An intense Japanese classic
Seven Samurai is an epic samurai drama, set in the latter half of the 16th century during the Sengoku period of Japanese history. This was a period of near-constant civil wars and social upheaval from 1467 to 1615, which finally ended with the final unification of Japan under the Great Unifier, Tokugawa Ieyasu when he scored a decisive victory in the Battle of Sekigahara. As the name suggests, it is about seven samurai who are hired by a village plagued by bandits.
But Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is not just any action-packed samurai film. Sergio Leone, John Sturges, Lee Katzin, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino are just a few names among the hundreds who have been influenced by Akira Kurosawa and have considered the Japanese maestro their guru.
If that wasn’t enough, innumerable films have borrowed from Seven Samurai – and owe their creativity to its powerful story-telling, its pioneering cinematography, its revolutionary editing structure – whether it be the western genre, sci-fi movies or children’s animated series. Noteworthy films like The Magnificent Seven, A Bug’s Life, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Sholay are based on the Seven Samurai. One can even say that it actually laid the foundation for the American western genre – a narrative that focused on the eternal theme of good vs evil, the weak vs strong – where the normal people are pitted against powerful oppressive forces. Seven Samurai became the template for the epic action movie genre for generations to come.
Seven Samurai was the most expensive film of its time in Japan. It took a year to shoot, went over budget, faced many difficulties and censure from studio executives and almost shut down at least twice, but Kurosawa stuck to his guns.
He refused to compromise on his vision. From perfectly planned, fully constructed village and authentic period costumes to introducing long focal length (telephoto) lens which was a rarity, unprecedented at that time and a path-breaking structure, he revolutionized the technique of filmmaking. Even for the actors, Kurosawa was a hard taskmaster, responsible for an arduous shoot where he extracted performances to the limit of the actors’ physical and emotional capabilities.
Kurosawa, the master perfectionist was so meticulous in detail that he conducted extensive research into the lives of samurai. Some of the characters were actually based on actual historical figures like Miyamoto Musashi, one of the most famous samurai of his times who provided the template for the steely master swordsman Kyuzo, played by Seiji Miyaguchi.
The screenplay writing process began with detailed notes on each of the seven main characters, their physical attributes, age, emotional dispositions and attitudes to war. In fact, he constructed a family tree of the villagers so that every character in the village knew his entire character graph and his relationship with the other village folks. But despite such details, the film maintains a constant pace, focusing on the war between the villagers and the bandits, making sure not to fall back while fleshing out the characters.
Out of the seven, Kambei Shimada, played by the brilliant Takashi Shimura, is a war veteran, an honourable Ronin and the leader. His selfless act in saving a little child from an armed robber, for no personal gain, impresses upon the farmers the value of this warrior. They are looking for a samurai, who is a skilled warrior, at the same time merciful and noble. And Shimada fits the bill. Here’s a samurai, who has cut off his topknot (a shocking degradation for a samurai), shaves his hair and dresses as a monk to trick the armed robber into letting his guard down.
The legendary Toshiro Mifune portrays Kikuchiyo, a key figure among the seven. A humorous, mercurial and temperamental rogue, he is a stark contrast to a sombre and calm samurai. Kikuchiyo, in spite of his pompous and insolent attitude, is the tragic hero needed for such types of films. An outcast amongst outcasts, he provides comic relief to the grim samurai warriors with his rakish humour, inspires courage and energy in the peasant ranks and proves his resourcefulness and usefulness to the war effort.
Sure, Seven Samurai is a long viewing by today’s standard – 3 hours 27 minutes to be precise. It’s in black and white, cannot be viewed without subtitles, set in feudal Japan, almost half a century back in time and in a distant foreign culture. Yet it’s timeless, has a universal theme and above all, accomplishes the ultimate goal of any film – it binds you, engages you, stirs your emotions and provides pure entertainment. It can easily fit somewhere at the top of the “x number of films to see before you die” list of most cine aficionados.
Read More: Seven Samurai Ending Explained
Verdict - 9/10