Seven Reasons Why Seven Samurai Is Amazing
Kambei: Action is a means to an end.
In Seven Samurai, and in Kurosawa’s movies in general, there is no action gratia action. If there is a sword fight, there is a reason. If there is a slaughter on a city street, it isn’t just to tide us over until the next bloodbath. Every action sequence, fight scene, or battle does one of two things (and frequently both) – they either define or develop the characters involved, or they move the story forward.
We first meet Kambei, who becomes the leader of the group, almost by accident. The villagers, Rikichi, Manzo and Yohei have nearly given up and are about to leave the city destitute when they spot a crowd. They fight their way to the middle and see a ronin shaving his head. The ronin is disguising himself as a monk so he can get close to a shack where a bandit holds a young child hostage. The plan succeeds, the bandit has the wind knocked out of him, and the child is reunited with his mother. The whole sequence defines Kambei as level headed during times of stress, and decisive when action needs to be taken.
On the edge of the crowd is Kikuchiyo, though we don’t know that yet. Notice how Mifune makes his presence known despite not having any lines and not even being central to the shot. We learn one very important thing about him during the scene – he is what might be known now as a samurai fanboy. But his body language is complex enough, and so easily read, that we get a good sense of both the awe and the contempt he holds for samurai.
This is just one scene. Each of the other five samurai are introduced in a similar fashion that befits their personality and tells us something about them without the bother of backstory or goofy expositional dialogue. Kyuzo we meet during a duel with a younger less mature samurai, who insists that their duel with wooden practice swords was a draw, while Kyuzo insists he was the clear winner. This enrages the man, and a real duel ensues against Kyuzo’s wishes – you can guess who comes out alive. The incident tells us more about Kyuzo than any origin story ever could in just a single scene.
Even when the scene in question isn’t necessarily “action packed,” Kurosawa is still always moving us forward. It’s the primary reason that the film, at 207 minutes, doesn’t really feel long – it never stops engaging us, not just with amazing visuals and a ripping good yarn, but with characters that are always front and center. Once the story gets rolling, Kurosawa never stops, and every scene advances one of the many stories being told while also building toward the inevitable confrontation with the bandits. By the end of that runtime, we feel the losses and the gains so much more because they have become personal.
Shichiroji: Don’t Let Anything Get You Down
Is there even one scene where Shiciroji is any less than enthused? He’s smiling the entire movie, almost as if nobody told him that he might die before it’s over.
Seven Samurai is my interpretation of what Tarantino describes as a “hang-out movie.” These guys are enjoying themselves as often as they are dreading what’s about to happen. The only one who really seems to get that everyone might dies, including the villagers, is Kambei, and even he seems happy enough to be getting regular meals.
This “attitude” has almost become a given in action movies – is there even one movie in the MCU where anyone takes the threat seriously? But it’s interesting here because the samurai’s attitude is contrasted with that of the villagers, who are scared to death the entire time.
This difference, between the villagers and the samurai, is reinforced in the final scene. Katsushiro, shot down by the girl he’s been seeing on the fly, wanders off dejected and Kambei muses about how they, the samurai, are the real losers. The villagers won – they have their lives and their livelihood and the threat is gone (at least until another one comes). But the samurai, who know only battles and the poverty between, will continue on the way the were before. Note that Kambei says this with almost half a smile on his face. He accepts it. It’s the boy who’s going to have to learn it.
Gorobei: Details, Details, Details!
The village that was used to film in was built specifically for the film. The cast, from the leads on down to the extras that fill out the population of the village, were given profiles describing who their characters were, what family they belonged to, how they were related to the other “villagers,” and what their role in the village was, along with elaborate histories and personality maps. They were all asked (and knowing Kurosawa, forced) to live in that village during he entire shoot.
What does all this mean? Possibly nothing. It certainly isn’t the only thing that makes the movie great, nor is it the primary thing. But it is something. By the end, you’ll feel that you know the layout of the village, and not just because a map is shown multiple times. It feels real, like a place that actually exists out there in time and space. The village seems to have existed long before we start the movie, and it seems that it will last long after we stop.
Miyazaki, another Japanese master who exerts a control over his films that is often described as “tyrannical,” regularly animates things in the backgrounds and edges of his frame that don’t really “need” to be animated. But that extra effort (and in animation it is some effort) gives his films a sense of life that would be lacking otherwise. We’re used to seeing static backgrounds in animation, just as we’re used to seeing sets and miniatures and extras reused in multiple roles. If Kurosawa took those shortcuts, we wouldn’t fault him, but he doesn’t and the effect is undeniable – the film has a feeling of authenticity that it wouldn’t if he did it the “easy” way.
Heihachi: Story Speaks Louder Than Backstory
In the entire movie we only really learn three things about the characters that predate the beginning of the story. 1) Kambei and Shichiroji were officers during the civil war and found themselves on the losing side. 2) Kikuchiyo used to be a farmer. 3) Rikichi’s wife left him for a bandit. The latter two result in two powerful scenes, but Kurosawa and his co-writers don’t rely on these revelations – they are meant to add depth, not to prop up thin characterizations.
