Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai

Updated in 2002 and 2005 from the essay 'See This and You Have Seen It All' © 1990 Nina Wilhelmina.

 


Mifune Toshiro ('Kikuchiyo' in the movie) deservedly looms largest in official posters.
That's him, too, on the title of this page here.

 

GET REAL ABOUT JAPAN

 

Seven Samurai

It's B&W, and was all the rage long before your mom was born (or sort of). Its characters talk Japanese. And they are all either one of these non-yummy things: masterless warriors, backbroken peasants, or rural robbers. So it's not everyone's kind of flick. Plus it runs more than 3 whole hours, though the DVD producers are kind enough to mind your bills with the oculist -- and give you an intermission during which you could listen to epic-like songs while the screen stays coldly black.

But it's Kurosawa Akira's Seven Samurai (1954).

You can't possibly complain of all that, especially when there is someone in the know nearby. It's art, man. Art must be tortuous, or so Indonesian contemporary arts have vividly testified, and that's why fine arts since 1970's always strive to match the Spanish Inquisition in quality of the job.

Seven Samurai is generally seen as the final and ultimate reference for every single samurai flick that this planet has been making since 1950's until exactly this morning. If anybody says it isn't so, he is sinning. Even the maverick of Japanese moviemaking biz, director/screenwriter/actor Kitano 'Beat' Takeshi (click here for story and pictures), by making something un-Seven Samurai, proving how deeply ingrained this principle has been.

Seven Samurai is about.....a village. It starts there and it ends there, like every such a flick has been doing since. This village is typical for its times, alternating between unbearably dusty and disgustingly muddy, depending entirely on the notoriously aloof thing called Fate in everything. There isn't much to be than that, if you were born into a farmer's family line between the year 1 to 1868. All is already determined for you. Time to plant and time to harvest, what to plant and what not, whom to marry and whom are beyond reach (and most are in this second category), and so forth. Your life is written as the weather pleases. It's always unpredictable, no matter what the noblepersons faraway say -- rulers always try to get windingly exact about weather forecast, but they never have the right gadgets to do so accurately, so help you gods.

 


The inconsolated villagers: yet they are actually not without fangs.
Untrained, real-life Japanese peasants of 16th century often hunted and slaughtered samurai
who lost the war and tried to get a temporary refuge at their villages.
And these Kurosawa villagers have done that, too. They keep souvenirs from such pursuits.

 

What is always for sure is this: you pay taxes to the nearest warlord, in return for his deploy of one low-ranked soldier to collect the rice you pay them with, and a chance to put all your worldly belongings into a dirty piece of rag and knock at the lord's outmost gate when a war breaks up -- and hope that the guards let you and your sorry little family in for protection. If your village slips into some brawly situation, you may hope that the warlord will send some privates to make things right again, after you make a report about it to his sergeant at the same gate. In the unwritten contract that binds you and the warlord, to him it is a matter of benevolence if he protects you at all, but it is your duty to respect him 100% even if he doesn't, and taxes must be paid in absolute disregard towards everything else.

And -- to dig the villagers' fear, especially the one that devastates a peasant named 'Manzo' in this movie -- your wives and daughters can't be your own in the sense you have in, say, 2005. They are not even socially eligible to be a warrior's concubine, but devoid of status brief unions do happen anyway as even warlords couldn't control his men's primal stuff. The illegitimate daughters of such meetings are certain to be pariahs everywhere, and they, if manage to live long enough, only have the option of entering the 'entertainment' biz somewhere out of sight. Sons are not even that lucky; sometimes the fathers order executions to prevent future troubles for their 'real sons' born into the right families. A samurai is risking his honor to date a village girl -- only if sex buds into affection. If he, despite everything, falls for the girl for real, his only option is to commit suicide. That is the rule. While the village girl risks everything that she and her entire family are, if she clings on unreasonable hopes in such a thing. If she falls for the samurai, too, they can only die together as a statement to the cold steely world they live in.

Now this village in the 'Warring States' period of Japan, just around the times Oda Nobunaga started his nationwide campaign (click here for history, biography, and pictures), in which for the first time a nation was imagined by at least Oda alone, is in mortal fear of war although the farmers regard it as belonging to the same category as floods, abnormally long rainless season, and pests ravaging the crops. Wars mean burning villages and harvests, and this routine is done by their supposed protectors and their foes alike -- the former does it as a normal 16th century defensive move, the latter as normal offensive action. So famine is normal. Rice is the measurement of everything; rice is what taxes are paid with. The fuss around riceballs and gruel in Seven Samurai can't be really comprehended without understanding this. It's never about gold; it's about the most basic human need: food. Because rice is everything, its function to fill up the bellies of those who plant it in the first place is never to be counted upon. Savvy? That's feudalism for you.

