Monday 31 August 2015

The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) (1954)

De Syv Samuraier
Here is a movie I have been looking forward to for a long time. “Seven Samurai” is legendary and one of the few movies from this period I have seen before, though so many years ago that, as I found out, I remembered very little from that first viewing. As it happened it also turned out to be a more difficult movie to get hold of than anticipated. The boxset of Kurosawa samurai classics I had ordered never showed up and I had to reorder it. Somewhere out there in the postal limbo a totally awesome boxset is floating around…

As I already mentioned the reputation of “Seven Samurai” is immense. It is frequently mentioned as one of the best movies ever and particularly one of the best westerns ever, which is curious considering this is a samurai film. It is a movie that has been referenced countless times and remade in numerous incarnations. This can only disappoint. No movie is that good.


“Seven Samurai” is exactly as good as its reputation and probably even better. Whether or not it is the best of Kurosawa I leave unsaid till I have watched the rest of his entries in the Book, but it is better than both “Rashomon” and ”Ikiru” and they were both worthy movies.

The story in “Seven Samurai” is deceptively simple as all good stories actually are. A village of farmers is so fed up with bandit raids that they hire a band of samurai to protect them. The samurai are so successful at their job that they transform the village not only into a fortress, but also a cohesive unit so that when the bandits finally attack they are able to repel the attack. That is it.

It is everything in between that are complex and makes this such an excellent movie.

First of all there is the length of the movie. At little more than three hours “Seven Samurai” was longer than I remember and it may be that I got an uncut version. Normally that would mean a super complex story (eg. epic scale) or a lot of excess fat. In this case it allows Kurosawa to build characters and to explain the workings of Japanese life in the 16th century, especially concerning the relations between farmers and samurai.

The first third of the movie follows a band of farmers trying to hire samurai. This is an extremely daunting affair. Farmers are very low caste and the profile they present is of simple, stupid and cowardice characters. Samurai on the other hand is the warrior caste. They are strong, honorable and smart. Normally they would enter into the service of a nobleman or, at times of war, a warlord. For them to enter into service of a farming village, working for food, is unheard of. It is demeaning to this proud class who seems to value its honor so much. What kind of samurai would accept such a job? But the farmers do find a band of samurai willing to work for them. Samurai who define honor differently. What Kurosawa, who was of samurai stock himself, is saying is that it is not the farmers who exists for the samurai, but the samurai who exists for the farmers. That the army, bureaucracy and politicians are there for the people and not the other way around. A message eerily similar to that of “Ikiru”. For a post war Japan it is also a redefinition of the meaning of samurai, a reinterpretation of the Bushido code, away from senseless war heroics and toward dedicated and worthy servitude.

Each of the samurai have their own distinct character. Particularly noteworthy are Kambei (Takashi Shimura) the leader of the band, a man who is introduced as one who cares less about the symbols of honor (he shaves off his topknot) and more about behaving honorably. He is the father figure and the natural leader. Katsushirō (Isao Kimura) is a very young samurai, star struck by the more experienced samurai and eager to become an apprentice to Kambei. Because of his youth and relative innocence we observe much of the movie from his point of view. Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) is the quiet master swordsman, the archetype of skill personified while Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is the exact opposite, jovial, high spirited, but better at cutting wood than enemies. And then there is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune). He appears as a clown, a farmer posing as a samurai (something which would have been immensely dangerous at the time), wild, crazy, simple and unreliable. But as the movie wears on he becomes the connection point between the village and the samurai. He alone for all his craziness understands both world and despise them both.

That brings us to the second act, the preparation of the village. Beneath the planning, training and building of fortifications we get a unique view into both village and samurai life at the time. We realize how deep the gulf is between the two groups and how it is almost impossible to bridge that gulf. One example is Katsushiro’s doomed courting of a village girl and another is Kikuchiyo’s hopeless in-between character. If Katsushiro shows us the farmer/samurai schism through his innocence, Kikuchiyo shows it to us through bitterness. They are brought together, farmers and samurai, by common need, not love, and while they gain an insight into each other’s worlds the gap is too wide. In times of peace farmers just have no need of leeching samurai.

Then the bandits attack and for an hour we get some of the best and most iconic battle scenes ever filmed. Fighting with big knifes is a gruesome affair and watching a mob of farmers hunt down isolated bandits with picks, spears and farming tools is outright horrifying. There is something absolutely fascinating about watching fighting Japanese style. Everybody is running, there is a lot of shouting and death comes swift and without mercy. The battle unfolds much as planned by the samurai revealing their supreme skill and experience, but it is the small things that always go wrong in battle. Accidents, desperate shots, uncontrolled mobs or horses. You may wish for that epic duel, but reality is that even the best samurai is killed by a stray bullet.

As slow and observing the filming is in the two first acts as fast and energized it is in the last. Kurosawa keeps the tension going for the last hour through the undulations of the battle waves where even the troughs have that unrestful tension of waiting for death. This is just amazing.

Kurosawa created an exciting and very watchable movie that still holds up today, but he also commented on and redefined the samurai caste and the warrior culture that had led Japan into disaster in the first half of the twentieth century. What is real bushido and is there room for that in a modern country? Kurosawa the social commentator showed the way.


  1. Great review. I would say that this is Kurosawa's best though there are some fantastic films right behind it. It is amazing how fast the film always goes by for me. Sometimes I have gone in thinking I will break up the film at the intermission but I always watch through right to the end.

    I saw Ikiru yesterday. Isn't it amazing that the same actor played Watanabe and Kambei? Shimura is such a great actor.

    1. Yes, amazing that this is the same actor. That shows real acting talent. He was pretty good in Ikiru.
      The trouble with watching something which supposed to be the best is that everything else will be downhill, but hopefully only a little.

  2. I consider this nothing less than the greatest non-English language film ever made. Even it's American remake is consider a classic (The Magnificent Seven).

    I've watched Seven Samurai multiple times and I've never once been bored or noticed the three hours passing. I'd bet that you saw the full version before, but also didn't notice the time passing and so didn't remember the length.

    If you have the Criterion version watch the movie again with the commentary track. It's well worth the time.

    Here's my review, if you are interested:

    In regards to Kurosawa movies you have ahead of you Throne of Blood approaches this one. Even though it's adapted for the Japanese Noh style it's still the best adaptation of Macbeth I have ever seen.

    1. It may well have been the full version I saw back. It certainly did not feel long, nor did it this time round.
      The version I got is the BFI version and it is perfectly crisp. There is no commentary track, but a very good essay on the Kurosawa and Seven Samurai. In fact the entire box set is pretty awesome.
      I will read your review and let you know what I think.

  3. You've got quite a while to go, but I'll be looking forward to your reaction to Kurosawa's Ran. I'd probably say Seven Samurai is the greater film, but only just above Ran, and my personal preferences would have the two switched in my own head.

    1. Haha, Ran is a few years down the line.
      But meanwhile there are quite a few Kurosawa movies waiting and I expect them to be good as well.

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  5. I love Kurosawa's films as a rule, and this is one of his great ones. You might find some Kurosawa you like as much as this one, but you won't find one better than this.

    I agree with Chip on Throne of Blood. That is my favorite Kurosawa film, although I consider The Seven Samurai to be as good.

    1. I think the only Kurosawa movies I knew going into this project were Seven Samurai and Ran. It is so great to find this entire treasure throve of Kurosawa films and I look forward to every one of them.

  6. I'm watching and re-watching the Kurosawa movies too and The Seven Samurai is just as good the fourth time as the first.