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Seven Samurai: The Art of War

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    Apologies for this slightly rambling and incoherent posting – due to lack of time I haven’t been able to get my thoughts together in more articulate form in time (a bit ironic as it was me who suggested that it should be this months film). I’m not particularly happy with how I’ve structured this, but I thought that rather than spend further weeks mulling this over, it would be better to cast this out as it is for your comments. To save you the trouble of wading through what I’ve written I would summarise my thoughts on Seven Samurai as follows (call this an abstract if you will).

    Seven Samurai is a far more complex film than is usually given credit by critics. It is unusual in a jidai geki in that it is firmly rooted in a specific date in Japanese history, while also containing AK’s thoughts at that time about the state of postwar Japan. It has much to say about Japanese culture and history and the class system. But the ultimate theme is 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.

    I’ve been reading quite a bit of the usual literature on Seven Samurai and I found myself finding it very unsatisfactory – it seems that this movie gives critics free range to let loose their hero worship or misgivings about AK, without actually addressing the key themes of the film (as some have noted, several eminent critics have made comments about Seven Samurai that lead one to the conclusion that they didn’t actually see the film). What struck me in particular is that while nearly everyone seems to agree the film addresses class issues, nobody can agree on what it is actually saying – to me this indicates either that they are wrong, that this wasn’t the key theme, or more likely AK’s take is a lot more subtle than most critics give him credit for. Some critics have almost ignored the film, simply describing it as a superior jidai geki and nothing more. While Richie has championed it as a great film, I don’t find his defense of it entirely convincing.

    The one critic I was inspired by is Joan Mellons book in the BFI series (I don’t have the Criterion edition of the film so I don’t have the benefit of her commentary). She takes strong issue (correctly in my view) with those critics who see Seven Samurai as ‘merely’ AK’s take on the Western, and also those who over emphasize the class and cultural aspects (especially the more Marxist oriented writers). She sees Seven Samurai as both a historical film firmly rooted in AK’s deep understanding and interest in the Japanese history (and where, in his opinion, it had gone terribly wrong), and as a tribute to the bushido code, and his paean of loss of what he saw as all that was noble in the Japanese and Samurai (bushi) character (I’m deliberately conflating the ‘bushi’ class and ‘samurai’ here, for my purposes they are one and the same). But on reflection, while I admire her analysis, I think she slightly misses the point. This isn’t to say that her analysis is wrong, I don’t doubt that it was a strong motivation for his choice of the story, but I think an element that has been overlooked, and one which I think is a key theme, is that of the universal paradox of all societies – how to protect yourself from outside enemies, without creating a monster (i.e. a warrior or soldier caste) that consumes you from within.

    A little while ago I was reading the British military historian John Keegans classic book on military history, ‘The History of Warfare’, and one particular passage jumped out at me:

    ‘Warrior peoples might have made everyman a soldier, but they had taken care to fight only on terms that avoided direct or sustained conflict with the enemy, admitted disengagement and retreat as permissible and reasonable responses to determined resistance, made no fetish of hopeless courage, and took careful material measure of the utility of violence. The Greeks had shown a bolder front; but, while inventing the institution of face-to-face battle, they had not pushed their ethic of warmaking to the point of demanding Clausewitzian overthrow as its necessary outcome. Their European descendants had limited the objects of their war making also, the Romans to that of consolidating but then chiefly assuring a defensible frontier for their civilisation, – quintessentially the Chinese military philosophy also – while the Romans successors had fought, incessantly though they did, chiefly for enjoyment of rights within quite closely circumscribed territories. In a different form, battles for rights had also characterized the wars of states in the gunpowder age. Though their struggles had been exacerbated by the religious differences expressed in the Reformation, the Protestants had acted rather to challenge pre-existing rights than to throw down new ones. In none of these contests, moreover, had the combatants yielded to the delusion that the whole male population must be mobilised to prosecute the quarrel. Even had that been materially possible, which the labour-intensiveness of agriculture, to say nothing of fiscal incapacity, disallowed, no pre 1789 society considered soldiering a calling for any but the few. War was rightly seen as too brutal a business for any except those bred to it by social position or driven to enlist by lack of any social position whatsoever mercenaries and regulars alike, poor, jobless, often criminally outcast, were judged fitted for war because peaceful life offered them nothing equivalent hardship. The exclusion of the industrious, the skilled, the learned and the modestly propertied from military service reflected a sensible appreciation of how war’s nature bore on human nature. Its harshness’s were not to be sustained by men of comfortable, regular and productive habits.’ (paperback edition page 364)

