‘Seven Samurai’: Masterless Warriors in a Cinematic Masterpiece

‘Seven Samurai’: Masterless Warriors in a Cinematic Masterpiece

Few movies have been more influential than “Seven Samurai,” an existential action film directed by Akira Kurosawa that, at longer than three hours, seemingly muscled its way into existence.

“Seven Samurai,” made in Japan in the early 1950s, was by far the most expensive film then made in the country. And it required the longest shoot, in part because the exhausted director needed hospitalization. Trimmed by nearly one-third, it was introduced to the world at the 1954 Venice International Film Festival, sharing the Silver Lion award with three other movies.

The abridged version opened in the United States in 1956 as “The Magnificent Seven,” a title soon to be appropriated by Hollywood. The full version did not arrive until 1982.

Rarely screened since, Kurosawa’s masterpiece is showing — complete with intermission — for two weeks at Film Forum in a new 4K restoration. Its power is undiminished.

The U.S. occupation of Japan ended only months before Kurosawa and his team began planning a film that, however ambiguously, would reassert Japan’s martial spirit. Production of “Seven Samurai” coincided with an equally elemental movie, allegorizing Japan’s nuclear martyrdom, “Godzilla” — both at the same studio, Toho.

In “Seven Samurai,” a village regularly plundered by brigands seeks protection, hiring a group of masterless samurai, who are professional killers willing to work for a daily portion of rice and their own code of honor. The film has three movements: the leisurely gathering of the samurai, the painstaking organization of the village and the convulsive final battle.

The battle is an astonishing example of ensemble orchestration and percussive editing, but Kurosawa’s artistry is sensational throughout the movie. The film is a seamless synthesis of Hollywood naturalism, Soviet montage and stylized acting, verging on Kabuki, most evident in the outlandish physicality of Toshiro Mifune’s performance as the most obstreperous of the Seven. (His bongo-bassoon theme is only one of the bravura musical touches by the composer Fumio Hayasaka.)

“Seven Samurai” was initially viewed through the lens of cultural narcissism. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther saw in it “the universal influence of the culture of the American western films.”

But “Seven Samurai” did not mimic the western so much as revitalize it. Hollywood’s 1960 remake, “The Magnificent Seven,” was itself a watershed movie; the two great western directors of the 1960s, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, are inconceivable without Kurosawa’s example.

I first saw the full version of “Seven Samurai” at the peak of its critical esteem, when it placed third in the 1982 edition of Sight and Sound’s poll of the world’s greatest films. (It has since fallen to 20th place in the poll, which is published once every 10 years.) Acknowledging its virtuosity, I had qualms about the movie’s elitist worldview and aestheticized violence. When I revisited it, I was not only overwhelmed by Kurosawa’s chops, but also impressed by the movie’s emotional depth and political complexity.

Kurosawa’s ancestors were samurai. He identifies with his noble albeit déclassé aristocratic protagonists yet bases the movie on the fluid relationship between the three castes (peasant, outlaw and warrior). “Once more we survive,” the oldest, wisest samurai wearily tells his remaining comrades in the movie’s final moments.

The samurai are trained killers; the farmers are built to endure. As the villagers celebrate triumph over the outlaws, the samurai adds that “the victory belongs to these peasants, not us.” History does as well.

Seven Samurai

Through July 18 at Film Forum in Manhattan; filmforum.org.

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