Akira Kurosawa’s action movie masterpiece remains one of the most thrilling movie experiences ever made.
It’s probably a bit silly to call Seven Samurai underrated. After all, it’s regularly referred to as one of the all time greats of world cinema, the film that sealed Akira Kurosawa’s reputation globally and the godfather of every samurai film you’ve ever seen. Yet in a way, the very legend of the film seems to play against it these days – it’s not the film you see named immediately in lists of great movies and it is not that widely shown either. It’s very possible that a generation of film lovers are growing up without being exposed to the movie.
While seen as arthouse cinema by Western audiences – primarily by virtue of the subtitles – this is, in fact, commercial cinema at its best. A simple story, powerfully told and with epic scope. That scope might put off the casual viewer at first glance – this is, after all, a 198-minute movie. It requires a commitment of time just to watch it and that, alongside the fact that it is a black and white subtitled movie, probably won’t give it much appeal to the general moviegoer. That’s a pity, and very much their loss. Because this is without question the quickest three and a half hours you’ll spend with a film. There is no padding, no long-winded build-up, no moments where you sit and pray for the movie to just get on with it. My first glance at the time counter in this surprised me – I figured we were maybe thirty minutes in, when in fact over an hour had elapsed. That’s the sign of an engrossing and enjoyable story.
The plot of the film is actually quite basic. In feudal, lawless sixteenth-century Japan, a small farming village is subject to crippling raids each year by bandits, the villains stealing their crops as soon as they are harvested. Unable to sustain this any more, the villagers embark on a desperate mission to hire samurai to protect them. This is made difficult by the fact that they can only afford to pay in meals, But when they spot Kambei (Takashi Shimura) saving a child from a kidnapper, they realise he is a man of principle, and he becomes their first saviour, and the leader of the band of samurai that are eventually enticed aboard, each with their own reason for joining the mission. They include apprentice samurai Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and wannabe Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who is initially rejected but tags along anyway, eventually gaining the respect of the other samurai as he shows his understanding of the farmers and their fears – fears that include the samurai themselves, who are seen as little more than a step up from the bandits in terms of trustworthiness.
The film plays out in three acts. The first sees the samurai coming together, while in the second, we follow their lives in the village, as samurai and farmer get to know each other. This involves training the reluctant and cowardly farmers to defend themselves – because even seven samurai couldn’t defeat forty bandits without assistance. There’s much humour in this section of the film, as the farmers are whipped into shape, often by the excitable and enthusiastic – but obviously inexperienced – Kikuchiyo. A romance also develops between Katsushiro and villager Shino (Keiko Tsushima) who has been made to cut her hair by her paranoid father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) in an effort to make her look like a boy and thus save her from the attentions of the samurai – a failed plan, clearly!
Eventually, the bandits arrive, and the final act of the film features three days of battles between the two groups, the now fortified village and its motivated inhabitants proving to be an unexpected obstacle for the marauders. These battles are grand in scale and drama, especially the final one, which takes place in the rain and mud, and each takes its toll, and the seven are whittled down o three.
It’s unsurprising that this film was remade as The Magnificent Seven. When you watch it, you are immediately struck by the similarity between this film and many a Western, not only in narrative structure by also visual style. Shimura even looks a bit like Lee Van Cleef! It’s fair to say that as much as Kurosawa influenced future samurai films, he also helped structure the Western with this film. You can see elements of several later films here – High Plains Drifter, for example – and the fact that the film also loosely inspired science fiction film Battle Beyond the Stars shows how universal and adaptable a story this is. But despite being thoroughly mined by later movies in the US, Italy and Japan, and despite its age, Seven Samurai still feels remarkably fresh.
There are odd moments where it looks old fashioned – a camera shot here, a visual moment there – but they are few and far between. On the whole, this is as gripping, exciting and dramatic now as it ever was. It has moments of darkness and light, melodrama and profundity, and never gives its heroic characters – and these guys really are heroic – a break. When Manzo discovers Shino and Katsushiro together, his reaction shows that for all they have done, the samurai are still feared and despised by the villagers deep inside, and at the end, the survivors realise that they are not victors – the villagers have won, but the samurai have paid a heavy price for no real reward. Yet Kurosawa also demolishes the noble samurai myth, simply by humanising his characters – an act that actually helps make them seem more admirable.
With fine performances all round (Mifune is a stand out of course, but each of the samurai has a distinct and believable personality), Seven Samurai is that rarest of things, a film that actually gets better with age and repeated viewing.
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