Kambei tells the villagers the following about the “nature of war” during a particularly tense moment: "by protecting others you save yourself. If you only think of yourself, you'll only destroy yourself." Here Kambei is specifically referring to the villagers who are willing to sacrifice the outlying houses to save the rest. But this idea comes back repeatedly throughout the film as characters find themselves harmed because of their own selfish actions. For example, when Kikuchiyo acts selfishly and does not protect others, it weakens the village, several villagers die, and he eventually dies himself.
This statement also highlights Kambei’s unique worldview, and may provide an explanation of his, and the other samurai’s, charitable decision to help the villagers: by protecting others (the villagers), they are making the world a safer place—which may help to protect them later. This is also connected to the villagers’ killing of retreating samurai—if these samurai protect the villagers, rather than harm them as samurai often do, then there might be more affection for samurai among villagers, who may be less likely to hunt defeated samurai at another time. More concretely, he is teaching them that war cannot be selfish, which is one of the important democratic ideals that arises in the post-war period. If people behave selfishly in war everyone will die, but the sacrifice of a few for the many provides an opportunity to overcome the invaders and protect their land and their people.
An important theme throughout the film is that different individuals have differing senses of morality based on their own experiences in life, and that people must try to understand the views of others in the context of their personal experiences. The seven samurai are introduced as ronin, which means they have no lord, so they have had to determine their own sense of what is right and wrong in the world, rather than follow the instructions of a master. The audience comes to appreciate this about them, and in particular, that they have looked within themselves for guidance rather deferring to societal expectations, as some other ronin tend to do. However, the idea that their moral determinations should be considered absolute is challenged by Kikuchiyo, when he explodes in anger at the issue of the villagers’ hunting of samurai in the past—he points out that the way that samurai have oppressed farmers for centuries must be considered when judging these actions, even if it does not completely excuse them. The samurai actually listen to this argument, and their understanding that the villagers’ worldview is shaped by their hardships allows the samurai and villagers to finally come together before the battle.
Pride vs. Humility
The film establishes early on that excessive pride is dangerous, and humility always prevails. This is most clearly and simply illustrated when Kyuzo duels another samurai, and the other samurai gets himself killed (by the humble Kyuzo) because he is so full of pride that he insists they fight with steel. More importantly, Kikuchiyo’s excessive pride is established in opposition to the humility of several of the other samurai, in particular, Kambei and Kyuzo. We first see this when Kambei slays the thief to save a child—Kambei bows his head and walks away, while Kikuchiyo dances giddily over the dead body of the thief, and this arrogance is what causes Kambei to question whether Kikuchiyo is indeed a samurai. Throughout the rest of the film, Kikuchiyo’s pride gets him into trouble, most notably, when he abandons his post to steal a musket, which results in an attack by the bandits that kills several villagers (including his friend Yohei) and Gorobei.
Sexual repression, violence, and shame
Themes relating to female sexuality could easily be overlooked in the film, as there are few female characters. Still, these few characters are often characterized by their sexual repression, sexual violence toward them, and shame stemming from these first two issues. Much of Shino’s storyline and identity revolve around her sexual repression by her father, Manzo. He forces her to cut her hair, and beats her repeatedly over the issue of her (potential or actual) loss of virginity to a samurai. He cares solely about keeping her ‘pure’ or ‘undamaged,’ and this singular obsession drives many conflicts throughout the film, as it stirs fears in other villagers, and causes tension between Shino and her father. This obsession is portrayed negatively, and it seems likely that Kurosawa was criticizing social views on female sexuality of the time through Manzo. This is supported by the relatively intimate and caring relationship that does form between Shino and Katsushiro, and by the implicit acceptance of the affair by other samurai whose judgment the audience trusts, such as Kyuzo. It also seems that Shino’s sexual repression is felt so strongly that she channels it into a desire for Katsushiro to “act like a samurai” and aggressively take advantage of her. This of course relates to the sexual violence toward women that is frequent in the film, as well as female shame as a result of violence toward them or their own sexuality. Throughout the film, rape and sexual coercion are frequently mentioned, and we see this as a key aspect of the bandits’ characteristics. We see Shino experience intense shame at her expression of sexuality with Katsushiro. Even more dramatically, Rikichi’s wife kills herself after having been raped by the bandits, rather than return to her husband and live with the shame she feels.
