“Seven Samurai” - Akira Kurosawa (1954)

Near the top of any list of greatest Japanese films has to be Seven Samurai (1954), a 3½-hour epic set in the 16th century [1]. The film, written, directed, and edited by Akira Kurosawa, had such an extended  global influence that it was soon blatantly copied by John Sturges for his American Western hit The Magnificent Seven (1960), and it gave rise to an entire genre of long-odds, dangerous-mission films.  The reasons for its widespread popularity, however, are probably varied, because there are several contrasting dimensions to the film.

The story concerns a peasant farming community in the late 16th century in Japan during the Sengoku period (the Japanese “Warring States Period”).  During this time the social order was disrupted and powerful daimyo (Japanese warlords) lost their holdings, leading to the unemployment of many samurai (the professional warrior class in Japan). Of these masterless samurai,  generally known as ronin, some of them turned to a life of crime, which intensified the lawlessness of this period. In these circumstances gangs of armed bandits living in the mountains conducted regular raids on local farming villages in the valley and lived off the plunder they obtained.  At the beginning of Seven Samurai, peasants from the farming village of interest in this story get wind of the plans of the local brigand gang to conduct a brutal, marauding raid just as soon as the farmers bring in their next harvest.

The distraught panic-stricken farmers, knowing that the murderous brigands will steal most of their food and perhaps many of their women, go to the very old “wise man” of their village seeking his advice. This wizened and cunning old man advises them to go to the commercial town in the area and hire some poor ronin to serve as defenders of their village. The villagers have little money to offer, but the old man reminds them that many ronin are hungry these days – they should be able to  find some samurai who will work for food.

This sets the stage for the rest of the narrative.  We have now learned that there will be a war when the brigands make their upcoming raid to plunder the village harvest and that the farmers intend to defend themselves with hired samurai.  Since a battle is inevitable, Kurosawa takes his time building up to it.  The film story then unfolds in three stages, each more than an hour long:
  1. Recruiting the samurai to defend the village
  2. The recruited samurai and the villages prepare for the war
  3. The actual war between the village and the brigands
One of the aspects of Seven Samurai that makes it an enduring classic is its depiction of a large cast of relatively fleshed-out personages, comprising seven samurai and five key villagers of interest.
The Samurai:
  • Kambei (Takashi Shimsura) is the first ronin hired and is given the task of hiring the remaining six samurai.  He is not young – probably in his forties – but he is firm, honorable and thoughtful.
  • Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) is good-natured and experienced. He is the first one hired by Kambei and ultimately becomes the second in command.
  • Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is a less-skilled samurai, but his amiable and witty social skills are considered to be good for group morale.
  • Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato) is Kambei’s old comrade and former right-hand man.
  • Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) is taciturn and slight of build, but he is an awesomely skilled and fearless swordsman
  • Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) is young and untrained, but seems to have had a civilized upbringing.  When he first sees Kambei, he immediately asks to be his disciple.
  • Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) – is an untrained peasant braggadocio who pretends to be a samurai warrior.
The Principal Villagers:
  • Gisaku is the canny elder who advises the villagers
  • Yohei is a timid villager whose frightened visage seems to represent the timorous frailty of the entire village.
  • Rikichi is an energetic villager whose wife has previously been abducted by the brigands.
  • Manzo is a cautious villager worried that the samurai may seduce the village women, one of whom is his daughter Shino.
  • Shino is the attractive daughter of Manzo and by means a shrinking violet.
Stage 1: Recruiting the Samurai
The first hour of the film concerns the depredations suffered by the farm village at the hands of the bandit gang.  On the advice of the eldest villager, some farmers from the village, Manzo, Rikichi, and Yohei go to the local market town to recruit some “hungry samurai”.  After some initial failures, they manage to recruit a senior ronin, Kambei, who immediately attracts the fawning worship of the young, would-be samurai, Katsushiro.  Katsushiro pledges to be Kambei’s disciple, and after some reluctance, Kambei eventually accepts him.

To interview further candidates for the mission, Kambei stations Katsushiro behind the door of a local shop and instructs him to club the candidate from behind as soon as he enters the premises.  The idea is that a properly trained samurai would fend off such an attack.  And sure enough, Kambei soon finds Gorobei, who passes the test.  The swaggering braggart Kikuchiyo, however, fails badly.  Eventually Heihachi, Shichiroji, and Kyuzo are also encountered and brought on board, and now the six of them set out for the village.  Kikuchiyo, who has been rejected, follows along behind them hoping to gain acceptance as the seventh member of the group.

During this part of the film, we become acquainted with the personalities of each of the samurai.  They all evince a bearing and professional pride that makes them stand out from others – they follow a code of honor associated with their training.  But each one is different.  Kambei is thoughtful, Gorobei is amiably confident, and Kyuzo is stoic.  Kikuchiyo stands out as an insolent, mocking buffoon who sports a bearing entirely at odds with that of the professional samurai. 

