A Month of Kurosawa: Seven Samurai (1954)

To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!

Seven Samurai (1954)

I have a weakness for epics. When I see that a movie has an absurdly long run time, I find myself instantly intrigued. I’m not sure why. It’s not as if run time is a sign of quality. For every Lawrence of Arabia or Once Upon a Time in America, there are two dozen bloated “epics” that would have been far better with some generous editing.

Seven Samurai is not one of those films. At 207 minutes long, this 3 1/2-hour epic is HUGE, yet somehow that time whizzes by as if it were a one-hour drama.

That’s no insult, either. Quite the opposite. Time flies because this is a film so engrossing, so engaging, and so impeccably made that you probably won’t realize that this beloved action movie has very little action until the climax.

In fact, Seven Samurai is a slower, more meditative film than its reputation suggests, a movie as concerned about exploring class distinctions as it is about six+1 badass samurai protecting a small village of peasants from raiders.

Folks in the west probably know this story better as The Magnificent Seven, a remake that re-imagines the movie as a classic American western starring legends like Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, and Eli Wallach. That it was dressed up as a western in a remake, just like later films (Yojimbo became Fistful of Dollars, for example), is appropriate, given that Kurosawa was influenced by the American westerns of John Ford and others.

But this film is NOT a western in disguise. Rather, it has universal themes that can be placed in countless other contexts. The gist is simple: A group of peasant who are in danger of attack by bandits hire a group of samurai to protect them. A team comes together, they prepare for conflict, they fight and win, but there is a cost to their victory. That may seem like a spoiler, but let’s be honest: even without seeing the movie, you know that’s how it goes. And that’s okay. We love stories of this nature. Just remember that Kurosawa set the template for countless films to follow.

When it comes to film, Kurosawa basically invented this common idea. From the book:

“Gathering the companions” becomes a familiar trope in cinema after this. The gathering of the heroes is, in fact, often treated as THE adventure, with the obstacle they must overcome a mere afterthought to the real obstacle: unity. Echoes of this aspect of Seven Samurai are felt throughout action cinema. You see it in heist films, like 1973’s The Sting, 1969’s The Italian Job, and the Ocean’s Eleven series; in gloriously empty action movies like Armageddon (1998); in war films like 1961’a The Guns of Navarone; and in modern superhero slugfests like 2012’s The Avengers and 2017’s Justice League.

Even as I write what was intended to be a quick “capsule review,” I find myself caught up in the excitement of talking about this movie. Takashi Shimura (my favorite Kurosawa player, as mentioned in my Ikiru review) has never been better. This is the role that probably won film geeks everywhere over on Toshiro Mifune. And the rest of the cast is OUTSTANDING; fun, engaging, and memorable. This is truly an ensemble. Not only are the samurai themselves a delight — is there anyone who doesn’t like the master swordsman? — the peasants are well-realized and nuanced, too.

In fact, that’s one of the things this film gets right: it’s depiction of the peasants. For all its swords and samurai and humor and heroes and action and adventure, this is a film that is about what separates us. The class divide is written all over this film. From the book:

Examples appear throughout the film, but this refrain of the divide between classes is perhaps best exemplified in the subplot involving the farmer Manzō (Kamatari Fujiwara), his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), and Katsushirō Okamoto (Isao Kimura), the young samurai in training. Before the samurai arrive, Manzō insists that Shino cut her hair and dress like a man. He fears the samurai and what they will do to her otherwise. As we learn later, the very idea of her becoming close to a samurai is appalling to him. Other villagers call him out on his selfishness, thinking only of himself when he seeks to hide his daughter’s gender, but this is hardly a sign of open-mindedness on their part. Rather, it’s a desire to be all in this together. They are bound together by their uncertainty over what the samurai will bring.

Oh man, I could go on and on and on and on and on.

I won’t, though. These are meant to be capsule reviews, so here is my capsule summary and recommendation: BY GOD, SEE THIS MOVIE! It’s one of the greatest films of all time, a gorgeous, influential epic that is smart, fun, exciting, and just plain AWESOME. See it, then get your friends to see it, then see it again.

Seriously, it’s amazing.

Check out my upcoming book for a full analysis exploring this film’s ideas, themes, good points, and bad

You can get the movie in this excellent release from the Criterion Collection