Even if you’ve never seen The Seven Samurai, you kind of have seen The Seven Samurai.
What I mean is – no doubt you’ve seen a movie where a ragtag bunch of tough guys get hired, blackmailed, forced, or otherwise rounded up to protect a group of poor, kindly, and generally weak people from some criminals or thugs. Along the way, the group of tough guys goes from being a random handful of individuals to a collective force to be reckoned with. There’s usually one guy who’s prone to wisecracks, one guy who’s the strong silent type, a hot-shot loose cannon whose lack of discipline and urge to show off puts others at risk, and a younger guy wanting to prove his worthiness. There’s usually a scene where they train the people they’re protecting into being an army themselves. Someone in the gang gets to make out with a pretty girl from the village. By the end of the movie the mercenaries have become a team, someone’s died heroically, and the village is saved.
Yeah, you see what I mean? You’ve definitely seen this movie – even if the actual movie you saw was a Western or an animated film or even a comedy instead of this classic by Akira Kurosawa. And those are only the direct homages – elements of this film arguably have turned up in World War II “forming a platoon” dramas or “assembling a team of misfits” heists. You could even make a plausible case for how this influenced the Avengers films.
And there’s a reason so many elements of this film keep turning up elsewhere – it’s because this movie works. Kurosawa has tapped into some ur-tropes here, so you don’t really need to know anything about the samurai system or medieval Japan to get what’s going on. It’s instantly clear that the hothead Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a decent enough fighter, but he’s also kind of a jerk, and you can predict he’ll be a headache. Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is always cracking jokes, but half of them are self-deprecating, and the others all laugh, so he’s the comic relief. Katsushirō (Isao Kimura) is noticeably younger and prettier than the others, and follows them around like a fanboy, so you don’t need to know he’s of a different societal class to get that he’s inexperienced and untested and is about to do a lot of growing up over the course of the film.
Roommate Russ warned me that this was going to be long – but it’s not that much longer than Avengers: Endgame, and much like Endgame, you don’t really notice a drag. There’s plenty of action throughout – each team member gets into little scuffles early on which draw the attention of leader Kambei (Takashi Shimura) when he’s recruiting his squad, and there’s an early raid on a bandit’s hideout where we learn some tragic news about one of the villagers. Kurosawa balances out the scenes where Kambei is planning strategy with plenty of shots of Heihachi goofing off or Kikuchiyo acting up.
There’s a surprising amount of comedy as well – some of it from Heihachi’s joking, and some of it from Kikuchiyo’s wise-assery. In one scene, Kikuchiyo is trying to prove his horsemanship, and borrows one farmer’s horse and rides full-tilt into a meadow. We follow them as they ride behind a barn – and then the horse comes out from behind the barn alone, followed a few seconds later by Kikuchiyo, on foot and rubbing his backside. Even one of the action scenes is funny – when the crack swordsman Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi) hears that the team needs to try to get some of the enemies’ weapons, he says he’ll do it, and wordlessly walks off into the woods. A short while later, he comes back, arms laden with weapons, wordlessly hands them to Kambei and lies down for a nap.
The villagers also get a little bit of the action as well, of course. Timid Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) is a meek little man scared of his own shadow, but still manages to clobber one of the bandits in the final battle (even if he looks completely freaked out after he does so). Rikichi (Yokio Tsuchiya) seems oddly sensitive when people refer to his marital state, but there’s a sad cause for that. Farmer Manzō (Katamari Fujiwara) is so concerned that the samurai are going to rape his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) that he forces her to dress as a boy – but she’s got other ideas, and seeks out Katsushirō herself anyway.
Manzō’s reaction when he finally discovers Shino and Katsushirō have been canoodling was the only false note for me. He catches them the night before the big final battle and goes on a full-on temper tantrum, ranting that she’s been “ruined” and that she’s “damaged goods”. The samurai finally talk him down from his tantrum, reassuring him that this kind of thing happens everywhere when there’s a battle afoot (“this even happens in castles,” Kambei tells him), but it was still uneasy to hear and went on for slightly too long for my taste.
But that was the only false note in something that was actually really fun. It’s set the pattern for a lot of the elements I’ve liked in action movies, so it was a treat to see who I had to thank.