This July, our Akira Kurosawa film club turns its attention to Seven Samurai (1954), perhaps the best known of Kurosawa’s works.
Despite its fame, questions about the critical response to Seven Samurai can be raised. In her book Seven Samurai, Joan Mellen writes that the film has been the “least written about” and the “most misunderstood” of all of Kurosawa’s works (63). While in terms of quantity of writing this may not strictly speaking be true, at least if material written outside of the academia is also factored in, the discussion on Seven Samurai has admittedly been traditionally marked by a certain lack of shared insight, or at least any recognisable unified direction.
In fact, although Seven Samurai is probably the most popular of Kurosawa’s films, views on how it ranks in the director’s oeuvre have been varying. At one end of the scale, we have Noël Burch who has once called Seven Samurai nothing more than the finest of Kurosawa’s minor jigaigeki (quoted in Mellen, 63-64). Stephen Prince ranks it higher, labelling Seven Samurai “one of [Kurosawa’s] most richly textured philosophical works” (204). Meanwhile, Stuart Galbraith calls it Kurosawa’s best film (174), while Donald Richie goes a step further and insists that it is not only Kurosawa’s best film, but also possibly the best made in Japan, and among the best made by anyone anywhere.
Yet, in a sense Joan Mellen’s statement about Seven Samurai stands. Some, like many early Japanese critics, have dismissed the film as simplistic, others as somewhat muddled, too naively humanist. Then there are those who point out that Seven Samurai is simply too good to penetrate. It is “a perfect film”, a film so well made that it has no weak points, not a single loose thread from which to pull to start unravelling the construct. Instead, you are left marvelling at the object as a whole, with no easy access into its heart.
And indeed, while essays on Seven Samurai are fairly numerous, they tend to be descriptive rather than reflective, almost bordering on idolisation, even more so than is usually the case with Kurosawa. And when they do have something interesting to say, they are often contradictory to one another. It is at times difficult to spot the gold nuggets in the slush.
Seven Samurai‘s production history is quite legendary. Written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni — the team behind Ikiru and most of Kurosawa’s films in the 1950s — the project had originally started out with the intention of telling a realistic story about a single day in the life of a historical samurai, a day that would have ended in his ritual suicide. (Eight years later, Seven Samurai‘s principal researcher Hashimoto would co-write Harakiri for Masaki Kobayashi with Yasuhiko Takiguchi.) This idea was discarded after the writers’ research had not uncovered enough historical detail about the actual day-to-day lives of samurai, and been replaced with the idea of a series of climactic stories about five famous historical samurai. A draft was written by Hashimoto, but again this did not work. By now, several months had passed from the beginning of the project, and Kurosawa still didn’t have his samurai story. Then, the idea of a group of samurai defending farmers came to them, and the writers decided to run with it. After further research and other initial plans, the three-man writing team locked themselves at an inn, and after six weeks emerged with a completed screenplay.
With the script finished, a certain amount of time was spent in pre-production, followed by four weeks of in-costume rehearsals, during which time Kurosawa encouraged everyone, including the extras, to refer to one another with character names, whether working or not (Galbraith 184). Cameras finally began rolling on May 27 1953, with early October premiere in mind (Galbraith 186). That deadline would, of course, not be made. The shoot — interrupted a few times by both the studio threats of shutting down the production for running over budget as well as for Kurosawa driving himself into exhaustion and needing a few days to recuperate — eventually ran all the way into February 1954. After two months of post-production, the film premiered on April 26, 1954. At the time, it was the most expensive Japanese film ever made, having run some 3-4 times over the initial budget.
Seven Samurai is one of Kurosawa’s genre exercises, having begun as a conscious effort to re-examine and revitalise the jidaigeki (“period film”) and chanbara (“sword fighting”) genres by basing the film on realism rather than the typical action filled swordplay fantasy that most chanbara films at the time were. Kurosawa also intended it to be a dynamic film, one based on movement. To attain this goal, Kurosawa would for the first time use his later trademark three camera method of shooting, where cameras A, B and C would be running simultaneously, the first working as a principal unit, the second as a backup unit, and the third as a guerilla unit attempting to capture the unexpected. This setup, while more complicated to plan than standard single camera shooting, allowed Kurosawa longer takes and to more accurately and more consistently capture movement. As Prince writes, Seven Samurai is an “exercise in kinesis, in the realization of a cinema defined as pure motion” (204), which for Kurosawa was a marked and calculated change from the more static aesthetic form that he had adopted for his films since the 1949 Stray Dog.
