Seven Samurai

By Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1987. Revised and corrected by the author, Dec. 11, 2017.
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson

Seven Samurai

One of the most respected of Japanese films is Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 historical adventure film, SEVEN SAMURAI. A superb cinematic achievement in many ways, its affecting storyline and dynamic action sequences did not forsake Kurosawa’s penchant for delicate beauty and profound characterization.

As a director noted for both his visual storytelling insight and his penchant for appealing entertainment without forsaking true artistry, Akira Kurosawa in many ways introduced Western audiences to the rich wealth of Japanese cinema, as his films, while faithful to their Asian origins, were nonetheless accessible to Western viewers through Kurosawa’s remarkably engaging directorial style. As Ephraim Katz wrote in The Film Encyclopedia, “Kurosawa is a man of all genres, all periods, and all places, bridging in his work the traditional and the modern, the old and the new, the cultures of the East and the West. His period dramas have a contemporary significance and like his modern themes they are typified by a compassion for their characters, a deep humanism that mitigates the violence that often surrounds them, and a concern for the ambiguities of human existence.”

All of these elements come to a peak in SEVEN SAMURAI. The film, released in 1954 and, as is so often the case, unfairly truncated by studio editors [it has since been restored to near-original length], has gone on to become one of the most popular and successful of all Japanese films – a triumph of Kurosawa’s artistry as well as his unfailing sense of directorial timing, humor and nuance of character. The Americanized version of 1960, John Sturges’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, transformed the story to the American West; and though an effective and successful film, it lacked the simplistic nuances of character and relation that Kurosawa so brilliantly invested.

Gavin Lambert, writing in Sight and Sound, commented on SEVEN SAMURAI that “it is as sheer narrative, rich in imagery, incisiveness and sharp observation that it makes its strongest impact.” Donald Ritchie, in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, declared SEVEN SAMURAI “not only Kurosawa’s most vital picture, it is also perhaps the best Japanese film ever made.” Reviewer John Simon wrote that “This, on the surface, is a work of relentless, unmitigated action, as epic as any film ever made, and, again on the surface, sheer entertainment. Yet it is also an unquestionable triumph of art.”

Such a film surely called for a strongly supportive score, and composer Fumio Hayasaka provided a fitting and highly memorable one that accentuated both the spectacular action and the humanistic insight of Kurosawa’s film. By the 1940’s Fumio Hayasaka had gained a reputation as a major composer for Japanese cinema, maintaining a regular association with Kurosawa from DRUNKEN ANGEL in 1948 until the composer’s death in 1955 while working on RECORD OF A LIVING BEING. Composer Masaru Sato, Hayasaka’s protégé, completed that score and went on to replace Hayasaka as Kurosawa’s regular composer for many years. Among Hayasaka’s other notable film scores are RASHOMON (1950, for Kurosawa), and UGETSU (1953, for Kenji Mizoguchi). SEVEN SAMURAI, however, remains perhaps his best and most approachable score, rife with themes and diverse styles.

The SEVEN SAMURAI score is very much a leitmotif film score, relying heavily on individual themes for individual characters or groups of characters. In this sense it reflects much more of a Western approach to scoring than a traditional Japanese one and matches the directorial style of Kurosawa in its accessibility to Western audiences. The music, orchestrated for Hayasaka by Masaru Sato, is heavy with primal, organic colors of woodwind, brass, and percussion; the only strings in the score consist of a solo cello, first heard in a poignant, somewhat austere arrangement that plays the samurai theme early in the film once their number has reached six and they prepare to journey to the farmer’s village; and during the love scene, wherein an acoustic guitar plays a tenuous during the scenes with the impetuous young lovers. Otherwise, the music takes on a hard edge, appropriate to the earthy visuals of forests, horse’s hoofbeats, clashing steel and drenching rain. There is little warmth in the score, except for the love theme, which itself is fairly superficial, as is the brief relationship between Katsushiro and Shino; the lack of a string section in the orchestra gives the sound a more earthy timbre.

Starring Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, SEVEN SAMURAI tells the story of a farmers’ village under repeated yearly attacks by bandits. Unwilling to see their crops stolen and their lives lost another year, the farmers, under the guidance of their village elder, known as the Grandad, decide to hire samurai swordsmen to protect them and kill the bandits when they return at harvest time. Through the leadership of Kambei, a strong samurai who takes up their cause, a close-knit group of seven willing samurai take on the large group of forty bandits and eventually vanquish them, although not without the loss of four of their members. In the end, the farmers remain as the surviving samurai who walk off into the sunset. Kambei, tellingly, remarks at the end, “So. Again we are defeated… the farmers have won. Not us.”

