Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai Seven Samurai and the Western

Kurosawa's father came from a samurai family, and as a child, Kurosawa enjoyed relative affluence and an education that was attentive to the arts. There was a rich tradition of samurai films in Japan, and he was encouraged by his father to watch films from a young age because his father considered them educational. His father also encouraged him and his brother to watch many American and European films, and Kurosawa grew up with a love of western film traditions and Westerns (note in this section that western—lower case—refers to films from the US and Europe, while Western—capital W—refers to a specific genre of films about the American West, usually involving outlaws and cowboys).

When Kurosawa began work on Seven Samurai, he saw the potential for combining traditions of the Western genre with the traditions prevalent in Japanese cinema. Kurosawa had already proven deft at weaving together western and Japanese art traditions in his work—his earlier work included elements of Japanese film tradition but was also influenced by Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Hollywood narrative and filmic techniques—which helped make his work palatable and appealing to both western and Japanese audiences, leading to his international fame. In Seven Samurai, he paid homage more specifically to the genre of the Western by using elements and tropes common to the genre: outlaws threaten the safety of many innocents, while unexpected or reluctant heroes must emerge to save them. A hero who is troubled or has previously failed in some way is a common character type in Westerns, and we see this clearly in Seven Samurai—the samurai who agree to help the village are all ronin, and have no lord or master because of earlier failures, while Kikuchiyo more specifically exhibits dishonorable behavior and turns out to have a tragic backstory that makes him an unlikely hero. Further, one of the translations of Ronin is ‘wanderer,’ reflecting the wanderer or drifter gun-slinging cowboy hero iconic to Westerns.

These themes were quite compatible with a samurai film about the Sengoku period (roughly the mid-15th to late 16th century). Japan’s political chaos and lack of centralized government and law enforcement produced an environment not completely unlike the American Western frontier, leaving many simple farmers and travelers in small towns and communities defenseless against attacks from criminals. Kurosawa did not simply use such themes and produce a version of an American Western set in Japan; he innovated new character and narrative types, and in many ways permanently changed the genre.

Seven Samurai was one of the first few films to use a now-common plot device of gathering heroes into a team before the adventure, for the specific purpose of the goal in the film, and using this part of the film to establish their characterizations, morals, and relationships to one another to be developed over the course of the film. Roger Ebert, a prominent film critic, wrote in a review of the film that he believes the sequence that introduces Kambei could be the origin of the method of introducing the central hero with a task unrelated to the plot of the film, which became a common practice in Westerns and action films more generally. Additionally, many of the character types in the ensemble cast would become classic to the Western genre, especially Kikuchiyo—the unpredictable, often ridiculous, comic character was popular for his ability to bring comic relief and often acts as a uniting force (in Seven Samurai, he unites the villagers and samurai despite their different, seemingly incompatible, attitudes and moralities).

Seven Samurai in turn went on to inspire The Magnificent Seven, which is close to being a direct remake of the film as an American Western. The Magnificent Seven itself then became one of the most influential Westerns of its time, making the Seven Samurai massively influential on the genre. After the success of The Magnificent Seven, directors began remaking more of Kurosawa’s films into Westerns—perhaps the most famous of these remakes was the unauthorized remake of Yojimbo (1961) as the spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and its sequels For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), which became one of the most famous and successful Westerns of all time.