‘Seven Samurai’ Spawned a Subgenre All of Its Own

Celebrating its 60th birthday this year, Akira Kurosawa's superb and influential Japanese adventure film is still as impressive as ever.

It’s hard to overstate the global impact of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, a sublime Japanese export that had, and still has, great influence over the international filmmaking community. Critics rave about the film, and it frequently features in lists of the best films ever made, often occupying prime position. Filmmakers as generically diverse as Ingmar Bergman and Steven Spielberg have tripped over themselves to convey just how important Kurosawa’s vision was in shaping their own cinematic minds.

Seven Samurai even spawned an American re-make of sorts: 1960’s excellent The Magnificent Seven, a western revision so successful that a thoroughly impressed Kurosawa presented The Magnificent Seven’s director John Sturges with a ceremonial Samurai sword, a token that represented a cross-cultural nod of professional, mutual respect.

Seven Samurai is a period action drama par excellence. Set in 16th century Japan, it tells the story of a poor village of farmers, subjected to an annual rampage by marauding bandits. Vulnerable, and lacking the constitution to endure another attack during next year’s harvest, the villagers decide to enlist the help of fighting men – the iconic Samurai — to fend off the next inevitable onslaught.

With little to offer in monetary terms, the call goes out that payment for services rendered will be by food only, so the village’s scouts are instructed to find “hungry Samurai”. This attracts a rather rag-tag bunch of warriors, who are initially treated with suspicion by the village’s peasants. In time, however, they come to unify, all prepared to fight valiantly to repel the savage thieves and bandits.

Despite the inherent heroism displayed by the Samurai, Kurosawa (himself descended from a Samurai clan) is nevertheless prepared to show the fallibility of the brave fighters; for whilst order, normality and stability may be restored to the farmers and their families should victory be forthcoming, the Samurai are conversely portrayed as rather lonely and melancholic wanderers, with no roots, and no sense of settlement or true contentment. For all their flaws, though, they are most definitely a force for good.

So what gives Seven Samurai such enduring appeal? Perhaps it’s a combination of the timeless nature of battle, and the film’s tendency to polarise each group in the narrative into good and evil, despite Kurosawa’s aforementioned examination of the flaws of the Samurai, and their brutal tendencies. With the film’s lines of sympathy so clearly defined, its function is essentially to deconstruct human conflict – which is always more multifaceted and complicated than cinema usually portrays — in order to allow the audience the simple pleasure of rooting for the heroes over the villains. In this context, “simple” isn’t meant in a pejorative sense either; The Magnificent Seven is exactly the same in this regard, and is all the more thrilling for it.

Seven Samurai is also the proto men-on-a-mission movie, creating a blueprint that has become so recognised that it spawned a subgenre all of its own. Perhaps it’s hard to believe, but iconic war films such as Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen may not have existed in their final form without the trailblazing narrative innovation of Seven Samurai. (Despite the fact that Kurosawa has occasionally been called an “un-Japanese director” – in relation to appearing to have a Western approach to filmmaking – I’d argue that the themes in Seven Samurai speak a universal cinematic language, regardless of cultural differences between countries).

Visually, the film is wonderful. Asakazu Nakai’s extraordinarily atmospheric black and white photography leaves an indelible mark. The climactic mud-sodden battle sequences are breathtakingly rendered, and it wasn’t until Conrad Hall’s terrific cinematography in Road to Perdition almost 50years later that another film used torrential backlit rain so artfully.

Kurosawa’s technical proficiency is both impeccable and hugely influential: one inventive action sequence features some beautiful slow-motion, a visual rarity in 1954; it’s no surprise, therefore, to hear that Sam Peckinpah had Kurosawa in mind when the former shot his balletic and violent western The Wild Bunch in 1969. Kurosawa’s quick sense of pace is unusual for the time, too; coupled with his fluid camera movement (all the more impressive seeing as Seven Samurai was shot almost entirely on location), the action scenes are wonderfully choreographed and effective.

Overall, the film has lost little of its impressive power. Despite its age, it’s still as entertaining and exciting as ever. Like Spielberg and his epic-length Schindler’s List, Kurosawa doesn’t allow the drama to sag, so Seven Samurai’s long running time (a whopping 198 minutes) never seems an issue — the film flies by, in fact. Perhaps it’s testament to Kurosawa’s skill that even in today’s climate of ever-more excessive cinematic spectacle, few contemporary adventure and action films surpass Seven Samurai for quality and technique.

This 60th Anniversary Edition from the BFI has been digitally re-mastered in HD, and the result is terrific, with the film now looking clean and sharp. Extras include The Art of Kurosawa (2013, 47 minutes), a documentary about the master filmmaker; the film’s original Japanese trailer; the option to include the intermission period from the film’s initial theatrical release, and a generous and glossy 16-page accompanying booklet containing essays, biographies, cast, full credits and an original review.

RATING 10 / 10