|Still of Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura in Seven Samurai|
Kurosawa’s masterpiece (one of several in his long career) runs nearly 3 ½ hours, but it seems like much less. The setting is Japan in the 16th Century. Seven men, itinerant samurai warriors, are hired by the inhabitants of a poor farming village to defend them from the bandits who annually steal the fruits of their labor, abduct the young women of the village, and kill anyone who might stand up to them. The pacing in the first part is leisurely, not slow, in service to the creation of a cast of vivid, unforgettable characters who stay with the viewer long after the very moving final scene. The second part consists of the training of the villagers by the samurai in siege defense and the actual siege itself. The action in the second part of the film is gripping and has rarely been equaled in the many years since its creation. For all of the movies that have been so deeply indebted to this work, it remains a distinctive and singular work of art.
Unlike many contemporary action films, “The Seven Samurai” succeeds so brilliantly because of the full-blooded characters among the samurai and villagers that Kurosawa has so lovingly brought to life. His cast of performers works magnificently well. Takashi Shimura plays Kambei Shimada, the leader of the warriors. Shimada is a man of weary dignity, willing to work for little more than three meals a day for a cause worthy of his efforts, who has the ability to quietly influence the other samurai in his recruitment efforts. As perfect as Shimura is in his performance, he has to take a back seat to the legendary Toshiro Mifune, who is a virtual force of nature in his performance as Kikuchiyo, the seventh of these men. Kikuchiyo claims to be a samurai but his wild, undisciplined manner render his claim suspect to the others. This flea-bitten, boastful, almost comical rascal has so many layers underneath his coarse exterior that it takes most of the movie to truly understand what motivates him. In the battle sequences, samurai or not, Kiku is the very embodiment of battlefield ferocity, and the great Mifune is truly something to behold in these scenes.
Although “Samurai” is widely considered to be Akira Kurosawa’s greatest work it has quite a lot of competition in that category. “Rashomon” from 1950, “Ikiru” from 1952, “Yojimbo” from 1961, and his glorious late career masterwork “Ran” from 1985 would all have to be serious contenders. Thanks to Mark Rhoda, a member of our theater department faculty who requested the indispensable Kurosawa box set from the Criterion Collection, our collection contains nearly every film that this giant of cinema ever directed. “The Seven Samurai” should whet your appetite for more.