Study Guide

Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai Introduction


Release Year: 1954

Genre: Drama

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Writer: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni

Stars: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura


Hero's journeys don't get any hero-ier than Seven Samurai, the 1954 Eastern-Western that ranks among the most influential films ever made.

Don't believe us? Let us count the ways.

For starters, there's the way the movie brought Japanese and American culture together in completely unexpected ways. The director, Akira Kurosawa, loved cowboy and adventure pictures from Hollywood. He was a huge fan of John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers) and John Sturges (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), and he desperately wanted to bring the rhythm and beat of American Westerns to a Japanese story.

He had an era similar to the Wild West in Japanese history to fall back on, when samurai wandered the land without masters and the whole "law-and-order" thing seemed to have taken a permanent vacation. Why not give some of those samurai a classic Wild West problem—bandits raiding a poor village—and see what happens when they tackle it?

The results were an international sensation, which was pretty darn hard to do in the days when computers were physically bigger than your average apartment building. On our side of the Pacific, we learned a little bit more about how Japanese culture functioned. On his side, audiences got a good look at the individualism of the West and how it ran smack into the face of traditional Japanese values like duty and communal obligation. And by giving the Western a distinctly Asian vibe, he actually showed Hollywood filmmakers how to make movies like this. Seven Samurai set the bar for later fantasy-epic-sci-fi-comeoneverybodyjustgivethemallyourmoney blockbuster that followed.

That's right; Star Wars.

One of the biggest, most singularly influential movies ever made owes an open debt to Seven Samurai. So does Harry Potter and the Marvel movie universe, just for starters. Any heist movie, any quest movie, any movie that has a rag-tag gang of misfits getting together and somehow making a go at the big prize…they all got started watching this one.

Not that Seven Samurai was the first movie to figure out those ideas. It was just one of the most unique, made with incredible skill by a man born to stand behind a movie camera. It did so in a way that transcended cultural boundaries, telling a story set in a specific time and place that could be felt anywhere human beings ever lived.

It's a tale of heroism and tragedy, of lingering ideals in a world gone crazy, and what happens when those ideals collide with bitter, compromised reality. It's a tale of brave men with nothing to lose, small men trying to survive, and a larger universe that seemingly just wants to watch them suffer. It's passionate and exciting despite being longer than your average extra-innings ballgame. And in its own way, it made very different parts of the world understand each other just a little bit better.

What's saving the galaxy compared to that?

What is Seven Samurai About and Why Should I Care?

Hey, remember that movie where George Clooney and Brad Pitt assemble a team of crack thieves to rip off a Las Vegas casino? How about that one where Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen gets some cowboys together to defend a poor Mexican village? Or the sillier version of the same story with Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase in the most beautifully ridiculous outfits you've ever seen??

Oh wait, we know: what about that Pixar movie with the insects coming to defend an anthill against a swarm of marauding locusts? You might even remember an unspeakably bad movie called Battle Beyond the Stars that tried to suck up some of that sweet Star Wars mojo in an effort that everyone involved felt profoundly embarrassed to be a part of. Heck, if you really scrape the bottom of the barrel, you might even find an Italian swords-and-sandals flick.

Those are a lot of very different movies: different genres, different eras, different stars. And all of them, every single one, is directly inspired by Seven Samurai. The director, Akira Kurosawa, loved American Westerns, and wanted to apply their ideas to the samurai of ancient Japan. The result was one of the greatest movies ever made (IMDb said so, and who are we to disagree?) and ironically turned the whole Eastern-Western thing into an endless loop of cool.

Seven Samurai borrowed from American movies, then American movies turned around and borrowed from it, producing not just the films we listed above, but movies like Star Wars, Bonnie and Clyde, The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, The Road Warrior, Saving Private Ryan, Big Hero 6, and Marvel's The Avengers. (John Sturges, whom Kurosawa cited as a major influence in his filmmaking, had already returned the favor in 1960 by directing an American remake: The Magnificent Seven.)

Those films in turn inspired whole new generations of filmmakers, continuing on into the future with no end in sight. You can hardly sneeze without knocking over a movie that has Seven Samurai in its DNA, and for something that actually requires you to read subtitles, you can see how easy it is to grab onto its visual ideas. Don't be surprised if you find yourself saying, "hey it's using that scene in that one movie I really love!" only to realize that the one movie you really love actually pulled it straight out of his one.

Oh, and it also features Toshiro Mifune getting really drunk and some of the coolest sword fights you'll even see.

Say no to it. We dare you.

