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October 2003: The Seven SamuraiAkira Kurosawa directed twenty-two black-and-white movies in twenty-two years (1943-65). The Japanese film industry then took a downturn. His attempt to work with Hollywood was a disaster and produced nothing after five wasted years. He made his final seven films in color over a period of twenty-three years (1970-93). I am going to consider some of the twenty-two films of Kurosawa's prolific period, starting with the most famous, The Seven Samurai, released in 1954. The running-time is three-and-a-half hours.
It is the early sixteenth century, and the country is in anarchy. Outlaw gangs plunder villages with impunity. As the movie opens, we see bandits on horseback stop at a bluff overlooking a village. Finding the barley is not ripe yet, they decide to come back later. They are overheard by a peasant.
The peasants huddle in the square, crying for their fate, for they are just helpless farmers. The bandits will take their food, rape their daughters. What can they do but submit and beg enough to live on? One intense, wild-eyed peasant, Rikichi, stands and says, "Let's make bamboo spears and kill the bandits!" which seems insane. So they file off to talk to the village patriarch, who lives in the mill on the other side of the creek. The patriarch says, "We'll fight!" When he was a lad, he says, all the villages were plundered by bandits except one. The one had hired samurai. How do you hire samurai when you have nothing to offer but rice? "Find hungry samurai!"
So four farmers go to town in the hope of hiring samurai. They hardly know how to approach such great personages, however, and make fools of themselves. Ten days pass. Time is running out till they witness an older samurai, Kambei, having his head shaved. Impersonating a Buddhist priest, he gains the confidence of a thief who is holding a little boy hostage, and subdues him.
Here we are introduced to a cocky young man with a sword who stares at Kambei rudely. This is Kikuchiyo, played by one of the greatest film actors of all time, Toshiro Mifune. Kambei is played by the great Takashi Shimura. The older man and the younger man were like father and son in real life, and Kurosawa paired them repeatedly in his prolific period.
The cocky Kikuchiyo has his opposite in another witness, a starry-eyed young samurai, Katsushiro, who is full of the idealism of the samurai code of honor. In awe of Kambei, he follows him on the road and begs to be his disciple. Kambei, a veteran of many wars, knows he is but an ordinary man and is made uncomfortable by such adulation. Kikuchiyo also accosts Kambei on the road but then doesn't know what to say. Kambei infuriates him by saying, "Are you really a samurai?" The farmers have been following all the while, and now Rikichi runs up and throws himself at Kambei's feet to tell his story.
At the farmers' poor lodging in town, Kambei and Katsushiro have heard the farmers' plea. When Kambei says he cannot do it and prepares to leave, they start to cry like babies. Poor people are so disgusting! A fellow-lodger, a gambler, pours scorn on them and says they are they even eat disgusting millet because it is the only way they can give the samurai rice. This decides Kambei. Holding up his bowl, he says, "Say no more. Your food will not go to waste." Two of the farmers return with the news, while Rikichi and Yohei remain to gather seven samurai. Yohei is something like the village idiota harmless, soft-spoken old man so gentle he couldn't hurt a fly, so timid he would be afraid of a mouse.
Gradually, a little band of six samurai is formed. Gorobei is picked out by Kambei by sight. Shichiroji is his old comrade, whom he meets by chance. Heihachi, an average swordsman but spunky, is discovered by Gorobei. Kyuzo was witnessed by Kambei and Katsushiro killing a man. He is the perfect embodiment of the samurai ideal and a master swordsman. His pride at first makes him decline, but then he quietly shows up at the lodge. The eager Katsushiro is turned down as being too young; but when the others plead for him, Kambei relents, so he is number six. They are going to forget the seventh.
However, the gambler reappears, saying he has found a samurai. It is Kikuchiyo, and he is falling-down drunk. It is an astonishing tragic/comic performance by Mifune, the first of many in this film. Recognizing Kambei, he fishes a scroll out of his clothing to prove he is a real samurai and points to a name. They have a big laugh when they see that the person indicated is only thirteen years old, but the name sticks, Kikuchiyo. They entertain themselves by playing pranks on him till he passes out.
