"I've got nothing out of fighting; I'm alone in the world"
During the late sixteenth century a poor farming village hires seven masterless Samurai to help to combat a group of forty bandits who return each year after harvest to steal their crop. After much searching the farmers eventually discover a wise and experienced Samurai called Kambei (Takashi Shimura) who agrees to not only help them but also find six more Samurai to protect the village.
Along with Kambei the villagers recruit a band of warriors which includes the young and untested Katsushiro (Iaso Kimura), a skilled archer called Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) – a solemn and stone faced master swordsman and my favourite, the drunk and unpredictable Kikuchiyo (Toshirō Mifune). Along with Heihachi and Shichirōji they become the Seven Samurai. I hadn’t seen this film before now but had always been aware that it was considered one of the best films of all time. While I’ve definitely seen a lot of films that I prefer, I can understand why it is held in such high regard.
The first thing that struck me about the film is how compelling it and the story are. It is quite a simple tale really but the way it’s told is magnificent. There are so many wonderful personalities amongst the characters and loads of little subplots and avenues for the extremely long run time to meander down. As well as the Samurai which I’ll come back to there are some great characters amongst the farmers. I loved Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) and his curved eyebrows which reach down to his cheeks. He is so sweet and funny and along with Kikuchiyo has the majority of the lighter moments. Although he is only on screen for probably around 15-20 minutes he has a huge impact. Another farmer, Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) is a diligent but rough father who fears for his daughter. Stuck between a group of horny Samurai and marauding bandits he fears for her innocence and disguises her as a boy. Another farmer to stand out is Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) who is hotheaded and violent but has a secret which when it comes out, makes the reasons for his actions more clear.
For a lot of the film I was sat wondering when I’d get some full on 13 Assassins style Samurai action but this is really a film about the Samurai and not they’re swords. Rather than an hour of swooshing, splitting and splatting the battle scenes are presented in several skirmishes and you get a sense of the military strategy that has gone into defending the village. You learn much more about the Samurai than you if they were merely slicing their way through opponents for an hour and this is to the film’s credit. The pace is measured, very measured at times and you get to know the characters. As a result, if a Samurai dies then you really feel the emotional weight. They aren’t simply imagined cannon fodder but men with believable traits and interesting back stories.
One of my favourite aspects of the film was the score. I’ve rarely heard a film score that is more apt or pleasant to listen to. It mixes drums and various wood instruments as well as traditional Japanese music to create tension and heighten emotion. It’s not the sort of soundtrack that many people would necessarily buy but it works wonderfully with the visuals.
My only complaint about Seven Samurai is its length. The version I saw was 190 minutes long (over three hours) and the original cut is over 200 minutes. This is an awful long time and at times I wondered if it warranted it. Perhaps if it had been shorter then some of the characters would have suffered but it took me two sittings to get through.
Another thing I liked was the countdown used to denote how many bandits were left. This is something that was copied in Battle Royale, one of my favourite films. Apart from being in black and white the film doesn’t feel fifty-eight years old. The camera movements, direction, acting and plot all feel fresh and modern. It hasn’t aged anywhere near as badly as many films from the same era. The film creeps up on you in quite a satisfying way. It builds tension very subtly and hits you hard with the final battles.
Seven Samurai is a film that I’m glad I’ve finally seen. While I wouldn’t put it towards the top of my all time list it is certainly closer to the top than the bottom. It features a timeless story and some fantastic characters and is well worth taking the time to watch if you haven’t already.