Many directors never produce a single masterpiece in their careers. They may be good, they may even be a great, but few turn out to be timeless, important works of cinematic art. For Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, however, he produced several, and this film would only be one of them: his 1954 samurai classic, “Seven Samurai.”
For many cinephiles and film scholars across the globe — and spanning the entire breadth of motion picture history, a period of over 120 years — there are always a recurrent selection of films that top lists offering an assortment of the greatest films ever made. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” often situate themselves comfortably upon that prestigious peak. So too does one other film, directed by one of Kurosawa’s contemporaries, Yasujirō Ozu, and his 1953 family drama, “Tokyo Story.”
But while these films — among several others of their caliber — may ebb and flow their positioning in these lists over the years, “Seven Samurai” remains one of the very few consistently remaining steady near the top.
“Seven Samurai” would be Kurosawa’s 14th film, set securely in the middle of his 30-film career. Previously, Kurosawa only produced two “chanbara” (denoting a subgenre of Japanese films called samurai cinema, or more specifically, “sword fighting”) films, the relatively brief “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” and “Rashomon,” the film many credit as the first film produced in Japan to place Japanese cinema on the world stage.
The character of the samurai is one of Japan’s oldest and most enduring literary figures, often regarded with great respect and admiration, figures both in history and literature that are perhaps the utmost model of steadfast loyalty and honor. In history, lasting from the 12th century until their abolition in the 1870s, the samurai were predominately retainers of local lords — the daimyō — hired to protect both lord and land.
Honoring the bushido code and marshaling many virtues, the samurai’s place in the hierarchy was high. But often history slowly eradicates certain classes of people, first by the simple misfortune of unemployment. In the case of “Seven Samurai,” the seven titular figures are not quite samurai anymore but rather the unemployed rōnin, the wandering samurai in search of food, shelter and coin by any who would pay them for their services — services that more often than not entailed being a protector, a bodyguard.
As is often the case of many of Kurosawa’s films, the narratives of his work may prove familiar to you. Director George Lucas credits Kurosawa’s work as a major inspiration for “Star Wars,” specifically “The Hidden Fortress,” with many of the film’s characters operating as the blueprint for characters like Han Solo and Princess Leia. With “Seven Samurai,” the narrative has been remade several times throughout the years, most notably in “The Magnificent Seven” and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life.” Carried over from film to film, the slug line of “Seven Samurai” is simple: a village of peasant farmers hire a group of samurai to ward off marauding bandits.
One word has failed to enter into the discussion thus far when concerning “Seven Samurai,” especially given the film’s runtime is well over three hours long (complete with an intermission), and that word is “epic.” Indeed, the film’s massive length would immediately portend that of the epic film, as they often stretch for several hours, but this is not the only reason behind this labeling. Kurosawa is a filmmaker always concerned with the human condition, how people react to people, nature and themselves. Whereas he has been able to dissect the import of humanity in other works that are much shorter than this film, it would be easy to allege he penetrates the very essence of humanity in this 207-minute work. It is epic not only length but in scale and significance as well.
It stands to reason that such a behemoth of a film deserves a similarly sized review, not to mention this review may very well be my last for The Standard as I am graduating soon. Plus, with such changing times happening around us, for our staff, in particular, going digital-only, length is no longer much of a problem anymore in the absence of our printed issues.
Each of the seven samurai are based on historical figures to varying degrees, but — even being set in 1586 during the Sengoku period of Japanese history — the film is also autobiographical for Kurosawa, for he has noted that to find out who he is as a man, one must look to all of the characters in his work. As a brief and small example: in Toshirō Mifune’s character, Kikuchiyo, catching a fish with his bare hands in a stream, something Kurosawa himself had done in his younger years.
Conversely, one would not be mistaken in instead titling the film “Three Farmers,” as it is in the characters of Rikichi, Manzō and Yohei, who set out to find the samurai to protect their village at the disapproval of the rest of the community. The seven samurai take center stage, but Kurosawa would not let his audience forget who is just as important: those in the lowest spaces of the social class, a point which we will return to shortly.
Even the bandits are given character. They carry no names, but their inspired costumery and makeup make them instantly recognizable, most notably in a kabuto helmet (recognizable by its crescent moon insignia) and an eyepatch. This bespeaks Kurosawa’s ability to allow his audience to identify his characters even in silhouette, a trait that subsisted throughout his work.
With a mention of makeup, Kurosawa also took inspiration from traditional Japanese theater, that of Noh and Kabuki theater, where makeup was used exorbitantly, giving the faces of its performers harsh, defining characteristics. The villains’ makeup paints villainous shadows upon their faces, while Kikuchiyo — in an early scene — is made drunk, a wild man ripping across the screen with his facial expressions drenched in terrifying black shadows, black eyes.
Of the samurai themselves — played by Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Daisuke Katō, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi and Yoshio Inaba — each represents a basic literary archetype or fundamental characteristic. Shimura plays the assumed leader of the samurai, while another is the strategist or the pensive, reflective samurai. For Kimura, he plays the youngest of the samurai, a swordsman not quite adept in the normative skill and dignity that would befit the true samurai.
But most interestingly of all is Mifune’s Kikuchiyo, who is neither samurai nor peasant — nor anything really besides the trickster figure, the buffoon who acts more like an animal than a human being, scratching his neck profusely while kicking the dirt beneath his feet in humorous defiance. Uncharacteristically of Kurosawa, normally a hardened perfectionist, he gave Mifune free reign to improvise, producing what is likely Mifune’s most peculiar character in his acting career.
