Shichi-nin No Samurai (1954)

I first heard about this film when I was a child—The Magnificent Seven was being shown on TV, and one of my parents said it was based on Seven Samurai. End of story, for then.
I’ve grown up since. I’ve heard about the brilliance of Akira Kurosawa. And I’ve recently read that Shichi-nin No Samurai (Seven Samurai) was supposedly the first film ever to use the concept of a group of unconnected people being brought together for a common cause. It therefore seemed high time to finally see the film for myself.
Having just finished watching it, I’m still stunned. This is a mind-blowing film, colossal and profound, gut-wrenching and brooding and action-packed and funny and romantic and… Well, simply unforgettable.

The story begins in a remote village tucked away at the base of the mountains. The villagers are tilling their fields when a band of horsemen comes swooping in towards the village, sending its inhabitants screaming helplessly for cover. They escape by the skin of their teeth, though: the bandit chief realises that his band had raided this village recently, and the crops wouldn’t have had time to ripen since then. Energy spent looting this village is energy wasted. So they ride away, telling themselves they’ll be back once the barley has turned ripe.

When the bandits have gone, the villagers emerge from wherever they’d sheltered and bemoan their fate. There is no one to turn to for help, and if things continue in this manner—with every harvest bringing in its wake the bandits—there’s not much point staying alive.
They’re at the end of their tethers when one voice of reason speaks up: they should go and seek counsel from the village elder Gisaku (Kokuten Kôdô), the universal ‘Granddad’.

And Granddad has a solution to offer: hire defenders. Samurai. When the other villagers complain that the village has nothing to offer—not even proper food, since the villagers have been reduced to subsisting mainly on millet—and samurai are known to be very proud, Granddad has more words of wisdom: “Find hungry samurai.”


So a quartet of villagers, including the enterprising Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) and the timid, blubbering and eternally gloomy Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), go off to town to see if they can find any hungry samurai who might be willing to come and save their village from the bandits.
Unluckily for the men, they end up facing polite refusal, ridicule (they don’t have anything to offer except rice? Hah!), and even blows.

They’re on the verge of giving up and returning to the village when they are accidental witnesses to the simple but startlingly effective rescue of a kidnapped child: an aging samurai, Shimada (Takashi Shimura), shaves off his hair, dons a priest’s robe and convinces the kidnapper he’s a benign priest come with food. With the kidnapper’s suspicions lulled, Shimada kills him in a swift, sudden attack, not just rescuing the child, but impressing Rikichi and Co. enough for them to approach him with their proposition.

Shimada is initially dismissive, but when he realises the village is desperate enough to give up its last grains of rice to feed the samurai it will hire—it simply does not have the money to pay them—he acquiesces (in a fabulously poignant scene, where he holds up a bowl of rice and says “I won’t waste your food”).
Based on what Rikichi and the others have told him about the village, Shimada calculates that to be effective, they’ll need seven samurai, including him.

But hungry samurai are still scarce. And the two samurai whom Shimada has blundered into don’t look as if they’d suit his purpose. The first one is the very young and earnest Katsushirô Okamoto (Isao Kimura), who’d seen the rescue operation Shimada had mounted for the kidnapped child. Okamoto is deeply impressed and begs Shimada on his knees to take him as a disciple. Shimada refuses: this one, though he may come from a family of samurai, is no warrior yet. He’s just a child.

Then there’s the crude and utterly cocksure Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune), who loudly asserts he’s a samurai—but whom Shimada regards with disbelief, before disregarding altogether.

Meanwhile, Okamoto’s tenacity and general eagerness to please has made Shimada accept him as an informal apprentice of sorts. It is Okamoto’s task to carry out the preliminary test on each candidate they invite: to mount a surprise attack on the man by hitting him over the head with a stout stick—a good samurai, reasons Shimada, will be able to protect himself.
One such man, who becomes the second samurai to join the gang, is the cheerful Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), who enlists mainly because he finds Shimada intriguing, a man he’d like to know better.

And Katayama, in his turn, finds them another: the witty Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki), whom he comes across chopping firewood for an innkeeper in exchange for a meal. Hayashida is just a second-rate fencer, but he’ll compensate by being good company.