Stage 2: Preparations for the Battle with the Brigands
When the samurai arrive in the village (with Kikuchiyo following), the residents are all hiding in their dwellings fearful of the warriors coming to their midst. However, when Kikuchiyo tricks the villagers into believing that the bandits are about to attack, they all run out of their houses in terror and realize that they must trust the newly arrived samurai.  This piece of showmanship is enough for Kikuchiyo to gain acceptance into the samurai team.

The rest of this part of the film shows the preparations for the battle that we know will eventually take place.  The samurai spend time trying to train the villagers to use spears in a coordinated way so that they can form a wall of lances.  Meanwhile Kambei and Gorobei inspect the outskirts of the village and plan how best to set up defenses.  They will set up barricades at some entry points, and they will flood another place by diverting a local stream.

But much of this section is devoted to contrasting the comportment of the villagers and the samurai.  The samurai are not really that physically imposing, but they are disciplined and organized.  The villagers, on the other hand, are a sniveling herd of sheep, frightened by their own shadows and continually bemoaning their woeful conditions.  To some extent we might think that Kurosawa is exaggerating this contrast for dramatic purposes, but there may well be a ring of authenticity to all this.

Kikuchiyo stands in the middle between the samurai and the farmers.  He is continually making a fool of himself by his swaggering antics, which reveals his peasant origins; but he is also strong and fearless, attributes not possessed by the other villagers.  I have a problem with Toshiro Mifune’s portrayal of Kikuchiyo, which is so far over the top that it becomes irritating and a manifestly ridiculous form of ham acting.  Nevertheless, Mifune’s boorish antics do tend to elevate the stature of the other samurai by comparison.

There is one interesting dramatic segment in this section showing Kikuchiyo displaying to the other samurai some mail armor and headgear that he has discovered hidden away by the villagers. The villagers had apparently acquired this armor by killing runaway samurai who had wandered into their domain in the past. To Kikuchiyo this is a valuable find.  But to his comrades it is dishonorable to wear the armor, and it is a reminder that the supposedly peace-loving villagers can be pernicious when it serves them. Kikuchiyo, desperately seeking acceptance from the other “authentic” samurai, is again humiliated, and he then gives an emotional tirade about the hypocrisy of those ronin who have just scorned him.  Coming from a peasant background, himself, Kikuchiyo tells them that he knows that the villagers are no worse than others, and in fact whatever bad behavior they have has been shaped by the past cruelties their kind has suffered at the hands of oppressive outsiders, including samurai.

Another dramatic thread that both links and contrasts the samurai and peasant cultures is the secret romance between Katsushiro and Manzo’s pretty and passionate daughter, Shino. Shino is attracted to the handsome and well-bred outsider, Katsushiro, and does everything she can to urge on her reluctant and inexperienced suitor.

All this time Kambei and the others make plans concerning how the seven samurai, with the help of the villagers armed with sharpened poles for spears, will try to stop the band of forty brigands.  Kambei’s plan is to conduct a war of attrition, gradually killing off the bandit gang, one by one.

When the samurai discover evidence of some bandit spies on the outskirts of the village, Kikuchiyo, Kyuzo, and Katsushiro go out to hunt them down and kill them. This mission turns out to be a display of Kyuozo’s amazingly skillful lethality, as he dispatches two of them with just a couple of sword strokes. 

Stage 3: The Battle
Following Kambei’s strategy, the samurai send out another team of saboteurs (Kyuzo, Katsushiro, Heihachi, and Rikichi) to reduce bandit numbers by making a sneak attack on their fortress in the hills.  They manage to burn down the fortress, but we also see that Rikichi’s wife had been made a captive sex slave of the gang, and the attendant dishonor causes her to choose immolation rather than escape.  Although a number of bandits are killed on this mission, there is also a disastrous outcome: Heihachi is killed, and now there are only six samurai.

The samurai now know that the brigands are in the possession of three muskets, and these represent a serious problem to them.  In fact guns were introduced into Japan from the West only in 1543, but they quickly became popular as instruments of war.  So for the historical setting of this film some forty years later, guns were the latest high-tech weaponry. To respond to this extraordinarily lethal menace, Kyuzo calmly sets out alone on the seemingly impossible mission of capturing one of the guns.  Amazingly, he returns to the village later that evening with a captured gun in hand and silently hands it over to his mates. Kyuozo’s characteristically calm and expressionless professionalism in the face of extreme danger draws worshipful admiration from Katsushiro.

Now the real battles begin.  The brigands make repeated mass attacks on horseback in attempts to overrun the village.  The village defenders employ Kambei’s strategy of attrition: allow one or two horsemen to enter the village and then set up a wall of spear-equipped farmers to block further entry.  This enables other villagers to swarm around and kill the horseman who has gotten inside.  The battles go on and on, as bandits and villagers are gored, hacked, and stabbed to death – all  in the midst of a pouring rain that further contributes to the atmosphere of chaos and mayhem.

In the end, all the bandits are killed off, and only Kambei, Shichiroji, and Katsushiro survive among the samurai. But the village is saved.  In the final scene, Kambei and Shichiroji are amazed that they have lived through it – "again, we have survived", Kambei says in astonishment. The villagers go back to their customary farming activities and all but forget about the samurai who have saved them.  Katsushiro looks on at Shino toiling away in the rice patties and mournfully wonders at the vast cultural gulf separating them as the film ends.

