Seven Samurai

We open with a long shot of a tall, grassy hill. Suddenly, we see men on horseback appearing in the distance: two men, now three, now six, now dozens, thundering across the hillside with violent purpose. They're bandits, preparing to raid a local village and steal all of the food the farmers who live there have grown. It's a scene that will feel immediately familiar to anyone who has seen their share of westerns, but in this case it serves as the beginning of a samurai film set in 16th century Japan.

Part of what makes Seven Samurai one of the world's most accessible foreign films is that director Akira Kurosawa had thoroughly assimilated the visual language of the American western and then found a way to cleverly repurpose that imagery in an definitively Japanese setting. The imagery plays an even more important role than the subtitles in helping western viewers connect with the film. So many Japanese films released before Seven Samurai (and plenty released after) require at least a basic knowledge of Japanese culture to be enjoyed and/or understood. Such knowledge certainly enhances one's appreciation of Seven Samurai, but this is a film that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves a good adventure yarn.

The film's universal appeal has only deepened in the decades since its release. Just as Kurosawa absorbed the techniques of Hollywood westerns (particularly those directed by his idol John Ford), Hollywood in turn absorbed the original ideas Kurosawa brought to the table. The film is arguably the first prominent “gather a team for a dangerous mission” movie; a premise that has fueled a host of war movies, prison movies, heist movies, superhero movies and westerns (not to mention George Lucas' Star Wars films, which drew a great deal of inspiration from this and other Kurosawa flicks). In addition, the film also supplies – in the words of film historian Stephen Prince - “the textbook on modern movie violence.” From the dramatic slow-motion death featured early in the film to the innovative, chaotic imagery employed late in the film, you can see the seeds of thousands of action movies being planted.

Seven Samurai is one of the first films I would recommend to someone who has never seen a foreign film before, but the 207-minute runtime admittedly makes the movie look a little intimidating to a newcomer. The story is a fairly basic one: farmers hire a group of samurai to defend their village, and then there's a big fight. Do you really need three and a half hours to tell that story? No, but you do if you want to make a film as rich, emotionally involving and unforgettably exciting as this one. As evidence, I'd point to the much shorter Hollywood remake The Magnificent Seven, a good (but not great) film that rarely matches the magic of Kurosawa's masterpiece. This flick will consume a solid chunk of your day, but believe me when I say that the time flies by.

I mentioned that the film opens with bandits preparing to raid a local village. However, they quickly decide to postpone that raid after realizing that they already raided the village recently and that the villagers need more time to finish growing their new crops (the first of many sly comic touches the film incorporates). So, the bandits will wait until the farmers' barley has ripened, and then they will return to do some proper plundering. The farmers debate amongst themselves about the appropriate response: a handful of citizens want to fight back, but the other villagers fear that they are not properly equipped to defend themselves. Better to give the bandits what they want and hope that the bandits show mercy by leaving them a few scraps of food. It's finally decided that the village should hire a handful of samurai. Alas, no one has any money, so they'll have to find samurai who are willing to work for food.

The first few samurai the farmers approach turn down the offer in disgust, but they finally manage to secure the services of Kambei (a beautifully understated Takashi Shimura, Ikiru), an aging ronin with a good heart. Kambei knows that several men will be needed to accomplish the task, and knows that it will be difficult for the villagers to find willing candidates. He begins forming a team himself, and spends a large portion of the film's first hour gathering the other six members of his group. If Seven Samurai were a modern action film, these characters would likely have simplistic labels superimposed over their image after an introductory scene - “The Badass,” “The Joker,” “The Kid,” etc. These characters begin as simple types, but we spend so much time with them (and see them deepened in so many significant ways) that we care deeply about each and every one of them by the time the giant battle arrives in the film's third act.

The most immediately memorable member of the group is Kikuyicho (Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo), a wildly energetic lunatic who claims to be a great samurai but clearly doesn't have the skills to back those claims. The group initially rejects him, but he continues to follow them, determined to join their merry band and slowly managing to endear himself to Kambei and the others. Mifune's performance is an explosive, endlessly entertaining piece of work. He goes so far over the top that he flies straight past hamminess and enters the realm of transcendent madness. The character might have been exhausting in other circumstances, but the outlandish performance contrasts beautifully – and hilariously – with the quieter, more restrained work offered by the other actors. Seeing the bombastic Mifune and the understated Shimura sharing the screen is akin to watching a demented young Gary Oldman playing off an aging Randolph Scott. It's no surprise that Mifune and Shimura were Kurosawa's two most frequently-employed actors – they're both terrific at what they do, and they have such vastly different talents.

Part of the reason Kurosawa is able to make this long film feel so short is that he establishes a ticking-clock tension early on and allows that to continue playing out for the next couple of hours. The bandits are coming, but we don't know when, so every scene of strategizing or carefree playfulness or romantic passion (there's a Romeo and Juliet-inspired love story involving the youngest samurai and a farmer's daughter) is underscored by the knowledge that the hammer could drop at any minute. Some of the samurai are skilled - particularly the master swordsman Kyuzo (played with appropriate stoicism by Seiji Miyaguchi, The Ballad of Narayama) – but they will be vastly outnumbered, and the odds of their survival is still slim. As in many of the films Seven Samurai inspired (The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, etc.), there's a strong sense that not everyone will survive this challenging mission.

When the big battle finally arrives, there's an inescapable sense of jubilation – at last, the epic showdown is here! Kurosawa kicks things off in thrilling fashion, and then gradually begins to shift the tone: the battle drags on and on, bodies start to pile up, and the men grow progressively wearier. By the time the final day of battle arrives (preceded by a long, quiet night that foreshadows a similar sequence in Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo) the mood has shifted from enthusiastic heroism to grim, bloody determination. Kurosawa always makes the action exciting (compensating for the occasional shortage of extras and horses with close-ups that place us right in the heart of chaotic flurries of combat), but he also gives it real weight.

Kurosawa brings a great deal of nobility to the samurai, but not in the same way that Japanese films traditionally did at the time. He regards them as deeply flawed human beings who overcome their weaknesses and set aside their fears for the sake of achieving a greater good. It takes a long while for the group to fully gel and for every member of that group to embrace their inner heroism, but when it happens, the emotional impact is considerable. The sequence in which Kikiyucho climbs to the roof of a house and plants the group's makeshift flag is extraordinarily moving – a powerful testament to the detailed work Kurosawa has put into making us care about these characters. What is the final reward for their unselfish courage? The film's closing scene provides a painfully honest answer. This is a great film – exciting, funny, suspenseful, thoughtful and heartbreaking. It's absorbing and rewarding in a way that few silver screen epics can match.

Seven Samurai

Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 207 minutes
Release Year: 1954