#3 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
If tasked with finding the ideal script for an action spectacular, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The steady build of situation, characters, and, finally, action create a grand entertainment that steadily, but never slowly, unfolds over three-and-a-half hours. The precise construction of the story allows for the time to get to know the rather large cast of characters, invest in them emotionally, and feel real tension as the action plays out.
The film sets out the basic situation really quickly. Within ten minutes we are introduced to the remote Japanese farming community, our main representatives of the denizens of the town, and their conflict, waiting for bandits to return to their town to steal their barley harvest after having stolen their rice harvest a few months before. Faced with the prospect of dying of starvation, their elder, the Old Man (Kokuten Kōdō), recommends that they hire samurai to defend the village and fight back. They send out four villagers to the city, and their search for samurai begins. It’s a quick setup in terms of basic plot mechanics that quickly gives way to an extended period that establishes character.
Out of the four villagers, the two most important are Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) who has an attractive, young adult daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), and Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) who gets really touchy when anyone talks about his not having a wife. They lead a search that seems fruitless at first. All the samurai they meet are haughty, vainglorious men who will not debase themselves to work for only food from farmers and risk their lives. They begin talking about simply going back home defeated when they encounter a curious scene as Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), a samurai, walks up to a pool of water, has a monk shave his head, takes the monk’s clothes, and then uses the outfit in a deception to free a child from the threat of a cornered thief in a barn. His act of bravery and selflessness inspires the villagers to approach him and ask for his services. With a young, wannabe disciple in tow, Katsushirō Okamoto (Isao Kimura), Kambei hears their issue out and decides to help them when he sees the depths of their poverty, highlighted by the fact that they do not eat rice, saving it for the samurai they approach, and instead eat millet. Led by Kambei, they find the next five samurai, Katsushiro, Shichirōji (Daisuke Katō), Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki), Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), and Gorōbei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba). Each one is distinct and unique visually and in terms of their strengths, for example, Kyuzo is a stoic with only any interesting in testing his skills to their limit while Heihachi is impoverished, cheerful, and jocular.
The seventh samurai ends up being Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo. Barely dressed with rags, carrying the longest sword seen in the film over his shoulder, and being quite the physical presence, crouching, jumping, and running around in shots trying to get attention from Kambei. After he reveals a stolen set of documents meant to prove his status as a member of the samurai class that would prove him to be thirteen years old, he becomes an object of ridicule among the other six. He ends up tagging along on the journey back to the village, refusing to be left behind, and eventually just accepted into the fold due to his persistence. All of this opening takes an hour, and it never drags. We get interesting scene after interesting scene of introduction, evolution, and even some action to help introduce and establish each character, firmly setting a strong character-based foundation for what’s to come.
The samurai arrive in the village, and the villagers are wary to the point that they do not come out to greet their liberators. There’s a heavy class element in Seven Samurai. It’s apparent early with the treatment of the villagers by the first samurai, but it comes to the forefront once the seven reach the village itself. The feudal system in place in Japan at the time was extremely stratified to the point where antagonism between the different classes, for example the peasant and samurai classes, bred nothing but contempt. There’s a bit of backstory in the film where the villagers had previously hunted down and killed wayward ronin, samurai without masters, for their armor, food, and other belongings. Kikuchiyo came from a farming family before he started pretending to be a samurai, and he holds them in contempt, the class he is trying to rise from. He speaks negatively of them, accusing them of overstating their troubles, hiding stashes of food and goods, and being generally distrustful. When it comes out to the samurai about the villagers’ previous attacks on other samurai, the six are angered to the point of most likely thinking of leaving, but Kikuchiyo outlines the abuses of the samurai class on the peasant class, both damning and justifying the villagers’ actions at the same time as he chastises the samurai for how poorly the samurai class (and probably by extension the six themselves) had treated peasants in the past. That conflict between classes ends up being the thematic heart of the film, centered on two of the samurai, Kikuchiyo and Katsushiro.
