Seven Samurai (Japan, 1954)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The most popular cinematic export from Japan is inarguably the samurai movie. Whole books have been devoted to the genre, and more than one mail-order video business has made a tidy profit shipping samurai tapes and DVDs around the world. The most important samurai movie is Akira Kurosawa's 1954 feature, Seven Samurai, which not only impacted the way the genre was viewed, but elevated its status. Seven Samurai was influential not only in Japan and for foreign film enthusiasts, but it led to a popular and reasonably faithful remake, The Magnificent Seven. And, although Japanese critics during the '50s were dismissive of the picture, it has since achieved an almost mythical status and was recently selected by a group of '00 critics as the Best Japanese Movie of All-Time.

Curiously, for a feature that is often viewed as the standard-bearer of the samurai movie, Seven Samurai is actually an atypical genre entry. An "average" samurai film focuses on a sword-wielding, superhero-type individual who battles his way through the story, often triumphing over a seemingly overwhelming host of foes. Seven Samurai offers us flawed protagonists, some of whom are not skilled fighters, and one of whom is often drunk, belligerent, and decidedly non-heroic in his approach. The odds are impressive, yet, in large part due to the melancholy tone adopted by Kurosawa during the closing scene, the victory is hollow, and almost feels like a defeat. (The lead samurai's final words: "So. Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us.")

Seven Samurai is richly deserving of its high place in cineaste circles. Despite its epic length and scope, the key to the movie's success is that it focuses on a small group of characters. (The actual number of fully realized individuals is three, not seven – several of the "secondary" samurai are only sketchily developed.) The narrative is straightforward, allowing numerous opportunities for elaborate action sequences. In fact, the bulk of the movie's second half is comprised of battle scenes. These are clearly delineated and exactingly choreographed. Kurosawa, a meticulous craftsman, does not rely on editing sleight-of-hand to present fights. His stylistic imprint is emblazoned upon every frame. (Seven Samurai was filmed with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. For a sample of what Kurosawa accomplish in widescreen, check out some of his later films, starting with Hidden Fortress.)

Those familiar with the narrative of The Magnificent Seven will recognize the storyline for Seven Samurai. In order to shoehorn Seven Samurai's 3 1/2 hours of material into The Magnificent Seven's two hours, condensation was mandated. Two of Seven Samurai's lead characters were combined to form a single individual in The Magnificent Seven. For the most part, however, the basics were left intact. After viewing American remake, Kurosawa reportedly remarked that he was pleased with the effort, going so far as to send a gift to filmmaker John Sturges, who helmed the 1960 feature.

Seven Samurai tells the tale of a 16th century Japanese farm community that, led by a band of seven warriors, defends itself against a gang of pillaging robbers. When several of the village's men, lead by a hot-head named Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), grow weary of the annual raids of the bandits, they decide to act. Since the citizens do not have the martial ability or skill to fight, Rikichi seeks mercenary samurai who are willing to defend the settlement in return for food and lodging. The seven men who accompany Rikichi home are a diverse lot. They include the sage Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a great leader of men; Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a burly clown whose prowess with a sword does not match his arrogance; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a quiet master swordsman who lets his weapon speak for him; and young Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who idolizes Shichiroji and Kambei. Also in the party are Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), and Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba). After teaching the men of the town how to fight and preparing the village for its defense (building fences, flooding the rice fields, and tearing down a bridge), the seven samurai await the inevitable coming of the 40-odd bandits and the battle that will determine the peasants' future.

The film is divided into three sections. The first features the gathering of the protectors, as each samurai is given an introduction. Seven Samurai was the first film to use this approach; it has been copied often in the five decades since Kurosawa completed the movie. This portion of the picture is essentially set-up, but it's crucial to defining the characters and their relationships. The longest introduction belongs to Kikuchiyo, who initially appears as a drunken buffoon, then later proves to be more resourceful than any of his future companions expected.

