In theory, it seems simple: A peasant village is being driven to desperation by bandits, and the peasants recruit a number of wandering samurai to help protect their home. And it is. And that mastery of many different kinds of simplicity is what gives director Akira Kurosawa’s remarkable Seven Samurai its own sort of profound strength.
The film is not complicated, as the story exists primarily in terms of its characters instead of an elaborate plot. In the same way the film is not shallow, as the various characters, samurai and peasant alike, have a wide range of personalities, levels of individual discipline, and opinions about war in general, which in turn directly affect the ways these people live their lives onscreen. On a story level, the movie is quite the success in that it seems to give the major players plenty of screen time, neither too much nor too little for each, and all of them feel interesting as characters.
Where the movie truly shines is in its technical presentation, specifically in how it often uses even the quiet moments to develop mood and atmosphere. Storytelling is delivered in many areas by way of character actions and body language. Dialogue is not common in some scenes, but when it arrives, it is supported by amazing acting and subtitle translation (the version of the movie I watched is located on the streaming service Hulu), the latter of which feels “modern” enough to be accessible without feeling out of place.
Some of the acting at the very beginning of the film is slightly melodramatic, but the acting quickly finds an effective balance between showing scene-appropriate emotion and exercising restraint, so throughout the movie in general, hardly anything feels too over-the-top. The movie knows how to encourage just the right amount of truly carefree laughter as well, such that no moment of humor feels “forced” or jarring against the depressing context. Some of the dialogue itself is truly laugh-out-loud funny.
The music is similarly used with great care: in some portions of the film, there essentially is none. Clear ostinatos and motifs exist, but they’re not constant; sometimes the sound design even contents itself with ambient environment noise. A quality example of this careful use of sound comes early in the film, where a monk is shown playing a stringed instrument and sitting against a wall. The rest of this scene goes on, and this music continues in such a subtle fashion that it feels like regular background music until the viewer is reminded that the monk is indeed still there.
It is in the moments of comparing this film to other stories that share its basic structure, that a number of characteristics of Seven Samurai prove even more of the true extent of their worthiness: There is no “big hero,” for instance, or a moment where a lone fighter breaks rank and saves the day without issue. The samurai, and the peasants, must work as one and fight as one, lest their lives be wasted. There is no one real “hero character” driving the story, as the various samurai and even the peasants have their part to play. There is no easy romance. When this comes, it must contend with the values of a surrounding culture that may not be particularly receptive to it.
With a running time of nearly three and a half hours, thoughtfully including an intermission, this is a film that makes the viewer work to reach the end, and while my personal opinion is that the movie stretched my patience almost to the point of excess, the final result was certainly worth it. Some of the actors pull their punches a little too obviously during the fight sequences, perhaps understandably in light of the dangerous implements typically used, but the very sort of “chaos” in these scenes greatly flavors the mood of each confrontation, reminding the viewer that real war isn’t supposed to look sanitized, stylish, or orderly.
The atmosphere of the climactic battle is tangibly uncomfortable, not because of what lies ahead for the film but because of what has already come: the story skillfully takes on a variety of moods between happiness and sadness without merely hyping up the narrative climax, and at this point the tale truly does give the impression that none of the characters’ fates can be certain and that no one is truly “safe.”
When the ending battles finally started to roll in, I found myself conflicted: I was deeply happy that all of the preceding tale’s story and buildup could finally be tested and that the story was drawing to a close, but I was also genuinely worried about the fates of the various samurai as well as of the peasants. On a happier note, a design decision that worked exceptionally well was to outfit the villains in dark clothing, distinguishing them from the heroes both morally and physically, being that the film itself was in black and white. The final battle also had a truly effective twist that spoke volumes about the era of the story and the nature of warfare in that time period, all while being as simple on its surface as the rest of the movie was.
Seven Samurai is not a film for the impatient, but it is a grand yet humble movie for those who are able and willing to work for narrative rewards; the subtitled and sparingly used dialogue encourages attention and focus, even discipline, but when the movie feels that it and the viewer are ready, it delivers an exciting (if slightly short) finishing sequence that feels like more than simple gratification and closes a story full of enjoyable characters.