MANZO: We were born to suffer. It's our lot in life.
It's a famous statement of defeat… and we're betting this isn't the first time you've heard it. C-3PO says the same thing in the original Star Wars: George Lucas's little tip of the cap to this movie.
KAMBEI: I'm not a man with any special skill, but I've had plenty of experience in battles; losing battles, all of them. In short, that's all I am.
Kambei's definitely tasted defeat before. He seems to feel that it tarnishes him which is why he refuses to take on apprentices. Seven Samurai spends a lot of time thinking about the ways that he's both right and wrong on that front.
KAMBEI: But this is wonderful. It is so good to find you alive. I'd given you up for lost. How did you get away?
SHICHIROJI: Well, I lay right down in the ditch there, in the water. But when the castle finally burned down and then almost fell on me, I thought I was gone.
These two are bound by the shared experience of losing their lord and living to see it. Defeat, to them, is something that goes on and on, and never really goes away. It's a tough way of looking at it, but no one ever accused samurai of going easy on themselves.
TALL SAMURAI: Let's use swords.
KYUZO: There is no need.
TALL SAMURAI: What?
KYUZO: If I use a sword, I'll kill you. It's stupid.
Defeat here is preordained. A combination of skill and observation tells Kyuzo exactly how it's going to go. And since he knows, why go through with it? It's very Zen, man… though clearly the other samurai didn't get the memo.
GOROBEI: You're good!
HEIHACHI: Not really. It's a lot harder than killing enemies.
GOROBEI: Have you killed many?
HEIHACHI: Since it's impossible to kill them all, I usually run away.
GOROBEI: A splendid principle.
These guys are acknowledging that sometimes defeat is inevitable. They understand that it's supposed to be shameful, and yet they've accepted it, even embraced it, and moved on. The irony is that kind of acceptance makes them such good samurai, maybe even better than samurai who'd never known defeat.
HEIHACHI: So you're afraid of the enemy. Well, that's only natural. But remember, they're afraid of you too!
Fear means defeat, and the only way to counter it is to remind everybody that the other guys are just as scared as well.
KAMBEI: Danger always strikes when everything seems fine.
This is a good time to remind the other characters that defeat is often self-enabled: and that the vanquished always have at least a small hand in their own undoing. So stay frosty boys! This isn't an environment where mistakes are tolerated.
SHINO: We're going to die, aren't we? All of us, going to die tomorrow, aren't we?
KATSUSHIRO: Maybe not.
SHINO: But we probably will, won't we? Won't we?
Way to stay positive, you guys! Shino and the rest of the peasants have been defeated so many times they've begun to expect it as a matter of course.
WIFE: He's over there. He always said he wanted to die there. Hearing the sound of the mill wheel.
The old man chooses to die in his home rather than fighting to live. Is that a defeat or a victory? Or perhaps something of both? The film never really answers that question, letting us decide the larger moral meaning for ourselves.
KAMBEI: Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us.
The final line of the film brings it all home: the samurai won this victory for someone else, and don't get to enjoy any of the benefits of it. Really kind of brings the room down…