Ranking: #40/111

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Genre: Samurai Drama

One of the most influential films in cinema history, Seven Samurai is a profound blend of the Western and the Japanese samurai, or sword-fighting, drama. An epic production, it’s another visual and narrative masterpiece from one of cinema’s greatest story-tellers, Akira Kurosawa.

The film exemplifies and epitomises cinematic dynamism. It inspired many directors and lead to a Western remake in 1960 with The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa, in turn, was deeply influenced by the Westerns of his cinematic hero, John Ford.

Set in the sixteenth century in rural Japan, during a time of widespread civil unrest and lawlessness, the story is elemental. A farming village in the mountains is being terrorised by a gang of bandits. In their desperation, they decide to hire samurai to defend them. On their knees economically, they can only offer food in lieu of pay, so the village elder, Gisaku, who is a miller, tells them to look out for hungry warriors. “Even bears come down from the mountains when they’re hungry,” the gruff old man tells them.

Some villagers go in search of “hungry” samurai. After an initially fruitless search, they witness an experienced rōnin (a roaming masterless samurai) rescuing a young boy held hostage by a thief. His name is Kambei Shimada. When they appeal to him to help them, he reluctantly agrees, and he is soon joined by a young samurai named Katsushirō who wants to be the older warrior’s disciple. Kambei then recruits Shichirōji, Gorobei, Heihachi, and Kyūzō. The latter is an aloof, quiet master swordsman. The seventh samurai to be hired is the black sheep amongst them, Kikuchiyo, a wild, whimsical, funny man whose zest for life and strong, spirited character eventually wins the others over, despite their misgivings about his credentials as a samurai. He is played with incredible intensity and vividness by the legendary Toshiro Mifune, quite possibly the greatest male actor of all time. It turns out he was the son of a farmer and his understanding of farming proves to be invaluable in the defence of the village. He is able to galvanise the farmers, helping them to overcome their fears.

When this band of seven ronin arrive at the village, they find the farmers to be timid and fearful. Their first task is to motivate them and to get them to fight back against the bandits. After that, they have to be trained.

All the preparations for defence of the village are masterminded, to the last detail, by their wise old leader Kambei. He is portrayed with gentle assurance by another legend of Japanese cinema, Takashi Shimura. Kambei turns the disparate warriors into a harmonious fighting unit. Gradually, the hired swordsmen and the farmers get to trust one another, becoming one in their determination to defeat the bandits.

The battle scenes are action-packed and gripping, while the climactic battle, which takes place in pouring rain, is a masterclass in filming high-powered action scenes. Kurosawa used three cameras to create continuity and immediacy and the result is a memorable fluidity. Filmed in freezing wintry conditions, the images of this final conflict in the story have become iconic.

The cinematography, based on the time line of one agricultural year and shot almost entirely on location for the sake of realism, is powerful throughout. It combines with an engrossing narrative, itself peppered with gritty dialogue.

Each of the seven swordsmen have well-developed and contrasting characters. In a Kurosawa film, you always get the human touch.

The seven become a harmonious unit held together by their wise and kindly leader. The acting is exemplary and I especially loved the contrast between the calmness of Kambei and the manic intensity of Kikuchiyo. The latter’s zest for life is second to none.

On top of this, the director has created an emotional atmosphere which he sustains to the end. From the desperation and fear of the rice farmers at the beginning, to the building up of suspense as they prepare, with the samurai, to defend themselves, to the losses sustained in the heat of battle, the viewer is drawn into the story. We can’t help being emotionally invested in the final battle.

The atmospheric ending is sad, but uplifting, as Kambei, Katsushirō and Shichirōji stand in front of the four funeral mounds of their fallen comrades, while the villagers plant their new crops, singing in joy.

This film was made at the height of Japanese cinema’s greatest period, when Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi were all master filmmakers and the Japanese film industry was booming, before television had become mainstream in the country. It stands as a timeless cinematic monument to that time of creative genius.