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To watch Seven Samurai having seen John Ford films and The Magnificent Seven is nothing less than to fully understand that cinema itself is a neverending conversation between artists. The moment you get serious about film - heck, the moment you pay attention in high school English class - you are told this sort of thing. It sounds sensible - profound even. But it also remains abstract.
Director Akira Kurosawa's most famous film smashes that abstraction. It takes one of Japan's classic genres - the samurai film - and suffuses it with American sensibilities. Its protagonists are ronin and rugged individuals to boot - absolutely not the type of characters you would see in a pre-World War II samurai film. Just six years after it was released, the reverse happened and a quintessentially Hollywood production (The Magnificent Seven) in a quintessentially Hollywood genre (the Western) borrowed wholesale from Kurosawa.
Kurosawa was able to insert himself in this conversation because he was the right man at the right time. Seven Samurai never would have been made before the Second World War. It was far too subversive of the kind of martial culture that was central to Japan's imperial ambitions at the time. The Hollywood machine also needed time to mature, and then to bore its way fully in to the mind of someone like Kurosawa. After World War II, and with an American occupying force in Japan, the opportunity was ripe not only for this film to get made but for it to have international reach.
Of course, to focus too much on the circumstances and context of Seven Samurai is also to look just beyond the most important factor in its impact: Kurosawa's brilliance.
Seven Samurai is unbelievably ambitious. When we think of foreign films now, we think predominantly of deep, methodical, serious, dry arthouse fare. Seven Samurai possesses those qualities to a degree, but it is far more noteworthy for being, at its core, a violent action film, with the kind of witty, bombastic dialogue we associate with films like Die Hard, with the kind of themes that inform frontier films as much as they borrow from them, and with a peppy, mood-setting score that feels at least a decade ahead of its time.
Taking in the film for the first time, I found myself scribbling down select lines that - cowboy or samurai - feel cut from the same cloth. They double as tone-setters and words - philosophies - to live by.
“Only those out to fight for the hell of it will agree [to join us],” says group leader Kambei as he sets out to recruit others.
Later Kyuzo, the most pure warrior in the group, is described as “a man solely obsessed with testing the limits of the skill.”
And later still, as the samurai plot the strategy for defeating the marauding bandits, someone utters the line “every great castle needs a breach.”
Such skilled screenwriting - even rendered in subtitles - tells us a great deal about the characters with whom we bond over three-plus hours. They are a little bit crazy. They are singularly talented. They will succeed with both their grit and their wit.
It also imparts something about the code of the samurai and Kurosawa’s specific, forward-looking interpretation of it - about honor, revenge and the particular qualities it takes to protect the weak.
As much as Seven Samurai helped to define the values that we would see in later Westerns - particularly those that Clint Eastwood would represent in countless roles - it also set the technical bar high. The action sequences, in the context of when they were made, are like nothing you’ll see in a contemporaneous film from Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age. Now, to the sensibilities of a viewer trained to expect CGI at every turn, they look primitive - a bit like the midpoint between the frenetic movement of a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film and the more modern refinement of the 1970s. But, to reiterate the point, name a film that came out of Hollywood at the same time that possessed this level of sophistication in its movement - that was able to make the action feel remotely real at this sort of speed.
You can’t, of course.
Seven Samurai is an essential film on its own merits. It is even more essential because of its historical significance and because of how much it can tell you about the ceaseless conversation of which every movie you watch is a part. There is no Seven Samurai without John Ford films. And subsequent Westerns - heck, pretty much any action movie that followed it - are not the same without Seven Samurai being a part of that conversation.
The film, and its unique position within the canon, will only leave you wanting more - wanting to eavesdrop on as many near- and far-flung snippets of the international dialogue as you can possibly absorb.