Kikychiyo’s part should be obvious. He’s nominally of both classes, born into the peasant class but trying to dishonestly attain a station in the samurai class. Katsushiro’s part comes when he catches the eye of Shino whom Manzo had cut her hair and hidden away as a boy to protect her from the samurai’s predatory ways. Katsushiro and Shino fall in love, but their love can’t really be acknowledged by anyone out in the open. The samurai tend to think of it as just a conquest, a bit of fun, while Manzo goes mad when he discovers the affair, knowing that there can be no mingling between the classes and that Shino is now damaged goods for someone she can marry. Skipping to the end, it’s left an open question about whether the two can actually be together. I think the implication is that they can’t, that Katsushiro will do as Kambei predicted and live a solitary life in pursuit of martial greatness and that Shino will live her life doing the backbreaking and thankless work of a farming peasant. Coming from Kurosawa, a man who was actually of the samurai class, this is an interesting take on his part, feeding into the mixture of cynicism and humanism that had steadily come to define his work, most fully in his previous film Ikiru.
Going back to the film’s strengths as an action spectacle, the middle section of the film is dominated largely by the samurais’ efforts to prepare the town for the inevitable attack. Kurosawa takes his time to show us the village as a whole, the different points of attack, and how Kambei and Katayama work together (with Katsushiro constantly in tow) to plan and execute the defense including fences, flooding a field, and creating a sole, safe entry point to offer up to the invading attackers, to direct them where Kambei wants them to go. It’s very good in terms of clearly outlining what is to come while, at the same time, the rest of the samurai take up training the villagers in basic forms of warfare. Now, when Seven Samurai gets mimicked, this is where things tend to get silly. I remember bits in the shows Firefly and The Mandalorian that tell similar stories where the heroes have to train the villagers in defense, and within a few seconds of a training montage, they’re all operating phalanxes with surprising alacrity. Even with a full hour to prepare for the attack in movie time, the villagers never get to that point in Seven Samurai. They’re barely functional. When the attack begins they don’t move as one, instead barely following the samurai who lead them and breaking into smaller groups that barely come back together at the behest of their leaders. I’m saying that this portrayal of quickly learned martial discipline is surprisingly believable in the context.
The attack begins, and it steadily develops, just like the rest of the movie. There’s probing by the attacking bandits, a count of the bandits that Kambei keeps, crossing off circles as each one dies, and even a raid on the part of three of the samurai to the bandit lair that reveals the fate of Rikichi’s wife. There are three medieval era guns to deal with, daring acts of bravery by Kyuzo and Kikychiyo that are received very differently by Kambei, and a tense night of waiting before the final attack. There’s rain and mud and blood and death, and the long effort to build up the characters pays off with real tension in who will live and who will die, especially since one of the seven died near the halfway point of the film.
The victory of the end ends up being met with melancholy. The samurai have lost brothers. The villagers’ lives and livelihoods have been saved, but they must go straight back to work. The bonds between the two classes instantly begin to fray once again. It’s a victory, but a hard one to take.
The rock on which this movie is built is Shimura as Kambei. Shimura, fresh off of his magnificent performance as Watanabe, the pathetic but determined bureaucrat in Ikiru, commands the screen and the men around him as he embraces the role of general in this small battle. The heart and soul of the film are the childlike Kimura as Katsushiro and Mifune as Kikychiyo. Kimura embodies this open-eyed wonder at the world he doesn’t quite understand, marveling at the daring and skill of Kyuzo while falling in love with a poor peasant girl at the same time. Mifune, as should be expected, is a manic ball of energy as Kikychiyo, but he also carries a remarkable sadness and anger within him that fits the character perfectly. The three of them together make the emotional center of Seven Samurai.
Kurosawa is in command here, though, and he commands confidently, allowing this three-and-a-half hour story to unfold naturally and gracefully, creating an engaging story from beginning to end that is, to no surprise, often quite beautiful to look at. The highlight is the battle in the rain at the end, of course, but special note should be made to the raid on the bandit hideout with fog, smoke, and fire filling the screen in aesthetically pleasing ways.
This is just grand adventure filmmaking. It’s populist fare. It’s fun, it’s involving, and emotionally satisfying. This is popular entertainment at its best.