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The Seven Samurai

The Seven Samurai(1956)

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teaser The Seven Samurai (1956)


A village of poor, struggling farmers decides to hire samurais to protect them from marauding bandits who attack their homes and families and steal their food. They find a solo samurai named Kambei who, like most of his compatriots, has no master and wanders the country fending for himself. Despite his circumstances, Kambei is an honorable and compassionate man who recruits five other samurais, including the worshipful young Katsushiro, the master swordsman Kyuzo, and Kikuchiyo, a peasant posing as a warrior.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producer: Sojiro Motoki
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai
Editing: Akira Kurosawa
Production Design: So Matsuyama
Original Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Takashi Shimura (Kambei Shimada), Toshiro Mifune (Kikuchiyo), Yoshio Inaba (Gorobei Katayama), Seiji Miyaguchi (Kyuzo), Minoru Chiaki (Heihachi Hayashida), Daisuke Kato (Shichiroji), Isao Kimura (Katsushiro Okamoto).

Why THE SEVEN SAMURAI is Essential

The Seven Samurai holds a position occupied by few other filmscompletely grounded in its culture and the periods in which it was set and produced but global in its themes, its appeal, and, most important where this film is concerned, its impact. Some critics have debated how much Kurosawa was consciously seeking to imitate the Westerns of directors like Howard Hawks and John Ford (whom Kurosawa reportedly idolized). There can be no doubt, however, about the impact The Seven Samurai has had on action films made since its release.

As New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said in 1956, "It is a solid, naturalistic, he-man outdoor action film, wherein the qualities of human strength and weakness are discovered in a crisis taut with peril. And although the occurrence of this crisis is set in the 16th century in a village in Japan, it could be transposed without surrendering a basic element to the nineteenth century and a town on our own frontier." In looking closely at The Seven Samurai, then, we naturally consider the characters, styles, and techniques of any number of other works, from those of Ford and Hawks to Spielberg and Lucas.

Kurosawa was the first Japanese director to break through to the international film audience, but he also broke new ground in his own country; part of it was his use of Hollywood cinematic techniques such as musical motifs to introduce and represent different characters. Through much of its history, at least until the late 1960s, a large percentage of Japan's cinematic product was jidai-geki or period films, particularly those centered on the samurai warrior class. In the postwar era, fewer of these films were made, partly because the genre was frowned upon by Allied occupation authorities who wanted no glorification of a feudal, militarist past. Those that were created tended to be simplistic swordfight films with stock characters, comparable to the later Steve Reeves sword-and-sandal epics in their glancing relationship to real history. What Kurosawa created was something quite different from the usual jidai-geki set in the Tokugawa or Edo period (17th to mid-19th centuries), a time when central authority had been re-established in Japan. He chose to set his story in the Sengoku or Warring States period of the 16th century, a chaotic and violent time of civil war, social upheaval, and political intrigue. His samurai, then, are not well-heeled, noble heroes but wandering ronin (warriors without a master), their days of glory behind them. And instead of the usual ballet-like choreography of the fight scenes, he went for in-the-mud realism, emphasizing the chaos and horror of battle.

The Seven Samurai has been called an ultimate example of an auteurist work because, although there were plenty of collaborators, artists, and technicians involved, it is Kurosawa's film all the way. Known for being demanding, domineering, and a perfectionist in all his productions, he orchestrated every aspect of this film - the performances, music, set, editing, and even the weather. The Japanese film industry was known for giving directors a great deal of autonomy, especially compared to Hollywood, but Kurosawa's eminence by this point in his career and his stubborn personality assured him complete control over the final product to make exactly the film he envisioned.

What he envisioned was put on screen with techniques that opened the eyes of audiences, critics, and other film artists to startling ways of telling a story: telephoto shots that put the action right in your lap; pacing that allowed slow, contemplative scenes to build tension for the inevitable violence to come; single shots of exquisite beauty that were never there for mere pictorial flourish; and perhaps most influential in the years to follow, slow motion shots of violence and death. The result was an immensely popular movie full of rich characterizations, exciting action sequences, and wry humor that, despite its length, was both rousing entertainment and a deeply felt and fully realized "art" film.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Seven Samurai (1956)

Much has been written about the influence Akira Kurosawa had on American films, particularly Westerns and those that dealt with violence in a very stylized way. On the other hand, film analysts have argued over to what extent Kurosawa was influenced first by American Westerns, particularly the work of John Ford and Howard Hawks. Certainly, one can make a connection between such films as My Darling Clementine (1946) or other Ford films of the period and The Seven Samurai in the way they deal with the end of an era (the old West/the period of the samurai's greatest glory). Kurosawa and Ford's films also focus on men who fight to preserve and advance a civilization that no longer has any place for them (gunfighters and cowpokes/ronin or masterless samurai).