Seven Samurai's second segment encompasses the preparations for battle. During this portion of the film, the protectors are introduced to the farmers. In addition to fortifying the settlement and teaching the men how to use weapons, a form of bonding occurs. Kikuchiyo becomes a favorite of the village children, and they follow him around. Katsushiro begins a romance with a local girl, Shino (Keiko Tsushima), who willingly offers herself to the samurai despite the dishonor such a liaison would bring upon her and her family. Being in the village also brings back troubling memories for Kikuchiyo, whose past remains shrouded from his fellows.

The third section is the battle for the village, with the bandits attacking in waves. There's also a pre-emptive strike attempted by the samurai, who raid the bandits' camp before they ride to the village. The bandits have two advantages over their intended prey – they are mounted and they are in possession of three guns. Despite being difficult to load and fire and notoriously unreliable, those weapons represent a significant advantage, and the samurai realize that the key to victory may be stealing at least one of the guns from their enemies. (Nearly all of the early significant casualties are the result of men being shot.)

Although Seven Samurai is an ensemble picture, no star shines brighter than Kurosawa's favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune. His Kikuchiyo is larger-than-life. Mifune is given an opportunity to show his range here, playing a stumbling drunk; a playful clown who delights in the company of children; a dark, brooding man who reflects on his unhappy past; and a terrifying fighter who cannot be slowed or stopped. Veteran Takashi Shimura, another frequent Kurosawa collaborator, is the voice of wisdom, reason, and patience as Kambei. The actor presents his character as a man who commands respect through his mere presence. Kambei's coolness is in direct contrast with Kikuchiyo's flamboyance. The third major samurai is Katsushiro. Isao Kimura portrays him with a mixture of energy and naïveté, then blends in a growing sense of somber realization as he recognizes that battle is not all glory.

Of the remaining four samurai, only Seiji Miyaguchi's Kyuzo stands out as memorable, primarily because he is so different from his fellows. Quiet and withdrawn, he is a serious individual who speaks primarily with his sword. Miyaguchi portrays him as an honorable, unsmiling loner. The other three are largely interchangeable until the third or fourth viewing of the film, when their personalities begin to emerge. Of the villagers, only Yoshio Tsuchiya's impulsive Rikichi, Kamatari Fujiwara's dour Manzo, and Keiko Tsushima's sultry Shino gain any real individuality. The bandits are portrayed from a distance; we don't get to know any of them (although we learn their motives – they are as hungry as the villagers).

One of the most intriguing sequences occurs as Kambei plans the defense of the village. Using a map of the environs, he explains how the enemy will likely approach and what he intends to do to impede them. By including this scene, Kurosawa ensures that we understand the layout of the village and the plans of the samurai, so that when the battle begins, we have an understanding of how landmarks relate to each other. James Cameron employs a similar approach in Titanic when, in the "present" sequences, he uses computer graphics to show what happened to the ship as it broke up so that, when we see it happen, we comprehend what is transpiring.

In many ways, Seven Samurai is defined by its style. Kurosawa doesn't just set marks and coach actors; he composes scenes. Despite its drawbacks (a lack of "three dimensionality"), he frequently uses the "deep focus" camera technique to keep everyone in focus, regardless of their distance from the lens. He rarely resorts to close-ups, and, when he does, there's a specific reason. His battle scenes are realistic, but not confusing. Whenever possible, he captures the seven samurai in the same shot. (This is emphasized at the end, when the survivors are shown in the same frame as the graves of the dead.) On more than one occasion, he shoots figures silhouetted against the horizon.

Over the span of his career, Kurosawa made so many great films that it can be difficult to determine which is his best. For most critics, the finalists would be Rashomon and Seven Samurai – films with more differences than similarities. Rashomon is the more thought-provoking of the two, but Seven Samurai is a grand epic – a big, splashy motion picture that runs well over three hours and never flags. The intermission is almost superfluous; we are so caught up in the story that, by the time it arrives, it's more of a nuisance than a welcome break. Seven Samurai has the kind of momentum that many long movies lack. Despite its length, it is a perfect example of economy – there isn't a single wasted shot. Seven Samurai is an unforgettable masterpiece – the work of one of the world's greatest filmmakers at the height of his powers.

Seven Samurai (Japan, 1954)

Ranked #32 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 3:27
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: English subtitled Japanese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1