Clocking in at just under four hours with not a scrap of filler, Kurosawa's THE SEVEN SAMURAI is every bit as legendary at its enthusiasts would have you believe.
The basic story is extremely simple. In a period of social chaos, a small farming village learns it will once more be attacked by a band of thirty bandits after the harvest. At first the farmers despair, but village elder Gisaku (Kokuten Kodo) recalls that in his childhood a similar village met a similar situation by hiring Samurai to defend them. The villagers accordingly send representatives to the city, where they are able to convince Samurai Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) to undertake the defense.
If the plot sounds familiar, it should: Hollywood would translate it into the extremely popular 1960 western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN--but fine though that film is, it pales beside THE SEVEN SAMURAI, which effectively turns an action film premise into a character study of the first order and endows the story with both tremendous simplicity and artistry. Much of this is due an extraordinary ensemble cast, which includes the celebrated Toshiro Mifune (who would later appear in Kurosawa's THRONE OF BLOOD and YOJIMBO); above this, however, is Kurosawa's remarkable vision that draws upon the visual motif of the circle.
The circle is a powerful presence in SAMURAI. The village is presented as a roughly circular pattern of houses; the farmers meet in circles; in due time the Samurai enter the circle and stand at the center of the circle, directing the defense--and indeed the circle will become the defense, as Shimada works to find means to draw the bandits into the circle and to their doom. The motif will be elaborated: tied to the cycle of seed time, growth time, and harvest; tied to the cycle of life; and ultimately showing the quiet bitterness of life for those who operate outside the circular codes of community: the "Ronin," the Samurai who have no master and no community, and whose lives are not valued by the community except for aid at a moment of crisis.
Shot in simple black and white, as much (if not more) a detailed character and culture study as it is an action film, THE SEVEN SAMURAI is extremely simple and yet extremely subtle, and ultimately one of the most powerful films it has been my pleasure to review. The quality of the Criterion DVD transfer is very good, but by no means flawless--although it survives well, the film has not been digitally restored, and artifacts are frequent. There is little in the way of bonus material, but the commentary by Michael Jeck is quite fine. Strongly recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer