d. Akira Kurosawa / 1954 / Japan / 190 mins
First of all I want to point out a discrepancy in the descriptive text above that the eagle-eyed reader may already have noticed. Seven Samurai was the longest film that Kurosawa made and at 207 minutes long, was cut for its original Western release. The version I’m reviewing here is the 190 minute BFI release that includes much of the missing footage (but not quite all) from 1991, released on DVD in 1999.
It was Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon that led audiences, film-makers and critics to turn their attentions towards Japanese cinema, doing so to an extent that had never been seen before. Seven Samurai would be the film that cemented this cross-culturalism, influencing Hollywood in a way that few foreign films would ever be able to do.
The story is that of a village besieged by bandits. On the brink of starvation, they hire masterless samurai to fight on their behalf and repel their aggressors. The film is one of humour and horror, caste and class, individualism and feudalism, wrapped up in a manner that perfected the action adventure movie.
Every character in this sprawling epic is meticulously fleshed out and detailed, Kurosawa spends as much time building the tempo for the action as he does making sure his audience is thoroughly convinced by the events and right beside the Samurai as they fight. For the first time on one of his productions, multiple cameras were used so that naturalistic performances were captured. It’s a film that truly does feel multi-dimensional, through Kurosawa’s decision to create a full village set that we are guided through, to the way that his camera roams the battlefield, positioning us in the heart of the conflict.
Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune gives yet another electric performance as Kikuchiyo, perfectly balanced with Takashi Shimura’s war-weary Kanbe Shimada. If any criticism could be made of the cast or characters it would be that Kurosawa has little interest in the roles the women play within the village, though this could be due to a general lack of interest in the peasants, moving herd-like as one in comparison to the overly characterised nature of the samurai. In doing so, Seven Samurai is truly a “heroic” picture that champions the act of the individual, perhaps allowing it be so palatable to Western audiences and Hollywood itself. However, it’s depiction of class is complicated, the villagers are those with a strong union with the land, the samurai are the opposite, as proud as they are aimless. Kurosawa glamorises the nobility of the samurai at its finest yet does not shy away from the brutality of violence and the oppressive nature of the upper-classes. At one point, Kanbe calls for understanding when his samurai follower has an illicit encounter with one of the villagers’ daughters, a modernism completely out of time with the film’s setting.
Seven Samurai is a film that deserves repeat viewings, allowing more and more themes and stylistic choices to present themselves. Kurosawa was a master of narrative and a hands on director and editor, surely no one could deny the technical ability that is on show here, yet the film’s humanity is what makes it a favourite amongst critics and audiences alike. A great clash of Western and Eastern cinematic devices and philosophies, Seven Samurai celebrates both yet opens up many questions into the roles of the personal and social meanings of the individual. It does so by using the samurai as a framework for this conflict, one that would endure throughout Kurosawa’s entire career and in all probability, will do so for cinema’s as well.