Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai Study Guide

During the occupation of Japan by U.S forces following its surrender at the end of World War II, samurai films fell out of favor. The controlling U.S. political machine looked unkindly on the samurai code of Bushido, which required allegiance to one’s lord and master above all else. As a result, a gap exists in the long history of samurai films in Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa's 1954 Seven Samurai not only brought the samurai film back, but also remade the image of a samurai hero to make him palatable to democratic sensibilities.

Seven Samurai was Kurosawa’s first samurai movie. Some of his previous films featured samurai characters, but the samurai film was a genre unto itself, which came with certain conventions and expectations. The generation of Japanese filmgoers who grew up around WWII were unaware of those old conventions, however, and those that had been raised on them had grown disillusioned with the hero image they presented. In general, the immediate post-war years in Japan saw a flourishing of art and film that criticized pre-war and wartime attitudes, especially about militarization, loyalty, and pride or arrogance. Though much of this change in art and film was due to the pressures of American censors, shifting attitudes in Japan can account for the success of such films. In 1946, a film by Kurosawa, No Regrets for Our Youth, criticized the oppression of the pre-war regime in Japan and a variation of the title of that film made its way into popular culture as a common saying.

Kurosawa was able to mix this new focus on more democratic ideals—such as individuality, greater class mobility, and loyalty to personal morality before leaders—with some of the older traditions of samurai films to create what would become a hugely popular film in Japan. He 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 global post-war values.

The film was also influenced artistically by American westerns, which Kurosawa had loved since a young age. In turn, Seven Samurai would later inspire The Magnificent Seven, a hugely successful Hollywood western that has remained one of the most influential films of its genre to this day. It has been remade numerous times under both its original title and others, and is frequently referenced in many other western films. Seven Samurai won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, but no other major awards at the time. Over the next few decades, though, it would come to be recognized as one of the greatest films of all time, and is consistently listed on critics’ lists of greatest films.