I had seen Akira Kurosawa’s classic film several times before a recent viewing, prompted by the central place in Helen DeWitt’s tour-de-force novel The Last Samurai. The first time was at the old and lamented Orson Welles theater in Cambridge at a Japanese Film Festival in the seventies. Much of my love of foreign films I learned in those seats – but that’s a story for another time.
The set up for The Seven Samurai has become almost standard for the genre. It’s the late feudal period (16th Century) and the country is rife with lawlessness, bandits marauding the villagers and farmers who are at their mercy. Masterless samurai (ronin) also roam the countryside hoping to find honorable ways to make a living, and feed themselves. The citizens of this particular village are nearing the time when their crops are due for harvest – and they know that as a sign that the bandits will soon appear and strip them of the fruits of their hard labor. They are desperate, and short of mass suicide, look for ways to protect themselves. They seek the counsel of their village elder, Gisaku who suggests hiring “hungry samurai” because “even bears come out of the forest when they’re hungry”. Food, what little there is of it, is all they have to offer. He warns them though that samurai are like seeds: the strong ones are beyond control, and the willing ones are weaklings. But ah the hungry ones…
In the city seeking to recruit their protectors, the ‘hiring committee’ witnesses an act of selfless heroism, when a samurai (Kambei) rescues a kidnapped child. Kambei shows all the traits of a great leader: organizational skills, an ability to seek and consider advice, and the ability to inspire followers, which he immediately does when Katsushirō, who also witnesses the rescue, begs to become Kambei’s disciple. Katsushirō comes from a line of warriors, but is young and unproven. When the farmers ask Kambei for their help, he unexpectedly agrees. Seven seems the number he has decided on to protect the village. Kambei puts Katsushirō to use, aiding him to complete the band of seven. To test the skill and worthiness of the prospective recruits, he has Katsushirō stand out of sight at the entranceway to the hut where they have set up shop. Katsushirō is tasked to knock the samurai over the head as they come through the door (this is the most referenced scene in DeWitt’s novel, a many layered device). In this way, four more are recruited: Gorobei, who is not fooled at all because of his clever awareness; Heihachi, not much of a skilled warrior but an earthy, self-effacing and good-natured companion (discovered chopping wood to pay for a meal, he refers to himself as a “Fencer of the Wood Cut School”); Shichirōji, whom Kambei respects as they have fought together in the past. They both are increasingly weary of the samurai life. Lastly, there is Kyūzō, a master swordsman, dedicated only to the perfection of his skills. He is found reluctantly accepting the challenge of a far inferior samurai. No contest. Although Kyūzō at first shows no interest, he joins them at the last instant. Young Katsushirō is pushed for inclusion by the villagers, and Kambei relents and agrees. They are now six, but the time has come so they leave for the village. Time is running short. Along the way, they are followed by a bufoon-like Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who seems to provide nothing to recommend him.
The six arrive at the village (with Kikuchiyo following along), where the farmers cower in their huts. Although they have hired them as protectors, they fear them and fear for their daughters chastity. The samurai’s sense of dignity has been insulted. Here, Kikuchiyo saves the day by a ploy and rebukes the villagers into seeing their shameful behavior. Kikuchiyo has shown his worthiness by acting as a sort of bridge between the farmers and the samurai – he’s of the people, with no lineage (although he makes an easily discovered and clumsy attempt to prove he has samurai cred), but he has proved his worth in others ways. De facto, the samurai are now seven. Kikuchiyo is the ‘keep it real’ factor, also shaming the samurai when they get too high on their horses and castigate the farmers for what they see as past misdeeds. Kikuchiyo tells them they just don’t get it. The farmers have to make a living in any way they can to survive (much like the ronin themselves) in the hard times that are upon them.
The samurai plan their strategy, make fortifications and prepare for the siege. Ultimately victorious, the seven are reduced to three at film’s end, with shots of the ‘boot’ hill with four graves – in this case four graves with swords as their cross. Lovely shots of the farmers tending to their harvesting and planting, singing, restored to life.
Such a groundbreaking film. How many films can you name that follow this broad outline: a band of heroes (or anti-heroes) are put together to defend good and defeat evil (or to do evil and defeat good). With a love interest thrown in. This is the Japanese Western – or rather our westerns are our version of the Japanese samurai film. The most common reference of course is to The Magnificent Seven, a remake/homage Whether ex-cons, scam artists and heisters, cowboys, or samurai, Kurosawa blazed the trail.
And Helen DeWitt referenced the film reverently and effectively in her magnum opus. More on that.