The tale of the Seven Samurai is one that’s been told many times in different forms, to the point that the essence of the story; a poor village hires seven protectors to repel a vicious group of bandits; feels very familiar. Yet in spite of having been remade as The Magnificent Seven, and then remade again, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 original brings so much more than its Western counterparts.
With top quality action it’s easy to see why this was remade as a Western. The stunts involving swords, spears and horses are expertly executed on the the village set which is really just a village. In spite of the running time in excess of three hours, it’s a masterclass in pacing as the waves of the battle unfold. It hits all the right beats during these perfectly framed sequences, in a fashion greatly ahead of its time.
While The Magnificent Seven and its remake certainly capture the action and excitement, there are other elements which were lost in translation. First and foremost is the fact that while the samurai are there to save the village, they are all in some senses saved or redeeemed themselves.
The leader of the samurai is Kambei (Takashi Shimura) a master-less ronin. The last film I saw about ronin was 47 Ronin, and even though Seven Samurai has 46 fewer ronin, it’s a much better film, suggesting no positive correlation between film quality and total number of ronin.
Kambei assembles six other samurai who have all strayed from the path in some way. The fact that the village are unable to afford their services is crucial to their not merely being mercenaries for hire, and the lynchpin of their redemption. But as in its English-language incarnations, the fact the village is ultimately saved is in no small part due to the villagers taking matters in to their own hands and learning to fight – we’re in no doubt they will remain able to defend themselves once the samurai have left.
Much like Rashomon, Samurai sets the scene in a rainy, poverty-stricken part of Japan, where people lament the misery of their existence. It’s a bleak situation, with its helpless inhabitants literally crying out for a saviour. It’s this darkness which gives the film an emotional depth beyond your average actioner, taking it into the realm of the epic.
Yet there’s a surprising amount of laughter for an oftentimes bleak film, with Kurosawa never afraid to let his audience relax. Characters such as Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) are there to provide the comic relief, with the acceptance that rigid, humourless discipline is not necessarily the way to win a battle.
Cited by many film makers as an inspiration, and promoting Japanese cinema to new Western audiences, the impact of Seven Samurai cannot be overstated.