The much-explored motif of heroism is repeatedly found in the films of Akira Kurosawa. This can be seen even in Kurosawa’s first film released in 1943, Sanshiro Sugata, which deals with the lead protagonist’s journey to become a skilled Judo fighter. In one of his post-war films released in 1946, No Regrets for Our Youth, Kurosawa exposes the hardships that a socially oppressed woman faces while making an attempt to mature from a misguided girl to a righteous heroine. From the initial spark of his career, Kurosawa seemed to be profoundly fascinated with characters that are encouraged to become heroes due to the indifferent dilemmas one might encounter in life. In what is often cited as his magnum opus, Kurosawa’s 1954 film, Seven Samurai, showcases heroism in the face of trepidation through the actions of seven rōnin samurai, cast aside from society in 1587 feudal Japan as the musket gun is beginning to become useful in military battles, thus setting in motion the events that will ultimately render the role of the samurai as obsolete.
Although it cannot be definitively stated—due to the exorbitant amount of films that have been lost throughout cinema’s lengthy duration—Seven Samurai has been often recognized by film theorists as the first film that “assembles a team” to accomplish a certain goal within the narrative; subsequent echoes of this plot formulation are found especially in American films such as Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Lewis Milestone’s Ocean’s Eleven (1960). As the film introduces each of the samurai, the audience is clued in to each one’s distinctions that set him apart from the rest and how these will increase their chances for success in the battle against the marauding bandits: Kambei assumes the role as the leader and recruiter of the other samurai, yet his old age, being a veteran to samurai militarism, and his profoundly melancholic demeanor solidify the nature of his character; Katsushirō is the young, naïve, and overtly ambitious apprentice to Kambei, although his lack of experience in warfare cannot possibly prepare him emotionally for the horrendous outcome; Gorōbei acts as Kambei’s second-in-command and helps create the fortifications needed for their strategic defense; Shichirōji—previously Kambei’s lieutenant in an unknown number of past battles—happens to be in the town when Kambei is recruiting and agrees to help without reticence; Heihachi acts as the good-natured samurai with unexceptional sword skills; Kyūzō is the almost silent, stone-faced samurai who is an exemplary swordsman; lastly there is Kikuchiyo, the outlandish and ill-mannered samurai who enjoys drinking sake a little too much—the “wild card,” if you will. As a collective, these characters are portrayed as “unlikely heroes,” a group of fighters that are seemingly insufficient in accomplishing their goal of irreproachable good triumphing over maniacal evil. Kurosawa introduces his heroes and then quickly fills his audience with doubt, a storytelling technique that keeps the viewers interested as the samurai’s plans and practice for strategic combat are developed throughout the first half of the film.
In an interview conducted by Yoshio Kamii for Cinema in 1963, an inquiry is posed as to how much of American Western films have influenced the films of Kurosawa and the director’s response was as follows: “Good Westerns are unquestionably liked by all people, regardless of nationality. As human beings are weak, they wish to dream of the good people and great heroes who lived in olden times. Western dramas have been filmed over and over again for a very long time, have been [kneaded], pounded, and polished, and in the process have evolved a kind of ‘grammar’ of cinema. And I have learned from this grammar” (54). It is interesting that Kurosawa declares how people are fascinated with heroes in fictional stories because of the undeniable weakness that exists within the whole of humanity. If Kurosawa’s view on humanity is pessimistic—like with most seminal directors in cinema—then it is only equitable that his samurai in this film remain fearful about the encroachment of impending doom. After all, the samurai remain confident about their intentions for nobly assisting the farmers, yet they do lack the confidence needed to assume a safe and successful outcome for all of those involved, save the bandits of course. Toward the beginning of the film, Kambei laments, “I’m tired of fighting. Maybe it’s my age.” While the lead samurai is unsure about his diminished fighting skills brought upon by old age, he is absolutely sure about his nobility in aiding the farmers for no monetary reward, but rather three meals a day for payment. These meals will not bring him fortune, but they will provide enough sustenance to persevere and potentially live to see the next day; this is the way of the samurai. When Kambei is introduced, he commits a selfless act by shaving his head to appear as an actual priest and then utilizes his altered appearance to rescue a child being held hostage. For Kurosawa, the heroism in his samurai characters is expressed solely through actions, not merely by words that convey promises in which one may not be able to keep.
