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Should I Watch..? 'Seven Samurai' (1954)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

Seven Samurai is a Japanese historical epic drama film released in 1954, and it was directed, edited and co-written by Akira Kurosawa. Widely considered to be Kurosawa's best picture, the film is set in 1586 and follows a small group of masterless samurai (or ronin) hired by a desperate village to protect them from a horde of bandits. The film stars Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Daisuke Kato, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Seiji Miyaguchi, Minoru Chiaki, Yoshio Inaba, Kamatari Fujiwara and Kokuten Kodo. The most expensive Japanese film at that time, the film took more than a year to shoot and ran many times over budget, threatening the film's production entirely. However, the film has frequently appeared on lists of the best films of all time and has proved to be massively influential to countless filmmakers in the years since, from Quentin Tarantino to George Lucas. The film was first remade in 1960 as legendary western The Magnificent Seven and went on to influence a number of other films in various genres, from sci-fi and swords-and-sandals to family-friendly animation and even Bollywood.

Unmissable

What's It About?

During the tumultuous Sengoku period of Japanese history where the country was in a state of near-constant civil war, a remote village is helpless in the face of marauding bandits. As the gang discuss raiding the village again, the chief decides to wait until they have harvested their rice before launching an attack. When word gets back to the villagers, what hope is left disappears although not every citizen is prepared to roll over without a fight. But against forty bandits, these farmers know that they don't stand a chance. The village elder, Gisaku, declares that they should hire some samurai to protect themselves but with little to offer besides food for payment, expectations are low as some of the farmers head to the city to look for help.

After seeing a ronin rescue a child being held hostage, the villagers try to hire Kambei whose experience is matched by his advancing years and his overly keen apprentice Katsushiro. Kambei is initially reluctant but eventually agrees, bringing in his old colleague Shichirōji as well as Gorobei, Heihachi, Kyuzo and the wildly unpredictable Kikuchiyo. As Kambei begins preparing the village for the bandit's next attack, the villagers aren't exactly pleased to see the samurai arrive. But with tensions running high, what other option do they have in the face of almost certain death?

BFI Trailer for remastered edition

What's to Like?

Kurosawa is something of a specialist when it comes to samurai films or chanbara and this is arguably his best effort, a vast and immersive clash with multiple subplots and characters and surprisingly little action compared to today's typical blockbuster. The film is more about understanding these characters - both the titular samurai and the destitute villagers forced into hiring them. These are well-written and believable people and even if you aren't Japanese, you feel like you know them. Before long, you'll have your favourite character and will root for them during the inevitable clash at the climax. Even some of the villagers are noticeable in their own right, giving the film layers of tension amid the growing spectre of impending doom.

Much like his appearance in Rashomon, Mifune gives an exuberant performance as the energetic Kikuchiyo. Amazingly, the character is both a grim man of action as well as comic relief - he's seen entertaining kids and adults in the village via impressions and facial gestures and he is an absolute star in the film. But he doesn't hog the spotlight though as he is just one of a number of stars on show. Shimura is just as good as the leader Kambei, Miyaguchi is a stoic force of nature as the very professional Kyuzo (feeling like a prototype-vision of Jean Reno's Leon) and Kimura is the baby-faced youngster of the team, despite being 31 when he was cast. Away from the magnificent seven cast members, Tsushima easily convinces as the tortured, love-struck daughter who falls for Kimura's samurai wannabe. Their forbidden romance is used to illustrate the differences between the samurai and the villagers, who are more bound to a sense of honour than the once-noble samurai. In fact, as far as the villagers are concerned, the only difference between the samurai and the bandits are where their loyalties lie.

Once the film does introduce some action into proceedings, Kurosawa's eye for direction really shows. The climatic battle, set in a Biblical rainstorm, is almost poetic in its beauty and looks even better in the film's black-and-white cinematography. While it lacks the fancy wirework we see in wuxia films these days like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it honestly looks every bit as incredible and remains just as watchable. There's almost has a documentary feel at times to Seven Samurai - the sets used for the village look far too authentic, as do the costumes which sometimes are less costume than perhaps viewers in the West are used to. The film arguably helps to establish several tropes we've grown accustomed to in countless action movies seen since - the introduction of a character completing a mission unrelated to the central story, the gathering of people for a specific mission, slow motion sequences for dramatic action - and while the film might not be Japanese enough for some critics, the film speaks in a universal language that anyone can appreciate. No wonder the film is considered by critics to be a masterpiece.

The film's war-like climax is a masterpiece - gripping, brutal, atmospheric and still able to tell a story amid the clashing of blades and thrusting of spears.

The film's war-like climax is a masterpiece - gripping, brutal, atmospheric and still able to tell a story amid the clashing of blades and thrusting of spears.