    When Keegan refers to Clausewitzian overthrow, he is referring to the theories of the Prussian theorist Clausewitz that were so popular in 19th Century Europe (and still are, even among people who have never heard of Clausewitz) such that warfare has to be ‘total’, engaging the entire population in a joint effort, the culmination is the ‘decisive battle’ that decides all. His book, to summarise, is an argument that the nature of warfare is rooted firmly in culture, and that human culture is permanently marked by its attempts to come to terms with the need for violence, while simultaneously keeping that violence within acceptable levels. He specifically attacks Clausewitz’s dictum that ‘war is politics by other means’, arguing that his theories on total war were ruinous and led directly to the catastrophe of World War I. This notion is nothing new to European thinkers (even Hitler made a point of avoiding the full mobilization of German society until quite late in the war), but was taken up a little more slowly outside Europe. I’ve heard at least one military historian (not Keegan) describe America as still essentially a Clausewitzian society. Keegan argues (with a copious amount of scholarship to back it up) that warfare in ‘primitive’ societies was much more formalized and limited than modern warfare and so less deadly. Mass mobilization only occurred during extreme events, most warfare was conducted by a specific class (backed up by the lowest levels of society), and even then was usually conducted with the aim of getting a result without too many deaths. He attributes the success of western societies to an unusual level of ruthlessness in its application of warfare.

    I think it would be generally accepted that Japan, in the historical period, went through three massive convulsions. The first was the period depicted in the film, the end of the civil wars. No doubt there are many reasons for the breakdown in the society at the time, but the key reason was, in common with many societies with a warrior caste, was simply that the Samurai gradually lost their servile position to the aristocracy, and started fighting for power. They simply became too powerful for the society and culture to control. The result was a complete societal breakdown into a Darwinian struggle that eventually only resolved itself with the victory of one clan. The response of the new overlords was to Sinicise the society (particularly the military). They created a highly hierarchical society in which movement between castes was impossible (so removing the temptation for someone to ‘move up’ by way of the sword), and in which the Samurai class, now firmly in charge, gradually became warriors less in reality and more in terms of cultural adornment (keeping the swords, but using them only in extremis), and becoming more of a general ruling class. But this of course resulted in a society that, like China, became so rigidly hierarchical and static that it was unable to defend itself from more dynamic, ruthless competitors.

    The second great upheaval was over course the entirely voluntary upheaval caused by the conscious decision to adopt in one fell swoop western (specifically Germanic) technology and culture in the mid 19th Century. At least one western specialist on Japanese history that I’m aware of describes this as having left a terrible psychological scar on the Japanese psyche. One less commented upon aspect of this was that Japan completely abandoned the traditional ‘warrior caste’ culture of war and adopted Clausewitzian doctrines in their entirety – but unlike Europe did not abandon (or at least mitigate) the worst aspects of a Clausewitzian style of military after the disaster of WWI. This is surely one of the reasons for its headlong and near suicidal run into the Pacific War. As has been noted by several historians much of the successes and failures of the Japanese military is that they lacked the experience of the WWI land war to both temper their enthusiasm for war and to learn the lessons of mobile warfare.

    The third upheaval is of course the one that would have been most on AK’s mind, the catastrophe of 1945. By the time Seven Samurai was being made, I think the overall shape of postwar Japan was taking shape – the Samurai class had survived (the Occupation Authorities mistakenly thought it was the aristocratic level of Japanese society that made the real decisions – they focused all their attention on the landowning classes and the Emperors retainers) while leaving the real rulers in place. The real rulers of Japan were (and are) the descendants of the Samurai class, now firmly controlling the infamous government bureaucracy and the upper levels of Industry and banking. The old aristocracy hadn’t had real power since the Civil Wars. Of course, as we have seen in future AK films like Yojimbo and High and Low, he loathed the way in which this greedy and philistine class had joined forces with the grubbier elements of the business class and the yakuza to carve the country up. I don’t know of course, but I suspect from the pattern of his movies, that foremost on AK’s mind was how his own class, the Samurai, had morphed from noble warriors to greedy bureaucrats, from defending the weak to exploiting them, from following orders to giving them.

    In addition, we know that AK was also a student of world history and affairs – indeed I think in the one version of Seven Samurai the introduction actually refers to the medieval wars on Europe? While I’m not suggesting he was aware of the academic arguments among military history theorists, I think he was fully aware that the Samurai were not a unique institution to Japan – they were in fact a typical type of caste found in most non-modern societies, and as someone from that background he would have been aware of the difference between a samurai and a professional or conscript soldier in the Clausewitzian sense. He would also have been aware that Japan was not unique in suffering from societal breakdown caused by a renegade warrior class.