On the structural side, Seven Samurai has been noted for its atypical length and the mastery with which Kurosawa pulls off a film nearly three and a half hours long. Kenneth Turan in his short essay included with the newer Criterion release of the film talks about the film’s length and pacing, noting that unlike many other equally long films, Seven Samurai‘s length is not only necessary but also natural. Audie Bock in her Japanese Film Directors similarly draws our attention to the film’s rhythm, noting that just like Seven Samurai, “the best Kurosawa films unfold in a push-and-release rhythm, with vigorous action tempered by static dialogue, gripping suspense relieved by light romance or outright buffoonery. And at calculated intervals in the course of the unfolding come moments of Kurosawan truth.” (176) This “push-and-release rhythm” is easily recognisable in Seven Samurai, where weightier scenes are often followed by lighter, often comic ones. Indeed, Seven Samurai could at many points be called a seriously funny film.
Although Seven Samurai was the first proper samurai film that Kurosawa directed, he had actually written two such films in the years just before committing to his own project: Fencing Master was directed by Masahiro Makino and released in 1950, while the 1952 Vendetta of a Samurai was helmed by Kazuo Mori. (For information about films Kurosawa wrote for other directors, see here.) It was a world that clearly interested him, and one that he would come to famously revisit in films like Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress.
The many influences behind Seven Samurai include the often mentioned (but sometimes disputed) link with the American western, and definitely also the realism of Russian epics and Sergei Eisenstein, with Joan Mellen remarking that “[n]owhere does any later director better fulfil the promise of Eisenstein’s innovations in montage than Kurosawa does in this film.” (31) And while these foreign influences are often the first ones to be mentioned in connection with Seven Samurai, just as important points of reference — if indeed not more so — were films closer to home, for instance the films of Mansaku Itami and Sadao Yamanaka, who had begun to rework jidaigeki films in the 1930s (see Yoshimoto 235-238), as well as those of Kenji Mizoguchi, whose period films Kurosawa admired, especially for their historical realism (see for instance Richie 97).
Mizoguchi’s historical realism was something that Kurosawa would target in Seven Samurai, as well as in his later period films, leading to now famous stories of the director insisting on historically accurate construction materials on his sets, or the need to pour thousands of cups of tea on the tea cups used as props in Red Beard in order to make them look used. Following their research on the period, it was also important for the writers to get the samurai just right, the individuals realistic, and the world they inhabit life-like. “What makes the film remarkable (and surpasses any remake)”, writes Audie Bock in Japanese Film Directors, “is the portrayal of the characters and the development of socio-philosophical themes”. (176)
At least two of the samurai in the film appear to have historical models. Kyuzo was modelled after the legendary Musashi Miyamoto, while according Von Mueller, Kanbei was based on Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, a famed zen swordmaster (Post Script, 55). An episode of Nobutsuna’s life also serves as the direct basis for the kidnapping scene, and Von Mueller has further argued that the “test” devised by Kanbei, i.e. hitting the prospective samurai on the head as they walk in, similarly has its basis in the zen practice of “randomly striking the pupil with a switch or cane of bamboo”, supposedly to build intuitive hyper-awareness, or zanshin. (56)
Kanbei, played by Takashi Shimura, can of course be seen as the film’s unifying character, the wisest and most perfect of the samurai. He is the leader, the priest and the father figure, and also the mentor to Katsushiro, and to a lesser extent to Kikuchiyo, in a master-pupil relationship familiar from many other Kurosawa films. It is in Kanbei that the purest form of the samurai spirit is portrayed and it is through him that the other samurai are defined in the film.
Seven Samurai, like most of Kurosawa’s films, is typically seen as a male dominated work, a film about men and male bonding. Joan Mellen, in Waves at Genji’s Door, insists that the film’s only female character of any importance is the peasant girl Shino, with whom the young samurai Katsushiro falls in love. (51) In contrast, however, in her essay “Seven Samurai and Six Women” (printed in Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts), D.P. Martinez writes about the role of women in Seven Samurai, arguing that a “close look at [Kurosawa’s] films reveals that they are peopled with fascinating, complex women who might occupy little screen time but whose personalities and motivations are essential to their plots” (112-113).
In the case of Seven Samurai, Martinez lists six women essential to the plot: 1) The wailing woman whose cry at the beginning of the film propels the village men into action, 2) Gosaku’s daughter-in-law, first seen with her baby in the scene with the village elder, and last seen at the end when dying and handing the baby to Kikuchiyo, 3) The town woman whose child has been kidnapped, an event which ultimately allows the village men, who have by now almost given up hope finding suitable samurai, to discover Kanbei, 4) The toothless grandmother who, against the wish of the samurai, kills the captured bandit, indicating the extent to which violence breeds violence, 5) Young Shino, who against her father’s wishes becomes involved with Katsushiro but later rejects him, illustrating the class division between the farmers and the samurai, and 6) Rikichi’s enigmatic missing wife, who as Martinez points out was not taken by the bandits, but actually given to them as a bargaining tool, a detail missed by many western viewers due to an imprecise translation in many prints of the film.
