Ahead of an imminent raid from vicious bandits, a small village of farmers in 16th Century Japan look to recruit masterless samurai, or rōnin, to protect them. Seven Samurai introduces each of the titular warriors as people all needing something more than the food and shelter offered by the villagers. The samurai way of life is coming to an end, and yet there are still those wanting to emulate their past glories and respect. Katsushirō, a young and untested warrior, is eager to impress leader Kambei and serves as one of the audience’s point of entry. Another is Kikuchiyo; arguably the most supremely layered of the characters, in his empathy for the villagers, his ignorance to the samurai code of honour, through to the pathos surrounding his own background.
Characters are illuminated against a simple narrative and masterfully kinetic camerawork to keep the story moving at a pace to contradict the long, 3-hour running time. The music also contributes hugely to the action; a blend of Japanese and western; as the battles, the different classes (peasants, bandits, samurai), and the romantic subplot involving Katsushirō and peasant girl Shino; all have their own distinct score.
Class is a huge theme running through the film, with the villagers’ mistrust in samurai passionately expressed by Kikuchiyo. He tries to unite both sides in the name of survival, and as a catharsis for his own past. Peasants view the samurai with fear and scepticism, but desperation has led them to seek their help.
The rōnin invokes the Western genre’s lone gunman, with Seven Samurai having them pull together for each other, and what’s right. But when what’s right is done, the surviving samurai must ponder the philosophy of their own lives. As expressed by Kambei in the film’s closing moments – the farmers have their land, but the samurai have nowhere.
Director Akira Kurosawa was one of Japan’s most powerful filmmakers following the worldwide success of Rashomon (1950), although often cited as being less authentically Japanese than his peers, and catering more to western audiences. In spite of this, he remains famous to this day for his fast editing and dynamic use of the camera, exuberant driving of the narrative, and use of master-student relationships as a key motif.
Toshiro Mifune – who plays Kikuchiyo – is known for the vitality of his performances, first evident in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Misdirected to auditions while looking for work at the film studio, he ended up impressing Kurosawa at an audition; as Kurosawa once said of him in his book, Something like an Autobiography, “he said in a single action, what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet, with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.”
Like many historical films from Japan, it’s set in the turbulent period of the 16th Century, in a landscape dominated by peasant farmers and the slowly dwindling numbers of lone samurai. The samurai’s code of honour kept them from menial work, so many survived by becoming bandits or offering their protection services. Seven Samurai brings together veteran and aspiring samurai as reluctant heroes to rebuild their honour, and to help build bridges between the classes.
So influential to many modern filmmakers, the western and action genres, and to cinematic storytelling in general, Seven Samurai was universally acclaimed upon its release and throughout the 64 years since.