By Matthew Ilseman
Seven Samurai is not a Frontier Partisans movie, but I think every member of the Frontier Partisans community should watch it. By this I mean that, aside from being an astounding movie, it was both influenced by and influential on the Western. Most famously, it was remade into The Magnificent Seven among many other adaptations. Also, the film’s director Akira Kurosawa was heavily influence by the great John Ford.
There is a certain circle of influence between Eastern and Western cinema. This can be seen in that two other of Kurosawa’s films have been adapted into Westerns with Yojimbo becoming A Fist Full of Dollars and Rashomon becoming The Outrage. Star Wars was influenced by Hidden Fortress. On the other side of the Atlantic, two of my favorite animes, Trigun and Cowboy Bebop, were essentially westerns in outer space.
On the Western, particularly those of John Ford, Kurosawa said, “Good westerns are liked by everyone. Since humans are weak they want to see good people and great heroes. Westerns have been done over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved. I have learned from this grammar of the western.” I believe this because they tend to be mythical or rather archetypical stories.
Seven Samurai is the story of great heroes. It should not however be taken that Kurosawa has an uncritical view of samurai. Coming from a samurai family on his mother’s side, he grew up with stories of the samurai, some of which were not particularly flattering. What the movie presents is complex characters in a complicated time.
The plot, on the other hand, is relatively simple: Poor peasants hire seven masterless samurai known as ronin to defend their village from bandits. From this simple idea a multilayered story unfolds. The film is a once an adventure, a commentary on the class structure of feudal Japan, and even to some degree a character study.
The primary character is Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a ronin. His introduction has him shaving his head so he can impersonate a Buddhist monk in order to rescue a child being held hostage. The scene is significant in many ways. Aside, from introducing the character, it shows his penchant for strategy. More importantly, it was extremely shameful for a samurai to cutoff, or otherwise lose, his top knot. It was the mark of status as a samurai and loosing it was often grounds for suicide. In shaving, Kambei shows that he values human life over his own personal honor.
This impresses the villagers who have been turned down by other ronin because they could not afford to pay them with anymore than rice. It also gains Kambei the notice of two other characters: Katsushiro Okamoto (Isau Kimura) a young idealistic samurai and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) a peasant masquerading as a samurai.
The peasants try to hire Kambei who initially refuses, but once he realizes their situation agrees to help despite little chance of reward. He is the first of the seven samurai. He is joined by Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) a skilled archer, Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato) an old comrade of Kambei’s, Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) an unskilled but cheerful ronin, and Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) a master swordsmen. Kambei reluctantly also takes the young Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo follows them against their will.
Of the seven, the strongest and most developed are Kambei and Kikuchiyo. They make an interesting contrast. Kambei is calm, wise, tired of fighting, and born in the samurai caste. Kikuchiyo is wild, foolish, enjoys fighting, and in reality is a peasant. Also notable are Katsushiro who follows in love with a peasant girl.
The setting of the movie, an isolated mountain village, is not on any type of frontier. While at roughly this same time period the exploration of America was beginning, Japan had been long settled. The Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants, of Japan had been pushed to Hokkaido (which unlike most of Japan would be a frontier and remain so for a long time).
However, this is during the end of the Sengoku or Warring States period. While I am not an expert on Japanese history, from the rough knowledge I have I know this is a lawless and extraordinary violent time. This, plus the isolation of the town, leaves the villagers in a situation similar to settlers on the frontier under attack. The government cannot be trusted, the villagers despite be hereditary farmers not warriors have to fight and they need professional know how.
Since there is the end of the constant wars, there are many ronin floating around without a job. The social codes of the time dictated that the Samurai could not do menial labor for a living so they had to find a new master. Many in desperation would turn to banditry. Though never stated, this probably were the bandits of the film came from.
As I said, it is a critique of the class structure of feudal Japan. While the main characters are men of integrity, it is shown that many samurai are just armed thugs. The villagers are afraid that their women will be raped. The villagers are not innocent either. It becomes known that villagers have looted the corpses of samurai and may have even hunted and killed defeated samurai. This shocks the samurai and they even discuss exterminating the village. This leads to what is probably the most powerful scene in the entire movie where Toshiro Mifune’s character calls out the samurai class for its depredations. Chastened, they decide to help the villagers anyway.
Kurosawa seems to be saying that neither group is innocent, but individuals can maintain ethical standards.
There is also Katsushiro’s romance with the peasant girl. Because of the class difference it is all but forbidden. Where as in The Magnificent Seven there is a romance between one of the gunfighters and a Mexican girl that proves successful, Seven Samurai ends with a separation of the two lovers.
The rest of the movie follows the battle with the bandits. Any fan of westerns can see the genre’s influence on the film. It is a story of larger than life characters in conflict with man and nature. Kurosawa, though his own director, shoots many scene’s similar to John Ford. There is also Ford’s mixture of drama and humor and the humanity of the characters.
The desperate heroism of the characters reminds one of the Alamo. The bandits are horse warriors like the Comanche. Heroic stands are made and lives are lost. In the end only three of the samurai survive.
One theme that it shares with the Western is the changing of the time. The movie is set during the end of the Warring States period. At this point the Tokugawa Shogunate will be established and Japan will, mostly, be at peace. The samurai will evolve from warriors to, essentially, bureaucrats.
In the end the peasants return to farming but, like Jack Schaeffer’s Shane, the samurai have no place in the society they protected.