Seven Samurai is the cinematic equivalent of London Calling; a movie so long it has to fit on two DVDs, but short enough that with a few minutes snipped off here and there, it could possibly squeeze into one. The problem is, there’s nothing to snip. At 207 minutes, it’s a sprawling epic, but every corner tucks in nicely, every scene plays out with purpose. It is visually poetic and characteristically sturdy. The story — warriors hired by poor farmers to protect their village from bandits — has been plundered and recycled into cowboys, failed actors, even animated insects. And yet, watching it again after many years, it continues to flow with energy and seems intrinsically original. That’s the mark of a great film.
Kurosawa had made thirteen films by 1954 — of which two remain among his most powerful: Rashomon (1950) and Ikiru (1952) — but none were about the samurai. Seven Samurai is not only about the samurai, it is about the codes of duty and honour that guide them. Why does Kambei, the thoughtful leader of the seven, agree to help the villagers, whose wage amounts to nothing more than three meals? Why, for that matter, do the other six join him? It’s not for glory, that much is certain. The samurai lived to serve, not to gloat. When their service was no longer required, they became masterless, or ronin, and roamed the land in search of opportunity. Is that it? Does Kambei accept because the villagers represent an opportunity for him to be useful again?
Seven Samurai decides the fate of its heroes; they agree to assist the villagers because they must, and by the end, only three of them survive, with little gratitude from the farmers. One of the last few scenes positions the three, within the frame, beneath the four graves of their comrades; victory has come at a cost and its weight will rest on their shoulders. Off-screen, the jovial farmers celebrate as if to claim the win for themselves. The samurai’s job is done. Now they will move on in search of new opportunities.
Kambei is played by Takashi Shimura, who, in Ikiru, played the beleaguered bureaucrat attempting to redeem himself from a life of enormous mundanity by trying to do one good deed for his neighbourhood. Here again he’s into the business of doing unconditional good for others. Shimura, 48 at the time of filming, presents Kambei as a wise old man, confident in his ability, steadfast in his commitment to his word. He maps out the order of combat for his men (and for us) and keeps a tally of the 40 bandits as they come crashing through the village’s defences and are diminished one by one. Like a proper strategist, he keeps the chaos organised.
Across from him stands Kikuchiyo, played by long-time Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune. Kikuchiyo is bombastic and flamboyant — everything Kambei is not — and strides through the film trying to impress men he’s hated for years but desperately wants to admire. He wields a katana longer than anyone else’s and struts among the cowering farmers like a prince. He’s not a terribly good swordsman, but, like the young novice Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), he’s eager to please. His developing relationship with the children of the village is one of the film’s more endearing qualities.
Both Kambei and Kikuchiyo stand at the forefront of Seven Samurai; they bring contested ideologies to their mission but are nevertheless determined to stand up to tyranny. In a brilliant scene, Kikuchiyo abandons his post to rescue a couple from a burning mill, and Kambei, scornful of Kikuchiyo’s recklessness, scrambles after him. Together they pull a child’s body from the flames and Kikuchiyo howls in despair, “This baby, it’s me! It’s what happened to me!”.
The bandits, by comparison, are treated as nameless, faceless marauders. They are not referred to or given any kind of humanising trait. Their primary goal is to attack the village, and this they do relentlessly until, of course, they are no more. Kurosawa instead shifts the focus to the relationship between the samurai and the farmers. One brave and efficient, the other afraid and useless. The samurais corral the farmers like sheep to evade the enemy; even in attack, as the rain descends and dirties the picture to resemble a charcoal painting, the farmers move hurriedly in groups. You could almost see their celebration at the end as their personal victory not just over the bandits, but also over the potential oppression of the samurai.
Indeed, the samurai were feared in most parts of Japan. They were highly skilled and trained in swift execution. The ronin, in particular, pillaged and raped. They presented a threat, but were outdone by bandits, who were strictly bound by no moral compass. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and while the farmers in Seven Samurai make no effort to befriend their protectors, they understand the necessity for their assistance. This, above all, is perhaps what drove Hollywood to remake this picture in the old west with gunslingers instead of swordsmen. The cowboys, too, were highly skilled, trained in swift execution, and feared. The Magnificent Seven (1960) reshaped the social context of Seven Samurai into an idea fit for the American wilderness. By the end of that film, there was no way the townspeople were going to shake hands with the cowboys. Like the samurai, their duty was done.
Kurosawa went on to make more movies about the samurai, including Yojimbo (1961), which itself was remade into a western. He approached each new story from a refreshing angle, delving bit by bit into the psyche of solo heroes. The samurais were loners after all. They wandered, encountered, acted, left. Yes, the story of Seven Samurai has transcended time and culture to become a staple narrative standby, but Kurosawa also pioneered a new breed of champion, one that requires no payment and no recognition. Just last year, Tom Hardy played Max Rockatansky, a rugged renegade of the Outback who no doubt owes his way of life to the discipline of the samurai.