Kurosawa’s 1954 epic adventure is a profound cinematic experience.
There’s a sports metaphor I’ve heard used, in basketball mostly, when they say that a player is “in a zone.” Every shot seems to go in; whenever they touch the ball, something good happens. Well, there are some rare cases when I think a filmmaker gets into a zone, and everything the director tries seems to work and to further the artistic purpose of the picture. The result is what we usually would call a “great film,” or even a “masterpiece.” This metaphor has come to mind most powerfully for me when watching one of my favorite movies: from 1954, directed by Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai.
The samurai genre was very popular in Japan, but other than some screenplay writing, this seems to have been Kurosawa’s first work in that tradition. He wrote the story with his longtime colleagues Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. It’s about a peasant village in 16th century Japan that is being harassed by a large group of bandits. Some of the villagers decide that they must hire a group of samurai to defend themselves. They have nothing to offer but food, so they seek out a destitute warrior named Kambei, played by Takashi Shimura, a great ronin fallen on hard times. He accepts their plea, and then approaches five other samurai, each with distinct personalities, weapons, and fighting styles. These six become seven when an uncouth character named Kikuchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune, starts tagging along. It turns out that he’s a peasant himself. After establishing their presence in the village, the samurai prepare for the impending bandit attack.
Describing the plot doesn’t really convey the epic nature of the film. It’s 3½ hours long, but don’t let that intimidate you. It’s consistently involving, fascinating, and exciting. Carefully, each character, including the peasants, is presented with subtlety and attention. Relationships and complex plot strands emerge. Then when the action starts, the compelling narrative flow is thrilling and awe-inspiring. Kurosawa used several moving cameras running simultaneously in the battle scenes, along with telephoto lenses so that the actors would not be distracted. Consequently we find ourselves totally immersed in the experience.
Shimura is excellent as the wise and steady-handed leader. Mifune’s performance is a marvel of wild and eccentric self-expression. Kurosawa had already become famous internationally with Rashomon four years earlier but this movie exploded onto world cinema with an impact hard to even imagine today. Yes, Hollywood did a western version called The Magnificent Seven that is quite entertaining, but doesn’t come close to the original. Widely and (correctly in my opinion) considered one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, Seven Samurai is a true epic of cinema that movie lovers owe it to themselves to see.