Samurai traditionally carry two swords, a main tachi or katana and a shorter wakizashi, but Kikuchiyo uses the less-commonly used ōdachi, the Western equivalent being the longsword or claymore. The sword is as big as him, but it is also not just a simple, oversized prop; it is a metaphor for his pride and ego, but we later discover he is compensating for his shortcomings. Kikuchiyo would happen to be the most complex character in the film, for he is both farmer and samurai, and at once neither and nothing.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Mifune — as he is so masterful of doing — upon finding the villagers’ stash of stolen samurai gear, storms the frame with how tragic his character truly is. For reasons that will be left unspoiled, he hates both farmer and samurai, therefore hating himself, and the shield he puts up for himself is his buffoonery and drunkenness. Kikuchiyo is one of Mifune’s greatest characters (and there are dozens), and he is unquestionably the character in “Seven Samurai” that will linger in the minds of the audience long after having watched the film.
Many of Kurosawa’s films are about bringing people together into groups, even across the varied strata of the social hierarchy. Yet, as time would move on for the director — in one noted incident later in his life, an attempted suicide — his films would grow darker, be more about death and tragedy and instead be about people breaking apart, with thanks, in part, due to his increasing admiration for Shakespeare.
For “Seven Samurai,” Shakespeare’s influence is readily apparent not only in the tragedy that befalls certain characters but in the manner of disguise and play-acting. For women living in feudal Japan, they were sadly often the sport of bandits and vagrants, their bodies taken advantage of. The penniless samurai, the rōnin, could also become such a plunderer. One of the village women is forced to cut her hair, keep out of sight and act like a boy if seen. Even upon their arrival, the farmers — knowing of the ways a crestfallen samurai could act — would rather hide than greet them, even though the samurai are their hired protectors.
With groups in mind, Kurosawa has forever mastered the shot of large groups of people. As is so often mentioned, Kurosawa’s affinity for geometric spacing in his blocking and staging over his career is ever-present here in “Seven Samurai.” When groups of people are included in a shot, they are often shown formed into a circle, while other instances find characters — in the frame itself, with cinematography in mind — are placed into triangular spaces within the frame.
What is more, even the basic concept of the circle and triangle finds its way into on-screen symbols that represent the samurai and the bandits (denoted as circles on maps or banners), and in the outlier, Kikuchiyo, represented as a triangle, further extrapolating his character as not being an authentic samurai.
Trading semiotics now for Kurosawa’s technique and style, we find his oft-used method of using the axial cut (a replacement for the zoom; a type of jump cut, where the camera suddenly moves closer to or further away from its subject), his editing style of cutting on movement, the employment of weather, the use of a telephoto lens to make the image appear flattened, making characters who are far apart appear closer together and in his cutting from a scene of great quiet to one of great dynamism — markedly shown in an early scene where a samurai parts a crowd with a sweeping motion of his spear, creating a ripple around him, a circle. Furthermore, like so many Kurosawa pictures, action and movement are shot through literal lines in the image, usually that of tree trunks and branches, wooden barricades and window slats.
For Kurosawa, he notes “Seven Samurai” as one of his most difficult productions. The producing studio of the film, Toho Studios (who would just a month later produce one of their largest products, Godzilla), shut down production on the film twice. Kurosawa, however, pressed on knowing that Toho had already invested half a million dollars into the film, a large sum at the time. Like many fraught film productions — looking to “Apocalypse Now” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” for instance — it would often seem greatness is borne out of tribulation.
In a fiery sequence, he actually set the film set on fire, the burning of several huts (something that would happen again some 30 years later, on a far larger scale, in one of his last epic films, “Ran”), which drove his need to make everything in his films look as real as possible. And in the climactic final battle in the rain, a shoot so long and so bitingly cold, Mifune remarked that it was the coldest he had ever been in his life.
Additionally, Kurosawa is often noted as a master director but not enough as a master editor because he would often edit the film through the night after a day of shooting, a rare practice of many filmmakers of the time. But Kurosawa was a rare filmmaker as is, often touted as the greatest film director of all time.
Speaking for “Seven Samurai,” a film set in the past, Kurosawa wanted his audiences to find that the past may yet still give meaning to the present, that some traits of humanity are eternal. But he also wanted to make an entertaining film. Something woefully unmentioned in this review is in how “Seven Samurai” is considered by many to be the first big action film in cinematic history; it even carries with it what is regarded as the first use of slow motion in an action movie.
Kurosawa, on the film, once said: “Japanese films all tend to be [light, plain and simple, but wholesome as well], just like [green tea over rice], but I think we ought to have both richer foods and richer films. And so I thought I would make a film which was entertaining enough to eat, as it were.” And how delicious it turned out to be.
“Seven Samurai” provides a rare experience for the critic, in that even though I have written at length about the film, there is still so much more that can be discussed. Many things are unmentioned, unnamed, which reasonably brings to the fore just how absolutely dense this work is. Writing about the film even proved terrifying. Its reputation is so grand, it feels as if justice could never be done for it by any measure in a writer’s mind.
The film is one of the most essential viewing experiences in cinematic history. It’s the type of film that leaves you sitting there speechless, that this type of film (with so much mastery happening in the script, the music, the performances, the directing) even exists at all. To recall a word used earlier, the term “behemoth” has never before seemed so perfectly fitting for a film — and it very well may never be again.