Zach Macias’s review published on Letterboxd:
(Hello, Letterboxd. It's been a while, and I have some serious catching up to do, it seems.)
To this point, I have only had the chance to see two of Kurosawa's films, Rashomon and Ran, both of which were great movies in their own rights. It seems so strange to me that it would be so long before I would finally see Seven Samurai, one of Kurosawa's most famous and arguably most influential works (I won't say best because arguments could be made for any number of his films as his "best"). It has been hypothesized that this film is responsible for the birth of the team-assembled-to-carry-out-a-mission genre, one that many films can be traced back to, such as "The Dirty Dozen," "The Magnificent Seven," "A Bug's Life," and even the recent "The Avengers" contains elements borrowed from that genre archetype. If that is truly the case for Seven Samurai, then it stands not only as the film that first planted that flag, but also remains one of the very best in that genre ever made.
At 207 minutes, Seven Samurai is a long endeavor. To say that the viewer does not feel the film's length would be a misstatement, but when you see it, you understand why it needed to be that long. Where so many films such as this fail to properly develop each member of the cast, Kurosawa allows his audience to get to know each and every one of his story's major players. Their personalities become so sharply defined that we not only understand who they are as people, but why they are the way they are. There are a number of character "archetypes" on display here, from the wise veteran "leader," the young, idealistic "rookie," the taciturn, infinitely competent warrior with a secret soft spot, and the wildcard, loose-canon. These character types have become so common in their association with this particular genre, that I wonder if they also find their roots in this film.
For me, the most admirable performances come from Takashi Shimura as the noble leader Kambei, and, in particular, Toshiro Mifune as the wild Kikuchiyo. Subtle is not a word I would use to describe Mifune's portrayal; his character practically bounces off the walls in manic, clownish fervor, as Mifune is especially skilled at (one particularly memorable scene has him steal a villager's horse to show off, only to find himself bucked off and chasing after it), but over the course of the film, he reveals surprising depth of character that makes him one of the most compelling personalities to follow.
As I had discovered about Ran, Kurosawa has an incredible way with staging his action scenes. Rather than place his camera up close and personal to particular warriors, he prefers to stand back and view it from afar, observing the ebb and flow of the battle rather than a chaotic mis-mash of fast cuts and constantly-changing perspectives. It grants his war scenes a kind of beauty; we observe not only our main players in the midst of combat, but also the way their carefully-staged strategies play out and pay off. It also helps that Kurosawa gives us a helpful device to keep up with the action in the flag the samurai craft for themselves, where they keep tally of the men they've killed and the members they've lost themselves.
Seven Samurai is a great action film, but what's interesting about it is that the action takes up a small percentage of the film itself. Much of the film is spent in preparation for the battles with the bandits, which not only lays the groundwork for the audience to follow along with what's the come, but gives the film its proper time to invest in the lives of the characters involved. As has become a common trope within the genre, the two parties, the villagers and the samurai, are initially apprehensive to find themselves co-existing together, but over the course of the film, must learn to trust each other socially, so they may then trust each other with their lives. Why do the samurai willingly risk their lives for these people that hardly seem to deserve their talents? When all they can provide for them is shelter and food? For glory, reward? No, because it is simply their duty, as is the way of the samurai, and by the end, they walk away with no reward to count but their losses.