Director/Coscreenwriter: Akira Kurosawa
By Roderick Heath
It’s now a cliché to describe Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the father of modern action cinema. Undoubtedly its DNA, whilst not entirely original in itself, has since colonised genre cinema on a worldwide scale. But Seven Samurai is, of course, far more than a blueprint for recycled multiplex fare. Few films attempt to encompass as much as Kurosawa’s narrative does, which depicts through its microcosm of struggle and triumph something close to a philosophy of life as well as violent drama in its most elemental and entertaining of forms. Kurosawa and his writing collaborators attempted to create not just a movie script, but an artefact, with life extending far beyond the margins. The finesse of detailing put into creating their samurai and the villagers who hire them reflected the desire to create a self-sufficient fictional universe. Kurosawa was reviving a mode of filmmaking, autocratic and exacting in a hunt for tactile force and authenticity barely seen since the heyday of director-gods of the silent era, like Stroheim, Gance, and Lang. For the Japanese film industry, still straitened after the war even as it was entering a golden age of artistic brilliance, such ambition seemed outsized. The arduous shoot at a remote location lasted nearly a year. Kurosawa’s vision cost his backers, Toho Studios, half a million dollars. Production was shut down three times, but Seven Samurai was completed, and the rewards were soon apparent: a huge hit, over time it has become perhaps the most famous film ever produced in the country, and one regularly and justly cited amongst the greatest films of all time.
Kurosawa’s original idea had been to make a film about a samurai as an institutional figure, possessed of great esteem and power, and yet whose life always rested on a knife edge of responsibility and decorum. But in researching his story, Kurosawa unearthed an anecdote about some samurai who had defended a village from bandits during the incessant civil wars of Japan in the 1500s. His imagination captured, he collaborated with screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni to construct a story that, whilst not adapted from specific mythology, nonetheless managed to seem, in the perfection of its operating parts and the microcosmic intensity and graphic clarity of its drama, as if it told a story reaching back to prehistory. The creators based their samurai on real models, except for odd-man-out Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), an avatar for the pressures of social change, held in check by ruthless feudal politics in the film’s time period, but depicted as straining against their fetters. Kurosawa, whose name was about to become synonymous with Japanese historical cinema, had made few period movies up to this point. His proper debut, Sanjuro Sugata (1943), had dealt with the tension between prowess in violent arts and conscientious action in historical context, but his other forays into the past had generally been deeply cynical about Japan’s historic social structures.
Kurosawa nonetheless set himself the task of analysing the mystique of the peculiar national warrior, a mystique that had been used to give a fig leaf of traditionalist honour to recent orgies of imperialistic warfare. The risk of glamorising a passé profession associated with oppression and militarism was present. But Kurosawa, whose family had been samurai for generations, was evidently searching for some worldview, questioning what it meant for past and present, according to the ethical theme that dogged Kurosawa throughout his career: how does one do good in an often unforgiving and evil world? The choice of a group of ronin, loyal not to feudal power structure but to their own proclivities and traditions, helped leaven Kurosawa’s interest in the code that the breed lived by, placing it in contrast to a more venal reality. The heroes of Seven Samurai are defined by their willingness to take an essentially thankless job because it accords all the more purely with their code and gifts. Kurosawa’s choice of study also allowed him to channel another cultural influence: the rugged heroes of the private eye and western novels and films he loved, and the films of John Ford, in particular. Ford’s films kept the near-mythical gunslingers and warriors of the West in resolutely social contexts, consistently translating the genre’s essential tension between vagrant heroes and settler factotums into a cosmology, and Kurosawa wanted to engage in a similarly encompassing form of storytelling.
The opening shots of Seven Samurai, with silhouetted horsemen riding across the horizon, obey the essential creed of genre masters as stated by the likes of Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller: a film’s first shot should possess instantly arresting power. The sound of the horses charging the landscape is like that of ominous thunder, full of wordless malevolence and their riders with chitinous black armour, looking like locusts, about to consume everything in their path. When the bandit army comes upon the hapless, unnamed village whose fate the film depicts, they propose stripping this one bare, but one bandit reminds them that they raided it not long before, so they decide to return once the work of growing and harvesting the rice is completed. Once they depart, a hiding villager rises from his nook, the bundled sticks on his back having blended in with the surrounds.