The story of betrayal that lies behind Rikichi and his wife, Martinez stresses, also explains the town’s curious refusal to fight the bandits themselves, and is also the reason behind its somewhat strange gender balance, why the women berate the men, why the men hide their women from the samurai, and finally even why Gosaku at the end refuses to move within the fortified village borders when the bandits come. “If there is a single message to this complex film,” writers Martinez, “it is this: that only for one’s land, for one’s family, should men be moved to take up arms. All else is mere corruption. And when men’s moral judgement fails, they would do well to listen to their women. … Many of [Kurosawa’s] films seem to make a similar point: in war the only heroes are the mothers, daughters and lovers who must endure the worst that men can do.” (120-121)
Even if Seven Samurai is populated by fairly complex individual characters, it could be argued that the central focus is not on the individual level, but with groups. In Stephen Prince’s view, “Seven Samurai is a film about the primacy of groups, the untranscendability of class, and by implication the fiction of individual heroics. Heroism is possible, but only through merger with groups.” (201) It could then be argued that Seven Samurai promotes a view of society where everyone is responsible for the common good, where individual need is less important than the need of the group. This is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the way the three houses outside of the core village must be abandoned in order to more efficiently defend the village as a whole.
The importance of the group is very much also reflected in the way shots in the film are framed, with groups and groupings gaining primacy over solitary figures. “There is simply no space in this film where a hero can stand as an individual,” writes Prince. “That space is constantly being transformed into social terms where isolation and individualism are regarded as pathologies”. (210)
Most writers on Seven Samurai have made note of the film’s groups, class boundaries and their possible social implications. The film has attracted a range of Marxist readings, which is not entirely surprising especially considering that one of the film’s most memorable speeches, the one given by Kikuchiyo in a close-up rare for the film, breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly towards the camera about the condition of the peasants as a class and “as historical victims of the entire feudal order”. (Mellen, Waves, 96) As a result, some have suggested that Seven Samurai is in fact a study of revolution, something of a political statement about how a small group of determined individuals (here the samurai) can “lead a mass to overturn its reified social consciousness and assume a new political identity” (Frederik Kaplan in “A Second Look: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai”, referred to in Prince, 206).
Whatever the film’s possible social and political interpretations, on the surface Seven Samurai has three very distinct groups: the samurai, the farmers and the bandits. Yet, on closer inspection these group lines become blurred. The bandits and the samurai are, after all, both masterless samurai, products of a tumultuous era, and therefore “of the identical social group, driven by the same condition to opposite choices”, as Mellen puts it in Waves at Genji’s Door (91). In the two groups, we witness a situation similar to the one that forms the basis of Stray Dog, where identical circumstances have led characters to two very differing outcomes, with some individuals choosing to blame their environment, ignore morals and go down the road to lawlessness, while others like the noble samurai in Seven Samurai remain strong and honourable, albeit no less suffering.
Group boundaries, as well as class boundaries or so it has been argued, break down similarly between the samurai and the peasants. Between these two groups most clearly stands Kikuchiyo, a farmer’s son pretending to be a samurai. The groups also become briefly united through the romantic affair between Katsushiro and Shino. A strong male friendship similarly develops between Heihachi and Rikichi. And at the final battle in the film, the samurai and the farmers momentarily become one unified group in fighting against the invading bandits. Yet, this is not to last. Once the battle is over, the two groups are again separated, visually underlined by the way in which the final scene is framed, with the samurai and the farmers now clearly disconnected, the former only grouped with their dead comrades. The farmers have won, the samurai have lost. And their loss, of course, symbolises a loss of something bigger than just a few good lives. Writes Mellen: “Only through collective struggle is survival possible or can society itself be sustained. The samurai, having ceased to participate in a collective identity, are vanishing as a class because they have become parasites on a community to which they have ceased to belong.” (Waves, 97)
Seven Samurai is set in the Sengoku period, rather than the Tokugawa period more typical for samurai films. The Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States Period, was an exceptionally turbulent time of uncertainty for Japan, as near constant military conflict shook the country for nearly one and half centuries.
