Legendary director Akira Kurasowa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai is a titan in the world of filmmaking. Often seen as the pinnacle of the director’s career, Seven Samurai has not only directly inspired remakes, it also informed and inspired countless directors in careers that have spanned the decades since. There are countless elements to Seven Samurai that make it an all-time great. Everything from shot composition to story execution to the way the director exquisitely blends emotion with plot. It’s a movie that can be proclaimed as one of the greatest ever made without any real objection from anyone with knowledge of film.
But what makes Seven Samurai so powerful is its emphasis on character above all else, with our investment into the various protagonists of the film propelling every aspect of the story.
Yes, Kurosawa’s epic is filled with action, romance, humor, tragedy, and spectacle, but these many elements all hit the mark so perfectly because the viewer is above all invested in the people at the center of the story. By doing so, Seven Samurai becomes a film that has an epic sweep in its scope, yet consistently feels like an intimate character drama, no matter how big the battles get or how massive the 3 hour and 27 minute runtime may be. It’s a priority that fewer and fewer big budget spectacle films have had in the decades that followed, yet it’s a crucial element that has caused this samurai epic to be a lasting pillar in the history of film while so many others have faded away.
A Brilliant Band of Warriors
Set during 1586 in Japan at the time of the warring states, Seven Samurai follows a village of farmers that seeks out protection from a group of bandits that are prepared to steal all of their crops and brutalize their people. The farmers hire seven ronin, samurai without masters, to protect their village from the bandits, who will return soon to take their crops when they have grown. These samurai are Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a wise but battle-weary master samurai, Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young warrior who left a wealthy family to be a samurai, Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), an old friend of Kambei’s who resumes his role as his lieutenant, Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a friendly and skilled archer, Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), a less skilled fighter but one with charm and wit, Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a deadly and serious swordsman, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a brash and humorous samurai who is actually a former peasant. This small band of disparate warriors come together to defend the village for honor and the chance to prove themselves, not money, as the peasant farmers have none to give them.
While it’s seen as a standard element of team films today, Seven Samurai is frequently cited as the first film to feature a “getting the band together” type of sequence. The vast majority of the film’s humongous first act is devoted to the formation of the samurai group, with each character given ample amount of time to be defined in who they are and how they relate to the rest. Because of this, the audience is given the chance to deeply invest in each person, with Kambei quickly becoming the lead character due to his crucial role in the formation of the group and its morally conscience focus in their mission. Shimura makes Kambei into a fully formed, magnetic leader with a powerful emotional undercurrent. When combined with Mifune’s electric and dynamic performance as the wild card Kikuchiyo and the eagerly youthful nature of Kimura’s Katsushiro, Seven Samurai becomes informed by a very human, very emotional character-centric narrative.
Humanity, Honor, and Tragedy
As a sweeping epic, Kurosawa created Seven Samurai to encapsulate a massive range of human emotions. Everything from inspiring heroism to tragic loss to charming romance to flawed failure is captured in the massive runtime of the film. But it doesn’t feel like the director is throwing every possible emotion into the film in order to be as widely appealing as possible. Rather, Kurosawa’s characters are thoroughly fleshed out and are strikingly human. As such, the many aspects of human emotion naturally assert themselves during this massive yet constantly focused narrative of human goodness and heroic complexity.
The narrative of Seven Samurai is quite simple. Farmers recruit samurai to defend against bandits, the samurai and the farmers prepare, and the battle is waged against the bandits. It’s an incredibly simply three-act structure that stays on course from start to finish. Yet, the characters remain incredibly dynamic, with revelations and twists affecting characters arcs rather than the plot itself. And it’s not just the samurai who benefit from such a focus. Many of the villagers are infused with subtle yet crucial character arcs, and even the morality of the villagers themselves is called into question, infusing the simple story with suddenly vast amounts of depth.
Over the course of more than three hours, Kurosawa knows how to consistently balance character with narrative from start to finish, never letting one overpower the other. While each character can be boiled down to a handful of traits in order to remain unique and differentiated from one another, they each feel more well-rounded and even delicate in their emotional and physical wellbeing. It’s clear that while each samurai is supremely deadly, they are not the invincible warriors of modern action films. Rather, death comes fast and unceremoniously, reflecting the brutal and crushing nature of war.
Yet while war is never glamorized (setting the final battle in a mud and rain-soaked morning emphasizes the meaning through gritty visuals), every heroic action feels more inspiring, each minor victory in the fight of the bandits feels huge, and ever death feels like an all-too-human loss thanks to the realistic portrayals of its characters. And once the bodies start piling up (and they do, Seven Samurai is not sparing of its characters), every loss hurts far more than what would be typically seen in a modern day action blockbuster that is far more focused on spectacle than the characters and stories.
Because of its visceral battles, its explosive characters, and its roller coaster of human emotions, Seven Samurai is one of the most complete entertainment experiences ever seen on screen. This is a film that understands what heights can be reached in the art form. With remakes like The Magnificent Seven (and that remake’s 2016 remake) essentially taking the structure of Seven Samurai without its complexities and countless action epics cribbing from Kurosawa’s formula to varying degrees of success, it’s clear that crafting such a complete and timeless epic requires true mastery of the art of film. Yet one lesson remains, no matter the genre, narrative, or decade, crafting powerful characters creates and unshakeable foundation for truly powerful filmmaking.