 

THE NAMELESS FORTY BANDITS


In real life, 16th century bandits did get rid of familiar names for obvious reasons.
But in a way they, too, were victims of the rigid feudal system and social circumstances.

 

Some soldiers who lost the war might desert their troops and their Lord. This is a disgrace, so they can't hang out with people of the same status as their former comrades'. They can wander around masterlessly, supposedly to acquire better swordsmanship or sublime mastery of whatever weapon they are best at. This kind of 'occupation' is taken by a few among a hundred -- it's no easy path. If you run away from your platoon in the midst of a battle, or, in peace time, don't obtain permission from your former Lord to leave the service, other warlords will never hire you ever. If you change profession, say, you pawn your sword and start peddling cakes downtown, you are a disgrace to your original social set, and that is so sinful that you may consider slitting your belly instead. The option that is open wide is to become an outlaw. So, even a bandit in 16th century is not altogether a happy-go-lucky person. Without anyone to hire him as a soldier, a samurai can't get his daily food -- that is the only pay a private and a sergeant is entitled to -- and he starves.

 

THE THREE VILLAGERS


MANZO

 


RYUKICHI

 


YOHEI

 

These three villagers are the backbone of the story, they start and end the scenario. The super-selfish Manzo never wants to fight the bandits, and worries sick about his daughter all the time. He fears the seven samurai more than his dread around the bandit thing. Ryukichi is the youngest of decision-makers in the village (decisions are officially to be made by the ancient headman, but the foxy Manzo and hotheaded Ryukichi are active in constructing them) -- he lost his wife to the bandits before all this even started. His determination to save the village keeps him in a constant conflict against Manzo. Yohei never even talks, generally; he only looks at the entire universe in awe and resignation like a puppy. He's the lovable hillbilly that Kikuchiyo gets attached to.

 

Thus when the village in this movie has suffered enough wars and robberies after harvest, and faces a sure promise to get robbed after their crops are ripe, the village headman, an ancient and stubborn and cunning piece of humanity, decides to hire warriors to defend them when the bandits come. The pay is rice gruel, two times a day. They, then, hunt for starving samurai.

In this, involved are five masterless warriors ('ronin' in Japanese), one wandering heir of a warlord, and one hayward samurai-wannabe. Seven in all, with, actually, different social status (click here if you have no idea what I'm talking about), but since this is (a simulation of) real life, in the streets out there experience is the only thing that matters, hence the leader of this assorted pack is Shimada Kambei (played believably by Shimura Takashi), who used to be a warlord's Captain but left the service because his side lost the last battle under the banner of Lord Toyotomi Hideyori against the Tokugawa clan, that decided the fate of Japan for the next 250 years (click here for story and pictures). Shimada is the first streetwise warrior that accepted the offer of some hillbillies led by the incurably self-centered individualist Manzo (repulsively portrayed by the actor Fujiwara Kamatari), and the perenially melancholic Yohei (Hidari Bokuzen) -- by the way, anyone except a samurai was forbidden from having last names, those days.

The set is perfect for any storytelling -- 16th century Japan is the era of warlords and famine and court intriques that anything at all is believable as long as it is put somewhere within the bin. Shimada Kambei's era is the same as Miyamoto Musashi's (click here for story and pictures) and Sanada Yukimura's (click here for story and pictures); the battle that Shimada fought at before retirement is the one that killed Sanada. Shimada didn't leave his troop dishonorably; his rank is considered a commander already, so his martial arts are certainly above average, and he is capable of strategizing, too, otherwise he wouldn't have been made a Captain. So, he, actually, can serve anybody else out there and regain the same job if he wants to. That's why the character is the paragon of everything good; Shimada has an infinitely better option than to get himself hired by a very poor village.

 


The spear-wielding 'ronin' gets really offended by the villagers' offer to hire him.
But it's not that he is being unjust and unkind -- mind you, the gap between social classes was unbridgable.
That's the normal reaction of a warrior in 16th century upon such an offer -- he'd take it as an insult.

 

Seven samurai
Kikuchiyo is in front of the throng of people watching Shimada saving the kid from the napper.
"How many of the bad guys are in there?" Okamoto asks one of these villagers. "One," he replies.
"Then why the heck haven't you attacked him yourselves?!"

No, they wouldn't have, even if the guy isn't holding a kid hostage.
There was always a yawning gap of self-esteem when it comes to anything, between samurai and non-warriors.
The feudal regime wanted this to get preserved to eternity instead of whipping the villagers up
to fight for themselves.

 


The villagers are happy to have found a samurai like Shimada Kambei.

 


"My name is Okamoto Katsushiro. Please take me as your pupil," he begs Shimada.
Kikuchiyo looks on; he doesn't even know what he wants with Shimada, but he can't resist tagging along.

