The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, Star Wars, A Bugs Life, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs, Sholay, and Anand. What do these diverse films have in common? The answer is surprising: they were all inspired by the films of Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. Some of them, in fact, are direct remakes – and the list doesn’t end here, there are many other films by Eastern and Western directors that are inspired largely or in part by Akira Kurosawa.
Though many people have not heard of him, Kurosawa (1910 – 1998) is accepted as one of the most important and influential directors in the history of cinema. The director brought Japanese films to the rest of the world and made a total of 30 movies in his career. Kurosawa was very influenced by western cinema himself, and his body of work brought together his native influences with western ones in such a powerful way that they impacted global cinema and directors all over the world.
Kurosawa’s best known film is Shichinin no Samurai or Seven Samurai. It was made in 1954, at the same time as Godzilla. The simultaneous production of these two films nearly drove the production company Tōhō Kabushiki-kaisha to bankruptcy. This movie is known by many as the greatest Japanese film ever made. Half of those films mentioned in the beginning (The Magnificent Seven, Sholay, a Bugs Life) are inspired by this movie, and if you watch it yourself, you will find many other movies will come to mind that are obviously inspired by it.
This film is an epic set in the year 1587 in Japan, when the land was divided into many separate rival states. The Samurai were Japan’s warrior class, and would usually serve to protect emperors and nobility or as an elite military division. These warriors could also be independent – for instance retired, mercenary, or out-of-work Samurai were known as Ronin.
Shichinin no Samurai is the story of a terrorised peasant village and the Samurais who come to their unlikely defense.
The film opens with a group of bandits riding to a hill overlooking a small village. They are preparing to raid it and rob the villagers of their harvest that season, as they leave on their horses we see that one of the farmers has overheard their conversation, and is horrified at what he has discovered. After they hear the news, the residents convene in the village center, sitting in a circle on the dirt ground. This is not the first time these bandits have taken their harvest and they are stricken with grief. They are almost delirious with the horror of another year without food, but one among them – named Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) is angry; He insists that they must fight these bandits. The meek farmers are incredulous and in almost unanimous disagreement with this idea. They think they will perish in a battle against the bandits, but the angry man argues that they will die anyway without their modest harvest of rice. To sort out the passionate debate that ensues, they ask the village elder for advice.
The elder considers the issue and rules that the only solution is to hire samurai to help defend the village. Samurai are a high cast however and the villagers wonder how they will find one who is not disgusted by very the idea of defending a group of farmers, let alone without any payment other than a meager supply of rice to eat.
Still this is their only option, so they must search the town centre in hopes that they may “find hungry samurai” who will agree to defend them simply in return for food.
As anticipated the group of humble farmers that goes into town are rebuffed by the Ronins who they find walking the streets. They lose hope and are at a loss for what to do next until they coincidentally witness an old retired samurai, pass through a small village and rescue a hostage child from a thief. The stoic warrior seems kind-hearted, wise and noble, and impresses not only them, but also a by-standing young man named Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) who beseeches him to make him a pupil. The samurai’s name is Kambei (Takashi Shimura), and the villagers manage to convince him to help them.
Now Kambei, with the help of the young and enthusiastic Katsushir, begins to search for more Samurai – according to his estimation seven are required to defend the village adequately. Kambei asks the villager to invite the prospective soldiers into their shelter while Katsushir stands behind the door waiting to strike them with a big stick. This is Kambei’s way of testing the candidates: those who are skilled samurai would never get struck down, he says.
After some effort, they end up as a team of six samurai and decide to head back to the village to prepare. An insistent, slovenly man named Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune) follows them at a distance. They had met Kikuchiyo the night before, he was introduced as a samurai but was rejected because he was wildly drunk and completely out of his senses. Kambei and the others are not convinced that he was really a samurai, but in spite of their ridicule and rejection he keeps following them throughout their journey, and they do not bother to stop him.
When the group arrives at the village, they are surprised (and a little insulted) to find it quiet and empty – the villagers have gone and hidden in their homes. In spite of the fact that they have invited the Samurai themselves, they are afraid of them. Their apprehension of strangers is one that is commonly seen in secluded village cultures everywhere and is an especially familiar trait from Pakistani culture. The farmers are scared that their daughters will be seduced or assaulted by the powerful strangers. One of them even forcibly cuts his young daughters hair and insists that she dresses like a boy when the Samurai arrive. The village elder scolds him for his actions “Bandits are coming you fool!” he says, “Your head is on the block, and all you care about are your whiskers?”
Upon seeing this behavior Kikuchiyo, the unruly tag-along plays a clever trick on the villagers, He raises a false alarm, and the villagers run from their homes to the new arrivals in the village centre, begging to be protected. Once they arrive he reprimands them for their duplicitous attitude. This show of creative thinking impresses the others in the group, and laughing at his slyness, they begin to accept Kikuchiyo as one of their group – the Seven Samurai are now together.
They begin to prepare and strategise for the impending attack of the bandits. The village must be protected from all sides, the grain must be secured, and the villagers must be trained to defend themselves against the attackers.
As the villagers interact with their protectors and the samurai work with each other, we are given a close look at each side’s characters, conflicts and problems. For instance, the samurai discover that the villagers have murdered and robbed fleeing warriors of their class in the past, but their shock and incense melt with surprise when they are made to realise what life is like from the perspective of the downtrodden farmers. Once again this surprising turn comes from Kikuchiyo: “…who made them like this?” he asks. “You did!” The greater theme of injustice in a class conscious society is brought into sharp focus when we realise that this sloppy, angry, seventh samurai bears the burden of a farmer’s ancestry, and really knows the tyrannies of the upper classes on the lower born.
Thus, continuing to learn from each other the farmers and their protector’s work towards a battle that is looming at the climax. Right up to the showdown – and during it – the film continues to show us the intricacies of the society and the characters with a heart-rendering authenticity. As the film gains momentum it weaves itself into a much greater human narrative, incorporating all the elements of dramatic storytelling – from romance and comedy to heroism, and tragedy.
Kurosawa was very impressed with the grandeur of composition in early Westerns, and this influence inspired him to be an amazing visual director. The emotions created by his actors are multiplied with the dramatic power of the visual compositions in which they move. Battle scenes too, are amazingly shot, with pioneering cinematography techniques that surprisingly originate from this film: such as the use of slow motion during an action sequence, and the dramatic emergence of an army over a hillside.
Though Kurosawa was often criticised within his country for straying too far from tradition, he is still one of their most noted directors, and Seven Samurai is still a good introduction to Japanese film. More importantly, this movie is an introduction to the body of work of one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, and is a cinematic masterpiece that should be viewed by every film lover.
Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer, adventure seeker, musician, film-lover and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.
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