Shichinin no Samurai

(The Seven Samurai, Japan - 1954)

by Vanes Naldi

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki, Daisuke Kato, Isao Kimura, Seiji Miyaguchi, Kamatari Fujiwara, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Haruko Toyama
Genre: Swordplay
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai
Composer: Fumio Hayasaka
Runtime: 206 minutes

In China, they're called Wuxia for legends of swordsmen in action, while in Japan they're called Jidai Geki or samurai films. While often separated by the differences of the two countries, socially, culturally and historically, most of the time those films are about warriors using their sword to give a message. Often, those films have a common theme, love and/or betrayal, portraying life with a great realism and going deeper, adding something more than a plot. They're something like pieces of history, pieces of filmmaking that become timeless. Many, many people found inspiration in Kurosawa's work and learned from him, such as Sam Peckinpah whose "The Wild Bunch" was heavily influenced by Akira's work. Others include Sergio Leone whose version of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, was the first Spaghetti Western and John Sturges, who tried to repeat Kurosawa's brilliance in "The Magnificent Seven".

This is an incredible masterpiece about Japan's feudal age. It perfectly depicts how the social classes interacted - the problems, prejudice, and often the will to change tradition - at the same time it's a character study that has hardly been repeated. If that wasn't enough, Kurosawa gives a lesson on how to film something and give it a meaning. The plot is pretty straightforward, developing in three acts, but the many subplots and the incredible attention to detail make this one of Kurosawa's most compelling works and one of the best films of all time.

The feudal age has destroyed any semblance of law and control in 1500 Japan, so many bandits form solid units to rob and raid villagers at every season. One group decides to wait for the right moment when the barley is ready, but they're overheard by a peasant who then tells the news to everybody in the village. Everybody is mortified, mentally mutilated by the constant sacrifice and continued suffering they have to endure. Their life is all about being afraid of everything and everybody. There seems to be no solution. Some people suggest they might hang themselves rather than go on with this type of life.

Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) proposes the village hire a group of samurai to kill the bandits and protect them. At first, the village is confused. They don't want to face the truth that's it their last chance for survival. People are enraged by the way samurai have acted toward them; they believe every samurai is against them, and they've fought and killed them to protect their land in the past. The class system was more important in 16th century Japan, in fact it is VITAL. People disagree with Rikichi and ask him how could they ever pay them. They believe, blinded by their prejudice and closed mindedness that every samurai is a bloodthirsty mercenary only interested in money and honing their skills. Some people decide to back up Rikichi's ideas though, and the plot starts to evolve. They decide to find a group of brave, honorable samurai who will protect them even without monetary compensation. This will automatically exclude any "mercenary" because only an honorable samurai is likely to accept three meals a day in exchange for protection.

This first act focuses on the search for the seven samurai, but also provides a great profile on two things: the difference between the classes and the mentality of the country at the time. There seems to be a problem with even mentioning outsiders. Outsiders are mysterious and different, so they're probably people that shouldn't be trusted. The basic fundamentals to explore a much more ambitious message, Japan's mentality, are laid in the first part. We see that the group is better than the individual, which will come back during the final battle.

The important thing Kurosawa has done with this film is give EACH one of the seven samurai a different personality. He explores it throughout the film with the use of dialogue and events that showcase the character's strengths, weaknesses, differences, and aspirations. Each one of them has a different reason for fighting, and they're all heavily developed to the point we understand and become interested in all of them.

Kambei, played by Takashi Shimura (Ikiru), is the first warrior to be hired. He shows his ability disguising himself as a monk and saving a child whom was being held hostage. Here we see the first action sequence, with slow motion that would be so influential later for directors such as Leone and John Woo. Kambei is an old, wise Ronin (masterless samurai) who wanders in search of adventures. He's an honest man, the most knowledgeable of the group. Age doesn't make him the best warrior, but it's his intelligence that puts him on top of everyone else. Shimura's performance is flawless, and while he doesn't stand out as much as he did in Ikiru, his role as something like a father figure to the group is vital. He's the man who brings wisdom and intelligence to the village. He's interested in this quest from the beginning, so he decides to help Rikichi and his friends find the other six samurai.

The second samurai, Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), is perhaps the film's most interesting character (obviously except Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo). He's a young, naive samurai wannabe coming from a wealthy family. All he wants to do is learn from Kambei so he can become a samurai. He takes part in one of the film's many subplots, a coming-of-age story that also goes back to the strict class system and to straying from the norm being so troublesome in these times. At first, the group is reluctant to accept him because of his inexperience, but he serves as a kohai to Shimura. The valuable lessons he learns and his maturation are integral parts of the film.

What everybody remembers about this film is Toshiro Mifune's beautiful portrayal of Kikuchiyo. He's the anti-hero who breaks from tradition and attempts to become a samurai even though he was a villager (farmer). Samurais killed his parents, so he shares a hidden hatred for them that will explode in probably the most famous monologue in this film. He's a comic relief character, but some of the most dramatic moments of Seven Samurai depend on his performance. He's often drunk, goofy, and over the top, but he strengthens the message of the film because with his individualism he highlights the fact that the TEAM is stronger if united and single acts of courage can become dangerous. Mifune's performance displays a great deal of range, passing from the biggest goofball of the village to the person who regrets his action, who can't deal with his partners' death. He's eventually the film's most important character, not only because of the way the plot puts emphasis on him, but also because he's the man that has the strongest emotional attachment to the village in every sense (love and hatred). He's a hero, but not a conventional one. He's the loner, the one who stirs and goads the village to wake up and fight to protect themselves.

