Seven Samurai is a 1954 Japanese epic film directed by Akira Kurosawa, and written by him, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni. It stars Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, and Daisuke Katō, with Keiko Tsushima, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Minoru Chiaki.
It is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, having a great influence on innumerable films after it. The Magnificent Seven is a 1960 cowboy adaptation of it. The assembling of the team of men to fight the villains, having originated in Seven Samurai, is a trope used by many films since, including even Marvel‘s Avengers. The climactic fight in torrential rain has been imitated in films like Blade Runner and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Quotes from Seven Samurai in English translation can be found here.
Though few will doubt the greatness of this film, many will find its length, almost three-and-a-half hours, daunting; and non-Japanese viewers may be bored with having to read the subtitles of a black-and-white film set in feudal Japan. So how can we help a young, Western audience used to the flash of contemporary action and superhero films appreciate this old classic? How can we get the current generation to relate to the predicament of its protagonists, peasants from a world long gone?
I believe we can achieve this by doing a Marxist allegory of the conflict between bandits and peasant farmers, who enlist the aid of samurai to stop the bandits from taking their food, as a conflict between capitalist imperialists, who invade Third World countries, and the oppressed poor of those countries, who need the aid of a revolutionary vanguard to stop the imperialists.
After all, what are the imperialist countries of the US and NATO, if not bandits who invade, bomb, and steal resources from other countries, as they have in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria? If the American imperialists don’t steal by direct means as these, they’ll do so through orchestrating coups d’état, as they have in countries like Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, or the ultimately failed coup in Bolivia in 2019-2020.
Only through the organization of a vanguard political party could the Soviets have succeeded in repelling the White Army during the Russian Civil War, and in the Red Army‘s defeat of the Nazis during WWII. The peasant farmers in Seven Samurai are powerless against the bandits, who are armed not only with swords but also with muskets; just as the global proletariat is helpless against the imperial war machine, armed with state-of-the-art weapons technology…and with nukes. The proletarians of the global south need the leadership, training, weapons, and encouragement of a vanguard.
The film begins with the thundering hooves of the bandits’ horses as they approach the village of the peasants. Civil War in late 16th-century Japan has left the land lawless. Since Japan in my allegory is representative of our world today (recall that the film was made in 1954, when US imperialism was a big enough problem even then [e.g., the total destruction of North Korea during the Korean War, something Japan herself had experienced not quite even a decade before] to justify my allegory), the civil war can be seen to symbolize the current state of perpetual war, and its lawless disregard for the sovereignty of nations.
A peasant overhears the bandits discussing the plan to return to the village and steal the farmers’ barley once it’s harvested many months later. The peasant goes to tell the other villagers of the future danger, and they all plunge into grief and near despair.
The fear of a future attack can be compared to how Russians today must feel, with NATO activity near the Russian border; or to how Chinese must feel, with not only American military bases virtually surrounding their country in the shape of a giant noose, as John Pilger has described it, but also the US-backed provocations of the Hong Kong protestors, the American navy in the South China Sea, and the sale of over a billion dollars in weapons to Taiwan.
On top of this are the starvation sanctions imposed on North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran, and the continuous threats to their countries, as well as the economic embargo on Cuba and its recent labelling by Mike Pompeo, who freely admits to being a liar, as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Back to the film. While Manzō (played by Kamatari Fujiwara) suggests simply giving in to the bandits and hoping enough food will be left over so they’ll have enough to survive, one hot-headed peasant named Rikichi (Tsuchiya), angry because of a particular outrage (to be revealed later) done by the bandits against him the last time they attacked, wants to fight back. The willingness to acquiesce to the bullying bandits parallels how many today passively accept rising income inequality, endless wars, surveillance, and the piecemeal removal of all of our freedoms, while Rikichi’s hunger for revenge is comparable to those of us who know that revolution is the solution to today’s ills.
Other, more despairing peasants complain of land taxes, forced labour, war, droughts, and a useless, unsympathetic magistrate, and now there are bandits! These peasants wail that the gods never help them, and they wish just to die. Here we see parallels to today’s world, in which the middle classes are taxed up the kazoo rather than the rich; the government, which works for the rich, doesn’t care about the poor, and religion increasingly shows itself inadequate in giving us comfort.
The peasants decide to ask Gisaku (played by Kokuten Kōdō), a wise elder of the village, what he thinks they should do. He knows of a time when samurai saved peasants from a bandit attack, so he suggests finding samurai to help them. His declaration of the effectiveness of this plan is like a prophecy: thus he is like Marx, foreseeing the revolutionary uprising against our rich oppressors.