    To refer to the specifics of the film, there are several key issues in the film which I think back up my idea that the relationship of the warrior to the non-warrior, rather than the relationship of one class to another, was at the forefront of AK’s mind when he made the film. The most important part is the character of Kikuchiyo. We see from the very beginning that the Samurai do not believe a word of his claim that he is a Samurai. They accept him only reluctantly. Unlike many of the other Samurai we never see any evidence that he has any skill whatever with the sword, or experience of formal warfare. And yet, without question, he is considered an equal of the others, and even assigned a squad to drill. Why did they not treat him as they did Riyucho, who was respected by the Samurai but still regarded as one of the bamboo wielding footsoldiers, not as an equal? I’d suggest the reason is that AK was never as interested in the ‘class’ issue as many of his critics – he saw Kikuchiyo as a natural warrior (not to mention a convenient mouthpiece for the wonderful ‘you made the farmers as they are’ speech, surely AK’s own words), and so his apparently fluid rise from orphaned farmers son to samurai didn’t require explanation or elaboration. The notion advocated by some critics that AK chose him as a symbol of how people can transcend class is rather undermined by the many other plot threads that directly show the near impossibility of such movement. He is instead a symbol of how a warrior ethos is not confined to a particular class, it is rooted in necessity.

    And of course he chose not to portray the bandits in any detail. Since the central theme (as I would argue) is the relationship between society and its protectors, it makes sense not to confuse this issue by giving too much screen time to the third branch of the equation, the aggressors.

    A feature of the film that has always fascinated me is the enormous care that AK takes to show us field of battle, the strategy, and how it works out. We get to see every detail of the landscape, and the defensive fortifications. This is incredibly rare in cinema – for such a battle to be (literally) mapped out in such detail – it is a real field of war, not an abstract representation as usually shown on film. Part of this was of course for the sake of narrative realism, but it also very clearly showed that the reason the samurai were necessary was not their swordsmanship or bravery, but their experience and knowledge. AK was acutely interested in how the battle could be fought and won. Significantly, I think, that while the Samurai carried out the most dangerous missions, the actual dirty work of killing most of the bandits was done by the villagers. The Samurai could therefore only maintain their nobility by fighting in a noble way – but you don’t win wars by that, someone also has to do the baser work of finishing off weakened opponents. This was the role of the most reluctant fighters, the farmers. I would argue that in creating this incredibly detailed little village and valley and the strategies of his defence, he was creating a metaphor for the defence of a society or country when threatened by the ‘other’, a malign attacking force. AK was not interested in a some sort of Marxist metaphor for class, he was interested in war and violence and what it does to people. Seven Samurai is, above all else, a war film. And as Keegan argues that war is a cultural activity, AK was seeing warfare as the defining feature of Japanese society.

    If I’m right in this then it could lead to another interpretation of the ending. The statement that the ‘farmers always win’, is actually saying that the eventual defeat by the ‘ordinary’ classes of societies of the warrior caste is actually a necessary pre-condition for a peaceful society. Is he saying that for all the nobility of the Samurai, in effect, they had to be destroyed? Perhaps he is saying that the destruction of the Samurai was both a tragedy and a necessity.

    Mellen describes SS as an elegy, a window into AK’s heart. He is mourning, from the vantage of the post war word, the moment when Japan lost its best self by abandoning the more noble traits of the samurai (without of course ignoring the terrible damage it did to society). But I think it was more than that – he was also mourning the necessity of the existence of the samurai, and the inevitability that they would, eventually, have to be destroyed for society to survive, even if this did mean that a meaner class, lacking any sense of nobility, would dominate.

    I believe that what AK was grappling with (and not giving us any answers, but that’s not a criticism) is the relationship between society and those who are called upon to defend society. The farmers are first of all preyed upon by those who are supposed to defend them, then they are preyed on by an external force, and are forced to rely upon the Samurai, who they hate and fear. The Samurai themselves can only defend the village by training the farmers to become fighters (its notable that it didn’t really occur to the villagers to do this themselves, despite their store of weapons). The villagers are determined to keep the samurai at an arms length, and reject them the minute the danger is over. If we see this in the context of the Japan of AK’s lifetime, the country had become infected with a notion that everyone must become part of the war effort. We think of this as the norm, but as Keegan argues, the modern nature of war is an anomaly – for most of human history there has always been a firm separation of warfare from ‘normal’ society. AK would, I think, have been aware of this.