Seiji Miyaguchi plays the film's most enigmatic and mysterious samurai, Kyuzo. In a beautiful scene during the search for the "magnificent seven," he has a wooden stick fight with a showoff that wants to beat him. He shows amazing fighting skills, but doesn't seem interested in killing. All he cares about is honing his skills, achieving perfection. When his challenger asks him to try for real, he's reluctant because he thinks it would be a waste and he'd have to kill him. Nonetheless, the two fight and in a highly stylistic and beautiful action scene, he collects his first victim in this film. He's a man of few words, but a man of honor and incredible skill. Kambei seems skeptical about his attitude, but he eventually grows accustomed to his behavior and is able to trust him. Kyuzo is also a strong influence for Katsushiro, who strongly admires him and learns a lot from his actions and courage. He considers him a great man.

Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato) is Kambei's old friend. They've fought countless times together, and he wants to continue helping him. He and Gorobei (Yoshiro Inaba) are probably the least developed characters of the film, but they represent solid veterans who understand how to fight such a difficult battle. Shichiroji's friendship with Kambei and his experience make him the strong, even if subdued, personality of the group.

Finally, Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is the cheerful character. He's not as capable as his partners are, but he's able to maintain a good mood. His morale is always high and he helps the villagers rise to the occasion and try to not be afraid of what will come next.

There are other very important characters in the film. The old patriarch gives wisdom to the village and decides to stay in his mill until the end, like a captain with his ship. Rikichi is also a big part of the film, with his story involving his wife who is stolen by bandits. There's also Manzo and his daughter Shino. Afraid of what the Samurai would do to her, again underlining the tension that flies in the air between the two groups, he cuts her hair and starts asking her to behave like a man. She will have a relationship with Katsushiro that will make him grow. It also helps develop the coming of age subplot of a girl in a world torn between strict and rigid social systems like the classes who has the will to explore and experience new things.

While the first act features little in the way of action, instead laying the groundwork to build tension for the arrival of the bandits and developing the characters, the second act totally focuses on the "training camp" and battle plan. It will always be seven samurai and a bunch of scared farmers against forty skilled, ruthless, bloodthirsty bandits, but Kambei shows his wisdom by planning to precision a way to minimize their losses. This part provides the biggest comic relief, but also helps build trust between the two classes. There are still some problems, but the samurai start to evolve from unknown outsiders to some sort of local "heroes." The morale is high among the farmers. Laughter has returned to the village and the people feel protected. They are able to enjoy life once again. Thanks to the samurai's courage, the farmers start to have faith in their abilities; they hold a spear without running scared. Their contribution to the final plan is vital to achieving its goal.

The third act, as you'd expect, climaxes with the memorable battle. The brilliance of this part lies in the fact it's not just pure action; it's not just two people fighting to death and then presenting you with a bullshit happy ending tearjerker. We see Kambei's planning evolve, learn their movements, find out how they're able to substitute intelligence for manpower to fight the bandits. We also see here how the plot moves to make a statement about the classes that divide the farmers from the samurai. In the end, either the bandits or the seven who fought them are the ones who lost, while the farmers won. The samurai sacrifice their lives to protect people they didn't even know who never paid them and didn't even appreciate their help at first. They realize this, as Kambei admits that they've lost to his old friend Shichirojii.

The bittersweet ending is a perfect climax to the tension built up during this lengthy character study. Kikuchiyo's final act, even if it eventually meant his death, is to kill the people who made his life a miserable hell. He decides that he'd rather die to help those people instead of watching them perish. The great honor of the samurai, the Sun Tzu, the old discipline of the warriors, their pride, their legacy is perfectly portrayed here. Those are men of honor who don't mutilate their victims or stab them from behind. They fight them honorably and respect their death. They don't seek revenge and let the villagers have their way with them. Other than being a great study on the Japanese class system, this eventually becomes a great homage to the Japanese way of doing things, on how the collaboration and teamwork between two seemingly opposite classes like the farmers and the samurai can win the battle. It is about the collective, not the individual.

Technically, the film is incredible. One thing that stood out for me was the heavy rain (atypical) during the final battle. Kurosawa's masterful directing takes form, doing something that would influence filmmakers for generations to come. The most beautiful thing about his style is the tremendous attention to detail. The village is perfectly recreated, transporting us back in time to experience how the lives of those people evolve. The action scenes are brilliantly filmed, putting emphasis on the urgency, tension, and confusion rather than being gruesome or perfectly realistic.

There are some films that become cult masterpieces for one reason or the other. Films that are considered the "best of all time" by many people. Most of the time, that hype is undeserved, but this motion picture is one of the few films like Orson Welles' Citizen Kane that can happily and without regret be called "one of the best of all time." It's a timeless, influential, and incredibly involving masterpiece from Japan's best director.

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