The exploration of differences between social classes is a common theme found within the films of Akira Kurosawa, whether it is the lone samurai amongst the villagers in Yojimbo or the countless samurai fighting for the feuding daimyo warlords in Ran. As film historians have observed, parallels can sometimes be drawn between historical events represented in a film to actual current—or more recent—events that are being experienced during its production. In Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai), there is a clear distinction made between the classes of the farmers and the samurai, yet members from each of these classes unite as one, both in favor of the greater outcome in the face of imminent danger towards a small village in the late 16th century of feudal Japan. A perceptive viewer of this film might postulate what exactly Kurosawa is commenting on with the narrative, perhaps reflecting that banding together and camaraderie is essential for the success of post-World War II Japan. While this intuition is interesting enough to expound upon, and may very well be what is being depicted, I am more concerned with how Kurosawa treats the farmers and the rōnin samurai differently in his film, both aesthetically and emotionally, that would aid one to arrive at the aforementioned interpretation.
One must take into account the year, 1587, in which Kurosawa’s film takes places, a time immediately before the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi professed his 1588 edict in which all farmers were forbidden to possess weapons of any kind, a political order that essentially divided the farmer and samurai classes distinctly and prevented subsequent social mobility. For centuries prior to this, Japan had been ridden with violent civil war and this time period signifies a collective conscious desire for maintained law and order. Since the farmers in the countryside were the ones responsible for cultivating and distributing crops, they were held in higher regards than a merchant operating out of the nearby city in Japan. Thus, the farmers usually wished to operate as autonomous collectives, residing communally within their village and generally living out life to their own desires. The daimyos allowed the farmers to live this way; in turn, the farmers were subjected to set quotas of taxes by contractual obligations brought upon by the superior authority of the territorial lords, and even leaders from the villages were conscripted into the daimyo’s own rural administration. “By thus reaching down directly to the village level, the daimyo forced the local samurai to relinquish their close ties with the land and the peasantry and to move instead to the daimyo’s castle headquarters, where they would reside as members of the daimyo’s house band and garrison troops” (Hall, 14). There were those samurai who complied with this proclamation and those who remained astray near the rural areas, rōnin samurai, either masterless because their sensei died in military warfare or because of the fact that their sensei denounced their protégé samurais due their pupils’ rebelliousness. Nevertheless, these “misfit samurais” continued to retain the practices of the Bushido code on their own, a set of philosophical guidelines for samurai that includes self-sacrifice in the midst of warfare for a noble cause, such as defending the hapless from marauding bandits and samurais commissioned by opposing warlords to rape and pillage. In Seven Samurai, Kurosawa seeks to flesh out the personal identities within seven rōnin samurai that are hired by victimized farmers; through the character development of the samurai showcased in the first half of the film, the farmers are eventually willing to trust the rōnin and the confidences within one class is reciprocated by the other, albeit very slowly and with tremendous reticence.
The early films of John Ford and the American Western genre itself were a great inspiration to Kurosawa by the 1950’s and this is made clear in Seven Samurai; it seems that Kurosawa absorbed everything that he admired about the genre, broke the mold of the conventions rooted in the American Western, and in turn inspired another sub-genre of cinema, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-western. “The familiar ingredients of the Western can be perceived at every turn in this medieval allegory of good versus evil: the threat from bandits (read cattle barons or Indians), the heroic, opportunistic samurai who organize the villagers’ resistance (read lone gunfighters and settlers), and the showdown in which virtue and bravery prevail” (Cowie, 128). If we think about the American Western genre, even in the earlier years of the 1940s, outsiders who happen upon towns in those films were usually depicted as eternally estranged from that town’s inhabitants; for example, when Wyatt Earp takes the job of town marshall in John Ford 1946 film, My Darling Clementine, Doc Holliday and the Clantons seem subtly unsure about Wyatt’s ultimate intentions. While the outsiders seem alienated from the townspeople, the Native Americans tend to regard the collective of white males as “the white man,” and are suspicious when they encounter a lone gunslinger; the gunslinger may in fact be the heroic protagonist, but the Native Americans are hesitant to be comfortable with our hero as they must undoubtedly think back to prior experiences of being victimized by morally reprehensible cowboys. Kurosawa takes these narrative characteristics found within the Western and masters them, by making a film that serves as cinematic fulfillment and a template for universal distrust to those whom we are not personally familiar with.
