In 1954, Akira Kurosawa co-wrote, directed and edited the first of his numerous samurai movies—all of which are mandatory viewing to the serious movie-goer, but none of which would ever top the sheer quality and influence of his inaugural masterpiece, Seven Samurai. This is one of the most universally lauded movies ever made, and for good reason. It is an epic tale that faithfully captures the realities of medieval Japanese life, offers a compelling view of the fabled samurai warrior class, tells an unforgettable tale of honor, duty and sacrifice, and features some of the most heart-stopping battle scenes ever filmed. There is a reason why Seven Samurai sits easily among the greatest movies of all time: the whole thing is a three-hour-long moment of truth that has inspired countless remakes and homages.
The story takes place in the Warring States period of Japan, that stretch across the 16th century of constant civil war and chaos. It is the age of the samurai, highborn warriors with no shortage of battles to fight; and the lowly peasants, who bear the brunt of so much war, lawlessness, disaster and poverty. After a village of farmers is told by bandits to prepare their harvest for collection at the end of the summer, the farmers decide enough is enough and head to town to find some samurai to defend them. They strike gold by finding Kambei, a worthy man of honor and principle, who can tell the farmers have nothing with which to pay, but he takes the job anyway, knowing that only truly desperate people would think to approach a samurai empty-handed and ask for help. Kambei recruits youthful disciple Katsushirō; old friend Shichirōji, expert archer and tactician Gorobei, the amiable if not exactly skillful Heihachi, and taciturn master swordsman Kyūzō. The group is joined by samurai wannabe Kikuchiyio (played with show-stealing and career-making energy by the legendary Toshiro Mifune), whose efforts to pass himself off as a genuine samurai fail miserably, but whose character, grit and determination win the respect of his fellows and is allowed to join the group. Together, the seven journey to the village where they slowly gain the trust of the farmers, fortify the village against attack, and train the farmers to fight for themselves. When the bandits return, they are met with arms, and after a series of skirmishes that inflict losses on both sides, the bandits make a final charge into the village amid a torrential rainstorm that sets the stage for an utterly memorable battle sequence. By the time it is all over, bodies litter the ground, and the samurai who live to fight another day do so knowing that they don’t get to claim victory because they survive. For a true samurai, the only victory worth having is had by dying.
Few movies made so long ago can hope to command the attention of a modern audience, especially one that runs over three hours, is subtitled, and has long stretches of dialogue-driven character development. But Seven Samurai does command modern attention, because despite its length and pace, there is not a single wasted moment in the entire movie. Every scene is carefully chosen and composed to communicate a deeper understanding of the world of the samurai, and how these people all fit into it. We see the samurai not as inhumanly noble superheroes, but as entitled members of an upper class who may have inherited their title at birth, but have also had to prove worthy of it through skill and courage. We see the peasants not merely as downtrodden fools, but as an entire class of people made miserable by forces beyond their control, and at the end of their rope. We see both sides mistrust each other for reasons both genuine and selfish, and as they come to understand each other, both camps learn to let go of their artificial distinctions. By the time we reach the climax of Seven Samurai, the villagers know how to fight, sure, but more importantly, in their brief moment of blood-soaked glory, they and the samurai are one people. It doesn’t last, but for as long as it does, something truly remarkable is born. And none who experience it will ever really forget it.
One could almost pause this movie randomly at any point along its length and discover that they have stopped within a moment of truth. But the one that sticks out to me the most is a scene in which we meet the first of our samurai, the leader Kambei. A hapless villager is trying to find somebody, anybody, who will even look at him, let alone hear his pitch for a suicide mission to save his village. He’s got no hope at all of finding any of the samurai he needs for this. But then he comes across a commotion where a thief has taken a child hostage in a small building. As the crowd outside tries to figure out what to do, Kambei takes decisive action by shaving his topknot—a revered symbol of his social station—so he might masquerade as a monk and enter the building unmolested to save the boy. As Kambei dispatches the thief, we see that he is the living embodiment of what samurai are supposed to be in an age when almost none of them are. And Kambei knows it, too. That he would shave off his topknot to save a child is more than being a noble defender of others. It’s the act of a guy who is so true to his duty, that he’s willing to throw away the social privilege that comes with his job. When the awestruck villager asks Kambei if he’d like to save a whole village, Kambei’s reaction is priceless: Of course, just let me find a few more guys, first. Awestruck, the overjoyed villager cannot believe his good fortune. The funny thing is, at that same moment, Kambei is thinking the same thing.