Few films have had the impact and lasting appeal that have surrounded Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai for the last sixty years. It has inspired countless remakes that transcend genre and decade (ranging from John Sturges’ westen Magnificent Seven to Pixar’s animated film A Bug’s Life), but the film’s appeal doesn’t merely lie in its legacy and popularity; Seven Samurai shows a masterful understanding of both cinematic and storytelling technique and has certainly earned its place among countless ‘top ten’ lists and among some of the greatest films of all time.
Perhaps the most impressive quality of Seven Samurai is its ability to transcend culture and language, its unbridled popularity in whatever culture that it appeared in. Kurosawa had achieved worldwide fame and popularity with Rashoman, a film that did extremely well at international film festivals and put Japanese cinema, and Kurosawa, into the world’s view. While samurai films were nothing new, Seven Samurai seemed to hit something that struck the chords of audiences around the world; the viewer didn’t have to be well-versed in Japanese culture and history to understand the film’s themes of duty, danger, and love.
The film’s wide cast of characters all feel genuine and unique; with a main cast of seven samurai among an entire village of farmers, they all feel well-developed and understandable. Kanbei (Takashi Shimura) is the leader of the group, stern and wise, but not completely stoic and inhuman. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is the farmer-samurai whodoesn’t really fit into either camp of characters. Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) is the one apprentice, the unknowing figure with whom the audience can most easily relate, and the lover-boy of the film. Even without one main protagonist toe follow, the action is tense and powerful because we are meant to identify with the whole cast of characters, not just one central figure.
Just like the characters and actors, each frame that Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai construct are extremely complex and interesting. Many frames have multiple layers in space and take advantage of every inch of space within the bounds of the camera’s vision. During the scene where the samurai first meet the village elder in the mill, the positions of the characters represent their power within the situation; the elder dominates the middle of the frame with the samurai in the middle, while the villagers cower in the background away from the action.
Seven Samurai is a film that has gone down in history as one of the best films ever made and has gone on to influence countless other films in the sixty odd years since its original release. Even if you have a very small interest in Japanese film, you should definitely see this film at some point in your life just because of how much influence it’s had over the industry.