The peasants have no way of paying the samurai, though. All they have of value is their food. The old man suggests, therefore, that they find hungry samurai. We today must also find leaders who are as desperate as we are to help us free ourselves from oppression.
Millions of Americans find themselves jobless and in danger of being thrown out on the street; meanwhile, the wealth of the billionaire class continues to rise. They are today’s bandits, making peasants of us all.
Rikichi, Manzō, and their scouting party leave the village and go to a city in search of samurai, several of whom can be seen walking about with their sheathed swords. The peasants try asking a few for help, but are rebuffed by the arrogant samurai, who think it galling that lowly farmers would ask to hire men of their higher social class.
Since I consider the seven samurai who will help the peasants to represent the vanguard, these unwilling samurai can be seen to represent those more snobbish leftist academics and intelligentsia who would rather talk the Marxist talk than get their hands dirty and be in touch with the working class. Similarly, Trotsky didn’t think much of peasants, as contrasted with the sympathetic attitude of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao toward them.
And since we learn, later in the film, that samurai have actually attacked peasant villages, we can compare these arrogant samurai to the class traitors among the would-be vanguard, like Trotsky, Khrushchev, etc. This arrogance leads us to a discussion of one of the central themes of Seven Samurai: pride/honour vs. humility/shame, and the dialectical relationship between the two.
The peasants’ fortunes change when they encounter an aging rōnin willing to rescue a boy being held hostage by a thief in a small house. This samurai, named Kambei Shimada (Shimura), cuts off his chonmage (deemed a shocking degradation for a samurai) and dresses in a monk’s robes to trick the thief into thinking Kambei won’t hurt him.
Upon killing the thief and saving the boy, Kambei wins the admiration of all witnessing the rescue. He’s humbled himself by shaving his head and pretending to be an unassuming monk, but in doing so, he’s also raised his status among his onlookers to such a point that not only do the peasants hope for his help against the bandits, but the young son of a samurai named Katsushirō (Kimura) bows before him and begs him to let the boy be his disciple.
We see more of the dialectical unity of opposites when, after Kambei–humbly denying his greatness as a warrior (i.e., he’s typically lost battles)–refuses to be Katsushirō’s master, we see proud, buffoonish Kikuchiyo (Mifune) claim he’s a samurai; then Kambei, not wanting the boy to be influenced by such a fool, becomes his master.
At this point, it is apposite to explore how the characters compare and contrast with each other. These are fully-rounded characters, each with his or her share of faults, but still sympathetic and likeable.
Kambei is wise, reserved, and humble, but still able to laugh and be merry. Katsushirō is naïve, inexperienced, and eager to find men to look up to and idealize, and the handsome boy’s youthful passion allows him to be distracted by the charms of Manzō’s pretty daughter, Shino (Tsushima); but he has a noble heart, and he fights bravely.
Kikuchiyo may be a loud-mouthed ass who acts impulsively and earns the ridicule of the samurai far too often, but he also earns our sympathy when we learn that he was a peasant who lost his family in a samurai raid; and when he fights bravely and sacrifices his life to kill the leader of the bandits in the final battle, he earns our respect.
Rikichi is quick to anger, especially when the samurai tease him about needing a wife. He takes offence to these taunts because, as we learn later in the film, during the previous raid, the bandits abducted his wife (played by Yukiko Shimazaki) and made her their concubine.
Manzō is absurdly over-protective of Shino. Fearing she’ll be a target of samurai lust, he insists on cutting her hair short (making her feel dishonoured in a way comparable to how one would think Kambei would feel after his shaving of his head) and making the samurai think she’s a boy. Manzō’s patriarchal pride turns to shame when he sees his greatest fears realized: Katsushirō has seduced her. The shame is Manzō’s, though, not the young lovers’, for Katsushirō doesn’t see her as a mere plaything…he’s in love with her, and her foolish father doesn’t want to accept it.
So in these, and in all the other protagonists, there is a humanity that inspires sympathy in us and justifies the length of the film, for we learn to care about them. When we consider who these characters represent in my allegory, our caring for them can inspire us to care about the poor all over the world. These characters all have their needs, desires, hopes, fears, and pain, just as the global proletariat do, however invisible they may be to us in the First World.
Our introduction to the stoic master swordsman, Kyūzō (Miyaguchi) is another opportunity to see the dialectical relationship between pride/honour and humility/shame. Kyūzō tests his abilities with another man in an open area, but they use lances. Kyūzō says he struck first, while the other man insists it was a tie, and he is so offended with the pride he projects onto Kyūzō that he challenges him to a swordfight.
