There is no way I can write objectively, reasonably, or critically about “Seven Samurai”, Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece. I fell in love with Kurosawa around the same time I fell in love with arthouse and foreign cinema, and I held up “Seven Samurai” as almost the holy grail of film. For that reason, I kept putting off watching it because I wanted to save it for the right time, whatever that means. In the end, it has taken me over 15 years to finally watch it, and so the 15 years of expectations and anticipation I brought into watching it were absurd and unfair to any film. I don’t feel it’s fair to even give an assessment of the film, as it cannot really compare to the effect watching “Rashomon” had on me at 23 as I was just discovering the world of film beyond the mainstream action blockbusters of my youth. It’s also strange because Kurosawa was one of my main entry points into the idea of cinema as more than entertainment, but as a true art form. However, the reality is that “Seven Samurai” is very clearly made to be a piece of popular entertainment, even at 3 and a half hours long. That’s not to say it’s not art, it clearly is, but it’s much less arthouse than the films Ozu was making at the time, and less arthouse than other works of Kurosawa. In fact, I believe that is why Kurosawa and “Seven Samurai” continue to have such a high standing in film history, because of his ability to fuse popular entertainment with an artistic quality that perhaps was not seen at that level before.
That brings up the most salient point about Kurosawa, which is that he set the template for so much of Hollywood after 1950, and did so most effectively and effortlessly with “Seven Samurai”. Many of the most popular and most successful Western films of all time, a quintessentially American genre, were remakes of or inspired by Kurosawa films. George Lucas has admitted how much inspiration he took from Kurosawa for Star Wars. There is one sword fight in “Seven Samurai” in particular that looks exactly like some of the most famous light saber battles in Star Wars, from the stance and posture of the combatants to the framing and tension building. The realism and chaos of the epic final battle in “Seven Samurai”, mirrored in the dynamic and chaotic way it was shot and edited, was a big change for the time and influenced countless war films that came after it. The way it brought an eclectic cast of characters together one by one to team up and fight a common enemy despite their differences has been echoed in endless action films, and can still be seen today in movies like The Avengers and the Fast & Furious series. Kurosawa was slightly controversial in Japan in his day for being to Western in his filmmaking style, but the reality is that he kind of set the standard of style that the Western mainstream film industry would copy, consciously and unconsciously, from his first film until today.
The last thing that makes it harder to appreciate the true mastery of “Seven Samurai” when watching it today is that it is impossible to pick up all of the powerful social commentary if you are not well versed in Japanese history and culture. Of course, the commentary is weaved into a narrative whose themes and ideas are universal, which gave his films mass appeal around the globe. But to miss the specificity of what he was trying to say about Japan and Japanese culture is to miss the the full power and force and his message and how radical it was at the time. To portray samurai as anything other than the trope of noble and honorable warrior was revolutionary at the time. To give respect to the farmers and validate their grievances against the samurai was to push back against the caste system that dominated Japanese society throughout its history. To allow a farmer to become a samurai, and to allow a samurai to fall in love with a farmer, these were incredibly taboo ideas at the time, especially for a country as conservative and honorific as Japan. We can watch these things today and understand them in the context of the film as unusual, but we cannot even come close to grasping how significant those images up on the big screen were for the Japanese people in 1954. While someone like Ozu may have been commenting on Japanese society by reflecting it in his films, Kurosawa was directly challenging it by putting up a fantasy of what could be, and I’m sure what he thought should be.
There are a few other aspects of this film to highlight that are quite remarkable. At a time when dynamic and complex camera movement was incredibly challenging, practically speaking, due to the equipment available, so much so that really no other films outside of America were using it heavily, Kurosawa managed to employ a ton of incredibly smooth and effective dynamic camera movement throughout the film, especially in the aforementioned epic and influential final battle. To master something no one else was doing around most of the globe is shows what an innovator he was. It was also very uncommon in Japan at the time to film outside of studio designed sets where a director had complete control and good working conditions for the actors and crew. Yet for “Seven Samurai”, Kurosawa insisted on building a town out in the countryside and working in difficult weather conditions to bring an added level of realism and authenticity to the production. I cannot imagine the challenge it created in fulfilling his vision, but it was worth the effort, and is among the best examples of something Kurosawa came to be known for, which is the dynamic use of movement in the background or foreground of his frames created naturally by weather to add texture and mood to scenes. This includes things like heavy rain, wind blowing dust in the air and rustling trees and hair and fabric. I watch a youtube video one time comparing classic Kurosawa scenes and the life this use of weather added to his frames to the coldness and lifelessness of modern action and superhero films shot mostly with green screen due to static or artificial backgrounds in nearly every shot, and “Seven Samurai” is a great example of this.
When I started this essay, with the conflicted feelings I had after watching this film, I honestly had no idea what I would write and thought perhaps this would be the shortest one yet. However, I was clearly inspired by the audacity of Kurosawa and “Seven Samurai” upon reflection and upon learning so much new information about the film in my research of it. Watching it at 38 after watching so many hundreds of films it just didn’t hit me viscerally the way it may have had I watch it at 23 like “Rashomon”. It also didn’t strike me emotionally the way “The Music Room” and “The Passion of Joan of Arc” have in this film writing journey so far. That brings me a hint of sadness given how long I’ve been waiting to watch it. It also makes me eager to watch other Kurosawa films I haven’t seen yet that don’t bring that level of expectation with them and see how they strike me. Most notably “Ikiru”, starring the fabulous Takashi Shimura, who was incredible as the lead Samurai Kambei in “Seven Samurai”. Regardless of “Seven Samurai” not living up to the insane standards I set for it in my mind 15 years ago and held on to, it is undeniably a masterpiece of cinema that any serious cinema fan should watch immediately, as well as anyone wanting to learn about the history of film and see where so much of Hollywood entertainment got its start. If your favorite movie of all time was made by Hollywood and was wildly successful and popular, chances are it was in some way influence by “Seven Samurai”. Now that’s a tough legacy to live up to!