Sixty long years after its release, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) remains a touchstone for directors of all genres, a technical and narrative masterclass that continues to resonate as powerfully as it ever has. In some ways still ahead of its time, Kurosawa's magnum opus is rightly regarded as a classic of both Japanese cinema and film in general, regularly topping retrospective lists and collectively considered amongst an exclusive upper echelon of the medium, wherein I'd argue Citizen Kane (1941) and Vertigo (1958) also reside.

In the Merriam-Webster sense of the word, 'Classic' denotes something "serving as a standard of excellence, of recognized value" and is a term that has been thrown around a lot. It has perhaps been used in a somewhat loose manner when applied to film, as, in reality, film is still a relatively young form of expression when compared to say literature, and its critics do not have the same retrospective time scale in which to consider the attribution of 'classic' status. So with this in mind, I would consider that, for a film to truly be regarded as a 'classic' at this point in time, then it must hold vast and significant weight in the development of the medium, and should be widely regarded as a moment of undeniable progression and importance, rather than something that has simply stood the test of centuries.


Fig i: Seven Samurai (1954) Dir: Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai acutely conforms to the admittedly broad dictionary interpretation of the word, but without a doubt also fits perfectly into the latter definition, in the sense that its content, structure and form were ground-breaking at the time, and have been adopted widely ever since. Even if you've never seen Seven Samurai, you'll have witnessed its influence in action, and manifestations of its values and aesthetics in films both modern and from its own era. Kurosawa's use of immersive telephoto lenses set a precedent for future cinematography with the innovative framing, movement, and compositional elements still feeling fresh and vital today, whilst narrative devices such as the recruiting of the heroes, the three distinct acts, and the climactic showdown all quickly became commonplace in a wide spectrum of genres.

As an example of its longstanding influence, both bloody western The Magnificent Seven (1960) and animated children's film A Bug's Life (1998) appropriate the plot of Seven Samurai. The foundations that the film sits atop are such that it can seamlessly be transferred across both genre and era and find relevance and an eager audience, and these are but two of the ensemble cast of films that have paid homage to Kurosawa's film with unashamed pride.

For many, the film is the perfect embodiment of all Kurosawa's defining virtues. The multi-layered framing and composition, the finely tuned moral compass, and his acute eye for visual poetry are all prominently on show, combining to paint seven separate portraits of seven vastly different characters, but also simultaneously exploring the idea of community as much as it does the individual.


Fig ii: Kikuchiyo and Kanbei first meet - both are loners and portrayed with this in mind. There is distance between them whereas later on in the film, this is reduced and they fall into the composition of 'The Group'

A recurrent ideology throughout Seven Samurai is the concept of strength in togetherness. Through banding together, these seven disparate, unemployed, and in some cases down on their luck Samurai, are able to overcome the odds, as are the village that they serve. "By protecting others you save yourself" de facto leader Kambei states whilst rallying the troops, and this applies to all characters on both a physical and metaphorical level. If the villagers and the Samurai are able to work together, then they will not only survive the bandit attack, but also be redeemed in the process, and their sins will be overshadowed by their selfless acts of protection.

This concept is explored by Kurosawa's imagery throughout the film, with the visual element of 'The Group' emerging as a defining trait of the film's aesthetic. Below, Fig iii depicts the eponymous seven as a community, all visually connected through their arrangement in the frame. This is the first point in the film wherein all seven are shown together, and it is no mistake that their profiles overlap and their outlines fuse them as a unit. Similarly in Fig iv, the group is once again visually drawn together into a tight frame, and Kurosawa creates the idea of community amongst a group that is historically associated with individuality and isolation.


Fig iii: The group shot that will come to define the values of Seven Samurai. Each Samurai is visually linked with his peer, generating an overarching sense of unity.


Fig iv: Again the Samurai are depicted as a unit, there is no space between them, denoting their strength as a community as opposed to their weakness as individuals.

By developing a unit and a community rather than acting for personal gain, the Samurai are able to overcome the odds and train the village to work together in both harvest and combat. However, the opposite is also applicable, and those shown to visually stray from the community, or act against the interests of 'the group' are often punished. For instance, the below frames show the members of the samurai who eventually either die or are not gifted a happy ending to their narrative, and this is by no means a spoiler, as a) the film has now been out for sixty years, and b) because Kurosawa literally associates isolation, individuality and abandonment of the group with negativity, death and destruction.

Those who do not adhere to the ideals of the community all either meet their untimely end by the film's climax, or are shown to have lost something important to them. Fig v shows master swordsman Kyuzo, who was introduced to us as "a man only interested in perfecting his own skill" and is shown numerous times to venture out on his own in both training and battle. Hot tempered and impulsive Kikuchiyo takes an angered stand against the Samurai in fig vi, and again often leaves his post to pursue individual glory, whilst fig vii portrays the youngest Samurai, Katsushiro, leaving the group to follow his heart to find love with a villager, and although he does not die, his narrative does not conclude with happiness.


Fig v: Kyuzo training alone


Fig vi: Kikuchiyo takes a stand against the Samurai values and is isolated in his own frame.


Fig vii: Katsushiro abandons the group to follow his heart, and is shown as both distant from his lover and his group.

Even the villagers are subject to the same visual foreshadowing, with a handful of them attempting to flee before the final battle, only to be scolded by the Samurai for their cowardice and their reluctance to help their fellow man. Then, when participating in the final battle, their sense of community and 'the group' is restored, and Kambei's prediction of strength through unity is fulfilled.

Perhaps this message is so strong throughout Kurosawa's film due to its historical context, with the film released less than a decade after the conclusion of World War Two. The ideology portrayed here, of the importance of coming together as a group and a community to protect, rebuild and thrive, is heavily linked to the post-war effort of a nation attempting to find its feet after an extended period of horror. After the war, in which theirs was a major role, it was vital for the Japanese to come together and forge a new identity with community and the strength in togetherness as integral elements. Kurosawa's insistence, through both imagery and narrative, that unifying as a nation to overcome obstacles as opposed to seeking individual merit is implied both subtly and obviously throughout Seven Samurai, and is a further reason why it is so often considered as a 'classic film'.

For all its instances of visual innovation, and its ground-breaking approach to narrative structure, Seven Samurai remains a classic in the sense that its message is one that is still adopted by the nation today and the values Kurosawa preached throughout his masterpiece were acknowledged, put into action, and remain important six decades later.