Seven Samurai has become a part of the cinematic language. Routinely it is described as one of the greatest films of all time, and possibly the greatest of the Japanese films. The director, Akira Kurosawa, has been described as one of the most important directors to come out of the east, and invented a visual language all his own: long lenses, single takes, as little editing as possible, and make it intense. On the set of Star Wars, George Lucas is said to have only ever given one phrase of direction: “Faster and more intense.” I suspect The Bearded One was trying to imitate the acting style seen in Kurosawa films; specifically the acting style of Toshiro Mifune.
Mifune plays the character of Kikuchiyo, and to say that he is constantly cranked up to “11” when all of the other actors can barely make it to “10” would be an understatement. Kikuchiyo is one of the seven samurai (maybe?) in the title and is often credited as the lead, although I believe that title rightly belongs to the character of Kambei as portrayed by Takashi Shimura.
But, in all honesty, giving any character the designation of the “lead” seems like an injustice to what is essentially the greatest ensemble film ever put together.
The film begins with a group of bandits approaching a village while out on a plundering raid. One of the bandits wishes to raid the village, but their leader objects because they had only attacked the village the previous fall and that they should wait for the new harvest to come in full. “Once that barley is ripe, we attack.” One of the villagers, an old man named Yohei (who happens to be one of my favorite characters), overhears this discussion and runs back to the village to warn the other farmers and their families.
The villagers are distraught: land tax, famine, drought, and now bandits? Then Rikichi, one of the main characters, says: “Let’s ask the old man, he’ll know what to do.”
So a large portion of the villagers head across the river (don’t wise old men always live across rivers?) to the old man who lives in the watermill. The old man’s advice is to hire Samurai and pay them with their meals. Everyone asks, “but will Samurai work for food?” The old man’s reply is simply: “Find hungry Samurai.”
The film spends no less than an hour on finding the Samurai to defend the village, and it allows us to go on the journey with the villagers in their attempt to find help. The first Samurai they ask is insulted, thinking that the villagers are offering him charity by wanting to pay him with food, but in reality it’s the villagers who are asking for charity. Later we learn that the villagers are eating millet while they feed the Samurai white rice.
Kambei is the first of the main Samurai who is introduced. The scene goes like this: A thief has kidnapped a child and locked himself and the child in a barn, the child’s family have appealed to Kambei for help. The first time we see Kambei he cuts off his “topknot” with a knife and then has the rest of his head shaved by a monk. The gathered crowd is shocked; but why? The first time I saw the film I was left decidedly baffled by this scene, but now I realize what Kambei did. By shaving his head he was essentially renouncing his stature as a Samurai, as only Monks shaved their heads. So to see a Samurai willfully cutting off his topknot and then willfully having his head shaved was a radical notion. Kambei then borrows the monk’s robe and takes two rice balls to the barn in an attempt to persuade the thief out; he speaks briefly with the thief and then throws the riceballs into the barn, he stands, wipes his hands, and then charges into the barn and out of our sight; then the thief emerges, in slow-motion, from the barn and falls to the ground with a noticeable sword wound inflicted on his back.
The villagers then go to Kambei and tell him of their troubles with the bandits, and Kambei agrees to help them, but only on the condition of their finding six other Samurai to come along. The Samurai that they find are are: Kambei, Katsushiro, Kikuchiyo, Shichiroji, Kyuzo, Heihachi, and Gorobei. Each brings something to the group; Katsushiro, for instance, is the youngest and is constantly learning about the Samurai tradition; Kyuzo is the fastest with the blade, and probably the most noble; Gorobei will be the group’s treasure during hard times, it is said.
Once they make it back to the village preparations begin, and we can feel in our guts that not every one of these characters is going to make it, that some of them are going to die. It’s not long before we discover that our feeling is true.
One of the Samurai is killed (I won’t spoil which one specifically), and then we have one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie. Kukuchiyo tried to do something heroic in what seems to be an attempt to gain Kambei’s respect, but his actions ultimately cost the life of one of the seven, and Kikuchiyo takes the death very hard. There is a great hill in the village where the farmers bury their dead, and it is on his hill that the fallen warrior is buried, and stuck into the top of his burial mound as a sort of grave marker is his sword. Kikuchiyo is sitting on the hill during the night when Kambei brings a large jar of saké for them to drink; he tries to calm Kikuchiyo but fails.
The scene then cuts to a shot with Kikuchiyo on the right of the frame, Kambei on the left, with the sword of their fallen comrade vertically separating the two. Kurosawa is visually showing us that Kikuchiyo is separated from the rest of the group by the death that he feels responsible for; by having the sword of the fallen samurai splitting the frame he shows us that Kikuchiyo is divided from the group and he shows us what is causing the division. From this point forward Kikuchiyo is a different character, not so loud, not so animal-like; he seems to quiet and calm down, he becomes focused.
All of the characters go through story arcs such as this; they each develop over the course of the films three-and-a-half hours; they change themselves and they change each other. Kurosawa delivers one of the most excellent scripts of all time, and he presents it in such wonderful visual detail.
The first time I saw Seven Samurai I was not thrilled. It was long, slow, and just different from any other film I had ever seen before; but I’ve now seen the film about nine times, and with each viewing my appreciation of it grows exponentially. If you’re just breaking into the foreign/subtitled film scene then pass on this one until later; if you’ve seen the film before but were left unimpressed or even confused, come back to it in a few years to see if you’re opinion of it changes. Time has that effect, it can change how we perceive things. In Seven Samurai Kurosawa uses the time masterfully, he allows the running time to let the story grow; he doesn’t tell you the story of these Samurai, he shows it to you.
As is tradition, here is the trailer for the film (from one of its many theatrical re-releases) on YouTube:
Oh man, that music! And that rain! It’s beautiful, isn’t it?