Reflections on “Seven Samurai”
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni
Starring Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune et al.
These notes are based on the 190 minute BFI DVD presentation.
A video presentation of this material is available here.
“Seven Samurai” is frequently referred to as the film against which all action films that have followed it should be judged. With its carefully calculated combination of exciting yet emotionally engaging action scenes, exploration and development of character and a storyline that appeals to the heart and mind, “Seven Samurai” was successful not just in its own right but it established a form of template for numerous ensemble cast adventure films in the 1960s, 70s and beyond.
As I settled to watch this action/adventure film for the first time in some twenty years, it struck me that a key element that spans the film and informs the character development so essential to its success is the code by which these samurai live.
Although by tradition social movement between castes and classes was impossible, during the Sengoku period (our film takes place in 1586) there was some loosening of samurai culture and some born in other castes could make a name for themselves as warriors, thus becoming de facto samurai. However, a true samurai was not just a warrior but was one who aspired to live by a code, a code that set them apart, the code of Bushido, and this same code seems to underpin the very structure of “Seven Samurai”.
After a little research, I found Inazo Nitobe’s list of eight principles of Bushido – justice, honour, benevolence, courage, manners, honesty, self-discipline and loyalty. The closeness in number between the eight values of Bushido and the seven samurai (on top of which you might include the farmers they defend) was quite irresistible to me and as I watched the film I tried to identify connections between the two.
Eventually, I reached the conclusion that although our seven display nearly all the virtues, six samurai seem to lack at least one of the virtues and the seventh allows one of them to take precedence over the others. In the course of defending the village, each will have the opportunity to embrace that which is lacking or consider that which overwhelms him, and we witness the resultant changes in the individual and benefits for the group. The farmers provide the cause for which our seven fight but they also learn to defend themselves and in so doing embrace the qualities personified by our seven.
Our seven are in fact Ronin (or masterless) and so lack the element of loyalty. Loyalty to one to whom you owe a debt (usually a member of the Shogunate) seems to have overridden all other principles of the samurai code and thus led to the committing of many crimes against common humanity in the name of extending one’s master’s influence and power.
When Kikuchiyo uncovers weaponry stolen from defeated and murdered samurai, the farmers are accused of being underhand, cunning and murderous. However, Kikuchiyo defends them, saying they have been made this way by the samurai themselves and their own acts of theft, rape and murder all done through blind loyalty to their Shogun masters who ruled by force and only exercised humanity on a whim or if it served their own purpose. The remaining six samurai are stunned and shamed as they are forced to face the injustice of samurai acts and recognise they have behaved in much the same way as the very bandits they have been hired to confront. Although they had collectively found purpose in defending the farmers against marauding bandits, they are now united in a cause for justice (while perhaps righting their own injustices) and this may well be seen as filling the gap left by their loss of loyalty to a master.
In a way, losing loyalty has allowed them to follow a different path based on other virtues such as justice, benevolence and honour. And then there is the possibility of a new-found loyalty they develop toward one another.
Although this change affects all seven, it is perhaps best personified by Gorobei who initially gets involved in the scheme purely because of Kambei. He pays little heed to the whys and wherefores of the venture – he shows faith in and devotion or loyalty to Kambei alone, but he goes on to discover the value of fighting for fairness, helps plan the defence of the village and even loses his life while fighting for a cause rather than for a potentially unscrupulous individual to whom he felt he owed a debt.
In the case of Shichiroji, there may be some doubt about his sense of honour. He is an old friend and former lieutenant of Kambei whom Kambei thought lost. When asked how he escaped in a previous conflict, Shichiroji replies that he hid in a ditch as the castle collapsed around him. This may reflect a perfectly sensible and practical attitude toward survival but this, along with the fact he fails to answer Kambei’s next question about whether he is ready for another fight, rather suggests we are being led to doubt the importance Shichiroji attaches to honour.
However, emboldened and heartened by the cause for which they are fighting and perhaps the unity of spirit in the group, Shichiroji makes no attempt to conceal himself when the going gets tough and he dies making a spirited defence of the village.
Heichachi, the spirited and enthusiastic woodcutter, suggests in a conversation that one can’t be expected to kill all one’s enemies and if one is outnumbered by 20 or 30 bandits, it is perfectly reasonable to run away. Once again, this may be viewed as a survival reflex but I think we are being invited to doubt Heichachi’s courage in the face of adversity.
Once again, however, strength due to belief in a cause, combined with unity of spirit, enable a potential weakness to be overcome and allow Heichachi to willingly participate in a raid on the bandit encampment where the bandits greatly outnumber our heroes. He dies but has proved himself worthy of the term samurai and the code they follow.
