In Sixteenth century Japan, the inhabitants of a defenseless farming village are horrified when they discover marauding bandits are preparing to raid their home. On the advice of the sagely village elder, Gisaku (Kokuten Kodo), four men venture into town hoping to hire brave samurai warriors to fight on their behalf, even though they have nothing to offer except shelter and a bowl of rice a day. At first only wise and noble elder samurai Kambei (Takeshi Shimura) accepts the job, but he is soon joined by Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura), a young, untested warrior who admires his heroism and is eager to become his disciple. Together they recruit five more outcast samurai: master swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato) who served as Kambei’s stalwart second-in-command, ace archer Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), cheerful woodcutter Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), and most notably Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune), an ebullient, off-the-wall, free spirit who hides a secret. These brave men rally the peasant folk to take a stand against what seem insurmountable odds in a desperate battle for survival.
Every country has a movie that embodies its national spirit and for the Japanese that film is undoubtedly Akira Kurosawa’s masterly Seven Samurai. Not, one hastens to add, because it conforms to any clichéd orientalist ideas about the warrior spirit but because it unearths the profound humanistic ideals underlining such romantic principles. Seven Samurai is simply not the same film as its famous, admittedly enjoyable Hollywood remake The Magnificent Seven (1963). Its characterisation runs deeper, its poetic resonance is more profound and its socio-political content is highly charged. More than a mere action-adventure film, although it functions magnificently on that level too, the film sees Kurosawa expanding the localised conflict into a sprawling, allegorical portrait of a crucial moment in history. Not for anything does the film take place in the Sixteenth century, at a point when class distinctions in Japanese society were at their most rigid. Peasants were forbidden to bear arms upon penalty of death and resented the samurai class almost as much as the scavenging bandits. Equally, samurai held peasant folk in disdain as cowardly low-lifes.
Seven Samurai creates a situation that brings all these various class factions together, fighting not for an emperor or some arcane ideal but simple survival, the freedom to live without fear, work hard and savor nothing more profound than a bowl of rice at the end of an exhausting day. In doing so, these men and women are stripped of all class distinctions and pretensions and see each other for the flawed yet worthwhile human beings that they are. The first part of the film set the template for every subsequent movie wherein a group of heroes with individual talents are assembled for a special mission. You’ve got your master strategist, idealistic youth, the greatest swordsman and the wacky guy (Heihachi is hired simply because Kambei reckons his wit will keep everyone in good spirits). But far and away the most beloved and thematically resonant character was essayed in a standout performance by the legendary Toshirô Mifune.
Kikuchiyo is the movie’s heart and soul. His is the most complex character, going from comical braggart to voice of moral reason, from impetuous clown to the true embodiment of the samurai spirit. In a crucial scene the seven discover their peasant hosts have been killing samurai and stealing their weapons and armour for years. Outraged, the samurai are poised to vent their anger until Kikuchiyo turns the tables, claiming it is centuries of samurai oppression that have led to the peasants’ mistrustful, self-serving nature. As we later learn, Kikuchiyo is not even a real samurai. Rather than a heroic archetype he is a flawed human being who has risen from the lowliest rank to adopt the mantle of true heroism. Kurosawa suggests to the post-war Japanese working class audience that they were heroes all along and not the warrior class whose arrogance and bad judgement lead them to the brink of ruin. Times are changing. We see this in love that transcends class barriers between samurai Katsuhiro and peasant girl Shino (Keiko Tsushima) whose father (Kamataro Fujiwara) disguised her as a boy hoping to safeguard her purity.
Often considered the quintessential Asian epic, the film’s origins are actually as much western as eastern. Kurosawa drew upon the classic Japanese tale of The Hakkenden or Legend of the Eight Samurai - filmed variously in 1959, as a more fanciful blockbuster by Kinji Fukasaku in 1984 and an acclaimed anime serial in 1990 - that was itself a retelling of the ancient Chinese epic The Water Margin (filmed variously as a Japanese television series that found a cult following in the UK and as a celebrated Shaw Brothers extravaganza in 1972) but also from Hollywood westerns, specifically those made by his idol John Ford. Seven Samurai co-opts the model Ford used in his excellent Stagecoach (1939), transplanting an array of vividly drawn characters emblematic of their nation into a siege situation that tests their values, exposes their flaws and draws out their finer qualities.
The second half of the film is devoted to the gruelling standoff between the bandit army and the samurai-led peasant resistance. Kurosawa captures the grubby realism of battle where death is abrupt and shocking, with bodies dragged through the mud and rain, and moments of triumph, exhaustion and despair. The dynamism of his camerawork and editing enthralled an international audience including innovative use of slow-motion that left a lasting impression on Sam Peckinpah and telephoto lenses that render the forest such a dense, evocative landscape. Aside from The Magnificent Seven, the film spawned a whole host of often uncredited remakes including Roger Corman’s likeable, John Sayles-scripted space opera Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Pixar family favourite A Bug’s Life (1998) and, back in Japan, the intriguing softcore sex romp-cum-action adventure Naked Seven (1974). More recently the film was remade as the well received steampunk sci-fi anime Samurai 7 (2004).
[The BFI Blu-ray for the 60th anniversary has a remastered print, the original trailer, a documentary from expert Tony Rayns, and a sixteen page booklet: the definitive disc of this classic movie.]
Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.
Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.
The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.