Kurosawa’s iconic ‘Seven Samurai’ turns 70

And unlike many of the films made in its image, this one is very much still worth a watch—again, or for the first time

Shinpei Tagaki as Bandit Chieftain.

Courtesy of Janus Films

Kurosawa Akira's Shichinin no Samurai—better known to English-speakers as Seven Samurai—is arguably the most influential film of all time. It has, directly or otherwise, pollinated a litany of remakes, including numerous Hollywood westerns (The Magnificent Seven, its sequel, and its reboot), several Bollywood classics (Sholay and the Indian movies that inspired it), a Pixar adventure (A Bug's Life), episodes of multiple Star Wars shows (Clone Wars and The Mandalorian), subsequent Star Wars knock-offs (the Rebel Moon series), and movies made all around the globe, from Hong Kong to Italy to Iran. There's no escaping its event horizon, born from an epochal status as the go-to gateway classic for those interested in exploring global cinema.

As of April 26, this foundational work is 70 years old, and its pristine 4K restoration has just begun its theatrical rollout in New York (courtesy of Janus Films), with releases planned all over North America in the coming months. However, while the structure of Kurosawa's 207-minute epic is widely recognized—villagers turning to rogue heroes for relief from bandits, a premise that has since become movie folklore—revisiting Seven Samurai reveals it to be a much simpler and less vainglorious film than its stature might suggest.

It most certainly earns its keep as a foundational pillar of cinematic language, but upon revisiting the movie years later—or upon watching it for the first time—it immediately belies the grandiosity with which its descendants have since cemented its reputation. Its characters move through the world with purpose, but rarely with panache (minus the occasional slow-motion for emphasis). And while its band of protectors are hired for their honor and acumen, as members of the revered samurai caste, Kurosawa constantly broaches questions about their ethics as the plot unfolds.

Finely chiseled from a 500-page treatment by Kurosawa (along with frequent co-writers, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo), the 16th century story begins with a jaw-dropping shot of silhouetted bandits emerging over the horizon on horseback. Few filmmakers have Kurosawa's ability to make the frame feel so vast. His then-standard, narrow 4:3 aspect ratio has the same enrapturing effect that Lawrence of Arabia and other widescreen epics would in years to come. Similarly, his use of contrast makes the movie's black-and-white palette feel dazzlingly vibrant, between his juxtaposition of the sky and the earth in landscape scenes, and of human and natural elements, like chrysanthemum fields, during romantic interludes.

Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo.

Courtesy of Janus Films

It's the kind of work that runs the emotional and tonal gamut, and it smoothly switches between its various modes thanks to its lucid foundation. Even before its eponymous samurai are introduced—played by a who’s who of incredible performers, including Kurosawa regulars Mifune Toshiro and Shimura Takashi—their narrative expectations are set by a handful of desperate villagers on the hunt for warriors willing to help them. “Find hungry samurai," they're advised. "Even bears come down from the mountain when they’re hungry.” The samurai these peasants are likely to find are far from the cream of the crop, but they're no less capable or dangerous. The villagers even discuss the vanity of the samurai class, a sense of pride that might prove a hurdle to hiring them for little more than grain.  

Luckily, the first samurai they find—the kindly, elderly Kambei (Shimura)—is the platonic ideal of a noble warrior, but he's the exception, not the rule. The other fighters he helps recruit range from world-weary, like Miyaguchi Seiji's gaunt and mysterious Kyūzō, to Kimura Isao's young and untested Katsushirō, an eager disciple of Kambei's, who inherited his position from his land-owning samurai father. While rarely a central plot point, this class element of the samurai is pivotal to the movie's undercurrent, wherein the perceived nobility of these warriors becomes a lingering question. 

Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, Kamatari Fujiwara as Manzo, Takashi Shimura as Kambei Shimada, Kokuten Kōdō as Giasku, Isao Kimura as Katsushiro Okamoto, and Minoru Chiaki as Heihachi Hayashida.