There is certainly, at least on the surface, a long acknowledged affinity between the samurai movie and the Western. Where they part company, according to many critics, is in the much greater sense of class division at work in Seven Samurai, although even that aspect is reflected in the division between the "civilized" farmers, business people, and authorities of the New West and the less restrained life of the cowhand or gunfighter. This theme has been extensively explored in several films, notably in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

The most obvious influence of The Seven Samurai on American Westerns is the remake by John Sturges, The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which a disparate band of gunfighters is pulled together to defend a Mexican village from marauding bandits. The title of the remake was the original title under which The Seven Samurai was released in the States, but when Sturges claimed it for his version, the Kurosawa film was referred to with the English title by which it is known today (sometimes including "The" and sometimes without it).

One of the filmmakers most influenced by Kurosawa and The Seven Samurai was Sam Peckinpah. Talking about his second feature Ride the High Country (1962) with Ernest Callenbach in Film Quarterly, Peckinpah said his aim was to make Westerns the way Kurosawa did. The Wild Bunch (1969) is seen by many as Peckinpah's Seven Samurai for its visual style, pacing and story of a group of men making one last stand for their way of life; its evocation of the time shows how social progress renders the misfits of the title obsolete and no longer capable of adapting. During production of The Wild Bunch, Toshiro Mifune wrote to Peckinpah wishing him the best, and Peckinpah replied that he hoped Mifune would appreciate the film. Years later, when Kurosawa made Kagemusha (1980), he invited Peckinpah to Japan for the premiere. The continuing influence is evident in a remark made by production designer Ted Haworth regarding a visual effect in a film he worked on with Peckinpah, the war movie Cross of Iron (1977): "Kurosawa Peckinpah at his best."

Arthur Penn was also very influenced by Kurosawa and The Seven Samurai in the making of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), particularly in the slow-motion, multi-camera montage of the death of the title characters. Discussing his concept of that scene, Penn said, "Having seen enough Kurosawa by that point, I knew how to do it."

Kurosawa's use of intercut footage from more than one camera running at different speeds is evident in the scene in which Kambei kills a thief who has kidnapped a child. It has been called "the textbook for modern movie violence." (Stephen Prince, "Genre and Violence in the Work of Kurosawa and Peckinpah" in Action and Adventure Cinema, Yvonne Tasker, ed., Routledge, 2004).

The Seven Samurai is generally acknowledged to be the first use of a shot now commonplace in cinema, the "horizon shot," when the bandits come pouring over the hilltop into view. It has been seen in a number of action films, and was employed by Spielberg in the desert shot in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

George Lucas has acknowledged his debt to Akira Kurosawa, and several homages and allusions can be found throughout the Star Wars series. In Star Wars (1977), the robot C3PO echoes the comments of the Japanese peasants when he says, "It seems we are made to suffer. It's our lot in life." Luke Skywalker also bears similarities to both Kikuchiyo (the farmer's son aspiring to warrior status) and Katsushiro (the young man yearning to be a disciple to a master). In The Phantom Menace (1999), the shot of Federation tanks coming over the hill is a direct tribute to the horizon shot of the marauding bandits. Lucas has said Yoda rubbing his head while thinking was a conscious homage to Kambei's head-rubbing gesture. Lucas has also said in interviews that while he was in Japan he became familiar with the cinematic genre jidai-geki ("period film," a category to which Seven Samurai belongs), so it is widely assumed this was an inspiration for his invented word "Jedi" (rebel warrior). Lucas has also employed the rarely seen wipe effect as a scene transition, which Kurosawa uses frequently in The Seven Samurai.