Kyuzo, the stone-faced swordsman who initially turns down Kambei’s invitation to join them because he simply wants to perfect his skill rather than kill, may be viewed as lacking the virtue of benevolence. It appears that martial skills are everything to him, to the point where he kills a man to prove his mastery (though he was severely provoked and threatened by the man he eventually killed), and so the others are surprised when he joins them, and he offers no explanation for his change of heart. Yet, after seeing Katsushiro share his rice with Shino and offer to find food for other hungry villagers, it is Kyuzo who offers to do without his own share of rice in order to help the villagers and he later volunteers to enter the enemy camp in order to retrieve one of their guns. Clearly then, Kyuzo has been influenced by the company and purpose of his fellow samurai and has gained the virtue of benevolence, benefitting both the villagers and his comrades in arms.
Katsushiro is the youngest of the group and he displays many of the principles of the samurai code but he lacks self-discipline. On a number of occasions, he is directed or advised by Kambei and the others as his enthusiasm and willingness to take action may not be the best option. It is, however, in a matter of the heart which overflows into social politics and the mixing of castes that Katsushiro reveals his lack of self-discipline. Katsushiro and Shino yield to temptation and fear to make love shortly before the final battle. This causes considerable social strife among the conservative farmers who think of this as an act of dishonour and social disgrace. Katsushiro learns to put aside his guilt and personal feelings for Shino to make a valuable contribution to the final battle, displaying discipline while fighting for justice.
It should be noted that Shichiroji (already associated with honour) points out that it is, perhaps, preferable that Shino should have been “dishonoured” (so to speak) by a samurai than by a bandit, inviting Manzo (Shino’s father) to keep events and his attitude to honour in proportion. It should also be noted that at the end of the film it is unclear whether Katsushiro will pursue his association with his new-found friends or a relationship with Shino. Perhaps he will value love more highly than a career as a samurai.
Kikuchiyo is perhaps the most interesting, engaging and entertaining of the samurai. He is also the one with the most complex background and the one least likely to qualify as a samurai.
When Kikuchiyo witnesses Kambei’s actions at the start of the film, he is clearly deeply impressed and, making something of a noisy fuss, he runs up to Kambei, presumably in an attempt to engage in a friendly conversation or perhaps even to suggest accompanying him. However, Kikuchiyo doesn’t have the verbal skills to put into words his feelings and he is even angered when Katsushiro expresses himself eloquently, doubtless expressing the very sentiments he himself would have liked to communicate. Reacting badly and with some anger and frustration, he incites distrust and caution in Kambei and Katsushiro. Kikuchiyo appears to be lacking in the virtue of manners. He finds it difficult to judge the feelings and reactions of others and he has some difficulty communicating his own feelings.
On top of this, Kikuchiyo lacks another virtue – that of honesty. He makes quite a fuss of the scroll he carries, a scroll that validates his family claims and background, but which the others quickly and easily disprove. Interestingly, it is shortly after this truth has emerged that he finds acceptance among the others as he also angrily reveals the truth about the farmers’ attitudes, the guilt of the samurai in creating these attitudes and his own farming background.
His deep-felt and long-harboured bitterness and resentment concerning the treatment of peasants by Shogun and samurai alike feed an eloquent and perfectly reasoned speech after which the samurai are shamed into seeking justice and Kikuchiyo can rightfully take his place among them. Honesty has thus led to greater compassion and clarification of purpose and motivation among the seven. It has also given Kikuchiyo greater confidence in terms of self-belief and occasionally abrasive communication as he combines training the farmers with entertainment and compassion, showing a genuine understanding and regard for their situation. He has thus gained the two virtues he lacked and this benefits the group as a whole.
Kambei may be viewed as the virtual embodiment of samurai principles though he himself points out he is a Ronin. When freed from subjective loyalty to an individual, Kambei is able to recognise and commit to objective justice. His actions and manner near the start of the film suggest he possesses all the values of Bushido and his benevolence in taking on the farmers’ cause, combined with lack of loyalty to a master, lead him to a reinforced adherence to justice, if only as compensation for injustices he is forced to recognise by Kikuchiyo.
At the end, with four of their number dead and Katsushiro tempted to join Shino in village life, Kambei concludes that they have in fact lost once again. With their land, the farmers are the victors and not the samurai who defended them. The cause may have been won, but the combatants have gained little or lost everything. The farmers have retained their physical legacy of eternal land (representing growth and development) and have undoubtedly gained in spiritual strength through their collaboration with the seven, while the defenders must content themselves with the knowledge they have preserved the intangible but elemental values by which they live.
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