    In effect, in Seven Samurai we see all of Japanese history unfold. We saw the nobility of a Samurai class dedicated to honoring the powerful and protecting the weak. We saw what happens when this class loses its bearings and becomes a parasite on society. We saw what happened when the non-fighting class takes to arms, and finally we saw the winning class, the landowners, turn its back on it all. They turn their backs (literally, in the final scene) on the warrior class (but also violence and warfare), but are simultaneously turning their back on any sense of nobility.

    So what was he saying? I think he was honoring the notion of the noble warrior, but acknowledging the paradox that a peaceful society has no place for them. For a society to be at peace, it must reject the warrior, but in so doing, it loses much of its own nobility. Japan twice allowed its warriors to become too dominant, and both times it led to catastrophe. But when it suppressed the warrior, it become stagnant and corrupt. And, he seems to be saying, that it will become so again. In this way, Seven Samurai is every bit as pessimistic and cynical in its view of society as Yojimbo or Ran.



    ooops, apologies for the stray italics. I intended for the second paragraph, the ‘abstract’ to be in italics only. 😮

    (I fixed this now. You should actually be able to edit your posts for about 60 minutes after posting them — the link is in the header line of the post. And thanks for the marvellous read, I’m terribly busy these days but will force myself to soon find some time to comment on this and everything else that has been going on. –Vili)



    A fantastic and rather interesting post, Ugestsu. I must further process everything.

    (I was starting to think Vili was a AWOL/UA. )



    I don’t know about Clausewitzian doctrines, but Ugetsu’s title is also one of the classics that seems to have bearing on the entire culture of the samurai, and which may be worth revisiting. It is a wonderful book, and the lessons available to other endeavors, not only war; Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. In the first part Sun Tzu states:

    1. “The art of war is of vital importance

    to the State.

    2. It is a matter of life and death, a road either

    to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry

    which can on no account be neglected.

    3. The art of war, then, is governed by five constant

    factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations,

    when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.

    4. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth;

    (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

    (1) The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete

    accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him

    regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

    (2) Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat,

    times and seasons.

    (3) Earth comprises distances, great and small;

    danger and security; open ground and narrow passes;

    the chances of life and death.

    (4) The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom,

    sincerety, benevolence, courage and strictness.

    (5) By method and discipline are to be understood

    the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions,

    the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance

    of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the

    control of military expenditure.”


    It is as if Kurosawa took this passage and crafted a film from it-and the “rightness” of the film (for me) is due, in part to its mythic quality-as if Sun Tzu’s words are part of the collective unconsicous, and as if the inhabitants of Kurosawa’s story are part of great, iconic types that form part of our dna.

    We look at Kambei as “THE COMMANDER”. His sincerity, wisdom, benevolence, courage and strictness…well, chances are, just saying the words brings to mind a scene where Kambei displays those qualities of a commander.

    Heaven and earth are the playing field…described so carefully in the logistics passages, but amplified by shots of night attacks, bridges under moonlight, the deep rain that falls…

    The method and discipline are fully fleshed out for us with map and all…!

    And, the Moral Law…well, it is a job to convince the villages, they are initially afraid…and they even have one small moment of rebellion…but Kambei is strict with them and they rejoin. We see their accord with Moral Law when Mosuke calls his home a “worthless shack” when the bandits burn it-reeversing his earlier decision to abandon his post in order to save his home.

    The problematizing wrinkles in the story elucidated by Ugetsu make the fairy tale even more interesting! I am convinced more than ever of this film’s greatness. It really is something of a wonder-a mythic poem in film.

    (Allright, I have so much freaking work to do before I leave Thursday nite, but you guys have me addicted to this forum!)



    After thinking about Ugetsu’s post quite a bit, I don’t actually have much else as a response than a one-man standing ovation. Even if I put my Devil’s Advocate Hat back on, I really fail to see anything to pick on. As Ugetsu himself mentions, very little of actual substance has been written about Seven Samurai, and I think that this post is easily one of the most interesting takes on the film that I have read anywhere. It also makes a lot of sense.

    So, thanks Ugetsu, and sorry for not being able to provide a response better than this! Your post actually made me want to watch the film for the fourth time within two months.



    Thanks for the comments! Coco, I love the way you go off on apparently unconnected streams of thought, but then loop back to making perfect sense! I must get out my old copy of Sun Tzu….

