Not only the best samurai movies, but one of the best movies ever made. 207 minutes and there is not one dull second in the whole thing. It is an action movie, but is also so much more than that. In the first two hours there is very little sword play, but there is a great look at the lives of the ronin and the farmers and what their role was, and should be in Japanese society.
The story takes place in the 16th century and opens in a village that has been victimized by periodic raids from a gang of bandits. The farmers, lead by Rikichi decide that they must do something to improve their lives, and decide to go in to the town and hire some samurai, who will hopefully work for food. At this time there were many ronin (masterless samurai) around, brought about by economic and political conditions. The villagers ultimately find one sympathetic samurai, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), and with his help soon recruit five more. There is also one more samurai, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) who follows the group back to the village.
The movie is divided up in to three parts. the early village scenes and the recruiting of the samurai, the preparations of the samurai and the villagers for the fore-coming bandits attack and the attack itself.
There have been many movies, including quite a few by Akira Kurosawa, that have examined the relationship between the samurai and their masters. Should the samurai totally subjugate their own desires and wishes on the whims of their masters? Japanese culture said yes. The individual should do what is best for society, and the sharply defined classes decided who would ultimately make those decisions.
In this movie Kurosawa was really looking at was the relationship between the samurai and the villagers. These are classes that normally would not interact. But the economic times had thrown them together. And in to this mix we have, Kikuchiyo, a farmer who is pretending to be a samurai with a made up pedigree. Should an individual be allowed to move out of his class and make a new life for himself? This was a question that many in 1954 postwar Japan were beginning to ask, and Kurosawa was one of the ones leading the way.
When the samurai's find out about Kikuchiyo lowly origins, they still accept him, but with reservations. When they make up their banner, there are six circles and one triangle. Kikuchiyo is a man without a class. The triangle can represent the different groups he was, or wanted to be, a part of.
The movie also looks at this situation with the developing romance between young, naive samurai Katsushiro and and village girl. Should this romance be allowed? What is more important: the wishes and happiness of individuals or the rules and conventions of society? Before the World War, Katsushiro may have been considered a traitor to his class, but at this time in history, Kurosawa could be begin to explore the dynamics of society's rules and individuals desires.
In the third part of the movie, the harvest is in, and the bandits will be returning. The samurai organize the farmers so they can defend themselves. The bandits are back and the samurai are ready. They kill two scouts and capture another who is soon killed by the farmers. Three of the samurai then go off to the bandits' camp to help even the odds. One of the samurai is shot, and now they are down to six. Then the bandits attack.
There are some of the best battle sequences ever filmed as the samurai and the farmers fight off the bandits. When the battle is over the division between the farmers and samurai appears again. A group united by war is divided again when the war ends and it is left to the few remaining samurai to decide if it was all worth it.
A wonderful movie that works on so many levels. It was a great action adventure movie and a great character study. It was also a very powerful examination and indictment of the class system in Japanese society. Coming off the tragedy of World War II it was a very powerful exploration of how Japan got in to the situation it which it found itself in 1954, and a questioning of where Japanese society should go from there.