One day a windfall comes their way: Shimada’s old right-hand man, Shichirôji (Daisuke Katô) turns up in town, and after a meeting with his ex-boss, agrees to join the group.

…as does the taciturn, somewhat reclusive and highly accomplished fencer Kyûzô (Seiji Miyaguchi), who had originally refused Shimada’s invitation but now joins.

Even counting the inexperienced Okamoto, they’re still only six men, and Shimada decides it’s time they set off for the village. On the night before they’re to leave, the boisterous Kikuchiyo shows up again, thoroughly drunk and armed with proof that he is a samurai, like he’d claimed: he’s come with a scroll of his family tree. Unfortunately, according to that,  Kikuchiyo should be 13 years old. He’s obviously a fraud.

But a small matter like being shoved out all over again isn’t going to dissuade Kikuchiyo (or whatever his real name is—we never learn that in the film). When the samurai set off for the village the next morning, he tails them, constantly on their heels.

In the village, meanwhile, doubts are surfacing. The expected samurai will be dashing men, says one anxious father; they’ll seduce our daughters. One daughter, Shino (Keiko Tsushima) has already been forced by her father to cut off her hair and dress as a boy. Will the other women be safe (will Shino herself be safe?) from the charms of these worldly-wise warriors? Will other differences, too wide to be bridged, crop up between the poor peasants and the samurai? And what about the samurai themselves (not yet seven, mind you—just five, plus one persistent boor and one green lad)? Will they be able to save the village from the bandits?

At a whopping three and a half hours in length, Shichi-nin No Samurai takes its time to build up, but never with wasted scenes or dialogues—every minute contributes in some way to the overall fabric of the film. We see the distinctive character of each of the samurai emerging; we find relationships building up between the samurai, and (unlikely though it may appear at the start) between the samurai and the villagers. There are moments of hilarity, even sheer buffoonery, and moments of the deepest despair. There is sound military strategy and unsound, irrational passion. There is fear, hatred, and compassion; bitter memories and secrets too terrible to speak of. And there is the rapidly ripening barley in the fields…

Watch this. It’s a brilliant film, and never once during that three and a half hours did I find my interest flagging.

What I liked about this film:

So, so much. The plot, the superb characterisation (of both samurai and villagers), the excellent use of silences or mere expressions instead of dialogue, the sound of rain and rippling water as music: everything.

But my favourite of all has to be Toshirô Mifune’s Kikuchiyo. This is a wonderfully etched character, at first glance uncouth and often clownish but nevertheless a powerful and skilled warrior. He struts around, leering at the village women; he roars with maniacal laughter and pulls tricks that amuse no-one. Yet, in a sudden decisive moment when the villagers’ attitude towards the samurai is sharply negative, it is Kikuchiyo who turns the tables. And when it is the turn of the samurai to view the villagers with hatred, it is Kikuchiyo who takes the part of the villagers. This man, enigmatic and multi-layered, is ever the one who straddles the boundary between good and bad, rich and poor, samurai and peasant: a memorable character, and superbly acted by Mifune.

What I didn’t like:

Nothing. Except perhaps what finally happened to my favourite, Kikuchiyo. I’d have liked the film to have ended a little differently for him.
But when I look at it from the point of view of art, I guess the end Kurosawa created was the best there was.

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25 thoughts on “Shichi-nin No Samurai (1954)

  1. This film has been dancing around in my should-look-for-and-watch list. I’ve been meaning to see some Kurosawa, simply because one friend whose taste I trust, told me his films are brilliant (nope I never listen to critics!). Your review places this firmly on my to-find list! I think Rajkumar Santoshi’s China Gate recycled the same plot, and wasnt a bad film, either (at least not in the first half, which is all I have seen).

  2. I love this film. Watched it again this year, and it is really such a “total” film; I liked the Hollywood remake, but this original is soooo good.

  3. bollyviewer: I know what you mean about not listening to critics. I have ended up missing out on some lovely films (or watching stuff that left me feeling dazed, depressed or annoyed) simply because I did listen. But this one’s a gem, absolutely worth looking out for. Someone one imdb called it ‘solid gold’, and I agree completely!

    bawa: The Hollywood remake is next on my list. :-)

    harvey: Yes, do see! Having seen Shichi-nin No Samurai, I’m now itching to watch more Kurosawa.

