In a 16th century Japan ravaged by civil war, when central authority has been fragmented and warlords rule, a village of penniless farmers learn that a horde of bandits plan to attack as soon as their rice is harvested. Most favor capitulation, but the village elder decides they will fight back by hiring samurai to help protect them. When told they are unlikely to find samurai willing to fight just for food, the elder replies, “Find hungry samurai.”
The firebrand villager who favored resistance journeys into town with several others, but they find that skilled samurai consider it an insult to work for food, while those interested in their offer are too weak. Ready to give up, they come across an aged but skilled ronin (Takashi Shimura) who deftly rescues a kidnapped infant from a thief by disguising himself as a priest.
The ronin protests that he’s not especially skilled, just a veteran of battles, most of them losing ones. For perhaps this reason, he accepts the farmers’ offer and recruits five more samurai to defend the village. They are followed to the village by a drunkard (Toshiro Mifune) who fashions himself a fierce warrior and seeks respect from the samurai.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa from a screenplay by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, it is impossible to overstate the legacy the most famous Japanese film ever made has had on global cinema.
Francis Coppola and Steven Spielberg were heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s mastery of pictorial composition and pacing, while George Lucas borrowed many of his mythic themes and archetypes for Star Wars. Seven Samurai has been remade as a classic western (John Struges’ The Magnificent Seven) and parody (John Landis’ Three Amigos!) while its plot devices have become staples of the modern action adventure film: the introduction of a skilled hero on the job, the assembly of experts to perform a mission and the relationship between master and apprentice.
The cast has its moments of over-the-top acting, notably the cowering behavior of the farmers and Mifune’s mad dog performance, the latter of which steals the film. But these bits of extravagance fit within the context of the magnificent images projected onto the screen.
The film’s visual palette is awesome. Kurosawa fills the frame with simultaneous action going on in the foreground, middle and background, much of it captured in beautifully composed deep focus shots. The film demands repeated viewings to absorb it all. Details can be easily missed, like a figure playing with hand puppets reflected onto the wall as the samurai discuss their battle plan. These lend the film an incredible depth of field.
The story deftly bounces from one plot point to another. Even at 3 1/2 hours, there is none of the fluff that many foreign films savor. The many beautiful shots, such as Ko Kimura’s childlike samurai laying on a bank of flowers and staring into sky through the trees, are there for dramatic effect.
The script is equally masterful, with much memorable dialogue (“The deepest friendship in ten comes about in a chance meeting”) and clearly defined characters among the samurai. The bit players and extras are quite well cast, particularly the wild coolies who hector the farmers in town.
The action is brilliantly choreographed as set against the layout of the village, with mountains in the background, a mill on the edges and brooks and rich forests surrounding it. There is much violence, but stylistic, comic book mayhem is not the point of the movie.
What Kurosawa reveals – and what the remakes and imitations miss – is a rebellion by misfits against an entrenched social structure. This was the first film in Japanese cinema in which the peasantry, not the elite class, employed samurai. It is established early on that samurai and farmers do not mix. Each fear and loathe the other.
Seven Samurai is about the duty of men and their social roles. Like characters in a Greek tragedy, the farmers, the samurai and the bandits all have roles assigned to them by birth (“It is a farmer’s life to suffer” one villager moans, while the coolies take a look at the pitiful villagers and proclaim they are thankful not to have been born farmers.) That the bandits continue to attack the village even after discovering it is strategically defended speaks to the film’s examination of the caste system in Japan.