The plot of The Seven Samurai has inspired several other stories with widely divergent settings, including the Hong Kong action flick Liu he qian shou (Duel of the Seven Tigers, 1979), Italy's sword-and-sandals fantasy I Sette magnifici gladiatori (The Seven Magnificent Gladiators, 1983), and the Indian film China Gate (1998).

The John Sayles-scripted Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) has several points of connection with the original, notably in its plot about seven mercenaries of the future assembled to defend a peaceful outer space farming colony from evil aggressors. Robert Vaughn plays a character closely modeled on the one he played in The Magnificent Seven. The main character hails from the planet Akir, whose natives are known as Akira.

A Japanese TV anime series, Samurai 7 (2004), was based on The Seven Samurai and aired with the blessings of the Kurosawa family.There is a PlayStation video game called Seven Samurai 20XX, based on the story and characters but transposing them to a futuristic setting.

An alleged remake to be produced by the Weinstein Company and Kurosawa's son Hisao is already generating considerably negative comments on Internet blogs, particularly for the rumor that it will star George Clooney, Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, and Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen.

The idea of a disparate band of misfits being recruited for a difficult but righteous cause is often credited as having begun with The Seven Samurai. In his book The Great Movies (Broadway Books, 2002), Roger Ebert notes Kurosawa's influence on such Hollywood action films as The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Dirty Dozen (1967), "and countless later war, heist, and caper movies." (Although not specified by Ebert, one of those films would be John Frankenheimer's aptly named Ronin, 1998, the term for a samurai without a master, dealing with a group of mercenaries with various specialties assembled for an espionage-related job.)

Roger Ebert also points out that Sergio Leone's remake of Yojimbo (1961) as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) gave birth to the spaghetti Western, and notes the influence of The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress (1958) on the Star Wars series. "It could be argued that this greatest of directors gave employment to action heroes for the next fifty years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose."

The awareness of Japanese film in the West began with Kurosawa's earlier pictures, particularly Rashomon (1950) and Ikiru (1952). The success of Rashomon at the Venice Film festival in 1951 opened the door for Western distribution of films by Mizoguchi and Ozu, highly praised directors who had been working for many years in Japan.

Kurosawa's influence on filmmakers outside Japan, particularly in America, was evident in his honorary Academy Award. It was presented to him in 1989 by two of the directors most heavily influenced by him, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, for "accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched, and entertained audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world."

"It is not surprising that Seven Samurai was remade by Hollywood because it was already close to the Western in its use of an elite body of brave warriors, a slow preparation for violent action, and the generally pusillanimous civilian populationlike the townspeople in High Noon [1952]." David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)

Scottish-born film critic and director Lindsay Anderson compared the scene of Kikuchiyo training the villagers to Falstaff drilling the troops in Shakespeare. There have also been suggestions that the battle scenes in Orson Welles's film of the Falstaff story adapted from Shakespeare, Chimes at Midnight (1965), were influenced by the battles in The Seven Samurai.

"Surely [Toshiro Mifune] copied John Wayne, and surely others (like Eastwood) have copied him." David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Seven Samurai (1956)

Critical reaction to The Seven Samurai in Japan was initially lukewarm. One review complained that it was not very democratic of Kurosawa to condemn the peasants; another questioned if he was saying the farmers were not worth saving. Yet, it was a major box office success with the Japanese public.

The Seven Samurai has been released in several versions, and it was many years before the original cut (nearly 3 1/2 hours long) was restored; that version is now available on DVD. The full version played only in major cities in Japan when it was released in 1954; a shortened version played second and third runs in other locations. Another edit (161 minutes) was released for export, and for many years, this was the most complete version in distribution and the one most people saw. A third cut was made for the Venice Film Festival, where people complained about the first half being confusing, which Kurosawa admitted was true in this truncated form. The audience there did enjoy the second half, which had only minor cuts that the director said actually helped it. The American release was cut even further by distributor RKO from the export version and was called The Magnificent Seven until John Sturges's 1960 Western remake caused all prints of the original to be recalled.

