Critical essays, histories, and appreciations of great films
- Akira Kurosawa
- Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Kato, Minoru Chiaki
- 207 min.
- Release Date
A convergence of art, layered textuality, and entertainment that has never been surpassed in the history of filmmaking, Seven Samurai represents Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s most optimistic inspection of humanity and individuality, two themes that twisted with increased cynicism as his career progressed. Kurosawa’s universal story appeals to all audiences, regardless of age or culture, because Kurosawa uses a gamut of filmmaking and narrative methods that go above demographic or nationalistic designation. Blending Western formal methodologies with themes rooted in Eastern history, he generates near tangible energy onscreen with expert editing and innovative camera techniques. When viewing this 207-minute epic, the film passes by as if time has no meaning; its energy absorbs the audience in a visceral, amusing, compelling, heartening, and kinetic experience—perhaps the most enjoyable cinematic undertaking ever put to film. And yet, Seven Samurai moves beyond simple entertainment, utilizing its length to develop natural relationships between the characters, so we get to know them, their personas, and their individual philosophies. Seven Samurai is a spectacle of the human spirit, an interplay of hope and questions about the way of the world, and finally, an epic in which ideas and action converge with a remarkable, vital scope.
Known as “The Emperor” in Japan for his dictatorial approach to directing and his status as Japan’s preeminent filmmaker, Kurosawa worked primarily as an arthouse filmmaker until 1953, the year he began production on this masterpiece among several masterpieces in his career. Kurosawa had already achieved worldwide acclaim for Rashomon, his brilliant multi-perspective platform from 1950, which, for the first time, single-handedly attracted interest from the global film community to Japan. For his next picture, Kurosawa set out to make an allegorical samurai film, to rekindle an otherwise dead genre in postwar Japan, the jidaigeki, or period film. Although Japanese productions had produced countless samurai films with chambara, period films rooted in sword fighting, they weren’t strictly a classical or historical jidaigeki, in that chambara often ignored the meaning of the past as it applies to contemporary Japanese culture. Kurosawa sought to embrace the realism of history so frequently denied by chambara films, but also activate realism into something “entertaining enough to eat” as he would say—something both the erudite and the common could devour, a film loaded with thematic and energetic richness. To this end, Kurosawa paints with epic, historically precise, and philosophic brushstrokes, allowing Seven Samurai to transcend genre and cultural limitations to become a universally consumable motion picture.
Seven Samurai‘s narrative is deceptively simple: A poor farming village in sixteenth century feudal Japan is plagued by the oncoming threat of bandits. Desperate, community members vote to fight rather than let the bandits raid another year’s toiled-over rice crop. But realizing their village knows nothing of battle, an elder wise man orders that they hire samurai to defend their home. Village representatives find that collecting samurai willing to fight, without the promise of esteem or money, is near-impossible. Fortunately, the meet Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an honorable do-gooder who helps them locate and audition potential candidates, offering nothing except food and shelter, and of course the excitement of battle. When the peasants and Kambei eventually find six other willing samurai, they are men who enjoy battle, require little, and are impelled to do right. Invigorating the farming community with a sense of solidarity, the samurai teach the peasants to fight and defend themselves, erecting walls and digging motes, while also teaching offensive strategy. When bandits eventually arrive to plunder the village, battle ensues, leaving a number of the samurai and farmers dead but ultimately victorious. Spring arrives in short order, and the three remaining samurai are no longer needed as the rice-planting season awakens, and no bandits are left to battle. The samurai and farmers go their separate ways.
To understand how such a simple, familiar tale could become one of cinema’s finest treasures, one must understand the setting. Early 1950s Japanese cinema relied on a very specific sense of nationalism, from a storytelling point of view. Ostensibly, Japan worked in two major categories: gendaigeki and jidaigeki, both in which any number of genres could function. The former category, gendaigeki, worked exclusively in contemporary settings and focused on the modern day world. Jidaigeki are historically-set films employing settings that range from Japan’s Heian period (794-1185 A.D.) to the Meiji period (as late as 1912 A.D., when Emperor Meiji died). They use a selection of craftsmen, farmers, merchants, nobleman, prostitutes, and most popularly samurai as their choice characters. Frequently, swordplay films known as chambara (an onomatopoeia word for swords clanging), a subgenre within jidaigeki reliant solely on action (equivalent to Western gunslinger movies), dominated the category. Samurai dramas and epics outside of chambara were a longstanding tradition in Japanese film, drawing from a history of written storytelling. Established tales like those of The Loyal 47 Ronin and Miyamoto Musashi were repeatedly produced in Japan, as much as once every few years, until after WWII when samurai ideals no longer coincided with the United States Occupation’s postwar statutes over the Japanese filmmaking industry.
