In 16th century Japan, a farming village learns the upcoming harvest will bring with it a bandit raid, so they set out to hire a pack of samurai to protect them. Though the setup is simple, this film, Kurosawa's deserving masterpiece, most certainly isn't.
Let's start with the samurai. In many contemporary stories of the time, they are little more than fierce warriors bound by a code of duty, honor, and tradition. Yet Kurosawa gives us our first glimpse of his realistic ronin when one kicks the farmers down in the dirt for asking his help. This film isn't an illusion, a glossed over fantasy of times long past, it is a realistic, warts-and-all portrayal of people in a severely classist time. What hero of this period would care about a group of farmers when he has lords and castles to protect?
Enter Takashi Shimura as Kambei Shimada, a calm, strategic ronin who admits up front that most of his past battles were losses. He's introduced to us as he impersonates a monk by shaving off his topknot of hair, a major cultural taboo of the time, and uses charm and deception instead of fierce swordplay to free a hostage. This is a man who cares little for tradition and titles, just doing whatever it takes to save those who need saving, making him a strikingly modern hero in a period often packed with stereotypes.
In fact, I'd say there's only one stereotypical samurai in the entire piece: Kyozo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a stoic master swordsman who spends most of his free time either in quiet contemplation or an obsessive honing of his technique. The others are a more colorful bunch: Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), a genial archer and military strategist; Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki), a mediocre swordsman with a blunt sense of humor which rallies the others; Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), an old friend of Kambei who openly laughs that he survived a major battle because he hid in the weeds; Katsushiro Okamoto (Isao Kimura), a young man of wealth with a lot to learn, but an eagerness to do so which wins him the opportunity.
And then we get to Toshiro Mifune. His character, known as Kikuchio though we never learn his real name, was born a farmer, yet lost his parents in similar bandit raids. He is brash, arrogant, and has a desperation for attention which leads to frequent overcompensation (just look at the size of his sword), but all he wants is the honor of being a samurai.
This superb cast forms the motley crew the villagers are able to hire (aka the only ones who will work for food). And how is their arrival greeted? With fear. These farmers have long memories and they won't forget the wars that spilled over onto their lands and the atrocities committed by samurai and bandit alike. This is brought furthest to the front when one old farmer snips the hair of his beautiful daughter and forces her to dress like a boy for fear that our heroes will rape her.
So the story isn't just about the samurai setting up a defense around the town, but about winning over the village's trust. A situation that doesn't help is when a cache of armor and weapons stolen from dead (or murdered) samurai turns up. It's an interesting study Kurosawa brings up as the heroes have to defend people they don't trust, and the people have to hire heroes they fear. But all must be pushed aside when the harvest arrives and the bandits make their grand entrance.
If everything else where a failure, this film would still deserve praise for the huge outdoor set of the village and surrounding mountains. Kurosawa is a grand master of shot composition and editing, so it's all put to glorious use, especially during the final battle in the middle of a mud-splattered rainstorm, a Kurosawa tradition.
With the help of Hashimoto and Oguni, Kurosawa has crafted a story that magnificently manages to cover all sides of a seemingly simple situation. And he laces it with such skill, such rich detail, such a keen understanding of the time and place, that one cannot help being swept away. I understand that some will instantly balk when they see the running time of 207 minutes, but believe me when I say every second is worth it. There's not a single moment that passes which doesn't add a further level of detail to the goings on. If anything, I wish it could be longer since the characters are so compelling I just want more.