In the morning the six head out on foot, led by Yohei and Rikichi. Meanwhile, at the village, beautiful Shino is washing her long hair when her father, Manzo, comes up with a razor in his hand. He is afraid she will be seduced by lusty samurai and orders her to impersonate a boy. This gets the whole village scared.
The six come to the same bluff where the bandits had stood before, overlooking the poor village from the east. Kikuchiyo, the would-be samurai, has tagged along after them the whole way, and his clowning has softened them to him somewhat. "So that's our castle," says Heihachi, his irony marking the social distance that is a major theme of this film. Kikuchiyo puts it more bluntly"I'd hate to die in a dung heap"to which Heihachi retorts, "We aren't asking you to."
The samurai go down to the village, but no one seems to be around. In fact, the main square is deserted and the houses are shut up. In embarrassment, Rikichi takes the six to see the old man ("He's granting us an audience. What an honor!" says Heihachi). The old man hangs his head. Farmers are so foolish! They have asked for help and now won't even show their faces. Their talk is interrupted by the sudden sound of the clapper bandits! In an instant, the square is streaming with panicked people crying, "Samurai, samurai!" Kambei tries to calm the crowd and find out who knows what but learns nothing until he asks, "Who sounded the alarm?" and Kikuchiyo pipes up, "I did!"
Kikuchiyo then gives a wonderful animated speech: "Don't be scared! No bandits are coming! Look, you idiots. We come all this way and then look at the welcome you give us! Yet when I knock on your alarm a few times, 'Samurai, samurai! Samurai, samurai!' You all rush out screaming for us to help you! Damn!" By this time, the old man has hobbled up. Kikuchiyo looks him straight in the eye and says, "Any objections, pops?" and the old man looks right back and says, "Nope." The ice is broken. Heihachi says, "I guess we're really seven now," and everyone has a laugh. Kikuchiyo is the link between the samurai and the farmers.
Rikichi gives the samurai his house, while he sleeps in the barn. When Kikuchiyo finds a woman's robe and says something about a wife, the wild-eyed man snatches it back, shouting, "I have no wife!"
Kambei, Gorobei, and Katsushiro circumnavigate the village following a hand-drawn map. In the west, Shichiroji's and his villagers are building a fence. The south is fields. After the harvest, they will dig a moat and flood the fields. The east is the bridge, which they will cut. This means evacuating the outlying houses, including the old man's mill. This is Kikuchiyo's sector, and we see him drilling some men. He has attracted a crowd of children, whom he entertains by mimicking Yohei. He notices that Yohei has a real spear. The north is charming wooded hills, "our weakest spot."
Katsushiro, lingering behind in the charming woods, runs across Shino dressed as a boy. He chases her and wrestles her to the ground, because all boys are supposed to be drillingtill his hand touches her chest and he is greatly embarrassed.
As the other samurai are making plans, Kikuchiyo comes in with a great cache of spears, armor, and other war gear that the farmers had hidden away. The company falls silent in outrage, for they know these were taken from samurai on the run. The tension becomes too much for Kikuchiyo, who tears away all pretence in a sort of fit that captures the total attention of everyone present:
What do you think farmers are? Saints? They are the most cunning and untrustworthy animals on earth. . . . They are full of lies. When they smell a battle they make themselves bamboo spears. And then they hunt. But they hunt the wounded and the defeated. Farmers are miserly, craven, mean, stupid, murderous! You make me laugh so hard I'm crying. But thenwho made animals out of them? You! You didyou samurai! All of you damned samurai! And each time you fight you burn villages, you destroy the fields, you rape the women and enslave the men. And you kill them when they resist. You hear meyou damned samurai!
