22.11.2019 in Literature

The Historical Context of Seven Samurai


Seven Samurai is the epochal and powerful work that made a significant contribution to the art of cinema. The number of official and unofficial remakes exceeds a dozen, and all sorts of references, homage, allusions, tributes just do not lend themselves to account. Among other works of Kurosawa Seven Samurai, perhaps, is the most fascinating, exciting, and engaging primarily in terms of filming technique. Moreover, it is one of the best representatives of traditional Japanese cinematic genre. However, the innovation of Seven Samurai lies not only in surprising shots and editing process. Even if Kurosawa did not consciously put direct allusions to the historical events in his fascinating history, the film accurately reflects the changes in public sentiment.

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The State of Japanese Filming Industry

During the occupation of Japan by American troops in 1945 – 1949, the film industry in the country was subjected to strict censorship, which considered not only the general ideology of the films but also the specific topics. For example, the scenes of battles with swords were strictly prohibited. The Americans understood that nothing can awake patriotic feelings more than shiny steel that is used in the name of Bushido. In fact, the Seven Samurai is not only the first samurai movie by Kurosawa but generally one of the first films of this genre in the postwar Japanese cinema. It seems that the director understood that he needed to rethink the samurai traditions in the movies. Thus, he turned the stylistic of Japanese historical film or “jidaigeki” in the direction of realism. Kurosawa created classic samurai saga, with noble heroes that sacrifice themselves in the name of debt but in a realistic style. He wanted to reject the concept of a hero; thus, reflecting on the collapse of the national idea after Japan’s defeat in World War II. It was necessary to find a new basis for such traditional and essentially universal values of duty, honor and sacrifice and Kurosawa found it.

Images of Villagers, Samurai, and Aristocracy

The story told in the film can happen in any era. European viewers can hardly name a century of movie’s action. Cored guns are the primary sign of the time. The four samurai died from the bullets. Thus the obvious moral states that technological progress puts an end to the samurai class and no matter how beautiful were the heroes of the past, in modern times they are irrelevant. However, Kurosawa does not limit himself in guns and carefully places the hints of exact dates in every shot. The year when events of the film occur is submitted in a veiled form. The director constructs a comic episode with rapid editing and comic music when a drunken self-proclaimed samurai pokes a finger in stolen ancestry and claims that his name is Kikuchiyo, and he was born in “the second year of Tensho”. In standard chronology, all events of the story occur in 1586. Dark times of feudal war made the representation of tiny village in which poor peasants barely survive trusting the elder’s decisions extremely vivid. The robbers that terrorized and murdered people taking all the money were the common phenomenon. In the movie, the villagers decide to hire the samurai to handle with the bandits. All these scenes are made with long panoramic shots, dark color palette and tragic music that emphasize the hardships of the peasants.

According to Kurosawa’s view, the images of samurai are completely devoid of social class arrogance and prejudice and have an intelligent and highly developed sense of humor. Kurosawa brilliantly outlined the psychology of the medieval Japan. The representatives of the nobility who found themselves in a period of crisis carried quite skeptical and tolerant view of things. Such view does not carry a total disappointment and disbelief but gives a real strength to ethical values. The scene where the viewer becomes acquainted with the future leader of the group Ronin Kambei proves this statement. This episode is shown through the eyes of the peasant community emissaries who came to hire samurai to protect their village. All their attempts ended in failure because no professional soldier, even the unemployed will serve farmers because of their social status. When recruiters are ready to retreat, they become witnesses of the operation of hostage release. In order to deceive the criminal, Kambei puts on the monastic robe and shaves his head. The director uses extreme close-ups of Kambei’s and peasants’ faces and rejects music to outline the seriousness of the moment. Thus, even if the viewer is not familiar with the context of Japanese traditions, he/she understands that the hero’s decision to cut off his hair looks almost like self-deprecation in the eyes of others.

While this scene seems to be unrelated to the main plot, it contains the basic idea of the film. Kurosawa brilliantly uses slow motion and pathos music for the moment when Kambei rescues the child and receives admiration from the audience. For a true samurai such as Kambei, the tradition is not something self-valuable. Compassion and humanity, as well as practicality, are more important. From the first glance, the seven samurais are the real losers because they could not find a better job than to protect the small village from bandit raids. Such decision is not easy for them. One of the most remarkable scenes in the movie is the one where farmers bring their defenders weapons and armor that were taken from the dead samurai. After a deathly silence emphasized with the extremely long static shot of motionless figures of heroes one of the characters says, “I’d like to kill every farmer in this village”. However, their greatness lies in this failure. Thus, Kurosawa uses such long tradition of heroic defeat that has always been the subject of worship in Japanese culture.

