Akira Kurosawa is cinema’s Shakespeare. Not in terms of language or world influence, but in terms of narratives. Kurosawa himself was an unabashed Shakespeare fan, adapting two of his plays into films (Macbeth into Throne of Blood (1957) and King Lear into Ran (1985)). Kurosawa tackles universal themes that transcend their setting and time, crafting stories that are relevant across different cultures, much as Shakespeare did. In addition to this, both storytellers used ensemble casts, presented themes of social class, love and honor and posed more questions than answers.
Seven Samurai is the most recognized of his films and arguably his finest. While it does not feature the intense dramatics of Ikiru (1952) or the ground-breaking aspects of Rashomon (1950), it still stands as the finest samurai film ever made, a genre-defining, epic presentation of class struggle that illuminates the past and present.
Set during the 16th century, the film focuses on a small village. A group of bandits pledges to return in just a few months time to pillage their crops and destroy their town. The townspeople, defenseless, come up with a plan to recruit samurai to their cause. The first samurai they recruit, Kambei Shimada, played by the magnificent Takashi Shimura, believes that with seven samurai, the villagers stand a chance of survival.
Each of the samurai in the film is a complete character with a storyline and an arc. There’s Katsushirō, the young one, who seeks to become a samurai and to learn from Kambei. He must deal with his love toward Shino, a peasant girl whose father does not want her involved with the dangerous samurai, going so far as to cut her hair and masquerade her as a boy (further alluding to Shakespeare). Kyūzō is a master swordsman and a seemingly super human individual who Katsushirō admires. Kambei’s friend Shichirōji is able to rouse the villagers to battle. The great Toshiro Mifune is Kikuchiyo, a poser of a samurai, the orphaned son of peasants himself, who treads both the world of the farmers and samurai with comedic flair. Heihachi illuminates dark times for the samurai and Gorobei, envious for death in battle, completes the seven.
The film explores the relationship between different class structures; the poor, the warrior, the rich. Finding a peaceful coexistence between farmer and samurai is a constant struggle, the farmers worried that the samurai will take their women, the samurai concerned that the farmers have killed their brethren for armor. In the middle is Kikuchiyo, Mifune mesmerizing as a man who wants to be a samurai, but is filled with the doubts of a peasant. He calls out both clans on their sins towards one another (Mifune and Kurosawa made a total of 16 films together).
The climactic battle scene at the film’s conclusion remain breathtaking even by today’s standards. Utilizing quick editing, harsh sounds and violent death, the film makes no excuses about the brutality of violence and the cost it has on both the samurai and the farmers. Filmed in the thick of mud and rain, entire buildings going up in flames, the dramatic outcome is near apocalyptic.
One of the criticisms often levied against Kurosawa is that his films are too Western. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by the films of John Ford (the samurai are nearly identical to the myth of the American cowboy- this influence would in turn reverse itself as Kurosawa’s work influenced Westerns made by Sergio Leone and John Sturges). And while his films are not as ethnic or narrative as other Far East endeavors, they instead present themselves as universally intelligible. Whether viewed in the Western world or Asia or the Middle East, just as classic fables and Shakespeare’s plays, Kurosawa’s themes are eternal and have given his work a staying power.
At the film’s conclusion, four of the samurai have lost their lives. All of the bandits are dead. The townspeople celebrate, but Kambei has again lost his chance for a glorious death in battle. He must instead bury younger friends still full of life. He remarks that the samurai may have won, but they have lost as well, the farmers the only true victors of the fight. Shino looks past Katsushirō, displacing their love in order to remain in her social class, the bond between samurai and farmer now over. One can only sense that Katsushirō will end up as Kambei, full of regret, haunted by the death of old friends and suffering from fleeting happiness that cannot be found again.
The final shot lingers on the graves of the four samurai, Kikuchiyo among them, posing eternal questions about death, love, loyalty and social dynamics that continue to vex the world to this day. It is up to the audience to answer these questions, just as we must answer questions about the virtue of Hamlet, the treachery of Iago and the humanity of Brutus in Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa presents us with a wide tapestry of characters and social consciousness, but leaves us to decipher for our ourselves the answers to life’s questions. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa’s films will continue to linger in our minds.