Film Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

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Early in Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) the wise Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) explains, ‘I’m not a man with any special skills, but I’ve had plenty of experience in battles … in short that’s all I am.’ Like all samurai warriors, he is a man defined by his actions. He doesn’t know who he is beyond what he has done. Underpinning this history is a courageous heart. Kambei understands that courage exists in doing what is right, not only what is just; that courage requires resolve, restraint as well as bravado, and above all, a willingness to sacrifice. Courage is the virtue that underpins all others in Akira Kurosawa’s (1910-1998) great action film.

Seven Samurai is not only one of the finest cinema examples of the samurai genre, but remains one of the greatest films ever made.

Its narrative is a simple one. With civil war rampant in late sixteenth-century Japan, a village of farmers finds itself under attack on a yearly basis by a group of relentless bandits. Increasingly desperate the villagers decide to hire seven masterless samurai (or ronin) to protect them from attack after the following year’s harvest. Unmotivated by wealth and fame, these men embody the samurai warrior code of Bushidō, dominated by honour, truth and loyalty, and a courageous spirit that guides their resolve.

Kurosawa made his 14th film as director while under the influence of the Westerns that flooded Japanese screens at the end of the Second World War, and especially those made by John Ford (Stagecoach, 1939). Kurosawa was already Japan’s most famous international director after films like Drunken Angel (1948 – his first pairing with Toshiro Mifune) and then Rashomon (1950). Following Seven Samurai he would go on to make further significant films, including The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961), but it is for this brilliant epic that he is most often lauded.

With co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, Kurosawa shaped Seven Samurai as an innovative mix of Western and Eastern film traditions. Released in 1954, after a 12 month shoot and a blown out budget, Seven Samurai soon became his most successful film to date and has gone on to influence countless films and filmmakers, most obviously, its direct remake, The Magnificent Seven (1960, John Sturges) starring Yul Brynenr and Steve McQueen.

Early scenes introduce us to the villagers and their desperate plight. Three farmers – Manzō, Rikichi and the older Yohei, visit the village elder, old Gisaku who encourages them to hire samurai to protect the village. Aware that they have no money with which to lure these men, Gisaku suggests they find ‘hungry samurai’ and offer them three meals of rice a day in return for their protection.

After several failed attempts to convince any samurai to help, a tired, zen-like ronin appears and rescues a boy who has been kidnapped by a thief. Shaving his head as if in preparation for battle, Kambei’s triumph endears him to the farmers who convince him to help their cause. Kurosawa switches his focus from the villagers now to Kambei’s attempts to recruit six other men. The samurai march into town with a Western-style swagger to a score by Fumio Hayasaka that plays heavily with Western tropes. It’s both a visual and aural reminder of the Western’s influence on Kurosawa but also the impact of his films on the Westerns (especially those of Sergio Leone) that would follow.

From the beginning, Kurosawa is keen to show us that each of the seven samurai has an individual personality. Even more, he explores how these personalities fit together and within the wider community of the village they will eventually fight for.

Kambei has eager assistance from the young, inexperienced Katsushirō (Isao Kimura), who wants to be his disciple and from an old loyal friend, Shichirōji (Daisuke Katō). Then there is Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) who is sociable and tactical, Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), who is kindhearted and witty, and Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), who is serious and highly skilled. The final recruit, Kikuchiyo (the extraordinary Mifune) is a farmer’s son posing as a samurai. He is clownish, drunk and reckless, but welcomed for his passion and strength.

Mifune gives a physical, animalistic performance that is among his best.

Mifune’s Kikuchiyo is the source of much of the film’s surprising humour but also its emotional core. Kikuchiyo is a character incapable of masking his feelings and this emerges throughout the course of the film both in his favour and to his detriment. His identification with the plight of the villagers allows him to assuage their initial suspicion and fear of the samurai they so desperately rely on. Mifune is almost operatic in his intensity, giving a highly physical and memorable performance.

True to his code, Kambei is honest about what lies ahead, that this is a ‘job promising no pay or reward’ and that the most likely outcome will be death. Each samurai therefore fights for honour and perseveres with courage.

Kurosawa’s sympathy for his characters is one of Seven Samurai’s greatest strengths. Like all great films it strives to uncover something unknown about the human experience. Seven Samurai’s characters are all flawed in their own ways, but Kurosawa draws us into their lives so that the film becomes an epic on both a grand and intimate scale. In early scenes, we see close-ups on the villagers’ faces, their despair a subtle comment on the abuse human beings wreak upon each other. In a later scene, when Katsushirō expresses his admiration for Kyūzō, Kurosawa shoots the exchange in close-up, slowing down the action to a pure moment of honesty and respect.

In the middle of Seven Samurai there is a focus on preparations for battle. We see the samurai train the villagers and assist in the construction of forts. But there are also quiet moments of great beauty that reveal Kurosawa’s abundant humanism. In particular, a scene in which Katsushirō, who Kambei describes as ‘still a child’, walks through a field of flowers on the mountain and then lies down in them with an expression of serene contentment on his face, exemplifies Kurosawa’s ability to shift the film’s tone without losing any of its focus.

With the reappearance of the bandits, the film’s final third comprises of a series of battles that culminate in an extraordinary sequence shot amidst lashing rain. The sound editing throughout this sequence is astonishing – we hear rain, wind, the men’s feet trampling mud, the mud ripped apart by horses, threatening to squelch right out of the screen. The scene is visceral and immersive and has rightly earned its legendary status.

Like all the film’s battle scenes, the finale demonstrates the wide-screen influence of Ford. Kurosawa used multiple cameras and long (or telephoto) lenses to give the scenes their epic scope. His camera dives down and follows the flow of the action allowing for a sense of freedom in the visual storytelling that he had not previously employed.

But Kurosawa was equally influenced by Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory – the conception that the juxtaposition of opposite images through editing is crucial in affecting the audience’s response. In this final battle sequence, Kurosawa was able to contrast movement with stillness, rapid tracking shots and close-ups, which work in concert to amplify the film’s visual impact alongside its emotional one.

Tss3his impact is most profound by the film’s conclusion. With only three of the seven samurai remaining, it is clear that the sacrifice has been great for both the dead and the living. Kurosawa cuts between long-shots of the living samurai standing before the graves of the fallen, close-ups on their faces and scenes of the villagers, singing happily together as they prepare crops. Kambei notes, ‘Again, we’re defeated. The winners are those farmers, not us.’ The warrior life means they must move on, without their comrades. They are no longer a part of the village that once welcomed them with open arms. Their lives must go on, elsewhere.

In many ways, at 207 minutes, Seven Samurai must be considered an epic, but it is ultimately much more than an action film. Despite a high body count, Seven Samurai is not a film enamored with violence. Its central threads are tied to more mundane human experiences, to the rigors of social roles and obligations and the courage required to do what is right in the face of often unforgiving realities.

Seven Samurai screened as part of ACMI’s Samurai Cinema season..

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