The problem with naming SEVEN SAMURAI Akira Kurosawa's greatest film is once you do that, you've relegated so many worthy rivals to also-ran status. RASHOMON, IKIRU, YOJIMBO and RAN are the obvious rivals, but I could throw in THRONE OF BLOOD and DRUNKEN ANGEL as personal favorites too. It's probably best to think of SEVEN SAMURAI in light of what Kurosawa said about it: "Japanese films all tend to be rather bland... I think we ought to have richer foods, and richer films. So I thought I would make this kind of film entertaining enough to eat."
It's an East meets West film, in which Japanese history, values and traditions are crossbred with Kurosawa's love for the westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, which is why SEVEN SAMURAI was so easily remade into the American western classic THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN by John Sturges several years later. RASHOMON asked the question "What is Truth?" while IKIRU asked "What is Life?". SEVEN SAMURAI does delve into such issues, the story and characters being enough to keep viewers preoccupied. A farming village, under the threat of attack by bandits, attempt to recruit samurai warriors to guard their village, with nothing to offer them but three meals a day and a place to sleep. The seven they eventually do win over include one that is not even a real samurai, and another who admits that his strategy in battle is to run away.
For the last time, Takashi Shimura plays a lead role for Kurosawa, and is rewarded with the classic heroic character of Kambei, the first recruited samurai who then gathers the group together and acts as their commander. It is hard to believe this is the same actor who played the dying bureaucrat of IKIRU. At 5 foot 7, he somehow projects an image of somebody much larger and stronger, helped by Kurosawa's framing. After displaying his amazing range over the course of many films for Kurosawa, Shimura had reached his peak with Kurosawa and was about to be eclipsed by Toshiro Mifune, whose good looks and boundless energy made him the most popular star in Japan.
Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, the last samurai to join the band of seven, with the kind of wild, uninhibited energy he first showed in RASHOMON. Alternately funny, frightening, lovable and irritating, Mifune in these two films is a force to be reckoned with unlike any other actor I can think of, with the possible exception of Harpo Marx at his most manic (think the passport scene in MONKEY BUSINESS). With each film after SEVEN SAMURAI, Mifune would learn to control his inner chaos and become an even finer actor capable of great subtlety - two of his best performances would be as reserved businessmen in THE BAD SLEEP WELL and HIGH AND LOW - but at this point in his career, Mifune was a gale-force wind blowing through Japanese cinema, causing nearly as much onscreen havoc as Godzilla, who made his debut the same year as SEVEN SAMURAI. You don't want to blink when Mifune is around - you might miss five different facial expressions. But despite Mifune's humorous, high-spirited performance, Kikuchiyo is hardly just comic relief. He is the heart of the film, as we watch his character work through several personal issues and change from clown to passionate warrior and finally to the group's de facto spiritual leader. Shimura may be the lead samurai, but Mifune is the star of this excellent ensemble cast.
Even at three hours, there is not enough time to get to know every character, but some other actors stand out among the dozens of farmers, bandits and samurai. Yoshio Tsuchiya plays Rikichi, a farmer who eventually becomes the virtual eighth samurai (just as Mifune's character is revealed to not be a samurai but a farmer) while Bokuzen Hidari is hilarious and touching as Yohei, the befuddled farmer whom Mifune's Kikuchiyo torments and teases throughout the film. His is a true comic relief performance, used to alleviate the tension of the film at key moments. Yet, in the end, we think of him as a hero in his own way as any of the seven.
The boyish Ko Kimura (although 31 years old at the time) is the film's Allan Jones, playing in the "coming of age" story of the film. He is the rich young samurai-in-training who wishes to learn from the older ronin. He also falls for a farmer's pretty daughter (Keiko Tsushima) in what is one of the only love stories in the entire Kurosawa canon. Leave it to Kurosawa to bring in the film's romantic story only after an hour and a half has gone by.
After two hours of planning, training and strategy sessions, the film climaxes in a three-day battle in which Kurosawa displays what he has learned from Ford and Hawks while treating us to some creative tricks of his own, developed over the course of his career. In this and other films such as HIDDEN FORTRESS and RAN, Kurosawa shows he is the equal to his idols when it comes to filming large-scale action sequences. But throughout the film, even in relatively peaceful scenes, Kurosawa displays a knack for doing amazing things with the camera without calling attention to the shots themselves. You can turn the sound down and study this film for it's extensive use of deep focus, perfect compositions and beautiful cinematography. Most astounding of all is Kurosawa's use of the track and pan, where a camera flows along with the screen action (track) yet will turn its attention left and right when necessary (pan), creating almost a widescreen effect on a standard screen. You'll find these shots throughout the film, especially in the long, final battle. Simply dazzling stuff, made to look easy, as if everybody filmed movies that way.
The film is considered to have brought many things we now take for in action films. There is the innovative use of slow motion to emphasize action, used sparingly here only for a handful of death scenes but now a common, almost irritating cliché of action movies. There is the story device of one man gathering together an eclectic group of others for a dangerous, near-impossible mission, which we would see again and again in various genres. We also find a main hero (Shimura's Kambei) introduced to us in a miniature story of his own, unrelated to the main plot, a technique which would flower into those memorable mini-movies in the pre-credit sequences of James Bond films. Of course, there is the famous shot of the gathering horses on the hill, perhaps the first of its kind. Kurosawa may or many not have invented these things, but like Orson Welles and CITIZEN KANE, he is the man that pulled all these elements together for the first time in one film. Because so many actors and directors admired SEVEN SAMURAI, and John Sturges' 1960 Western remake THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, Kurosawa's film has had an enormous effect on several genres, including action, thrillers, war movies, sci-fi and caper films.
So is SEVEN SAMURAI Kurosawa's greatest film? I still don't know yet. I've seen it four times now in two years, and could watch it again tomorrow. I've finally given it a full five stars. Yet I still personally prefer the simpler YOJIMBO, the deeper IKIRU and the weirder THRONE OF BLOOD. But it certainly ranks right up there with these films, should be recognized as the father of the action genre as we know it today, and will remain a classic for as long as movies are taken seriously. Which, these days, could be only another few weeks or so. - JB