Seven samurai are hired to protect a village from bandits.
Since it released in 1954, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai has ranked as one of the industry’s greatest films on several critics’ lists, and maybe one of the longest at 207 minutes. In addition to three months of pre-production, the movie took over a year to shoot, went well over budget and was shut down at least twice by Toho Studios.
Yet in the end it has became one of Japan’s highest grossing films at the time and has since been adapted in movies like The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Bug’s Life. In 2016 Sony Pictures will release an updated version of The Magnificent Seven starring Chris Pratt, Matt Bomer and Denzel Washington.
With a runtime of nearly four hours, this black and white Japanese production with English subtitles isn’t a quick watch. Compared to today’s non-stop action flicks, it also moves at a relatively slow pace in places as it fleshes out the characters and builds the audience’s emotional attachment to them. Several of the cast members might also be accused of overacting in North American terms. However this reflects the style of the Kabuki theater that depicts “over-the-top performance of characters based on broadly drawn archetypes or stereotypes,” according to Roger Ebert.
When it released, the film set a new standard in moviemaking. Among the plot elements it employs is the concept of mustering a band of heroes, often misfits or outsiders, to save the day. For the ensuing decades, that idea has been reflected even in current action movies like Furious 7, RED and Guardians of the Galaxy.
The story begins when bandits pillage a small town and threaten to return when the harvest is completed. Unable to fight off the outlaws, the poor farmers decide to hire someone to defend their crop. With little to offer in recompense, the village elder tells Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara), Rikichi (Yoshio Tsychiya) and Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) to find hungry samurai.
The three men finally stumble upon Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an aging ronin (samurai without a master) who they watch shave his head and pretend to be a monk in order to rescue a kidnapped child. Hoping this compassionate avenger will come to their rescue as well, the trio offers him rice in exchange for protection. When he finally agrees, Kambei goes about finding other warriors in need of a cause.
The samurais’ motivation for accepting the job varies between the half dozen men who join Kambei, yet all play a part in helping the townsfolk prepare for the inevitable attack by the bandits. Each man also represents variations of human nature and, in some cases, even different rankings in society. An understanding of the Japanese caste system and the society’s strict compliance to tradition will aid viewers in grasping the deeper details in these side stories.
Still, at the center of the tale is the aging Kambei. While he may not always have the vigor of the younger soldiers, he has wisdom and insight earned from years of experience. Willing to fight for the underdog, he not only understands the need for the samurai to act as protectors, but he also appreciates the cost that will come with the battle.