Akira Kurosawa made his first big splash in the international film scene with Rashmon in 1950. The film was seen as exotic, modernist and used editing techniques (such as flashbacks) in a very new and exciting way. Rashmon earned Kurosawa the title of most influential Asian filmmaker in history1. Kurosawa was also considered as the ‘most western’ of Japanese directors. His films were so popular in the west that several of them have been re-made by western directors.
George Lucas has openly admitted that the majority of his inspiration for Star Wars (1977) came from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961) helped create the Italian Western. Yet perhaps his most famous, most re-made and re-imagined film is Seven Samurai (1954). Seven Samurai tells the tale of seven master less samurai who sacrifice themselves to protect a small village from bloodthirsty bandits who wish to rob the village of both its crops and women.
Kurosawa set the film during the Sengoku Jidai period 2; a time when Japan was in constant war, a war in fact that lasted for over a century. The war was between individual warlords or daimyo, and when they lost a war their castles were burned and their lands confiscated. Any samurai that had served them in battle were cast out into the countryside to survive by any means possible. The irony in Seven Samurai is that the bandits the samurai must fight were once samurai as well, but they choose crime as their way of survival.
The samurai are hired by the peasants after one of them overhears the bandits discussing that they should come back and raid the village once there are more crops to take. As it is a time of civil unrest there is little point in going to the authorities as they are unlikely to care about the fate of such a small village. This is seen when during a village meeting at the beginning of the film a woman cries out: ‘let’s give everything to the bandits and hang ourselves. That might get some action out of him. ‘ A peasant then suggests that they should enlist the help of roaming samurai and pay them in food and shelter.
Eventually, after much debate, the old village patriarch agrees with this idea and three villagers set off to round up at least seven samurai to fight off the bandits. Each of the samurai has their own tale and each one also represents an aspect of samurai identity, an identity that has faded into history. Kambei is the leader of the samurai, an older warrior who has seen countless battles and even more death. He is tired of doing battle and has long since realised that his ambition to become a warlord will never be.
Yet in Japan during the Sengoku period, what you were born into is how you remained. For example if you were born a samurai, that is what you were and did until you died, the same goes for the villagers and peasants; a peasant was not allowed to carry weapons and a samurai was not allowed to make his living doing manual labour. Kurosawa reveals Kambei’s distain for his way of life when a bandit captures a small child and threatens to kill it; Kambei cuts off his top-knot (a status sign of the samurai) and rescues the child. Kambei sacrifices his status for the life of the peasant child.
The master/disciple relationship between Kambei and the young apprentice samurai Katsushiro is a major theme in Kurosawa’s work and features in most of his films; from his earlier films, Stray Dog (1949), to his later films, Red Beard (1965). The relationship is representative of Kurosawa’s own relationship with his own mentor, and first employer, Kajiro Yamamoto. Kurosawa was an assistant on Yamamoto’s films and the director helped guide and tune Kurosawa’s talents and encouraged him to write. The difference between the samurai and the peasants is a theme that never leaves the film.
They differ because of their status but also in the way they think about things. When the Samurai capture one of the Bandit scouts they try to secure him as a prisoner of war, Kambei says to the peasants ‘This is a prisoner of war. We must not kill him. ‘ Yet, again because of the way the samurai have treated them in the past, the peasants are more used to killing and robbing the people who attempt to raid their homes. Despite Kambei telling them that he is a prisoner, when a village elder that lost her entire family to bandits’ approaches the prisoner with a scythe, the villagers all join in killing the captive.
The differences between samurai and peasant are shown through one of the samurai himself. Kikuchiyo: who throughout the movie is the comic relief; he even has his own comic music motif. Kikuchiyo was born a peasant but aspires to be a samurai. He in fact keeps it a secret until he is discovered. Before the samurai do battle with the bandits Kikuchiyo discovers that the farmers are hording a large collection of samurai armour and weapons. Kikuchiyo thinks the others will be pleased with this find but the others are outraged. ‘I’d like to kill every farmer in this village’ says Heilhachi, a samurai who is normally quite nice.
The samurai are outraged because the peasants must have either raided the dead samurai or killed them themselves to get the armour. Kikuchiyo is in turn angered by the samurai’s reaction at first agreeing that farmers are ‘stingy, foxy, blubbering, mean, stupid and murderous’ but goes on to rant that the villagers are the way that the samurai made them. ‘You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labour! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! What should a farmer do? ‘ His passion and pity for the villagers and his stolen family papers reveals he is not a samurai by birth.
Kikuchiyo’s peasant individulasim is shown when bandit scouts roam the village and Kambei and the others are hiding to keep the element of surprise on their side. But Kikuchiyo gives them away by shouting. Another allegorical function within in seven samurai is the idea of selflessness. For the villagers and the entire village to be rescued from the bandits, the villagers must sacrifice three homes on the outskirts of town. ‘Let’s not risk ourselves to protect others! ‘ Scream the selfish owners of those houses in disgust and run to protect them.
However there are only six tenants against the mighty numbers of the bandits, and to go and try and fight them off themselves would of course be suicide. Kambei reveals the essence of the film at this point: ‘We can’t endanger twenty for three. No outlying houses can be saved while the village proper is destroyed. ‘ Teamwork is another allegorical function shown in the movie. For example: when Kikuchiyo leaves his post to steal a gun from the bandits, like Kyuzo (another samurai) did earlier in the film, in an attempt to impress his fellow samurai.
He is not met with praise however as Kambei chastises him for leaving his post unattended and reminds him of the importance of teamwork and selflessness. ‘In war, it’s teamwork that counts. ‘ Kurosawa also uses camera techniques to convey a sense of teamwork and working as one. When the alarm first sounds to let everyone know the bandits are coming, Kurosawa uses very quick editing and a telephoto lens (a lens which reduces depth and volume) to capture every samurai running. The end result is that it appears as though every samurai is moving as one person.
Analyse a horror explaining how there theories work or don’t work and why this is
Comparison of a passage from one of the novels and a sequence from one of the films you study in the first part of TCV
Home Away from Home