The contrast is immediately purposeful: the bandits are malevolent insects feeding off the landscape of which the villagers are a part. The geometrical arrangements of the villagers, situated in the clear ground in the centre of their hamlet, reconfirms the notion, capturing the mass in the context of their lives and refusing to release them from it (shades of Lang and Metropolis). But the fibre of the villagers emerges, as individual character resists the pressure of history to crush it into a lumpen mass: angry and haunted Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) loses patience with the consensus to grovel before the bandits in the hope they’ll leave enough to live on next time. Self-interested Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) upholds this view, but when Rikichi convinces the villagers to think about another course of action, they’re advised by the village’s ancient patriarch Gisaku (Kokuten Kôdô), who once saw a village guarded by samurai, to try the same trick: “Find hungry samurai,” he advises.
Poverty is a reality in Seven Samurai in a way it is in very few films: early scenes, filled with vivid shots of the gnarled, suffering faces of the farmers, ensures their reality tempers the narrative, even though the samurai come to dominate it. Farmers, samurai, and bandits are united by one inescapable truth: the world they live in has been picked clean by an age of war, the clash of factions across the length of Japan has left everyone defined by what power they have. The bandits have no real power; the farmers perceive themselves to have none at all, taking recourse in whatever trickery they can, a necessary amorality and craftiness that is nonetheless held against them as it grazes against the complex ethical system of the samurai.
The marginal nature of subsistence labour is brought out with excruciating immediacy as Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), the most timorous of the farmers who go in search of samurai aid, finds the small stock of rice he’s been charged with protecting, crucial for luring in the wayfaring ronin they need, awakens at one point to find the stock stolen, compounding desperation with a shame and fear that’s bone-shaking. In this way, Kurosawa indicates that although he’s making an epic adventure film, he has no interest in historical escapism, a la the Hollywood swashbuckler, or even most Westerns: rather he’s portraying the human condition in both static and active states, probing the past for its own essence, a time when, without technology or the manifold insulations of modernity, humanity was no better than the immediacy of its physical and mental gifts and needs. The overwhelming physicality of Seven Samurai gains drive from this urgency. “A battle is running,” one samurai advises with import that colours the entire film: “When you can’t run any more, it’s time to die.” And so goes life.
Yohei, Rikichi, and Manzo venture into a small town to find protectors, and fate, chance, whatever, steers them to Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), a ronin introduced having his head shaved, with excitable onlookers flocking about. The striking image of the shaven-pated samurai—paid tribute with amusing literalness in the film’s American remake, The Magnificent Seven (1960), by casting Yul Brynner—is disorienting at first for the witnesses and audience because the act of a samurai surrendering his topknot is one associated with ritual humiliation and shame. It turns out to be in preparation for a ruse, as Kambei has been enlisted to rescue a small child, kidnapped by a thief who’s taken refuge in a hut: he takes on the guise of a disinterested priest bringing food to the besieged pair. But the sense remains that Kambei has left behind the worldly pride of being a samurai and become, in his way, a priest. He is the narrative’s sage of war but also of interconnectivity, of communal responsibility and strategic awareness, an awareness that’s grown beyond mere military contemplation to the relationship of many levels of necessary relationship. As a kind of warrior-philosopher, he tethers together the myriad personalities and desires of the farmers and samurai into an axiomatic whole. In keeping with his new status, he attracts disciples—the farmers who, dazzled and sensing the exceptional character and skill of this paragon, try to hire him—as well as samurai. He is dogged by a schismatic duo who witnessed his feat, and want to pay homage and gain his favour. The youthful, well-attired, privileged young Katsushiro (Isao ‘Ko’ Kimura), is the son of a wealthy landowner who, wanting to be a samurai, has left home in search of a cause and a master, whilst the man claiming to be called Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is scruffy, showy, and rude. Katsushiro’s eager obeisance wins him a friend and, finally, a reluctant mentor, whereas Kikuchiyo’s simultaneously pushy and reticent attempt to gain introduction is a failure.