    Reading what I wrote, I can only apologise for over-writing so much of it, I didn’t have time to tidy it up. I also didn’t get around to working out in detail how my idea applies to the actual structure of the story.

    But one thing I would like to emphasis more is that as I think about it, it is more fruitful to look at SS as a war film. By a war film, I mean a film that looks at how people react and behave in war, and how it effects society. I make that distinction between ‘action’ films like westerns or crime thrillers, which emphasise the individual hero or a singular situation. The more I think of it, the more I think that the repeated mention of SS in the context of westerns has led critics astray, even those (like Mellon) who reject the idea. I think the movies that SS should be compared to are the great war movies – All Quiet on the Western Front, Spartacus, Saving Private Ryan, etc. And I think its better than any of them, because its scope and ambitions are greater than any of those films, and more fully realised (even if AK left many unanswered questions).

    Another off-field quote of relevance to the question of Seven Samurai being a specifically Japanese movie, is one of my favourite quotes about Japan, by a political historian (Kenneth Pyle) who wrote stating (I paraphrase) that the crucial feature of understanding Japanese politics, is that Japan is a society that lacks brakes. What he meant was that for some reason, the conformist nature of Japan means that once a path is taken, it is rarely deviated from until it crashes into an immovable object (in the last war, that object being the US military). I think that AK was addressing this in some way – noting that Japan does not seem to have been able to reconcile the paradox’s of militarism in a sensible way – Japan either loves the military too much, and so sinks into some variation of fascism, or it runs too far from its military ethos, and so becomes corrupt and cowardly. I think this is what he is grappling with in this film.

    If I have time, I’ll have another look and examine this in the light of specific scenes and characters.



    Although my post over at “Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa’s Citizen Kane” is far more meandering than Ugetsu’s, even though Ugetsu’s is long, I think I hit some of the same notes. When I listed the genres into which “Seven Samurai”, or part of it, fall, I listed “war movie” first and “plea for peace” second and that it was notable for being one of the first, if not the first, movies to depict warfare realistically as brutal. (Doesn’t the rain add a lot to that characterization?) I also gave credit to “Seven Samuarai” for making the realism of movies like “Saving Private Ryan” possible.

    Bottom line is that I agree with much of what Ugetsu says, although I’m not sure I agree with all of it. I still think class distinctions are important for the movie, but as a sociological examination, not to make some doctrinaire Marxist point. And I still think existentialism explains the philosophy of the film, or at least of the samurai as a group, and Kambei in particular.

    I have always thought that the line “And again we have lost” was a reference to the inevitability of the decline of the samurai as a class. I may see that decline in different terms – that they will become rooted to cities and castles and ultimately become bureaucrats who know how to use weapons, not warriors, and not so much in terms of the need for the class to pass away for Japan to truly become a peaceful society without a need for such a class – but it’s a related idea. And who’s to say either idea is wrong? That’s what’s so great about this film, that it’s multi-layered. We can both be right.

    To digress somewhat, one of the reasons I consider this a great film – the greatest ever – is that it has something for everyone and can be understood on a number of different levels. The guy who like military or action movies will like it because it is both. Someone who likes low humor will like the humor, and Kikichiyo in particular. Someone who likes romance, or is interested in women’s issues, will feel for Rikichi and his wife and Shino and Katsushiro (and will want to strangle Manzo). You don’t have to be an intellectual or a freaking genius to enjoy this movie, but conversely if you are an intellectual or a genius there’s enough here to chew on (especially if you know something about Japanese history) that you won’t be bored.

    And I agree that the analogy to the Western, other than with reference to some of the techniques (like the horses over the rise), is not helpful and may in fact be why I was so unimpressed by The Magnificent Seven.



    I haven’t thought about this movie in the regards to you summarizing Pyle:

    the crucial feature of understanding Japanese politics, is that Japan is a society that lacks brakes. What he meant was that for some reason, the conformist nature of Japan means that once a path is taken, it is rarely deviated from until it crashes into an immovable object (in the last war, that object being the US military). I think that AK was addressing this in some way – noting that Japan does not seem to have been able to reconcile the paradox’s of militarism in a sensible way – Japan either loves the military too much, and so sinks into some variation of fascism, or it runs too far from its military ethos, and so becomes corrupt and cowardly. I think this is what he is grappling with in this film.

    This is exactly Japan, the past to the present, the entirety of this statement is completely true.

    All talks about Seven Samurai, fail to take this Japanese understanding into the film. Your connection of the film to the Japanese mindset, is unique to my knowledge.

