Often imitated but never equalled, Akira Kurosawa’s first samurai story, also credited as the first modern action film, started the momentum of the legendary film maker’s cinematic influence that continues on to this day.
The players who make up the heptagonal motley crew are as follows:
Takashi Shimura is the group’s leader Kambei Shimada, a wise war-weary ronin who is the first to be recruited by the villagers and helps them to find the other samurai recruits. Daisuke Kato plays Shichiroji, an old friend and lieutenant of Kambei and who, following the chance meeting, agrees to join the cause.
Yoshio Inaba is Gorobei Katayama, a skilled archer who becomes the group’s second in command and comes up with the plan for the village defences. Isao Kimura is Katsushiro Okamoto, son of a wealthy landowner this young untested warrior defied his family to become a wandering samurai. He quickly becomes Kambei’s disciple. Minoru Chiaki plays Heihachi Hayashida, a samurai recruited by Gorobei less for his fighting skill but more for his ability to maintain his comrades’ good cheer in the face of adversity.
Seiji Miyaguchi is Kyuzo, a stone-faced, serious-minded swordsman who initially refuses to join the group but changes his mind, he is always looking for opportunities to test and improve his skills. And last but not least is legend, Toshiro Mifune is Kikuchiyo a humorous rambunctious character who claims to be a samurai yet strongly identifies with the villagers and their plight.
After having repeatedly suffered at the hands of marauding bandits, residents of a farming village hire a group of samurai to defend against the bandits when they return.
Even though his later films heavily influenced some of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood, if there is one film Kurosawa is recognised by and revered for it has to be this one. The remakes and variations that followed (“The Magnificent Seven” and “Dirty Dozen” to name a few) whilst recognisable, do not match this simple story elevated to epic proportions that is rich in detail, vivid characterisations and spectacular action. It is with some irony then that this film, inspired by Hollywood westerns such as “Stagecoach” would go on to inspire Hollywood in return.
The three hour plus running time seems daunting yet Kurosawa and co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni crafted a story steeped in traditional Japanese culture packed with sub plots that challenge those rigid traditions.
The scenes involving the young Katsushiro’s romance with one of the former’s daughters highlight this, challenging the notion of love over status. The farmer’s reaction to this might seem over the top given the bandits pose a much bigger problem but this just brings to the fore the need that drives both the samurai and the farmers to fulfil complex social obligations.
The farmers feel it is their lot to suffer in poverty at the hands of the bandits whereas the samurai are honour bound to defend the helpless. Yet each of the samurai are given their own story arc and reasons for accepting the mission such as loyalty to an old commander, undergo a rite of passage, adding that individual human tone. Of the seven, Kikuchiyo (a wonderfully dynamic performance from Toshiro Mifune) provides the most human quality, a boisterous, high spirited character claiming to hail from a prominent samurai lineage yet displaying none of the stoic qualities of his comrades. He is an uncouth over-compensator who provides some of the film’s finest comedic moments as in the scene where he tries to ride a horse and fails, but we also learn this boorishness masks a deep seeded insecurity and sadness.
Much of the film is spent setting the scene and establishing the characters before the final hour that features some innovatively filmed, brutal action with exhilarating horse battles and realistic weapons fighting. Kurosawa placed multiple moving cameras to capture all the action, and telephoto lenses (rare in 1954) bringing the background, middle and fore together filling the screen while placing the viewer bang in the middle of unfolding events. Whilst this adds an epic captivating quality, the battles are never shown for their own sake. In establishing the farmers’ desperate plight and etching out the defenders’ colourfully complex characters, one can’t help but grieve for their loss, making the story’s social message at the end all the more poignant.
“Seven Samurai” is a simple story that combines the very best of high quality film making. The running time feels significantly shorter with its heady mix of philosophical observations, comedy and action, brought to life by some incredible performances. Given the film’s harmonious blend of epic action, characterisation and engrossing storytelling it’s not hard to see why it remains one of the greatest films ever made!
- All the principle samurai characters are based on real historical figures except for Kikuchiyo. It was felt that a more relatable character was needed that wasn’t a fully-fledged samurai.
- Since Kikuchiyo was a fictional creation Toshiro Mifune was given plenty of scope to improvise.
- The film is set during Japan’s “Sengoku” period 1467 – 1603 a time of social and political upheaval during which the country was in a near constant state of conflict. It ended following the unification of political power under the “Tokugawa Shogunate”.
- Films based on or remakes of “Seven Samurai” include “The Magnificent Seven”, “Dirty Dozen”, “Hawk the Slayer”, and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life”.
- In the sci-fi remake “Battle Beyond the Stars” there are many references to “Seven Samurai” including a race of aliens who call themselves the Akira.