Always careful to work with the historical material, Kurosawa knew that each person in the medieval society had a certain position. Moreover, the clothing of Far Eastern societies contained the details that had a special symbolic meaning. As befits a samurai, all characters wear the clan emblems sewn on a special jacket without sleeves. However, the author considered such scant information as rather sufficient. The Japanese are well aware of their history while for foreign audience clothes, and signs are only exotic. Instead of this, Kurosawa focused on the detailed representation of characters and indication of their involvement in the key points of Japanese history. For example, many of “sevens” have the typical treats related to the traditional samurai cult of heroes, such as a perfect master of the sword Kyuzo. Familiarity with this character begins in a scene where a short but very expressive educational fight transforms into a real duel. To create a necessary dynamic, Kurosawa uses tracking shots and gradually quickening transitions between the faces of the audience and both duelists without any music. The accent is made on Kyuzo’s cracked right eyebrow. This detail claims that even a perfect master of fencing can make mistakes. Thus, Kurosawa again follows the tradition of heroic defeat.

The Kurosawa’s representation of Japanese aristocracy can be seen in the image of young Katsushiro. He sometimes behaves like a child finding time to relax and collect a bouquet of spring flowers. To emphasize the romantic mood of this scene, Kurosawa uses long panoramic shots, the bright lighting of spring forest and traditional Japanese music with the sounds of nature. Among other samurais, Katsushiro had the most luxurious clothes and wore them with elegance. This young man from the noble family even tried millet for the first time in his life. Kyoto aristocracy of that era behaved similarly. While the country experienced the feudal war, they gathered around the emperor who had only symbolic power and spent time following a thousand-year tradition of aristocratic life that supposed writing poetry and competing in calligraphy and other secular arts. However, sometimes real life reminded of itself. Throughout its history, Japan several times became an arena of struggle and each new emperor quickly became surrounded by the crowd of frightened aristocrats.

The Representation of Military Art

It seems that Kurosawa thoroughly studied the military art of Middle Ages because he showed the tactical and technical sides of the defense of the village with exceptional reliability. The final episode of the first part, one of the most memorable in the history of cinema, shows the attitude towards the war in medieval Japan. During the construction of fortifications and preparation of a defensive plan, Kambei decides to sacrifice a few houses standing in the suburbs because it is impossible to protect them from robbers. When the samurai gather peasants armed with bamboo spikes in the central courtyard, several people are offended and try to leave. At this point, a good-natured-chief suddenly changes and an angry shout stops the offended. “Such selfishness will not be tolerated” declares Kambei, and the viewer realizes that the jokes are over. The outstanding features of this scene are close-ups of Kambei’s face, epic music, the fog that creates a sinister atmosphere and the blackout.

Ultimately, the war knowledge is based on logic and common sense. “War is a run. We run both in offense and defense” explains Gorobei Katayama and everyone is struck by the simplicity of this truth. From director’s point of view, the war has nothing common with ceremonial event or parade. On the one hand, it is a painstaking preparatory work, where the thorough analysis serves as the basis of effective strategy. On the other hand, war is hard and dirty physical work, and one constantly needs to run around, kill wounded enemies and not forget to coordinate the actions. The scene of the final battle in the rain and mud is a masterpiece, full of grandeur and absolutely realistic at the same time. Kurosawa created this scene in a single-shot manner, giving preference to general plans and using smooth camera movement. Moreover, he rejects any music and leaves the shouts of the wounded, sounds of rain and deafening din of battle. Here Kurosawa’s poetics of heroic realism reached its full expression.


In Seven Samurai, the story develops under the laws of the Far Eastern traditions and, at the same time, Japanese filming genre. Kurosawa tends to historical realism, remembering and understanding that heroic and romantic stories tend to occur not only in the novels but also in real life. He gives only a reference to the classic heroes without complete idealization of the samurai. At the same time, the images of peasants and aristocracy are represented as the victims of feudal war where the military art plays a crucial role. Combining vivid representations with Japanese traditions Kurosawa created a new national epic comparable to the Iliad and Gilgamesh. However, in Seven Samurai the epic nature is combined with such features of modern art as the intimacy, a high degree of personalization and attention to details. Like any other epic story, this movie will have long and unfading glory.

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