Justice in an Unjust World

Why 'Seven Samurai' Is More Relevant than Ever

big_SevenSamurai(This article contains major spoilers.)

Gangs of armed guerillas roam the countryside, terrorizing villages, stealing the year’s crops, kidnapping women for sex slaves, and slaughtering anyone who stands in their way. Is this a scene out of an old Japanese movie set in the 1500s or a news report from a small African nation from last month? It is both.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a news report about the atrocities committed by rebels against the inhabitants of the Central African Republic (CAR). It said, “The Central African Republic is all but lawless, with just 200 police to guard 4.6m people from rebel gangs who attack women, kill men and recruit children at will. Despite repeated warnings, the international community has done little.” Gangs of armed men go into villages, steal whatever they want, including the children and the bodies of women, and they kill whomever they want. The ordinary people have no recourse. There is no defense and no justice.

Not a day later, I went to a historic theater and watched a historic Japanese movie, made in 1954, which told exactly the same story. Only in this story, a small group of people said, “Leave this village alone,” and made it happen, laying down their lives in the process. “Seven Samurai,” by Akira Kurosawa, has gone down in history as one of the most influential movies of all time, and perhaps never has it been more relevant than now.

Akira Kurosawa is still remembered, like his most famous movie, as one of the most influential moviemakers in history (for instance, two of his comic peasant characters from “The Hidden Fortress” were the inspiration for George Lucas’ C-3PO and R2-D2). Though it was made by the Japanese, for the Japanese, in the Japanese language, “Seven Samurai” is by no means inaccessible to the average American. It’s a suspenseful action movie with a lot of humor, a lot of tragedy, and a little romance, skillfully made by a master craftsman.

It opens with a bang worthy of modern blockbusters: bandits thundering over a hill on horseback and scoping out a village they want to attack. In a few lines of dialogue, we understand a whole sweep of backstory: They attacked this village last harvest and took all the farmers’ rice, and now they only need to wait a short while for the barley harvest so they can take that, too. When they thunder away, we find out that one of the villagers (Bokuzen Hidari) has overheard the plans, and are hit with both pathos and humor: We feel for the terrified farmer, but we can tell that much of the comedy in this deadly serious movie is going to come from this poor little man named Yohei and the ways he manages to contort his face.

And then instantly we are drawn into the heart of the story, the villagers’ despair. “Is there no god to protect us?” they wail. Though we tend to think of the Japanese as calm, dignified, and stoic, this movie reveals a willingness to be utterly abandoned in grief. It could be a silent movie, and we would know precisely what is going on. Instantly we identify with the farmers and are eager to see what will happen to them.

The wise old elder of the village declares that they will hire samurai to protect them, but will be able to pay them nothing but their food. Their first attempts to find a samurai willing to do such a ridiculous thing as defend an ignoble village for nothing but rice end humorously badly, for what noble, swaggering samurai knight would demean himself to fight for a village of peasants? But in time they find one, and with one good man on their side, others are drawn to their quixotic cause.

The one good man is Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), a ronin (a wandering samurai without a liege lord) whose air of grave wisdom has come from being on the losing side of too many battles, but whose ready humor has prevented him from growing bitter. It is because of this combination of wisdom and humor that he manages to accumulate a group of seven to help this village of peasants.

There’s his old friend Shichiroji, who joins just to be with him; round-faced, pleasant Gorobei, whose skill as an archer is matched only by his skill as a strategist and leader; laughing Heihachi, who joins just for the fun of it, though he’d rather chop wood than fight; Kyuzo, a quiet, dangerous master swordsman who only lives to increase his skill; Katsushiro, a teenaged boy from a samurai family who falls into hero worship for both Kambei and Kyuzo and longs to do great deeds; and Kikuchiyo, a slightly insane wannabe samurai, mercurial, bombastic, and ultimately deeply sad. By the end, four of them will be dead, all to defend one village.

Kurosawa builds his movie skillfully, weaving humor and suspense into every scene. It is three-and-a-half hours long, because he takes time to tell the tale—not just rushing from action scene to action scene with a couple of conversations thrown in, but letting us get acquainted with the characters, the situation, the landscape, and how Kambei’s battle strategy plays out. The movie is remarkable not for its depiction of 16th-century Japanese warfare but for its seven powerful men who choose to defend a group of people who can bring them no honor, no fame, no wealth, nothing but bare sustenance.

One of them tells the villagers, “This is the nature of war: By protecting others, you save yourself.” When a person begins by saying, “This is the nature of war,” we expect him to end with some justification for the violent, ghastly deeds of lawless men, like the Latin saying from a similar period in Roman history, “Inter arma enim silent leges,” or “In times of war, the law falls silent.” Instead, this samurai’s statement is a recognition of an idea stated by a very different historical figure: “No man is an island, entire of itself. . . . Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” (John Donne, “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions,” 1624).

Though perhaps no one will ever know it, the seven samurai bring themselves honor by recognizing that a little village of nobodies is worth protecting from oppression and injustice. In the end, as one of the surviving samurai says, “The victory belongs to those peasants and not to us.” And that, surely, is sufficient reason, for though they may be vastly different classes, samurai and peasants, both of them are part of each other, involved in mankind.

The question is, will anyone be a Kambei Shimada for CAR? Or is it something that only happens in movies?

Image copyright Toho International.

Christy McDougall is a Web developer, writer, and aspiring missionary with bachelor's and master's degrees in Christian theology.

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There's a story that the writer was a descendant of Samurai who conceived of the movie as an atonement for his ancestor's atrocities.