Seven Samurai is all you need: a life lesson.
What can I say about Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece that has not already been said? Other than it totally deserves its reputation as one of the finest action films ever made. However, I don’t feel like the film has stood the test of time amazingly but it has held up well.
Seven Samurai is very akin to a classical Western in its narrative and vision. A rural town with a history of bandit (outlaw) attacks needs saving from a group of “outsiders” from the urban towns. Of course, instead of cowboys wielding guns, it is a band of seven samurai using swords, who are given the task of stopping the bandits from stealing all the food from the village because the villagers became fed up of giving the food to the bandits every harvest. Sound familiar? That’s because Seven Samurai has left a huge imprint on the film landscape, being remade with The Magnificent Seven and A Bug’s Life much later.
The version I watched was BFI’s 3 hour 10 minute cut, and everything flowed together wonderfully with a strong first hour introducing the plot, characters and setting. It is in this first hour that we meet the villagers set on their quest to find a number of samurai and the samurai they find. The villagers are scared, intimidated and poor – much to the amusement of other men in the town – each of the seven samurai provide counterpoints to the villagers (and bandits) strong, smart, wilful and happy to work for just food.
Most films with a large cast of characters flounder around when it comes to character development, with some characters not really getting much screen-time or lines. Seven Samurai however gives time to the majority of its characters, and each one is unique and strong in their own rights.
Kambei (Takashi Shimura) is the leader of the samurai, a wise older warrior who takes charge in organisation, Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura) is the youngest of the samurai and does not often get to fight (he does however get the love interest sub-plot), Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) is the second in command and helps with the village’s defence strategies, Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato) is the most ignored of the seven, Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is less skilled of a fighter but it is his job to keep the spirits of the group up, Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) is the most skilful of the samurai and also the most stoic and serious and finally Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a false samurai, very skilled, but mental – it is he who identifies with the villagers more so than any other.
The interaction between all these characters is fun, with them laughing with each other at silly things. Indeed, Seven Samurai is as much a comedy as it is a tragedy, masterfully mixing the two until the final (incredible) 40 or so minutes.
However, it is not all plain sailing. The film is long, very long; there could have been less of it and the film would have been even better. There are so many scenes of the samurai joking around with themselves and the villagers that at times you can just find yourself getting bored. It takes too long for the film to get itself going, but when it does, it does with such style and grace you’ll forgive the film for its long opening and establishment.
The establishment does pay off ultimately, as you genuinely feel for every one of the characters (an impressive feat), and the plight of the village becomes tense, exciting and never underwhelming. What helps this along is the fantastic play-off between the timid, scared villagers and the confident, strong samurai, you want Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) to be saved by the samurai and at times you feel for the samurai.
The film would have not succeeded in the way it has if the samurai were infallible, with no weaknesses but they each have their own strengths and weaknesses; Katsushiro in particular, who falls in love with Manzo’s daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) – this leads to further complications and adds another layer of depth to the already impressive narrative.
Seven Samurai is timeless (beyond it being black & white), it has an eye for detail, shots, lighting, set-pieces and action scenes that is largely unparalleled in contemporary cinema. While some of the effects look dated (the film is 60 years old at the time of writing), the scope and determination behind each shot of every scene is fantastic. The pacing of the film however does stutter thanks ultimately to the length of it.
Acting in the film also is very strong, perfect really. I don’t know the specifics, but surely this film used more extras than pretty much any other film on the market – it’s mindboggling that there was a film with such a large vision and scope made in 1954 that holds up so well today. Of course, the film had a very large budget and as such, the production values are amazingly high.
Every conceivable aspect of the film’s production is performed at the highest level in Seven Samurai: editing, sound, special effects, acting, directing, cinematography, score etc… Kurosawa truly was a master of the trade.
Seven Samurai is the action epic to end all action epics, its plot is simple to follow but complicated with some digging, its editing is superb, acting is fantastic and characterisation flows fantastically. The film’s pacing does stutter and chug along at times, thanks to an overly long start but the film’s fantastic eye for detail, spectacle and the minor facets of life make the film stand out as a true classic: a masterpiece.
Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai is, in my mind, a masterpiece of cinema. Essential viewing.