When Steven Spielberg hailed Akira Kurosawa as “the visual Shakespeare of our time,” the American admirer likely was thinking of the Japanese master’s Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s stunning 1954 epic is one of those absolutely indispensable films that practically everyone has heard about, regardless of whether they’ve actually seen it. Indeed, even if you haven’t, you may think you’ve seen it, given its strong influence on so many other films and filmmakers. For five decades, directors ranging from John Sturges (who remade it as The Magnificent Seven) to John Sayles (who borrowed the basic plot while writing a 1980 sci-fi cheapie called Battle Beyond the Stars) have drawn from Kurosawa’s tale of honor among warriors in 16th-century Japan.
By turns sage and savage, avuncular and authoritarian, the great Takashi Shimura (Ikiru) heads the ensemble cast as Kambei, an unemployed samurai who agrees to help peasants defend their village against periodic pillaging by marauding bandits. Even though the pay is meager — a few handfuls of rice — Kambei is able to recruit other hired swords who have little else to do after being cast adrift by the lords they once served. By appealing to their pride, sense of justice and respect for tradition, he attracts such tough customers as Kyuzo (Seji Miyaguchi), a taciturn professional who never wastes a word or gesture, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a bearish hot-head who takes great pains to hide his less-than-noble ancestry.
Seven Samurai shows Kurosawa at the top of his form, demonstrating rigorous control of his medium with an inspired balance of formal precision and kinetic exuberance. His epic opens with rapid panning shots of bandits riding over hills, and climaxes with the thundering chaos of a rain-soaked, mud-and-blood battle. In between, there is scarcely a single shot that does not contain motion. Even when people in the frame are stationary, the camera itself glides, thrusts and recoils like a restless animal. More than a half-century after its initial release, Seven Samurai still makes most other action movies seem positively pokey.
Appropriately enough, this classic by “the most Western of Japanese filmmakers” is, at heart, an old-fashioned Hollywood Western in even older-fashioned Japanese regalia. Kurosawa made no apologies for embracing the style and substance of Occidentals as diverse as John Ford and Vincent Van Gogh. (He rendered the latter as a workaholic sage — played by Martin Scorsese, no less! — in his 1990 anthology film, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.) A lifelong student of Shakespeare, he audaciously re-imagined Macbeth as Throne of Blood (1957), an epic drama of medieval warfare; recycled elements of Hamlet in The Bad Sleep Well (1960), a modern-day tale of deadly serious corporate intrigue; and and reconstituted King Lear as Ran (1985), his last incontestable masterpiece.
Even so, despite his borrowings from other cultures, Kurosawa remained forever mindful of his roots. And while he refused to err on the side of romanticized nostalgia in his re-creations of Japan’s turbulent past, he viewed social changes, technological advancements and other breaks from tradition as extremely mixed blessings. It is well worth remembering that in Seven Samurai, the 16th-century swordsman who best represents the ancient bushido code of honor -- the very embodiment of revered tradition -- is felled by a rifle shot.