Real samurai existed in Japan from the late twelfth century until industrial, militarized society overtook the country with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. In some cases, samurai were nobility; elsewhere, they were merely bureaucrats. Their most common designation was that of a warrior. In Japan’s sixteenth-century feudal period, the country was ruled by a shogun of the Imperial Army: the True Power behind the representational figurehead of the Emperor. Across warring states, warlords known as daimyo controlled individual clans, fighting great battles while vying for power. Devoted to their daimyo, samurai were committed to death, even suicide (called seppuku or harakiri) on their lord’s command. And should their lord die, samurai would become masterless wanderers known as ronin. Samurai followed bushido, a code meaning “Way of the Warrior”—essentially, edicts on how samurai live their lives, remain loyal, stay self-disciplined, and build their ongoing existential and physical growth. Bushido requires that samurai become authorities in martial arts, poetry, calligraphy, and philosophy, surpassing individualism and selfishness. Experts in Zen-Buddhism and swordsmanship, samurai were a group bent on honor. But if samurai became masterless ronin, they were prevented from undertaking peasant manual labor for pay, and so would become nomadic. Many would travel about between dojos (martial arts schools), honing their skills, accepting a night’s sleep and a meal in exchange for a lesson, or winning their room and board by defeating the dojo’s instructor. Other ronin would take odd jobs that utilized their skills, while others still resorted to criminality.
In the years preceding WWII, Japanese culture found a simplified version of samurai honor in military applications, linking kamikaze warriors willing to die for their imperial army to the blind loyalty of samurai to their daimyo. Death was met openly and without hesitation in both cases. When Japan surrendered, thus ending WWII, the Japanese people were struck with a vast ambiguity and uncertainty that penetrated their self-identity. With the war lost, U.S. Occupation forces that implemented an enforced democracy oversaw the Japanese film industry and required pre-approval of all film scripts prior to their production. For Occupation authorities, the samurai film represented a sense of Imperialist Japan’s nationalism, therefore incongruous for the new, reformed, democratic Japan. In theory, samurai films during the Occupation would have implied an unquestioning, death-driven loyalty to a lord—certainly an anti-democratic thought. But with a lacking samurai presence in Japanese culture, the samurai’s sense of honor and loyalty also disappeared. Japan’s culture took an Americanized dive, resulting in rampant crime and disillusion, as well as the emergence of highly organized yakuza gangs (something Kurosawa recognized and addressed in his postwar pictures Drunken Angel and, to an extent, Stray Dog). Only after the Occupation ended, effective April of 1952, did jidaigeki samurai films reemerge.
With Seven Samurai, Kurosawa hopes for understanding between the polarized peoples in his newly reformed culture—those willing to embrace past ideals, and those lost contemporaries looking to redefine themselves. He does this through historical and narrative allegory, and therein links his contemporary opposition with the oppositional conflict and hopeful understanding between his film’s very different parties: farmer and samurai. Instead of burying the past under a veil of his present-day postwar despair, known as the “kyodatsu condition,” Kurosawa sought to reincorporate a relevant past to revive the Japanese Self, which could draw on contemporarily applicable historical events and iconography, specifically the long-venerable code of the samurai. And yet, in the strictest definition, the samurai hired by the farmers are ronin and are not technically samurai; they are obligated to no master beyond their own personal discipline to “The Way of the Warrior”. Roger Ebert suggests these samurai simply follow “the roles imposed on them by society,” as if they simply fulfilled some preordained behavioral directive by helping the farmers. But pride can obstruct such directives, as we see early on when the farmers solicit a husky samurai who shouts in refusal, insulted that they would offer such absurd terms for his services. For the seven samurai hired by the farmers, taking on such unrewarding, surely bleak circumstances attests to their individual ethos; while the peasants remain unable to offer more than rice and a warm bed, each ronin chooses a humanist’s devotion to samurai honor by accepting their terms. Thusly, the title does not refer to them as ronin, but samurai, because based on their selflessness on behalf of the farming village, each remains true to the mores established in bushido code.