Individuality and accountability
The heroes of the film embody ideas of individuality, freedom of thought, and personal accountability for their actions throughout the film. These are some of the more democratic ideals that were new to samurai films at the time and which were brought about by changing attitudes in post-war Japan and pressure from American censors. The film focuses immensely on personal growth and development, and we see especially in Kikuchiyo the idea that an individual can redeem himself through his actions. Each of our samurai is defined by their individualism, as they stand out for their own ideas about how a samurai should be and what it really means to be honorable. The idea that the samurai should think for themselves, make their own moral judgments, and act on these rather than the will of a lord, was an important idea after the fall of the oppressive, militarized regime in Japan during WWII. They also focus heavily on personal accountability in the film, and Kambei in particular works to impress the importance of accountability on other characters, like Kikuchiyo, whom he scolds for acting selfishly and bringing harm to others.
Expectations and Identity
A constant theme throughout the film is how class or group identity determines what is expected of individuals. All of our main samurai, with the exception of Kikuchiyo, form their identity in opposition to the social and cultural expectations of samurai in some way, mostly by determining that their own internal morality should supersede such expectations. Kikuchiyo, meanwhile, was in fact born as a farmer, and forms his identity in opposition to what is expected of him from birth. He is particularly interesting in that he has spent much of his life searching for some identity in the world—he does not even know is own given name, and wants desperately to be accepted as a samurai. To this end, the aspect of identity on which he becomes fixated is his proof of birth, but he only truly becomes accepted, and gains the identity he craves, when he learns from the other samurai that his identity should be based more on his actions than on society’s social rules. Of course, this theme weaves in and out of several other major themes, such as class mobility, morality, and individuality.
We also see this theme emerge among the villagers, particularly in Shino’s storyline. Manzo takes away her identity, cutting her hair (which she treasures) and forcing her to dress like a boy, because of his expectations of the samurai. In the interactions between her and her father, we see that Manzo expects her to remain a virgin until she is wed, and that he expects her to marry only another farmer in her same social class. Shino, however, seems to disagree with this identity that Manzo has chosen for her, and even perhaps has formed her image of herself in opposition to it. So she demands that Katsushiro have sex with her while they are in the forest one day. Interestingly, her urging him depends on her expectations of how a samurai should act (he should take advantage of her and sleep with her)—though this may not necessarily be how he understands himself. This failure to understand each other’s true nature, and instead seeing only the other person's socially-determined identity, may provide an explanation for why their affair dies at the end of the battle (though of course shame also plays a major role).
Class hierarchy and fluidity
Kurosawa places this story within the Sengoku Period in Japanese history. It is a time of civil war, hunger, and class hierarchy. Early Japanese social structure is well known for keeping a separation between the classes, as one was born into a position in life and was not able to rise above that. However, the disorganization of this period in Japan's history allowed many to attempt to jump classes in order to attain a better lot in life for themselves and for their families. We see this yearning for higher status most strongly in Kikuchiyo, who wishes to be accepted as a samurai, though he was born a farmer. It is made possible by the beliefs of the other samurai that we admire as honorable, such as Kambei, who are of the opinion that a true samurai is made by his actions, and not by his birth status. We see also other examples of class fluidity, or the rejection of strict hierarchical rules, in interactions between the villagers and samurai: Katsushiro and Shino throw off social mores about relationships between members of different classes when they strike up an affair. Additionally, the whole premise of the film is based on these samurai agreeing to help the farmers even though they are not supposed to take ‘charity’ from those of a lower class (the typical samurai attitude is represented by many samurai in the large town during the initial stages of their search).
Seven Samurai Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Seven Samurai is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.