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Thoughts on Seven Samurai

I remember watching Seven Samurai with my Dad when I was around 13 or 14… and not remembering much of it. To be honest, I was mostly just bored, checking my phone every 5 minutes or so (much to my Dad’s annoyance). I guess I was too young at the time to appreciate the type of film he was trying to share with me.

Yet, in between the distractions, two images stuck with me. The first was the Samurai flag painted by Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), which is hoisted and flown over the village during the battle. On the flag, six circles symbolise the samurai, whilst a triangle underneath them emblematises Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the ‘special’ half-Samurai, half-farmer. A Japanese character underlines the flag, representing the village they are defending. The other image was the final scene, which lingers poignantly on the four katanas that mark the raised mounds where four of the seven samurai are buried (spoiler!)

Rewatching the film with the benefit of a longer attention span and the ability to pay attention to non-dramatic dialogue scenes has paid off. Kurosawa is economic in how much he reveals about each samurai, but each characterisations sticks. The perfectionist swordsman Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi) is a man of few words: after stealing a gun from the bandits, he bluntly admits: “killed two” (cue a wave of laughter from the packed IMAX crowd). The leader Kambei (Takashi Shimura) is, for the most part, a gentle benevolent presence, preferring to laugh quietly to himself than let his anger or annoyance show. But when a villager threatens to disobey his orders, he suddenly becomes uncomfortably stern, lecturing them all: “The man who thinks only of himself, destroys himself. From now on, such desertion will be punished.” And so we come to realise that such behaviour is sometimes necessary from a leader, and without it, the entire village would probably be doomed.

Then there’s the samurai who chops wood and cracks jokes (Heihachi, played by Minoru Chiaki), and the young trust-funded child-samurai Katsushirō (Isao Kimura) who wants to become a man (and goes on to lose his virginity and kill someone for the first time). Of course, like most Kurosawa films, Toshiro Mifune steals every scene he is in – this time as Kikuchiyo, the erratic wannabe samurai. You can still feel his energy, his over-exaggerated facial expressions and his animalistic grunts reverberating out of the screen almost 70 years after they were recorded. And, of course, seeing these expressions magnified on an IMAX screen (this was my first time seeing a film there) gives each of them a truly monumental significance.

But it’s the moments where Kikuchiyo’s genuine humanity and sadness come through that leave the lasting impressions. When he saves a child from a burning mill, he drops to his knees in the river and cries out: “This baby. It’s me! The same thing happened to me!” In just a few moments, our entire perception of Kikuchiyo and his braggadocious personality is flipped. Later, when Kikuchiyo witnesses the death of his friend Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), all of his friendly mockery towards the timid old man is quickly reduced to genuine anguish. You only wish that Kurosawa could’ve lingered on these moments for a little bit longer, to give them their full emotional effect. 

One section where Kurosawa does linger is in the final scene, where the three survivors Kambei, Katsushirō and Shichirōji stand in front of the graves of their fallen friends. Rewatching this scene, I felt the contrast between the very literal sacrifices made by the samurai, and the jubilant villagers who sing for the new cycle of crops. The samurai end the movie on the side-lines; even Katsushirō’s love interest Shino (Keiko Tsushima) does not acknowledge him, preferring instead to join in with the singing. We watch the three survivors standing solemnly with the singing continuing in the distance, and wonder: do the villagers acknowledge the sacrifice that the Seven have made? Perhaps, but crucially, Kurosawa doesn’t show us this, and so we are left with Kambei’s weary assessment: “The farmers are the winners, not us”.

Oh, and don’t think I wasn’t amazed by the action sequences too. I can only imagine how difficult it must’ve been to shoot the final day of the battle in that torrential rain and mud. Seven Samurai still feels fresh today, and the next time you see a bunch of heroes assembling in a movie (hint hint), you know who to thank.


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