Interestingly, there are seven major themes in the film – three primary motifs which represent the three main elements of the story (the Samurai, the Farmers, and the Bandits) and four motifs for individual characters or situations (Toshiro Mifune’s character of Kikuchiyo, the village elder and what he represents, the romance between the young samurai and the village girl, and the early scenes of the farmers seeking out samurai to help them.) In addition, there are four or five incidental compositions used in certain sequences which are unrelated to the rest of the score.

Seven Samurai

The first music heard in the film accompanies the stark black and white main titles – the deep percussion “chanting” of taiko drums which is the Bandits’ Theme. The music fades out as the credits end and the sound effects of galloping horses fills the soundtrack, their rumbling seeming to emanate from the same timorous chords as the rumbling percussion. The black screen brightens and the bandits appear on horseback, riding on a ridge overlooking the farmer’s village and agreeing to raid it at next harvest. The beaten percussion chant heralds their arrival and remains a motif for them when it recurs later.

This is the last time we will actually see the bandits until more than an hour into the film. At that time, their music will return as well. In the meantime, the story – and the score – concentrates on the farmers, their search and securing of the samurai, and the preparations for battle.

The farmers, aware of the bandits plan, confer with the Grandad, the village patriarch who recommends they hire samurai to defend them against the bandits. This scene – and all later sequences relating to the Grandad – is scored with the Elder’s Theme, a motif for low-throated, moaning men’s chorus, lending a stark mysticism to the dark scenes inside the Grandad’s hut.

This theme is later used not only for the village elder, but in the scene where the old woman is allowed to kill the captured bandit (enhanced there by an eerie solo flute) and as a counterpoint to the love theme when the young and shyly impulsive Katsushiro beds the farmer’s virginal daughter, Shino; its use there perhaps reflecting the contrast between reason and passion (as William Stout has pointed out in his liner notes to the 1984 Varese Sarabande CD release).

The motif, when used as the Elder’s Theme or that for the old woman, becomes a calming reassurance, its low, monotonous atonality lending a comforting steadiness to the farmers’ otherwise hysterical outbursts of emotion. In the scene with Shino and Katsushiro, it reflects the opposite — the giving in to passion in the face of reason.

A similar use of the motif in this sense occurs when one of the samurai upsets Rikichi, the farmer whose wife has been stolen by the bandits. When Rikichi runs off into a field of bamboo cane and the samurai later find the trampled evidence of his hysterical tantrum, the Elder’s Theme reflects Rikichi’s passionate fury. (An interesting scene involving Rikichi’s wife, now living with the bandits, occurs later in the film when the samurai go to burn the bandit’s hut and ambush them in an attempt to reduce their numbers. A woman inside the hut awakens and sees the smoke (we later learn she is the wife of Rikichi), but stifles her initial sense of alarm and with a sad smile she lays down and returns to sleep. The high lonely notes of a Noh flute, reflecting the traditional starkness of Japanese theatre, contrast with the rhythmic drums of the Bandit’s Theme to beautifully mirror her ambivalent resignation.

Fumio HayasakaImmediately following the first scene with the Grandad, the scene shifts to a busy village thoroughfare where a party of farmers has gone to solicit samurai for their cause. The music begins loudly, melodically, contrasting both instrumentally and harmonically with the stark lowness of the Grandad’s theme. This is the Searching for Samurai theme (some call it the Recruitment Theme), a playful woodwind-and-horn motif which accompanies the often-comical scenes of the farmers attempting to hire samurai with nothing more to offer them than a few simple meals. The 8-note horn theme, capped by a high 2-note flute response, is first heard as the farmers gaze at the bustling crowds in search of samurai to hire.

There are no dialog or sound effects in this initial segment, only the images of the meekly gazing farmers and the proud samurai passing among the crowds. The music carries the initial part of the scene until it jolts to a stop amid a clash of sound effect and screams — an angry samurai takes offense at one farmer’s solicitation and accosts him, berating him loudly. The music’s sudden end gives this confrontation a strong effect. The samurai storms past while the farmer grovels shamefully in the dirt. The Village Elder’s Theme emerges beneath the sound effects with its moaning chorus, a reassuring reminder of the farmers’ important quest.