Kurosawa’s humanism settles in the tangibility of his seven heroes, each with a specific, cohesive personality. Introduced all throughout the film’s first hour, Kurosawa describes them as a congenial and honorable bunch, making their ensuing deaths more profound for the viewer. Defining the samurai characters involved developing seven distinct personalities, one of many aspects of the film’s production labored-over by Kurosawa. When the farmers first meet their samurai leader, Kambei, he displays colossal humility and bravery, defying the farmers’ prejudices against the proud warriors. A crowd gathers around Kambei, an elder who kneels by a stream and proceeds to shave off his own topknot. A samurai losing his topknot infers punishment or his induction into the priesthood—either way, with no topknot, he no longer remains a samurai. (Indeed, several filmic samurai have been shamed after losing their topknot; in Masaki Kobayashi’s masterful film Harakiri, actor Tatsuya Nakadai’s character simply cuts off the topknots of his enemies, knowing shame will drive them to commit seppuku.) But Kambei’s own sense of honor is greater than such superficial illustrations of samurai code. Once Kambei’s head is smooth, he dresses in priest’s clothing, and then he uses the disguise to cut down a kidnapper holding a child hostage. Doing this without accepting a reward for his actions, Kambei is plainly the farmers’ ideal candidate to lead their bandit resistance. When asked to join, he accepts their proposal, continuing with the recruitment process himself.
Kambei’s sense of honor becomes the selling point to other samurai teeter-tottering on whether or not to join the farmers’ David and Goliath fight. Subsequent samurai join because Shimura’s character is so “interesting” or strictly honorable. Kambei believes in facing reality. Nothing surprises him. All one can do is his best, mainly for others—even if, as in the farmers’ case, it means facing the impossible. Kambei embodies model heroism and selflessness. Actor Takashi Shimura plays him worn and dignified, not dissimilar from his character Watanabe in Kurosawa’s delicate drama Ikiru (1952), arguably Shimura’s best performance, given two years prior to his role in Seven Samurai. Here we watch Kurosawa’s dedication to continuity grow on Kambei’s shaved head, his hair slowly returning as the film progresses. Kambei takes long, ponderous moments, rubbing his fuzzy top, a stark symbol of his human spirit and a reminder of his sacrifice, as he works through a given problem. Shimura and Kurosawa’s partnership would last longer than even that of the Kurosawa-Toshiro Mifune affiliation, but Mifune would prove to be the more admired actor, on the whole, due to this film. And yet, while Seven Samurai’s extensive success made Mifune Japan’s most popular star, Shimura’s performance is the film’s center. Moreover, up to this point in Japanese film, samurai were depicted as supermen, cowboy figures, certainly not human or “real”. But Kambei’s humanist traits glow around him like an aura.
Each of the seven samurai is equally distinct, several played by regulars in Kurosawa productions. Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), the second to join, signs up because of the principled quality he sees in Kambei; though he understands the farmers’ plight, he tells Kambei, “It’s your character that I find most compelling.” Good-humored and particularly smiley, Gorobei becomes Kambei’s second in command, handled with gracious warmth by Inaba. Daisuke Kato plays Kambei’s former soldier Shichiroji. Pudgy, yet a fruitful warrior, he joins without an instant of hesitation. He fights for his love of battle, not for money or rank. “This may be the one that kills us,” Kambei warns. Shichiroji’s face slowly raises a smile. Perhaps Shichiroji seeks to finally achieve The End through an honorable death, but alas, he is one of only three living samurai when the film’s end credits begin to roll. When asked if he has killed many, the fourth samurai, Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki), replies, “There’s no cutting me off when I start cutting. So I make it a point to run away first.” Gorobei recruits Hayashida, finding him chopping wood for a meal; not exactly a prime martial artist, the character is hired to lift morale in downtimes, allowing both the villagers and fellow samurai a hearty laugh when in distress. Based on legendary Japanese warrior-poet Miyamoto Musashi, master swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) initially turns down Kambei’s offer to protect the farmers. But then he appears before the group one night, joining without explanation. And surely, no explanation is needed. Kambei witnesses Kyuzo’s talent during a Western-like duel, where his sword strikes with elegance, speed, and class few samurai can control. During the farmers’ battle, Kyuzo, like each of the other three samurai who fall, dies by bandit gunfire; no sword or spear could ever take down this paladin—only the blunt, unskilled attack of a gunshot.