Kurosawa’s most pervasive stylistic influence on the action cinema that followed was in the many directors, most importantly Sam Peckinpah, who imitated his then-startling use of slow motion as a flourish in violent moments. Kurosawa’s use of this gimmick is as restrained as it is often excessive in followers, however: here it comes in moments where the talents of the samurai allow victories that scarcely best their opponents by more than a hair’s breadth, and yet that is, of course, all the difference. When Kambei plunges into the hut where the kidnapper is holed up, for several awful moments it’s like he plunged into the very maw of hell. The thief runs out, seemingly escaping, only to pause and in a drawn out moment of interminable wonder and horror, drops dead. The moment of death, the very crescendo of existence, becomes an eternity, the slow plunge to earth, kicking up a cloud of totemic dust, a vision of extinction at once ignominious and astrophysical.
The effect is repeated when Kambei finds the most skilled of his team to aid the farmers, Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), whose swordsmanship is as great as his dedication to a Zen-informed detachment and stoicism. Kyuzo competes with another swordsman who angrily claims victory in a pass with sticks, and so demands a repeat with bare blades. Kyuzo’s victory is inevitable: Kambei predicts it with mortification, groaning at the waste of the man who’s about to throw his life away. Kyuzo’s unflappable poise and impassive dedication are demanded by his understanding of his warrior art, knowing very well that life and death have become, in his rarefied zone, nothing more than the grace of a slightly better nervous reaction, the move practised until it becomes reflex, and the vagaries of chance and nature. Kyuzo initially turns down Kambei’s entreaties because his desire has only been to perfect his art, not to actually fight, and yet the pointlessness of his opponent’s death hangs in the air and surely informs his change of heart: for what good is the ability to beat any man in battle, if there is no reason to battle? Kyuzo’s innate existentialism suddenly requires, purpose, for the void waits. The art of the samurai, then, is not one of mere spiritual fence-sitting.
The team Kambei forges is tested at first with the amusingly simple trick of placing Katsushiro out of sight ready to conk contenders on the head to see if they’re up to standard as he looks for a vital synergy of elements. The team Kambei builds includes his former lieutenant Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô), with whom he spent much time fighting losing wars and who he had not seen since a burning castle fell on top of him. The cheery and intelligent Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), laughs at spotting Kambei’s test, and in turn he recruits Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), a penniless ronin who’s taken to axing firewood for food who introduces himself to Kambei as “a swordsman of the woodcut school.” Kambei’s artisanal talents offset Kyuzo’s icy brilliance with stolid reliability and earthy humour. The talents and characters of the samurai, of course, form a functional balance, translated into an apt design by Gorobei when he creates a standard for the team that depicts its samurai as six circles, with Kikuchiyo as a triangle. Kikuchiyo, brought to be interviewed by Kambei by a gambling spiv who’s previously only been interesting in teasing the farmers, is humiliated by the samurai, who quickly discern his larceny and illiteracy: he claims descent from a clan whose family tree he carries about, except he has chosen to claim the name and estate of a 13-year-old girl. Kikuchiyo’s drunken, hysterical fury, after being caught out by Katsushiro’s test and this unpleasant detail, provokes the samurai to act like teenagers, teasing him until he falls down into a snoring slumber, the most perfect of disgraces and exposures.
The code of samurai behaviour of courtly courtesy, respect, deference, obedience, and above all, ability is then one that Kikuchiyo repeatedly offends. He has the impudent energy of an upstart and a rebel, replete with showy bravado and natural rather than honed physical wit. But he also provokes new reactions and levels of thought in his confederates. The samurai code also has elements of aristocratic pride and snobbery, one the farmers have to overcome in seeking their saviours. Even Kambei retains these unwittingly, until the first major social crisis hits the partnership of farmers and samurai. Kikuchiyo provides a vital bridge between classes, though he doesn’t do so willingly: with his feral aspect, flea-scratching and perpetually twitchy, and gruffly macho demeanour, he’s clearly neither of the farmer nor samurai worlds, though he has roots in one and aspires to another. Kikuchiyo defies his earlier mockery and outcast status by following the samurai to the village and, along the way, showing off his survival skills, resoluteness, and willingness, in spite of his braggadocio, to prove himself when challenged. Mifune’s performance imbues Kikuchiyo with a quality of the vaguely inhuman, his way of moving, grunting, eating, barking, all possessing an animal grace, seemingly imbued by years of surviving on the very fringes of society. Kikuchiyo is man out of time, and yet he’s also the most distinctive of the heroes, the one who drives it on the most elemental levels, with his passion, his humour, his buffoonery, his filthiness, his grit as a man of war. The feeling arises constantly that, in some way, Kikuchiyo represents man as a primal being, unevolved and yet loaded with immense potential, as he often really as, rather than how the samurai see the ideal to be fulfiled.
