This 100th issue of Early Modern Times celebrates today the 100th birthday of the great Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune. Mifune is most famous for his roles in classic films by Akira Kurosawa, including the masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954)–which happens to be my favourite movie. The film is set in 1568, during the protracted Sengoku period of civil war and anarchy from the mid-15th century to the early 17th century. Thus Seven Samurai takes place during dreadful times, and depicts the decline of the samurai class. By the time the image above of ‘Samurai and Ainu in Hokkaido around 1775‘ was painted, then, the relevance of the samurai as a warrior class had long since receded. How does Kurosawa dramatise this shift in early modern Japanese society, such that we can only gush, ‘Kurosa-what a filmmaker!’?
The scenario of the film is in part inspired by American westerns by John Ford, which Kurosawa closely studied, but also the dynamic Communist propaganda films of Sergei Eisenstein and, of course, Japanese history in the 16th and early 20th centuries (Kurosawa was of samurai descent, and bemoaned the loss of Japanese traditions after the catastrophic militarism of the Japanese empire and American occupation following Japan’s defeat in World War II). The situation is an extraordinary one in medieval and early modern Japan: a village of farmers is invaded by bandits, and seek to hire a group of masterless samurai (ronin) to protect them and defeat the marauders. For the villagers, hiring members of the warrior class is the samu-right thing to do.
It is a total inversion of the social order for peasants to hire samurai–so this very scenario reflects the world turned upside-down during the Sengoku period. Traditionally, the samurai were the fighters attached to noble houses; but by this time, the samurai were masterless and impoverished. The villagers are only able to offer food as payment, at which samurai in the closest town scoff. Nevertheless, they are able to attract six desperate samurai of varying abilities, who agree to protect the village for motives ranging from sympathy for the peasants to an interest in applying their martial arts. They are joined by a seventh self-styled ‘samurai’ named Kikuchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune, whose lineage is suspect and who behaves in a way entirely unbecoming to the samurai class: Mifune portrays Kikuchiyo as a lout and drunkard, in some ways more animal than human in his manner–resembling a dog or a monkey. The band of hired samurai are not dog-matic, however, so they let him accompany them; and as the film progresses, he becomes a mon-key character in the relationship between villagers and samurai.
At first, the villagers are deeply suspicious of the samurai they’ve hired, but once they realise the looming threat of invasion, are forced to entrust themselves to the seven samurai’s protection and direction. Kambei, the leader of the samurai (played by the magnificent Takashi Shimura), sternly tells the farmers that they must be united in their efforts to defeat the bandits: self-interest at the expense of the common good cannot be tolerated, as it would render them fatally vulnerable (a timely lesson). As the samurai reinforce the village’s defences, Kikuchiyo discovers that the villagers have been hoarding weapons stolen from bandits whom the farmers killed. The samurai are outraged, but Kikuchiyo–who inadvertently reveals that he is from the peasant class–points out that the bandits are themselves of the samurai class who have caused the farmers to behave this way. While Kurosawa champions the nobility of the seven samurai, he also brings out how their raison d’être–as warriors and therefore killers–has led to the chaos of the times. The warrior class as a whole has brought about its own decline: they are samu-ripe with hypocrisy.
The villagers start to become complacent, but the bandits are poised to invade. Under the leadership of the seven samurai, various waves of attack are fended off. Despite the barriers erected, the training of the farmers with makeshift bamboo spears, and the samurai’s military acumen and sword-fighting abilities, the seven samurai are outnumbered by the bandits, who are armed with matchlock firearms. After several escalating and desperate battles (brilliantly filmed by Kurosawa using multiple cameras), the bandits are eventually eliminated–but only after having killed a number of the villagers and four of the seven samurai, including Kikuchiyo (who ‘becomes’ a samurai through his bravery and skill, only to fall). All of the deceased samurai perish by firearms: they cannot survive the era of modern weaponry. Kambei, one of the surviving samurai, remarks that the peasants have won, but the samurai have lost. Society will be built by the farmers, not the obsolescent warrior class. In this new vill-age, the masterless samurai will be treated as nothing better than ronin-compoops.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Sengoku-pon code Studies Program