Most epic movies make you ponder the money involved. How many bootstraps and belt buckles were crafted for The Lord of the Rings (2001-3)? How many computers were used to design the final battle in Avengers: Endgame (2019)? How much napalm blew up the jungle in the opening shot of Apocalypse Now (1979)? Seven Samurai (1954) doesn’t inspire such analyses; at least, not while you’re watching it. Watching this immersive medieval parable from Akira Kurosawa is like embracing a long-lost legend, dug up after hundreds of years like an ancient text on celluloid. Kurosawa was so seamless as a filmmaker that the sets and costumes and details all melt into his story.
From the American cowboy remake The Magnificent Seven (1960) to Pixar’s insect adventure A Bug’s Life (1998), the premise of Seven Samurai simmers in the cinematic consciousness. Set in 16th century Japan, ravaged by civil wars, a group of armoured bandits pick on a helpless village – planning to plunder its essential resources. The desperate villagers consult their elder, who advises them to hire samurai as a defence. The villagers have no money, so payment would be in rice. Kambei, a masterless samurai (‘ronin’), takes pity on their plight after displaying his skills in a neighbouring village. Out of a sense of duty, he finds like-minded individuals to assist him. The ronin is played by Takashi Shimura, who’d worked with Kurosawa before: delivering a shattering, unforgettable performance in Ikiru (1952).
For a film so driven by plot, Seven Samurai is densely populated with vivid and exciting characters. They’re an ensemble, a gang, a family on a mission. (The critic Roger Ebert heavily suggested this film was the first of its kind, continuing to inspire other men-on-a-mission movies like The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone.) The selected samurai have superb and unforgettable entrances, and Kambei’s method of testing their skills is intensely fun to watch. As well as sketching absorbing characters and building the world to perfection, Kurosawa and his co-writers, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, have incredible comic timing.
Of all the characters, it’s the non-samurai who drives your attention. Kikuchiyo doesn’t have the same stoicism that graces the other samurai; he’s reckless, jealous, and always has something to prove. His male insecurities reek from his personality, from his eyes, his smiles, his grimaces. And the enormity of his sword certainly overcompensates for something. He’s played by Toshirô Mifune, the face of samurai cinema – in much the same way as Clint Eastwood was and is for the Western. But Eastwood never had the range of Mifune, who delivered so many varied performances in Kurosawa’s films. His character in Seven Samurai is loose, goofy, and youthful: providing a human entrance into the Zen of the samurai. He can’t lock up his emotions; they overwhelm him, eventually exploding in a furious but touching soliloquy that feels directed specifically to you. His anger spits from the screen.
Kikuchiyo delivers this speech after finding old samurai gear stolen by the villagers. The other samurai are offended: they regret coming to these farmers’ aid, even wanting to kill them. Kikuchiyo launches into an intense monologue, revealing his hidden vulnerability while detailing all the terrors that previous samurai have inflicted. The villagers’ initial fears of the samurai become clear. This is why they hide in their houses. It’s why the patriarchal villager Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) cuts his daughter’s hair to make her look male, so she’s not ‘taken’ by a lustful samurai. You don’t need to know about the violent politics of 16th century Japan to understand and empathise. The time is clear, as are the stakes, as are the characters. It’s part of why the film is so thrilling; Kurosawa was the master of the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ principle.
Above everything else, Seven Samurai excels in its action, especially in the final battle sequence. The scenes splash in wet, grey mud and thick, black pools, engendered by a biblical rainfall. Kurosawa used several cameras at once, capturing every intense gallop and strike – stitched together with battalious rhythm. Few filmmakers have matched it since. As Ebert wrote, ‘Nobody could photograph men in action like Kurosawa’. But Seven Samurai’s machismo can be overbearing, especially when it’s laced with misogyny. Any female presence is rare, aside from the ironic, dishonourable romance between Manzo’s daughter Shino (Keiko Tshushima) and the young, aspiring samurai Katsushiro (Isao Kimura). There’s one line in particular that’s sharp in all the wrong ways. Manzo expresses to the elder his fears about samurai taking the women, and the elder responds: ‘If the bandits come, they’ll cut our heads off. We’ll worry about the girls later’. Oof.
207 minutes is a long time to be enraptured but, at the same time, I can’t think of any scene that would look better on the cutting room floor. If it were made today, Seven Samurai would likely be an HBO miniseries – especially with its episodic, tangential directions. But its length is what makes the film so fulfilling, driving hard the themes of honour, morality, and class division without dousing them in sentimental sugar; weaving them around the repressed emotions of both the samurai and the villagers. After making one of the most beautiful existential dramas in film history (Ikiru), who could’ve predicted that Kurosawa would, almost immediately afterwards, make the most influential action movie ever made?
Seven Samurai is available on BFI Player as part of their Japan season. The film will be re-released in UK cinemas on Friday 23 October