Nonetheless, Kikuchiyo knows well and loathes the character of the farmers, their dirty secrets and crimes, which include killing samurai scattered by wars and lost battles to strip them of valuable armour and weapons. This lowest devolution for human worth and economics offends the samurai to their innermost core, and for a moment it seems possible the samurai might turn their blades on the farmers rather than the bandits. But Kikuchiyo launches into an incendiary, hypnotic rant that lists the faults of the peasants and then contends that such barbarity is only the result of being degraded and mistreated for centuries by people calling themselves samurai, whose crimes stack up beyond tallying. As movie scenes go, it’s one of the most memorable in the medium’s history, in part thanks to Mifune’s acting: Kikuchiyo unleashes verbal articulateness at last, though hacked up into aggressive phrases barked out with the anger and self-disgust of centuries behind them. Kurosawa contrasts coolly even in the face of enormous emotional heat, fixating on Kikuchiyo’s prowling, leonine demonstration in close-up, and then cutting back to the neatly arranged, silent, and sullen samurai. It’s both one of the great character moments and moral exegeses in cinema. Kikuchiyo, who was a foundling left over from some slaughter, aims not just at the hypocritical pretences of the samurai, but speaks for a long, deeply suppressed fury of any repressed and angry populace tortured within inches of losing humanity and yet refusing to become less than human. He aspires clumsily but genuinely towards the status of samurai and all good that it represents, but refuses to lie. Finally it becomes clear why Kikuchiyo transfixes attention: he’s not just primal man but also, in a beautiful contradiction, modern man—angry, dynamic, classless, rootless, raging, joyous, pathetic, ridiculous, and tragically heroic.
Many of Kurosawa’s heroes wrestle in solitary agony with evil on a social scale, perhaps with a mentor, but often with the mentor falling in battle somewhere along the line. In Kurosawa’s genre work, many a “villain” proves to be pathetic and driven by forces beyond their control. Here, the action is collective, a vision of social concord that’s often a prize and rarely a reality in Kurosawa’s oeuvre: the final vision of Dreams (1990) of a rural village in beatific harmony is anticipated, but on the far side of a great and necessary trauma. Tellingly, Kurosawa refuses to characterise the bandits in much detail: the one bandit anyone shares many words with, a sniper Kikuchiyo approaches whilst pretending to be on the same side, proves to be a griping, famished grunt who is cowardly when separated from the herd. In the final battle, some of the bandits die bravely, but many go out in an ugly reversal of roles and perverse pathos, as the villagers hunt them with spears of bamboo, scrambling in desperation as they’re hacked to death with the crudest of implements: the thrill of payback and liberation felt by and through the farmers is countered by exacting depiction of its physical and metaphysical cost. Not that the bandits don’t deserve to be beaten good and proper: the thoughtless rapacity of the bandits is the flip side of the desperation of the farmers, but like the gamblers the farmers encounter in the town, they have only contempt for the people who nonetheless actually produce what they live off of. Unlike in The Magnificent Seven, which conforms to the conventions of Hollywood melodrama by providing a definite antagonist, here the bandit chiefs, including the rifle-wielding leader (Shinpei Takagi) and his one-eyed lieutenant (Shin Ôtomo), do not resolve as characters except in their single-minded ferocity and embodiment of malevolence: they might as well be the wind or the rain, elements that batter the world of the farmers, foreshadowing Kurosawa’s ever-vital, more literal use of elements to offset mortal and psychic struggle.
