Seven Samurai – The Deconstruction of Samurai Mores


Preface: I don’t imagine any student finishes a ten-page research essay assignment and thinks, “Oh thank god I’m finally done, time to upload this baby onto my blog.” Of course not, because an overwhelming percentage of work a student does in school consists of accomplishes he/she is not particularly proud of. Fortunately, on the university level, we do get a stronger freedom as to what we want to study. So here I am, having just finished typing a +3,000 word essay for my Introduction to Japanese Cinema course, wanting to blog it, because damn right it was something I don’t regret doing, even if I did bullshit it last-day. Without further ado, Seven Samurai – The Deconstruction of Mores, now presented with enthusiastic references to Gin Tama and 13 Assassins, oh yay!

In the year 1954, Japan was undergoing an overwhelming period of change, still enduring striking losses from World War II and an ongoing influence from the American occupation. In this time of traditional military order succumbing to the establishment of new foreign values, acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa sought to explore such themes by retracing the roots of his nation’s history. Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s first samurai film he had ever directed, tells a prevalent story of good versus evil, in which seven samurai venture to protect a village of farmers from marauding bandits. But with its underlying motifs and subplots, Seven Samurai furthermore reflects the issues of Kurosawa’s time. In Seven Samurai, Kurosawa presents a cutting-edge interpretation of the samurai and his societal role. Instead of glorifying the class of military nobility, Kurosawa deconstructs the entirety of samurai principle, without quite debunking it. Throughout the confrontation of farmers and samurai pitted against bandits, Kurosawa develops insightful correspondences and relationships between the farmers and samurai, fundamentally portraying these characters as a unified humanity, capable of superseding the rigid system of distinguished social hierarchies. Simply put, the characters form a budding community of fellow human beings throughout the film. Yet, at the end of the film, Kurosawa chooses to conclusively depict that just as the relationship between the samurai and the farmers was perfectly capable of changing in order to form an amiable bond, so could it too change again to represent ill feelings of spite and resentment. Of the entire film, it is perhaps the last scene that resonates with the most impact. Kambei, the leader of the samurai, muses, “Again we are defeated. The winners are those farmers. Not us.” Why does Kurosawa, in these ending moments, choose to again shift the dynamics of the film? Samurai who agreed to help a pleading village of farmers succeeded in defeating a formidable gang of forty bandits, yet subsequently brood in defeat. Kurosawa addresses the defeat beyond that of the one on the battlefield, in which war leaves each of its combatants a changed man, physically and psychologically. To this respect, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai deconstructs and analyzes the samurai, the warring class, as an isolated figure burdened by the inevitability of society’s change.

Kurosawa places his jidaigeki adventure drama during the Warring States Period of Japan, in which widespread military conflict has compromised the basis of samurai principle and left many samurai without a master to serve. Immediately, it is apparent that Kurosawa is not aiming to laud the samurai, but to portray the samurai in a very changed role, already a far cry from the etymological representation of “those who serve in close attendance to the nobility.” (Wilson) In one such depiction, four of the village farmers enter the main town in search for capable samurai. In an expansive shot of the town-space, many pedestrians of different “walks of life” can be seen bustling around town in search of a job. Except, while varied, these folk all have one thing in common, they are all master-less samurai, ronin. As the camera shows them continuously and aimlessly wander the town looking for work, their disorientation reflects the void on their samurai code. And while they are trying to adapt to changing times, it is soon apparent through the farmers’ attempts that no honorable samurai will devote his self-respect to a farmer, let alone for a duty compensated with food. While not making any considerable novel approaches, Kurosawa does a magnificent job in exploring this dynamic of the samurai’s internal struggle to retain traditional conduct and accustoming oneself to uncontrollable, changing conditions not only through this direct portrayal but also through its striking similarities with the condition of post-war and occupation Japan.  In these times, the acceptance, denial, or any belief in between of a historic event’s influence will introduce contention in every kind of life’s aspects, whether it be the survival tactics of farmers and samurai or the democratization of eroticism. According to Brian Eggert’s The Definitives – Seven Samurai (1954), with Seven Samurai, Kurosawa hoped for a “potential democracy between the polarized peoples in his newly reformed culture-those willing to embrace past ideals versus lost contemporaries looking to redefine themselves.” (Eggert) One example of further historical separation but closer relation to Seven Samurai is the portrayal of samurai in contemporary anime and manga. The anime and manga series, Gin Tama, takes place in a fictional and hypothetical Japan, which was invaded and conquered by aliens in the late Edo period after they defeated the defending samurai forces and subsequently placed a ban on carrying swords in public. The plot focuses on an eccentric samurai, Gintoki Sakata who works as a freelancer, taking on any odd-job that will pay his monthly rent. In setting and cast, Gin Tama is very similar to Seven Samurai, yet at the same time, it is not. In its exploration of the samurai culture, Gin Tama satirizes foibles of modern society and presents several social issues, such as social equality, or lack thereof, in the hypothetical co-existence of alien and human, yet it does so primarily through the medium of comedy. (Sorachi) A stark contrast from Seven Samurai’s fierce presentation as an epic film, indeed, but the correlation is clear: while the samurai is still the military go-to, win or lose, he will be the one compromising his own ideals in the end.

