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The pictorial Shakespeare of our time

In praise of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

Seven Samurai
A scene from Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film Seven Samurai (Photo: Getty Images)

Sixty years ago, deep in the forests of the Izu peninsula about 75 miles from Tokyo, a film crew toiled on a purpose-built, full-scale replica of a 16th-century village. Among them was the man they nicknamed Tenno or “emperor”, Akira Kurosawa. The director was engaged in a year-long struggle with Toho Studios, the cast, crew and the elements. His budget grew to $500,000 (the highest ever in Japan at the time) and production was stopped twice, at which points Kurosawa went fishing until the studio came round to his way of thinking. At the end of the freezing, rain-sodden climactic shoot – torture for the actors involved – he possessed the rough material for Seven Samurai, one of the great hymns to the weaknesses and wonders of humanity.

Seven Samurai is hardly underrated. It’s always popping up in lists of the best films of all time. It is technically ingenious, a narrative tour de force and surprisingly funny (the leitmotif-heavy score also deserves more recognition). But it is most often referred to as an action movie template. Its legacy is the team-building adventure, notably copied in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and children’s animation A Bug's Life (1998) and used as a rough guide for a host of films from The Dirty Dozen (1967) to Avengers Assemble (2012).

I don’t remember what I felt the first time I watched Seven Samurai. But I remember the second time. It was as if I was peering through the layers of a moving palimpsest and behind each flashing sword, stirring speech or moment of slapstick there was another entirely different film. What that other film was about, I slowly but surely noted, was love.

The many loves of Seven Samurai roam like the great animals of the plains in relationships that shape and are shaped by their habitat. Kurosawa maps out human love just as the leader of the samurai, Kambei, maps out the village he has pledged to defend.

The plot is rudimentary. Rikichi, a farmer in rigidly feudal Japan, overhears bandits planning to attack his village after the harvest. He convinces the other farmers to let him employ masterless samurai to defend them (with food as payment). He then meets the ageing warrior Kambei, who agrees to help. They return to the village, prepare for battle then engage the bandits over several days of fighting.

Rikichi is the primum mobile, so it is fitting that love is his motivation. He carries a deep wound, revealed to be the kidnapping and enslavement of his wife by the bandits, and yet his generosity (such as when he gives his house over to samurai) provides vital momentum. Without his bravery, born from a yearning for dignity for himself and his community – and love for his wife – there would be no Seven Samurai.

In a nearby town, Rikichi and his companions witness an act of sacrifice that symbolises, in microcosm, what they are searching for. Kambei rescues a child from a kidnapper but his disguise requires the cutting of his samurai top-knot and therefore a loss of social prestige. His subsequent decision to help the farmers seems guided by the ghosts of war, as if his old limbs must keep stretching into the material world, seeking acts of penance for the horrors he has witnessed and no doubt inflicted. He accepts his poverty with a submissive rub of his head, liberated by the abandonment of hope. In Kambei (acted with moving nuance by Takashi Shimura, who had given the performance of his life as a dying bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s previous film Ikiru [1952]) Seven Samurai exhibits its purest love. Kambei may still need to eat and sleep, but he has become a societal nobody, pushing him towards a negation of the self that has a nourishing effect on everyone else.

Kambei also catches the eye of Katsushiro, a doting adolescent who begs him to take him on as a pupil. Kambei reluctantly agrees to let him assist the recruitment and from here three more down-on-their-luck samurai, Gorobei, Shichiroji and Heihachi, join the group.

Back at the village, Kurosawa exposes the problematic love of a parent for a child nearing adulthood. The farmer Manzo has from the start warned of the menace posed by nesting samurai to the village’s women and young girls. We now see he was thinking of his daughter, Shino. The scene where he forcibly cuts off Shino’s hair is laden with oppressive and possessive love. It is a tarnished emotion, but adds to the breadth of Kurosawa’s canvas.

From the moment the samurai arrive – reinforced by the master swordsman Kyuzo (another object of hero-worship for the impressionable Katsushiro) and the surly and clearly fraudulent Kikuchiyo – the two castes begin to grind against each other. But amid the threat of oblivion, those clashes become embraces and distrust turns into revivifying love.

Romance elbows its way in too: Katsushiro’s infatuation for Shino is born as he daydreams in the woods. He complains that if Shino is a boy, as she claims, she should be training with the others, not picking flowers, before looking down at the flowers he has himself picked during a teenage haze. Kurosawa's point is that first love has a particular knuckleheaded beauty that even war cannot bend. Their subsequent meetings not only allow their innocent romance to grow, but also encourage empathy for those suffering around them.

When the samurai learn from Katsushiro of a starving old woman whose family were murdered by bandits, they give her their food, while Heihachi offers comfort even as she professes her desire to die. Love, as the samurai witness and then experience, alters their behaviour. Another marker of their transformation from rolling stones to social dependents is their affection for the village children, who they entertain and feed amid the anxious waiting. Collective effort and shared responsibility flower with the harvest and as the samurai and farmers become bound by new ties of warmth and respect it is hard not to read a wider political message in this emotional evolution. As Kambei says to the farmers: “If you defend for all, each individual will be protected. He who thinks only of himself destroys himself.”

