‘Seven Samurai’ Is a World Cinema Classic, Now Newly Remastered gnewsplus24


As freshmen at New York University’s film school, some chums and I had an unusual greeting. “We live on rice gruel!” we would say if we saw one another around campus. “We’ll make do on millet!” was the reply.

As freshmen at New York University’s film school, some chums and I had an unusual greeting. “We live on rice gruel!” we would say if we saw one another around campus. “We’ll make do on millet!” was the reply.

This back-and-forth comes from an early scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), a movie somewhat force-fed to us on our first day to teach concepts about the language of cinema such as shot/reverse shot and the fourth wall—conventions that today’s students already have in their blood having played with iPhones before they could walk. Though presented as a literal classroom assignment, Seven Samurai’s appropriation as an inside joke among know-it-all 18-year-olds is proof that watching this landmark of world cinema does not feel like homework. Indeed, revisiting the “good guys with a code facing an unwinnable battle” picture for its 70th anniversary, remastered and appearing in cinemas across North America this summer, reminded me that it’s just as fun now as it ever was.


If one had to chisel a Mount Rushmore of so-called foreign films from the influential midcentury period, surely the image of Toshiro Mifune’s mad swordsman Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai would be among the four granite faces, right next to the cloaked figure of death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), Marcello Mastroianni with the fedora and whip from Federico Fellini’s self-mythologizing (1963), and Jean-Pierre Léaud’s truant teen in François Truffaut’s directorial debut The 400 Blows (1959). (For the French nouvelle vague, you could also make the case for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, but I’m picking The 400 Blows because this way they all have numbers in the title.)

Though Kurosawa was already a known quantity internationally after the release of Rashomon (1950), a period drama in which several people recall a violent incident differently depending on their point of view, Seven Samurai was both a domestic success and a ripping-enough yarn—swords! archery! horses! mud! gruel!—to engage the rest of the world.

Japanese cinema of the postwar period was initially reluctant to dig into its samurai storytelling heritage, the notion of blind loyalty to feudal lords being understandably less popular at the time. The two most famous Japanese films released just before and after Seven Samurai remain Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), basically an enormous guilt trip pointed at modernity for letting down their elders, and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954), a nation’s collective apocalyptic nightmare that somehow mutated into a still thriving merchandise line. Seven Samurai is set in the late 1500s, during the Sengoku period of civil war, a chaotic time that found many of the samurai class without masters. Many of these men became mercenaries, but imagine a story in which some of them (seven, if you will) decided to join forces against impossible odds because it was the righteous thing to do. In revisiting classic Japanese heroism but acknowledging the then-current sentiment, the picture had its rice gruel and ate it too.

The tumultuous setting depicted in the film—the most expensive in Japanese history at the time—no doubt resonated with a Japan that was modernizing rapidly, as did the secondary theme, blurring the lines of a previously clear class system. The highborn Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) falling for the farmer’s daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) amid the endless meadows of chrysanthemums, and Mifune’s Kikuchiyo, revealed to be a fraud to the samurai class but one who proves himself in combat, may feel like classic movie characters, but to a postwar Japan in search of a new identity, these transgressions resonated on a much deeper level.

Seven samurai stand amid tall grass holding swords and hats.

A film still from Seven Samurai.Columbia Pictures via Alamy

Seven Samurai has a very simple story that perfectly suits its several high-energy set pieces. The 207-minute epic (that’s about 29 minutes per samurai) is set during a time when the countryside is terrorized by bandits who plunder small villages, depleting their harvests and kidnapping women. Already brutalized villagers, aware that they will soon be targeted again, decide to defend themselves by hiring some outside muscle. But how can they afford to pay (see above: “We live on rice gruel!”)? you may wonder. The wise elder who lives inside a mill with a water wheel providing an incessant warlike beat knows the answer: Don’t just find samurai, “find hungry samurai.”