In one of the film’s first scenes, the farmers collectively meet to discuss one’s recent findings: a group of bandits plans to attack their village once their crops are ready to be harvested. Since the farmers are clueless as how to fend off a hoard of maniacal bandits on their own, they consult the village elder who instructs them to find “hungry samurai,” or lower-class samurai that do not charge exorbitant amounts for hire and will work for rice that the village can provide. Before the farmers travel to the city to recruit samurai, most of them talk with each other and immediately profess to all derogatory notions that they have of the samurai class as a whole. Right away, the farmers refuse to see any glimmer of hope within this potential solution to impending doom. When they arrive at the city marketplace to recruit the samurai, they are vastly intimidated by nearly all of the samurai that outnumber them by their elegant attire and rude demeanors when given the village’s proposition. It is when the farmers witness the selfless act by Kambei that it might seem like they have found their willing samurai; Kambei is seen cutting off his hair and then rescuing a small boy that is being held hostage. The farmers admire the humanity seen in Kambei’s virtuous deed and decide to approach him. When Kambei accepts their offer he sets out and eventually finds six other samurai, each with their own unique talents and personalities, shown through a myriad of comical and drastically intense scenes of character development that introduces samurai after samurai. When the whole is finally assembled, the samurai retreat to the farmers’ village to mentally and strategically prepare for military resistance to the bandits. As the seven samurai walk into the village, they are represented by Kurosawa’s camera in high angles from the perspectives of the cowering villagers they observe on either side of them. Even as the samurai walk proudly amongst the farmers that fear them, they later complain about how this unwelcomed fright with their employers is inappropriate and unjust to the nobility of their cause. Shortly after the socially meandering samurai are brought together with the peasantry, they are soon divided by conflicting mentalities from both parties, one weary to fully cooperate with the dismissive farmers, the other hesitant to trust that these specific samurai will not harm them like other samurai have done in the past.
It is interesting to observe how the villagers are visually framed in comparison to our band of heroes in Seven Samurai. The farmers within the village are rarely framed individually, such as when a long line of them travel together across the screen or how one is always seated next to another in scenes of dialogue. The farmer class in this film is depicted as a socially aware collective whose communal priorities lie in becoming resourceful and seeking the assistance of those that generally make their blood run cold. Granted, the samurai are also framed together in a number of scenes, such as when they all argue and discuss present matters within their sleeping quarters. Yet there are many more integral shots that isolate each of these individual samurai on their own, whether it is during an exciting battle or an intense moment of contemplation. After all, one of the many ways in which this film succeeds is how Kurosawa develops the characters so favorably in the first half that when the battle in the second half occurs, the events garner the audience to internally mourn when the samurai that they have come to know begin to die during hyperactive sequences of action. The samurai are represented as the players of the conflict and the farmers act as the surrounding force of it, reluctantly accepting members of a class that has wronged them before, desperate for the pursuit and continuance of life.
From holding the American Western in high regard, Kurosawa took the interesting aspects of this genre and reiterated them from his perspective in 1587 feudal Japan, the dawning of massive social change and leaving the abundant warfare as a thing of the past. Almost nine years after the end of World War II and the devastating atomic attacks to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Kurosawa released a film about different groups of people, residing in the same nation, working together for the noblest outcome towards the end of a violent and destructive era. Perhaps this film serves as an allegory for the remaining Japanese in the aftermath of World War II; maybe Kurosawa is commenting on the futility of universal peace and good will to all men; conceivably the film investigates, in painstaking detail, that a house divided cannot stand from the indifferent gusts of wind brought upon by the chain reaction of social upheaval. By pitting two differently represented social classes together in this specific time period, Seven Samurai systematically explores the possibilities of miraculously triumphing over a powerful oppressor with those that are around you, despite differences of any significant kind. When many lives are at stake in warfare, it is the ones that perish who are honored greatly beyond death and the survivors can just merely go on and remember fondly of the fallen. Though this magnanimous group of samurai was the primary implement to success in defending the tyrannized village, the bulk of the group has been murdered, and Kambei somberly remarks with relief that the remaining samurai have survived as he surveys the ultimate outcome: “Again we are defeated. The winners are those farmers. Not us.” As with any tremendous loss of casualties and personal identities in war, those that survive it may grieve for the unfortunate ones yet ultimately, one must emotionally move on to progress and regard the deceased as warriors of virtue.
Curator: Joshua Ballas