Trivia

Have you ever watched a Star Wars movie and noticed how they change scenes by pulling an invisible line across the screen? (Don't worry, we've got a little montage from Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace to remind you ). That's called a wipe cut, and George Lucas loves it. So does George Miller, who puts it all over The Road Warrior like a bad rash. One guess who they got that from. (Source)

Actors Sybil Danning and Robert Vaughn both made two versions of Seven Samurai in their careers. Both appeared in the unbelievably goofy Battle Beyond the Stars, while Vaughn also showed up in the much-more-respectable The Magnificent Seven and Danning got to flash her scanty toga in The Seven Magnificent Gladiators

It took 60 years, but actor Toshiro Mifune (who plays Kikuchiyo and appeared in 15 other Akira Kurosawa movies) finally gets his due in Tinseltown in 2016. Hollywood is giving him a star on the Walk of Fame, the same year as American stars like Kurt Russell and Michael Keaton. Mifune's only the second Japanese actor to receive such an honor (third if you count Godzilla), and even Kurosawa is still waiting for his. (Source)

Kurosawa used either Toshiro Mifune or Takashi Shimura, or both, in every movie he made during a span of 18 years. If you've got a great thing, stick with it. (Source)

Seven Samurai Resources

Websites

The IMDb Link
If you need the basics on the film, this is the place to go.

The Rotten Tomatoes Link
Let's see what the critics have to say… um, yup. They dig it.

Toho Studios
Toho Studios has its own web page, if you ever decide to bankroll your own Godzilla movie.

Akira Kurosawa
The Criterion Collection has a centralized link to exploring most of Kurosawa's big films.

Toshiro Mifune's Obituary
A summation of Mifune's life, courtesy of the New York Times.

Book or TV Adaptations

The Magnificent Seven
Kurosawa loved the Western, and the Western soon returned the compliment with this 1960 English-language film that replaced the samurai with American gunslingers. It's not quite as good as Kurosawa's version, but still pretty darn snazzy in its own right. Check out this duel from Seven Samurai's American counterpart.

Battle Beyond the Stars
This movie stinks. A lot. It's a quickie attempt to cash in on the sci-fi bounty created by Star Wars that basically takes the Seven Samurai formula and sticks it in outer space. But if you're going to steal, you'd better steal from the very best, and in that sense, at least Battle Beyond the Stars gets it right.

The Three Amigos!
John Landis and his gang of merry pranksters decided to do their own version of Seven Samurai, featuring three silent film stars who head off to what they think is a paid appearance but which turns out to be an actual Mexican village besieged by bandits. Wacky mayhem ensues, and while we always hate ourselves in the morning, just can't turn it off whenever we spot it on our Netflix cue. Hit it boys!

A Bug's Life
Pixar may rule the animation world these days, but they were still establishing themselves in the 1990s. So after their first big hit Toy Story, they decided to follow it up with their own version of Seven Samurai.

The Seven Magnificent Gladiators
You gotta love the Italians, who took Lou Ferrigno and Sybil Danning and made a cheese-tastic swords-and-sandals version of Kurosawa's masterpiece. Stay classy guys.

Samurai 7
We're back to Japan for this piece of steampunk anime that wears its influences right there in its title.

Articles and Interviews

Moviefone Waxes Rhapsodic
Moviefone delivers the 411 on how many movies owe this one a hug and a thank-you.

Star Wars, Nothing but Star Wars…
George Lucas's gang are quick to point out which this movie did for their beloved space opera.

The Final Battle, Broken Down
Here's a great analysis of that famous final battle scene.

Roger Ebert Lays It Out
Why is this a great film? Let the greatest film critic of all time spell it out.

The Guardian's Take
Writer Laurence Topham writes up his thoughts.

One More from the Guardian
A piece on Kurosawa's essentials for you.

And One More from the Alamo Drafthouse
The famous Texas theater gives us their own write-up.

Video

TCM's Video Link
A quick look at the film from the gang at Turner Classic Movies.

Kurosawa's Directing
A very informative video about how Kurosawa uses movement to convey theme and meaning in his movie.

The Trailer
Here's the original trailer for the movie.

George and Akira
When asked which films influenced Star Wars, George Lucas is quick to point out Kurosawa. Seven Samurai was definitely one of them, but he also cites a later Kurosawa film called The Hidden Fortress. It features (among other things) a bickering pair of peasants, one short and fat, one tall and thin, who certainly don't bear any resemblance to a certain beloved robot duo…

Birthday Props
In 2010, the 100th anniversary of Kurosawa's birth, Anaheim University's Akira Kurosawa School of Film honored the sensei with this video tribute from Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Oliver Stone, and Richard Gere.

Images

The Original Poster
Presented in Japanese for that authentic sense of snazz.

A Somewhat Artier Poster
We're not sure how "official" this one is, but it sure looks awesome.

The Gang's All Here
A behind-the-scenes shot of Kurosawa and his cast during the shoot.

The Director in Action
Another shot of Kurosawa doing his thing.

The Master and His Disciples
Kurosawa and two of his then-young devotees. Guess who they are. (Hint: Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas)

Everything They Ever Learned…
Lucas and Spielberg present an honorary Oscar to the master.

You Talkin' to ME??
Martin Scorsese gets in line, too.

A Whole Lotta Love
A short list of the world's most famous directors get together to toast Kurosawa at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990. Ten years earlier, his film Kagemusha won the Palme D'Or (kinda like Best Picture) at Cannes.

A Final Rainstorm on Tap
Mother Nature gets a little help for the final scene.