Eventually, the farmers in the film are able to find a willing samurai, who is pitiful enough to accept a wage of food. He is Shimada Kambei. And he is actually a fine samurai, perhaps the greatest in the film. That being said, he is also one who has acknowledged the necessity of conversion. When the farmers first find Kambei, he is in the middle of another altruistic deed. As the farmers, as well as the audiences of the film, are attempting to comprehend this lesser subplot in media res, at the same time they are realizing that this incident serves purely to introduce Kambei as the main character of the film. In this characterization of Kambei posing as a monk and shaving his topknot off in order to rescue a boy from a kidnapper, Kurosawa introduces the main hero with an immediacy of importance. In his The Seven Samurai Movie Review (1954), film critic Roger Ebert speculates that this scene originated the long action-movie tradition of opening sequences in which the hero wades into a dangerous situation entirely unrelated to the main plot, but completely necessary in introducing alongside the hero his aptitude and prowess. And sure enough, this is exactly what occurs in Seven Samurai, as after Kambei complies with the farmers’ begging, he assumes the leader role and takes matters into his own hands, recruiting the rest of the to-be seven samurai by his own standards. In contrast to the initial impression that only fallen samurai would accept such a mission from farmers, Kambei genuinely believes that only true samurai with indisputable skill in battle and respect for the samurai way will undertake and succeed in this valiant endeavor. Here, Kurosawa implements another structural innovation, the now-common plot element of the recruiting and gathering of heroes into a team to accomplish a specific goal. During Kambei’s assemblage of splendid warriors, Kurosawa details the principles and standards a samurai should have, and more importantly, foreshadows how the samurai chosen can only hope to retain some of these values. While Kambei evaluates who in town is reputable enough to recruit, it is also necessary to question why these particular samurai accept. While each member has an individual aim, whether it is perfecting ones swordsmanship or re-uniting with past comrades on the battlefield, ultimately the selected samurai join-in on the mission because they yearn for the restoration of the samurai and its many now diminishing ideals.  Brian Eggert, in his The Definitives – Seven Samurai (1954), reasons that the film is rightfully titled Seven Samurai and not Seven Ronin because each recruit chooses a humanist’s devotion to samurai honor by accepting their terms. Based on their selflessness on behalf of the farming village, each remains true to the more established in bushido code. (Eggert) In this instance, the samurai preliminary demonstrate which traditions can be readily amended and which mores cannot be compromised by any means.

