A small village learns that a band of fifty bandits are planning on raiding them as soon as the harvest comes in. The villagers, desperate and afraid, decide to hire Samurai for protection. With nothing else to offer except three square meals of rice a day as payment, they succeed in finding seven men who are willing to fight and die for their protection.
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The first thing you should know before reading on is that Seven Samurai is widely considered one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. To prove it, I challenge you to go online now and look up any top one hundred list or top ten list of greatest movies of all time. Right now, stop reading and look up any legitimate list you can find. I assure you, youíll always find that Seven Samurai is at least in the top five. More likely itís in the top three or two. Thereís a reason for this. And that reason is Akira Kurosawa.
One of the main reasons for my above claim is that Kurosawawas always in complete control of his films. While this istrue in every one of his 30 plus films, itís particularly true in Seven Samurai. When watching the film, watch how in the background a wind blows a few leaves past one of the characters. Notice how thereís a slight shadow over the bald head of a villager. Hear the birds chirping off in the distance. Rest assured, it wasnít a coincidence that any of these things happened. Akira Kurosawa put them there, every shadow, every sound, every inch you see on film is there because he wanted it to be there. This is the mark of a truly great director, and even more importantly, itís one of the key reasons that Seven Samurai will always be at the top of any film critics list.
In early 16th Century Japan, chaos and civil war was common place. Warlords were battling over land, honor, and a claim at the title of Emperor. The Samurai who followed these warlords too often found themselves unemployed and homeless when their masters whom they served had met their end.
During all this turmoil, bandits would band together to raid and pillage small, defenseless villages in order to survive. One such village (the one this film follows) gets wind of an impending attack. The villagers of course panic, fearful for their lives and homes. After consulting the village elder, it is agreed that they should go to the city to find and hire Samurai to fight off the bandits when they come.
One thing to bear in mind about this is the fact that the idea of hiring Samurai, as opposed to the Samurai just nobly acting out of shear honor, had never been done before in Japanese cinema. At the time, there were hundreds of Japanese films coming out depicting heroic Samurai fighting honorably to defend the weak against the wicked. Never before were Samurai depicted as poor, hungry and homeless, desperate for food and work. This idea would of shocked audiences at itís original release. Also, many of the Samurai were greedy, demanding greater pay then the villagers had to offer in this film, which was nothing more than three meals of rice a day. Again, the idea of a Samurai not onlygetting payment for his services, but demanding pay for it, was unheard of. Just another of the many reasons this film is considered a masterpiece.
Another thing that deserves discussion is the Samurai themselves. As Iíve already stated, the villagers find it harder than they had anticipated to find worthwhile Samurai who are willing to fight and die for nothing more than rice.
Kambei manages to round up six others before they head back to the village. The greatest note of interest is that in most Samurai movies at the time, the heroes were always master swordsmen. They were unparalleled in combat, clever and witty, always a step ahead of the bad guys. In Seven Samurai, this is not the case. There is only one master swordsmen among the seven. The rest are lesser in talent and rank. None of them would of been generals or personal bodyguards to the Emperor. Rather, theyíd of been captains or a lieutenant. Again, unheard of in Japanese cinema. One of them, Kikuchiyo (played by ToshirŰ Mifune) isnít even a real Samurai, but simply a drunk claiming to be one while holding the worlds most ridiculously oversized sword. Each character is flushed out and well played, but I wonít spoil that here. Youíll just have to watch and see for yourself.
One of the strengths of this film is in itís simplicity. I could easily go on and divulge information about the plot and what happens to pages on end, but to put it simply, hereís what happens in three sentences. The villagers find out they are going to be attacked by the bandits, so they hire seven Samurai to defend them. They find seven Samurai who agree, train the villagers into a rough malitia, and set up defenses. Finally, the bandits attack in one of the greatest battle scenes ever caught on film. Thatís it, not much really, but what makes it rich is the depth, the stories within stories, the direction, the way itís all put together.
Each character has a full story arc. Each character even has their own theme music. The village itself, which can be no longer than 100 yards in length, appears massive and complex when it needs to, yet seems small and quaint at other times.
The last thing Iíd like to divulge on is the final battle scene. To further prove my point of the power of simplicity, take The Lord of the Rings. Epic by all accounts. There are battle scenes in that film were over 100,000 orcs are charging a castle that encompasses half a mountain side. It doesnít really get much more epic than that. Why is it then, that when I watch the final battle in Seven Samurai, which is between 50 bandits and perhaps 30 or 40 roughly trained villagers along with the seven Samurai, I feel the same way?
Why is it that they both feel equally, ďepicĒ. Though I may never be able to properly answer this question to myself, what I can do is guess at the way the battle is done. The majority of the men in this battle arenít well trained. They arenít master swordsmen killing off hordes upon hordes of bandits single handedly. The battle ground is a small village, the village square and the small dirt roads leading away. In the pouring rain we see the Samurai desperately flailing in the knee high mud, swinging their swords wildly through the sea of men. The villagers wave their crude spears in the general direction of the bandits pouring in on horseback. The scene is at the same time awe inspiring and pitiful. The film builds up to this crucial moment, this final battle, and it isnít noble. It isnít grand or fun, it just is what it is. Fearful men rolling around in the mud trying desperately to stay alive.
I could never fully describe everything this film does in just one review to assert itself as one of the greatest achievements in the history of film. The reasons are too many and too great for me to comprehend. What I can tell you is simply this. Watch this movie. Itís truly one of a kind.