Toshiro Mifune has Akira Kurosawa largely to thank for his career. Returning home in 1945 after six years in the Army, Mifune found himself with no money or employment. A friend in the Toho photo department told him to come down to the studio to see if he could get him a job. Allegedly, Mifune got in the wrong line and ended up waiting several hours to try out for a "new faces" contest. Asked by casting directors to mime anger, he did so very convincingly because he was furious. Put off by his outburst, they were going to throw Mifune out, but Kurosawa and his mentor, the director Kajiro Yamamoto, had witnessed the incident and spoke up for him. He was then hired as an actor, beginning a long association with the studio and Kurosawa.

Critics in the West initially criticized Mifune for overacting in his role as Kikuchiyo, and as late as 1994 (in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), David Thomson still remarked, "I am averse to actors who huff and puff that much." But Japanese film scholar Mark Jecks, in his commentary on the film on the Criterion Collection DVD release, states that Mifune's performance is exactly right for the character. He counters that it is Kikuchiyo who is the ham, going over the top to prove himself a warrior, thereby severing his peasant past.

Reportedly a descendant of samurais, Takashi Shimura (Kambei) made more than 200 pictures between 1935 and his death in 1982, but most often as a character actor or supporting player. His only major roles were with Kurosawa, notably the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru (1952). Outside of Japan, he was probably best known to a mass audience as the kindly doctor in the original Godzilla (1956). Although not as well known as Toshiro Mifune, Shimura is an icon of Japanese cinema and considered one of its finest actors.

Toshiro Mifune made sixteen films with Kurosawa. But during the production of Red Beard (1965), their relationship became strained. The film was in principal photography for two years. Mifune had grown a beard for the role, and so could not appear in any other movie. It was a critical success but a commercial failure. Mifune and Kurosawa never worked together again. Nevertheless, in later years, Mifune said of all the films he had made he was only proud of the ones he appeared in for Kurosawa.

Keiko Tsushima (Manzo's daughter Shino) was a modern dancer who was "discovered" by a casting director while standing on the platform of a train station. Previously, she had worked with famed director Yasujiro Ozu on The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952). She never made another film with Kurosawa, but she appeared in many other films and television shows in the next 50 years.

Isao Kimura (Katsushiro) worked with left-wing theater groups and ran several of his own. His final theater group went bankrupt, and he had to take on work to pay off the debt. He died in 1981 at the age of 58.

Yoshio Tsuchiya (Rikichi) was trained as a physician but changed professions to become an actor. An author of several books about UFOs, he most enjoyed appearing in such science fiction movies as The Mysterians [1957], The H-Man [1958] and Varan the Unbelievable [1958].

Sojin Kamiyama (Blind Minstrel) started his career in American silent films, including Douglas Fairbanks's The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Cecil B. DeMille's biblical epic, The King of Kings (1927). He was one of only three Asian actors to play the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan (in 1927). His thick accent limited his career in American sound films, and he returned to Japan in the 1930s. He died just a few months after the release of Seven Samurai.

Tatsuya Nakadai, who had an uncredited bit as one of the samurai wandering through town, became one of Japan's biggest stars. He eventually starred in six movies for Kurosawa, including the leads in Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985).

Kamatari Fujiwara (Manzo) started his career in the early 1930s, primarily as a comic actor. He made 13 films in all with Kurosawa and one American movie appearance, as "The Artist" in Arthur Penn's off-beat crime drama Mickey One (1965), starring Warren Beatty.

In addition to composing the score for The Seven Samurai, Fumio Hayasaka wrote the music for six previous Kurosawa films and worked often with acclaimed director Kenji Mizoguchi. He was working on Kurosawa's movie, I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being (1955), when he died of tuberculosis at the age of 41.

Memorable Quotes from SEVEN SAMURAI

PEASANT WOMAN: Land tax. Forced labor. War. Drought. God must want us farmers to starve.
PEASANT MAN: That's true, better we die.

PEASANT WOMAN: Let's give everything to the bandits. All the food we have. And then hang ourselves!

MANZO (Kamatari Fujiwara): Farmers are born to suffer. That's our lot.

KAMBEI (Takashi Shimura): My name is Kambei Shimada. I'm a ronin. And I have no disciples.

MANZO: But will samurai fight for us, just for food?
GRANDFATHER (Toranosuke Ogawa): Find hungry samurai. Even bears will come out of the forests when they're hungry.

KAMBEI: I'm preparing for a tough war. It will bring us neither money or fame. Want to join?

