Akira Kurosawa was born 3 March 1910 in Tokyo, Japan, and died 6 September 1998 in Tokyo. The Seven Samurai was made at the height of the great director's creative powers. It is impressive, influential and an example of film as both high art and popular entertainment.
After training as a painter, Kurosawa became engaged in cinema as a way of portraying movement. He began directing with Horse (Uma, Japan, 1941) and got his first director credit with Judo Saga (Sugata sanshiro, Japan, 1943). He had spent five years learning his craft since a third assistant job on Tokyo Rhapsody (Fushimizu, Japan, 1936).
As well as directing, Kurosawa had produced most of his films since Throne of Blood (Kumonosu jo, Japan, 1957), edited many of them and wrote (or co-wrote) almost all of the scripts. Kurosawa's directorial reputation is based on a decade of outstanding creativity, which produced a series of masterpieces. His golden age began with Scandal (Shubun, Japan, 1950) and Rashomon (Japan, 1950). Rashomon was the director's breakthrough film in international terms, as it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. The film was also a breakthrough for Japanese cinema, being the first Japanese film seen widely in Europe.
The Seven Samurai followed in 1954 and Throne of Blood -Kurosawa's reading of Macbeth - in 1957. Donzoko (Japan, 1957) was released in the West as The Lower Depths in 1962. Kakushi toride no san akunin (Japan, 1958) was released in the USA in 1962 as The Hidden Fortress (and has latterly gained a reputation as the model for Star Wars (Lucas, USA, 1977) (see chapter 28). The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, Japan, 1960) was followed by two more Samurai films, Yojimbo (Japan, 1961) and Sanjuro (Japan, 1962).
Kurosawa experienced ill health, critical misunderstanding at home and a lack of attention abroad during a lean period in the
1960s and early 1970s. He returned to form with a Russian coproduction Dersu Uzala (1974). With the support of admirers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, he returned to a favourite genre to make the Samurai epic Kagemusha (Japan, 1980) and followed up with the richer and even more visually sumptuous Ran (Japan, 1985).
Kurosawa the film-maker is worthy of a place in our pantheon via his influence. Kurosawa's later films were certainly more popular in the West than at home. In Japan, critics have viewed his repeated dalliances with Western genres (including the Western) and authors such as Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky with some suspicion. Nonetheless, Kurosawa remains a revered artist by American and European film-makers - as evidenced by the remakes of e.g. The Seven Samurai itself as The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, USA, 1960), Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, Leone, Italy/Spain/West Germany, 1964) and Last Man Standing (Hill, USA, 1996) and - possibly - Kakushi toride no san akunin as Star Wars (1977) (not least for the wholesale borrowing of 'the wipe' as an editing technique).
Kurosawa has a strong claim to auteur status via a discernible 'authorial voice' (acclaim supported by his role as producer and through his writing credits). The director shaped the narrative (more often than not taken from 'art' literary sources) to highlight his concerns. His recurrent themes include fate as a driving force as well as nobility, dignity and personal honour (in Kurosawa the focus is on the personal - codes of honour may be broken as and when a character has to do so to remain true to themselves or because of force of circumstance).
There is also a visual signature. The mise en scène is often that of the feudal Japanese setting. The actor Toshirô Mifune (a leading player in The Seven Samurai) became Kurosawa's icon. Kurosawa's cinematography is characterised by extremely high contrast black and white photography and the use of highly mobile camerawork via tracking and panning.
The director also acted as his own editor and Kurosawa's films frequently employ stylised editing techniques, including jarring changes of pace, long shots (usually of crowds) cut directly to extreme close-ups and in particular the frequent use of 'the wipe' (one image pushing the previous one from the screen space) to fade from one scene to another.
The Seven Samurai is a quintessentially simple tale. A veteran samurai, who has fallen on hard times, answers a village's request for help. He seeks out samurai to help him. A desperate bunch of characters, they learn about themselves and each other as they teach the peasants how to defend themselves. The film culminates in a giant battle when 40 bandits attack the village. Nonetheless, the film lasts over three hours and has a reputation as one of the greatest films ever made. The reason for both points is simple. There is a real sense of depth in Kurosawa's masterpiece. The fight scenes are important and exciting (Kurosawa is a magnificent choreographer of action), but their power comes from our privileged position of having got to know the characters and their motivations.
As with Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941) (see chapter 10), technique and craft are utilised to tell a compelling story and explore interesting characters. The Seven Samurai is proof that film is a great humanist art form - and also first-class entertainment.
The material for the film, like many of Kurosawa's, is historical. It is set in a particular place: Japan, at a particular time: the sixteenth century. This was a period when a rigid social system was coming under increasing strain after decades of civil war. The peasants in the film break with tradition (a) by refusing to accept their lot and (b) by approaching the Samurai. The Samurai are of a particular kind - ronin (masterless) - who behave in often very un-samurai ways (including working for peasants). Kurosawa was from Samurai stock and obviously attracted to bushido (the way of the warrior). When watching the film, we must consider how movies portray and mythologise historical events and periods. After all, this film was influenced by, and greatly influenced, a lot of Westerns.
This film is also - obviously - Japanese. What is it trying to tell us about Japan? How does a Western audience read its messages? Remember, when The Seven Samurai (a film about a warrior's code of honour) was released, the Second World War was very recent history. A recent book on Kurosawa (by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto) suggests that Kurosawa's films arouse anxiety because they foreground and explore Japan's self-image and the West's image of Japan.
On a more cinema-specific level, notice the combination and juxtaposition of energy and gracefulness (watch how Kurosawa employs the sudden change of pace from rapid movement to absolute stillness or vice versa). Consider how pictures are used to tell the story.
Notice the contribution made by the austere musical score (by Fumio Hayasaka) and by the soundtrack in general.
Look out for Kurosawa's use of all the elements and thrill to that final battle scene that every Hollywood great wants to better - but never quite does.
In what ways does this Japanese film differ from the American and European films that have been influenced (or copied) it?
How different does the Hollywood version of The Seven Samurai look? Would it be possible to make a 'neo-realist' Samurai movie (see The Bicycle Thieves, chapter 13)?
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