A small village, barely surviving on its meager rice and barley fields, is beset by bandits. Given a promise of another raid after the harvest season, the villagers desperately plan their defense. Knowing they cannot chase off the bandits on their own, several villagers travel to the nearby town, searching for armed assistance. Through some good fortune the promise of rice, they pull together a small group: battle-weary Kambei, young Katsushiro, prudent Gorobei, good-natured Shichiroji, witty Heihachi, skillful Kyuzo, and wild Kikuchiyo. These are the Seven Samurai.
Made near the apex of his long, productive career, Seven Samurai is among director Akira Kurosawa’s most renowned films–and at nearly three and a half hours long, one of his most imposing. It has found its place in cinema as not only a prime representative of Kurosawa’s many samurai period pieces, but also among the best ever made in the genre by any director. Moreover, Seven Samurai was released in the thick of Japan’s “Golden Age” of cinema in 1954, just a year after such masterpieces as Tokyo Story and Ugetsu, and is still held as equal to the best of the period to this day.
Though much of the beginning of the film is concerned with introducing and recruiting the titular samurai, the rest of the film is concerned with preparing the village’s defenses – with many clashes between the samurai and the villagers, and even between the samurai themselves – and ultimately with fighting off the bandits. The film is a visual marvel, especially during the rain-soaked final battle, and many of the individual shots are as impressive as great paintings. There’s also some great acting on display, especially from the great Toshiro Mifune, who gives perhaps the best performance in his 16-film collaboration with Kurosawa as the hot-headed Kikuchiyo. Seven Samurai doesn’t have a truly false note (though Katsushiro’s romantic subplot may leave something to be desired) and makes its intimidating runtime zip by as entertainingly as possible.
If Seven Samurai’s story sounds a little familiar, it may be because it was remade in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven, transplanted from feudal Japan to rural Mexico, and featuring the likes of Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. Though well-liked and a minor classic in its own right, the western owes an enormous debt to Kurosawa’s film, and has perhaps not stood up as well over time as its predecessor. Indeed, Kurosawa’s influence can be found in many unlikely places. His film Yojimbo was remade (quite nearly shot-for-shot) as another western, A Fistful of Dollars, which catapulted actor Clint Eastwood into international fame. Fans of Star Wars might also find some familiar material in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, which was said to be a primary influence on the legendary blockbuster.
Akira Kurosawa was one of the first Japanese filmmakers to receive substantial international attention, and he made great use of his time of the spotlight. Many of the so-called “New Hollywood” directors (such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola) who changed American cinema forever wouldn’t have gotten to where they are now without the inspiration from films like Seven Samurai. The efficient storytelling and characterization of Kurosawa’s masterpiece can be seen repeated in the likes of Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the rich but highly legible visual style of Seven Samurai surely had some influence on The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.
The great Italian director Federico Fellini only ever saw one film by Akira Kurosawa–Seven Samurai, naturally–but even with his limited exposure, he was confident enough to say that Kurosawa was “the greatest living example of what an author of the cinema should be.” That’s the kind of impact this film had, and continues to have, on the entire international cinematic landscape.