The shade of forces that will end the age of the samurai are already at the bandits’ command, in the three rifles they wield, and the problem of taking out these weapons becomes a special one the samurai must employ wit and special bravery to achieve. Kyuzo’s prowess sees him capture one gun with his customary deadpan lack of fuss, provoking Katsushiro to transfer his hero-worship from Kambei to him, which in turn inspires Kikuchiyo to do the same, only to earn a rebuke from Kambei for acting alone. Kikuchiyo grows to become a true samurai, albeit enforced as much through the experience of making mistakes and losing friends as through proving legerdemain. He drills the villagers with impudent humour and swaggering style in scenes clearly reminiscent of the repeated moments in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy of Victor McLaglen breaking in feckless recruits. The affectionate, if often cruel relationship between buckaroo Kikuchiyo and cringing Yohei, who could be Kikuchiyo’s caricatured internal vision of his own murdered father, sees the timid old man becoming Kikuchiyo’s increasingly empowered wingman, but finally Yohei dies on a bandit spear when Kikuchiyo’s foray leaves him in charge. Kikuchiyo meets intimate grief both in losing Yohei and in trying to save Gisaku, who had wanted to remain in his outlying house in spite of the probability of death, and his son and child-bearing stepdaughter. Kikuchiyo arrives only for the mother to thrust her baby into his arms and drop dead. Kikuchiyo, the rugged brawler suddenly a mockery of a maternal figure a la Three Godfathers (1949), is left weepily telling Kambei the same thing happened to him as a baby. And the cycle starts again.
For a film as essentially masculine as Seven Samurai, the place of its major female characters is surprisingly consequential, as is their otherwise general absence: in this world, to be female is essentially to be either property or prey. The villagers hide their younger women from the samurai, provoking the resentment of these hearty males. Manzo worriedly forces his attractive virginal daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) to cut her hair and pretend to be a boy. The bandits prey sexually on peasant girls, snatching many away into forced prostitution, including Rikichi’s wife, a source of shame and anger for the farmer that drives his determination to take on the bandits even as he keeps this secret from the samurai until a fateful, and fatal, moment. Rikichi leads Heihachi, Kikuchiyo, and Kyuzo on a raid on one of the bandits’ strongholds, whereupon Kurosawa suddenly changes viewpoint and moves to that of Rikichi’s captive wife (Yukiko Shimazaki), awakening amidst a sprawl of fetid, orgiastic humanity, with the bandits bedded down with other women. The sense of near robotic, sensually battered and emotionally alienated dislocation conveyed by Shimizaki contrasts the fearsome animation of Kikuchiyo, the gap between slavery and self-willed liberation all too apparent but with its own dazed acquiescence: the wife blinks in astonished and silent approval as the walls of the fort, set on fire by the attackers, begin to smoke and blaze. Acquiescence ends when she sees her husband amongst the attackers determined to drive out the human termites within: rather than run tearfully into his arms, she revolves and dashes back to die in the flames, and the hysterical Rikichi fends off Heihachi, who tries to drag the farmer back to shelter, only to be gunned down, the first of the samurai to die.