Courtesy of Janus Films

What methods the samurai ought to adopt, and what they should expect as pay, are discussions that determine not only which of them sign up to help the villagers, but define the eventual tensions within the group as well. The code of the samurai feels malleable, and is often called into question by the rough-and-tumble Kikuchiyo (Mifune), a chaotic and boisterous samurai wannabe who, it turns out, is the orphaned son of a farmer family, and is thus driven to help through a sense of empathetic understanding, rather than the platitudes of “duty.”

The film takes place during the Sengoku period of Japanese history, during which one's ability to join the Samurai class was no longer as rigid as in previous eras, though plenty of hurdles still remain. The other samurai, for instance, laugh at Kikuchiyo's puppy dog attempts to follow them, and they’re far more willing to accept the inexperienced Katsushirō by virtue of his birth.

In line with this perception of samurai as inherently noble, the novice Katsushirō looks upon the grizzled Kyūzō as "a magnificent person" each time he kills an invading bandit, even though Kyūzō seems burdened by the vicious result of his calling. Despite featuring a seemingly simple heroes-versus-villains setup, the movie's intruders are former samurai too, whose own moral codes have been molded by recent conflicts (and who are also attacked in a fiery siege by our supposed heroes). The film's plot is propelled forward by these looming hypocrisies, each one giving way to a new plan or attack strategy that, though it aims to protect the helpless villagers, forces the audience into a sense of moral deadlock, as its protagonists engage in inelegant, crowded fight scenes with little glory or release.  

Isao Kimura as Katsushiro Okamoto and Takashi Shimura as Kambei Shimada.

Courtesy of Janus Films

However, no matter how complex the movie becomes, it remains engaging and entertaining at every turn. Each frame is geared towards capturing a multitude of perspectives and reactions, especially its cinematographer Nakai Asakazu 's group shots, of numerous characters bunched together as they react to one another. The ensemble is immaculately blocked, with rows of samurai occupying the background and foreground in vivid combinations—often “V” shapes that protrude towards the screen and place the emphasis on whoever’s largest in the frame. However, the movie shines even in their absence, or when none of its seven leads are the primary point of attention, such as in wider group shots involving dozens of villagers too. This is thanks to a deep-focus frame in which each foreground and background element is clearly visible, but textured by environmental elements.

The local hills, where the samurai dig graves for their fallen comrades, are enveloped by hints of fog. The characters kick up dust as they run and fight, making the frame feel fluid and alive. The gorgeous new 4K restoration removes all imperfections—which is to say, any damage to the film prints from which it was scanned—but it maintains the flaws inherent to the medium, like the film grain that bounces around the screen during low-light sequences, imbuing the story with tension even in still and silent moments.

There's plenty of humor to be found as well—few line deliveries are as funny as Chaiki Minoru's lively Heihachi calmly asking Mifune’s Kikuchiyo: “Why the hell are you always screaming?”—since each and every interaction is rooted firmly in character. You might not remember all seven names or individual backstories by the time the movie ends, but it immerses you in character dynamics so real and detailed that any two of the central samurai could be placed in a room, and you'd have an immediate understanding of their relationship, based purely on their behavior, body-language, and tone of voice.

Such classics have a tendency to garner a reputation as "homework" sight unseen—in part, because of their prevalence on film schools curriculums and numerous "must watch" lists—but Seven Samurai's nearly 3 and a half hours fly by in wildly entertaining fashion. It features none of the explosive fireworks of the modern war and action films it inspired, but absolutely all of the heart and character-centricity (in fact, much more so). All of this emerges through Kurosawa's signature fluidity within still shots and frames, which reveal and disguise information through gradual movement and changing atmosphere, transforming the relationships between characters (and between people and their environments) in subtle but noticeable ways.

If the film plays theatrically in your vicinity, it's absolutely worth your time. It's both an iconic classic of the samurai genre, as well as a landmark of international cinema, whose influence remains ever-present. It may have been remade and remixed dozens of times, but even at 70 years of age, it feels spry and unique.

Published on July 10, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter