Seven Samurai (1954), a film by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, is widely regarded as one of the most influential and powerful films of its time—and perhaps there this some truth in this view. This film was made earlier on in Kurosawa’s career and helped him, along with a few of his actors, on their rise to international recognition. Driving this film in particular is its cinematography, showing themes through subtle detail, such as focus.
What kind of film is Seven Samurai? To call it merely an action movie would not do it justice, since though the plot of the film revolves around the impending action, the majority of the movie is not contained in the relatively short action sequences. The movie plays out much more like a drama, centering itself around the three main characters: Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young, aspiring samurai, Kambei (Takeshi Shimura), an old and wizened samurai, and Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune), a samurai of questionable legitimacy. The actors in this film help to carry it through, with particularly strong performances from Mifune and Shimura, both of whom are known for their work in collaboration with earlier Kurosawa films, such as Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), and Scandal (1950). The synergy between Mifune and Shimura helps to keeps the two characters dynamic and engaging throughout the three-and-a-half-hour film. Kurosawa makes no mistake in keeping them in-focus, both literally and metaphorically. Though not every scene focuses on them, and in fact, characters like Katsushiro receive a fairly large amount of screen time, Kurosawa shows their well-developed and influential characters through his camerawork whenever they are around, giving the actors the chance to show what they are capable of.
Of course, there is only so much to be said for characters in a vacuum. The film’s basic plot involves a small village, which discovers that bandits plan to attack them in a few short months. Instead of fighting by themselves or surrendering their crops to the bandits (which would mean starvation), they come up with the plan to hire some samurai to help them defend their village. They go to a nearby village and manage to convince an older samurai, Kambei, to help them, even though the villagers cannot pay more than to feed the samurai during their stay. Kambei manages to pull together a rag-tag group of samurai to ward off the bandits.
As I previously mentioned, the film doesn’t concentrate on the bandit attack that acts as a catalyst for the villagers and samurai, but rather on the characters themselves. Kurosawa weaves philosophy seamlessly into the film, making it feel natural while still holding the powerful and thought-provoking effect it is capable of. Though the bandit attack certainly moves the plot along, it ends up being more a device to tell a tale of these samurai, the farmers, and how we act under pressure, rather than being a tale about a bandit attack. The film deals with themes spanning from duty and obligation to identity and classism.
The film is very long, running 207 minutes, but nothing feels out of place or unnecessary. Every scene is needed in its own way, with many shots telling a story beyond the dialogue or action in them. As Kurosawa is known for, his use of focus helps tell the story, which we can see throughout the film. In simple conversations, such as between the samurai and the village elder, the use of focus highlights who has power and who is important to the conversation. Whereas most directors keep only one part of the shot in-focus, Kurosawa will keep several different things in the shot, perhaps actors, perhaps props, in-focus, which also highlights the fact that much of the shot isn’t in-focus. Kurosawa’s mechanical ability in filmmaking contributes to this film’s critical acclaim and international success.
Kurosawa’s samurai film strays away from the genre of action movie, and moves more towards the genre of drama. Through his masterful cinematography and storytelling methods, he weaves a complex tale with very simple origins: how we should and do react under duress. Kurosawa’s philosophy is told here in a powerful way, and every element of the film contributes to it, especially the cinematography. Anyone can understand what happens on the surface, but to truly grasp the film requires a more careful look.
Seven Samurai. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Perf. Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima. Toho Company. 1954. Film.
“Seven Samurai” Internet Movie Database, 2014. 7 Mar 2014.