Barbican Film: ‘Seven Samurai’

Proceeding last month’s brilliant Takeshi Kitano programme, it was typically appropriate for the Barbican to round off the Akira Kurosawa Directorspective season with a screening of the hugely popular and critically acclaimed Seven Samurai (1954).

Kurosawa’s fifteenth directorial outing is a film which since its initial release has gone on to receive numerous awards, being consistently viewed as a pinnacle of world cinema, and regarded by many as the visionary genius’ best work.

Shown as part of a special retrospective insight into the great Japanese director’s work, Seven Samurai was a fitting final chapter to a season of films which included the likes of Throne of Blood (1957), Rashomon (1950), Drunken Angel (1948), The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Kagemusha (1980) – all films which have garnered their own fair share of accolades and are all seen as some of the greatest works in the auteur’s extensive oeuvre.

Hugely influential, Seven Samurai was famously remade in Hollywood by John Sturges as The Magnificent Seven (1960), another film which has rightfully gained its own deserved serving of critical attention and appreciation. But ultimately, if it wasn’t for Kurosawa’s ingenuity and skill in creating a story so fixating, so utterly engaging and universally resonant, we would be left without this western classic.

Alongside this, the film is consistently voted in polls as one of the greatest works in cinematic history, appearing in the ‘Top 10’ films of international film journal Sight & Sound’s decade poll. Rarely has there been a foreign film which has had such a lasting impact on western culture, and for that reason alone, Kurosawa’s magnum opus is an amazing achievement.

Kurosawa’s epic tale is set in 16th Century feudal Japan, where seven samurai warriors defend a village from a marauding band of ruthless outlaws. Lead by the old and wise Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the group of samurai are paid only in a few bowls of rice per day but stand loyal to their task even when their employers seem initially suspicious. As they prepare for the inevitable siege by the outlaw gang, the samurai and villagers eventually come to trust each other, but this is not without a fair dose of testing times and troubling altercations in between.

The final battle action sequences involving cavalry and samurai are still – as some critics have argued – without peer, but it is the empathy held by the audience, drawn out by meticulously crafted characterization and deft humanist touches on Kurosawa’s part that truly make the film an unforgettable movie-going experience.

As Kurosawa once profoundly noted, ‘An action film is often an action film only for the sake of action. But what a wonderful thing if one can construct a grand action film without sacrificing the portrayal of human beings.’ Along with dazzling photography and unforgettable imagery, Seven Samurai is quintessential viewing for all ages, and in particular, for anyone who has ever questioned, doubted or underestimated the true power of cinema.

Stephen Leach