Amid the trained and noble warriors, there are two exceptions. The adolescent Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), though from a noble family and not trained extensively in bushido convention, recognizes Kamei’s greatness when he sees it, and follows him like a puppy. Katsushiro is introduced after Kambei cuts down the kidnapper before he ever agrees to fight for the farmers. Kambei moves along without the need for due praise; the farmers trail behind in a nervous pack, egging each other on to approach him. All at once, the would-be disciple Katsushiro advances, begging for Kambei to teach him. Despite making an eager assistant, Kambei later rejects the idea of including Katsushiro in the seven. “Kids work harder than adults,” Hayashida defends, “But only if you treat them like adults.” Kambei concedes. Later, in the village, the pubescent Katsushiro frolics in a flower field and finds a sweetheart in village farmgirl, Shino (Keiko Tsushima)—with whom he exchanges a number of wide-eyed glances and even a brief roll in the hay. His ongoing courtship with Shino adds romance to the list of genres found in Seven Samurai, a seemingly endless source of varied genus. And along with Kambei and Shichiroji, Katsushiro remains one of the three surviving samurai.
The other exception to the warrior rule is Kikuchiyo, the role which solidified Toshiro Mifune as an international star. Kikuchiyo is, in fact, not a samurai or ronin at all. A stray vagrant putting on airs to attain the glory of battle, Kikuchiyo begins as the film’s comic relief, boasting his prowess in a drunken stupor, carrying a longsword inches longer than any of the other samurai (an ironic phallic symbol if there ever was one). But Kikuchiyo overplays his masculinity, coming off as buffoonish to the other six samurai he strives to emulate. Even after being told to buzz off, Kikuchiyo trails along with their group several paces behind. He invites himself back to the farmers’ village, determined to assert his battle-readiness with harsh fighting words, mocking insults, and near-slapstick displays of horsemanship. Mifune’s reputation as an unhinged Japanese actor began much earlier than this Seven Samurai with pictures like Drunken Angel and Rashomon; but his status received its most emphatic support in this role, often screaming in laughter, tongue out, making crossed-eyes, desperate to prove both his manhood and honor (sometimes opposites in bushido code). But Kurosawa conceived Kikuchiyo’s tragic figure to provide a living bridge between peasant and samurai, and as a result, the character emphasizes the film’s theme of modernity and history fusing into a post-modern philosophy for living—the very meaning of Seven Samurai embodied by this one character.
But even as Kikuchiyo aspires to become a warrior, he admits that he was born a farmer’s son, thus his presence amid the seven samurai connects the two groups, farmer and samurai. He also demystifies both stations in the film’s most powerful speech. After discovering the farmers’ cache of stolen samurai weaponry, taken from injured or vulnerable samurai killed after wandering into their village, he scorns his comrade warriors for being surprised at the farmers’ predatory instinct: “What did ya think these farmers were anyway? Buddhas or something? Don’t make me laugh. There’s no creature on earth as wily as a farmer! Ask ‘em for rice, barley, anything, and all they ever say is, ‘We’re all out.’ But they’ve got it. They’ve got everything. Dig under the floorboards. If it’s not there, try the barn. You’ll find plenty. Jars of rice, salt, beans, sake! Go up in the mountains. They have hidden fields. They kowtow and lie, playing innocent the whole time. You name it, they’ll cheat you on it! After a battle, they hunt down the loser with their spears. Listen to me! Farmers are misers, weasels, and crybabies! They’re mean, stupid, murderers! Damn! I could laugh till I cry! But tell me this: Who turned them into such monsters? You did! You samurai did! Damn you to hell! In war, you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What do you expect ‘em to do? What the hell are farmers supposed to do?”
