Seven Samurai (1954)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai
Shichinin no samurai
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Kikuchiyo), Takashi Shimura (Kambei), Yoshio Inaba (Gorobei), Seiji Miyaguchi (Kyuzo), Minoru Chiaki (Heihachi), Daisuke Kato (Shichiroji), Isao Kimura (Katsushiro), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Rikichi), Kamatari Fujiwara (Manzo), Keiko Tsushima (Shino), Bokuzen Hidari (Yohei), Kokuten Kodo (Gisaku the village elder), Isao Yamagata (Auditioned samurai), Eijiro Tono (The thief/kidnapper), Atsushi Watanabe (The bun seller), Tatsuya Nakadai (Uncredited passing samurai)
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni
Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai

Toho Company, 207 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

After working in the realm of jidai-geki with The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail and Rashomon, Kurosawa got the notion to make a totally different kind of samurai movie, one that would defy traditional conventions and reinvent the genre. Among the preliminary ideas that he and his scriptwriters tossed around, one was a "day in the life of a samurai" story in which the hero would go about his boring routine as a lord's retainer until he committed some minor infraction and had to commit seppuku. Another concept was an anthology film depicting the great battles of five different samurai. Kurosawa rejected these, seizing on the idea of a realistic samurai film. Producer Sojiro Motoki researched how real samurai lived and found that many penniless ronin had to struggle from one meal to the next, taking up whatever employment they could find for food. With wild bandits ravaging the countryside, peasant villages would hire ronin as protections. This was a story that had never been told in jidai-geki before, and it became the basis for Seven Samurai. This is the film widely regarded not only as Kurosawa's best or the best samurai movie, but also cited the finest work in Japanese cinema.

With a reputation like that, it's intimidating for a clown like me to even try to say anything that hasn't already been said a thousand time better. But what the hell, I'll try anyway. Seven Samurai really is that good. You can believe the hype. This epic runs three and half hours, but it's so well paced and full of action and drama that it never drags or gets tedious. The core of the story is so universally human that it's been adapted to American movies ranging from The Magnificent Seven to Battle Beyond the Stars and A Bug's Life.

One of many significant achievements of Seven Samurai is that it firmly establishes the ronin as the most compelling figure in the mythos of ancient Japan. Up to this point, samurai movies tended to be about proper samurai in all their glory. When ronin were featured, they were likely to be shown as dishonorable scoundrels or pathetic losers. Seven Samurai demonstrated that ronin could be heroes. A masterless samurai has unlimited capacity to be more honorable acting upon his own morality than a true samurai who serves a corrupt lord.

The story gets underway when a poverty-stricken farming village learns that a gang of bandits intends to steal their harvests at the end of the season. These bandits have already robbed them blind, and the local authorities are too unresponsive and indifferent to do anything about it. So desperate that they're considering mass suicide in protest, the farmers consult with the village elder for advice. He offers the unheard-of suggestion that they hire samurai to fight the bandits. Asked how they'll ever managed to do that, the elder replies, "Find hungry samurai."

It turns out to be not quite as easy as that, when the farmers send a group of recruiters into town. Even starving ronin have their pride, scornfully rejecting the farmers' proposition and even consuming their offered rice and sake before telling them to buzz off. Just as they're abandoning their search, the farmers encounter a noble ronin named Kambei (Takashi Shimura) in the middle of resolving a hostage situation. Kambei has has head shaved in order to impersonate a monk and rescue a boy held captive by a cornered thief. Considering the immense significance of a samurai's topknot, going bald is a huge act of self-sacrifice for Kambei, but he treats it like it's nothing. The duly impressed farmers decide to approach Kambei with their problem, but he's attracted two other admirers who get in their way.

First is Katsushiro, a starstruck young samurai-in-training who pleads for Kambei to take him on as a disciple. Katsushiro is from a wealthy family, but there must be some reason why he hasn't used inside connections to get himself a cushy retainer position. Either his family has fallen into disgrace or Katsushiro has idealistically set out to make a name for himself on his own. Secondly, Kambei finds himself accosted by a buffoonish character who will be known as Kikuchiyo, unforgettably portrayed by Toshiro Mifune. Kikuchiyo lugs around an enormous battle sword and calls himself a samurai, though it's obvious he's just an untrained commoner with delusions of grandeur. Presumably he also wishes to get some sort of advancement from Kambei, but Kikuchiyo lacks in social graces and basic conversational skills. Kambei only wants to brush both youngsters aside when the farmers come along to make their own intrusion. Touched by their willingness to give up their good rice as payment while they go hungry, Kambei chooses to help them.

