“In life, one finds friends in the strangest of places.”
This is a quote spoken by a samurai warrior in 16th-century Japan, but it rings true centuries later all over the word. An array of variables and possibilities in everyday life produce endless permutations for the different relationships you build with people. Your best friends today may have been completely oblivious to your existence just last year. Your family in a decade may be nothing more than loose acquaintances in your current life. The world is a chaotic place, and the attachments we form to one another develop in the most unexpected ways. The individuals that are placed in our lives at particular moments can bring aid and comfort in times of pain and need. How and why life shakes out as it does is the great mystery of all time – and it is also why we have stories like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. At the end of the day, we are all just trying to get by with a little help from our friends.
First thing is first – Kurosawa’s 1954 picture is undoubtedly one of the most influential films since the dawn of cinema. Seven Samurai is one of the first action epics, and is seen as a source of inspiration for practically every action film to grace the screen in the last 60+ years – whether consciously or sub-consciously within the minds of the successive filmmakers. The bare bones of the story are fairly simple: A poor village of farmers is already struggling to provide food for all the families therein – and the hanging shadow of bandit raids threatens to wipe them out completely. With no warriors in their midst, the farmers must recruit a group of samurai to protect them from the violent attacks. But there’s another wrinkle – they must be “hungry samurai,” because the farmers have no monetary compensation for their services. They shall be endowed with the glorious payment of…rice. With such a lackluster recruitment pitch, the initial ordeal of putting together a team is – figuratively and also quite literally – half the battle. With a total runtime of 207 minutes, a rather large middle portion of the story is focused on the desperate exploits of a handful of representatives from the village whom are sent to the mountains to track down samurai for their cause. It is a grand and sweeping tale that is also strikingly intimate and character-driven, which, is hardly surprising to find at this point in my studies of Kurosawa. Seven Samurai has its share of hefty set pieces, with meticulous production design (Takashi Matsuyama) and art direction (Sô Matsuyama), captured by Asakazu Nakai’s photography, set within a natural elemental atmosphere brimming with gushing rain and dust in the wind. Yet, the narrative scope remains personal and human. I have seen more than a few 90-minute films that had me counting the down the slowly passing minutes on my watch, but Seven Samurai is an adventure that enthralled me with a strength that is simultaneously graceful and unrefined.
In many situations in life, being backed into a corner actually breeds creativity and a certain level of efficiency that would have been elusive in circumstances with a greater abundance of assets. Scrapping and scrounging for survival opens up hidden pathways that would have obscured by more time and resources. This is true for the eponymous septet of samurai and their agriculturalist associates as they somehow manage to defend themselves from a horrible strategic position, nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains. The literal, physical perspectives of the marauders put them at an advantage in terms of attack, but the more abstract, philosophical, and intellectual perspectives of our group of protagonists shone a light on defensive maneuvers that gave them better control. In many aspects, this can be seen as a reflection of the filmmaking process in general – and that of Seven Samurai in particular. The wild obstacles encountered by Kurosawa and his team throughout production of the film are well-documented. The shoot took a total of 148 days, production was halted twice, and the filming schedule for the climactic battle was shifted and restructured multiple times due to a shortage of the equine variety. (To put this in simpler terms that do not demonstrate my vocabulary as extravagantly – there were not enough horses on hand). But, Kurosawa found a way to dig his heels into the dirt, stand his ground, and make the work of art that he intended. He defended this project with a zeal comparable to that of the hepdomad of warriors for which the motion picture is named. (All right, I think I am all burned out on creative synonyms for “a group of seven”).
The core group of characters represent many different things to many different viewers, but a descriptive term that would likely be a common denominator if you asked 100 audience members at random would be “family.” Members of the troupe include Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), the wise and seasoned leader; Shichirōji (Daisuke Katō), Shimada’s old friend and ally; Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), the expert swordsman who displays little to no emotion; Gorōbei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), the masterful archer and strategist; Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki), the morale booster who is eager for action; Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the “wild dog” who is volatile and unpredictable but a valuable asset in the heat of battle; and Katsushirō Okamoto (Isao Kimura), a naïve and inexperienced young man who is determined to showcase his worth of the esteemed “samurai” title, seeking to live up to his father’s greatness. Just from these brief summaries of their central personalities and attributes, you can probably imagine that there would be some friction in a crew this diverse, even if they had a lifetime to live and grow together. But the thing is, they only have a few weeks to not only learn how to cooperate efficiently as a family unit, but also how to survive the onslaught of deadly raiders. The odds appear insurmountable. The deck is stacked. How in the world could any family survive this, much less one that has been stitched together so haphazardly?
Spoiler alert for a film that is nearly 70 years old, but some of the main characters do die. The heart and soul of the family manages to survive, but it comes with personal sacrifice and tragic losses. The attackers are defeated, and the village is saved, but as one of the surviving samurai says, “In the end, we lost this battle too.” Seven Samurai is a story about family, and it is also the father of modern action cinema – but it does not romanticize violence. Kurosawa’s film shows that violence is an ugly and grotesque – yet sometimes necessary – means to an end that breeds misery and despair more than any temporary peace. The spirit of the samurai family survived, but at a terrible cost. The memories of the fallen live on, but their loss is no less painful. Kurosawa made this film about a war-torn 16th-century Japan in 1954, less than a decade removed from the atrocities of World War II. Even at this point in the year 2021, the world is no stranger to wars. The gruesome cycle continues evermore. On a much more intimate level, we are all fighting our own personal wars in our lives on a daily basis. But, the family we find along the way stand with us as we face down internal and external enemies. How true it is that, “in life, one finds friends in the strangest of places.”