Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece exists as an excellent example of how to craft a powerful story.
It goes without saying that a solid screenplay is key when taking on a project as involved as Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai. However, there are countless other elements that tie into what makes the film so spectacular besides just good writing.
With the video essay “Seven Samurai – A Lesson in Storytelling,” the YouTube series Jack’s Movie Reviews gives us a quick rundown of all the pieces that unquestionably make this Kurosawa’s most influential film.
Obviously, the screenplay by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni is the solid foundation upon which Seven Samurai is so securely laid. As the video so accurately puts it, there are countless good screenplays that have produced lesser films. What helps Seven Samurai succeed where others have failed is a combination of the talent the production had at its disposal, the diversity and depth of its characters, and the structure of the film overall.
All of these aspects, when put together, compliment and even strengthen the screenplay itself. For example, no character is left without a purpose in Seven Samurai. They are all fleshed out, such as the stoic leader Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) and the contrastingly loutish Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune). The titular band of warriors is balanced out by the farmers and villagers, both groups finding a special kind of synergy when it comes to preparing for the final battle against the bandits.
Seven Samurai also takes its time when it comes to introducing us to each character. Kurosawa wants us to become acquainted with his heroes (and unlikely heroes) before taking us to the main action. Kambei, in particular, is introduced in what movie audiences now recognize as a typical scene where the hero proves his strength and intelligence to the audience in a trial unrelated to the main plot. In Kambei’s case, saving a young child from a village intruder who was holding the boy hostage. This first look at the character sets up exactly what kind of role he will play throughout the rest of the action in Seven Samurai, and we can’t help but be impressed by him.
As for the casting, Kurosawa had an impressive set of actors and talent with which to help flesh out his story. Mifune, in particular, steals the show, portraying a more bumbling sort of comic relief than was typical of the actor. In order to best tell an intricate story like that of Seven Samurai, the cast needs to be able to bring the nature of their characters to life from page to screen. Everyone in Seven Samurai executes this masterfully, making you care about each and every one of the admittedly crowded ensemble.
The biggest hurdle for a movie of this magnitude is, understandably, keeping your audience engaged throughout the three-hour runtime. With this talent combined with the importance felt for each character, Seven Samurai is able to conquer the potential lapse in audience attention.
In terms of the structure, Seven Samurai is set up in such a way that we viewers feel almost pressured by the events unfolding — or which have yet to unfold. The seriousness of the situation our heroes is in is made clear from the beginning, with the goal and motivations made clear. Bandits are making life a living hell for a group of villagers, and their only hope is to enlist help from samurai.
As JMR so accurately puts it, as you watch Seven Samurai you are altogether very aware of what is at stake. Meaning you feel invested in both the story and the characters laid out before you. The very story structure of Seven Samurai ensures this. The film is crafted in such a way that a viewer can be engrossed in the story, despite the lengthy runtime. It proves that there is still much that can be learned about the effects and intricacies of storytelling, more than 60 years later.