Some films get better after repeated viewings. Akira Kurosawa's 1954 black-and-white drama Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai is one of them. It fully deserved winning that year's Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as well as its Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (black and white) and Best Costume Design (black and white). Additionally, Seven Samurai deservedly became an international sensation and it's reported to have been the highest-grossing Japanese film of its day. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
On first view, Seven Samurai is simply a great action film. But with subsequent viewings, the finer points of characterization come through, subliminally and purposefully seeping into the viewer's mind. The story, at nearly three and a half hours in length (including a five-minute intermission), is never weighted down with fat, as all of the many subplots bear fruit – so unlike most Hollywood films made today.
True, the film displays remnants of the stale samurai genre, such as the wise man Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), the “boy on the verge of manhood” Katsushiro Okamoto (Isao Kimura), and Katsushiro's romance with a farmer's daughter. But it is the central human dilemma of the sixteenth-century farmers, helpless against the depredations of the bandits who abound during the civil wars of the era, that raises Kurosawa's film above mere clichés.
We only see the bandits at the beginning and at the end of the film. None of them is a Darth Vader despite George Lucas' latter-day attempts to cite Seven Samurai as an influence for his puerile Star Wars saga.
Also worth noting is that there are about two hours during which the meat of the tale takes place and not a bandit is in sight. How many films do away with their bad guys for so long? How many could afford to? Since we do not know any of the bandits' names, they seem more like a singular character or perhaps a sheer force of nature. Why do they keep coming to attack the villagers, even as their forces are successively thinned with each failed raid? Shouldn't they have realized that the once helpless villagers have hired defenders?
'Seven Samurai': Spatial and psychological context
A good portion of Seven Samurai is spent on the fortifications of the village – the building of walls and moats that allow the battle scenes to take place on familiar territory for the viewer. When we see something occur, we know as quickly as the villagers where a bandit will come from or head to, and what is likely to happen. How many epics are just a whirl of motion and bodies with no way for the viewer to place the action in spatial context?
Meanwhile, we learn that the villagers are neither as poor nor as innocent as they pretend to be. There are murderers among them, some of whom have killed samurai before. They also seek to lowball and underpay their protectors.
Besides, we learn that the samurai are not all noble – they are men, not gods. They work for meager wages, and technically they are all ronin, or samurai without masters. Think of the Knights of the Round Table had they not been under King Arthur's charge. Some will even cut wood for a bowl of rice, if need be.
Would-be samurai Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) – the name is an assumed one – vents his anger at the fact that the rottenness of the samurai class forces the farmers to be craven and duplicitous. To him, the samurai are little better than the bandits, for they have killed and raped farmers and their women, and have forced them into servitude. That's why Manzo the Farmer (Kamatari Fujiwara) obsesses over his daughter Shino's disguising herself as a boy, so as to protect her from bandit and samurai alike.
'Seven Samurai': Western modernity and realism
Another Seven Samurai peculiarity is the introduction of Western modernity in the form of guns. Most samurai films show the samurai winning with superior skill in swordplay. Kurosawa's film, however, shows samurai killed by gunshot. Not only does that detail reinforce the sense of “unfairness" about their demise, but, unlike other samurai movies, it also adds realism to the proceedings.
As a final observation on Seven Samurai's realistic approach to its narrative, Kurosawa shows the surviving samurai leave the village with little to show for their work, save their honor and war tales. The villagers can live in peace, if only for a time, while they must go seek employment on the road without their brothers in arms. There is no Hollywood ending, or cheap emotional payoff. Seven Samurai refuses to condescend – and this is part of its greatness. (The ending is softened somewhat in John Sturges' 1960 remake, The Magnificent Seven, with Yul Brynner.)
Although Seven Samurai has often been called an epic, it's really not. Almost all of the action takes place indoors or in small settings, and even though the film features numerous characters and extras, there are only forty bandits and maybe twice as many villagers. This is personalized, small-scale warfare. The only epopee Seven Samurai indulges in is the rhetoric spouted by Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo and Akira Kurosawa's visuals, which often let the viewer get both subjective and objective viewpoints in one shot (often over the shoulders of the characters). (Image: Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai.)
