While researching samurai history for an Akira Kurosawa film project in the early 1950s, producer Sojiro Motoki discovered references to masterless warriors, or ronin, defending villages from marauders in 16th-century Japan. Movie history was made. Kurosawa and his co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni created an epic primal myth which has pulsated in cinema ever since, through the genres of westerns, war movies and crime dramas: the crew of ascetic, unsentimental but uncynical freelance mercenaries, brought together for a single job, taking pity on the desperate civilians who have nothing to offer but gratitude. They also see that there is a nobility and purity in this all-but-lost cause, which will refine their martial vocation as nothing else would.
Having been inspired by Hollywood westerns, Kurosawa saw his own film remade as The Magnificent Seven, going on to inspire films from The Dirty Dozen to Ocean’s Eleven; it was originally six samurai, but like Ingmar Bergman and Walt Disney, Kurosawa was to see the totemic power of seven. Takashi Shimura plays the samurais’ middle-aged leader Kambei: drily humorous, calm, experienced and wise: we see him shaving his head at the very beginning, posing as a monk to rescue a baby from a thief (again, a desperately dangerous task for negligible pay) – and for the rest of the movie, Kambei distractedly runs his fingers over his stubbly scalp, unused to it. With this mannerism, Shimura and Kurosawa show us Kambei coming to terms with his monkish destiny: this is surely to be his last mission and, like an artist, he wants it to be his masterpiece.
Toshiro Mifune gives a legendary, powerhouse performance – part improvised – as loose cannon Kikuchiyo, the aggressively madcap wildman, who is secretly agonised by his own upbringing as a farmer’s child, redeemed by the village children who love his clowning; he is the samurai who confronts his comrades with their own part in creating the chaos which has terrified the villagers and is anguished when he holds a fatherless baby in his hands – “This baby is me!” Isao Kimura is Katsushiro, the callow young disciple ronin who hero-worships deadpan-cool Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), and falls in love with farmer’s daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima). Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato) is the easygoing samurai who is Kambei’s trusted assistant, and a warrior who shows that slimness is not a prerequisite. Minoru Chiaki is loyal Heihachi and Yoshio Inaba is the playful Gorobei, who paints the banner showing the villagers and the seven samurai: six circles and a triangle for the misfit Kikuchiyo. The farmers themselves are fiercely committed to this all-or-nothing gamble, but the most memorable is Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), his face permanently set in a rictus of blubbering misery and fear.
And so the samurai patiently train the villagers to be warriors while they wait for the attack: instructing them on creating defences, marshalling forces, devising strategy. Kambei has created an artificial weak point in their fortifications, tempting the bandits into a restricted entry point which will give the samurai something like the Spartan advantage at Thermopylae. They do their best to inculcate in the farmers the Zen acceptance of danger and fear. Of course you are scared, the villagers are told, but the enemy is afraid of you, too! This is accompanied with a little laugh. The bandits are not afraid.
It is impossible to watch Seven Samurai without thinking of the western, but there is an important difference. The bandits are the ones with the firearms: what the samurai and villagers have is swords, bamboo spears and bows and arrows. Their village may be a Japanese Alamo, but they are the Native Americans in this scenario. The glorious vigour and strength of this film is presented with such theatrical relish and flair: its energy flashes out of the screen like a sword.