    It’s absolutely correct in every regard. The mere connection, really changes the way the film is viewed, and answers some pending questions I always had. Despite my rather lengthy study into warring Japan, I never made this connection, and I must say it’s rather disappointing not to. It’s seems so fundamental and obvious in this movie, it’s hard to believe it has never really been explored, or in my case entirely unnoticed.

    The point of all this, is I’m quite impressed with your take on the movie, easily among the best I’ve ever read. It’s one of those things I wish I could of done.



    Bottom line is that I agree with much of what Ugetsu says, although I’m not sure I agree with all of it. I still think class distinctions are important for the movie, but as a sociological examination, not to make some doctrinaire Marxist point.

    Lawless, I’m not suggesting that class distinctions aren’t important, but I would argue that they were more of a secondary element. I think its also worth noting that the peasantry depicted in the movie would not have been at the bottom of society (as is implied by many critics). As landowners and farmers I think they would have been seen as higher status than landless workers, the urban poor, burakumin, etc. AK may well have seen them as more of a petite bourgeoisie (to use a phrase popular back then) than the poor. I think this misunderstanding has led many critics astray in understanding the film.

    But yes, I have reread your other post elsewhere and I see we were thinking along the same lines! I do love what you wrote, I wish I could have expressed myself so clearly (I’ve been working as a bureaucrat too long, its strangling my writing style).

    Jeremy, thanks for your kind comment, that means a lot to me – I know that you are far more knowledgeable about Japan than I am.



    Thanks, Ugetsu! It’s just that for me the social commentary on class structure, gender identity, etc. is the heart of the film, so I cringe at the idea that it’s secondary. But from my perspective, class structure and the kind of war they wage are intertwined. The war is needed precisely because of the effects of the class structure.

    As for the levels of society: anyone who’s read anything about Japanese society at the time would know that peasants/farmers were the class immediately below the samurai. I don’t remember the exact order underneath, but from the top:

    1. Emperor

    2. Shogun (although in actuality the shogun, if there was one, had more power)

    3. Daimyos

    4. Samurai

    5. Peasants/farmer

    I think 6 is artisans and 7 is merchants, with professionals possibly being in between 6 and 7, with eta/burakumin at the very bottom.

    The fact that critics may speak through theiri hats and not know these things is their problem, not ours.

    BTW, merchants being near the bottom – also true in medieval Europe. There’s a lot more similarity than you might think in feudal social structure across cultures.



    It’s just that for me the social commentary on class structure, gender identity, etc. is the heart of the film, so I cringe at the idea that it’s secondary. But from my perspective, class structure and the kind of war they wage are intertwined.

    Hi Lawless – on reflection, I think i expressed myself wrongly when I suggested that a social commentary was ‘secondary’ to the film, of course its very central to it. My thinking is more that the social divides as depicted in the film were, for a Japanese audience a ‘given’. They could be portrayed vividly and accurately without it necessarily being seen as a commentary.

    I’m trying to think of a good example of what I mean – one that comes to mind is an episode of the Sopranos, when Meadow brings home to Tony her new boyfriend, a mixed ethnic guy from who’s dress and demeanor is obviously from the sort of cool, boho family background that means racism for him was something he read about in books, not something you experienced. So when faced with a blast of Tony’s vicious racism the kid is completely flummoxed, he simply can’t respond to it in any meaningful way. Like so much of the Soprano’s, the scene is both hilarious and shocking. But the power of the scene came from the fact that most viewers would have recognised exactly why that young man was so shocked – it is written in his clothes, his demeanor that he was from a completely different class and background to Meadow despite superficial appearances.

    Sorry if that is a leftfield type of example, but what I am trying to express is that much of the depiction of class conflict in the film would have been ‘natural’ to a Japanese audience, and so would not have been seen as a commentary or critique – it was just a depiction of how society was. But critics from looking from outside (not just western ones also perhaps more modern Japanese writers), perhaps read too much into them.

    I’m not denying its importance – in fact, i think the depiction in the film is fascinating. I just think that an overemphasis on the class difference in the film has deflected attention away from deeper historical themes.



    I agree that a Japanese audience would take the class structure as a given, but that doesn’t mean Kurosawa wasn’t commenting on it, critically or otherwise. I believe Kurosawa had to be; otherwise, why make Kikichiyo such a central character and why make his rant the centerpiece of the film? It does fall about exactly mid-way through the film and is easily the most memorable lengthy monologue in the movie.

    Perhaps the problem is the superficiality of the social commentary most critics see in the movie. I haven’t read any critical analysis other than Donald Ritchie’s, and I borrowed that book from the library, so I don’t remember the specifics.