He is sobbing hysterically as Kambei looks up and says, "You're a farmer's son, aren't you?" Kikuchiyo runs off in shame, but the air is cleared. That night, Kikuchiyo moves to the barn with Rikichi, saying it brings back old memories.
Next morning it is raining. The samurai are idle. Heihachi has made a flagsix circles and a triangle and the word FARM. He explains that the circles are the samurai and the triangle is Kikuchiyo! Katsushiro slips out unnoticed. Kyuzo, practicing his sword in the woods, sees Katsushiro with Shino. He has saved his rice as a gift for her, but she wishes to give it to "Kyuemon's granny," who has no one because her family has all been killed by the bandits. That evening the samurai go to see this woman, who is very wretched and says she wants to die but fears misery in the next world, too. Heihachi assures her that the next world is happy when Kikuchiyo, who has been pacing up and down and can stand it no longer, shouts, "How do you know? Ever been dead? . . . I hate all wretched people!"
A sunny day, the ripe barley waving in the breeze. Kambei reveals the plan to evacuate the outlying houses. At a town meeting in the square, they make plans to harvest in teams, however, the outliers mutiny, throwing down their spears. This is a crucial moment, and to rising music Kambei draws his sword and charges them. They scurry back into line, and he thunders: "There are only three houses beyond the bridge and there are twenty in the village. We cannot endanger twenty because of three. And if the village is destroyed, those three will not be safe anyway. War is like that. . . . The man who thinks only of himself, destroys himself. From now on such desertion will be punished." Kambei, his blood still up, thrusts his sword back into its scabbard.
Harvesting. Pretty girls, hitherto unseen. Mention of marriage again unsettles Rikichi, who runs off. As Shino watches Katsushiro, we see that love is on her mind, too. That night, Heihachi approaches Rikichi, but he won't open up. Kambei and Gorobei go out to check on the watch. They wonder to hear the sleeping Katsushiro moan "Shino," a woman's name, for Kyuzo has kept the secret. Kambei and Gorobei find Kikuchiyo fast asleep and surprise him to teach him a lesson.
The harvesting over, they dig the moat. Katsushiro boasts he will ride Yohei's plough-horse. He is of course bucked off, to everyone's delight. Kambei and Gorobei realize the farmers are starting to think the bandits are not coming.
In the woods, Shino offers herself to Katsushiro, but he doesn't know what to do, and she calls him a chicken. Suddenly, they hear horses neighing. Bandits! They creep up and see three horses tethered among the trees. The inexperienced Katsushiro runs breathlessly to town to report, alarming everyone. The samurai want to watch the bandit-scouts but remain unseen themselves. But when Kikuchiyo blunders in (naturally the last to know), the scouts can't be permitted to live. Those total opposites Kyuzo and Kikuchiyo work together perfectly, killing two and capturing the third. Back in town, the samurai try to protect the life of the prisoner from the vengeance of the farmers. This is their code, but when Kyuemon's granny staggers up with a mattock she can barely lift, they bow to the inevitable.
Based on information from the prisoner, the samurai decide to raid the bandits' fort. They leave in the middle of the night on horsebackKyuzo, Heihachi, and Kikuchiyo, with Rikichi as guidefor a dawn attack. Rikichi sets fire to the fort. As they peek through the cracks, they see one woman wake in terror but then smile strangely and wait. The bandits are smoked out. Those who are not killed escape to the other side of the creek, and gunshot is heard. The strange woman appears in the doorway. Rikichi exposes himself to gunfire, running up to her; but at the sight of him, she runs back into the flames. Heihachi tries to pull the hysterical Rikichi to safety when there is a gunshot and Heihachi falls! When Kikuchiyo demands, "Who was that woman?" Rikichi shrieks, "My wife!"