Kyūzō warns him not to be foolish, but the proud opponent won’t take no for an answer. They fight with swords this time; Kyūzō’s opponent is loud, blustery, and ostentatious in his aggression, as against Kyūzō’s quiet poise and calm. Predictably, Kyūzō strikes first and kills the man.
Kambei and the peasants would have such a skilled swordsman join their cause, but he joins them only after a period of time to consider it. Kambei’s old friend and comrade, Shichirōji (Katō), joins them, as does good-natured Gorōbei (Inaba) simply because he finds Kambei an intriguing fellow samurai to work with.
Another example of nobility in humility is when Gorōbei meets Heihachi (Chiaki), a samurai of moderate ability who is willing to chop wood for an elderly man in exchange for food. These are the kind of people one wants for a vanguard: not careerists or opportunists who will drop us at the first sign of promotion or higher pay, but who understand the nobility of helping the poor for its own sake.
Near at hand is Kikuchiyo, who has been following the samurai and insists on joining them. His pride shifts dialectically into shame when he produces a scroll purportedly of his samurai lineage, though the name “Kikuchiyo” on the scroll indicates someone who’d be thirteen years of age as of the time of our story, not the actual thirty-something samurai wannabe.
Nonetheless, he is accepted into the group, if only because his asinine behaviour amuses the others; and so the group of seven samurai is complete. Indeed, when it is announced to the villagers that the samurai have arrived, and the villagers–under the paranoid, anti-samurai influence of Manzō–are afraid to come out of their huts and meet their seven visitors, Kikuckiyo sounds the village alarm, suggesting a bandit raid, and the villagers come out, begging the samurai to protect them. He has thus shown his usefulness.
Three samurai look over a map of the village and surrounding area, planning how they will defend it from a bandit attack. Shichirōji will have a fence made to block the western entry point, the southern entry will be flooded, and a bridge will be destroyed to prevent entry from the east. This use of tactics is paralleled by the use of theory by Marxists: without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement, something many on the left fail to understand.
The vanguard is also typically not appreciated by many on the left, just as the samurai aren’t initially appreciated by the peasants. Many on the left, if not most of them, sadly, believe the bourgeois lies and propaganda vilifying Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, failing to put the problems of the years of their leadership in their proper political and economic contexts; it’s assumed that the vanguard are the same as any other power-hungry group of politicians and demagogues.
Similarly, the villagers, having listened to Manzō, are afraid their daughters will be used by the samurai for their sexual sport, or are afraid that these seven samurai are no better than the typical, arrogant, predatory samurai. These forms of dissension are as bad for the peasants as is the danger of the bandits; just as the anti-communist left is as bad for the global poor as the capitalists are.
Another difficulty the samurai must deal with is their inability to defend the three outlying buildings. The core twenty in the centre are the priority, but those villagers living in the outlying areas don’t want to accept having to give up their homes and move into and crowd the centre.
In fact, while Kikuchiyo tries to raise the morale of the villagers by joking about the men giving their wives some loving that night, those villagers from the outer areas get angry and try to walk out. Kambei scolds them and, threatening them with his sword, makes them return.
Here we learn an important message about solidarity. We can’t repel imperial invasions and capitalist plunder without a unified working class and peasantry helping each other. Dissension among the various factions of the Soviets in the early 1920s, during a dangerous time when capitalist encirclement threatened the end of the USSR, forced the vanguard to be authoritarian.
Still, most of the Soviets backed their government, and poll after poll since the USSR’s dissolution has shown that a majority of Russians consider life under the Soviet system to have been a happier one than the current capitalist one in their country. Similarly, in the movie, the peasants come to love and appreciate the protection they get from the samurai.
After the intermission, we see the peasants harvesting the barley in the fields, and Kikuchiyo is eyeing the young women workers lustfully. Rikichi gets offended at some banter from Heihachi about getting a wife. That night, Heihachi talks to Rikichi about what’s troubling him and tries to get him to open up, which he won’t do, for he’s too ashamed to let the samurai know his wife has been abducted to be used to satisfy bandit lust.
Still, part of solidarity is the need for open communication among comrades, something difficult to achieve when there’s so much alienation caused by class conflict. Though the world depicted in Seven Samurai is that of late 16th century feudal Japan, the class conflict of such a world is easily compared with that of the modern world of capitalism. For as Marx stated in The Communist Manifesto, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
The conflict between feudal lords and peasants is clearly paralleled with the conflict between bourgeois and proletarians. Poverty and want compels many to commit theft in order to live, hence the bandits, as well as all the crime we witness in modern capitalist society. Providing for people’s basic needs–food, shelter, health care, education, employment, etc.–would reduce the compulsion to commit crimes to a minimum…except that the capitalists, who exploit workers and get rich off their value-producing labour, are the greatest bandits of all, and won’t allow for the needed provision.