  4. Toshiro Mifune is my favorite non-Indian Asian actor. Watch him in Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low… and in the sublime Rashomon. Mifune and Kurosawa were not on talking terms for almost 30 years and only sort of reconciled only at the end of their lives. 30 years where they admitted they did their best work together but shunned each other. :((

    Btw, I bought ‘The Englishman’s Cameo’ last night at Landmark Chennai, so I have a relaxed Sunday to look forward to in Bangalore:)

  5. Thank you for buying The Englishman’s Cameo – I hope you like it!

    I thought Mifune’s acting was so fabulous in Shichi-nin No Samurai: I’m already on the lookout for his other films, especially Rashomon, which I’ve heard so much about but haven’t seen yet. I believe he and Kurosawa did something like 18 (or was it 16?) films together before they fell out. Now I want to see all of them! Maybe I’ll begin with the ones you’ve recommended!

  6. Yes, do watch Rashomon and if you are in the mood for some Shakespeare adaptations, get hold of Throne of Blood and Ran (Macbeth and King Lear).

    I saw Ran back in college — it is mesmerizing and haunting in a way that I can’t even begin to describe. Throne of Blood is pure and classic cinema as is Rashomon.

    You will love them all!

  7. Thank you for those recommendations! :-)

    Have added those to my list… now if only I could double the hours in a day, somehow. There are just so many absolutely fabulous films out there waiting to be seen, and there’s so little time. Sigh.

  8. oh I have to join in the Kurosawa recommendations in Roshomon, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo – Ran is also a wonderful, wonderful film. And will add Hidden Fortress, really excellent cinematography and it is my favorite role of Mifune. He is not an actor I really like but of course I admire him. I much prefer Shimura san’s understated performance in Seven Samurai.

    Kurosawa is a master filmmaker and Seven Samurai is one of the films that fully deserves its masterpiece status.

  9. Oh, wow. I’ve just been reading the plot summaries for The Hidden Fortress at imdb, and it sounds too good to wait for!

    Yikes, now I’m wishing I’d starting watching Kurosawa a long, long time ago. Somehow (and I’m echoing bollyviewer here) all that critical acclaim put me off – too often, I’ve heard high praise for a director, only to find that the hype far surpasses the reality. But if Shichi-nin No Samurai is anything to go by, Kurosawa deserves all that acclaim – and more.

  10. Kurusawa is IT! Watch and re-watch all of his films, you can’t go wrong.

    My other favourite Japanese director- on a totally different plane from Kurusawa: is Miyasaki…what a wonderful artist!
    Anyone going to Tokyo, go to his museum.
    My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononake, Spirited Away..I recommend watching them in Japanese with english subtitles, the dubbing takes so much of the magic away.

  11. I agree completely. Dubbing tends to take away the spirit of the film, more often than not… I prefer not to see a film if it’s dubbed rather than subtitled.

    Have just read about Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro over at imdb. Both sound absolutely magical. Will definitely look out for them.

  12. Do dustedoff, and I will wait for your reviews, and more Kurusawa’s as well.

    The first Miyasaki I saw was “Howl’s Moving Castle” based on a book of the same name by Dianne Wynne-Jones, and once we discovered her, I wondered why I had not come across this author before? Any children’s author who can begin a book like

    In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league-boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

    Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success. Her parents were well to do and kept a ladies’ hat shop in the prosperous town of Market Chipping….

    is well worth knowing, imho.

    If you are interested, take time to read her own fascinating story…

    http://www.leemac.freeserve.co.uk/autobiog.htm

    Apologies for going off-topic, but I get carried away easily…

  13. bawa, thank you for going off-topic! I read part of Diana Wynne-Jones’s autobiography from the link you sent, and I couldn’t wait to say thank you for that – she sounds such a delightful character. There’s a deliciously humorous yet sweet charm to her writing that captivated me as soon as I began reading (well, to be precise, it captivated me when I read the excerpt).

    I must, must get hold of some books of hers.

