1954. Starring Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune. Directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, like John Ford’s The Searchers, is mentioned so often as an inspiration for other films that to finally see it feels a bit like a cheat — I feel like I know what’s going to happen. But watching 207 minutes of subtitled 16th-century warfare, undoubtedly infused with much cultural significance over the head of this dull Wisconsin boy, was surprisingly entertaining.
Takashi Shimura plays Kambei, recruited by desperate farmers to help protect them against a return visit by marauding bandits. The farmers are tempted to give everything to the bandits and beg for mercy, but know how little mercy they can expect. Kambei is promised a little rice a day for risking his life, but he accepts, and begins to search for help. Among those he finds is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a samurai-wannabe whose reputation as “a wild animal” will make him a formidable killer. The seven travel to the small village, which is anxious to finish the harvest and await the bandits.
Kambei creates a strategy for defending the village and trains the farmers to defend themselves. (They really are fairly pathetic: starving and cowering early in the film, but happy warriors at the end.) Meanwhile, his young recruit, Katsushiro, has fallen for a village girl — an unwelcome impulse for a hired killer.
Kurosawa’s direction has been discussed by more-knowledgable reviewers than me; but the fact that this film moves along so quickly, even with its battle scenes confined to the final third, is due to the fascinating characters in every scene and near-constant movement within every frame. The cast is memorable, including Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyuzo, a taciturn and fearless warrior, and Daisuke Kato as Shichiroji, an old samurai buddy of Kambei’s who happily joins in. (I love the scene where Kambei explains that they are fighting bloodthirsty bandits, and may only be paid a handful of rice. Kyuzo without hesitation says, “Yes!”)
This story of a loose band of hired guns, protecting a group of frightened townspeople out of a sense of professional obligation, should be familiar to fans of great Westerns. Maybe I’ll rent the Magnificent Seven next.