Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece has resonated with filmmakers and filmgoers for more than six decades — here’s why.
When Steven Spielberg eulogized Akira Kurosawa (1910 – 98) as “the pictorial Shakespeare of our time,” he almost certainly was thinking of Seven Samurai, the great Japanese filmmaker’s tale of honor among warriors in 16th-century Japan. Kurosawa’s stunning 1954 epic is one of those absolutely indispensable movies that practically everyone has heard about, regardless of whether they’ve actually seen it. Indeed, even if you haven’t, you may think you’ve seen it, given its strong influence on so many other films and filmmakers over the past six decades.
By turns sage and savage, avuncular and authoritarian, Takashi Shimura (star of Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru) heads the ensemble cast as Kambei, an unemployed samurai who agrees to help peasants defend their village against periodic pillaging by marauding bandits.
Even if the pay is meager — a few handfuls of rice — Kambei is able to recruit hired swords who have little else to do after being cast adrift by the lords they once served.
By appealing to their pride, sense of justice, and respect for tradition, he attracts such tough customers as Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a taciturn professional who never wastes a word or gesture; Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a lethally precise archer who doesn’t aim to please; and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a bearish hothead who takes great pains to hide his less-than-noble ancestry.
Seven Samurai shows Kurosawa at the top of his form, demonstrating rigorous control of his medium with an inspired balance of formal precision and kinetic exuberance. His epic opens with rapid panning shots of bandits riding over hills and climaxes with the thundering chaos of a rain-soaked, mud-and-blood battle. In between, there is scarcely a single shot that does not contain motion.
Even when people in the frame are stationary, the camera itself often glides, thrusts, and recoils like a restless animal. More than a half-century after its initial release, Seven Samurai still makes most other action movies seem positively pokey.
Appropriately enough, this classic by the artist often called “the most Western of Japanese filmmakers” is, at heart, an old-fashioned Hollywood western in even older-fashioned Japanese regalia. That’s not at all surprising when you consider that throughout his career Kurosawa made no apologies for embracing the style and substance of “foreigners” as diverse as John Ford, Dashiell Hammett, and Vincent Van Gogh. (He depicted the latter as a workaholic sage — played by Martin Scorsese, no less! — in his 1990 anthology film, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.)
A lifelong student of Shakespeare, he audaciously reimagined Macbeth as Throne of Blood (1957), an epic drama of medieval warfare; employed Hamlet as the basis for The Bad Sleep Well (1960), a contemporary drama of revenge; and reconstituted King Lear as Ran (1985), his last incontestable masterpiece.
(Turnabout is fair play: Just as Seven Samurai inspired John Sturges’ 1960 The Magnificent Seven, Kurosawa’s 1950 classic Rashomon was reformulated as The Outrage, Martin Ritt’s 1964 western starring Paul Newman. Sergio Leone’s unauthorized 1964 remake of Kurosawa’s 1961 work Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, helped turn Clint Eastwood into a superstar. And George Lucas has acknowledged that he drew heavily on Kurosawa’s 1958 The Hidden Fortress while plotting his first Star Wars adventure.)
Despite his borrowings from other cultures, Kurosawa remained mindful of his roots. While he refused to err on the side of romanticized nostalgia in his re-creations of Japan’s turbulent past, he viewed social changes, technological advancements, and other breaks from tradition as mixed blessings. It is worth remembering that in Seven Samurai, the 16th-century swordsman who best represents the ancient bushido code of honor is felled by a rifle shot.
This essay originally appeared on Joe Leydon’s The Moving Picture Blog.
From the October 2016 issue.