Seven characters make a story: that’s the appeal of “Seven Samurai” in a nutshell. Which is odd, because the point of the story—the lesson that Japanese director Akira Kurosawa intended the film to teach—is that individuals don’t count. The community is everything. In the words of the wisest character, Kambei, the Samurai leader, “This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourselves.”
So you have Kambei, who cares nothing for status (we first see him shaving off his topknot, the symbol of warrior bravery). He lives by the ancient samurai code, his every gesture embodies honor. And yet it is he who recognizes the pointlessness of personal integrity. His closing line is a lament: “So. Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the film’s lovable buffoon, Kikuchiyo. Crafty, vain, and impetuous, he possesses none of the samurai virtues. But he understands the farmers because he’s one of them, and we’re even given a bit of his past. In the scene where he rushes into a stream to rescue the baby of a woman who has been stabbed by the bandits, he confesses that he was that baby. Next thing you know, he’s dead.
Skillful, stoic Kyuzo, who liberates a rifle from the bandits, killing two—acts for which he neither demands nor expects praise—also dies. Same goes for the benevolent Gorobei and the happy-go-lucky Hayashida. We’re left with just three Samurai: Kambei, the earnest adolescent Katsushiro, and Kambei’s former soldier Shichiroji, who has a bit of a death wish. “We’ve survived once again,” says Shichiroji at the end of the film, his disappointment palpable.
The final sequence shows the farmers planting rice. We see them working together, the women going about the chore with dance-like grace while the men play instruments; the rhythm of the villagers’ life has been restored. Cut to a shot of the burial mount of the fallen Samurai. Amid such harmony, Kurosawa feels, the nobility of a samurai has no place.
(15 April 2011)