七人の侍 Shichinin no Samurai is the one movie at least some Americans are aware of, at least pre-anime Americans. Seven Samurai is described as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made, and it is the subject of both popular and critical acclaim; it was voted onto the top three of the Sight & Sound critics’ list of greatest films of all time in 1982, and onto the directors’ top ten films lists in the 1992 and 2002 polls.
Made in1954, the film was the first samurai film that Akira Kurosawa had ever directed. He had originally wanted to direct a film about a single day in the life of a samurai but later discovered a story about samurai defending farmers in his research. According to actor Toshiro Mifune, the film was originally going to be called Six Samurai, with Mifune playing the role of Kyuzo. During the six-week scriptwriting process, Kurosawa and his screenwriters realized that “six sober samurai were a bore—they needed a character that was more off-the-wall.”
Kurosawa recast Mifune as Kikuchiyo and gave him creative license to improvise actions in his performance. After three months of preproduction, the film had 148 shooting days spread out over a year, four times the span covered in the original budget, which eventually came to almost half a million dollars (in real money). Toho Studios closed down production at least twice.
Each time, Kurosawa would calmly go fishing, reasoning that the studio had already heavily invested in the production and would have to allow him to complete the picture. The film’s final battle, originally scheduled to be shot at the end of summer, was shot in February in near-freezing temperatures. Mifune would recall later that he had never been so cold in his life.
Kurosawa refused to shoot the peasant village at Toho Studios and had a complete set constructed on the Izu Peninsula. Although the studio protested the increased production costs, Kurosawa was adamant that “the quality of the set influences the quality of the actors’ performances…. For this reason, I have the sets made exactly like the real thing. It restricts the shooting but encourages that feeling of authenticity.” He also began using multiple cameras to shoot his scenes in order to capture action sequences from various angles, a practice he would continue for the rest of his career.
He was on the money with his creative demands. Seven Samurai was a technical and creative watershed that became Japan’s highest-grossing movie and set a new standard for the industry. Its influence can be most strongly felt in the western The Magnificent Seven (1960), a film specifically adapted from Seven Samurai, with the Samurai replaced by gunslingers, which several sequels and there was also a short-lived 1998 television series.
According to Michael Jeck’s DVD commentary, Seven Samurai was among the first films to use the now-common plot element of the recruiting and gathering of heroes into a team to accomplish a specific goal, a device used in later films such as The Guns of Navarone, Ocean’s Eleven, The Dirty Dozen, Sholay, the western remake The Magnificent Seven, and Pixar’s animated film A Bug’s Life.
Look it up on Netflix to see some interesting spinoff of this classic film.