Back to the film. Three bandits are spotted in the hills and, later, looking through the fence onto the village. Kikuchiyo opens his big mouth, endangering the village by revealing to the bandits that samurai are there to defend it. Kyūzō, Kikuchiyo, and Katsushirō are tasked with leaving the village and catching the three bandits before they can tell the others.
Kambei instructs Katsushirō only to watch the other two men catch the bandits. He lies hiding among the flowers while Kikuchiyo is up in a tree, ready to pounce on a bandit, and Kyūzō is sitting at the foot of the tree, hiding behind it and meditating as the three bandits approach.
In his meditation, Kyūzō is demonstrating No Mind, or wuxin. By emptying his mind of all distracting thoughts, he is embracing the void that dialectically encompasses nothing, or No-thing, and the Brahman-like everything, or what I would call the Infinite Ocean. This focus gives Kyūzō the connection to divinity needed to be ready to strike and kill without missing his target. The wise, in doing nothing, leave nothing undone, as it says in the Tao Te Ching.
When the bandits appear, Kyūzō strikes down and kills two of them, while Kikuchiyo falls on and captures the third, who–bound–is taken back to the village and forced to disclose the location of the bandits’ hideout. The villagers want to kill him, something to which the samurai are opposed; but an old woman whose son has been killed by the bandits wants her revenge (as does Rikichi, of course), so the samurai reluctantly allow her to have it.
Now Rikichi, Heihachi, Kikuchiyo, and Kyūzō go off to find the hideout. It’s burned down, with many bandits killed, but Rikichi discovers his wife-turned-concubine there, too; too ashamed to return with him, she runs into the flames and dies. In an attempt to rescue Rikichi, Heihachi is mortally wounded in the fighting, and his death compounds Rikichi’s grief.
Immediately after the burial and mourning of Heihachi, the bandits attack. It is discovered that they have three muskets, so the samurai and peasants must be careful. Kikuchiyo foolishly taunts the users of the muskets, and he’s lucky not to be shot by any of them.
Those who own the three outlying houses are not so lucky, though, for the bandits burn down those houses in revenge for the burning down of their hideout. The old man, Gisaku, is too stubborn to leave his house, so he dies in the fire. A mother who has been speared stays alive just long enough to save her baby. Kikuchiyo takes the child and wails in grief, for he is reminded of how he and his family suffered the exact same fate when he was a child.
In the context of my Marxist-Leninist allegory, the bandits’ reprisal, as well as the suffering it causes, is a symbolic reminder of the constant danger of counterrevolution, that with every small victory can come new threats from those who would try to restore the oppressive, predatory old way of doing things. This danger is what forces socialist states to take harsh measures to defend themselves.
The three muskets represent a superior form of technology (in today’s world, that would be nuclear weapons) that must be appropriated–not for attack, but for self-defence. People in the West often decry the ‘danger’ that the DPRK supposedly poses with its nuclear weapons programme, while hypocritically oblivious to the double-standard that indulges Western possession of such weapons (England, France, surely Israel, and the one country to use them to kill people, the US). Socialist states like the USSR and Mao’s China needed nuclear weapons to deter a Western attack, not to attack the West, as is popularly assumed.
Similarly, the samurai know that they need to get their hands on those muskets, so Kyūzō runs off to get one. His success awes Katsushirō, who gazes in admiration at a swordsman so humble that he doesn’t even seem to understand why the boy is idolizing him so much.
Later, Katsushirõ tells Kikuchiyo about how impressive he finds Kyūzō; the fool pretends he couldn’t care less, but he secretly envies the swordsman, and in his pride, Kikuchiyo goes off to the bandits to steal another musket. He too succeeds, having disguised himself as a bandit and tricking one who has the second firearm. When Kikuchiyo proudly returns to the village with the musket, though, Kambei’s reaction to his recklessness is only anger.
Here again we see the film’s dialectical presentation of the relationship between pride/honour and humility/shame. Kyūzō gets a musket, but not for his own personal glory; he does so out of duty. Hence, he is admired by Katsushirō. Kikuchiyo covets that admiration, and in doing the same thing as Kyūzō, though with selfish motives, he is shamed.
With each ensuing battle, many bandits are killed, and we see Kambei paint Xes in the circles representing the bandits on a sheet of paper. He does so with a mix of satisfaction and sadness, for with these killings of bandits, there have also been deaths on their own side, in particular, the deaths of Gorōbei and timid, simple old Yohei.