Timid representatives of the village head to town and witness the bravery and creative thinking of Kambei (Takashi Shimura). They convince him to take the gig, and then he assembles his crew. This includes Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a cold-as-ice swordsman; Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a brilliant tactician; the eager silver-spoon apprentice Katsushiro; and the loose-cannon Kikuchiyo, who, in time, emerges as the real star of the show. (There are two other guys: One is kind of the morale officer, and the other is just Kambei’s pal.) Anyway, if the plot seems familiar, yes, it has been adapted for Western cinema several times, most notably as the gunslinging The Magnificent Seven (both in 1960 and 2016), sci-fi romp Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), and, if you want to stretch it, the dopey comedy Three Amigos! (1986) and the Pixar cartoon A Bug’s Life (1998). Beyond that, a great many standard cinematic tropes have their roots in this movie.

Most obvious is the first act of the film, in which Kambei builds up the team. There’s no need to overly intellectualize it; it’s just fun to watch him size up potential comrades, test them out, and then make his appeal. There’s also a wonderful moment in which we think we’ve got a new addition but the samurai in question shrugs off the approach when he hears there’s no money or fame in the job. Should Disney ever purchase Toho Studios, we can maybe expect a limited streaming series to find out whatever happened to that guy. Anyway, every movie from The Dirty Dozen to The Blues Brothers to The Right Stuff to Ocean’s Eleven to School of Rock owes a lot to Seven Samurai.

Another influential development is how the villagers (and we in the audience) first meet Kambei. There is some tumult in town as a thief has kidnapped a child and barricaded himself inside a building. Kambei cuts off his hair (a very big deal for a samurai), poses as a monk, and then, after a series of badass moves, rescues the child and kills the baddie in slow motion. Introducing the hero through a mini-mission before we get to the real mission is now so common (think every single James Bond movie) that it’s funny to think it had to originate somewhere.

Most of the so-called movie brats of New Hollywood revered Kurosawa, but none so much as George Lucas, who would later use his clout to help the Japanese director secure funding for his expansive project Kagemusha. While there are more one-to-one alignments between other Kurosawa films and Star Wars (most famously, the original R2-D2 and C-3PO in 1958’s The Hidden Fortress, two comic-relief peasants tagging along on an adventure to save a princess), there’s still a lot in Seven Samurai that made it to the galaxy far, far away.

For starters, there are those wipe transitions between scenes. And then who is the wise elder hunched in the dark speaking truncated wisdom if not The Empire Strikes Back’s version of Yoda? The romance between Katsushiro and Shino is something like a Han Solo-Princess Leia dynamic in reverse, as well. On a technical level, though, one can point to the rising action of the final battle. While there is no exploding Death Star, Kurosawa, who deployed multiple cameras shooting concurrently, cuts not just between different angles of the same fight but between several skirmishes all building to the final thrilling, albeit pyrrhic, victory.


A movie poster shows a samurai yelling and holding up a sword. A woman in a hat peers in from the side above a rearing horse and other fighters. The poster is filled with Japanese text.
A movie poster shows a samurai yelling and holding up a sword. A woman in a hat peers in from the side above a rearing horse and other fighters. The poster is filled with Japanese text.

A movie poster for Seven Samurai.LMPC via Getty Images

Most striking for its time—and still fiery today—is Seven Samurai’s most impressive element, Mifune. An explosive performer by any standard, let alone the typically taciturn style seen in Japanese movies of the period, Mifune is like a cross between Stanley Kowalski and Woody Woodpecker: muscular one minute, flamboyantly loosey-goosey the next. Like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Mifune dominates every scene he is in with an unpredictable magnetism. (Though never stated as such, John Belushi’s famous samurai character on Saturday Night Live is basically an exaggerated version of Mifune.) Kikuchiyo is a drunkard and a brute but also silly and, when necessary, fragile. His scene rescuing an infant from a burning building is probably the best thing in the entire movie. Any other actor could have played the part as merely loud and annoying, but Mifune turns the role into something sensuous, mesmerizing, and sui generis. There are many reasons we’re still talking about this movie 70 years later, and the biggest reason of all is him.

The anniversary of the picture means its first remastering to 4K and a significant release in North America. (Not just New York and Los Angeles but places including Akron, Ohio; Paducah, Kentucky; and Kitchener, Ontario—here’s the full list.) With a 15-minute intermission plus a little time to buy popcorn, we’re talking about a four-hour commitment at the movie theater. With today’s limited attention span and hectic schedules, programming this film may seem like going up against impossible odds. Hopefully, there are enough people out there still ready to heed the call and do what’s right, no matter the cost.


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