Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Seiji Miyaguchi, Minoru Chiaki, Isao Kimura, Yoshio Inabe, Daisuke Kato
It’s difficult to really step back and consider Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as a film in its own right because the influence that it has had on filmmakers ever since is apparent in nearly every frame and turn of the narrative. This is a definitive film, one that created archetypes and tropes that still show up in films today. There is no denying the importance of this work, but the question remains: is it good because of all the good movies it inspired, or is it good strictly in its own right?
As the title suggests the story centers on seven samurai. These men are brought together by the residents of an impoverished village, who hire them as protection against bandits. If you’ve ever seen a film which involves a gang of misfits banding together for some purpose or other, you’ll recognize the character types of the samurai. There’s Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the level-headed but weary leader; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) who, for lack of a better term, is “the cool one,” the strong silent type who consistently takes care of business like it’s nothing; Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the loose canon; Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), the funny one; and Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), the rookie. There’s also Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) and Shichiroju (Daisuke Kato), both of whom more or less occupy the same position as seconds in command/right hand men to Kambei. Together they strategize to find the best way to protect the village, which is wide open to attack at various spots, and train the villagers to defend their home.
This is ostensibly an action/adventure film, but before we get to those sequences Kurosawa spends a lot of time examining the social aspects of the relationship of the samurai to each other and to the villagers whom they are protecting. The samurai are of a different social caste than the villagers - this fact driven home by the subplot involving Katsushiro, who falls in love with the daughter of one of the villagers – and the two groups aren’t supposed to mix. There’s also the fact that the villagers are, at first, afraid of the samurai who arrive to find the village deserted as everyone has gone into hiding for fear of them. It’s Kikuchiyo who brings them out by falsely sounding the village’s alarm and then proceeds to mock them for hiding from the samurai one moment, and then running to them for safety in the next. Kikuchiyo is something of a bridge character in that he isn’t a samurai by blood, but rather the son of a farmer who pretty much muscles his way into the group by refusing to take “no” as an answer.
Of all the characters, Kikuchiyo is easily the most interesting and that has a lot to do with performance by Toshiro Mifune, who at times almost seems as if he’ll be propelled off the screen by the sheer energy of his performance. Kikuchiyo is the flashiest of all the roles in the film because he’s such a show off, but his preening hides self-doubt and a desperate desire for validation. When Katsushiro expresses his admiration for Kyuzo after he single-handedly takes down two bandits and steals their gun, Kikuchiyo has to go out on his own and prove that he, too, can accomplish such a feat. When Kambei responds by scolding him for deserting his post, the wound to Kikuchiyo’s pride is obvious. This is an incredibly compelling character and one who is portrayed magnificently.
Seven Samurai is an excellent film, but I have to be honest about something: I think it’s a lot longer than it absolutely has to be. The set-up is a slow build and the lions share of the action doesn’t come until well into the film’s 3 ½ hour running time. Again, it’s a wonderful film but certain sections can be a bit of a slog to get though.