In 1954 enough famous and influential titles came out to make one wonder if the planets had wandered into some celestial alignment that delivered cosmological inspiration to moviemakers everywhere. That twelve-month span saw the release of such enduring pop favorites as Sabrina, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Wild One, of Carmen Jones and the Cukor-Garland version of A Star Is Born, of Richard III and Johnny Guitar, of the international classics La Strada and Sansho the Bailiff; and of two towering Hollywood monuments, On the Waterfront and Rear Window. But as good—or as great—as any of those movies may be, all of them are overshadowed (and most of them are dwarfed) by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s martial epic remains one of the two or three great action films of all time. With its massive emotional range, dazzling technical virtuosity, and sensitivity to the natural universe, it remains after nearly fifty years a supreme example of cinema’s power to arouse and astound us.
In 16th Century Japan, an isolated farming hamlet is threatened by a large company of bandits that is pillaging the countryside. In desperation the farmers decide to recruit samurai warriors to defend their village, and though the poverty-stricken peasants can only offer food as compensation, they attract an eclectic band of seven men who accept the challenge for a variety of personal reasons. For all of their virtue and prowess, the samurai make for strange heroes by our lights: all of their actions are undercut by a whiff of futility, and their only sense of belonging comes from the temporary alliances they form in battle. Kurosawa also upends the stereotype of the farmer as a simple tiller of the earth: his peasants are psychologically stifled, secretly murderous creatures.
The story’s complications arise from the social and class differences between samurai and farmer, and these tensions play themselves out over the course of Seven Samurai’s 208-minute running time. As the samurai turn the village into a fortress and form its denizens into an army, it’s left to Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the samurais’ leader, to maintain order between the two clans as they (and we) await the return of the brigands. Kambei’s task is made no easier by the volatile personalities surrounding him. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a besotted pretender to samurai status, is secretly goaded by the rage and shame of being a farmer’s son. The farmer Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) is a young firebrand whose temper is constantly stoked by the memory of a wife snatched away from him by the bandits. Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), the youngest of the samurai, is tentatively accepted into the group as Kambei’s apprentice, but his rawness leads him into an affair with one of the village’s girls that threatens the group’s stability.
There are other characters and subplots, equally simple in conception, that are saved from cliche by the compassion that Kurosawa sheds on them. The most distrustful and pigheaded of the farmers is allowed the dignity of his pain when his greatest fear—having his daughter seduced by a samurai—becomes a reality. (Seven Samurai has a modern—and surprisingly bitter—sexual edge, most vividly expressed in the languorously extended shot of a woman driven half-mad by brutality as she seizes the chance to avenge herself on her captors.) Even the bandits’ deaths are made into ghastly, appalling affairs by the villagers’ ravenous appetite for revenge.
Seven Samurai contains some of the most dazzling battles ever put on film. The movie’s action scenes cover the spectrum of moral and physical complexity, from the waste of life that occurs when samurai’s pride goads him into fighting a suicidal duel, to the climactic battle staged in a freezing rainstorm as the combatants flounder at each other amidst buckets of mud. The movie breathes with alternating energies, from explosive outbursts to supple silences, from scenes of intense grief (some of the deaths in Seven Samurai don’t bear thinking about) to the vision of a higher community that appears when the samurai share their rice with village’s children.
Shot in nearly every type of weather and at all times of day, Seven Samurai is alive to the elements of nature—to cold and rain and dust and flowers. As much as through dialogue, the movie communicates through the sight of a barley field tossing in the wind, slats of firelight playing across the bodies of entwined lovers, a mountain fog through which our eyes strain to discern the shape of a samurai who’s gone missing in action. Seven Samurai is smitten with topography, and its otherworldly settings—a hillside blanketed in luminous flowers, a canyon that looks like it was carved by the hand of God just the day before yesterday—speak with an emotional clarity that erases the distance between movie and viewer.
Kurosawa’s multifaceted story is matched by his complex visual style. Seven Samurai uses deep focus in ways that make Citizen Kane look dramatically inert, with up to three and four layers of equally emphasized activity receding into the frame, and sometimes even jutting out in front of it. (The foreground is often perforated by the tips of bamboo spears, captured in such sharp focus that they look ready to poke us in the eye.) The movie’s group compositions throw character information like confetti at the viewer, with the samurai and farmers responding to events, not in generalized expressions of emotion, but as individuals. Most of all, Seven Samurai is a movie that moves. Kurosawa whisks from scene to scene with a series of elegant wipes, and the script’s ruthless excision of expository dialogue never lets us get impatient. The movie contains so many visual riches that Kurosawa can afford to gloss over some of them: at the climax of a raid on the bandits’ hideout, he cuts away from three eye-popping shots of the burning cabins so quickly that their effect is nearly subliminal.
Only two years earlier Takashi Shimura had starred in Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and it speaks volumes about his range that he could bring to life both the cowed, mortally ill bureaucrat of that film and the strong and vital Kambei. Yet there’s something withheld and self-effacing in his performance here, and most of the other actors follow suit, perhaps out of deference to Kurosawa’s pyrotechnics. The one exception to this, Toshiro Mifune, has been criticized over the years for overplaying with his nose-rubbing and head-scratching and voice like a cat’s angry yowl. But Kikuchiyo serves a firm comic purpose with his Caliban-like volatility, and Mifune has many fine quiet moments, as in Kikuchiyo’s hillside encounter with an unsuspecting bandit. Seven Samurai’s most perfect performance is Seiji Miyaguchi’s as the master swordsman. Miyaguchi’s gaunt cheeks and deadened eyes are perfect attributes for the ascetic Kyuzo, and he delivers a performance as pure as Kurosawa’s conception of the character. One of the film’s most abiding images is that of Kyuzo apparently dozing under a tree moments before he must uncoil himself for battle.
In 1969’s The Wild Bunch Sam Peckinpah would extend Kurosawa’s use of slow-motion, rapid cutting, and telephoto lenses to develop a type of battle scene that not only drew viewers into the action but made them aware of the emotions being released in them by the violence. Beyond that, though, action film directors have shied away from the example of Seven Samurai, as if they think it gauche or dangerous to inflame audiences to a state of such sensuous excitation. A clean, well-lit American remake of Seven Samurai was released in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven, and a comparison of no two other films could be more revealing of the difference between greatness and mediocrity. But John Sturges, who directed The Magnificent Seven, was no guiltier of ignoring the possibilities of the action film than any of today’s filmmakers are. As we face another summer of motion pictures promising us nothing more than those disposable responses known as “thrills,” it’s worth remembering that Akira Kurosawa once captured the convulsive feeling of being alive and crammed it inside of a movie. Seven Samurai is The Portable World.