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The Seven Samurai (1954)



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Even if you've never seen The Seven Samurai, you're probably familiar with the broad outlines of the story, so often does it show up in the movies it has influenced. The great The Magnificent Seven transposed the story to the western genre. A Bug's Life introduced it to kids. In a nutshell: seven mercenary warriors, each with a different skill in combat, are hired by a poor village to defend it from raiders.

The nutshell synopsis is as far as the lesser copycat films go. But in The Seven Samurai, the showdown with the villains is incidental. The real story is of how the villagers treat the warriors. At first, they regard them with hope and gratitude -- but then with suspicion, fear, and resentment, for they are outsiders and not to be trusted.

But still, I am only describing the broad outlines. The film captures the complexities of human nature in a way few others ever have. It touches upon the hierarchy of human needs, and how our anxieties are always caught up in the need, and only that need, at the top of the heap. If we are lonely, for example, we worry about our loneliness -- until such time as we go hungry, at which point the concern of loneliness is shelved and concern for nourishment bubbles to the forefront of our minds. Only when our hunger is satiated will we go back to worrying about our loneliness. If we're lonely, hungry, and in pain, we'll worry about that pain and deal with the loneliness and hunger later. We'll postpone dealing with the pain, too, if our lives are threatened. The point is, we're always anxious about something.

For the villagers in The Seven Samurai, their anxieties are focused on a threat to their lives and livelihoods. They'll do anything, make any sacrifice, to address that need. They'll persuade these seven warriors to work for them, even though the warriors are reluctant to do so. But once the threat is neutralized, the villagers' concern reverts to their financial well-being. The warriors, who demand to be paid as promised, become the enemy.

That the villagers are at all sympathetic is a testament to the film's greatness. Their role in the story is naturally antagonistic. But it's important to realize that this is how people work. Qualities such as honor and personal integrity are not natural to human nature but grafted over the top of it to try to correct its inherent selfishness.

Have I made the film sound heavily intellectual and philosophical? It is not. I'm merely trying to pinpoint why it is as compelling as it is. On the surface, it is a rousing action adventure film, which, besides building to an explosive final conflict, also tells the seven stories of the individual warriors. Each has a different reason for being there. The battle to come will mean something different to each one. Every one of those individual stories could make a compelling film in its own right.

The great director Akira Kurosawa was famous for his samurai films, like The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo. They were arguably more popular with western audiences than in Japan. The Seven Samurai is not just the best of these but one of the greatest films of all time.

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