Seven Samurai is about a farming village, under imminent threat of bandits raiding and stealing their crop–and possibly doing much worse–who decides to hire samurai to defend them. They send four men–Fujiwara Kamatari, Kosugi Yoshio, Tsuchiya Yoshio, and Hidari Bokuzen–to town to hire the samurai. They can’t pay them, but they can feed them. The villagers will subsist on millet, the samurai will get rice. Not a great deal and the men don’t have much luck to start.
However, they soon find Shimura Takashi, an older ronin, who’s able to convince others to take up the cause. There’s young Kimura Isao, who looks up to Shimura and the other samurai, but hasn’t got any real experience yet. Katō Daisuke plays an old war buddy of Shimura’s who happily joins up. Inaba Yoshio is the second-in-command, Chiaki Minoru’s the funny one, Miyaguchi Seiji’s the serious one. Then there’s Mifuno Toshiro as the wild one.
After an hour or so–the film runs just under three and a half–the Seven Samurai head to the village. The first hour has the village setup, then the four farmers quest in the city, then Shimura recruiting the other samurai. There’s an intermission halfway, but the period after the samurai get to the village and before the bandits return, which takes up some of the time after the intermission too, is it’s own phase in the film. Then there’s the battle. A little while before the battle, the villagers–who aren’t just providing room and board for the samurai, but are also being trained to fight alongside them against the bandits–wonder if the bandits have forgotten about them.
And it certainly does seem possible. Seven Samurai’s first few minutes promise this bloody showdown between the villagers and the bandits, which then becomes the samurai and the bandits, but then it’s really just a lot of character study. Sure, they’re all training for the impending battle, but it’s character study. Kurosawa and co-writers Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo subtlely explore the villagers and the samurai, with Mifune and Kimura getting the most emphasis on the latter, Tsuchiya and Fujiwara getting the most emphasis on the former. Turns out even though the village decided to hire samurai, they didn’t really think about what it meant for samurai to be living among them. Their only previous experience with samurai being samurai attacking and pillaging villages.
Mifune’s character development throughout the second portion–he shows up in the beginning, then disappears until the night before they leave for the village (the first hour takes place over about a week)–plays off the other samurai. Even though Shimura and company think they’ve got Mifune figured out, they really don’t. And he’s able to transcend the class divisions built into their interactions with the villagers.
Meanwhile Kimura begins romancing Fujiwara’s daughter, Tsushima Keiko, and it becomes clear he doesn’t really understand what it means to be a samurai either. Not from the perspective of a villager, who’s always a potential victim in one way or another.
There’s a whole lot to Seven Samurai. Kurosawa and his co-writers don’t introduce a lot more in the last hour… wait, never mind. Yes, yes they do. Amid the multi-day battle sequence, they do introduce a lot more. Mifune has a whole other subplot, as Kurosawa reveals he’s actually juxtaposed against Kimura, which never seemed to be a thing but was a thing the whole time. Going back to their first scene together (with Shimura). Only they were subplot to the villagers pursuing Shimura at that point.
But I was really trying to get to the violence thing. In the first hour, whenever Kurosawa shows violence, it doesn’t have any sound. There are the sounds behind it, but the violence itself–the steel of the swords cutting into flesh–has none. It’s uncanny and directs the viewer’s attention. When it comes time, in the third part, for the battle… Kurosawa handles violence differently. His original approach to it, what he emphasizes, is baked into what he does later, but it’s evolved. Kurosawa’s constantly perturbing Seven Samurai’s style. Like his editing. At the beginning, there are some sharp cuts to bring the viewer back in time to sixteenth century. He doesn’t keep them going once he’s got the time period established; he just takes time and gives attention to getting it established.
Especially since he later calls back to those cuts in a seemingly unrelated sequence, which then informs a bunch of other things as far as character development and revelation.
There’s not a wasted frame in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s precise. The film never drags, never dawdles. The three and a half hours sail by. Even the subplot introductions–after the film shifts over to Shimura and the samurai–are seamless. The pacing is just another of its master-strokes.
Technically, Samurai’s singular. Kurosawa’s direction–which changes stylistically as the plot progresses–is otherworldly. The way he and cinematographer Nakai Asakazu are able to frame the action horizontally make Samurai feel like an Academy ratio Panavision picture for the first two hours. Nakai’s photography is fantastic. Ditto Hayasaka Fumio’s music and Matsuyama Takashi’s production design. It’s all breathtakingly faultless.
Then there are the performances. Shimura and Mifune get the flashiest roles. Mifune in a loud way, Shimura in a quiet. They’re fantastic. Kimura’s good; he’s sort of the viewer’s point of entry for the samurai, but also the villagers. Though Mifune turns out to have similar avenues of insight. Both Miyaguchi and Katō have some excellent moments. But the villagers. Tsuchiya and Fujiwara are awesome; they get the big arcs running throughout, just under the surface; constant. They’re heartbreaking in different ways.
Hidari eventually becomes a sidekick to Mifune, which gives some of the very necessary comic relief once things get intense. And Tsushima’s good as Kimura’s love interest. She, Shimura, Tsuchiya, and Miyaguchi have the most pensive parts. They have these amazing internal experiences only relayed through expression; Kurosawa’s editing, not to mention his composition, showcases their silent thoughtfulness.
Seven Samurai is a masterpiece. It’s nigh impossible to imagine a way it could be even minutely improved.
Edited and directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo; director of photography, Nakai Asakazu; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Motoki Sôjirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.
Starring Shimura Takashi (Shimada), Kimura Isao (Katsushirō), Mifune Toshirō (Kikuchiyo), Tsuchiya Yoshio (Rikichi), Tsushima Keiko (Shino), Inaba Yoshio (Gorōbei), Miyaguchi Seiji (Kyūzō), Katō Daisuke (Shichirōji), Fujiwara Kamatari (Manzō), Chiaki Minoru (Heihachi), Hidari Bokuzen (Yohei), Kosugi Yoshio (Mosuke), and Kōdō Kokuten (Gisaku).