At the heart of the Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai), is a dichotomy between the peasant class and the warrior caste that is a constant source of tension. The villagers do not like or trust samurais, believing them all to be greedy and lustful and despite the existential threat of the bandits, some are still loath to seek their help and would rather surrender their entire crop and go hungry. It is hard not to notice a certain amount of intertextuality between the opening discussing and those rich dialogues of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes (the original “gang of seven” plot device), when the citizens discuss their feeling about the enemy outside the gates. While this type of mistreatment of the peasant classes was common throughout the Sengoku period, the villagers are also not innocent. One pivotal scene in the film occurs when the hired samurai discover the bodies of other samurais in the village, murdered and robbed by the villagers in order to get by. The alliance between the villagers and the hired samurai is at all times fragile and tenuous, under normal circumstances they would not trust each other but they are forced to trust each with their lives in the face of a common enemy. The alliance is necessary though if both groups want to survive, as in times of hardship different people often have to rely on each other; a reflection of the humanist beliefs that run throughout Kurosawa’s body of work.
The seven rōnin that the villagers are able to hire, for the most part, are more in tune with the ideals of bushido code than the social advantages of the warrior caste, but there is something of the tragicomic in this. As the villagers are poor, all they have to offer is food, therefore the village elder says they will have to “find hungry samurai”, implying desperation accompanies the task, but Kambei, the group’s leader, defends the village as a matter of honour. Those samurai of the other kind find the villagers’ plea for help distasteful, as if helping those in need is below them. The suggestion seems to be that the best sorts of men are those that go without. Despite their good natures, the hired samurai are rather proud, becoming quite angry when they discover the bodies of the murdered samurai in the village. It is Kikuchiyo (played by Kurosawa constant, Toshirō Mifune), the fraud who is not from a noble family but actually a farmer’s son with fraudulent birth papers that makes them see the error of their ways and feel shame that such desperate measures are a result of mistreatment by the warrior caste. The film ends with the villagers safe and happily, able to continue their lives, and only three of the samurais remaining. As their lives are a life in service, usually lost in war or matters of honour, they never experience the same joy of the villagers. As Kambei remarks, “And again we lose. We lose. Those famers . . .they are the winners .”
The most interesting character in the film is Kikuchiyo, as his duality allows him to both relate to the farmers and be a part of the samurai group while not truly possible of being a member of either. The villagers see him as “one of them”, for the most part, and his relationship with one of the villager’s daughters risks causing trouble, while his lack of a real noble birth means that he can never really be a real samurai in the eyes of the others and feudal Japan. His position in both camps allows him to empathize with the plights of both though. Despite initially appearing to be a fool and having to be forced upon the group, he proves he has a keen intelligence when he tricks the villagers into revealing their hypocrisy when they will not come out to greet the samurai, to run straight to them when he triggers the alarm to fake a bandit attack. He also shows the samurai the error of their ways when they get angry about their murdered predecessors, telling them “you did this!”. Like all great tragic heroes, he also has his flaws though, for which he is severely punished, when his jealousy at the praise of another prompts him to leave his post, resulting in the deaths of villagers and his friend. Like Achilles, he is also possessed of a great wrath; it is unfortunately harmatia, which gets him killed. He dies a warrior’s death though, worthy of any samurai, killing the cowardly bandit chief after he shoots his comrade, the great swordsman Kyūzō, in the back.
The genius of Kurosawa’s film is that it is so thoroughly Japanese in setting, yet remains universal on a thematic level. It is an epic in the truest sense because it combines some of the finest actions pieces in the history of cinema with poignant melodrama and themes that resonate with the viewer as much today as they did in the early nineteen fifties. Ultimately Seven Samurai embodies the same fundamental truth about humanity that remains a constant throughout the work of Kurosawa; cooperation may be possible, at times even absolutely necessary, but any sort of real unity remains out of grasp, as an impossibility.