A full decade after Kurosawa’s first directorial feature he would produce this film, one that nearly bankrupted Toho studios but is widely considered to be his magnum opus. But is it? What is it about Seven Samurai that so many find so endearing? What sets it apart from Kurosawa’s 29 other feature films? The reasons are legion and various, but the most compelling one is the film’s noncommittal nature. Kurosawa doesn’t insist upon comedy, tragedy or historical drama; nor does he insist upon probing the politics of sex and status, investigating generational conflict or showing the spectacle of physical conflict—it is three and a half hours of all these things with some pretty powerful characterizations along the way. There are no motifs like arc lights showing us the way, no genre tags to provide comfort.
It feels like a fully-realized world, physically small, but spiritually vast. Perhaps most exceptional is its rhythm and pacing. It is often remarked that the Kurosawa film flows, that its interests lay always ahead and never behind, that it impels to some end. This is true of many and Seven Samurai is no exception, but like no other before or since this film marks out its metaphysical territory early and often; it does so with metronomic precision, and it does so with humor and pathos. And this is a pathos achieved with the subtlest of gestures, as with Kambei’s habitual head stroking which suggests humility or Kikuchiyo’s (Toshirô Mifune) fiery spirit conveyed in his glare or the dog-like bearing that signifies loyalty.
In summary this is a story of the bad and the strong preying upon the weak, of the common men who elicit the protection of the uncommon, of men setting aside their differences for a nobler cause. This is the epic impulse and the film’s generative spirit, but it’s a film far more political and far more personal than all that. Kurosawa, always concerned with what is and what seems, is likewise concerned with theory and its practice. In theory samurai are proud men, but in practice “even bears come down from the mountains when they are hungry,” as the village elder incisively notes. By the same token the villagers leave the village when they are hungry. The villagers are looking for men who find themselves in a similar predicament—men whose own strife has stripped them of all distinction—but stronger men, so right away this seems like a hopeless endeavor. What’s to prevent their protectors from becoming aggressors, raping their women and looting their harvest? What they are looking for is not hungry bears, but honorable men. So a destitute sample is chosen to represent the village in the search for samurai.
They get lucky. Kurosawa smartly introduces the first of these honorable men in medias res. While a samurai is having his top-knot shaved a commotion develops among the locals and our villagers come to learn that a bandit has invaded a home and taken a child hostage. The samurai asks only for two rice balls and monk’s garb as he plans to deceive the bandit to rescue the child. This is one of the more memorable scenes in all of Kurosawa’s cinema. The aged samurai is Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura). He asks for nothing for his services, but nonetheless garners the attention of two young upstarts, one looking for a master, the other a brash show-off trying to measure his skill against the samurai. Of course the earnest villagers follow him too and eventually summon the courage to make a proposition. None of this seems contrived as Kambei is introduced into the narrative so seamlessly and his reasons for joining the mission are multiple and cleaved to a sense of contrition for past malfeasance. And it seems as if it only takes one honorable man to attract others. With Kambei attached to their cause, the villagers quickly secure five more.
Kurosawa first engages us cerebrally and then he engages us viscerally, his dramatic fulcrum throughout. This approach is epitomized in the scenes where Kambei surveys the village and its limits, comparing physical landmarks to the ones on his map. The map will become the blueprint for the defense of the village and will be used later to tally enemy losses as the battle swells to its pitch. Kurosawa will take this interplay even further with 1958’s The Hidden Fortress which almost satirizes it. At work all the time is the director’s seamless editing, incisive pans and multiplanar compositions. There are often several important actions unfolding at once as several characters vie for the camera’s attention. Instead of following the band of selfless samurai back to the village, Kurosawa focuses on the outsider Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) as he follows them like a dog drawn toward its master. They know he’s following them and he knows they know, so a game of saber-rattling develops. Even Kikichiyo doesn’t realize that he’s trying to win their affection. He becomes the seventh fighting man and quickly tries to take the reins of the whole operation.
There are traces early on in the film, but class conflict is made explicit with Kikuchiyo’s impassioned speech. He turns the prevalent discourse on its head, indicting the seemingly gentle peasants as liars, misers and murderers. “But who made them this way?” he asks. He then berates his colleagues for pillage, rape and destruction in the ardor of battle. This conflict needs no illumination for the Japanese, at least not so boldly, but for Western viewers this scene is crucial to elucidate the entrenched divide between peasant and samurai class. Kikuchiyo is a man vying for upward mobility, despising his peasant birth and simultaneously retaining its pathos. He is anguished by the lack of an original cause as peasant and samurai seem to react as they do only because of the other. Rather than participate in this losing battle fought in perpetuity he wishes to become something else entirely, something that straddles both worlds and takes from each its strength and dignity. In this film he becomes the redemption of both classes.
It’s difficult now to understand why the next generation of Japanese filmmakers, masters like Nagisa Ôshima and Masaki Kobayashi, found Seven Samurai so problematic. Their argument against the film seems to stem from the perception that the villagers are portrayed negatively, while the samurai are portrayed as gallant heroes. I think there is some substance to the argument that the villagers come off as ungrateful opportunists; after all, they don’t honor the fallen samurai or the three still standing at film’s end. In the midst of war they weep for the first two who fall, but it seems as if they are weeping for themselves because a fallen warrior reduces their chances of success. In spite of this, Kurosawa does more than enough to achieve a balance; there is a genuine sense of fraternity among all the fighting men, including the villagers. Kikuchiyo himself is of peasant origins, though he’s an exceptional case. Most of all, the raiding bandits too are masterless samurai who obviously don’t subscribe to the kind of ideals that our heroes exude. Kurosawa was also consciously capturing a period of history marked by turmoil and transformation. The first action of a samurai in this film is Kambei divesting himself of his top-knot, the outward appearance of his status.
The fact that social barriers between people of different origins, classes, ages and genders are crumbling, that values are being conceived anew suggest the end of an epoch and the beginning of a new one. The transformative power of history, the rise and ebb of politics here is dramatized in a handful of lives enduring a couple of days. History may appear immanent to the modern observer, but these are big ideas and vast currents that did not form in the same tide, nor overnight. Smart storytellers eschew an infinity of causes for the effects. And few come smarter than this director. His cuts are as incisive and effortless as a scythe through wheat, his creations brim with vitality and his epics, despite their length, are so sweeping that three and a half hours never felt so short. If images fail to endure, Kikuchiyo’s fire, Kambei’s humility and Kyûzô’s stoicism will stay with you. Rarely is a single character so summed through disposition, gesture and glances as here, and Kurosawa gives us seven.