With farmers having murdered vulnerable samurai in the past, contrasted by the samurai’s reputation for exploiting farmers, both parties are shamed by Kikuchiyo’s words, humbled, and willing to forgive each others’ misdeeds for a grander sense of humanism. Kikuchiyo represents Kurosawa’s most creative turn of character, since he begins as a clown, but later provides the defining moment used to adjoin the villagers and samurai in a marriage of democratic ideals. Consequently, Kikuchiyo proves himself a warrior, advancing from farmer to samurai; he rises to accomplish the greatest single act performed by one of the seven when, in the final battle, he dies honorably just after killing the bandit leader (living up to that sword of his). Kikuchiyo’s growth of character also underscores Kurosawa’s harsh representation of violence in the picture—harsh in that he avoids dramatized violence, instead of communicating action alongside the film’s deeply real historicity. Part of Kikuchiyo idealizes battle, like a child who glorifies the violence of a comic book or movie without realizing the reality of death. Washed over with dreams of samurai honor, he ignores the bloody potential of the farmers’ conflict. Kurosawa’s violence is not romanticized; every death hurts, with victims falling into the sloppy mud below. How easy it would be if the bandits’ deaths were somehow cathartic and vindicating, but Kurosawa gives us a scene that acknowledges the reality of the situation: A bandit scout finds himself caught, and, despite protests from the samurai, is executed by a savage mob of angry farmers. Inelegant, and certainly dishonorable, such ignoble violence outside of The Battle is frowned upon by Kambei (and thus Kurosawa).
By blurring the dynamic between samurai honor and the farmers’ innocence, Kurosawa asserts that there is no good and bad through violence—certainly no victory by means of bloodshed. Instead, victory presents itself in, what Kambei hopes will be, an ideal trust between two communities, reaching back to Kurosawa’s intended metaphor where pre-industrial and postwar Japan find common ground. In Kikuchiyo’s search for equilibrium between farmer and samurai, he realizes noble perseverance remains the samurai’s true mode. This philosophy sustains each of the seven samurai, but it is through Kikuchiyo that the audience understands why, in the beginning, such talented warriors would take on this daunting task for so little in return. His advancement signifies the possibility of creating democratic gradations between historical and modern truth; thematically, the character’s growth reconciles Japan’s past with its confused present. Perhaps this is why Kikuchiyo’s death is so absolutely devastating, because he is the one bond between samurai, who are tempted to sack the village, and farmers so afraid of samurai that they hide their women. When Kikuchiyo, the last bastion of hope, dies, we realize any chance for common ground is impossible. The victory over the bandits notwithstanding, Kambei laments with the closing line of dialogue: “In the end, we lost this battle too.” All around the three surviving samurai, the newly safe farming village sparkles with life, a planting festival with beautiful music and dancing detailed in the distance. And now that the deed is done, the peasants’ eyes once again become suspicious and guarded, just as Kikuchiyo described; with their routine back to normal, it’s clear the farmers wish the samurai to leave. For the survivors (Kambei, Shichiroji, and Katsushiro), the battle was meaningless, simply the thing to do, without reward, perhaps insane, certainly quixotic. What Kambei’s grief suggests is that, still, the farmers do not trust the samurai; he hoped the farmers would gain or become something more with the samurai from their shared battle. The reality: farmers are farmers, samurai are samurai, bandits are bandits. The three cannot intermingle. Though it may seem that Kurosawa ultimately posits false hope for democratic idealism with Kikuchiyo’s death, the act itself has meaning and provides an undeniable hope for the future.
Based on actual events wherein farmers hired samurai to protect their village, the earliest ideas for Seven Samurai began with Kurosawa’s desire to reclaim the jidaigeki samurai genre by way of palpable entertainment—and certainly, much of his rhetoric on the film’s concept occupies the aforementioned consumption metaphor. As Kurosawa explains, “I think we ought to have richer foods, richer films.” Weeks of historical research helped gather necessary data for Kurosawa’s intended period realism, and eventually led to the discovery of the farmers-bandits-samurai storyline. Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, and Kurosawa simply elaborated from there, using more bandits and more samurai for an agreeably epic scale. Oguni did none of the actual writing even though he received credit; but he steered the story by overseeing Kurosawa and Hashimoto’s writing process—wherein, famously, the three credited writers holed-up in a hotel room for roughly six weeks, not allowing themselves to leave until their script was perfect. This was time well spent. Filming began in May 1953, under Toho Company Ltd., for a planned three-month shoot. By August, only one-third of the script was in the can and most of Kurosawa’s budget was spent (some $200,000, far exceeding normal budgetary caps in Japan’s film industry at the time).
