Opening in selected cinemas from 29th October 2021 as part of the BFI’s season celebrating 100 years of Japanese cinema, Seven Samurai (1954) is Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s own favourite film, an epic tale about a village under attack from a group of bandits that hits upon the idea to hire a group of samurai to protect them.
The film starts with one of the villagers overhearing the bandits intentions to steel their crops once they’ve been harvested. He reports back to the village where everyone falls into panic and despair. They seek out the wise old soothsayer for guidance who remembers a similar occasion when a village survived the bandit ran-sackings by employing the services of some samurai, and this is his advice to them.
A group of the villagers therefore set off into town prepared to offer what they have, which isn’t much, in return for the services of the samurai. They are looking in particular for the masterless ones, called ronin, who roam the streets unable to take menial work due to their status. The first samurai recruit Kambei (Takashi Shimur) is seen in action rescuing a hostage situation. Using his craft and guile to disguise himself as a priest he overcomes and kills a crazed kidnapper. He becomes the group’s leader helping to recruit the rest who have to pass an improvised test – basically to avoid getting clubbed over the head when they are invited into a hut. They all manage to deftly do this except for the last one, the drunken rogue Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune). This wannabe samurai, desperate to join the gang, is pushed around and teased by the others because of his drunkenness and his claims to having noble parentage, but he still remains determined to join them.
As the party head off to the village to make preparations for the imminent attack Kikuchiyo continues to follow them and his perseverance finally pays off when they accept him as one of the seven samurai. In the village the tensions are high as they have to contend with having their village occupied by a group of strange samurai whilst knowing these samurai will also train them to protect themselves against the impending attack from the bandits, which will result in an epic battle and fight for their lives.
Akira Kurosawa’s visual mastery and storytelling is beautifully executed. Whilst being an action film, with a remarkable finale battle sequence in the torrential rain, it has a social and moral heart giving us a glimpse into the world of the Japanese samurai warrior placed in juxtaposition against the poor and humble village way of life.
Akira Kurosawa was himself influenced by the great Western films of John Ford and in turn he influenced other classic Western films such as the Magnificent Seven. There are some classy performances most notably from the authoritative Zen like leader Kambei (Takashi Shimur) and who could forget the clowning tics of Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune) wearing one of the most famous hats in cinematic history.
At just under three and a half hours long films don’t get much bigger than this and despite also being in black and white its overall style and pacing make this essential viewing and is rightly touted as one of the best foreign films ever made.
Film: Seven Samurai
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Takashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune, Yoshio Inaba
Genre: Action, Drama`
Run time: 3hr 27min