The main theme, or Samurai Theme, for the film is the heroic march music which represents the seven samurai as a group, and is first heard accompanying the swordsmen on their trek to the farmers’ village. Interestingly, this theme is not used to underscore the battle scenes (which are left completely unscored) nor the triumphant victories of the seven, but is rather reserved to enliven the assembly of the Seven Samurai — musically linking them with a common, honorable bond — and to lend a sad poignancy to the scenes when one or more of them is slain in battle — musically suggesting a break in that bond. The theme, therefore, is related to the Seven as a whole, reflecting their mutual spirit and honor rather than acting purely functionally as adventure underscoring, which most of the other themes do.

The theme is usually played by trombones and trumpets in unison, with a solo clarinet playing a counter melody. “Saxes and pizzicato basses play against one another with the saxes on the strong beat while the pizzicato is heard on the 2nd and 4th beats of the measure,” wrote composer David Cosina on a post about the score on the Film Score Monthly online discussion board.

Japanese Writer Masaaki Tsuzuki, in an essay entitled “Working with Fumio Hayasaka” (originally published in Japanese in 1976 and more recently reprinted in English in Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa, James Goodwin, Ed., G.K. Hall & Co., 1994), shared an anecdote about the creation of the Samurai Theme from SEVEN SAMURAI, quoting Kurosawa: “I went to his house to hear the samurai theme. At that time Hayasaka had already written nearly twenty drafts in preparation. Then, one by one, he played them for me on the piano. None of them struck my fancy and as I cocked by head and grew quiet, he stood up and said ‘I’ve got this one as well,’ and he took a crumpled page out of the waste basket. He smoothed out the music paper, stretched it out, put it on the piano’s music stand and then he played me this melody. When I heard it I jumped up and screamed ‘This is it!’ without thinking. Then, when I said, ‘This! This! This is as heroic as the samurai and as sad and beautiful,’ Hayasaka faced the piano again and began to play different variations. Then the samurai theme was decided. In different scenes, this theme was developed variously and used a lot.”

The Samurai Theme is first heard when we meet the character of Kambei (Takashi Shimura), who will become their leader. After Kambei rescues an infant held hostage by a bandit the music quietly emerges; it’s a muted version for paired horns over throbbing piano which quietly suggests Kambei’s selfless heroism and reflects the admiration felt toward him by the farmers who follow him and try to enlist him in their cause. Significantly, this theme is strongly linked with Kambei’s character – since he is the one who attracts the seven swordsmen and holds them together, it is appropriate that the theme begins with him, as it ends with him (the final phrase immediately follows his culminating remark, “the farmers have won”).

During the several scenes showing the subordinate samurai training the farmers and readying them for the coming battle with the bandits, the farmer’s music is heard over these sequences; only when Kambei intervenes to berate the apathetic farmers and take a personal hand in their training is the Samurai Theme used here – further linking it with his character, just as his character inspires the farmers (as it has the other samurai). The Samurai Theme also contrasts with the “Searching for Samurai Theme,” as the two alternate against each other in the scenes of the formation of the group.

Among those moved by Kambei’s rescue of the child is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who, along with the farmers and a young samurai named Katsushiro, follows Kambei with hopes of becoming his pupil. Kikuchiyo is given a musical theme of his own which contrasts highly with the heroic honor of the Samurai Theme: Kikuchiyo’s Theme a comical jazz motif for baritone saxophone and mambo-styled bongos which perfectly fits the impulsive Kikuchiyo. The Theme “underlines the buffoonish antics of the character and his clumsy way about him,” wrote David Cosina. It’s a “descriptive and evocative portrait; it also shows the influence of jazz on Japanese composers in post-war Japan.” This theme will follow the character around providing a clever underscore and, occasionally, interacting with the Samurai Theme.

In this first scene noted above, when the swaggering Kikuchiyo barges in on the revering farmers and the shy Katsushiro, the Samurai Theme is supplanted by Kikuchiyo’s Theme. When Kambei challenges his insolent gaze, the music segues back to the Samurai Theme, a musical representation of Kambei’s having bested him in the stare-down. Kikuchiyo will henceforth remain subordinate to the humbly-dominant Kambei, as will his theme (although the two themes will continue to interact, particularly in the scenes when the allied Samurai journey to the farmer’s village, with the outcast Kikuchiyo following close by; here the two themes merge to form an interesting jazzy variation on the Samurai Theme — which continually and appropriately remains dominant).

Once Kikuchiyo has been accepted by the Samurai as their seventh member, his personal theme is infrequently used; the general Samurai Theme represents him as well. Only when his actions are impulsively his own and not that of the collective group (when he attempts to ride the unruly horse, when he leaves his post to sneak into the bandits’ camp and steal a gun in jealous imitation of Kyuzo) does his theme return to accompany his actions (because, in those instances, they are his actions and not those of the group, to which the Samurai Theme belongs).