Before the onset of the fighting Heihachi makes a banner with symbols for the samurai and the farmers, a mark of solidarity that flies proudly until their bittersweet triumph. It is infinitely more than a representation of martial brotherhood. Judged by the conduct and sacrifice of its jovial creator, it represents everything being discussed here – the multitudinous loves of disparate and desperate people.

If Kambei represents the selfless, then his foil, Kikuchiyo (played by Kurosawa’s muse Toshiro Mifune) stands for something selfish, though more recognisably human. Kikuchiyo sulks, mocks and disobeys but his sense of personal desperation is thinly disguised.

The most magnificent scene in the film is when Kikuchiyo produces a huge cache of armour, swords and spears, previously hidden by the peasants, in a bid to impress the other six warriors. The disgusted samurai quickly realise the only way the villagers could have come by these weapons is by killing and looting other samurai, but their opprobrium prompts Kikuchiyo into one of the great cinematic speeches, with Mifune at his most brooding and animalistic.

He speaks directly to the camera (ie at us) in a tirade against the peasants for their conduct. “What did you take farmers for? Saints? They are the most cunning, untrustworthy animals.” This switches suddenly into a confession of his hatred for the samurai, blaming their wickedness for the villagers’ behaviour. “Who made animals of them? You did.” The samurai are, he suggests, little better than bandits themselves. This hard truth is digested in shameful silence, broken, fittingly, by Kambei with tears in his eyes.

“You are a farmer’s son, aren’t you?”

It is a moment of great unburdening and the love it forges makes victory over the bandits possible. It is also the moment of enlightenment for the audience and draws out our affection for the characters. The sound of a stream rolling on and on is heard throughout Kikuchiyo’s unravelling and the stretched seconds of calm that follow. It is an exquisite experience for the viewer.

If Seven Samurai has “a weakness” it is probably related to the single biggest criticism of all Kurosawa’s work, namely the perceived shallowness of his female characters. This is usually accompanied by a comparison with his near contemporary Kenji Mizoguchi, whose mothers and wives, often in historical dramas, carry the emotional and dramatic burden of their films. However, amid all the existential masculinity the two most important women, one half-drawn (Shino), one little more than symbolic (Rikichi’s wife) – do at least offer some acknowledgment of women’s suffering, particularly their abuse at the hands of men across all society.

Even the final battles evince the transformative effects of love. Kikuchiyo’s journey back to his roots started with contempt for the farmers, which of course, since he is a farmer, is self-loathing, but ends in love and sacrifice. The more he “becomes” a samurai the closer he gets to the peasants and, ultimately, his true self. When he rescues a baby from a burning watermill he holds the child and screams: “This baby. It’s me. This is what happened to me!” From this moment he is one of the seven, but he has been an orphaned farmer all his life.

The focus of his contempt throughout is the pathetic Yohei (think Private Godfrey from Dad’s Army) so the fact that Yohei’s death is the cause of Kikuchiyo’s greatest pang of love and subsequent valorous apotheosis is a poetic masterstroke by Kurosawa. The man who, for Kikuchiyo, embodied everything that was miserable and wretched about the peasants was the man he most wanted to protect. From here his love becomes a thirst for reckoning.

As the battle fades only three remain: Katsushiro, trembling with terror and impotent rage, Kambei and his old friend Shichiroji. After the funerals the farmers sing as they reconvene a more familiar fight with nature in the paddy fields. Katsushiro’s love for Shino is so strong he stays in the village, effectively renouncing Kambei, who offers the famous final lines: “We’ve lost again. The farmers are the winners. Not us.” His exit is overwhelmed by the joyous chorus of the peasants – back down on their knees in the dirt.

Steven Spielberg called Kurosawa “the pictorial Shakespeare of our time” and the comparison is not a frivolous one. As with Antony And Cleopatra and King Lear, at his best Kurosawa entwines politics with the intimate and philosophical like so many möbius strips. We know Kurosawa felt a kinship with Shakespeare through his interpretations of Macbeth (Throne Of Blood, 1957) and Lear (Ran, 1985), but the closest he came to matching the range and humanity of his hero was in his co-written screenplay for Seven Samurai. And like Shakespeare, however distant and alien the characters and setting appear at first, their transposition in the minds of the audience to whatever the “present day” may be confronts us with the alarmingly familiar: ourselves in the mirror. The critic Donald Richie said of the historical setting: “Kurosawa can go beyond reality and try to find out what is there.”

Kurosawa’s achievement is that the effect of these expressions, this compassion, is cumulative. In a world of violence, division, insecurity and injustice, love pervades, even if it does not always prevail. Kambei leaves unloved, but his purpose was to make a sacrifice that meant everything to the communal farmers, however meaningless in the world of an itinerant loner. Only his selflessness can sustain him at the end of this drama. Like the replenished rice in the flooded fields, life goes on. Love goes on. Seven Samurai is a lyrical, visceral song to that inalienable fact.

Twitter: @geochesterton