Seven Samurai (1956)
Seven Samurai (1956)

Genre: Adventure and Drama Running Time: 3 hrs. 27 min.

Release Date: November 19th, 1956 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Akira Kurosawa Actors: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukio Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Daisake Kato, Ko Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi

 


 

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ften considered the greatest Japanese film of all time (a sentiment made more amusing by the fact that legendary director Akira Kurosawa patterned his picture after the Westerns of American masters like John Ford), the landmark epic “Seven Samurai” is an adventure-filled tale of honor, bravery, and love. Masterfully assembled and paced, the typically daunting 3 1/2-hour runtime never seems underused or overstuffed, especially as riveting storytelling, profound character development, sensational acting, and staggering moments of breathtaking mise en scene frequently flood the stage. Its heart and message, flourished by insights into romanticized yet nevertheless historical Japanese culture and fantasy make this critically-acclaimed production a true film connoisseur’s delight.

A small barley village is terrorized by bandits. Each time their crops come in, the residents are raided and left with barely enough food to survive. After consulting the village elder (Kuninori Todo), it’s determined that delegates should go into town to hire mighty samurai to defend them. Though only able to offer food in exchange for the dangerous service, farmer Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) and his two aides luckily stumble upon a noble ronin, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), who agrees to help them. His motives are beyond any material rewards; he’s a man encouraged by unseen forces and inexplicable principles to simply do the right thing. He begins rounding up old comrades and unemployed, hungry fighters, until six samurai (and one straggler, who insists on tagging along) are brought back to the village to stand up against the marauders.

The premise is simple but the approach is supreme. Carefully studying the motives and reasoning behind multilayered acts of charity, courage, and sacrifice, Kurosawa has created an acute character study over a wide range of personalities. The first samurai to join Master Kambei is compelled by unwavering respect – also seeking nothing in return. The second samurai joins even before hearing the details of the inevitable attack, thanks to his long-standing camaraderie with the renowned ronin. And a young disciple tags along after witnessing a generous display of mettle. Others are similarly drawn by the notion of once again engaging in battle – a bygone, rousing activity that gives a samurai purpose.

The seventh samurai is Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune (as Kikuchiyo), memorably playing a clownish, foolhardy opposite to the calm, collected leader. Striving to impress his colleagues and earn a place among genuine warriors, he also knows of the farmers’ suffering and seeks a personal redemption from his past. In cleverly constructed scenes of irony, Kikuchiyo demonstrates basic fighting skills with specific end results, yet with much less prowess than his compatriots. When a superior takes out two rogues with two focused swipes of his sword, Kikuchiyo can be seen jumping on top of the third, flailing about wildly to subdue him. Constantly seeking attention and mocking the tactics of his companions, he has more to prove to himself than the instruction of his peers could possibly satisfy. His significance is most potent in the notion that righteousness can attract the finer qualities in others; in the world of “Seven Samurai,” heroism is contagious.

Although Kurosawa blends the styles of Japanese cinema with Western sensibilities, the buildup of suspense is approached in near complete contrast to that of modern movies. Today, there would be music swelling to introduce jumpy images; here, during several confrontations near the enemy fortress, the music cuts out completely, leaving long moments of silence – stress and anxiety is instead mirrored on the faces of onlookers and participants. This unmolested presentation of combat serves not just to generate awe, but also to demonstrate realism. During the final battle, in low visibility in a mud-soaked arena, frantic shouting and gung-ho war cries also chime in to intensity the death-drenched onslaught – a sequence made more spectacular thanks to Kurosawa’s first-time multiple-camera setup.

Countless paradigmatic battle tactics and strategies are employed throughout the film, with morality lessons imbued in each. Saving others to save oneself (with teamwork and the avoidance of panic), holding positions to dispirit the enemy, and maintaining a sense of control all play against social class issues, ungratefulness or failure to appreciate small wins, and fear (thanks to wildly uncommon undertakings for lowly peasants). Further moral conflicts are evidenced by an obvious sense of unease from the very people that many of the samurai will instinctively – without hesitation – die for, coupled with a romance subplot in which a woman has her hair cut and is dressed like a man for fear of being in the unpredictable presence of lordless soldiers (or mercenaries, as they’re initially viewed). Trust and overcoming prejudices, even when they have nowhere else to turn, will be the toughest predicaments for wary villagers unable to defend themselves.

In the end, there is both great tragedy and great success. A joyous celebration for victory and independence belongs only to the farmers (in a scene paralleling the conclusion of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” comparatively symbolizing an outsider forever barred from rejoining humanity) as Master Kambei fully realizes that their only compensation for service and lives lost is heightened self-worth and the knowledge that they aided in the benefit of those in need – something a samurai’s code takes for granted. Their accomplishments are swiftly dismissed as the villagers rejoice, immediately forgetting that their saviors are still there, on the horizon. But such is the existence of the samurai, and for them, it is enough.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10