Analysing Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai is Kurosawa’s and Japan’s classic as well as being regarded as an all-time great beyond its nation’s cinema. Part of appreciating Seven Samurai however as a film is not only admiring the quality performances, writing and directing but the hidden underlying message which it conveys and holds. Once analysed you then begin to realise that Seven Samurai is actually a well-thought and executed work of art truly and totally deserving its huge reputation.

Kurosawa’s classic conveys the hidden story of 1954 Japan, showing the battle within society between a failing and falling military which had lost power, and a rising set of civilians and peasants who were gaining power. Seven Samurai proposes the idea of traditional beliefs being replaced by modern beliefs something contemporary to 1954 Japan as a much needed change was required and put in place after a war against America which resulted in destruction, mass death and defeat produced a huge paradigm shift which saw Japan become a much more westernised country.  The farming village within Seven Samurai is used to act as a microcosm to Japan, making the important battle being about the interaction between the new arriving Samurai and the farmers; consequently this therefore makes the bandits nothing more than a plot device within the film. Throughout Seven Samurai we also see how accepting modern views and beliefs over traditional will lead to survival and better life, encouraging us to change and accept change rejecting the traditional Japanese proverb “the nail that stands up, must be hammered down”.

The most frequent message conveyed through Seven Samurai is the role of military and more so how there is no longer a place or use for a military in contemporary 1954 Japan. There are two main scenes to show this as well as two main characters. Firstly Kyuzo, the most skilled and trained samurai out of the seven, and for that reason alone he is chosen to represent the military. Japan believed how they were invincible and somewhat impossible to defeat something that is showed through Kyuzo however these are traditional beliefs so they must be abolished. Kyuzo’s death and the scene as a whole is very symbolic, getting shot with ease from a far distance shows how weak and useless Kyuzo was to his death, somewhat reflecting how weak Japan were to America’s attack. The whole concept of Kyuzo’s death tries to empathise how the military are no longer powerful and required, this is especially shown as the main objective of the film is still achieved despite and without Kyuzo. More so the character of Kikuchiyo is equally as important, a samurai who is actually a farmer’s son, he allows a bridge to be formed between the poor farmers of the village and the hired samurai. When finding out that the farmers have been hiding old samurai armour presumably taken from dead and weak soldiers, there comes an iconic and powerful scene where an angry Kikuchiyo lectures everyone about their actions. In his speech he shouts abuse at his fellow samurai stating that the farmers are only “murderous” and “cunning” due to the military shaping them that way, “And each time you fight you burn villages, you destroy the fields, you take away the food, you rape the women and enslave the men. And you kill them when they resist. You hear me – you damned samurai?!” Although he is not saying society and Japanese civilians are completely blameless, he does shift blame onto the military slightly, aiming his speech directly down the face of the camera it portrays the idea of the military not being welcome within Japan, also showing that if they are to stay there needs to be change.

Throughout Seven Samurai there is a constant battle between modernists and traditionalists, we see this shown through certain characters within the film. As an audience we are meant to and are encouraged to side with the modernists, embracing their views and beliefs. Those who represent modernists within the film are energetic, they bring life and as an audience we are encouraged to make a connection. Shino and Katsushiro are two modernists within Seven Samurai, young and full of energy along with youth they spark a romance that is used as a subplot, the romance is something we are meant to care for very much especially when traditionalists attempt to destroy what is formed. More so Gasaku supports the same views, being the eldest member of the farming village, surprisingly he encourages the change stating how they need to develop in order to survive, “Years ago, when all of you were still babies, our village was burned out by bandits. When I was running away I saw something. There was one village left unburned. It has hired samurai.” His speech only emphasises his strong modernist beliefs. Gasaku being a modernist is very important as he is respected and being the “wise old man” stereotype his views should be correct.  In complete contrast the traditionalist of Seven Samurai are not important to the audience, at every occasion and chance we are also encouraged to show an extreme dislike towards them. Manzo and Yohei are the films traditionalists, Yohei is a complete comic relief character only providing laughs as he is even mocked my our “protagonists” “you can be our scarecrow” whilst Manzo is shown taking away his daughters relationship and equality chopping of her hair and eventually disowning her.

To finally heighten and emphasise the messages throughout Seven Samurai the final scene is very symbolic. As the farmers celebrate, singing and planting a new harvest after being victorious over the bandits the remaining samurai stand watching next to their buried dead companions. The symbolism starts with the simple surroundings of both groups; the modern farmers who stood up against traditions are surrounded by life and hope whilst the military stand surrounded by death with no hope. Kambei the samurai leader has a very important final line, “With their land the farmers are the victors not us” The line shows how the modernists have become victors but also shows how in a present day 1954 Japan farmers and the previous “poor” citizens have more power. It furthermore hints at the land reform that took place after post-war America which saw farmers being full ownership of their land.

The very beginning of Seven Samurai from Rikichi’s need for change to Kambei final words all highlight and glorify how in order to survive, compete and live Japan need to change their traditions. Throughout it also shows how the Military who have lost the war and their power have to now accept change or they will have no place within Japan. These very ideas and beliefs that are portrayed through such a well-written story really make Seven Samurai have another level of depth, making it a classic and one which should be respected and appreciated.


14 comments on “Analysing Seven Samurai (1954)

  1. I think we’ve seen a lot of movies try to tackle the old guard/military vs new generation and traditionalists vs modernists themes but not many are nearly as well done as Seven Samurai. I like how the film pertains to a specific time and culture, which I think makes it more interesting than other, more nebulous films, and also makes for a stronger message. Your
    essay is very interesting, and I think it gives an approved appreciation for the film. Thanks for posting!

  2. Very interesting analysis! I never thought of considering the film from that angle, but it makes a lot of sense in hindsight now that you mention it. 1954 was a real transition period for Japan, wasn’t it? Going from a fascist empire hellbent on taking over all of Asia with its ruthless military to a very westernized, modernized, non-military state. Kurosawa definitely is not one to shun allegory, it seems.

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