In my quest to watch all of the greatest films ever made, I stumbled upon this 1954 stunning black and white, Japanese language action masterpiece. With a running time of 200 minutes, this is a truly epic film. Set in the Sengoku period of Japanese history (1467-1615), Seven Samurai tells the story of a small village which is besieged by bandits who seek to take the village’s crops. The plot begins with some swift background with some of the villagers overhearing scouts from the bandits saying aloud that they will return once the crops have ripened. From then, the villagers, knowing the clock is ticking, set about finding seven Ronin (masterless samurai) to protect their village from the bandits.
But only a true sensei of movie trivia can list all of the Seven Samurai — Takashi Shimura (Kambei), Toshiro Mifune (Kikuchiyo), DaisukeKato (Shichiroji), Yoshio Inaba (Gorobei), Seiji Miyaguchi (Kyuzo), Minoru Chiaki (Heihachi) and Isao Kimura (Katsushiro). Empire
This film is a work of supreme beauty. It scores in the top percentile for me across every metric by which I measure good films. It is visually staggering throughout, even though it is set in a small village in rural Japan. The script is relatively sparse given the often laconic Ronin but hits hard when warranted, including the exquisite scene where Kikuchiyo scalds his fellow Ronin for being judgmental of the villagers. The characterisation of the samurai is done richly and beautifully, by the end you have a full picture of each of them and their respective feelings towards each other. The film really takes its time in establishing these relationships and succeeds.
Here, Kurosawa one-ups Hollywood. Before 1954, even the most epic American adventures featured a lone hero and a stooge posse, or at best two brawling buddies. But here Kurosawa invented the now-familiar device of a heroic leader assembling a team of specialists to meet a challenging task. At well over three hours, the movie has time to give each of the Samurai rich characterisation: Shichiroji is Kambei’s long-term right-hand man; Kyuzo is the icy master swordsman; Gorobei signs up because he admires Kambei’s heroism; Katsushiro is the youth who yearns to learn from the masters; Heihachi is the second-rate sword, welcomed because of his cheery disposition; and Kikuchiyo (a hyperactive, star-making role for Mifune) is the crazy amateur whose insane clown antics mark him as the wild card in this otherwise dignified, professional pack. Empire
Once recruited, the Samurai set about fortifying the village and teaching the villagers basic fighting tactics. The film culminates in one of the greatest battles in cinematic history with the 40 bandits storming the village over the course of several days.
One of my favourite elements of post war Japanese filmography is that they capture the mood of Japan after the war and impose this on situations before the war. The shame of allowing an invading force to have power over them, themes of robbed sovereignty and the honour of fighting oppression are vividly deisplayed throughout Seven Samurai. At the time of filming the repercussions of World War Two will still have been felt and having US soldiers posted around Japan must have twisted the knife daily for the Japanese. Not to mention the Americans wrote the Japanese Constitution after the war therefore engineered their legal infrastructure. All of this is visible within Seven Samurai, although it was set some 400 years previously.
Overall this is an undeniable masterpiece which reflects a national mood and triumphs in every metric for cinematographic gold. I cannot recommend it enough.