Following the anticipated victory over the bandits, all sentiments are actually antithetical to those of celebratory spirits. While the villagers cheerfully plant their next crop, Katsushiro, the youngest of the warriors, is enduring the scorn of unrequited love as Kambei and Shichiroji sadly consider their grave losses. In the three’s final reflection on the relationship between the warrior and farmer classes, they concede that though they have won the battle, they stand in isolation from the real winners and in absence of their friends with little to show for it. Here, Kurosawa composes another beautiful shot with his salient group shot of the seven samurai together, yet this time their ethos of group over individual is domineered by the illustrated separation of the living and the dead. In their last observance of the farmers, Kambei and Shichiroji accept defeat as the camera pans upwards towards the graves of their fallen comrades, staked with their respective swords. A short musical piece accompanies the camera’s pan, focus on the graves, and grim fade to black, a musical piece so short that exudes the feel of the abridged last part of the earlier played battle hymn. This is the undeniable results of the battle.  In this decisive scene, the dynamic between farmer and samurai is thrown into disarray once more. In fending off the bandits, the samurai also proved that they could guide a chaotic and disorderly group of villagers with proper leadership, associate with them as fellow human beings through bonds of camaraderie and romance, and even co-inhabit the same homeland to certain degrees. Ambitiously, it could be believed then that the surviving samurai could assimilate their own lives into the village, perhaps even becoming the village leaders themselves. Yet, as Kambei specifically depicts, he is far too steeped in the samurai way, and it has become his nature to resent the villagers. Through this attempt at restoring the samurai obligation of protecting something, in which he substituted his lord with the village of farmers, Kambei realizes that though applicable, this is nothing in essence similar to the traditional duties of the samurai. And this is obvious in his last words, in which he says, “The winners are those farmers. Not us.” This is a clear indication that Kambei has re-interpreted the original battle of farmer and samurai versus bandit into a three-way struggle of farmer versus bandit versus samurai, in which the farmer has conspicuously won. Yet the complexity of the samurai’s affiliation with the farmer does not end there. Despite their previous relationship of cordiality, the samurai cannot co-exist with the villagers. It is apparent already as the remaining samurai stand detached and distant from the farmers in the closing scene, gesturing a much desiderated departure. However, while their social classes have overly influenced their own individualities and identities, we know from the psyche of Kambei that if he were asked to help again, he would have to acquiesce, for it is these experiences that have changed him into the reluctant hero. This is his new way of the samurai. Japanese director Takashi Miike analyzes the samurai class in a very similar light in his film 13 Assassins. In the narrative of 13 Assassins, a decorated samurai of the former shogun, Shimada Shinzaemon, is hired to carry out the assassination of the sadistic younger brother of the current Shogun, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu, who rapes and kills on whim and is prone to ascend high positions of power. Contrary to Seven Samurai’s setting in the Warring States Period of Japan, 13 Assassins is set in mid-nineteenth century Japan during a time of peace. However, the key connecting component is that it is in this time when the final years of samurai power are passing. As such, the characters, in the face of diversity, wager their samurai way of life in an all-out suicide mission representing a greater cause. Shinzaemon recruits twelve other skilled samurai as companions and executes his mission in a process very similar to that of Kambei’s. In viewing Seven Samurai and 13 Assassins from a chronological standpoint, it is ever apparent that there has been a clear development in the samurai. While the samurai of 13 Assassins still hold identical virtues in high regard, such as an unrelenting readiness for death and a vehement practice of swordsmanship, their societal role has irrevocably shifted. Paralleling Kambei’s prestigious recruitment of samurai, Shinzaemon, who also gives the impression of a seasoned and war-weary samurai, wonders, “How many other true samurai are left?” as he selects comrades for his mission. The objective of the thirteen samurai assassins is itself a subject worthy of exploration. As opposed to Kambei’s duty of protecting, Shinzaemon’s undertaking is one of vengeful bloodshed. Indeed, things are very different between the two. Though revenge-driven, Shinzaemon’s mission is one carried out for the better good, in which it is society’s revenge he is enacting, not his own. Similar to Kambei’s group, Shinzaemon’s group wage their lives for a party and against an adversary they have no direct relation too. As Shinzaemon states, “Heaven’s will brought us together. The time has come to lay down your lives for the greater cause.” His words unite his faction of warriors as effectively as Kikuchiyo’s speech about the origin of the famers’ evil-doings does his own group, as both are calls to action invoked by social and personal obligation. From this viewpoint, 13 Assassins can be seen as a spiritual successor to Seven Samurai of sorts, in that it inherits the issue left behind in Seven Samurai and answers the question, “What happens to the master-less samurai? What was led to be true through Kambei’s story is verified, the ronin goes on to serve society without a master, only maintaining the identity of samurai by respectively maintaining his personal way of the samurai. Even then, 13 Assassins concludes with an equally burning point of contention. With his dying breath, Shinzaemon enlightens his nephew and fellow samurai one last time, “Being a samurai is a burden. Do what you want with your life.” Shinzaemon’s last words conjure a plethora of varied interpretations. After a war-weary life, his last accomplishment involves leading ten great samurai to their deaths and right before his own untimely death, his last words are critical of his life choices, yet absent of regret. Why is Kurosawa’s film titled Seven Samurai while Miike’s film is titled 13 Assassins? In Kurosawa’s work, six ronin and one warrior earn the title of samurai in persisting with their ideals and righting the wrongs of their occupation’s past. In Miike’s work, thirteen more adjusted ronin of a newer generation assume the visage of assassins to stay true to the last real ways of the samurai and correct the injustices their mores have caused before the era of the samurai truly dies. While labeled completely distinct roles, these characters are indubitably exemplifications of true samurai. Once more, the principle of the samurai is deconstructed without quite being debunked. (Miike)