    But I believe the social commentary is not an end in itself but a way to explicate Kurosawa’s philosophy of life, which is that cooperation is rare and doesn’t last but that we should all approach life like Kambei. Maybe it’s the existentialist in me that thinks that this is the lesson of the film – the nobility and beauty of doing the right thing for the sake of it, not for any reward – but it’s certainly a part of the film and in my mind is Kurosawa’s answer to the intractibility of the class divide.

    Also, I meant to, but didn’t get a chance in previous posts to mention that there’s no reason why a frustrated farmer couldn’t be a bandit, even though most bandits were probably disgruntled or disgraced ronin. Once again, he points up that in some instances – where society and law and order break down – class structure becomes more fluid. Kikichiyo could just as easiy joined the bandits as the samurai. And by being the one to kill the leader, and kill the last bandit, after all his screw ups, he earned the right to be buried side by side with his comrades in arms as a samurai. That is mostly why I cry during the last scene of the film, with the background of the four samurai graves at the top of the hill.



    I believe Kurosawa had to be; otherwise, why make Kikichiyo such a central character and why make his rant the centerpiece of the film?

    Ah yes, good reminder to me to actually think of what happens in the film! I’ve fallen into my own trap of theorizing too much without thinking about what the actual film portrays.



    Hi – I watched the film for the first time last night. I know this is a really old thread and the idea I had may have already been chewed over, so ignore me if it’s an old idea here or in general…. But I really wanted to see if the idea I had  had been discussed.

    I couldn’t help thinking the there were parallels with particular themes in modern Japanese history, and I’ve Googled the idea and I couldn’t see any discussion about them, and this thread was the closest I could find. I really encode reading this thread and especially the initial post and the references to Keegan’s theories. It’s far more well thought out than this post which is just a sketch of an idea I had.

    I thought I could see a series of analogies:

    In the past the gang has turned up and demanded whatever they want from the villagers with threats of violence. This is an analogy for Black Ships and more specifically Perry and American gunboat diplomacy. 

    Then the villagers grow tired of working hard and living in fear of the gang taking the fruits of their labour. The old man tells them that the only way to defend themselves is to find Samurai. The Samurai return despite being offered no reward and they develop an army. This is similar to the Samurai / warrior class forming the officer class in the modern Meiji army.

    In order to take the advantage in the inevitable battle, the Samurai make a preemptive strike on the gang’s base, and set fire to it while they sleep, cutting down everyone who tries to escape. This seems like remarkably similar to Japan’s preemptive strike on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour.

    I had a few other points but that’s the general outline. That the film is an analogy for the Japanese warrior classes in the Meiji era.

    I only did one year of Japanese history at uni 15 years ago… So I’m not pretending to be an expert. I just thought that it was interesting and couldn’t see anyone discussing it. 

    Any thoughts?



    Hi ttombrown

    In the past the gang has turned up and demanded whatever they want from the villagers with threats of violence. This is an analogy for Black Ships and more specifically Perry and American gunboat diplomacy.

    Then the villagers grow tired of working hard and living in fear of the gang taking the fruits of their labour. The old man tells them that the only way to defend themselves is to find Samurai. The Samurai return despite being offered no reward and they develop an army. This is similar to the Samurai / warrior class forming the officer class in the modern Meiji army.

    I think the notion that part of the film is at least partly an allegory for specific historical events in more recent Japanese history is credible. It certainly is one explanation for the story making the bandits shadowy individuals (unlike The Magnificent Seven, which devoted far more time to depicting them as interesting characters) that they could represent the Black Ships. I think though that if this was the central intention of the film there would have been more direct allusions to that period (so far as I know, the ending of Occupation has meant that censorship of any films with implied criticism of the Americans had ended by the time Seven Samurai went into production). We have, however, seen how many of AK’s earlier films could well be read as attacks on American culture and interference in Japan’s affairs.

    I think though that reading the attack on the bandits encampment as a reference to Pearl Harbour is going too far. I don’t see anything in the film that indicates it should be read that way.

    My own feeling is that Kurosawa was quite deliberately drawing parallels with Meiji period politics and society in the film, specifically the manner in which Japan struggled (and still struggles) to reconcile its feudal roots with its adoption of a more European (specifically German) legal and political system, and the later disasters this created with its defeat at the hands of America. But I don’t think he intended the plot to parallel real historical events, I think his concerns were about culture and politics and about the Japanese soul.



    Hi Ugetsu, thanks for replying. I really appreciate you taking the time.

