Seven Samurai is arguably, director Akira Kurosawa’s most successful work. It takes place in Japan in 1586 and tells the story of a peasant village that knows the local bandit army is going to rob them of their rice harvest in a few weeks. They hatch the plan of hiring samurai to defend them from the bandits.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
They’re rebuffed by several samurai who feel that it is beneath their dignity to work for peasants. Finally, they come upon a samurai who is in the act of saving a child from a thief who has taken him hostage. The samurai named Kambei Shimada (played by Takashi Shimura) shaves his own head to disguise himself as a monk then during a ruse to get food to the child throws himself at the thief and overpowers and kills him.
After hearing the peasants’ plight, Shimada agrees to take on their war but insists he’ll need at least six more samurai to accomplish the feat. The next section of the movie is the assembling of the team. Each of the samurai chosen has distinctive characteristics. One is an old comrade of Shimada’s (Shichirōji). Another is a preternaturally skilled swordsman (Kyūzō). Still another is a skilled archer and master strategist (Gorōbei). One is a nobleman’s son (Katsushirō) trying to become a samurai. Another (Heihachi) is a mediocre swordsman but has so much spirit that he becomes the glue that gives the team cohesion. And finally, there is Kikuchiyo (played by Toshiro Mifune). He was pretending to be a samurai but his story was laughably false. The group mocks him and tells him to get lost but he trails them and eventually is accepted as a sort of mascot. Eventually he shows his worth by the way he can control and organize the farmers into a defense force for the war. Eventually the story comes out that he is an orphan of a peasant family that was murdered by bandits.
Shimada and Gorōbei lay out the plan for the defense of the town. They order the peasants to build defensive fences out of timber and to flood some of the perimeter fields. They also destroy some bridges that span the local river. Shichirōji, Katsushirō and especially Kikuchiyo drill the peasants in the use of home-made bamboo spears and the tactics they’ll need to support the samurai in their defense against the bandits’ cavalry charges.
After catching a few scouts that show up on their perimeter a sortie is sent out against a fort that the bandits have about twenty miles from the town. The raid is a success. The bandit’s fort is burned down but Heihachi is struck by a musket shot and killed.
The next day the bandits attack in force. For two days the samurai and their peasant troops steadily whittle down the bandits’ numbers through dividing up the cavalry charges and attacking the outnumbered stragglers. But during one attack Gorōbei is killed.
Finally, the last day of the battle dawns and it is pouring rain. The samurai let all the bandits into the town for a final pitched battle. And the village forces are winning the day. But the bandit chief hides out in the women’s building in the center of town with a musket. He shoots down Kyūzō. Kikuchiyo runs toward the building to revenge him. The chief shoots him in the belly but Kikuchiyo manages to stab the chief to death before he also dies. And the battle ends with all the bandits dead.
The next day while the villagers rejoice in their victory, Shimada, Shichirōji and Katsushirō walk past the graves of their fallen comrades and reflect that the victory was a pyrrhic one for them. The real winners were the farmers whose lives can now go on undisturbed by bandits or samurai.
I’ve left out some subplots involving a love story between Katsushirō and a farmer’s daughter named Shino. There’s also a farmer whose wife was kidnapped by the bandits and turned into a concubine who runs back into a burning building to avoid the wrath of her husband. And a village elder who rather than abandoning his building to the bandits is killed along with his son and daughter in law. But these are window dressing. The story is the war and it is well told. Now let’s get down to cases. This is a three and a half hour, black and white movie in Japanese with subtitles. Those things right there will be disqualifications for a very large subset of Americans. But if you do not automatically reject such a film then I’m happy to say that “Seven Samurai” is quite a good adventure story. Kurosawa based the concept of this film on American westerns. This was black hat outlaws versus farmers and some white hat cowboys. Think of the Earps versus the Clantons. In fact, the story was remade as a western called the “Magnificent Seven.” Of course, each of us has a limit on just how wide our comfort zone is for exotic stories but in my opinion Seven Samurai is well worth the trouble of some of the oddities. The whining peasants are a little annoying and the pacing at some stages is on the slow side. But I’ll highly recommend this movie for fans of adventure stories.