KAMBEI: Train yourself, distinguish yourself in war. ... But time flies. Before your dream materializes, you get gray hair. By that time your parents and friends are dead and gone.

KAMBEI: I'm tired of fighting.

KIKUCHIYO (Toshiro Mifune): Farmers are stingy, foxy, blubbering, mean, stupid, and murderous. ... But who made them such beasts? You samurai did it. You burn their villages, destroy their farms, steal their food, force them to labor, take their women, and kill them if they resist. So what should farmers do?

KIKUCHIYO: Love your wives plenty tonight!

KAMBEI (at Heihachi's funeral): We were counting on him to cheer us when things became gloomy. And now he's gone.

KAMBEI: Again we're defeated. The winners are those farmers. Not us.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Seven Samurai (1956)

The samurai were the warrior caste in Japan's rigid class system, trained in arms and in the employ of a lord, much like the knights of medieval Europe. In the disorderly, lawless time in which The Seven Samurai is set, the lords were defeated and dead, and their samurai were left unemployed and forced to wander the countryside for their livelihoods. This period appealed to Kurosawa as far richer in terms of character possibilities and historical interest than the usual period film with the samurai at the top of their game.

Kurosawa's idea was initially to create a film about a day in the life of a single samurai, but he expanded the scope of the movie after reading about a real village that hired samurai for protection.

While working on the story of The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa wrote complete dossiers for each character, detailing what they ate, where they came from, and how they talked and moved.

The motif of assembling a team of strangers for a mission, while very commonplace now, was fairly new at the time of The Seven Samurai. Some say it was created first in The Seven Samurai, but there are at least antecedents in American crime films, most notably The Asphalt Jungle (1950). That film was based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, and because Kurosawa was an avid reader of American and British detective/crime stories, it may have been an inspiration.

To collaborate on the screenplay, he hired Shinobu Hashimoto, who worked on the scripts for Kurosawa's earlier films Rashomon (1950) and Ikiru (1952), and Hideo Oguni, who also worked on Ikuru and would do ten more films with Kurosawa. Hashimoto collaborated with the director (and often Oguni) on five more films after The Seven Samurai.

Kurosawa and his writers would go to a hot springs resort or some other remote place, and each would write independently around a big table. They'd then pass their work around and criticize and argue. Kurosawa specifically depended on Hashimoto for his skills in narrative structure and Oguni for bringing truth and humanism to the story and characters.

The six samurai characters were fleshed out early into production, but the director and writers decided they needed a character to bridge the gap between the samurai and the peasants, so they created Kikuchiyo, who is a peasant by birth but aspires to warrior status.

Kurosawa may have based aspects of the character Kikuchiyo and the worshipful apprenticeship of young Katsushiro at least partly on his older brother and their relationship. Kurosawa revered his brother, Heigo, a conflicted man who struggled to find his place in the world and suffered from depression. It was Heigo who introduced the young Akira to the cinema and in particular to foreign film, which greatly influenced the future director's work. Heigo was a benshi, a narrator of silent films (a common occupation in Japan before sound pictures). When talkies came in, he led a strike against them in support of his profession but to no avail. Not long after, he committed suicide.

Like John Ford whom he greatly admired, Kurosawa had already by this time established a stock company of actors he would work with over and over again. For the leader of the samurai band, Kambei, he cast his longtime collaborator Takashi Shimura, who had acted in twelve of the director's films prior to this, the most notable being Rashomon and the lead in Ikiru. Throughout his career, Kurosawa would frequently use Shimura, an actor of such range that he could play the dying bureaucrat in the contemporary drama Ikiru as convincingly as the warrior in a period action film like The Seven Samurai.

As Kikuchiyo, the farmer's son who longs to be a samurai, Kurosawa cast another actor he had used six times previously, Toshiro Mifune, who had also worked with Shimura in Rashomon. Originally, Mifune was to play the master swordsman, Kyuzo, but when Kurosawa created the character of Kikuchiyo, he decided Mifune would be better in that role.

Among the other cast members Kurosawa had used before (and would use often in the future) were Minoru Chiaki (Heihachi), Isao Kimura (Katsushiro), Daisuke Kato (Shichiroji), and Kamatari Fujiwara (Manzo).