Incidentally, during the climactic hour-long battle scene of 13 Assassins, Naritsugu himself, as he is being hunted down, claims that it is the most fun he has ever had and wonders if this was what it was like during the wars of the Sengoku period, ultimately resolving to bring back the age of war once he is inducted into the shogun’s council. This resolution evokes great dismay from his loyal subject and commanding defender, Hanbei, who is also an old sparring partner of Shinzaemon. Hanbei acts as an insightful foil character to Shinzaemon, particularly in which he is the last surviving of the two-hundred bodyguards and faces off against Shinzaemon one last time, to the death. Shinzaemon’s contrast with Hanbei has a strong relation to Kambei’s contrast to the leader of the bandits. In response to the changing times, Kambei relinquished many of his traditional values yet kept his samurai identity intact spiritually. Meanwhile, the bandit leader had since discarded any previous reputation, resigning to criminality in order to survive in a callous, changing world. This is notable when he kills two men from his own gang for fleeing and shoots one of the samurai, Kyuzo, in the back from the safeness of a hut, an act considered highly dishonorable. Artistically, the ronin was represented in two manners: the noble ronin who comes into town and uses his skills for good, and the corrupt scoundrel who rapes, steals and murders without compunction. (Rucka) It is clear who fits into which role here. As previously stated, Kurosawa does not choose to glorify the samurai in his film, but that does not prevent the film from being governed by the rules of the samurai world. So while Kambei is not exalted as the accomplished warrior symbolic of victory by the end of the film, in the battle between his army of seven samurai versus the bandit leader’s army of forty, he is the clear winner, in terms of the survival of his life as well as his values. Similarly in 13 Assassins, though Shinzaemon succumbs to death in the end, he remains victorious over both Hanbei and Naritsugu in that his ideals and resolutions stand triumphant. Externally, it seems that Hanbei is the more honorable of the two because of his unyielding loyalty to his master, one of the most respectable qualities in a samurai. But the aforementioned scene wherein Hanbei is aghast at his lord’s intentions to wreak war upon the nation makes clear that he has been affected by the changing times just as much as those samurai who no longer have a master. Hanbei faces and loses an internal struggle in which his individual conscience deviates from his social duty. For this reason, he falls to Shinzaemon’s sword. In his justification for his indomitable allegiance, Hanbei attempts to lesson Shinzaemon, “Ours is to obey our fate and die,” which is what fate ironically comes to pass for him.

In the words of Brian Eggert, from his article The Definitives – Seven Samurai (1954), Seven Samurai represents Kurosawa’s most optimistic inspection of humanity and individuality, two themes that twisted with increased cynicism as his career progressed. (Eggert) Kurosawa is ruthless in his portrayal of action, violence, and death in Seven Samurai, especially so in considering the period of the film’s release. But such is not the film’s main point of focus. Kurosawa’s eye-opening narrative complemented by his masterful cinematic innovations and techniques explore the societal role of the samurai pitted against his individualism, presented in a way that parallels an all-encompassing nature of society. Kurosawa’s deconstruction of the samurai in Seven Samurai set the stage for his own undertaking in proving the individual should not be an “instrument of society,” (Ebert) an endeavor that spanned the rest of his filmmaking career.

Works Cited

13 Assassins. Dir. Takashi Miike. Toho. 2010. Film.

Ebert, Roger. “The Seven Samurai Movie Review (1954).”  19 Aug 2001. 10 Apr 2013. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-seven-samurai-1954&gt;

Eggert, Brian. “The Definitives – Seven Samurai (1954).” 27 Mar 2008. 10 Apr 2013. <http://www.deepfocusreview.com/reviews/sevensamurai.asp&gt;.

Rucka, Nicholas. “Samurai Cinema 101.” Midnight Eye. 10 March 2004. 12 Apr 2013. <http://www.midnighteye.com/features/samurai-cinema-101/&gt;

Seven Samurai. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Toho. 1954. Film.

Sorachi Hideaki. “Gin Tama.” Weekly Shōnen Jump. 8 December 2003. Print

Wilson, William Scott. Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors. Black Belt Communications. 1982.

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