Seven Samurai, a film by Akira Kurosawa, Criterion Collection (1957)

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai), co-written, edited, and directed by Akira Kurosawa, is considered one of the greatest films ever made, has had a tremendous influence on world cinema, and is arguably the most well-known and popular Japanese film to have made it into the Western world. Taking place in 1587, the film’s story is pretty simple, belying its deep complexity and masterly execution.

A village of farmers, extremely poor, faces bandits who are planning to return after the harvest to steal their crops. In an attempt to thwart this from happening, the village decides to find and hire masterless samurai (ronin) to protect them and their crops. They have nothing to offer but food (the village the elder tells them to “find hungry samurai”), so they are repeatedly turned away and struggle to find someone to help. Finally, they run into an experienced samurai, named Kambei, in the process of saving a boy who is being held hostage. Unlike the other samurai who have rebuffed them, Kambei treats the villagers with respect, listens to their plea and agrees to help. Kambei recruits four other samurai and also takes on a young samurai named Katsushirō as a disciple. The six head off to the village, while another would-be samurai named Kikuchiyo, who Kambei declines to accept due to Kikuchiyo’s erratic and wild behavior, refuses their attempts to drive him away and follows.

When the samurai arrive, the villagers insult them by their cold and untrusting behavior. Kikuchiyo tricks the villagers into thinking the bandits are arriving resulting in the villagers running to the samurai begging for their protection. Kikuchiyo rebukes them for their cowardice and poor welcoming of the samurai. The other samurai now accept Kikuchiyo, who becomes the seventh samurai. Working together, the samurai and villagers begin to prepare a defense. As they do so, mutual trust starts to develop until the samurai learn that the villagers have in the past murdered and robbed from samurai in the past. However, Kikuchiyo explains to the other samurai the deep poverty and hardships the farmers have faced from the warrior class, after which the samurai feel both shame and a growing sense of camaraderie with the villagers.

The bandits arrive, trying a couple preliminary raids in which a number of them are killed, in large part thanks to the fortifications and strategy adopted by Kambei. By the conclusion of the final decisive battle all of the bandits are killed, as are four of the samurai including Katsushirō, who dies of a gunshot wound but not before killing the leader of the bandits who had shot him (and had also just shot and killed another samurai). The film closes with the villagers planting their next crop, happy in their victory and that their lives can return to normal. The remaining samurai, however, are much more reflective as they look at the graves of their fellow warriors. “Again we are defeated,” Kambei muses. “The winners are those farmers. Not us.”

The film’s running time of 3 hours and 27 minutes scares many people off, especially considering Western viewers reading sub-titles for that length of time! Add to that, for modern viewers trained on incredible special effects and sensationalized battle violence, the raw nature of the battle scenes can make the movie seem older than what it is. Having said that, those who turn away from experiencing this film make a huge mistake. It is a masterpiece of character study, class interaction and plot construction, making the time fly by while fully engrossing your intellect and emotion in anticipation of the battle to come. The film’s themes of honor, sacrifice and friendship are built from the ground up and are more powerful for the time devoted to it. By the time the raids and battle begins, we understand viscerally the complex and conflicting emotions and personalities that drive the samurai and villagers. The final battle itself is masterful in its filming technique (especially the multiple camera angles) and in its classic, understated refinement of the action sequences which are fast paced and wonderfully staged. 

The device of recruiting and forming a team of heroes to defend those weak and incapable of defending themselves has been copied many, many times, including in The Magnificent Seven (which is essentially a remake of Seven Samurai as a western), The Dirty Dozen and, most recently, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Another oft copied plot device is that of the reluctant hero, as played to perfection by Takashi Shimura as Kambei. As many films of this type later did, Kurosawa decided to build a complete set on the Izu Peninsula, rather than filming at the studio. One can sense the authenticity this provided as the setting, nicely filmed with wonderful cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, immerses the viewer in rural medieval Japan.

Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) is considered one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers of all time. Great filmmakers such as Ingmar BergmanFederico FelliniBernardo Bertolucci,  Francis Ford CoppolaSteven SpielbergMartin Scorsese and George Lucas, among many others, credit Kurosawa as having significant influence in their work. This film, the huge and critically acclaimed masterpiece that it is, is only one of a handful of Kurosawa films considered to be amongst the best ever in World Cinema, especially Rashomon. In Seven Samurai, Kurosawa utilizes two legendary Japanese actors as the two main samurai; Takashi Shimura as Kambei and Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo. Shimura played in 21 of Kurosawa’s 30 films, and Mifune played in 15.

Seven Samurai was an immediate critical and popular success and has remained so to this day. Seven Samurai is the highest rated film of all time in the ‘Action & Adventure Movies‘ category on Rotten Tomatoes and is the seventh highest rated film in the ‘Art House & International Movies‘ category. In 1982, it was voted number three in the Sight & Sound critics’ poll of greatest films and finished number seventeen in the same poll taken in 2012. It was ranked number one on Empire magazine’s list of “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema” in 2010 and it is the highest-ranked Asian film on the Internet Movie Database‘s “Top 250 movies” list.

The only way to own or watch a movie of this caliber is via Criterion Collection’s wonderful presentation of it.

Criterion Collection, Seven Samurai

About the Criterion Collection edition:

  • All-new, restored high-definition digital transfer (with the original uncompressed monaural soundtrack and an optional DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
  • Two audio commentaries, one featuring film scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie, and the other Japanese film expert Michael Jeck
  • Fifty-minute documentary on the making of Seven Samurai, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create
  • My Life in Cinema, a two-hour video conversation from 1993 between directors Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima
  • Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences, a documentary looking at the samurai traditions and films that helped shape Kurosawa’s masterpiece
  • Theatrical trailers and teaser
  • Gallery of rare posters, behind-the scenes photos, and production stills
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Stuart Galbraith, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Lumet and an interview with Toshiro Mifune from 1993

Here is the trailer:

 

4 thoughts on “Seven Samurai, a film by Akira Kurosawa, Criterion Collection (1957)

  1. Chris, in reply to your review of 8 &1/2, I said it was one of my 5 top films of all time–this is another one. I have seen this more times than I can remember, and it is a testament to its greatness that I can always see and appreciate something new. Only the very greatest art has that effect.

    Just a few things that made this film so influential are the revolutionary use of telephoto lenses, and extreme slow motion–techniques which until them were mostly used for documentary or art films, but never used in straight dramatic films (and never used better). Very few films before made such great use of the weather. No film before this would have shot the climactic battle scene–in daylight in a downpour (production stills show how this often had to be created when the normally rainy weather failed). Although it can be offputting to some Western ears, Funio Hayasaki’s masterful musical score is a perfect complement to Kurosawa’s innovative visuals.

    All in all, this is a film which should be owned and watched repeatedly by anyone appreciative of the art of cinema.

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