Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa made around 30 films over the course of his prolific career, one that lasted over 50 years. He achieved immortality in the history of world cinema by producing several masterpieces like Rashomon and Ikiru, which influenced countless filmmakers who came after him. However, it is his 1954 epic Seven Samurai that is regarded as his magnum opus. After 67 years, does it still retain its place among the greatest films ever made?
Originally intended to be a chronicle of a single day in a samurai’s life, Kurosawa changed his mind after uncovering a story about samurai rising to the defence of helpless farmers. There were six samurai initially, but it was decided that another one was required to make the cohort more interesting by adding an “off-the-wall” samurai. Kurosawa had grown up watching westerns, and Seven Samurai became his unique interpretation of the genre. It received a western remake by John Sturges when he made The Magnificent Seven in 1960.
The central plot of the film is quite simple. During the Sengoku period, seven rōnin are hired by a village to protect their crops against the bandits who want to pillage their resources. By setting up this contextual framework, Kurosawa launches a powerful investigation of the forces of modernity devoid of morality. The conflicts between the samurai and the bandits are allegorical in nature, representing a world where traditional value systems are constantly subjected to violent destruction and destabilisation.
Therefore, the samurai in the film are not only the saviours of the farmers, but they also save us by taking up arms against the impending corruption of society. However, it is not as simple as it may seem, largely because the history of the samurai is complicated. To the villagers, the samurai have indulged in as much looting and raping as the bandits. The difference was that at least the bandits were clear about their intentions. When we look at it that way, it’s fascinating to see how Kurosawa decimates the moral high ground by showing us that there are no true heroes left. Heroic glory is only an illusion, the samurai fight for redemption.
At the time, Seven Samurai was the most expensive Japanese film production of all time, and the process was long and arduous. Kurosawa used telephoto lenses and multiple cameras to compose the movement of his characters and orchestrates the visual narrative so that the audience was completely immersed in his world. The innovative director used one camera in the traditional position, a second one for quick shots and a third as a guerrilla unit to pull off complicated scenes. The result was a kinetic experience which transformed action into visual poetry.
“Much is often made of the fact that I use more than one camera to shoot a scene,“ Kurosawa wrote. “This began when I was making Seven Samurai, because it was impossible to predict exactly what would happen in the scene where the bandits attack the peasants’ village in a heavy rainstorm. If I had filmed it in the traditional shot-by-shot method, there was no guarantee that any action could be repeated in exactly the same way twice. So I used three cameras rolling simultaneously. The result was extremely effective, so I decided to exploit this technique fully in less action-filled drama as well, and I next used it for I Live In Fear (1955).”
The legacy of Seven Samurai is monumental in stature. It has been cited by the likes of George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino as a masterpiece that influenced their own works. Seven Samurai has also changed the way action flicks and heist films are made by using the “assembling the team” trope which has become immensely popular.
Its global influence is also indicated by the fact that Indian films like Sholay and Thalapathi owe a lot to Kurosawa’s seminal work. When we take all of this into consideration, it should come as no surprise that Seven Samurai is regarded as one of the most “remade, reworked, referenced” films in the history of cinema.