Consider two characters – Heihachi and Kyuzo. What do we ever know about these two men? We know that Heihachi has fallen on hard times and now resorts to cutting wood with his sword skills. All we really know about Kyuzo is that he’s not someone to mess with. In theory there is nothing about them that would make them stick in the memory like they do. In a lesser movie they would be there only so that there can be seven samurai.
Why then do they resonate? Because of stellar performances that are full of nuance, sure, but more so because during the course of this story we get to know them as they are now. Kurosawa and Co, master screenwriters that they were, don’t give us any more than we need to know who each samurai (and villager) is. Perhaps there is some grand point about how who we are now is more important than who we were, but if that was intended Kurosawa is subtle enough that it’s up to anyone’s interpretation.
Kikuchiyo: Toshiro Mifune (and the rest of the wonderful cast)
Kurosawa had two great collaborators in his career – Shimura and Mifune. As great as Shimura is here (and he is Tony the Tiger Gurrr-rate!), this might very well be the greatest role Mifune ever played for anyone. (I’ll be honest – I love Mifune in everything I’ve seen him in, but I don’t think any of his non-Kurosawa work comes close to what they achieved together. But that’s just me.)
I don’t even know what adjective I would use to describe Kikuchiyo, or Mifune’s portrayal. Layered? Complex? Complicated? I have no idea, I just know that Mifune is often projecting about three or four emotions and insecurities at once and I have no idea how he does it so well. Consider one of his best scenes in the film – his speech about farmers and samurai. It’s well written, but even in an okay actor’s mouth it would sound flat and obvious. But Mifune sells his anger at the samurai, his disdain for the farmers, and his lack of self respect for being the latter and wanting to be the former.
Consider now a less lauded scene – once the group finally accepts Kikuchiyo, they decide to just use that name (which he stole from a slain noble man) since he can’t remember his birth name. One of them says something about the name fitting him and the group laughs – Mifune looks on at the group, unsure if they are laughing with him or at him. But he doesn’t respond with his trademarked rage, but rather the look of someone who is outside of an inside joke. It’s a small moment, but it’s easy to forget that even in small moments, Mifune could sell an emotion with minimal effort. It’s all the more impressive considering how much room Kurosawa gave him to improvise.
But don’t think this is just the Mifune Show – every actor gives a great performance. Even roles that are too small to get names, like the gamblers at the inn in the early scenes, are thoroughly entertaining and make the world of the film feel real and expansive. Oddly, I think the only remake that get’s this aspect of the original down in A Bug’s Life. The movie may be named after the samurai, but it’s not just their movie.
Kyuzo: The Power of Restraint
It has become standard practice in an action movie, and these days seemingly every movie is some form of action movie (even the rom-coms), that even if the movie isn’t wall-to-wall action (like The Raid), it opens with a big set-piece of some sort. Star Trek Into Darkness had the chase scene on the pink planet, The Dark Knight had the bank robbery, Captain America: The Winter Soldier had the boat, and on and on. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s interesting to compare those to this.
The film opens with bandits riding over a hill, spotting the village, deciding to come back after the harvest, riding off, concluding with a villager rising up from offscreen, cowering in fear. He returns to the village and tells everyone what they heard, which results in the visit to the Old Man (that’s seriously what he’s called) and the inevitable scouting mission.
By my count, and I may be mistaken, it is nearly 40 minutes into the movie before we get any real action – and even then it’s brief. The first real action sequence with life-or-death stakes (aside from Kyuzo’s introduction) doesn’t occur until after the two hour mark. Kurosawa directly addresses this in one of the supplements – he says that a movie shouldn’t start with an exciting scene, or something thrilling, but with a calm, unimpressive scene. This sounds like odd wisdom, but it reflects the restraint that he exercises throughout the film. Three hours of non-stop action would be exactly what many who haven’t seen the film fear it will be – boring and monotonous. What keeps it from being either is a whole other point…
Katsushiro: What Kind Of Movie Is This?
When I tell people about Seven Samurai, which happens a lot since it’s my favorite movie ever, they inevitably ask me what it’s about. And I usually offer some variant of “Well, it’s an action movie, but more of and adventure, but also kind of a drama, and a little bit of a love story, and it’s also really funny, etc, etc.” (This has only ever caused one person to want to see it. I’ve had better success with “It’s like The Magnificent Seven.”)
But honestly, this isn’t a movie that is easily classified. Obviously it’s an action movie, considering how frequently it has been copied and imitated by other action movies. But there’s really not that much action until the last third. It‘s hilarious, but at times extremely sad. (I cried three times this time. Last time it was four, but I can’t remember what part incited the fourth.) It’s got a love story, it’s got a redemption arc, and it’s got a lot to say about class divisions in society.
What makes this movie so great, more than just about any other thing, is that it doesn’t ever feel forced and it never tries to beat us over the head with any “message” or “moral,” but I feel like it has so much to say about life, about society, about humanity, and about morals and ethics, but it never pushes any moral on us. Kurosawa, like the seven honorable men of his masterpiece, believed that actions speak louder than words.
So maybe it is just an action movie.
Author’s Note: This essay was originally written as part of the LET’S DISSOLVE THE CRITERION COLLECTION essays over on The Dissolve.