Akira Kurosawa’s epic adventure Seven Samurai turns sixty-five this year. Despite being consistently voted as one of the greatest films ever made by audiences, the chances of them labelling it the most influential film of all times might not be as high. Intriguingly, the film would win hands down if filmmakers were asked the same question, and perhaps even a large number of critics.
The story of a bunch of villagers in the Sengoku Period of Japanese history, 16th century warn-torn Japan, hiring seven ‘rōnin’ or masterless samurai to defend them against bandits that threaten to steal their harvest is hardly ideal but by the end of the three and a half hour long film, what you had is a film that for long has been widely regarded as one of the most remade, reworked, referenced films in cinema.
Kurosawa’s reputation as a modern-day great of world cinema was well established by the time Seven Samurai released. In fact, like most of his career, Seven Samurai, too, was better received by critics abroad than in Japan.
There was a widespread perception amongst the local critics that if the West could ‘get’ Kurosawa’s films so well, then there was something amiss and as a result, the Japanese critics often lauded the subtler cinema of Yasujirô Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, which they believed to be more authentically Japanese. Initially, Kurosawa set out to make a film that covered a single day in a samurai’s life but in the course of his research found a story about samurai defending farmers.
Finally, when he shot Seven Samurai over 148 shooting days spread across a year, the budget ballooned four times over and eventually cost half a million dollars. The most interesting anecdote about the film was that it was originally called ‘Six Samurai’ and the legendary Toshiro Mifune was to play the somber Kyuzo, but the filmmaker and his writers found the proceedings too boring. Kurosawa then asked Mifune to play the ‘off-the-wall’ character Kikuchiyo and asked him to improvise.
The deceptively simple plot is set right at the onset and what follows was one of the earliest, and possibly even the greatest ever, ‘assembling the team’ sequence. Led by the veteran Kambei (Takashi Shimura), six other rōnins join the suicide mission - Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), a skilled archer, Shichirōji (Daisuke Katō), Kambei’s old friend and former lieutenant, Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), a supremely skilled swordsman, Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki), an amiable though less-skilled fighter, whose charm and wit maintain his comrades’ morale in the face of adversity, Okamoto (Isao Kimura), the untested son of a wealthy landowner samurai, who Kambei reluctantly takes in as a disciple, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the mercurial and temperamental rogue who lies about being a samurai but in the end proves his worth.
In action films that followed, the assembling of the team became a must-have and film’s rain-drenched climatic fight that has been called ‘a miracle of brilliantly choreographed chaos’ juxtaposes the three essential elements of a great Kurosawa film - choreographed action set-pieces, brilliant camerawork, and editing. Due to production delays, the climax was shot in the nail-biting cold of February and had characters running through the mud with horses galloping across the screen, and spears and arrows flying all around.
Filmed with multiple cameras that transported the audience to the heart of the action, how Kurosawa himself edited the sequence used the different banners of the bandits and the samurais to tell you who is who in the chaos, consequently heightening the drama within each moment.
Kurosawa was inspired by the westerns of John Ford when it came to designing and executing the sequences in Seven Samurai. In this particular film, he managed to infuse the western genre with traditional Japanese styles such as chambara (swordplay film) and the jidaigeki (period drama). One of the things that made it unlike the samurai films up until then was Fumio Hayasaka’s background score. Kurosawa had asked Hayasaka to give him something different from the music heard in samurai films such as the Zatoichi films, which followed the adventures of a blind samurai, and the composer used Japanese instruments but in the tradition of Western composers.
He gave themes for characters and events and rarely used stringed instruments, as he had wanted the score to become more accessible for the western audiences. Seven Samurai repaid the debt of John Ford by inspiring a barrage of westerns and was famously remade by Preston Sturges as The Magnificent Seven (1960). The narrative, as well as the imagery of film, went on to influence filmmakers such as Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, and most famously, Sergio Leone. Peckinpah’s films changed the mise-en-scène of the westerns, and Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) showed violence unlike ever before on screen. The latter also paved the path for the New American films.
Along with Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s two other films in the same genre - The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961) - went on to influence George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which kick-started the spaghetti western genre. It was ultimately Leone’s westerns that Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) owes a high debt to in terms of the visual palette but also the shot-taking as well as the sound design.
In many ways, a Japanese master influencing filmmakers across generations, countries, as well as genres is perhaps the single most significant achievement of Seven Samurai.
Moreover, the fact that its traces are seen on a Ramesh Sippy, Robert Altman (the slushy setting of M*A*S*H* ), which was a breakaway for studio-backed war films), Mani Ratnam (the rain-drenched fights in Thalapati ), Ram Gopal Verma (the element of rain at pivotal moments in Satya , Company ), Shimit Amin’s (Ab Tak Chappan ), J. Lee Thompson’s Guns of Navarone (1961), Steven Soderbergh (gathering the team in Ocean’s Eleven ), George Miller (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior ) and even Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998) as well as The Avengers (2012) tells the extent of the impact its had. Let’s not forget the Hindi film remake, Rajkumar Santoshi’s China Gate (1998) where the opening credits read, “Our humble tribute to late Akira Kurosawa.”
Gautam Chintamani is a film historian and the author of ‘Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna and Pink – The Inside Story’. He tweets at GChintamani