During the occupation of Japan by U.S force following that country’s surrender to end World War II, samurai films fell out of favor. The controlling U.S. political machine looked unkindly upon the foundation of Bushido: allegiance to one’s lord and master over even family. As a result, a gap exists in the long history of samurai films in Japanese cinema. In 1954, Akira Kurosawa was not only instrumental is plugging that gap, he also remade the image of a samurai hero to make him palatable to democratic awakening. In a sense, The Seven Samurai charts the progress of the Japanese people from the strict class hierarchy of its past to the democratic equality of its presence.
The Seven Samurai was Kurosawa’s first samurai movie. Some of his previous films had featured samurai characters, but the samurai film was a genre unto itself. It would be like a Hollywood director making a film about cowboy who comes to New York in the 1880’s. Just because a cowboy is a character does not make it a Western. The problem for Kurosawa was that the samurai film as a genre came with certain conventions and expectations. He profited enormously from that gap which saw the genre all but die between the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and his own effort.
A generation of young Japanese filmgoers were not raised on those old conventions and those that had been raised on them had grown disillusioned with the hero image they presented. That hero image had proven capable of defeat in the real world. The surrender to Western forces that ended the misery of the war also brought about some soul-searching into the philosophies which had gotten them there. Kurosawa achieved not just fame in his own country but expanded upon his already growing reputation outside Japan by reformulating the samurai ethic into one that reflected modern day democratic values.
Such was the intensity of these democratic values and their coherence within the world of ancient Japan presented in the narrative that the film was remade into a very successful Hollywood Western just a few years later under the title The Magnificent Seven. That film has been remade numerous times under both its original title and others, most obviously as the far more violent version known as The Wild Bunch directed by Sam Peckinpah. Although The Seven Samurai did take home top honors at the Venice Film Festival, it was not even nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards.