At last we come to Seven Samurai, the midpoint of Akira Kurosawa’s career and arguably his high point. It’s the first of his epics, spanning almost three and a half hours with an ensemble cast of Kurosawa veterans, and featuring unparalleled action sequences. Seven Samurai was, and remains today, one of the most influential films ever made. Next time you watch a movie that involves medieval warfare, whether it’s Lord of the Rings or Braveheart, it will become impossible not to notice the effect this movie has on films today.
As a result, you’re probably already familiar with the story. A farming community is tormented by bandits, who are set to return after the harvest. They set out to hire a band of warriors in order to protect them and collect a ragtag group of samurai who come with their own personal problems. Getting Deja-Vu? Maybe you’ve seen the western The Magnificent Seven, which is a direct adaptation of Kurosawa’s epic. You may also recognize this as the plot of Pixar’s 1998 film A Bug’s Life.
It’s difficult to understate how enormously important Seven Samurai was for Japanese cinema. Despite receiving critical praise and international attention for Rashomon a few years before, most films coming out of Japan were still seen as stuffy, slow, and too artful for a mainstream audience. Seven Samurai changed all that. It was exciting, fresh, filled with colorful characters and big set pieces, and proved the Japanese could put on a bombastic affair on par with Hollywood’s epics. It had everything an audience going to the theater wanted to see: action, romance, humor, and more action.
Despite all the international attention, Seven Samurai, on a personal level, remains a natural evolution for Akira Kurosawa. By combining the intense character drama found in Ikiru with a full exploration of the samurai lifestyle he previously had only flirted with, Kurosawa created an action flick with weight and meaning behind the spectacle. He takes literally half of the movie to introduce his characters, particularly the titular samurai, by showing them in action. Whether they’re donning the appearance of a monk to rescue a stolen child, or forging their family history to fight alongside other samurai, the triumph of Kurosawa’s epic comes from this careful attention to detail. By the time the action starts ramping up, each character has been given enough reason for us to care about them. This is the single biggest difference between a classic, memorable action movie and a forgettable blockbuster.
The action is also downright spectacular. Kurosawa was granted the use of telephoto lenses and multiple cameras which allowed him to film battle scenes like never before. This aided the editing process, where he was able to cut on an action, and pick up from a different angle right where it left off. This gives us flowing, dynamic, and clear action sequences that build tension and keep you on the edge of your seat. Kurosawa is also known for his intricate camera movements, where a shot will often end in a completely different place than where it began. He uses this technique to great effect in Seven Samurai, holding on shots to build tension, before cutting and releasing.
Also notice the use of weather. This time, the rain begins to fall just before the final battle. Seem familiar?
The movie’s technical innovation isn’t just limited to camera movements and editing. Kurosawa fought Toho Studios in order to build the peasant village for real, instead of shooting in a studio. Even though this meant there was less control over the environment they were working with, the result is a real, believable village that adds to the realism of the movie. Thanks to the committal of a director to his work, we’re left with a stunning piece of cinema that is guaranteed to endure. You don’t have to look very far to find any internet argument about the value of CG versus realistic sets, but it’s nice to know the argument is almost as old as film itself.
Seven Samurai was a film that was made to thrill, and still does so to this day. Its three and a half hour runtime never feels its length thanks to Kurosawa’s smart pacing that keeps the narrative moving forward. It paved the way for some of his later epics, but retained the intimate nature of his earlier films. To cap it all off, he leaves us with one of my favorite shots he ever composed, one that encapsulates the grand scale of the events that just transpired, mixed with a quiet reflection on the sacrifices that were made to get them there.
It’s a timeless classic, epic in the true sense of the world, and resoundingly influential in everything we favor today, from Game of Thrones to Star Wars. Next time you want to pop in the extended cut of Return of the King, maybe you’ll want to give an old Japanese filmmaker a try instead.
Steve watches a lot of movies. Follow him on Twitter.