Seven Samurai

When Fumio Hayasaka was scoring SEVEN SAMURAI, Akira Kurosawa told him that he wanted a mambo put under Mifune’s scenes. “If purely Japanese music had been used,” Kurosawa said, “I don’t think the young people would have felt what the character was like, how much he resembled them.” Hayasaka’s use of the modern-sounding baritone saxophone-and-cello jazz piece characterized Kikuchiyo perfectly, mirroring his mixed emotions of brazen impulsiveness and shy loneliness.

The Samurai Theme also becomes a funeral dirge when members of the samurai are killed in battle, at which time it is heard from a plaintive solo trumpet. The first of their group to die is Heihachi, the carefree swordsman enlisted by Gorobei who found him in the humbling position of chopping wood. The theme reflects the Samurai’s sadness at his passing, then turns hopeful as Kikuchiyo raises their banner from the roof of a village hut, reminding them of their cause and their unity, offering an encouragement them in the midst of their sorrow. The music fades out as the camera pans closely across the face of the banner — the quiet whipping of the flag in the strong wind lends the scene a strong impact, broken only by the chaotic horse hoofs of the bandits who begin their attack.

During the battle scenes, (which are all left unscored, the sounds of hooves, running feet, shouting voices, and pounding rain carrying the action at a brisk pace), the Samurai Theme is reprised only as a soliloquy for the deaths of Heihachi and Gorobei, as a stately tribute to Kyuzo when he returns from the bandit camp where he has stolen a rifle, and as the proud triumphant upsurge at the film’s very end.

The farmers are represented by traditional Japanese folk melodies, appropriate to their traditional and unchanging life style. This is the music first heard when the Samurai arrive on the hill overlooking the village. A quiet heraldic horn fanfare (segueing from the mingling of the Samurai Theme and Kikuchiyo’s Theme just heard) accompanies the first sighting of the village (reflecting the swordsmen’s mood as they finally arrive at their destination, tinged with an anxious excitement); then the Farmers’ Theme is heard from men’s chorus, a wordless vocal melody pleasantly quaint in folksy simplicity. It’s the perfect match for the farmers, both in terms of its traditional Japanese cultural roots, and, more so, in the subliminal simplicity of the theme which mirrors the simple life of the farmers — and contrasts with the harsh brutality of the bandits and their rough drum theme.

Significantly, the earlier scene from this same hill where the Samurai now stand was earlier scored with the Bandits’ Theme. In that introductory sequence, the bandits were the focal point and their theme dominated the scene. Now however, the farmers cause has been taken up by the Samurai, and so it is the farmers’ music which is heard as the Samurai arrive in the village they are to protect, and which will remain associated with them through to the end.***

The most dominant melodic treatment of the Farmers’ Theme is in choral song sung both during the harvest (not long before the bandits’ onslaught) and during the new planting at the end (after the bandits have been vanquished by the samurai). The rhythm is provided by shinobue flute over low piano and bamboo-stick drum beats; this is the characteristic instrumentation for the Farmer’s Theme, which provides a monotonously static rhythm for these scenes.

The Samurai’s Theme remains, as well (in fact, it overshadows the Farmer’s Theme at the end, interrupting and upstaging the Planting Music after Kambei’s final remark (“the farmers are the winners”) to conclude the film in an honorable upsurge of proud brass; but the Samurai Theme has changed, gone through variations and phases through the course of the film, as have the samurai themselves. The Farmer’s Theme, however, remains the same, unchanged as the farmers and their lifestyle.

Seven Samurai

There is one sequence in which the Farmer’s Theme does undergo a transformation, and this is after the plowing scene when the samurai inspect their preparations for defense. (This is the second such inspection scene; the first one, which occurs immediately after the sequence showing the Samurai’s arrival in the village and Kikuchiyo’s false alarm which brings the panic-stricken villagers out from hiding to meet their protectors. That scene is left unscored, and is highly effective for that reason. The silence, broken only by the sounds of voices, provides a striking peacefulness to the village and its surroundings, which makes the threat of the bandits all the more disturbing). During this scene, the Farmer’s Theme (using a different melody from the song heard during Harvest and Planting) begins during views of the farmer’s plowing in the fields, and soon grows into a jazzy rhythmic tune for baritone saxophone over quick, low woodwind bursts. It’s workmanlike music, accompanying the samurai’s inspection of the farmers at work on their defense. The modern theme contrasts nicely with the traditional music heard over the plowing – as the effort to defend against the bandits contrasts with the routine work of plowing.

