Despite telling a story of class distinction, Kurosawa nonetheless provides some of the greatest individual character sketches in the history of cinema. While one of the themes of the film is that group needs trump individual ones (such as when the outlying huts are left unprotected in order to strengthen the defenses of the main part of the village), nonetheless these are vivid, strongly demarcated individuals.
The leader of the samurai, Kambei, is one of the most heroic characters in any of Kurosawa’s films. In fact, the other most heroic Kurosawa character is Watanabe, the bureaucrat dying of stomach cancer in Ikiru who is intent on building a public park in place of a cesspool before he dies. Both characters are played by Takashi Shimura (though bizarrely Seven Samurai would be Shimura’s last lead role for Kurosawa, most of the rest of his appearances in Kurosawa’s films being more or less cameos) and his transformation from the weak, dying Watanabe to the heroic Kambei is nothing short of miraculous.
Kambei is an aging, tired samurai, a survivor of many campaigns who no longer has hopes of being the warlord he dreamed of being as a young man. Yet the deep compassion that defines him is seen early in the film, when he cuts off his topknot, one of the distinguishing marks of a samurai, and shaves his head in order to impersonate a Buddhist monk so that he can get close enough to a kidnapper to rescue the child. After being approached by the farmers to ask for his help for the bandits, he initially decides not to help them, explaining that the task is too difficult and he is too tired of fighting. He changes his mind, however, when he recognizes the depth of the suffering of the farmers. In one of the films greatest images, Kambei accepts the bowl of rice they have offered him, the taking of which seals their pact, the camera capturing the outstretched bowl in the foreground and the disconsolate farmers in the background. Without Kambei, it is unlikely that the farmers could have found anyone else who could have helped.
Kambei recruits a small but superb group of samurai, including Katsushirô, a young and apparently well-to-do samurai (not only are his clothes a bit nicer than the others, but he is able to toss a number of coins to the peasants when their last of their rice is stolen) who wants to be his disciple; Gorobei, who joins because he finds Kambei fascinating; Heihachi (played by Kurosawa regular Minoru Chiaki), a good natured, humorous samurai found by Gorobei while chopping wood for a meal; Shichirôji, an old companion of Kambei’s, who is, like him, a survivor; and Kyûzô, a master swordsman and killing machine who joins for reasons that are never explained. And then there is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a swordsman who is most definitely not a samurai either by training, birth, or self-discipline. Although the others are at first hesitant to accept him, he proves himself to be an utterly fearless and a fierce fighter, as well as the essential mediator between samurai and farmers. He is also revealed to have been born a farmer’s son, making him a link between the samurai and the farmers.
The farmers are not as sharply delineated as the samurai, but there are a number we get to know extremely well, especially the three played by regulars in Kurosawa films: Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya, in his first appearance in a Kurosawa film), Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara), and Yohei (the mournful-faced Bokuzen Hidari).
The technical innovations in the film have had a continuous impact on film and even on television. The TV series Friday Night Lights and Caprica are examples of literally hundreds of shows or movies indebted to Kurosawa. Like all of Kurosawa’s films from Seven Samurai on, both series utilize three cameras. The technique originated in Seven Samurai and was perfected in Kurosawa’s next film, I Live in Fear (aka Record of a Living Being). In the film’s various action scenes Kurosawa wanted to capture as much of the action as possible, largely for purposes of continuity in editing. And the results were indeed spectacular. The multi-camera setup allowed some wonderful editing choices; it allowed him to be, as Joan Mellen as pointed out, the true heir to Sergei Eisenstein, in that he was able to tease out the full potential in a montage. Kambei notches an arrow and releases it; cut to an arrow striking home in the back of a bandit. Kikuchiyo slashes at a rider; cut to a body hitting the ground. A bandit is knocked off his horse; the fall to the ground is captured by three cuts. As commentators have noted, nothing like this was being done in Hollywood.
The three camera setup made this possible. Furthermore, in using them he made an additional discovery. Utilizing multiple cameras allowed scenes to run through their entirety with complete continuity for all three cameras. As the practice evolved, the “A” camera would capture the primary line of sigh, while the “B” camera would be set at a 90 degree angle from the “A”. The “C” camera, if used, would film at a slightly different angle form the “A” camera, providing a variety of interesting choices in the editing process. The other major benefit of using multiple cameras was that actors had to play towards one another instead of a camera. The acting became more natural, more like stage acting.
Another technical innovation was using slow motion at key moments to intensify the action. To many this will not seem all that unique, since hundreds of movies and television episodes have utilized slow motion in the same way. But this is one of the reasons why Stephen Prince, in the quote noted at the beginning of this essay, called this one of the most influential films ever made. What Kurosawa originated has been used again and again. When Kambei mortally wounds the kidnapper who then he runs out of the hut, we watch a series of cuts of the kidnapper running in slow motion spliced with reaction shots of Kikuchiyo filmed at normal speed. The effect is impressive. Later, when Kyûzô kills his opponent in a duel, we watch the dead man fall slowly over onto the ground.
These two scenes were key in creating the grammar of modern screen violence. In fact, if you take these slow-motion scenes just mentioned and the Eisensteinian montage from the battle scenes, and then add in the end of Throne of Blood, where Toshiro Mifune is struck or barely missed by an absolutely staggering number of arrows, and finally combine all of them with the duel in Sanjuro, in which the title character (played by Mifune) with one blow strikes his opponent’s heart, creating a huge torrent of blood, and you get all of the elements that would later show up in directors like Arthur Penn, Samuel Fuller, and Sam Peckinpah. There was nothing in the stylized endings of Bonnie and Clyde or The Wild Bunch that had not already been seen in Kurosawa.
Seven Samurai is, in short, movie magic. An entire film course could be taught around analyzing all its aspects. But its greatest virtue, despite its stunning technical brilliance, is how truly entertaining it is. After viewing it — even once, but especially if seeing it many times — one is imprinted with a host of unforgettable images, such as:
- Yohei slinking off to safety behind a post when Kambei asks Katsushirô to test prospective samurai by striking them with a stick.
- Kambei charging the rebellious farmers, his sword held low, when they throw down their spears and refuse to help.
- The six samurai and their farmer guides high on rocks as they look down upon Kikuchiyo — not yet one of them — holds a fish he has caught up with his bare hands up over his head in triumph.
- A woman who lives with the thieves seeing smoke from a fire that threatens them all, beginning to cry out, then a vengeful smile crosses her face, and finally an expression of peace at what is about to happen.
- Kikuchiyo, mortally wounded, killing the bandit chief with his last strength, and falling on the bridge, his legs sprayed, apart, the rain gradually washing the mud off his exposed buttocks.
- Kikuchiyo’s passionate speech in which he condemns the farmers in the most comprehensive fashion, and then equally condemns the samurai for making them what they are.
- Kambei and Kikuchiyo in the stream in front of a burning mill, the latter holding the baby handed to him by its dying mother, looking in horror at Kambei, exclaiming through his sobs, “This was me!”
- The final unforgettable moment of seeing the outline of the graves of the four dead samurai — Kikuchiyo in death considered one of them — as Fumio Hayasaka’s gorgeous samurai theme plays over the final image.
This may well be, as those noted above have said, the greatest Japanese film and perhaps even the greatest film ever made. It may be more; it may be the perfect film.
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This essay was originally published on 14 October 2010.