Such a grim fate is then one from which the villagers want to save their women, and, as Kikuchiyo’s rant makes clear, historically, the samurai have been as bad as the bandits in this regard. Manzo wants to save Shino from such a fate, and yet his act of forcibly cutting off her hair and getting her to dress as a boy has a series of ironic knock-on effects that destabilise the traditional hierarchies he wants to maintain. Katsushiro’s coming-of-age story is woven throughout Seven Samurai. Katsushiro looks for heroes and action, and finds rather love and social responsibility, signalled first when he tosses coins to Yohei after the rice is stolen so he can buy more. When he discovers Shino in the forest when he’s wandered away from Kambei’s side, daydreaming, he sees her and thinks at first she’s a boy: “Why aren’t you working instead of picking flowers,” Katsushiro demands, only to hastily throw down the blossoms he’s clutching. The game with gender coding apparent here signals the potential of the young to break down barriers and forge new paradigms. Later, as the young couple escape again into the woods and loll amongst the flowers, Shino erupts into hysterical laughter as she eggs the young man on to make love to her, leaving Katsushiro absolutely stricken before the thankful intervention of bandit spies. Tsushima’s unnerving laugh, straddling delight and terror, helps make this just as amazing a moment as Kikuchiyo’s rant as one of the film’s few fixated close-ups, reaching beyond Kikuchiyo’s stab at articulateness into the nonverbal angst of sexuality at its most vivid cusp, with the sharp jab at Manzo’s patriarchal protection given its most apt rebuke in Shino’s desire for the handsome young samurai to be her lover. Later, when the couple are found out on the night before battle, it sparks another of the crises that beset the alliance of social groups, and Kambei tries to mollify Manzo’s offence and fear. But the next morning, in the face of the enemy and daylight, Kambei uses the night’s events for a joke, declaring that Katsushiro is finally a man and he has to fight like one. Everyone laughs, and that’s that.
When battle finally comes in Seven Samurai, the long build-up and exacting clarity of construction pays off for both the heroes and the director. Whilst Kurosawa’s techniques helped point the way towards modern cinema’s far more dynamic sense of space and movement, Kurosawa has never less than an iron grasp on both the sense and sensatory intensity of his filmmaking, to an extent that embarrasses most successors. Just as physical bravura defines warrior capacity, so space defines action in Seven Samurai: the diagrammatic clarity of Kurosawa’s framing and editing, with his “wipe” interchanges, swiped by George Lucas, amongst other things, for his Star Wars films, utilised to give the film’s flow of scenes a quality of dynamic movement. A central sequence of Kambei and Gorobei assessing the village layout intercuts a sketched map and a clear sense of locale that makes their planning explicit. When the bandits finally appear sweeping over the top of the cleared hill above the village, the viewer expects this move and also knows what’s been done to forestall it. With the heroes each given their side of the village to defend, the “stages” of the drama can be coherently cut between. War is, indeed, running, but it’s the precision of the samurai’s physiques that form islands of technique in a sea of lunatic violence, like Gorobei’s lethal grip on his bow or Kyuzo’s fencer poise or Kikuchiyo’s ferocity with his colossal ōdachi, contrasting the madly frenetic, spidery masses of the villagers as they try to spear the bandits, and the bandits’ own attempts to use madcap speed or clambering sneakiness to overwhelm the defenders.
The rain that comes plummeting like heaven’s sprung a leak in the final bout enhances the visual drama and gives a fitting complication to the physical difficulty of the fight for these wearied, hungry fighters. It’s this quality of incidental effect that gives greater force and substance to this, as the most famous and crucial of Kurosawa’s use of natural elements as symbol for human emotions, as the muck and water enshrouds everyone, mimicking the tears Katsushiro bawls as his comrades fall and the blood that pours from their wounds. In the course of the battle’s three days and two nights, bodies thrash in ponds and pools of rain water, roll in heaving mud and shoot out of the gnarled and primal forest, squirm through troughs and dance between flames, writhe as they’re punctured by gruesome edges and flop down like refuse once dead. Kyuzo is tragically, inevitably brought down not by another swordsman, but the bandits’ last rifle. The gun is wielded by their boss, the last survivor, who in a last act in keeping with his expedient brutality, takes the village women hostage, only for Kikuchiyo, finally achieving almost mythic proportions even as he finally falls prey to his own bravery, expiring in a twisted mass on top of the last enemy, having answered his bullet with a katana in the gut.
Kambei’s flat declaration of victory over a sea of mud and dead flesh, and Katsushiro’s heartbroken sobs, closes the scene in the most understated and depleted of fashions. Yet the cumulative effect of Seven Samurai is not downbeat, for a definite victory is won, if not, as Kambei’s famous final words indicate, for the samurai, but rather for the people they defended and finally liberated. Katsushiro leaves the company of the samurai to rejoin both Shino and his roots in the land, whilst Kambei and Shichiroji stand by their fellow warriors on a burial mound, having dedicated their lives, unlike many, for an ideal that seems suddenly possible.