Back at the village, they have raised a mound over Heihachi. In their grief, samurai and farmers seem united for the first time. But Kikuchiyo, we know, hates this sort of thing, and he yells at them to stop crying. Then he knows what to do. He runs, grabs Heihachi's banner, and plants it on the roof. It flaps proudly in the breeze to trumpet theme. All the people stand to look, and at that moment, Kikuchiyo sees the bandits coming from the west. He jumps up and down in joy, and the men hurry to their posts. Kambei occupies the main square; Katsushiro is the runner; and Gorobei is Kambei's archer, going wherever he may be needed. Thirty-three bandits split up, ten to the south and twenty to the north. Kikuchiyo and his men are cutting the bridge. The old man's family hurries up the creek to the mill to get the old man, who has stubbornly refused to evacuate.
Some time later the mill bursts into flames; but when people cry at this loss, it is the former leader of the mutiny who yells, "Forget these worthless shacks! Back to your posts!" It is then realized, however, that the couple who went to get the old man never came back. Kikuchiyo charges up the stream with Kambei close behind and meets the woman, who hold out her baby for him to take before falling, speared. Kambei, takes the woman and orders Kikuchiyo to hurry, but he is paralyzed. Looking at the baby in his arms, he falls to his knees, sobbing, "This same thing happened to me! I was just like this baby!"
Night. Six more bandits are killed around the village, one of them by Yohei, of all people. Kambei expects the final attack to come in the morning from the north, where the bandits have regrouped and where he has left a deliberate gap. His plan is to let in one or two at a time (making a living wall of spears to keep the others out) and surround them in the village. Kyuzo volunteers to get one of their guns, and disappears up the trail.
Dawn. The fire has burnt out. Everyone is restless, worried about Kyuzo. They hear a sound and stare up the trail through the fog, trying to see. Then suddenly he is there, hands over a gun, says, "Killed two," and settles down for a nap. Katsushiro comes up to him, eyes gleaming, and says, "You are really great! I've always wanted to tell you that."
Time passes. Galloping hoof beats. Kyuzo wakes and runs in one moment. It has begun. Four bandits are let in and killed, then the attacks stop.
Katsushiro won't stop talking about Kyuzo, so Kikuchiyo decides to go capture a gun himself. He goes off, leaving Yohei in charge. Yohei, who just killed his first man, is now dressing in armor. We see him as the samurai-farmer and therefore like Kikuchiyo, between whom and himself there has grown up a great affection, like father and son. In the woods, Kikuchiyo sees two bandits shot by their own chief for trying to desert. He puts on their armor and by that means is able to approach another bandit and capture his gun. In contrast to Kyuzo's modest arrival, Kikuchiyo dashes headlong down the hill with the bandits in hot pursuit, whooping and firing his gun. He expects glory but instead gets a sharp reprimand for deserting his post.
Suddenly, there is a commotion in the village. Some bandits have got in somehow (because Kikuchiyo abandoned his post?). Thundering hoof beats. They intend to let no one in the gap, but with the help of their remaining gun and an archer, the bandits charge several men through. The archer takes his toll inside the village. A fierce battle, pounding hooves, flying dust, women attacking, screams of the dying. To Kikuchiyo's horror, Yohei is shot with an arrow and killed. The next moment, two shots ring out. Gorobei has fallen. Kikuchiyo falls to all fours, his body heaving with grief at this double loss. Perhaps he blames himself. This is a transforming moment for him, a hero is born.
Night. Morning will see the final battle, live or die. Grief-stricken, Kikuchiyo keeps vigil alone by Gorobei's grave. Katsushiro encounters beautiful Shino and follows her into a hut, where she throws herself at him in a paroxysm of passion: they may die tomorrow! The farmers have sake, and Kambei brings some to Kikuchiyo, who drinks ferociously. Manzo, whose turn has come to say goodbye to his loved ones, discovers Shino and Katsushiro leaving the hut. In a rage at her seduction, he catches her and beats her. Their secret is now out. She is whimpering on the ground. Manzo is inconsolable till Rikichi exclaims, "But they love each other! And she wasn't given to bandits!" We see the fire burning brightly and then doused in seconds with a sudden downpour. All quickly leave the square except Shino and Katsushiro.