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Seven Samurai (1956)

The peasant village in The Seven Samurai was a complete set built on the Izu Peninsula about 50-100 miles south of Tokyo. At the time it was just remote, wild country, but it's now part of a national park. The location shoot and the fully detailed nature of the set lent authenticity but increased the problems encountered and raised the costs of production as opposed to filming in the studio.

In his autobiography, Kurosawa responded to frequent accusations through the years that he was too exacting with sets and props. He was also known for having things made for the sake of authenticity, even if they never appear on camera. "The quality of the set influences the quality of the actors' performances. If the plan of a house and the design of the rooms are done properly, the actors can move about in them naturally. If I have to tell an actor, 'Don't think about where this room is in relation to the rest of the house,' that natural ease cannot be achieved. For this reason, I have the sets made exactly like the real thing. It restricts the shooting but encourages that feeling of authenticity."

Most Japanese films at this time cost around $70,000. The Seven Samurai cost close to half a million. It was the most money Toho studio had ever spent on a film and the most expensive film ever made in Japan up to that point. The production closed down at least twice during the filming due to a budgetary shortage, but it didn't worry Kurosawa. At such times, he would simply go fishing, confident that the studio would find the money rather than throw away what they had already spent. His attitude was that the studio was so committed financially that they had no choice but to finish what was started in order to recoup their costs. Kurosawa felt that because his pictures were hits, he could afford to think that way. Still, he was vilified in the industry press for it, and many negative stories about The Seven Samurai emerged even before the film was finished. He came to be known in the media as tenno or "emperor," for his alleged dictatorial ways, although it was always the press, not his staff, cast, or crew, that used the term.

Kurosawa explained the reasons for the huge expense and lengthy shooting schedule: "Something always comes up. We didn't have enough horses; it rained all the time. It is just the kind of picture that is impossible to make in this country." Later, he snapped back about his bad reputation in the press: "You try to give a film a little pictorial scope and the journalists jump on you for spending too much money. That is what I really hate about themthey are only an extended form of advertising. They talk big and make pictures sound important to make themselves seem more important. The more they try, the greater they lie."

Kurosawa said in his autobiography that he began thinking about the music and sound effects at the very beginning of each film project, and pointed out how in some of his films, he used different theme music for each character or group of characters. In Seven Samurai he has a series of musical motifs: the peasants' humming chorus; the samurai theme; Kikuchiyo's theme consisting of bassoon, piccolo and bongos; a sweet, romantic theme for the young peasant woman Shino, Katsushiro's love interest; and the more aggressive, strident bandit theme heard over the opening titles.

The music in The Seven Samurai was composed by one of Kurosawa's oldest and dearest friends, Fumio Hayasaka, who was paid $1,000 for the score, a high sum for Japanese film composers at this time.

With The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa began his practice of using multiple cameras to film a scene "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." He found it to be so effective that he later used it in movies that were less action oriented. His method was generally to put camera A in the most orthodox shooting position, use camera B for quick shots and camera C "as a kind of guerilla unit." This method made for very complicated shoots, trying to choreograph the movement of all three over the course of a scene using diagrams that, he said, most camera operators could not understand. He said the only ones who really understood his method were Asakazu Nakai (the cinematographer on The Seven Samurai) and Takao Saito (who worked with him frequently and shot the massive action sequences in Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985).

Kurosawa introduced two devices to help clarify the location of the action in the story for viewers. He has the samurai closely examine the perimeter of the village and outlying areas with a detailed map that is shown on camera so that we get a clear picture of where we are later during the hectic battle scenes. Kambei also uses a tally sheet, marking Xs over symbols for each of the bandits as they die so that we know how many have been defeated and how many remain.

The director incorporated a number of techniques to give the film movement and a rhythmic pace that keeps it from dragging, despite its great length: cutting on movement; fast, intercut pans and tracks; short, often humorous scenes, connected with wipes; telephoto lenses to put the viewer very close to the frenetic action.

Toshiro Mifune was not a trained actor but took his work very seriously. During the making of The Seven Samurai (as with most of his films), he remained in character all the time on the set and constantly worked on bits of business for his role. He was also given unprecedented freedom (at least for a Kurosawa picture) to improvise. Perhaps this was due to Kurosawa's feeling that Mifune was so much like the character he played. Mifune later said Kikuchiyo was one of his favorite roles because he could just carry on and be himself.

