ASIAN FILM - Article
11:00 - 13th June 2014, by David West

Return Of The Magnificent Seven

It is considered one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema, a landmark in Japanese filmmaking, and the highpoint in the celebrated career of Akira Kurosawa. But Seven Samurai was almost never finished, and nearly got Kurosawa fired by Toho Studios. How did this troubled project ever become a classic?

The film started life in 1952, when Kurosawa decided he wanted to make a samurai movie. Inspired by a real life incident in which a village hired a ronin to protect them from roving bandits, the director and his co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni shut themselves away in an inn for six weeks to write the screenplay. The story they crafted is relatively simple - a village of farmers learns that a squad of bandits plans to raid them following the barley harvest, effectively condemning them to death by starvation. Desperate, they hire seven ronin (masterless samurai) to defend them against the bandits. Led by Kambei (Takashi Shimizu), the ronin and the farmers successfully repel the bandits, but several of the defenders die in the process.

The film started shooting at the end of May 1953, aiming to wrap production in mid-August for a release in October. By the end of the first three months of filming, Kurosawa had exhausted his budget and only shot one-third of the script. The executives at Toho Studios were so nervous about recouping their investment that they considered dismissing Kurosawa from the project and replacing him with another director, Kunio Watanabe. Fortunately for Kurosawa and film lovers everywhere, the studio let him complete the project, which eventually wrapped production almost a year after they had begun, well behind schedule and massively over-budget. The finished film cost Toho ¥210 million, at least five times the budget of a typical production and way ahead of Ishiro Honda's special effects extravaganza Godzilla, which cost around ¥64 million and was released that same year.

The spectacular final battle fought between the farmers, the samurai and the bandits in the pouring rain took two months to shoot, which, much to the misery of the cast, was done in the cold winter months of January and February 1954. The sequence pioneered the use of multiple cameras to capture action scenes. "If I had filmed it in the traditional shot-by-shot method, there was no guarantee that any action could be repeated in the same way twice," wrote Kurosawa in Something Like An Autobiography. "So I used three cameras rolling simultaneously. The result was extremely effective..."

The film is so rich in character and detail that it resonates far more deeply than a simple story about swordsmen fighting bandits. Kurosawa uses the tale to explore the bushido code, the injustices of the feudal system, and the plight of the poor. Toshiro Mifune gave one of his finest performances as Kikuchiyo, a low-born man trying to pass himself off as a samurai. When Kikuchiyo discovers a hidden cache of weapons and armour that the farmers have taken off dead samurai, the ronin are disgusted, but Kikuchiyo throws their indignation back in their faces. "Farmers are deceitful, miserly, cowardly, mean, stupid, murderous! You make me laugh! But who made animals of them? You did! You damned samurai. Whenever you fight you burn villages, destroy crops, take away food, rape women, enslave men, kill them if they resist!"

Check out the classic for yourself in the BFI release of a brand new Blu-ray Steelbook and a new DVD edition of Seven Samurai.

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