Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
One of the most influential and significant filmmakers in the history of cinema, Akira Kurosawa originally took more of a liking to art than motion pictures. Young Akira studied calligraphy and drawing, as well as Kendo swordsmanship (his father’s side was part of a former samurai family). In his late teens, he desired to be a painter more than anything. Akira’s older brother, Heigo, was the member of the family who first got a job in the film industry. Heigo took a job as a benshi (a silent film narrator) for theaters in Tokyo showing foreign films, and quickly gained success in his field. When Akira moved in with his older brother, he was exposed to not only a wide range of films, but theater and other performance art. Unfortunately, Kurosawa found it difficult to make a living off painting, and began to lose his interest in the art form.
During the early 1930s, talking pictures gained momentum and more were being rushed into production than ever before. Interest in silent film declined rapidly, causing many narrators such as Heigo to lose work. In 1933, Akira suffered the loss of Heigo to suicide, followed by the passing of his eldest brother just four months later. These significant events, combined with Kurosawa’s break from art, left him searching for something new in his life. At just 25 years old, Akira was hired by Photo Chemical Laboratories (which later became the major studio Toho) as an assistant director after submitting an essay and completing follow-up exams.
Kurosawa worked for five years as an assistant director, learning the ropes of filmmaking from film development to script rewrites, rehearsals, editing, dubbing, and directing. A year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Akira directed his first feature film, Sanshiro Sugata. The movie was a critical and commercial success, launching Kurosawa’s career. The director went on to make many films throughout the 1940s and early 50s, including Rashomon, now regarded as one of his master works. In 1952, Kurosawa set to work on his most well-known and influential film, Seventh Samurai.
Seven Samurai, the first proper samurai film by Kurosawa, was written in only 45 days by the director and his screenwriting team of Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. The movie tells the story of a village of farmers who hire seven ronin (masterless samurai) to fight off a gang of bandits who aim to return after the harvest to steal the villagers crops. The simple story was given a full epic movie treatment, with a large cast of accomplished actors and precisely choreographed action scenes. The full film stretched out to almost three-and-a-half hours of screen time.
Kurosawa’s film has become one of the most influential in all of cinema. Action movies in particular take many plot elements from this movie that are still used today. The now-common plot element of gathering a band of heroes to accomplish a specific task was used for one of the first times in Seven Samurai. Film critic Roger Ebert also cited this movie as the first to introduce a typical practice in action movies, introducing of the main hero with an undertaking unrelated to the main plot. In the film, the samurai leader Kambei shaves off his topknot (a sign of honor) in order to disguise himself as a monk and rescue a boy from a kidnapper. On the technical side of things, Seven Samurai was shot using telephoto lenses, a rarity in 1954. Additionally, Kurosawa used multiple cameras to capture action, allowing audiences to feel like they were right in the middle of a scene on screen. Kurosawa typically placed one camera in the most traditional shooting position, used another for quick shots, and utilized a third camera as a sort of “guerilla unit” for picking up shots.
The movie went on to enormous success in Japan, grossing 268 million yen in the first year of release. Seven Samurai became the third highest-grossing film of 1954 in Japan. A technical and creative marvel, the feature’s influence reaches far and wide. Director John Sturges took the plot of the film and adapted it as a Western titled The Magnificent Seven, replacing samurai with gunslingers. In 1980, Roger Corman produced an American sci-fi film titled Battle Beyond the Stars, billed as “Magnificent Seven in outer space.” George Lucas has acknowledge his love of Kurosawa influenced much of the Star Wars universe. Luke Skywalker to both Katsushiro (who years to be a disciple to a master) and Kikuchiyo (the farmer’s son aspiring to warrior prestige.) C-3PO even echoes the remarks of what the Japanese peasants say about themselves in Seven Samurai by stating, “It seems we are made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.” In fact, many homages and allusions to Kurosawa’s work can be found throughout Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. Kurosawa’s theme, of men fighting to preserve tradition and integrity in the face of an advancing civilization, is universal and still being applied to modern movies today.
George Lucas has acknowledge that when Yoda rubs his head while thinking throughout the Star Wars films, it is a direct homage to Kambei’s head-rubbing gesture in Seven Samurai.
Kurosawa created a family tree and directory for all 101 residents of the village in the film to help extras build their characters and relationships to each other.
Production on the film took a year, with three-months of pre-production and 148 shooting days spread out over many months.
Seven Samurai was ranked #17 on the Sight & Sound critics poll of the greatest movies of all-time.
What’s your favorite book to movie adaptation? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Images: Criterion Collection
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.