The huge international success of Rashomon in 1950 had cemented Akira Kurosawa’s reputation as the most famous Japanese filmmaker in the world, and given him an enormous amount of clout for his future projects. Having had great success with that period piece, Kurosawa decided to make a true samurai film, something he had never done before, and so was born Seven Samurai, the most expensive and technically ambitious Japanese film ever made at the time. Despite going massively over schedule and over budget, the nightmare of its production eventually paid off with probably the best film of Kurosawa’s career, and one of the greatest films ever made.
The plot is extremely simple: in sixteenth-century Japan, a village of farmers is raided every year by bandits for its crops. Unable to fight the bandits themselves, the farmers decide to hire samurai to protect them. Despite having difficulty doing so on account of only being able to offer three meals a day as payment, they manage to hire a group of six led by Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an older, experienced samurai who has grown tired of fighting. Despite the rest of the samurai’s reluctance, a young, boisterous seventh named Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) joins them on their mission.
This being a Kurosawa film, it is hardly surprising that Shimura and Mifune, with whom he frequently collaborated, dominate most of the film. Kambei is the serene elder statesman who nonetheless proves to be a very tough leader who tolerates no dissent from the villagers: the character could hardly be more different from Shimura’s greatest performance, that of Watanabe in Ikiru, and it just goes to show how versatile an actor he was. Where Kambei is calmness, Kikuchiyo is all energy and enthusiasm; the character was a late addition to the script after Kurosawa realised that six sensible samurai could prove dull, and he provides most of the film’s comedy. Watching Mifune here, it’s no surprise that he and Kurosawa worked together on sixteen films, since he gives an absolute powerhouse of a performance. Yes, he is often a clown, but the result of that is that he is by far the most emotional of the samurai, and invariably takes it hardest when anyone dies: Mifune’s ability to switch between clowning around to amuse the village children and drowning his sorrow for the death of his comrades in sake is quite astonishing.
Much of what Seven Samurai is remembered for is the battle scenes in the film’s second half, and with good reason, with the final battle in particular remaining to this day one of the finest ever put to screen. Occurring in a torrential downpour and knee-deep pools of mud, the quick “ but never chaotic “ editing allows every beat of the battle to fully register with the audience, allowing them to be truly drawn in to the action. A lot of what makes it so effective is that the audience has had three hours to get to know the characters, experiencing both their triumphs and tragedies, and everyone involved knows that it’s the last battle they will have to fight. The characters’ desperation to get through it alive is obvious, accentuated by the awful conditions they have to fight in, and the viewer will be desperate for them to survive as well: not many action films are able to generate as much emotional attachment to their characters as Seven Samurai.
A lot of the reason for it being so impressive is that it’s all real: filmed almost entirely on location, the film long pre-dates the ability to digitally correct things in post, and the fact that the whole battle occurs in camera gives it a sense of visceral reality which modern, CGI-dominated blockbusters simply don’t have. In spite of these old-fashioned sensibilities, it’s still a strikingly modern film. This is largely because Kurosawa, greatly influenced by American directors and Westerns in particular, eschewed the slow, formal, almost stagey nature of many contemporary Japanese films, instead making sure the film moves at a brisk pace, and in particular focusing on sudden dramatic acts of violence which are often over almost as soon as they begin. Many films this old can feel extremely slow and dull to a modern audience, but Seven Samurai, despite being made nearly sixty years ago, never feels its age, and is certainly never boring.
It’s essentially the 1950s equivalent of a modern $200 million summer blockbuster, but what makes it special, in contrast to the empty spectacle which fills most cinemas in the summer holidays, is that it’s still an extremely personal film for Kurosawa. Japan, and the Japanese military in particular, did not exactly come out of the Second World War smelling of roses; and Kurosawa, himself from a samurai family, felt cultural guilt on account of his family’s historically elevated position in society. With Seven Samurai, he attempts to both restore the good name of the Japanese warrior tradition, while also apologising for its crimes and acknowledging that the time for warriors is over.
Kambei embodies the altruistic, selfless ideals of bushido, helping those who cannot help themselves; but Kikuchiyo’s savage condemnation of the samurai class makes it abundantly clear that the wars they fight hurt the farmers just as much as anyone else. It is ironic that this, the definitive samurai film, should be so ambivalent towards the concept of the professional warrior: at once elevating it, but also acknowledging that professional warriors are no longer necessary and may do more harm than good in the long run. Indeed, every samurai who dies in battle is killed by gunshot, a visual reminder that, as technology advances, individual heroics become less and less important. It is this combination of blockbuster style with auteur spirit, more than anything else, which cements Seven Samurai‘s place in the canon of truly great films.
On its own merits, Seven Samurai is justifiably considered one of the greatest films ever made; and the influence it has had on subsequent films only serves to confirm this. The number of films which either remake it or borrow its plot, from The Magnificent Seven to A Bug’s Life to Ironclad, is enormous, and it’s fair to say that every film which has features the formation of a team or a battle in the rain has taken inspiration from it. Its influence is still extremely apparent today, in nothing less than the most successful film of 2012, The Avengers: putting the team together, first introduced to cinema by Seven Samurai, is basically the entire plot of Marvel’s superhero epic, and the structure of the two films have more than a little in common. Seven Samurai lives up to the legend built around it these past sixty years, and truly is one of the best and most influential films of all time. It is, to borrow the title of its famous remake, magnificent.