- Director: Akira Kurosawa
- Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni
- Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Daisuke Kato, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Bokuzen Hidari, Kamatari Fujiwara, Keiko Tsushima, Kokuten Kodo, and Shinpei Takagi
- Accolades: Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 list (#17), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 list (#57), 2 Oscar nominations (Best Art Direction, Best Costumes), Silver Lion – Venice Film Festival
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to HBO Max or the Criterion Channel, Buy or Rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
We have come to our 100th movie here on Movie Valhalla, and the winner of our reader vote to become the 100th inductee, with 42% of the vote, was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. On the surface, it is a very enjoyable three and a half hour epic about a group of samurai that agrees to defend a small village in medieval Japan against attacking bandits, despite being heavily outnumbered. It is almost impossible to watch today, however, without seeing the numerous bits and pieces that not only heavily influenced numerous later action movies, but often were just flat-out stolen. One academic paper called it “the most reworked, remade, and referenced film in cinema history.”
It takes a bit to get acclimated to this movie for a first-time American viewer, until the movie gets it feet under it. You won’t see the completely cowardly, sniveling villager character in most American movies, which we spend a lot of time with here. But they are a staple of the Japanese jidai-geki genre (what Americans would probably call a “period piece,” though it’s a little more specific than that), to the point that several of the supporting actors in this movie specialized in the type. And once we meet them, the titular seven samurai are interesting, well-rounded, and mostly fairly grounded characters. Kurosawa uses that long running time to give us double-digits’ worth of well-defined characters, whose fates we may actually care about. He was far from the only director among his Japanese contemporaries making big samurai movies, but Seven Samurai was the biggest of its time. Its eventual cast was well over four times its original budget, and the studio stopped production twice. Kurosawa calmly went fishing, realizing that the studio had put too much money into the movie already to not let him finish it. He was right, and in the end Seven Samurai was a huge hit, so everybody won.
Seven Samurai has a long sequence where the honorable ronin Kanbei (Takashi Shimura), after accepting the villagers’ request for help, puts together his team one man at a time. Some version of this trope has appeared in so many action and heist movies ever since, but this is the movie that’s credited with popularizing it, so much so that Zach Snyder once referred to his idea for the Justice League movie as “Bruce Wayne having to Seven Samurai the Justice League together.” This really was the Avengers of Japan in its day, putting together everyone’s favorite samurai actors for one big story where they all have to fight against the odds, and in fact without it it’s unlikely we would have gotten the Marvel movies we did. After watching this movie, I can see how both Joss Whedon’s original Avengers film and Infinity War each owe a heavy debt to Kurosawa here, in both structure and imagery.
In our article on Rashomon, we discussed Kurosawa’s innovation regarding waiting for the right weather conditions to get the shots he wanted. That’s something many movies do today, but Hollywood pretty much never would have bothered with at the time. He took this a step further in Seven Samurai, which sets its climactic battle in a downpour for dramatic effect. In the days before rain machines, he waited for it to rain and then rushed out and shot it, often using several cameras for one shot (another thing unheard of at the time), in order to catch action from multiple angles without having his actors have to exactly repeat the same stunts over and over. Production had run so long that the battle had to be shot in February, rather than in the summer as originally planned, meaning everyone involved basically froze to death in the rain. Toshiro Mifune would later recall that he had never been colder in his life, but the visual results are spectacular, as many subsequent filmmakers noticed. Peter Jackson will tell anyone who asks that the reason that the final battle of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is in the rain is because of Seven Samurai, down to the scene right before the battle where it starts raining and everyone sort of takes a second and looks at each other as if to say, “OK, I guess we’re doing this.”
Mifune’s character, Kikuchiyo, is sort of the wild card of the movie. The original script was actually called Six Samurai, but Kurosawa and his co-writers realized that a bunch of sober samurai were boring, and added his boisterous, sometimes drunk, weirdo who may or may not be an actual samurai. In Yojimbo and many other famous roles, Mifune plays the stoic center of the action, literally the persona that Clint Eastwood would later base his taciturn gunslingers on. Eastwood, however, would never have had the range to play this character. Sometimes, Mifune’s performance is over the top, but it works in the context of the movie. He goes so big that, in the HBO Max version I watched, his character seems to break the subtitles. He gets lines like “that’s just fine and dandy” and “those guys cramp my style.” I highly doubt that these are literal translations, but in Kikuchiyo’s case they seem somehow appropriate.
As I said, it took me a bit to connect with Seven Samurai, but once I did, I really connected with it. I was excited at the parts that are supposed to be exciting, sad at the parts that are supposed to be sad, and laughed at the parts that were supposed to be funny. There are a few big inspiration speeches, but they are of a different kind than those delivered in American movies, more about the collective. The most memorable is delivered by Kanbei just before Intermission, when he tells the villagers, “This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourself. If you think only of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself.” I know this may be a leap, but I think you might be able to see in those couple lines why Japan has come through the Coronavirus pandemic so much better than America thus far.
Despite all of its influences on later action movies, Seven Samurai is not really “about” action or violence. It is more interested in essential conflicts in Japanese society, both in the 1600s, when the movie is set, and the 1900s, when it was made. During Japan’s Sengoku period, the setting for Seven Samurai, farmers and samurai did not mix. They were fundamentally different castes. Farmers weren’t allowed weapons of any kind, and it was the duty of the samurai to protect them, even when doing so, as here, is pretty unreasonable. Yet Kurosawa brings in a basic humanism to this strict system. When the other samurai learn that Kikuchiyo wasn’t born into their caste, they embrace him, instead of rejecting him. When the love affair between the youngest of the samurai (Isao Kimura) and a beautiful village woman (Keiko Tsushima) is exposed, and her father flips out, one of the villagers intercedes. “Can’t you just understand the young people?” In 1954 Japan, this appeal likely had resonance beyond the specifics on screen. The big arc of the movie is the way the samurai and villagers eventually come to care about each other and work together, in a way that duty would have forbidden, and yet the samurai wouldn’t even be there if not for that basic duty underpinning society. It’s really complicated and interesting.
Roger Ebert once wrote that between Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Hidden Fortress, and all the movies heavily influenced by those movies, Akira Kurosawa had given action stars work for 50 years. And that was 20 years ago, so today it’s more like 70 years. But Ebert also wrote that this was just “a fallout from his primary purpose.” None of Kurosawa’s other innovations would have been noticed if his plots didn’t resonate on basic human levels that let them reach well beyond the culture that created them. Even if they’ve never seen the original, most American viewers know that Seven Samurai would be quickly remade in the US as a western called The Magnificent Seven (a movie that has since been remade in its own right), but the movie’s reach has extended far beyond that. That’s why Seven Samurai feels familiar, even if you’ve never seen it before.