    In fact, her writing reminded me of one of the happiest books I’ve ever read – also a children’s book, an Australian one about a rag-tag little group of animals (I think a wombat was one of them) who go off on some quest… I don’t recall what, but an Aussie friend of mine sent it to me years ago, with the note that it was his favourite book, even as an adult. I know I liked it a lot. Something very heart-warming about it.

  14. Miyazaki is a great director and I can safely recommend every film he directed my fave being My Neighbour Totoro.

    Japan has a good source of excellent directors, Naruse, Ozu and Mizoguchi are other faces and I have no hesitation in recommending any of their films. My fave among them is Naruse.

  15. dustedoff: do tell me the author if you remember; I am a great fan of children’s fiction.

    eliza: loved Tokyo Story by Ozu, but still have to find time to actually see some of the films I have collected :(

    And Totoro is my favourite too, our biggest regret on our Tokyo-Ghibli visit was not being allowed to climb in/on to the the Cat Bus: for children under 10 only and my 15 and 17 year old were soooo jealous!..so was I!

  16. Eliza: Thank you – and do you have any favourites as far as Naruse’s concerned? Any tips are always welcome. :-)

    bawa: Will scrounge around for it. My friend gifted it to me years ago, and I know I’ve got it tucked away somewhere, but I need to look for it… will let you know!

  17. Ran and Hidden Fortress are wonderful too as others have pointed out, but I primarily came here to say that I have heard ‘Chain se humko kabhi’ about 50 times in the last 24 hours. Thank you for your OP Nayyar fav list :)

  18. You’re welcome! (Though I don’t think I had Chain se humko kabhi on that list) ;-)

    It’s a wonderful song, though, and sung with so much feeling. I can understand why you’ve been listening to it again and again!

  19. TCM has a Kurosawa special going this month and I caught this (plus parts of The Throne of Blood) yesterday. From all I’d ever heard of Kurosawa, I expected some B/W neo-realism, but the films seemed more like a cross between a dance-drama and Kathakali! The way all the characters turn their faces or sit down in well choreographed, synchronised motions throughout the film, the way they move (kind of hopping/skipping instead of walking around – is that how the Japanese of the middle ages are supposed to walk?), the way they emote (every muscle quivering with expression – like a Kathakali dancer), the broad gestures – everything reminded me more of classical plays than modern cinema, and not in a good way either! :-( I loved Takashi Shimura though – so grave and dignified and acting the way I expect my actors to act. I’m so sad that I am unable to appreciate Kurosawa as I ought to. :-C

  20. Ah, well – to each his (or her) own, I suppose! Don’t watch The Hidden Fortress then, or Yojimbo, if you ever get the chance – they’re even more like that than Shichi-nin No Samurai. I have watched a couple of Kurosawa’s noir films, though – High and Low and Stray Dog, both of which I thought were awesome. They’re set in contemporary Tokyo, and so of course there’s none of that Kathakali-like behaviour. Brilliant films, both, and among the best noir films I’ve ever seen.

  21. For bollyviewer, the Throne of Blood drew heavily from the stylised techiniques of the Noh Theatre in Japan, because Kurosawa wanted to film Macbeth as a Japanese classic rather than as an English one.

    Dustedoff, apart from all the recommendations above, *if* you haven’t seen it already, get your hands on The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman) – where a knight returning from the crusades plays Chess with Death – the wager being his life.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Anu! I have heard of The Seventh Seal, but to be very frank, I’ve never been quite able to summon up the courage to watch an Ingmar Bergman film. I’ve heard so much about his films being… well, brooding, deep, whatever – that I’ve tended to steer clear. I have got a couple of his films in my DVD rental queue (and they’re always available for hire), but I’ve never gotten around to asking for them.

      But this one, at least, I’ll look out for.

      • Confession: I haven’t seen many of Bergman’s films but those that I have seen, I’ve liked. Okay, The Seventh Seal *is* dark and brooding, but such a lyrical film nevertheless and deeply philosophical too. But there two others I have seen were The Magic Flute (adapted from Mozart’s last Opera; and simply beautiful!), and Autumn Sonata (Ingrid Bergman’s last film) and I liked both.

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