Figuring they'll need at least seven samurai to defend the village, Kambei sets out to enlist more hands with Katsushiro as his assistant. First they find Gorobei, a smiling, bearded samurai whose skills in strategy and leadership make him Kambei's second in command. Then Kambei runs across his long-lost friend Shichiroji, a comrade in many previous battles, who has been working as a peddler. Gorobei finds a humble, wisecracking ronin named Heihachi chopping wood for his dinner, who gleefully admits that his favorite tactic for winning in battle to running away. And Kambei and Katsushiro witness a fatal duel between a master swordsman named Kyuzo and some idiot who has no idea how outclassed he is.

With this group assembled, Kambei declares that the five of them will go defend the farmers – Katsushiro too young and inexperienced to come along. Kambei advises him to continue his training and pursue the dream of one day being the lord of his own castle. The faces around the room reveal that all these ronin once shared similar lofty ambitions, but tumultuous reality and the swift march of time has instead put them where they are today. The others convince Kambei to let Katsushiro join them, so now they are the six samurai. Then the group gets word of a savagely strong samurai the farmers should meet, who turns out to be a rowdy and drunken Kikuchiyo. The samurai laugh at his foolishness, but Kikuchiyo wants to join their mission anyway, tagging along uninvited.

When the samurai recruiters return to their village with their new hires, the story takes an unexpected turn. We begin to see that the main conflict in the story is not the fight against the bandits, but the friction between the farmers and the samurai. Instead of throwing a welcome party, the villagers all hide and cower in dismay upon the samurai's arrival. They fear the samurai will be wild ruffians who'll exploit them nearly as bad as the bandits do. When a villager named Manzo forces his daughter Shino to cut off her beautiful hair and disguise herself as a boy, he spreads a panic that all the womenfolk are in danger of being ravaged and stolen away by the lusty warriors.

Kikuchiyo exposes the farmers' hypocrisy by falsely sounding the signal of a bandit raid, which sends the villagers scrambling for their help. "You welcomed us as you would a plague!" Kikuchiyo scolds them. "But when you heard the alarm... 'Oh! Samurai!' You turned to worship us. Fools!" This bold act endears Kikuchiyo to the other samurai, who then accept him as their seventh member.

After that, the rest of the movie is a matter of preparations for the village to take its stand against the bandits and the protracted showdown itself. But it's the tensions between the samurai and the farmers that make it much more than your basic action-movie setup and payoff. The scenes of the samurai training the farmers to use spears instead of hoes are entertaining. And young romance develops between Katsushiro and Shino, despite Manzo's best efforts to conceal his daughter's femininity.

A more explosive confrontation arises when Kikuchiyo uncovers a cache of weapons and armor the farmers have appropriated from defeated samurai. While Kikuchiyo is delighted to have the booty at their disposal, Kambei and the others are deeply offended at the evidence of the farmers plundering dead samurai and possibly even killing wonded samurai to rob them. In a blistering monologue, Kikuchiyo tells the samurai to get off their high horse. Farmers are dirty, lying scum, he says – but that's only because samurai have made them that way. The samurai have exploited the lower classes for centuries, taken their property, stolen their women and left them broken and bereft. So it's only natural that farmers have to stoop so low to look out for themselves. Seeing that Kikuchiyo speaks as a one-time farmer himself, the others can find no ground on which to retort his accusations.

At one point the farmers nearly rise up in rebellion against the samurai. When sound strategy dictates that the outlying houses can't be defended and will have to be abandoned to the bandits, some men throw down their spears and refuse to fight for the rest of the village when their own homes will be lost. Kambei promptly lays down the law to quell this dissent in the ranks, asserting that sacrifice is the nature of war. "By protecting others, you save yourself," he says with his sword drawn. "If you think only of yourself, you'll only destroy yourself."

When the long anticipated attack against the bandits finally begins, we're treated to some of the best action scenes ever captured on film. Through Kambei and Gorobei's careful strategic planning using maps of the village, Kurosawa gives us a thorough understanding of the geography of the battles and what's going on and why. It's never just chaotic carnage on the screen but combat maneuvers designed to exploit the enemy's weaknesses to the best advantage. The stoic swordsman Kyuzo takes off on some thrilling side missions that exemplify the feats that a lone samurai was capable of. And even Kikuchiyo has a remarkable solo exploit when he cunningly pretends to be one of the bandits in order to steal one of their few firearms. The final grueling clash in the rain and the mud stands as one of the most memorable depictions of warfare in the history of cinema.

So that's Seven Samurai. The ultimate synthesis of intellectual arthouse film and kick-ass crowd-pleasing action movie. An insightful commentary on class struggles, the nature of war, and the relationship between soldier and civilian. And the finest chambara movie that will ever be made.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema