- Seven Samurai (1954) movie review: One of cinema’s seminal productions, Akira Kurosawa’s action classic is one of those rare films that get better and better with each new viewing.
- Seven Samurai was nominated for two Academy Awards (for the year 1956): Best Black-and-White Art Direction (Takashi Matsuyama) and Best Black-and-White Costume Design (Kôhei Ezaki).
Seven Samurai movie review: Akira Kurosawa’s landmark 1954 action classic keeps improving after repeated viewings
Some films get better after repeated viewings. Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 black-and-white drama Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai is one of them, having deservedly become an international sensation and, reportedly, the highest-grossing Japanese release of its day.
In fact, on first view Seven Samurai is a simply great action film, but the finer points of characterization come through following subsequent viewings, as they subliminally and purposefully seep into the viewer’s mind.
Besides, the nearly three-and-half-hour story – the screenplay is credited to Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni – is never weighted down with fat, as all of the many subplots bear fruit.
Unusual narrative choice
True, Seven Samurai displays remnants of the stale samurai genre, such as the wise man Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) and the “boy on the verge of manhood” Katsushiro Okamoto (Isao Kimura) who, inevitably, romances a farmer’s daughter. But it’s the central human dilemma of the 16th-century farmers, helpless against the depredations of the bandits who abound during the civil wars of the era, that raises Kurosawa’s classic above mere clichés.
It should be noted that we see the bandits only at the beginning and at the end of the film. (None of them is a Darth Vader despite George Lucas’ citing Seven Samurai as an influence for his puerile Star Wars saga.) That means 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?
Spatial & 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.
In addition, we learn that the samurai are not all noble – they are men, not gods. They work for meager wages; some will even cut wood for a bowl of rice, if need be. 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.
At one point, 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.
Realism + Godzilla connection?
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.
There is also 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 and Steve McQueen.)
As an aside, 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’s 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.
Toshiro Mifune & Takashi Shimura
Toshiro Mifune is Seven Samurai’s putative star and doubtless his Kikuchiyo is a memorable character in a Calibanian vein. Even so, Kikuchiyo is a role that is not so far off from the loony bandit Mifune had portrayed a few years earlier in Rashomon, while his 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 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.
Now, despite Toshiro Mifune’s renown and billing, Seven Samurai is actually the tale of the sage warrior Kambei, played by the magnificent Takashi Shimura, an Akira Kurosawa regular just off his great role as a doomed political hack in Ikiru.
Shimura’s range is immense. Whereas 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.
More quality performances
Almost as good an acting job as Takashi Shimura’s is that of Isao Kimura as Katsushiro.
Watch the scene in which he confronts the great swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) – in yet another bravura performance that shows less is more – after the latter has single-handedly killed two bandits and returned with a needed gun. Katsushiro says little, save to tell his hero that he is “great.” Kyuzo, for his part, restrains a smile of satisfaction.
Similarly, watch Katsushiro’s reaction after killing a bandit – the first man he has ever killed. Or even in some of the earlier scenes that show him 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. So this is another example of the realism that Akira Kurosawa adds to Seven Samurai in seemingly throwaway instances.
Kurosawa’s great 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 Hashimoto and Oguni – part of a rotating staff of writers that muted some of the filmmaker’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.
As a plus, Asakazu Nakai’s cinematography and Fumio Hayasaka’s score are remarkable. 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.
In sum, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is a fantastic film. That said, I don’t think it’s 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 dying bureaucrat than as the indefatigable warrior Kambei.
Even so, Seven Samurai is the granddaddy of all great action movies, from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to James Cameron’s Aliens and The Terminator series. It offers something few other films do: Its incredibly detailed richness, which, though nonessential 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 Kurosawa’s classic.
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?
Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai (1954)
Director: Akira Kurosawa.
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni.
Cast: Toshiro Mifune. Takashi Shimura. Keiko Tsushima. Seiji Miyaguchi. Isao Kimura. Kamatari Fujiwara. Yukiko Shimazaki.
“Seven Samurai Movie (1954): Kurosawa Classic Keeps Improving” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Seven Samurai Movie (1954): Kurosawa Classic Keeps Improving” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Seven Samurai Movie (1954) Review” notes
Silver Lion co-winners
Curiously, Venice’s 1954 Golden Lion winner was Renato Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet, a now largely forgotten Anglo-Italian production.
“Seven Samurai Movie” endnotes
Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune Seven Samurai movie images: Toho Films.
“Seven Samurai Movie (1954): Kurosawa Classic Keeps Improving” last updated in September 2021.