Seven Samurai is one of those works so genre-establishing, so mimicked and adapted, that it would be easy for it to feel worn, or tired, or overly conventional – it may have invented so many of the conventions that are typical to popular stories today, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling “conventional” to audiences that grew up seeing stories influenced by it. But it never feels tired or unsatisfying in that way; it’s such a masterfully constructed film that it keeps you entertained even for its massive three-and-a-half-hour runtime.
Not everything in Seven Samurai is necessarily new – Kurosawa didn’t invent the idea of recruiting a hero while they’re on a mission unconnected to the main story, that nonetheless shows off their particular prowess, for example – but the way it combined various story elements codified a story structure and character setups in such a way that the particular combination of story elements became genre archetypal. Structuring a story so that it follows recruiting a team, each with a particular personality and special feature (the silent badass, the wise mentor, the comic relief, the naive youth, etc.) can be found in films from The Dirty Dozen, to Ocean’s Eleven, to The Avenger’s, and very far beyond. A ragtag team of heroes going up against an overwhelming antagonistic evil force is such a used convention now, even in terms of the specific visual ways Kurosawa tells the story, like the shot from the hill of the bandits cresting over.
Aside from its codification of story and character structures, the film is plenty interesting and compelling in its own right. Toshiro Mifune’s character, Kikuchiyo, delivers an incredible monologue on social class issues between samurai and peasants, commenting on the cyclical, self-perpetuating, and exponential nature of how class warfare makes things worse for both castes. That monologue is delivered incredibly well, Mifune emoting to that highly theatrical degree Kurosawa is fond of, all the more striking because all the other actors give much more lowkey, subdued performances, more akin to the style most actors use nowadays. This class commentary synthesises well with the motivations of, at the very least, the lead samurai Kambei (played by frequent Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura), in that they view protecting the farmers and their village as a redemptive act atoning for the poor way in which the samurai class has treated and affected the peasantry. In their at-times seemingly hopeless defence of the peasants, they act as true honourable samurai.
Kurosawa’s skill in direction, editing, framing, cinematography, use of motion, and staging of action sequences cannot be overstated here. The climatic battle sequence is ridiculously impressive, all the more cathartic and dramatic for coming at the end of over three hours of restrained build-up. It’s the character work that really keeps the film compelling as it glides along though, with the well-sketched characters and their various subplots making the battle all the more impactful, for the audience is so deeply invested into the characters by that point.
Seven Samurai is both a grand historical epic, and a rich character piece. A fantastic film. I give it four and a half bowls of rice, and a bamboo spear.