Day. Still raining. Kambei tells Katsushiro, "Fight bravely, now you're a full-fledged man," making all the men laugh. Kikuchiyo is back. He sticks a whole bunch of swords in the dirt, to have them in readiness. And here they come. "Thirteen left! Let them all come in!" Confusion, mud, beating hooves, whinnying. Kikuchiyo fights like a demon. Kambei calmly looses arrows, the very vision of a master. Katsushiro, like Yohei, kills his first man.
The bandit chief with the one remaining gun takes cover in a house, terrorizing the women therein. Outside, Kyuzo fells the bandit captain; but then we hear a shot, and Kyuzo falls! With a gut-wrenching sob, Katsushiro runs to him, then slogs through the mud toward the house to avenge the murder of his hero. But Kikuchiyo intervenes, pushing the youth down and going in his stead. He takes a bullet in the stomach but kills his man before giving up the ghost. When Katsushiro realizes all the bandits are dead, he falls to his knees and sobs uncontrollably. Looking at his old comrade Shichiroji, Kambei says, "Again we've survived."
Day. Sunshine. A planting son, with drum and flute, Rikichi leading, while the women transplant rice seedlings and sing the responses. The intense Rikichi appears happy for the first time. Kambei, Shichiroji, and Katsushiro are watching from a distance. They walk and pause in front of the graves of their four comrades. A file of women passes, carrying baskets of seedlings. One is Shino, who pauses, embarrassed, then hurries on to join her fellows. Katsushiro looks after her. Each is in his own world again. Kambei looks at Shichiroji and says, "Defeated again." Shichiroji looks surprised. Kambei says, "The winners are those farmers, not us." The film closes on the graves, with the samurai theme.
InterpretationShichiroji has few lines in the movie, but his opening scene makes an indelible impression. Kambei, rejoicing to have found his old comrade-in-arms in town, asks simply, "Ready for another fight?"to which Shichiroji replies equally simply and seriously, "Yes." That is what it is like between these two: their bond is past the need for many words. "Maybe we die this time," says Kambei. Shichiroji smiles with a gleam in his eye. They both renounced their lives a long time ago. And at the end of the war with the bandits, it is to Shichiroji that Kambei confides his sudden insight, "Defeated again."
The whole relationship between farmers and samurai goes through several crises. The first is that the farmers fear their would-be saviors only a little less than they fear the bandits. Manzo typifies this jealous attitude as we see him with a razor to cut off his daughter's beautiful hairin contrast to the generous spirit in which Kambei cuts his topknot.
The second great crisis between samurai and farmers is the samurai's discovery that in this time of chaos, these farmers have not scrupled to hunt wounded samurai like game for the sake of their valuables. Heihachi says he'd like to kill every farmer in this village, and it looks as if nothing could remedy things; but Kikuchiyo's fit"Who made them that way? You did!"is incredibly moving and conveysto the samurai and to usthe desperation under which farmers live, how desperate they must have been to even thing of asking samurai for help, and how all-pervasive is the evil that perverts both classes from their true vocations.
The third great crisis between samurai and farmers is the near mutiny of those who live in the outlying houses, resolved by Kambei, who is magnificent. The arrival of the bandits ends such cross-purposes; but it at Heihachi's grave that we feel a bond is forged that transcends social classesuntil the end when, without knowing quite how it happened, samurai and farmers are in their own worlds again and the moral is pronounced by Kambei.
Kambei's personality is indeed the magnet that holds the seven samurai together. In his opening scene, we see him cut off his topknot, the symbol of his class, in order to save a boy. But he has no thought for the symbol: "If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way." Kambei renounced his life a long time ago, he exemplifies this freedom. Kyuzo plays perfection, and Kikuchiyo plays the fool; but Kambei does not play at all. He is natural, he has no pretences: And how can one live without pretences? To him, each day is new. Some little thing takes him unawares, and he smiles and rubs his head in embarrassment. His manners are sincere and not elaborate. He is the same with the great or with a poor village patriarch. He is a father to Katsushiro because that is what Katsushiro needs. He is masterful when the situation calls for it. He gives everyone what they need.