It was also a time of opportunity. Prince (205-206) writes that at the time, peasants could still become samurai, and so “one of the things that interests the director … is the fluidity of class boundaries, particularly the relationship between samurai and farmer.” Although Prince quotes Kurosawa effectively confirming this as also his own view point, Mellen labels Prince’s view as “ahistorical” (67-68).
Refusing Prince’s interpretation and insisting that the class boundaries between the samurai and the farmers could never in reality have been broken, Mellen sees historicity as one of the film’s strengths. And yet at the same time, Martinez has identified the carefully planned liberties that the film takes with historical truth as one of its important and necessary narrative devices. According to Martinez then, the film is not entirely historically accurate, and neither does it fully explore probable historical outcomes: Katsushiro would have concubined Shino, and Kanbei would have taken over the village and used it as a base to create his own dominion. (114)
Also Yoshimoto sees Seven Samurai as not entirely historically accurate. Yoshimoto writers: “I am not suggesting that Seven Samurai is pure fantasy; on the contrary, the film’s scriptwriters, Kurosawa, Hashimoto, and Oguni, dug into historical documents and used some of what they found to construct the story, characters, and other narrative details. The point I am trying to make is that the film’s reality effect cannot be equated to its historical accuracy. Instead of substantializing the historical past represented in the film, we must try to locate exactly where the film’s overwhelming sense of reality comes from.” (242-243) And according to Yoshimoto, the source of this “sense of reality” is not in historical detail, but in the film’s meticulous attention to details of any kind, historical or not.
This attention to visual detail is of course very appropriate, for as David Desser has noted about samurai films, the “extensive use of icons to define roles, character and settings bespeaks a sensitivity to the pictorial elements. The icons of the Samurai film, even more so than the heavily iconic Western genre, define and delimit the form. From head to toe, the Samurai is a walking sign-system. From his well-groomed hair tied in a top know to his silken kimono which bears the family crest to the two swords worn in their carved scabbard, the Samurai defines himself.” (29)
Whatever its historical accuracy, the world depicted in Seven Samurai is changing. Many writers have picked on this theme, with Joan Mellen writing that “the real theme of the film [is] the passing away of the samurai class and the values by which Japan has lived and which it will be unable to maintain in days ahead” (Waves, 91)
The most striking indication of this is the way in which all of the samurai who die in the film are killed by gunfire. These men who have perfected their skills with the traditional weapons of choice — the sword, the bow or the spear — fall down helpless when faced with these foreign inventions. In front of the arquebus, introduced to Japan in the mid-1500s by the Portuguese, the samurai truly become equal to the peasants.
There may also be more to the deaths of these samurai. David Desser argues that all of the samurai who die in Seven Samurai are the ones who are fundamentally flawed, whose reasons for defending the village are not pure: Gorobei is there to be with Kanbei, Kyuzo is there to perfect his skills, Kikuchiyo is trying to be something that he is not. (90-91) Desser does not specify Heihachi’s flaw, other than the fact that his actions in saving Rikichi go against his nature and principles: that of running away from confrontation.
It could be said that it is only the pure that survive, from a group of men already purer than the average samurai. Unsurprisingly, many have leaped into the conclusion that Seven Samurai straightforwardly glorifies traditional samurai values, with these interpretations often stressing Kurosawa’s own family background as a member of an old samurai family.
Yet, a crucial distinction must be made between the glorification of the samurai as a social group and the glorification of their values. On a closer reading, the film is clearly quite critical of most samurai that it depicts, showing them arrogant, self-centred and penniless. Seven Samurai certainly does not join in with the typical chanbara films in mindlessly glorifying the samurai and their ways. Instead, it is the purity of the abstract value system that the film puts on a pedestal, and it is the loss of this code that it mourns. As Mellen puts it, it is the value system of the true samurai depicted in the film that we, even today, could profit from, should we accept it. (Waves, 97)
But these values are increasingly hard to come by, even in the world depicted in the film. As Mellen points out, as the story progresses, “the samurai begin to fade from importance in the structure of the film.” For, while the peasants can acquire battle skills from the samurai, the samurai remain unable to integrate themselves into the peasant society. “Their class is truly obsolete and they must disappear.” (Waves 98) In Mellen’s views, as well as in the view of many others, Seven Samurai is ultimately a mournful lament about the death of the samurai class and its codes of conduct.
This interpretation is, of course, strictly speaking not entirely true, at least when considered within the context of the historical era that the film depicts. If anything, the importance of the samurai class only increased after the Sengoku era, although the societal role of the samurai did indeed simultaneously begin to change, moving from a pure warrior class towards a leading and more bureaucratic one.