Many people were probably attracted to Seven Samurai simply because of its extended battle scenes. After all, the film was made not so long after World War II and the Korean War, and films depicting the violence and heroism of war seen from the perspectives of multiple participants was particularly popular in those days. But Kurosawa’s film is more than just a rambunctious war movie, and his epic tale of struggle brought out some interesting social themes, too. In particular, we have the ongoing social contrast between the samurai culture and the farmer culture. The first two-thirds of the film elaborate that theme and builds up the tension for the brutal battles that will come later. 

To portray in a natural and dramatic fashion the dynamics of the social contrasts on display, Kurosawa skillfully employed a range of camera techniques, which are so effective that the viewer can get a feeling for much of the storyline without referring to the dialogue at all. For example there are numerous extended tracking shots that follow the vigorous action of a contest as it moves past a background of onlookers. There are also many in-depth camera compositions showing some action on the part of members of one group (samurai or villagers), while members of the other group watch in fascination. In order to manage all of the staging that arose from these complex interactions, Kurosawa employed multiple camera setups for many of scenes, which enabled him to compose sequences in the editing room that maintained the desired visual tempo.  Kurosawa also mixes long shots of action with point-of-view reaction shots that highlight the dramatic effect.  In fact the naive young warrior Katsushiro is primarily used as an ingenue who is emotionally dazzled by what he sees and through whom we vicariously share such amazement.

With respect to the social contrast between the samurai and the farmers, there are subtleties here worth considering.  In fact there are questions that may arise in the mind of the viewer as the story unfolds:
  • Why do the samurai take on such a dangerous mission merely to be paid three square meals a day?  They certainly weren’t starving at the beginning of the film.
  • Why do the brigands continue their relentless attacks, even after they can see that this particular village is now well defended by skilled samurai?  In the end, the brigands are completely exterminated.  Why were they so stubbornly persistent?
  • The relentlessly brutal killing via swords and spears seems almost to be a theme in itself.  Some of the time the samurai seem to make a joke of all the killing, as if they are somehow emotionally detached from the bloodshed.
If we compare Seven Samurai to an American Western film, the seeming similarities may be deceiving. In the American Western, the cowboy/gunslinger is a lone individual, the hero who follows his own path.  He is contrasted with the townspeople who follow the institutional rules of the community. Thus the American Western pits the individual (reckless and heroic cowboy) against the collective (civilized but boring).  The cowboy doesn’t follow the social rules of the community, he is a free soul.

A straightforward comparison with Seven Samurai would match the cowboys with the samurai and the rice farmers with the American Western townspeople.  But in Seven Samurai things are the other way around.  The samurai are the ones who follow a strict moral code, while the villagers are shown, collectively,  to be often liars, cheaters, and deceitful.  The samurai fight for the village, not for money, but because it is the way to live up to their honorable code of conduct that is based on firmly-held principles. 

For example, after Kyuzo heroically goes out and single-handedly captures one of the three rifles possessed by the brigands, Kikuchiyo seeks to duplicate that heroic feat in order to gain the admiration of the other samurai.  So he goes out and also captures a rifle, but in the event he abandons his assigned defense post, which exposes the village to attack at his entry point and leads to the deaths a number of villagers, including Yohei. Kikuchiyo is scolded by Kambei for being reckless and selfish. Essentially, Kikuchiyo was acting like a cowboy, and this was emphatically not the way for a true samurai warrior to act – they must work together for the common good. Similarly Kikuchiyo’s enthusiastic donning of the samurai body armor that the villagers had acquired by killing lone samurai in the past was rejected by Kambei and the other samurai because the armor had originally been acquired dishonorably.

So the issue of the individual versus the collective is not so simple in Seven Samurai. The seven ronin are portrayed as the ones who follow a relatively strict moral code, while the collective group, the farmers, are like a herd of sheep who have their heads down and do not see the higher values. The ideological battle between individualism and collectivism, an even bigger issue in the 1950s than it is today, was shown in a different light here, because the seven samurai were individuals, but they were presented as following an inner compass based on principle. The collective, on the other hand, was relatively unprincipled. The depiction of that social contrast is what helps make Seven Samurai a great film, but that doesn't mean I embrace one particular side of those contrasting elements. The samurai form of honor, which is without compassion and dedicated to killing enemies, is hollow. This form of heartless morality has not in general served humanity well, and therefore, to me, is not truly honorable. True honor is only deserved when compassion is part of the action under consideration.

In the final scene Kambei says to Shichiroji that, even though they have killed off the brigands, the two of them are again losers and the only the farmers have won. Of course, they knew from the start that that the outcome would not have been much better. But what Kambei is acknowledging is that, on the material level, following their moral code will not lead to material success. They have chosen a different path and are concerned with a different level.  But even on the higher plane with which they are concerned, I think there needs to be a bridge that can accommodate more inclusive engagement such as that sought by Katsushiro and Shino.

  1. I would also place it among the greatest films, period.

No comments: