There are few fictional montages as intriguing as team building. Whether for an epic like The dirty dozen, a robbery like Italian work, or a superhero movie like Justice Leagueputting together a cast of characters with different personalities and abilities is a surefire way to draw audiences into a world.
Each character approaches the same situation from a different angle, allowing the viewer to see a plan unfold step by step. And, just as important, viewers learn how different personalities work and don’t work to complete a plan.
1954 film by Akira Kurosawa Seven Samurai set the template for the modern squad, though its massive three-and-a-half-hour runtime reaches far more epic heights than most. Like 2001 and Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai is a film whose reputation precedes it. Its influence on cinema is virtually unparalleled, which can make it a little daunting to watch.
But the best way to treat movies labeled “greatest” is like movies like any other, in that it’s okay to dislike some of them. SamuraiBattery life can be a challenge, especially when you’re on your couch and a phone calls. But it’s a compelling film for anyone willing to commit, able to draw a viewer into an experience that will reshape their entire day.
The basic plot is now famous as the inspiration for films like The Magnificent Seven: an unfortunate village is threatened by bandits, and it’s up to a few samurai – you can probably guess how many – to defend them. The audience learns during the first hour of the film that these samurai are all unique. Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the first to enroll, is a masterless ronin with a deep sense of honor. Katsushirō Kyūzō (Isao Kimura) is young and untested. Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi) is a stone-faced murderer who doesn’t like to talk. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a wild alcoholic who shows up even when not wanted.
Think about these elements. Honorable leader, rookie, hardened veteran, unpredictable slaughter machine… do they sound familiar? Kurosawa passed Seven Samurai build these characters, and modern films are able to reference its archetypes in opening cuts.
The samurai have been summoned by a farming village threatened by bandits who promise a raid when the barley harvest is ready. The villagers and Kambei’s team have a rocky relationship; the samurai are desperate because they are not promised a reward. Early on, Kikuchiyo denounces the farmers as a bunch of crooks hiding secret hiding places while claiming an inability to pay or even offer food. Then he reveals why he fights: he was born a farmer.
Samurai all have a deep need to find honor somewhere, and this mission seems to be their only way. But even before the samurai arrive in the village, there are cultural complications. Some villagers are terrified of what the samurai might do to their daughters. One of them, Manzō (Kamatari Fujiwara) forcibly cuts his daughter Shino’s (Keiko Tsushima) hair to make her look more like a boy. It’s a brutal scene and it’s not the last time Kurosawa will look into Shino’s fate.
But the two sides slowly begin to trust each other, and much of the film is devoted to devising a strategy for defending the village. Maps are analyzed and barricades are built. The villagers are shaped into a fighting force in their own right. Seven Samurai even comes with an hour and forty-six minute intermission for those who need bathroom breaks.
The performances in Samurai are all excellent, but Mifune’s Kikuchiyo is the only one. Kikuchiyo is electric; he swings back and forth with power and passion, cursing anyone who stands in his way. He’s bold and irresponsible, an uncontrollable element that will eventually evolve into the modern antihero. He is torn between worlds and accepted in neither.
Seven SamuraiThe last hour of is one of the most amazing in the history of cinema. Here, all of Kurosawa’s plots come crashing down as the 40 bandits are slaughtered one by one, often at great personal cost. The film becomes both a personal drama and an epic battle, with shots evoking modern soldiers in the trenches.
It’s a shame for a movie like Seven Samurai to be labeled purely as a required part of a film education. It will undoubtedly offer a lesson in the history of film making, but it has a living, breathing heart of its own.
Seven Samurai is streaming on HBO Max.