But in true Kurosawa fashion and in keeping with his detached approach to the Seven Samurai narrative, we are never privy to any of the samurai's motives. Presumably, Kambei, the oldest and wisest, is moved by the challenge and the plight of his would-be employers. Katsushiro, the youngest and apparently the wealthiest, is in it for knowledge and to serve his master Kambei, whom he deifies. Kikuchiyo seems to be in it just to kill, and to work out issues of aggression and abandonment over the murder of his parents when he was still a child. Yet, their reasons remain fuzzy, while the other four samurai are never even given that much consideration as to their motives.
Toshiro Mifune: 'Seven Samurai' star
Toshiro Mifune is Seven Samurai's putative star, and doubtless his Kikuchiyo is a memorable character in a Calibanian vein. Still, it's a role that is not so far off from the loony bandit Mifune had portrayed a few years earlier in Rashomon, while his scenery-chewing acting style is at times a bit overdone. Yet, Mifune's performance is leavened by the fact that not only is Mifune the actor overacting, but so is his character Kikuchiyo within the film. It's notable that his sword is almost as tall as himself and twice the length of the other samurai's swords.
Seven Samurai features a remarkable scene where Mifune / Kikuchiyo vents his anger when Kambei and the others see the armor of dead samurai. At first, he agrees with the samurai that the villagers are liars and not worth defending; even that they should be killed. But then his rage turns toward his stunned comrades. Kikuchiyo leaves, huffs at Katsushiro, and later rejects the advances of a flock of children as well.
Akira Kurosawa's dramatic touch
Another (totally unrelated) great scene takes place when the samurai scout out the bandits' lair, and Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) – the only firebrand among the farmers, and the one who instigated their hiring the samurai – discovers his wife (Yukiko Shimazaki) is bedding down with the bandits. His insane reaction ends up with one of the samurai getting shot and killed. When the samurai is buried, Rikichi's double grief – over his wife and over causing his partner's death – is powerful, yet grounded on the samurai burial ritual.
Kurosawa's approach deepens the scene with characterization and realism even though it starts dreamily, making use of very little music (from the Noh dramas) and then building to a fiery conclusion and mass death. The music gets grander and grander as the wife awakens and the samurai carry out their clumsy and realistic attack – unlike the stylized action sequences of most samurai films. Even Asakazu Nakai's cinematography moves from gauziness to clarity.
Takashi Shimura: 'Seven Samurai' real focus
Now, despite Toshiro Mifune's renown and billing, Seven Samurai is actually the tale of Kambei, played by the magnificent Takashi Shimura, an Akira Kurosawa regular just off his great role in Ikiru (1952), in which he plays a doomed political hack who achieves a minor victory against bureaucracy. In Rashomon (1950) he had played a peasant, while in Seven Samurai he is a sage and warrior.
Shimura's range is immense, because only through his eyes can we tell he's the same actor. Whereas Toshiro Mifune is often rightly praised for acting with his whole body, Shimura can act with his eyes alone. He's that great. He can even elicit laughs with a rub of his shaved head while rescuing a kidnapped child from a bandit.
The aforementioned sequence also shows that slow motion can be an effective technique. Although we do not see what Shimura / Kambei does to the bandit inside the hut, we see the bandit run away and then fall in slow motion. Later, with just one slow-motion stroke of his sword, we see master swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) reluctantly kill a boastful challenger who won't leave him be. This is just one of the many techniques Kurosawa uses effectively in Seven Samurai.
Another is the dramatic wipe of the screen to show an ellipsis in time and the recapitulation of events. How many films are bogged down by unnecessary explanatory scenes of things the viewer already knows? Kurosawa thus emphatically shows us that his films are foremost for his audience.
Almost as good an acting job as Takashi Shimura's is that of Isao Kimura as Seven Samurai's Katsushiro. Watch the scene in which he confronts the great swordsman Kyuzo – in yet another bravura performance (Seiji Miyaguchi's) that shows less is more – after Kyuzo has single-handedly killed two bandits and returned with a needed gun. Katsushiro says little, save to tell his hero he is “great.” Kyuzo, for his part, restrains a smile of satisfaction. Later, when Kyuzo gets killed, look at the utter devastation on Katsushiro's face.
Similarly, watch his reaction after killing a bandit – the first man he has ever killed. Or even at some of the earlier scenes that show Katsushiro ruminating on the fact that life as a samurai is not all glamour. Let a Mark Hamill try to convey all that!
The three other samurai, Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki), Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), and Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), are also well detailed in their smaller roles even though it takes repeated viewings to distinguish them from each other. But then again, their relative lack of characterization is fine for war tends to dehumanize and deindividuate people, anyway. So this is another example of the realism that Akira Kurosawa adds to Seven Samurai in seemingly throwaway instances.
Akira Kurosawa's collaborators
Admittedly, Kurosawa did not make Seven Samurai alone. It is a truism that almost all great directors have at least one great collaborator. With Ingmar Bergman it was cinematographer Sven Nykvist. With Federico Fellini it was composer Nino Rota. With Kurosawa, it's not only great stars like Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, but also his co-screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni – part of a rotating staff of writers that muted some of Kurosawa's over-the-top tendencies in storytelling and brought the stories down to a human level. Without them, Seven Samurai might have been little more than a greatly stylized genre film, rather than a truly great film.
Asakazu Nakai's cinematography and Fumio Hayasaka's score are also remarkably good. Nakai's deep-focus technique, in fact, is every bit as good as those found in Citizen Kane. Particularly impressive is the complexity of Seven Samurai's crowd scenes, where many little stories play out as we watch the samurai's action in the foreground. Details such as these can be fully appreciated only after repeated viewings. Also, notice how jungle twigs seem to leap out at the viewer, as does Toshiro Mifune's huge phallic sword as he slings it over his shoulder. Considering that Seven Samurai was shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, one wonders what Kurosawa would have done in the widescreen format.
'Seven Samurai': Great film has had a strong and lasting influence
I should also mention that Seven Samurai is the granddaddy of all great action films, from Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch to James Cameron's Aliens and The Terminator series. Additionally, I noticed how Seven Samurai's opening – to the sound of drumbeats – is reminiscent to that of my beloved Godzilla, which was released that same year. While as a film Godzilla is nowhere in the same league as Seven Samurai, it is probably the second most influential Japanese cinematic production of all time. That both of them rely on such primal sounds in their opening sequences makes one wonder if there's a connection.
In sum, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is a great film. That said, I do not think it is the director's best. I'd still lean toward Ikiru for that honor because of its more profoundly human tale. Moreover, Takashi Shimura is even better as Ikiru's doomed bureaucrat than as the indefatigable warrior Kambei.
Even so, Seven Samurai offers something that few other films do: its incredibly detailed richness, which, though non-essential to the basic plot, heightens the realism of this otherwise unreal tale. That includes the skull caps the male characters wear, the ambush tests Kambei devises to recruit his cohorts, the old woman who uses a farm instrument in her attempt to kill a hobbled bandit, and numerous others. For that reason I reiterate that repeated viewings are a necessity to truly appreciate Seven Samurai.
So, let me end this review by stating that Seven Samurai is every bit as great as its most enthusiastic champions claim. I then ask you, how rare is that?
© Dan Schneider
Note: This review of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is a condensed / revised version of Dan Schneider's text, which can be read in its original form here. The views expressed in this Seven Samurai review are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai (1954). Dir.: Akira Kurosawa. Scr.: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni. Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Inaba, Seiji Miyaguchi, Isao Kimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, Yukiko Shimazaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Minoru Chiaki, Daisuke Kato.
Photo of Toshiro Mifune in the Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai: Toho Films.
Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai photo: Toho Films.
Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai photo: Toho Films.