Only a few movies allow the audience to penetrate fully into their world: the winding dirt track leading to a little town filled with samurai in search of adventure…the faces and bodies of the peasants deeply marked by years of hard labor…the magnetic power exuded by the warrior about to draw his deadly sword. Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, isn’t just a story told, it’s a journey—an immersion experience into feudal Japan, three-and-a-half hours of emotional adventure alongside the most memorable team of swordsmen of all martial arts movies.
A group of samurai embarks on protecting a village in distress
The history begins when a peasant accidentally witnesses a group of bandits planning to attack his village after the next harvest of rice, their meager resource. With the approval of the venerable elder, the villagers decide to hire several samurai to protect them against the upcoming threat. Sound familiar? That’s not surprising! The framework of Seven Samurai has since been used many times in cinema (The Magnificent Seven), even in animated films (A Bug’s Life, Samurai 7).
Throughout this story of the oppressed seeking protection, several more complicated topics are addressed. For example, the movie broaches the question of the peasants’ social status in the Japan of that time. Excluded and denigrated, they are considered by some town people to be the dregs of society. While seeking samurai who would agree to help them in exchange for modest rice plates, the peasants in charge of this crucial mission were despicably put down and laughed at in a tavern.
“I’m glad I wasn’t born a farmer! A dog is luckier!”
Kurosawa manages to introduce characters full of paradox
The story framework also allows for further character development. The seven samurai as well as the main peasants all get their special scenes; this is how the characters gain in nuance and depth. However, the “secret sauce” of the movie is all about leaving enough things unsaid so that the viewer asks himself questions like:
- Where does Katsushiro come from, and what does he have to prove? This young apprentice swordsman glorifies the samurai for their sword mastery but also for their courage and integrity. His beautifully crafted clothes and some of his attitudes seem to betray a noble background.
- How can Kikuchiyo’s behavior be explained? The black sheep of the group is as tiresome as he is fascinating, bringing a lot to the story with his quirky mannerisms and reckless initiatives.
- What does motivate Kambei? The ronin (the leader of the seven) amazes with his impressive charisma from his first appearance where he dresses as a monk to save a child held hostage by a thief.
- Do we have to feel sorry for the peasants? Apparently, they are overwhelmed with problems. They live in miserable conditions, and the few things they have are coveted by unscrupulous bandits. We soon realize, however, that there are resources available where they are least expected. Besides, some of them act selfishly when the group’s survival depends on everybody’s involvement. In the village elder’s words:
“What’s the use of worrying about your beard when your head’s about to be taken?”
(You should note that a lot of this character development is squeezed out of the movie in the two-hour version. You *must* see the full-length version which, by the way, has been beautifully restored.)
Forget about bullet time or 3D
Many action scenes are clearly dated. However, some of them demonstrate that it’s not absolutely necessary to use stunning special effects to give intensity to a fight. The double clash between Kyuzo and an unwary challenger is a perfect example. After pitting their strength against each other with bamboo swords, the two samurai then draw their real blades to engage in the decisive encounter. The fight is decided within a breath after tension surges through the atmosphere, fueled by the gathering of the crowd that is captivated by the two men.
Martial arts fan, don’t be mistaken though. It’s true that Seven Samurai doesn’t provide you the high-speed fight choreographies that are de rigueur in modern action films. Even so, I guarantee that every practitioner will feel close to those warriors full of respect, diligence and discipline (well… except the black sheep, but you will find that out by yourself).
The movie pays a striking tribute to the doughty attitude of these samurai, ready to face the enemy whatever the consequences. It even gets to the point where we curse firearms (used by the group of bandits) which totally shatter the nobility of the confrontation.
Why Seven Samurai will remain a classic in 50 years
Seven Samurai is an exceptional movie. I had very high expectations because, since its release in 1954, it has been countlessly praised, nominated and covered with awards by cinema industry professionals (not only martial arts cinema) and by audiences.
Yet, I disagree with many critics on one point: Seven Samurai is not one of the best action movies ever made. The action part is merely one of the pillars of the movie. Seven Samurai shines thanks to its captivating script, the fantastic way it lures you into its world, and its great actors. For these reasons, yes, it deserves a place in the pantheon of cinema.