An impoverished farming village (preyed upon by the civil wars raging about them but also themselves preying upon the dead and wounded samurais who fall into their hands) pool their resources to employ some masterless samurais ("ronin" - made redundant by the consolidation of the state and the reduction in number of lords (daimyo) and their armed retainers) to defend their village from the annual attack by "bandits" (presumably other masterless ex-samurai) who steal their harvest. They approach Kambei who agrees to recruit 6 more samurai. He has difficulty doing this because he cannot offer them money or glory, only the challenge of the fight (the justice of the peasants's cause is not considered). The Seven Samurai move into the village, train the frightened peasants to assist in their own defence, and do battle when the bandits arrive.
The film historian and critic Joan Mellen notes in her chapter on "Celluloid Samurai" that:
Film directors who have lamented the authoritarian nature of Japanese society have often turned to the past, seeking to expose and attack feudal remnants at their source. But the past has also been the arena in which directors have sought to resolve these issues because it seems less threatening, both to audience and authority, when injustices against which they protest are not presented in contemporary terms... During the 1950s and early 1960s the period film again became a surrogate for modern Japan and a subtle cultural device for simultaneously assailing modern Japan, with her current evils, while showing the ingrained historical, social, and structural roots of the problems at hand. (p. 85).
... Kurosawa, however, chooses in Seven Samurai to focus on six ronin (masterless samurai) who are good men, representing the best of their class. And he unfolds how only in violent moments of transition, when one epoch is passing but its successor has not yet appeared, can these ronin express the finest aspects of their natures. The very desperation of the times permits these ronin, masterless men whose disengagement from feudal life, although traumatic and destructive to them personally, is precisely what allows them to jeopardize their lives to save a peasant village and to perform gratuitous, selfless acts of generosity. Had they remained integrated within the han (clan) system in service to a feudal lord, their assignment could not conceivably have been one of saving an obscure, miserable village of ragged peasants from predatory bandits. (Genji's Door, p. 92)
Joan Mellon, The Waves at Genji's Door: Japan Through its Cinema (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).
1. The reference at the opening to the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre in France in 1572 between warring Catholic and Protestant factions. Why is AK making this connection?
2. The individual character AK gives to all the samurai - Kambei's indiosyncracy of scratching his head periodically.
3. The picture AK gives us of the warrior heroes: shabby, loney outcasts; with dignity, courage, and humour; but no glamour or glory. Individually they seem honourable but as a class they are redundant, destructive and enemies of the peasants. Compare with picture of Prussian Junkers in the 1890s in Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest.
4. Why do the masterless samurai (ronin) fight for the peasant village - chivalrous defence of the poor and weak? What role does the warrior ethic Bushido play?
5. Note the relationship between the peasant villagers and the Samurai: combination of fear and disdain on both sides. Peasants fear samurais (weapons, destruction of life and property); samurais fear peasants (kill wounded samurai to steal weapons, armour, clothes). Each class disdains the values and way of life of the other.
6. The way in which AK uses the past to comment on contemporary post-war Japan, especially the nature of military heroism, the role of the professional warrior.
7. The importance of the peasant "samurai" Kikuchiyo (Mifune) who knows the peasants have concealed food, wine and their women from the professional samurai. Note especially his speech where he denounces the "foxyness" of the peasants but also explains how war and the ruthless behaviour of the samurai have made them this way:
(Farmers) are stingy, foxy, blubbering, mean, stupid and murderous. That's what they are! But then, who made them such beasts! You did. You samurai did it. You burn their villages. Destroy their farms. Steal their food. Force them to labour. Take their women. And kill them if they resist. So what should farmers do?
8. Note the cycle of nature and the life of the peasant farmers. AK seems to be saying in the end that the productive life of farmers will prevail over the destruction brought about by warriors. Connection to Japan post-1945?
9. What are AK's debts to the Hollywood Western? Note the references to Westerns in the film, e.g. horsemen galloping across horizon in opening shot.
10. The division between the different groups who represent civilised life (the peasant villagers), the savage (the brigands), and those in between (the samurai - compare with John Ford's soldiers and lawmen). What are the moral and other problems of defending civilisation by uncivilised means as the samurai/lawmen have to do? Can there be any community between the villagers and the men they hire to defend them?
11. Note the way the band of 7 samurai form a "family" or community of their own.
12. The final battle in the rain and mud.
13. The ending as the peasants sing and plant their next crop.