In his memoirs, Kurosawa expressed admiration for his most famous star: "I'm not usually impressed by actors, but Mifune impressed me. If I tell him one thing, he understands ten. Other actors take ten feet to express an emotion, he takes three feet of footage. If I had to think of a flaw, the only thing I can come up with is his voice is a little rough and sometimes it's hard to understand."

Although his character, a farmer's son, is shown to be an inept horseman, Mifune was actually an accomplished rider, having learned at a school for mounted archers who rode with no hands on the reins. He was, in fact, a superb all-around athlete, which is evident in some difficult jumps and stunts he performs in The Seven Samurai.

Conversely, Seiji Miyaguchi never quite mastered riding a horse. He trained well for sword fighting, however, for his role as master swordsman Kyuzo, and what he did not learn was covered in the shooting and editing to make him appear to have superior skills to the other samurais.

Tatsuya Nakadai was not long out of acting school when he appeared in The Seven Samurai in an uncredited bit as a samurai spotted walking through town. He later went on to become one of Japan's most respected actors and a frequent player in Kurosawa films. At this point in this career, however, he was so inexperienced that the shot took a full day to complete due to Kurosawa's exacting perfection about Nakadai's highly choreographed movement of only a few seconds.

It was the end of winter by the time the last battle scene in the rain was filmed for The Seven Samurai. Mifune said he was never so cold in his life.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Seven Samurai (1956)

A band of armed brigands plot to steal the harvest from a village of poor farmers in medieval Japan. Once their plan becomes known to the villagers, the peasants solicit the services of Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a hired swordsman who is instrumental in recruiting six more swordsmen to defend the village. Despite the unrealistic odds, the seven samurai prepare for their climactic showdown with the merciless invaders.

A personal favorite of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai was the most expensive film ever made in Japan at the time of its release in 1954. Toho, the production company, tried to make Kurosawa shoot the film in Tokyo in a controlled environment but he insisted on filming it in the countryside where he could create the look and feel of a 16th century rural community of peasant farmers. It took him over a year to finish the film with numerous setbacks along the way, such as a lack of horses for the action sequences and adverse weather conditions. But his striving for perfection paid off and Seven Samurai is considered one of the most important films in the history of cinema. Not only was it responsible for the postwar renaissance of the samurai film but its influence on other filmmakers like John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960 ), George Lucas (Star Wars, 1977), and John Sayles (Battle Beyond the Stars, 1980) is undeniable. Comedian John Belushi even paid homage to the film in the "samurai deli" skits on Saturday Night Live featuring a character he modeled on Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai.

In terms of film technique, Seven Samurai is a model textbook on the innovative use of sound effects (whizzing arrows, the clump of horse hooves), music (a distinctive theme is used to introduce each central character or group), and montage (the final battle scene in the driving rain is a masterpiece). But more importantly, the film transcends the standard action film with its complex presentation of good and bad, heroes and cowards. In the end, the samurai are doomed to failure just like the aging gunfighters in the Westerns of John Ford (a major influence on Kurosawa's films). They are loners who have simply outlived their usefulness in a changing society. In a way, Kurosawa's ending is analogous to the wake of the Meiji Restoration of 1868 when the samurai class in Japan was abolished.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producer: Sojiro Motoki
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai
Editor: Akira Kurosawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Takashi Shimura (Kambai Shimada), Toshiro Mifune (Kikuchiyo), Yoshio Inaba (Gorobei Katayama), Seiji Miyaguchi (Kyuzo), Minoru Chiaki (Heihachi Hayashida).

by Jeff Stafford

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teaser The Seven Samurai (1956)


A panel of Japanese critics and artists voted The Seven Samurai the third best film released in 1954. A similar group in 1979 voted it the best Japanese film of all time.

Academy Award nominations were given to So Matsuyama's art direction and Kohei Ezaki's costume design.

The Seven Samurai was the Silver prize winner at the Venice Film Festival 1954.

Kurosawa's film also received British Academy Award nominations for Best Film from Any Source, and Best Foreign Actor (Mifune and Shimura).