 

THE SEVEN SAMURAI
( in order of appearance )


SHIMADA KAMBEI

 


OKAMOTO KATSUSHIRO

 


KIKUCHIYO

 


KATAYAMA GOROBEI

 


SHICHIROJI

 


HAYASHIDA HEIHACHI

 


KYUZO

 

 

 

Katayama, Shichiroji, and Hayashida are all easygoing, relaxed, adventurous, and accustomed to teamwork because they all had been in wars. Kyuzo is one lone wolf, typical of his own kind; only his sense of justice and notion of helping the weaker humans prompt him to join the pack. Okamoto is typical of an apprentice, and Shimada is typical of the best leader of any pack. Kikuchiyo isn't just the comic relief to the otherwise super-sombre atmosphere -- the wish to become a samurai is pathetically commonsensical in 16th century Japan, for it is the class that got the best of everything, and yet it is not a career. No matter what, a farmer's son like Kikuchiyo won't be able to join the league whose basic requirement is genetic. Only one (and greatest) man in the history of turbulent Japan made it from the wrong pedigree: Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Lord Chancellor in late 1500's.

Click here for story and pictures of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

 

In a scene that has been applauded for the rest of the days after 1954, Shimada saved a suburban dwelling from a kidnapper. Here a young man who is probably sent wandering by his dad before inauguration as the next Lord of the territory, Okamoto Katsushiro (played by Kimura Isao), falls for him and stubbornly follows him since until Shimada sort of agrees to be his informal mentor. Another man falls for Shimada, too, but this one is so unspeakable: Kikuchiyo (magnificently played by Mifune Toshiro, and part of the reason why he had been a leading samurai actor). 'Kikuchiyo' isn't even his name. The man snatched a formal certificate of birth somewhere, of a kid to whom the name belongs, just to fool people into believing that he is of the warrior-class (why such things matter, click here). But the five samurais and one apprentice accept Kikuchiyo anyway even if because he is doggedly following them all along. The next recruits are Shichiroji (played by Kato Daisuke), an easy-going and very kind warrior; Katayama Gorobei (played by Inaba Yoshio), whose heart exceeds the horizon of warlordism of his times; Hayashida Heihachi (by Chiaki Minoru); and Kyuzo (Miyaguchi Seiji), a typical clamming-up efficient slasher (very much like Nobuhiro Watsuki's Himura Kenshin, including the way he dresses up and that he carries nothing whatever except his sword while traveling).

 

Seven samurai
Shichiroji and Kyuzo lead the hillbilly army against the robbers (left),
and the "six samurai + 1 undescript + villagers" banner that Shichiroji makes for this battle.

 

What is 'educational' in this heavy flick is that the helpless and rather thankless villagers are to muster their own resources and man the defense of the place themselves (which process is told in a way that somehow invokes us to feel like it's done in real time -- savvy?).

In time, of course the robbers are done for, and the village rejoices in the start of another planting season (the same scene of farmers singing in the fields after the heroes have done the deed has been innumerably copied by all other samurai movies since this one, that it made Kitano Takeshi sick, so he said in an official interview).

Every samurai movie after 1954 has been following Seven Samurai's line; of that you better be sure. The helping-poverty-stricken-people-in-distress is the law of the genre, and it doesn't take the Europeanistic 'damsel-in-distress' plot except by accident. The structure of the rescuing pack is always the same with Kurosawa's band of the braves. There have been countless 'Shimada Kambei' in movies, comic books, anime flicks, novels, etcetera. There have also been innumerable 'Kikuchiyo', and you'd lose count if you try to name how many 'Okamoto Katsushiro' have been in business for the last half of a century.

It all sounds so simple, aye? But it is, to me, a great movie even as I don't always agree with what reviewers since late 1950's have been saying. And more than that, Seven Samurai is unerasable from the history of movies because it reinvented the genre and influences a whole lot of other movies, including the made-in-Hollywood flix, such as -- this is the most obvious -- the snatcher of many Oscars, cowboy movie The Magnificent Seven (1960), which, though only Seven Samurai put on horsebacks, has been generally seen as a good movie somewhat. So the one it was based on is better. And if you think you love samurai movies but never have done anything around Seven Samurai except catching fragments of hearsay, you don't know what you have missed. This is THE genre itself, man.

Click on to the next page for the range of influences Seven Samurai has been having until this minute, including computer and video games. Oh, and just in case you are worried about it, these movies and games are in color.

 

NEXT

 

 

HOME LINKS CONTACT CREDITS COMMENTS

Site © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Nina Wilhelmina
Movie scenes belong to their copyright proprietors. Posted here for non-profit educational purposes only.

 

1