Kurosawa’s obsession for detail wore on both he and the production. The film’s price tag drove upward, and he was hospitalized with exhaustion a number of times, so delays persisted. Kurosawa’s ancestors from the previous century were samurai, conceivably motivating his personal dedication to the project’s authenticity; then again, throughout the middle renaissance of his career, the director was known for similarly arduous productions, often tiring himself to exhaustion. On hiatus, Kurosawa spent all of September 1953 defending his directorship to Toho executives, who contemplated replacing him. Long before this production lull, however, Kurosawa foresaw potential power struggles and was clever enough to forgo filming the film’s climactic ending battle sequence until the last, keeping Toho on the hook. Shooting resumed October 3rd and continued until March of 1954. Kurosawa’s massive, expensive film drew attention to his directing style, notably his penchant for dictating commands like a military commander—rousing the occasional actress into tears or humiliating someone who had forgotten their lines. All of this was covered thoroughly by the Japanese media. Kurosawa was believed to be tyrannical by many, and his autocratic control over every detail might not have appealed to his lesser actors, but the onscreen result of his alleged harshness remains undeniably sound. On the other hand, members of Kurosawa’s regular acting troupe—such as Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Tatsuya Nakadai, Minoru Chiaki, and Kamatari Fujiwara—have attested to the director’s affable nature, despite a cross-section of his more sporadic castmembers thinking him intolerable. His publicized title “The Emperor” remains an overly simplified label, equated with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Master of Suspense” brand name, or “The Lubitsch Touch”—all tags summing up only the most popularized interpretation of the director’s work, or, in this case, Kurosawa’s approach to his work.
Stories from Seven Samurai’s set emerged in interviews with the cast and crew, seemingly describing Kurosawa in the prime of his publicized, detail-obsessed persona. For the farmers’ village and overall shooting locale, he scouted for months to find the perfect setting, which was sketched out in his head long before principal photography. Throughout five locations, Kurosawa erected assorted sections of the farming village to match where, visually, their location made the most sense. He also devised a registry of the village’s 101 members (just as Kambei keeps a list of remaining bandits)—including names, occupations, and other minor details—and required that all on-set actors, speaking lines or not, refer to each other in their characters’ names. With such order, Kurosawa could track continuity throughout his production, allowing even anonymous or background villagers a pulse. Kurosawa shoots his action with frequent use of deep focus, capturing the fore, middle, and background with multiple cameras and longer lenses. More cameras working at once meant better views of the action, and efficient creation of space through editing. Capturing the battle from numerous angles did not aestheticize his violence into graceful interplays of warrior and bandit, however; we feel each death, as Kurosawa remains dedicated to realism on all fronts. In each case, death is clumsy and unforgiving and unsophisticated. Several significant deaths are represented with slow motion, so that we might ruminate over their meaning, while others, like Kikuchiyo’s, play out at regular speeds, their importance eclipsed by the chaos of battle. And just as he labored over the grand schemes of action and setting, Kurosawa did not fail to overlook the minor details. Shino’s eyes, for example, always seem to capture light. This is because Kurosawa ordered that reflective mirrors, held at just the right angle, be used to create a sophomoric innocence in the character’s massive round eyes.
Filming under grim conditions proved almost as punishing as the events depicted in the film. Shot during the winter, artificial rain machines created the film’s downpour for the final battle, all but giving the crew frostbite but creating a wonderfully dramatic effect in the process. Actors sloshed through inches of near-frozen mud, slopping along, their strained efforts unmistakable onscreen. Most wore period-accurate moccasins and thin clothing, as the film takes place just before planting season, leaving their bodies exposed to the elements. In spite of the (surely exaggerated) abuses his cast and crew endured from his obstinate attention to detail, Kurosawa’s film wrapped in March of 1954. Fumio Hayasaka added the film’s iconic, stirring, delightful music—he had already composed for Kurosawa on Rashomon and Ikiru, among others—becoming the first Japanese composer to receive sole screen credit for his work. After editing, Seven Samurai would become the longest and most expensive Japanese film then produced, costing around $560,000. And yet, the film was one of Toho’s biggest money-makers of that year, despite its more than three-hour running time and price tag five-times the size of a normal Japanese film. Film critics the world over adorned the film with plentiful accolades, hailing it as a watershed not only for the Japanese film industry but for cinema as a whole. But because early reviewers idly complained about the film’s length, Toho cut the picture in 1956 to 155-minutes, selling the gutted product to Columbia Pictures for U.S. distribution. The abbreviation removed several crucial subplots, and in tow, much of Kurosawa’s social commentary. Toho reissued the longer version into Japanese theaters in 1975 and 1991; though proving successful in these screenings, the full film remained little-seen by world audiences. Americans extolled high praises for the abridged cut, regardless. In 2003, a 203-minute cut earned a theatrical reissue on American soil, reinvigorating love for and attention to Kurosawa’s greatest accomplishment. Not until 2006, when The Criterion Collection released the full 207-minute film on home video, complete with an improved subtitle translation and crisp digital cleaning, was Seven Samurai finally was restored to its whole, stunning visual and narrative clarity.
