandits decide to return when their seeds have grown, and then take it from them. Knowing that the village cannot survive another plundering of their food, the villagers decide to hire samurai to protect them, offering rice as their only means of payment. This is where the moral dilemma comes into play: who in their right mind would volunteer for this mission? Why would a man ever want to risk his life for those he does not know, for only meager bowls of rice? To add more complexity, it is discovered that the villagers have killed samurai before. Why would one want to protect them, if they are so easily able to turn around and attack if they needed to?
The only answer I can think of is this: it is the samurai way. They are bound by their duty and honor; they serve only one purpose, and that is to work for those who ask for their help. It is the same reason that the villagers continue to harvest their crops year in and year out, knowing that they are at risk of being attacked, but continuing to stay in their homes. And it is the reason the bandits continue to spread fear and violence throughout the land—it is what they were taught to do; there is no other path in life than the one they have been put on. That is why the samurai Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) agrees to help the villagers. Kambei is a weary and experienced fighter, the lines of age showing clearly on his face, but encompassing all the strength and power that any man half his age can possess. He will become the leader of the samurai, all of whom have volunteered for this task that could be seen as suicide from any other perspective. Kambei is an intelligent strategist, understanding what it will take for the villagers to survive, and plotting out how they will isolate each bandit from the group, picking them off one by one until all are defeated. Takashi Shimura is a tremendous actor. He was previously seen as the withering old man in Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru (1952), and here he is a completely different person.
When the samurai interact with the villagers, it adds to the complexity of Kurosawa’s views on social class. Yes, the townspeople have turned to them for their help, and yes they are all brought together with the same goal in mind, but it is never forgotten that there is a line between samurai and farmer. They are of two completely different worlds, and cultural expectations dictate that samurai and villagers should never mix. In fact, many of the farmers feel threatened that the samurai may very well be tempted to take their women. When the young, naïve samurai Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) develops a romance with Shino (Keiko Tsushima), the daughter of the farmer Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara), it throws the whole dynamic of the group. Even with a bigger issue at hand for all of them, this moment between Katsushiro and Shino is enough to disrupt the entire village, all on the night before the biggest raid the bandits will take upon them. “Why can’t they fall in love?” asks the farmer Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), and we ask the same question as well. It is issues like these that dominate the film from a deeper level than just the action. Kurosawa takes these Japanese archetypes and views them from a Western perspective, questioning why things are so. This may have led to Kurosawa not being as admired in Japan during his time, but being beloved now around the world.