Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is one of those films that always feels like a breath of fresh air every time I watch it, a little over three hours long but it justifies all of that. In fact, it always feels like quite a breeze upon every viewing. Akira Kurosawa is a master at storytelling, it is continuously engaging and it has left an impact upon cinema like no other, but those are the very least of what Seven Samurai has mastered. It’s looked by some as art, but at a similar degree, it can also be seen as fun. Yet even then, there’s so much more to Seven Samurai that establishes everything it sets out for.
The incredible length is one thing – sometimes it is self-indulgent yet in a case like this what we’re given is something continuously hypnotizing to the point it never truly feels like it is even a little bit over three hours. There is always something of interest happening and there is also quite a lot being offered through the subtext, for Kurosawa also had his ways of fitting in a clever social commentary, as films like Ikiru and High and Low can also detail. Its brilliance is clear throughout such an incredible length and a film like this never wastes a second of it. Kurosawa takes his time to let every small moment develop, in order to allow for more of an emotional resonance with the characters he works around, no matter how small a part they may be.
On the outside, it’s a simple story that shows bandits are about to rob a poor village and these souls need the samurai to protect them. Yet look more into what Kurosawa intended with it and you’ll soon see it as a means for Kurosawa to depict the devastating effects of the war. The humanist themes running through Seven Samurai, which are common especially within the films of the Japanese Golden Age, remain as wondrous as ever, even today. It is difficult to find such deeply rooted stories under their supposed simplicity that come in the same way that Kurosawa presents them in all the glory created by Seven Samurai. It is an often repeated phrase, but Seven Samurai truly is something within its very own class.
Kurosawa has also crafted what can be seen as proof that film can be both entertaining on the outside yet on the inside you can also see Kurosawa provides an interesting philosophy. Reading more into essays about Seven Samurai it’s apparent that Kurosawa’s influences have ranged from Russian literature to John Ford to Marxism, it has an interesting way of going about with the class system. It is a simple story on the outside but its creative means with the narrative structure and handling of such a story grow to justify its reputation as one of the greatest epics ever made, or easily the greatest.
Where there’s a sense of entertainment it can easily be found within just how beautifully staged the swordplay is. And somehow, it also creates the perfect sense of comedic relief – it’s quite easy to see it out of Toshiro Mifune’s role as Kikuchiyo. He is a fascinating figure, a truly entertaining onscreen presence. Kurosawa’s balance of action and drama is perfect, because there is a sense of buildup presented and the justification behind all of it is stunning, especially considering a sense of self-importance within a typical Hollywood epic. Despite a feeling of clumsiness to the action, here’s one thing to keep in mind, wouldn’t a battle up close be as messy as what you’re getting here?
It’s also rather fascinating to see that Takashi Shimura would take on this role after his previous collaboration with Akira Kurosawa, that one in particular being the wondrous Ikiru. But prior, he appeared in Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, then he shows such incredible strength playing the role of Kambei, who leads the pack. He is a perfect embodiment of the leader figure. It is such a refined performance and the amount of skill that can be picked out of something like this is beyond amazing, and such a wide range proves already that he is truly one of the greatest actors of his kind, an all-timer at that.
On a visual level, it is also just extremely stunning, from aspects ranging from the set design to the costumes all the way down to the cinematography. What can easily be said is that Kurosawa is one of the most visually literate directors of all time, from a masterpiece much like this. And even today, it is still extremely impressive. Within speaking of the technical aspects, it is so brilliantly edited too. It especially helps a film of such an incredible length, because it also creates such swift pacing to a point the length doesn’t feel so much of a gripe anymore. Never at once is any of it felt, as every moment of sitting through such a wonderful work only feels like such a breeze.
Fumio Hasayaka’s score is more than just brilliant. Within the first moments of the film it already establishes a tense atmosphere. One that will soon grow to create a sense that what we are watching will be nothing short of thrilling. And then there’s that cue from the moment the villagers seek help. It only grows even better from there, it is an absolutely memorable score from start to finish. With the film’s scale, it feels so noticeably minimalist but in a sense, it also adds to the beauty of Seven Samurai, for it never distracts from what Kurosawa is presenting on the screen, it only adds more of a connection to the material.
There’s a lot more I can go on about regarding Seven Samurai and just the sheer brilliance of everything we are being given. I still remember the very first day in which I saw it and the incredible impact it has had upon my life. And even today, years after that first moment when I witnessed the magnificence of it all, it feels so refreshing and there are new things to be discovered. For a film over three hours long, it’s amazing how easy it is to come back and revisit it. It’s a masterful film in terms of storytelling, the ideologies, and just every aspect you can name. And every revisit is still as satisfying as the last. Seven Samurai is truly a pitch perfect film on every level. Masterful is one way to put it, but there’s more being created. They really don’t make movies much like this anymore.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Toho.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Produced by Sojiro Motoki
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Kato, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara
Release Year: 1954
Running Time: 207 minutes