In addition, The Seven Samurai won Jussi Awards (Finland) for Best Foreign Actor (Mifune) and Best Foreign Director and the Mainichi Film Concours Award (Japan) for Best Supporting Actor Seiji Miyaguchi (master swordsman Kyuzo).

The Seven Samurai has been on Sight & Sound magazine's list of the Top Ten films of all time, 1982 and 1992. In the same poll for 2002, it did not make the Critics' Top Ten but tied for ninth place with Renoir's La Regle du jeu (1939) and Kurosawa's own Rashomon (1950) in the Directors' Top Ten poll. Kurosawa also placed in the Top Ten Directors lists. The continuing admiration for him among filmmakers throughout the world is evident in his standing on those lists: sixth among critics but third among his fellow directors.

The Seven Samurai was voted 12th Greatest Film of all time by Entertainment Weekly and only one of two non-English-language films in the Top 20 list (along with Fellini's La Dolce Vita, 1960).

Critics Corner: SEVEN SAMURAI

"On [a] simple framework, Kurosawa has plastered a wealth of rich detail, which brilliantly illuminates his characters and the kind of action in which they are involved. He has loaded his film with unusual and exciting physical incidents and made the whole thing graphic in a hard, realistic western style."
Bosley Crowther, New York Times, November 20, 1956

"Seven Samurai is long; it is brutal; it is not always easy to follow. But it is magnificent."
Dilys Powell, Sunday Times (London), 1955.

"Though the narrative concentrates on action, it does not preclude many delicate touches of irony: the invincible master swordsman is killed by a shot from a primitive musket. And although the film is as savage as the times in which it is set, there are many moments of humor. ... The acting throughout is magnificent. Outstanding is Takashi Shimura, who makes the old samurai leader a wonderfully human figure."
Peter Barnes, Films and Filming, April 1955.

"Kurosawa has given it all the internal pace, beauty, precision and fluidity of balleta medium which, even in moments of wild comedy, cruelty, carnage and confusion, the film's action insistently recalls."
Paul Dehn, News Chronicle (London), 1955

"Entertaining it certainly is: convincing, thrilling, meaningful, compelling. It remains (along with Ikiru [1952]) the director's own favorite. At the same time, it is completely serious."
Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (University of California Press, 1996).

"In the battle scenes of Seven Samurai [Mifune] seems as powerful and as elemental as the great rain...Its leading characters are distinct and appealing; the situation is contrived but compelling; the action is shot with virtuoso skill. But it is almost twice as long as a good Western, and its social themethat the samurai are disapproved of by the village they protectis made monotonously."
David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

"Widely imitated, but no one has come near it."
Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt and Company, 1984).

"Kurosawa's masterpiece...Despite the caricatured acting forms of Noh and Kabuki which Kurosawa adopted in his period films, the individual characterizations are precise and memorable, none more so than that by Takashi Shimura...The epicaction scenes involving cavalry and samurai are still without peer."
- Rod McShane, TimeOut Film Guide

"Superbly strange, vivid and violent medieval adventure..."
- Halliwell's Film & Video Guide

"It is as sheer narrative, rich in imagery, incisiveness and sharp observation, that it makes its strongest impact...It provides a fascinating display of talent, and places its director in the forefront of creative film-makers of his generation."
- Gavin Lambert, Sight and Sound

"This, on the surface, is a work of relentless, unmitigated action, as epic as any film ever made, and, again on the surface, sheer entertainment. Yet, it is also an unquestionable triumph of art."
- John Simon

"The astonishing vitality of this true jidai-geki is largely due to its narrative economy, athletic camerawork, and the tempo of the editing."
- The Oxford Companion to Film

"...a fully coherent work of art, an epic in every respect....To merely call it a classic is glib - but it is a classic, because it continues to provoke, to impassion....That dust, that mud, are part of what separates Seven Samurai from all its imitators...The natural world is always part of the film, and the characters inseparable from nature."
- John Anderson, The A List

"...Kurosawa has constructed a superb narrative, bursting with incident that is by turns exciting, absorbing, moving and funny. Carefully and lovingly reconstructing medieval Japan, he reveals the entire spectrum of human strength and weakness with absolute clarity of vision."
- Ronald Bergan & Robyn Karney, The Faber Companion to Foreign Films.

Compiled by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford

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