Despite having been verbally abused as stupid and weak throughout the film, Yohei dies (with an arrow in the back) honourably, having bravely helped defend the village as best he could. (Earlier, we see Yohei, having speared a bandit, in an absurd pose of paralytic shock, his mouth agape at its jaw-cracking widest.) Again, humility/shame and pride/honour are dialectically united.
Also, the deaths on both sides can be seen to symbolize, on the one hand, the progressive erasure of class differences (the bandits, understood as personifying the predatory bourgeoisie), and on the other, the withering away of the state, as personified by the seven samurai as vanguard.
The samurai must prepare for the final confrontation with the remaining bandits, which will happen on a morning of heavy rain. The night before, tensions are high in anticipation of the morning’s danger, and a furious Manzō has discovered his daughter in a tryst with Katsushirō.
Manzō beats her and publicly shames her, but the other samurai try to get him to forgive her, explaining that the tensions of the moment can provoke reckless behaviour. Rikichi scolds Manzō, saying there’s nothing wrong with being in love; at least Shino wasn’t raped by the bandits, as Rikichi’s wife was.
In this night of wild emotions, we see the opposite of the wuxin mindset that is ideal for preparation for battle. Instead of emptying one’s thoughts to find one’s connection with the divine, one is overwhelmed with one’s preoccupations, leading to confusion and raising the level of danger.
The rainy morning of the battle, however, finds the samurai and peasants in a focused mindset; it’s as if the passions of the preceding night have purged them of preoccupations, causing a dialectical shift from extreme distraction to extreme focus; it’s as if they’ve all learned from the foolishness of Manzō’s anger. (Recall his previous worries about Shino being seduced by a samurai, and Gisaku telling him how foolish it is to fear for one’s whiskers when one’s head is to be cut off.) One might think a torrential downpour would be irritating and distracting, but our protagonists don’t allow themselves to be swayed by such discomfort in the least.
The bandits are clearly losing, one of them having fallen off of his saddle and being dragged in the mud by his horse. Still, the leader of the bandits has the last musket, and like a coward, he hides in a house with the screaming women of the village, whom he threatens to kill if they make more noise.
He shoots and kills Kyūzō, enraging Katsushirō and Kikuchiyo, the latter racing after the villain in the house and getting mortally wounded himself. Still, the dying man proves his worth in the end and stabs the bandit before falling to the ground himself. Kambei tells Katsushirō they’ve won; all the bandits are killed. The boy wails in anguish, though, for he never got his chance to avenge Kyūzō.
On a pleasant, sunny day afterwards, we see the peasants planting crops in the fields and playing celebratory, victory music, with Rikichi–smiling, for a change–chanting and playing a drum, and Manzō playing a flute. The three surviving samurai–Kambei, Shichirōji, and Katsushiro–are standing by the burial area of their fallen comrades and frowning. Shino passes by and snubs Katsushirō, for the patriarchal influence of her father has made her too ashamed to continue her romance with him, however much he sill loves her, and doesn’t care about their class differences.
Kambei sadly observes that the victory belongs to the peasants, not to the samurai. In the context of my allegory, this makes sense, for in spite of the anti-communist slanders about a vanguard’s supposed hunger for power, the vanguard–as symbolized by these seven samurai–really want to have the power to end hunger. The battle was never about glorifying the higher-caste samurai; it was about liberating the peasants, as is the vanguard’s intention for the working poor of the world.
This understanding should be our response to critics’ allegation of Kurosawa’s ‘elitism.’ Though it is more than safe to assume that Kurosawa was nowhere near being a communist, making my Marxist allegory seem out of place, he was a more progressive writer/director than he seemed. Having seen only Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Ran, I can’t speak with any measure of authority on most of his films; but in the case of this one, the presentation of social class and sex roles isn’t meant as a defence of the old traditions, but as a critique of them.
Remember that his heroic samurai are the exception, not the rule, in this film. Most of the samurai are arrogant, and it’s known that they are often the attackers, rather than the defenders, of peasants, who are regarded most sympathetically, in spite of how bumbling they are often portrayed. For these reasons, I consider the critics’ charging of Kurosawa of elitism to be invalid, at least with regard to Seven Samurai. In any case, his one non-Japanese language film, Dersu Uzala, was partly Soviet-financed, so I doubt that he was all that inimical to the more egalitarian leanings of socialism.
The analysis and interpretation of a film needn’t strictly conform to what its auteur has said about it, since–as I’ve learned from psychoanalysis–unconscious meaning can be expressed through parapraxes, revealing intent far removed from what the creator has explained in interviews. Therefore I stand by my leftist interpretation, especially since I believe it can inspire new viewers of Seven Samurai to apply its notions of heroism and sacrifice to today’s problems.