Fun Facts

  • Kurosawa famously refused to compromise during the making of the film, causing the movie's budget to spiral out of control. For example, he insisted on shooting the village on specially constructed sets miles away from Toho's studios and also filmed on multiple cameras for each take to improve the editing of the film. Toho actually shut down production on the film twice but Kurosawa wasn't bothered, going fishing instead and believing that production would be restarted because so much money had already been spent. He was right.
  • The original script called for six samurai instead of seven with Mifune playing the part of the straight-faced Kyuzo. However, Kurosawa believed that the film needed a more relatable character so the part of Kikuchiyo was created and he gave Mifune the freedom to improvise. Reportedly, Mifune stayed in character throughout the shoot.
  • The film generated more than its fair share of injuries. Tsuchiya sustained burns to his windpipe during the scene where the bandit's hideout is razed, Keiko Tsushima's eyes were damaged by reflected light in the love scene and Kurosawa himself ended up in hospital with roundworms due to the stress of working on the script and living conditions in Japan at the time.
  • The actor who played the original monster Godzilla, Haruo Nakajima, makes a fleeting appearance as one of the bandits killed by Kyuzo. And long-time Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai (The Human Condition trilogy, Kagemusha) makes his (uncredited) debut here as one of the samurai walking through the town.
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What's Not to Like?

Well, it's long. Very long - in fact, I can't recall ever seeing a film with its own in-built intermission. But at no point does the film feel like it's dragging although if (like me) you are reliant on subtitles, the film can seriously test your attention over the course of its more-than-three hour running time. Like their cowboy cousins, not every one of the samurai makes as great as an impression as the likes of Kambei or Kikuchiyo and the villagers also mainly consist of anonymous people mainly shrieking in terror and running away. Given that the village hosts more than 100 citizens, each one with a character bible written by Kurosawa detailing their jobs and relationships with each other, they just feel terribly underused. Lastly, I would have liked to have more of a look at the bandits who, in truth, hardly feature at all in the film outside of the opening and closing of the film. I wanted to see what drove them, what their life was like outside the law. Basically, I wanted to see more of the film's setting but frankly, this may be as much of my interest in Japanese history than the spell Kurosawa casts.

But only an idiot would spend time trying to criticise a film that has long been established as a shining example of Japanese filmmaking at its very best. Despite the length of the film, it never outstays its welcome and remains engrossing throughout. The film is stacked with talent within the cast with Mifune in particular putting in one of the best performances of his career. If you're looking for any sort of samurai movie then this should be all the film you'd ever need.

Toshiro Mifune stands out among the cast, feeling like an unpredictable but highly charismatic individual capable of anything. No wonder the part was Mifune's favourite...

Toshiro Mifune stands out among the cast, feeling like an unpredictable but highly charismatic individual capable of anything. No wonder the part was Mifune's favourite...

Should I Watch It?

This might not be the bloodiest or most violent samurai film ever made. It lacks any of the big names modern viewers would expect to see in an action film today and obviously, it's not in colour - or English, for that matter. But this is unquestionably one of the best, if not the best, samurai film ever made - and yet, its inherent quality and sheer aesthetic make Seven Samurai more than just a simple niche picture. Kurosawa is at the peak of his powers and delivers a timeless film that even non-Japanese viewers will love and appreciate.

Great For: anyone, Japanese cinema, Japanese culture, Kurosawa's place in history

Not So Great For: fidgety viewers, tiny bladders, anyone who struggles with subtitles

What Else Should I Watch?

Chanbara films have long been a staple of Japanese cinema with Kurosawa responsible for some notable efforts - Rashomon, Yojimbo, Ran and Throne Of Blood being prime examples. Other excellent samurai films include Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri and Kihachi Okamoto's Samurai Assassin which coincidentally stars Toshiro Mifune. And it's impossible to discuss samurai films without mentioning two very different examples: the six films that make up the Lone Wolf And Cub series between 1972-1974 are a camp cult delight, directed by Kenji Misumi and adapted from the manga of the same name. And while there have also been a number of films featuring the blind swordsman Zatoichi, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's 2003 Zatoichi is arguably the most accessible for Western audiences and one of the best.

Kurosawa's career has enjoyed tremendous highs but also some lows as well. As his career dwindled during the Seventies, his legacy had already been cemented with the likes of Seven Samurai, Iriku, Rashomon and The Hidden Fortress - one of a number of Kurosawa films that influenced a certain George Lucas when he was making a little sci-fi known as Star Wars. Kurosawa's last great film, Ran, was a critically acclaimed epic based on Shakespeare's 'King Lear' and one of the few films he made in full colour. Awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1990, Kurosawa's place in the pantheon of great directors is guaranteed and rightly so. While his films might not be as well regarded in Japan as elsewhere, his work shone a light on to Japanese cinema and it owes him a huge debt of gratitude.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Toshiro Mifune

Kikuchiyo

Takashi Shimura

Kambei Shimada

Daisuke Kato

Shichiroji

Isao Kimura

Katsuchiro Okamoto

Minoru Chiaki

Heihachi Hayashida

Seiji Miyaguchi

Kyuzo

Yoshio Inaba

Gorobei Katayama

Kokuten Kodo

Gisaku

Kamatari Fujiwara

Manzo

Keiko Tsushima

Shino

Bokuzen Hidari

Yohei

Yoshio Tsuchiya

Rikichi

Technical Info

DirectorAkira Kurosawa

Screenplay

Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni

Running Time

207 minutes

Release Date (US)

19th November, 1956

Rating

PG (1991 re-rating)

Genre

Action, Drama, History

Academy Award Nominations

Best Set Direction (Black & White), Best Costume Design (Black & White)

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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