Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), the tale of a motley band of stereotype-busting 16th-century samurai hired to protect villagers from bandits, is frequently mentioned as one of the greatest films of all time. With a surprisingly humanistic take on tradition, and characters who bond despite coming from different social classes, the movie created the story archetype of the disparate band who unite for a single mission, and is visually breathtaking, particularly in its epic battle scenes.
Odyssey Guides travel publisher and Over Hong Kong photographer Magnus Bartlett explains how it changed his life.
Seven Samurai is surely the ultimate costume drama. Akira Kurosawa weaves savage swordplay with serenity, cruelty with tenderness, and breathtaking action with frequent wry humour.
I first saw it at the age of 11, in 1954, when the horrors of the second world war were still fresh. The film showed me that Japanese people were human, too, and it triggered in me a yearning to visit Japan. That yearning was fulfilled and more – it brought me to China, where I have now lived for 43 years.
For me and many other fans, including some of the world’s most renowned filmmakers, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas included, this is the ultimate film insofar as it encapsulates the human condition in an almost non-stop emotional roller-coaster ride. Audiences are horrified one moment, laughing out loud the next.
It is a theatrical tour de force with its beautifully etched archetypes, especially the wannabe samurai, a buffoon-turned-hero – everyone cries when he is gunned down by a bandit with a blunderbuss in the last great set piece battle to the death with the truly terrifying bandits.
Here is Renaissance Man as filmmaker: the values imbued in his script, the inspired casting, the adrenaline-driven direction, the masterful editing, the art direction and the brilliant employment of ancient and modern musical motifs make Kurosawa for many of us the ultimate filmmaker, with a universally inclusive gospel of compassion.
I left the cinema supercharged and during my teenage years I must have seen it at least a half-dozen more times. Inevitably I became intrigued by Zen and by filmmaking, too.
But I was distracted by London, by the advertising business, by film school and by teaching photography, so it was not until 1974 – 20 years after the film was released – that I reached the Far East, and sailed to samurai land.
I might have stayed in Japan if it were not for the oil crisis, which made working there legally problematic. Brit-friendly Hong Kong became my base, and subsequent travels around mainland China both in books and in person educated me to the fact that Zen was a refinement of China’s Chan Buddhism. Nowadays I feel more strongly than ever that we need to embrace the simple core idea of a global legacy of compassion.
The official 1954 trailer for Seven Samurai still makes my pulse race. No other film director has taken the idea of Concordia discors (“harmony in discord”) – found in Greece and China at least as long ago as the sixth century BC – so far and got away with it.