207 minutes? That’s intimidating, but don’t let that stop you. Take out the opening titles and the five minute intermission and you’re down to the length of a “Lord of the Rings” film. Then you have to know that this is, simply put, one of the absolute masterpieces of world cinema. And we’re not just talking about the perfect visual compositions, amazing soundscapes and multi-layered storytelling. “Shichinin no Samurai” is also a genuinely entertaining movie with characters we love and characters we love to hate, sensuality and violence, tragic events and laugh out loud moments.
Kurosawa’s pacing is deliberate but engrossing. He takes an hour to introduce the farmers, poor, weary, with all the despair in the world in their eyes but also beams of strength and hope. It’s a ruthless era, with warlords and brigands ruling the land. Just last fall, bandits looted this village and they’re only waiting until after the next harvest to come and take everything again. The peasants are conflicted. Some want to bend over and beg the bandits to leave a little food so they won’t starve, they’re even willing to offer their daughters’ virtue. Others won’t hear any of this defeatist nonsense, they’re ready to fight even against impossible odds. Or maybe they can level the field a little and hire samurai to protect them.
But what samurai will risk his life for poor farmers who can’t even offer rewards beyond a few square meals? Washed up, hungry samurai. Seven will come, some too old, some too young, some too serious, some too cheerful, some too wild… The worst of which obviously being Kikuchiyo (the endlessly badass, hilarious and often bare-assed Toshiro Mifune), who’s not even a real samurai. He’s a rugged, loud, horny, drunk, laughing hyena of an asshole, but he did show up, right? He’s not the most tactful or considerate fella, but guys like that have their value. He’s basically yelling what others think silently, and that’s sometimes the only way to get things done.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), the leader of this unkempt pack of samurai, as wise as he’s strong. The middle part of the picture has him and his men trying to rally up the villagers, who need them but aren’t much welcoming. It’s interesting how Kurosawa doesn’t turn the peasants into saints or martyrs, they’re regular people, flawed people, struggling to survive, some of them have even killed and robbed in the past, just like the bandits they hate so much. The farmers will have to be trained into the ways of war to defend themselves, with the samurai planning strategies of defense and offense, flooding fields, building fences, evacuating part of town, setting up posts of guard…
And then comes the stand-off, a three day battle that takes up the last hour of the film. This is by far one of the most astounding sequences ever shot and what makes it all the more powerful is how carefully Kurosawa has set it up, immersing us into this world, showing us who these people are and how they’ve prepared for this decisive confrontation. This is a soulful epic where men rise up and are crushed down, where small victories come with big sacrifice. Mud, rain, sweat and blood run together, waiting for an outcome. Yet whatever it is, there will be no real winners – that’s war for you.
“Again, we’re defeated.”