What can you say? It’s simply one of the best films ever made … and I don’t even think it’s Kurosawa’s best. (That would be Ikiru.) But it would be in the top three, along with Ran. I just learned that it is an example of a genre of Japanese films that they call Jidaigeki, which means “period dramas.”
This one takes place in 1587. Things were very bad in Japan, with more or less continuous war, until 1603 when the land was unified under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The land was overrun by bandit groups who terrorized the peasantry. In one small village the people decide to fight back but they don’t know how. They set out to hire some “ronin,” who are masterless samurai. Apparently there were plenty of them around at that time, but it wasn’t easy to find some willing to fight for farmers for only three meals a day.
But they interest Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), who sees it as a challenge. He recruits four more skilled ronin, reluctantly agrees to let Katsushiro, a young, eager wannabe tag along, and sets off for the village. But there is a seventh, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), not as young as Katsu but even more eager. Kiku is a loose cannon, wildly emotional, a farmer who desperately wants to be a samurai.
The farmers are a craven, fickle, cowardly bunch. But Kambei and his friends kick them into line and make a ragtag militia, as well as fortifying the town. As soon as the harvest is over, the bandits appear and the battle is joined. And the battle is amazing. Horses, mud, swords, archers, you name it and it’s there. There are even three very rare (in 16th century Japan) rifles, which take their toll on these hand-to-hand fighters.
Mifune is the firecracker everyone watches, but it is the great Shimura who provides the solid center of this movie. He is probably my favorite Japanese actor, though Mifune is a close second. He has a round head and a disappointed mouth and tired eyes and he’s pretty old for a warrior, but he is the natural leader. No one even thinks of challenging him. And in my opinion, great as the final battle is, the lead-up to it is even better. The gathering of the seven, the preparations, it all works wonderfully.
People not used to Japanese movies from this era can sometimes have problems with them. (The very, very few dissenting opinions at the IMDb usually quote one of these aspects as to why they hated it.) One is the extreme emotionality of Japanese acting. Passions run very high, especially when someone is frightened or very unhappy. Lots of screaming and breast-beating. I got used to this long ago, but I know it bothers some. Another thing is the more deliberate (the dissenters would say “boring”) pacing than you are used to from Hollywood movies. If you can’t handle these cultural differences, this will be a long slog of a movie for you.
One last observation: I’m always a little bemused in these Japanese films where there’s a lot of running about and fighting by the way these people run. Instead of long, loping strides, they have this bent-knee, short stride, staccato way of running that doesn’t look very energy efficient … but does seem to get the job done. But it’s almost comical to my eyes.