Japan 1587, during a period of chaotic civil war, a group of marauding bandits makes plans to rob an isolated village as soon as the harvest is in. One villager, hiding on a woodpile, overhears them and the farmers go to their elders for advice. As they have nothing to offer but food, he tells them to hire ‘hungry samurai’ to help defend their village. Four men travel to the nearest town where every samurai they approach rejects their offer. However, after they witness an experienced samurai, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), perform an act of bravery and kindness they approach him and he agrees to fight for their cause. Two younger samurai, Katsushiro- (Isao Kimura), and the almost feral, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who also witnessed the older samurai’s actions, ask to join the cause and follow him. He accepts the former as an equal but rejects the brash Kikuchiyo. After several days, Kambei and the farmers manage to recruit four more Ronin: Gorobei Katayama (Yoshino Inaba), who becomes Kambei’s lieutenant; the good-humoured Heihachi (Minoru Chinaki); Shichiro-ji (Daisuke Kato), Kambei’s old friend; and Kyu-zo- (Seiji Miyaguchi), an almost silent master swordsman. They travel to the village, pursued by Kikuchiyo, who they reluctantly take along. Realising that there are more than 40 bandits, the samurai begin to prepare a defensive strategy, building fortifications around the village and training the villagers to fight with bamboo sticks and spears. The samurai and the villagers eventually warm to one another, even though the former discover that the villagers have killed wandering samurai in the past and have hidden the young women in the forest for fear that they would be raped. Kikuchiyo, who reveals himself to be a farmer’s son, tells the samurai that their treatment of the lower classes is also to blame for such actions. As the harvest approaches, the attack finally comes. Kambei gives orders to let the bandits through a gap in the fortifications one at a time, so that they can be picked off. This largely succeeds, although a few villagers are killed. Over the course of several skirmishes Heihachi and Gorobei are killed. On the third night the men prepare for one final attack. Katsushiro makes love to one of the farmer’s daughters, who he has fallen in love with. In the ensuing battle the samurai kill most of the remaining bandits. However, Kyuzo is shot by one of the bandit chiefs. Kikuchiyo attacks and kills the chief but is mortally wounded in the process. The next day, Katsushiro watches the villagers harvest and contemplates staying behind. However, as Kambei and his old friend, Shichiro-ji, observe that the samurai have lost and that the ‘winners are those farmers … not us,’ the young samurai realises that the gulf between him and his lover is too wide.
Although Kurosawa has come to be closely associated with the Japanese genre of the historical film, the jidai-geki, with the exception of a handful of works, most notably his international breakthrough, Rashomon (1950), the director had previously worked primarily in the gendai mono genre, making films about contemporary life in Japan. With Seven Samurai however, he fulfilled his ambition to make a serious contribution both to the jidai-geki and the subgenre of the chambara, the sword fight movie, which Kurosawa thought rarely lived up to its full potential.
The production of Seven Samurai was perhaps the most elaborate of any Japanese film up to that time. Kurosawa, in his relentless pursuit of authenticity, refused to use a studio set and instead had an entire village built on the Izu Peninsula. Filming lasted almost 150 days, around four times more than the allotted time, and the shooting schedule was finally spread out over an entire year. The budget also escalated to around $500,000, making the film the most expensive ever made in Japan (a record Kurosawa would go on to break more than once). The director found himself vilified in the press for his overspending, tardiness and perfectionism. And while these criticisms were in part justified, there were also matters that were beyond Kurosawa’s control, and the shoot was beset with logistical problems, including bad weather and a shortage of extras and horses. The lengthy schedule was also the result of the studio, Toho, shutting down the production on two occasions due to lack of funds. Kurosawa, who had never made an unprofitable film, was justifiably confident that they would always find the money to restart the production.
The final cut, which Donald Richie has called ‘the best Japanese film ever made’ (Richie 1998: 108), was personally edited by the director and lasted three and a half hours. It also went on to break box office records in its native country. However, regardless of its domestic success, Toho did not feel confident that the film would play well to Western audiences and the version released in America and the United Kingdom was reduced by almost an hour, ridding the film of a good deal of complex characterisation. (Subsequently, the full-length version has been restored and released internationally.)
Yet despite its length, Seven Samurai, is a film of great economy in which all extemporaneous information is elided. For example, the central conflict between the villagers and the bandits is established in the film’s opening two minutes; the journey of four of the villagers to recruit samurai in the nearest town is not shown at all, while their return to the village, with the six warriors and Kikuchiyo following them, takes only three minutes. Conversely, the fortification of the village and the preparation for the ensuing battles are lovingly detailed, with Kurosawa’s camera lingering on Kambei’s tactical map of the village, thus allowing the audience to gain an understanding of the heroes’ strategy.
