PG Cooper’s Movie of the Month: Seven Samurai (1954)

Posted: July 31, 2012 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Movie of the Month

Release date: April 26th, 1954

Running time: 3 hours and 27 minutes

Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, and Isao Kimura

I’ve been waiting to see Seven Samurai for over a year. After hearing so much praise for the film, I was extremely interested, so I put a hold on the film in July of 2011. Before the film arrived, I experienced other Akira Kurosawa classics, Yojimbo and Rashomon, which are brilliant films. In addition, the movie ranking website flickchart listed Seven Samurai as the greatest film I’d never seen, something I recently confessed to. Needless to say, my expectations for the film were sky high. But I’m happy to say Seven Samurai more than met said expectations.

The film opens with a group of bandits declaring that when the time is right, they will attack and raid a local farming village. One of the villagers over hears this, and brings the tragic news back home. Naturally, the villagers panic, unsure of what to do. They consult the village patriarch (Kokuten Kodo) who instructs them to find and hire samurai to defend them. A group of men go searching and eventually find a wise and elderly samurai known as Kambei (Takashi Shimura) who agrees to defend their village at minimal costs. Kambei manages to recruit five other samurai; archer and second in command Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), Kambei’s lieutenant and friend Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), master swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), and a young kid named Katsushiro (Isao Kimura). In addition, the group are followed by a man claiming to be a samurai named Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune). Initially, Kikuchiyo is rejected, but he is persistent and eventually proves his worth to the others. Together, the seven group together to fight off bandits and protect the village.

Though the story is simple, one should consider the time Seven Samurai was released. Seven Samurai is credited as being the first film about a group of individuals joining together to achieve a common purpose, inspiring future films with similar subject matter, from The Magnificent Seven all the way to this year’s The Avengers. Roger Ebert also credits Seven Samurai for creating the now common trope where a hero is introduced through an action scene unrelated to the main plot. The film provides other story innovations as well. For example, while plot points such as the reluctant hero and the romance between the hero and the local had been used before, Kurosawa and his screenwriters were the first to put those elements together. Taking out the innovations the film made, the story is still worthy of respect despite its simplicity. There’s a certain purity to the story and it’s told in a way that’s constantly engaging.

The cast is great, with all the major talent being put into the titular group. Though all seven are great, a few stand out. Takashi Shimura is great as the leader of the group. He displays a lot of wisdom, but not in a way that makes him feel boring. In fact there’s a sense of levity to his character that I appreciated. Daisuke Kato also does a great job as Kambei’s friend and you can feel the relationship between the two. I also thought Seiji Miyaguchi was a total badass as the master swordsman Kyuzo. Though despite the strength of the cast, none of them are on the same level as Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo. Kikuchiyo is easily the most unique of the group. Not a true samurai, Kikuchiyo is loud, obnoxious, arrogant, and eccentric. But beneath that, there’s more to his character. Kikuchiyo is not very confident and over compensates for his lack of skills. Several of his personality traits come from his own insecurities. Kikuchiyo also has the most interesting back story of the group. Mifune pulls all of this off flawlessly and continues to make himself one of my favourite actors.

At its core, Seven Samurai is a film about class, difference, and tradition. For example, while the villagers need the samurai for protection, there’s a class difference that puts them apart and creates tension. This is further explored when the young samurai falls in love with one of the local village girls. The Kikuchiyo character also helps explore these themes. He isn’t a traditional samurai, but ultimately becomes essential to the group. The ending pays all these themes off in a very satisfying way. I won’t say what happens, but I will say I was pleased with how things turned out and I admire how the film never really says  if following tradition should be followed in absolute detail or not. It should be noted that these themes are handled in a subtle way and it never feels like the film is going out of its way to include them. In fact one of the film’s biggest strengths is that if you ignored these themes entirely, Seven Samurai would still be a great film. The characters are all interesting and the story engaging that the film works on a purely storytelling level. The film’s massive runtime lends to an epic feel, and yet the film is also paced in such a way that the three and a half hours fly by.

The film is also full of amazing action set pieces. There’s an awkward clumsiness to a lot of the action, but this is deliberate. In real life, big battles like the ones depicted in the film would be messy and I love that Seven Samurai shows that. The production values are also quite high (Seven Samurai was, at the time, the most ambitious undertaking in Japanese filmmaking). The cinematography is gorgeous and I love the music from composer Fumio Hayasaka. I’ve also mentioned the great pace, which is owed in large part to the strong editing.

When it comes to Kurosawa films, I may still prefer Rashomon, but that doesn’t mean Seven Samurai isn’t a brilliant film; it is. Seven Samurai is a sweeping epic, big in scale yet still with interesting and intimate characters. It’s a technical marvel and a game changer for filmmaking. Some may be intimidated by a few factors (ex: it’s black and white, in Japanese, and 3 and a half hours long) but I urge anyone who hasn’t seen it to push back these factors and give it a chance. I feel there’s enough there to satisfy the casual viewer, and any film fan will likely love the film just as much as I did, if not more so.

Rating: A+

PG’s Great Movies

Aliens (added January 27th, 2012)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (added April 28th, 2012)

A Clockwork Orange (added December 19th, 2011)

Collateral (added September 29th, 2011)

The Godfather Part II (added March 29th, 2012)

In The Loop (added November 26th, 2011)

Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 (added February 27th, 2012)

Leon: The Professional (added May 31st, 2012)

Magnolia (added June 29th, 2012)

Seven Samurai (added July 31st, 2012)

Comments
  1. ianthecool says:

    Glad you like it. I’d choose this over Rashoman myself. Rashoman has a great message, but there’s more to latch onto here.

  2. r361n4 says:

    Great review, its always interesting to go back to movies like this and realize just how much of modern cinema comes from these older films. I knew about the connection to the Magnificent seven (It’s essentially a remake) but I didn’t even think about it in terms of The Avengers, interesting observation

    I’m still disappointed that I haven’t gotten around to seeing any of Kurasawa’s work yet but this will probably be my first when I finally do.

  3. Great review, PG. I found that it was rather overlong, but it’s still a very well done film, and of course its influence can’t be overstated.

  4. BrikHaus says:

    Good review. It really is an excellent film, and certainly Kurosawa’s best. I agree with all of your points except this one: “Seven Samurai is credited as being the first film about a group of individuals joining together to achieve a common purpose…”. This idea has been in literature forever, and is a trope as old as storytelling itself, such as Greek mythology of gathering the heroes for the Trojan War. Movies: how about the old westerns like John Ford’s 1939 “Stagecoach”? But that doesn’t detract from how great Seven Samurai is. It is an undeniable classic. It should be watched by anyone with an interest in films or Japanese culture.

    • pgcooper1939 says:

      Well, yeah, the trope had existed long before in literature, but Seven Samurai is credited as the first film to bring the idea to the table (not necessarily saying it’s true).

      You’re comparison to Stagecoach seems valid, but I barely remember anything about that movie.

  5. […] Cooper has his own classic film director to talk about, or at least one of his classic films. His movie of the month is Akira Kurosawa’s influential Seven Samurai, easily the best-known and most acclaimed film […]

  6. vinnieh says:

    Great review, this movie is going on my watchlist now after reading this post.

  7. […] Samurai (1954) – blog – trailer […]

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