    I wasn’t looking for hidden meanings. But the approach of a pre-emptive hit and run attack on the enemies base in the face of an inevitable attack, to lure them into a protracted attack on the village, seemed to be so similar to the Japanese reasoning behind Pearl Harbour that it couldn’t have been a coincidence. 

    The most pivotal point for the relationship between the warrior classes and the civilian population in the Meiji era must have been when the Generals pushed for a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour and initiated the war with America. The attack wasn’t an inevitable approach, it was an unusual strategy. Maybe post war Japan needed to rationalise Pearl Harbour… Especially in the context of an examination of Meiji militarisation.

    I don’t think that the gunslingers attack the bandit camp in the Magnificent Seven.

    I’d be interested to know how the treatment and screenplay were put together and at what stage this entered the storyline. 




    Hi ttombrown! An interesting idea, and one that could well have deserved its own thread.

    However, if we were to interpret the attack on the bandits’ hideout as an allegory of the attack on Pearl Harbor, how would we then extend that interpretation to what happens afterwards, i.e. the way the bandits attack the village, how it is defended, and what the final outcome is?

    I’m also not sure if the surprise attack carried out by the samurai is really such an unusual strategy. I’m actually fairly sure I remember Clausewitz, with whom Ugetsu started this thread, talking about the importance of surprise on the strategic level, and their potential use in seizing the initiative, which the samurai succeed in doing here, although with a cost.



    Hi V – I’m not sure that there’s a need to match more events in the film to a timeline of WWII for the point about Pearl Harbour to be valid. There could be an analogy between the defence of Pacific islands, and the way the villagers fought one gang member at a time. There could be a parallel between the guns the bandits have and American military technology… But both those really just accentuate the plucky underdog status if the villagers and aren’t relevant to the relationship between them and the warriors they’ve hired. 

    The ending is the other point where I think that the WWII / Meiji analogy pops up. Obviously the outcome of the hostilities is very different. The outcome for the villagers is success, but Japan surrendered to America. However, when the leader of the Samurai in SS reflects on the lot of his warriors after the fighting has ended it is done so in stark contrast to the lot of the villagers, who are now prospering that peace has been restored. Perhaos the outcome differs, but the relationship between warriors and workers is similar. Japan after WWII was demilitarised but approached industry with a new vigour and rebuilt and prospered quickly.

    In terms of SS’s theme of the social contract between warriors and workers, the justification for the the warriors committing the workers to a life or death struggle, rather than simply protecting them, as they were hired to do, is fundamental.

    The sneak attack commits the villagers to a life or death struggle with a stronger enemy in exactly the same way Pearl Harbour could only have resulted in the full might of America being turned against Japan. The military elite who successfully pressed their case for an attack on the American fleet justified it by saying that an American attack was inevitable. I thought that AK could not have included such a similarity without it being intentional.

    Surprise attacks in themselves are not unusual perhaps. I haven’t read Clausewitz but The Art Of War certainly advocates surprise attacks. However, I can’t think of another instance of a surprise frontal attack on the main base by the weaker belligerent as a means of initiating a conflict though. I think that approach is unusual and the Americans certainly didn’t think that a massed bombing attack on their fleet was likely. 

    I’m enjoying discussing this point… Thanks for making me think it through.





    Perhaos the outcome differs, but the relationship between warriors and workers is similar. Japan after WWII was demilitarised but approached industry with a new vigour and rebuilt and prospered quickly.

    I think there is an analogy here, in particular with what became known as the Yoshida Doctrine, and its something I hope to write up a little more in a future post. Essentially, the Yoshida doctrine can be described as a continuation of the war by other means – embarking on rapid reindustrialisation and growth while hiding under the US military and diplomatic umbrella. It was very successful on its own terms, but plenty of commentators think it left Japan with a horribly unbalanced society and structure – to the extent that Yukio Mishima famously committed hari kiri in protest at what he saw as the emasculation of Japan. I think there is certainly an argument that the ending of Seven Samurai was a pointed comment on the contemporary political focus on a foreign policy of aggressive mercantilism over all other possible societal and political aims.

    But on the Pearl Harbour point I really am not convinced. The notion of an aggressive attack to surprise a superior force is as old as organised warfare and was a key part of the Japanese military doctrine. But if it was Kurosawa’s intention, the question arises of why? Perhaps a conservative nationalist Japanese may have seen a parallel between the farmers and Japan, with the bandits as an encroaching US in the 1930’s, but from what we know of Kurosawa’s politics its hard to see him agreeing with this interpretation.

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