The final theme of the seven is the Love Theme, which accompanies the impulsive romance of Katsushiro and Shino. This is a light, airy piece of music which has an intricate, complicated melody line  resonant more of the Eastern Mediterranean than the Orient (in fact, it slightly reminds one of Bernard Herrmann’s “Baghdad” cue from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD). We first hear the theme, swelling out of the Farmer’s Theme, when we are introduced to Shino, who is washing her long hair in a basin on the floor. The music adds a light beauty to Kurosawa’s image of her, seen from behind and clad in a white robe as she kneels over the wash basin, delicately strumming the water through her long dark hair. The music comes to an abrupt stop when Shino’s nervous father Manzo interrupts her, insisting her hair be cut like a man’s so that the “dangerous” samurai won’t try to force themselves onto her.

The theme is reprised, segueing out of a quiet guitar and piano melody, when Katsushiro leaves Kambei and the other samurai to pick flowers in the nearby woods. The music turns vaguely somber, acoustic guitar picks out tenuous arpeggios that exude out of a rustling bell tree, perhaps suggesting the young samurai’s emerging out of the forest into the glade where he comes upon Shino (who is also picking flowers, but dressed as a boy as her father mandated). The theme’s flute melody begins confidently as Katsushiro chases her, thinking her to be a boy who should be in training with the other farmers. The theme fades out as he wrestles Shino to the ground and learns to his embarrassment that the farmer boy is a girl.

As Katsushiro and Shino meet secretly in a later scene, obviously beginning an uncertain relationship, the theme returns, this time heard on a contemporary-sounding flute, unresolved and furtive. Still later, just before the return of the bandits, the Love Theme is given a similar traditional arrangement as the Farmer’s Theme as Katsushiro and Shino argue and she provocatively calls him a sissy. The music stops when sounds of the hoof beats are heard and the Bandit’s Theme supplants the Love Theme, as the arrival of bandit scouts intrudes on the lovers’ teasing quarrel.

A different love theme for modern acoustic guitar is heard after the third battle scene, as Katsushiro meets Shino by the campfire, and she lures him into an empty hut where their tryst is consummated. A modernistic flute takes the melody over the guitar, both instruments cycling through the same rhythmic, arpeggiated  figures, reflecting both the awkwardness of their first intimacy while conveying the sensuality of their intentions.

The music fades as the scene cuts to a conversation between the samurai, reprised on the guitar when the scene returns to the exterior of the darkened hut. Katsushiro emerges, a slow blissfulness to his movements. Shino’s father then enters the frame, facing Katsushiro who has not yet seen him – the Elder’s Theme accompanies his appearance, upstaging the Love Theme. When Shino exits the hut and sees her father standing there, the Elder’s Theme ends and the Love Theme continues impassively until Shino’s father grabs and begins to beat her. The Elder’s Theme returns as well when the commotion attracts other villagers and the samurai and what has happened is known to all.

The interplay of these two themes effectively counterpoints the giving in to passionate lust (the Love Theme) in the face of stolid reason (the Elder’s Theme). The whole scene ends on a note of irresolution – Shino, Katsushiro and Manzo frozen in a tableau of shamefaced discovery, the samurai standing around amid the villagers, trying alternately to console Katsushiro and to explain his actions to a very angry Manzo.

When we next see Shino, it is after the final battle, and she is in the field with the other farmers, taking her place in the planting. She glances up at Katsushiro and for a moment their eyes meet. Then she turns away and joins exuberantly in their planting song. Both the visual image and the Farmer’s Theme that she embraces reflect her being drawn back into the farmers’ lifestyle, and away from that of the samurai.

The final music heard in the film is that for the farmers and that for the samurai – and it is they alone who remain. The bandits have all been killed; the farmers continue life as before with their ongoing cycle of subsistence: planting and harvesting, freed from bandits’ annual raids. The samurai look back on the village, note their losses, and move on, their theme swelling up in a heroic climax as the camera rests to gaze upon the graves of the four samurai, and the brave farmers, who were killed in battle. The film fades out and the score concludes in a slowly-swelling upsurge of brass, a final tribute to the Seven Samurai.

Thanks to David J. Bondelevitch  properly identifying the instrument associated with Hayasaka’s theme for Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo character as a baritone saxophone, adding that the instrument is “part of the unique sound of the score.” And to Craig Lysy’s comprehensive review of the SEVEN SAMURAI score at moviemusicuk.us along with reader “Y.D.A.,” and to composer David Cosina for his Oct. 10, 2009 FSM Board post – all for assistance in identifying instruments used in specific themes in the score. – rdl 

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