Over the years, remakes, inspirations, and down-right thieveries would draw on Seven Samurai’s commercial and artistic victory. The most popular of these derivations is, of course, American director-producer John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven from 1960, which spawned a number of sequels, and even a television series. Sturges adapted Kurosawa’s masterpiece into an American West setting, giving the film, but not Kurosawa or his other two writers, screen credit (which is more than Kurosawa’s Yojimbo received when adapted into A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone). Notable score by Elmer Bernstein aside, Sturges’ film lacks the majesty and philosophy behind its heroes and conflict. As Kurosawa would say, appropriately and succinctly, “Gunslingers are not samurai.” Indeed, the cowboys remain a vagrant bunch with no written maxim to follow, thus their employment by Mexican farmers bears no significant social, political, or philosophical implications. The resultant movie offers expert Western amusement thanks to Sturges’ direction, and fine performances by stars Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson, but leaves viewers with an empty stomach in comparison. Other minor inspirations include India’s most successful film of all time, Sholay, released in 1975, which took the skeletal outline of Seven Samurai for Bollywood’s version that ran for more than five years in India, advertised as “The Greatest Story Ever Told!” Fans of Pixar Animation Studios will also recognize Seven Samurai’s framework in A Bug’s Life (1998), which replaces samurai with assorted insect circus performers enlisted to rescue a farming colony of ants from grasshopper-bandits. In 2004, a Japanese anime series entitled Samurai 7 even attempted to retell the story in a postmodern futuristic world; over 26 episodes, the cartoon program touches on several themes from its source, but fails to address Kurosawa’s widespread historical themes.
The boundless degree to which Kurosawa’s films offer entertainment value is staggering when compared to his challenging, enduring themes. Subsequent to Seven Samurai, the director’s projects would become increasingly pessimistic toward the potential for social or political equality, as Japan moved further and further away from what Kurosawa considered humanism. From suspicion to bureaucracy, from corruption to neglect, from class crises to greed, Kurosawa’s oeuvre covers a range of cynical topics, all enclosed by his East-meets-West stylization and brimming energy. That the original Seven Samurai retains potency, salience, and Kurosawa’s promised esculent quality through various remakes and cuts, none reaching the sheer dramatic power of the original, affirms its place among the best films ever made. Kurosawa believed Seven Samurai would entertain by marrying realism, both historical and fatalistic, with classical cinematic archetypes. His efforts resulted in one of the most important films ever made. Unfolding with cohesion, without forced comic rhetoric or artificial descriptive devices, the film’s characters exemplify Kurosawa’s structural thesis: how closely linked concepts of reality (his accurate period mise-en-scène) and illusion (his expert manipulation of the cinematic apparatus) merge through his flawless interplay. His profound unification of action and statement subsists with enough complexity to gratify art film enthusiasts, but also consummately nurture moviegoers seeking escapist entertainment. Reading the epic film just once is impossible, as multiple viewings divulge undiscovered subtexts and visual details inside that impel awe and prompt further inspection. On infinite planes of enjoyment, Seven Samurai matures with every screening into an enduring text with no end to the potential discoveries waiting to be found therein.
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Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Third Edition, Expanded and Updated. With additional material by Joan Mellen. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1996.
Richie, Donald; Schrader, Paul. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to DVDs and Videos. Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International: Distributed in the U.S. by Kodansha America, 2005.