If the age depicted in the film was uncertain and tumultuous, the same could certainly also be said about the era of Japan that Kurosawa himself had witnessed. This fact has not escaped film critics, many of whom have approached Seven Samurai as an allegory of post-war Japan, and its mourning for pure samurai values as a call for those values to be re-established for the post-war rebuilding effort.
Tadao Sato (referenced in Audie Bock’s Japanese Film Directors, 177) has suggested that Seven Samurai is a critique of Japan’s militaristic rulers and reflects the idea that with the end of World War II, the country finally got rid of the military leaders who had in various ways controlled it for centuries. In Sato’s view, the film communicates how the military establishment became unnecessary following the war, and that Japan should now forever remain pacifist.
Martinez in Remaking Kurosawa approaches the topic from a slightly different angle and writes that in “its commentary on modern Japan, the film is not only a harsh look at how elites can oppress peasants … but also at how victims can be complicit in their own oppression. If the film is a comment on 1950s Japan, it is one that does not excuse their participation in the war.” (116)
And as the American occupation of Japan had ended only half a year before the work on Seven Samurai begun, some have seen the samurai as standing for the Americans, who came to rescue Japan from itself, but whose time it has now come to leave.
Questions have also been asked about the role that the warrior class depicted in the film could have at a time of peace: Martinez asks, “what do we do with ordinary men trained to kill once we no longer need them to be soldiers?” (Remaking Kurosawa, 117) This line of thinking has been further developed by Ugetsu, who at the time of our previous film club argued that “Seven Samurai is about the fundamental paradox of any ‘peaceful’ society in that to protect itself from violence, it must maintain a capacity for violence, and that Japanese society has never found a way to contain this paradox in a satisfactory manner.”
Approaching the societal dimension of Seven Samurai from a slightly different and more universal angle, Desser (91) writes that “Seven Samurai must also be understood in relation to the nature/culture dichotomy”, with the samurai representing culture and the farmers nature. The civil war, and by extension the bandits, are a product of greed and ambition, arising from culture. The farmers then, by bringing in the samurai, fight “fire with fire, culture cancels culture, so to speak.” Desser further notes that “[n]ature itself becomes a force in the final battle. The rain and the mud aid the farmers”. And in the final scene, the samurai, representing culture, must leave the village, while the cycle of nature goes on as if nothing of importance had happened.
The film can then also be seen as a love song for the land and nature. It is an approach all the more valid considering the characters’ connection with nature and earth, and the peculiar instances animal imagery present in the film, with the samurai are referred to as bears (albeit hungry ones), or Kikuchiyo described as a dog.
And ultimately, as Prince has pointed out (215), the film is about the protection of rice and women, food and fertility, sustenance and continuity.
Despite its relatively high production costs, Seven Samurai soon made back the money that the studio Toho had invested in it, and indeed then some, becoming the year’s biggest domestic box office hit, and continuing to make money after every subsequent re-release. It was also fairly well received by domestic critics, ending up third on Kinema Junpo’s yearly “best of” list, behind two films by Keisuke Kinoshita: Twenty-Four Eyes and The Garden of Women. (Galbraith 190)
So popular was the film in Japan that somewhat untypically of Kurosawa, the main theme of the film was released as a single with lyrics, with the always fascinating and enigmatic Yoshiko Yamaguchi, familiar to us for instance from Kurosawa’s Scandal, providing the vocals. The song can be heard here (assuming that it is the same recording).
The film was first released internationally in a shorter version, which was typically also shown in Japan after the initial run and which removed some fairly crucial scenes making the film confusing to many foreign viewers. This was not enough to hamper the film’s success, however, as it nevertheless won the silver lion at Venice. In fact, many foreign critics criticised the film for being too long even in its shortened form. (Galbraith 192-194)
Although it would become the film to which all samurai films would later be compared, Seven Samurai did not immediately change the jidaigeki genre. For that purpose, it had been too expensive and too exception to be straightforwardly copied. It would take seven years and another Kurosawa film to really change the genre, with the release of Yojimbo in 1961, and Sanjuro a year later. (see Yoshimoto 245)
The film has, of course, remained immensely popular since its release, well exemplified by the care and love lavished on it by film company Criterion, whose masterfully restored full-length prints available on DVD and blu-ray are among the best home video releases ever undertaken.
The popularity of Seven Samurai has also spawned a wide number of remakes, many of which are discussed in depth in Martinez’s Remaking Kurosawa, and most of which can be found at the remakes page of this website.
The most famous of those remakes, John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, will be our film club title in August. For information about home video availability as well as the film club’s full schedule, see the film club page.
But until August, our undivided attention will be on Seven Samurai. As always, dear friends, the floor is yours.