The dichotomies presented amongst the seven samurai bring about interesting questions about the different levels of heroism within each one. “The hero who understands that death is in every case ‘my own,’ is able to regard the world in terms of ends. He moves in a straight line toward death in contrast to those who flee in the face of mortality, who defer it to sometime later or someone else” (Giles 112). The farmers are not the heroes in this film, as they are incapable of being such people due to lack of training and inexperience in battles. However, not all of the samurai are heroes either; I would like to postulate that only five of them are heroes, while Katsushirō and Kikuchiyo are samurai that just desire to be heroes, a trait that is in itself a preliminary part of heroism. Katsushirō is young and naïve; his exploration of potential and eventually futile romance with the farmer’s daughter Shino only solidifies this claim. Kikuchiyo is reckless and uncouth; his actions of viciously gulping down sake and rearing his behind at the approaching bandits make it apparent that he has nothing to lose. Hints are dropped throughout the film that allude to Kikuchiyo’s turbulent past, and I still cannot effectively gauge if his prior life subconsciously troubles him throughout the film, or if certain events happen that make it all come rushing back to him in his mind. When the bandits’ house is being burned down, Kikuchiyo rescues an abandoned baby and then begins to weep in a helpless fashion: “The same thing happened to me. I was just like this baby!” While Kikuchiyo is presented as a hero in this regard—the act of rescuing the hapless infant itself—he is shown as weak and troubled as he cries tremendously, not exactly the epitome of heroism. The stereotypical portrayal of a hero is not interesting to Kurosawa; he prefers to explore the gray area rather than settling for black or white. Yet besides the young and the audacious, the other samurai all exude demeanors as if they are prepared to die in battle for the cause of protecting the weak.
Essentially, Seven Samurai “is a film about circumstance, or about man and his relationship, at his best, to circumstance; it is not a film about fate. In tragedy, man acts, often stupidly if inevitably, and then reflects on his actions, wisely…[The film] is not about the seven samurai themselves, it is about the characteristics of samurai—courage, honor, dignity—that circumstance conspires to bring out in others” (Cardullo 116-117). While the circumstance itself of these samurai is presented near the start of the film—the chance happening that all of these characters are in the town square when the farmers search to hire samurai—it is in the final battle that the heroics blossom into fruition. While I have previously argued that Katsushirō and Kikuchiyo are not heroes throughout the film but desire to be, both of them do become heroes in the very end of the final battle with the bandits. When there are only a few bandits left to exterminate, the bandit chief takes cover in a hut that Kurosawa refuses to reveal. It is shortly after this that Kyūzō is shot and killed by the bandit chief from the safety of his refuge; what follows is the moment when both Katsushirō and Kikuchiyo simultaneously take action and become heroes. Katsushirō possesses a great deal of admiration for the deft sword skills of the murdered Kyūzō. Out of extreme anguish, Katsushirō begins to exact vengeance for his fallen hero by charging forward, yet it is Kikuchiyo that is also enraged and rushes ahead. Kikuchiyo is promptly shot as he runs forward in the dawning of his own heroism, but he extends his heroics by killing the last bandit while being mortally wounded. Kurosawa slows the images down as Kikuchiyo wallows helplessly in the rain before stabbing the bandit chief; with the rainfall, the image is beautiful and poetic in itself, but it can be assumed that this is the pinnacle of nobility for Kikuchiyo’s life, the very end if it, and Kurosawa slows this image down to have his viewers reflect and mourn the lovable character as he perishes.
At the end of it all, justice prevails albeit at the expense of four of the samurai we have come to know and an indeterminate amount of unfortunate farmers. As the farmers beat merrily on drums and belt out chants that proclaim victory and happiness, the rice is being planted for next year’s crop—a massive source for food that will not be raided by the dead bandits when it has ripened. While the samurai that remain have successfully carried out their noble cause, the heroes are not the winners of this entire endeavor, but rather the farmers who are permitted to live without worry. The last shot of the film shows the four graves of the samurai who have crossed the great divide; Kurosawa burns this image of the ghostly hillside into our retinas, as we are encouraged to regard heroes as admirable, but ultimately, the fallen receive no reward or recognition for their integrity in an attempt save a chapter of humanity.
Curator: Joshua Ballas