The film’s scope and length also allows Kurosawa to develop the characters of all seven samurai, and several of the villagers, in far greater depth than one usually expects in a genre film. Of these major characters, the most complex are Kambei, the pragmatic leader of the group, played by Takashi Shimura, a veteran character actor who appeared in over 20 of the director’s films; and Kikuchiyo played by Kurosawa’s favourite leading man, Toshiro Mifune. The latter character is the film’s wild card. A late addition to the screenplay, Kikuchiyo is a farmer’s son who poses as a samurai. His recklessness and lack of discipline is however offset by his ferocity and bravery as a fighter. The character’s dual nature therefore allows Kurosawa to explore the divide between the warriors and the farmers and to puncture the myth that being a samurai is merely a question of birth and class.
It is also worth noting that the four samurai who die are all shot, not killed with swords. This prefigures Kurosawa’s later period masterpiece, Kagemusha (1980), in which the he dramatises the fatal cavalry charge of the Takeda clan at the Battle of Nagashino, arguably the first modern battle in Japanese history, in which the gun began to supersede the sword. Both films therefore depict the end of an historical era, and perhaps an age of chivalry. In this respect, Seven Samurai shares a kinship with films such as John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) or Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) as a film about a group of men who have outlived their time.
The film’s thematic similarity to American Westerns is indeed apparent, and it is perhaps for this reason that its story could be so easily transposed to a Mexican setting in John Sturges’ 1960 remake, The Magnificent Seven. However, just as one should be cautious of seeing Kurosawa as the most American-friendly Japanese filmmaker, one should also be careful not to view Seven Samurai as merely an ‘Eastern Western’. Rather, it is more accurate to see this film as drawing on a series of universal archetypes as well as some concerns that are also uniquely Japanese. Indeed, the film’s complex examination of feudal hierarchies may initially be lost on Western viewers, as might some allegorical comments on Japanese militarism and the post-war American occupation, which only officially ended in 1952, not quite two years before its release.
While an understanding of such contextual matters can greatly enhance one’s appreciation of the film, Seven Samurai remains remarkably accessible, not least because of its pacing and superbly executed action sequences. As Donald Richie notes, the film’s key quality is its sense of motion. On the one hand, narrative momentum is maintained throughout; the story is never allowed to sprawl or give way to unnecessary subplots. On the other, the film is defined by its sense of movement. Whether it is the camera or an actor, or the two moving in tandem, the film never ceases to move. At times, Kurosawa employs slow motion to elongate an action, underscoring its dramatic impact. However, more often than not, these movements are remarkably kinetic, as in the scene where Kikuchiyo raises the alarm to make a point to the ungrateful villagers. His six comrades all spring into action. Kurosawa films each one of the samurai in a medium close-up, the camera tracking in step alongside them as they sprint. When these six shots are cut together it gives the impression of a single motion, with the samurai united in a common goal.
The final sortie between the samurai and the bandits, which takes place during a torrential rainstorm, is a particular tour de force. As a montage sequence, it has often been compared to the climactic battle in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), and the sequence is indeed notable for the rapidity and skill of its editing. However, the impression of chaos was only achieved through meticulous planning and an innovative shooting style (despite his reputation as something of rearguard filmmaker, Kurosawa never stopped experimenting with new techniques). In order to maintain perfect continuity, the director employed three cameras, often equipped with telephoto lenses which allowed him to keep them at a distance while also covering the action with startling intimacy. Kurosawa would become so fond of this technique that he would begin employing it in many of his subsequent feature films and not only in action sequences.
With its rapidly cut, but still coherent battle scenes, and its use of slow motion, Seven Samurai has arguably become the most influential action film ever made. Not only has it spawned one direct remake (which itself spawned three sequels), it can also be seen as a key inspiration for films such as Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), John T. Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), John McTiernan’s The Thirteenth Warrior (1999), Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords (2005) and Takashi Miike’s Thirteen Assassins (2010) among many others. However, few if any films genre films can lay claim to the same combination of technical virtuosity, deft characterisations and thematic complexity.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Japan. Production Company: Toho. Director: Akira Kurosawa. Screenwriters: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Uguni. Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai. Music: Fumio Hayasaka. Editor: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Takashi Shimura (Kambei Shimada), Toshiro Mifune (Kikuchiyo), Isao Kimura (Katsushiro- Okamoto), Yoshino Inaba (Goro-bei Katayama), Daisuke Kato (Shichiro-ji), Minoru Chinaki (Heihachi Hayashida), Seiji Miyaguchi (Kyuzo).]
James Goodwin, Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Joan Mellen, Seven Samurai, London, BFI, 2002.
Stephen Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999.
Donald Richie, The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.