It speaks volumes about him, too, that the thing that decides him to undertake this job (for he is old) is the farmers' own sacrifice, eating millet. To him, all life is about sacrifice, and he bows to this spirit in them. It is not that he is great and is unconscious of his greatness. It is that he really is just an ordinary man who does great things. His power comes some higher place, not from himself. This is tremendously inspiring. Gorobei, Shichiroji, Kyuzo, and Katsushiro all join because of him. So does Kikuchiyo, for something about Kambei gets under his skin and makes him angry.
Kambei's character is also revealed in the way he handles the job of looking for samurai. He orders Katsushiro for his training to hide behind the door and clobber the candidate on the head with a big stick as he walks in. The first (nameless) samurai to undergo this test wrenches the stick away and sends Katsushiro sprawling. Katsushiro is tremendously impressed. When the samurai takes it in ill humor, Kambei apologizes for the rudeness, explains their need, and lets the samurai take an out ("My ambitions are a bit higher"). Then Kambei singles out Gorobei by his easy-going walk. Undergoing the same test, Gorobei pauses in front of the door and says, "No jokes please!" (And this, of course, sets up the comic denouement in which Kikuchiyo gets clobbered.)
The major theme is reinforced by several subthemes: the Rikichi subtheme, the Kikuchiyo subtheme (with Heihachi and Yohei), the Katsushiro-Shino subtheme, and the education-of-Katsushiro subtheme.
Forging a Unity
When the farmers are getting nowhere in their attempts to hire samurai, Rikichi and Manzo have a scrap, for Manzo wants to give up and bargain with the bandits. Their friends hold them back, but suddenly Rikichi stops struggling and, eyes shining, declares, "But what will you offer them? How about your daughter? Shino's pretty enough. It may work." This scene gains poignancy from the fact (which we learn later) that this is exactly what happened to Rikichi's wife.
Rikichi's furious reaction when Kikuchiyo finds a woman's garment in the house underscores the estrangement between samurai and farmers. The whole village, of course, knows the truth; but no one tells the samurai, not even Kikuchiyo, who bunks with Rikichi, for he is still an outsider. The village keeps this secret, just as they keep the secret of their hidden stores.
The village has been under the thumb of the bandits a long time. Kyuemon's granny is a reminder of its deep and lasting scars. Just as Rikichi lost his wife, so Kyuemon's granny lost her whole family and has no one to take care of her in her old age. Poor, diseased, and broken in spirit, she only longs for death. Heihachi tries to comfort her with cheap wordsthe afterlife is wonderfulbut Kikuchiyo rightly resents this from one who has led an easy life: "How do you know? Ever been dead?"
The two are frequently paired. Heihachi is Kikuchiyo's chief tormentor in the drunk scene and the first to miss him on the road. More poignantly, these two marked men have two exchanges on the subject of death. One has been mentioned. The other is when Heihachi tells Kikuchiyo no one's asking him to die on a dung heap.
In the raid on the fort, the Rikichi theme is brought to its climax. Heihachi gives his life saving Rikichi. Mad with grief, Rikichi reveals the secret of his wife. These two events go a way toward purging the estrangement between the two groups. At Heihachi's grave, Kikuchiyo (the link) impulsively plants Heihachi's flag (which the villagers have never seen) on the roof. Flapping in the breeze, it transforms the mood of united grief into united confidence. We can say Heihachi's role is, by giving his life for a farmer, to forge this unity.
Love and Death
Katsushiro's education at the hands of two opposites, Kyuzo and Kikuchiyo, is an important theme in the film. Kyuzo at first refuses Kambei's invitation: "He's only interested in perfecting his skill, so he refused." There is a hint of vanity, of being too good for this world. Just before, a fool boasted he had tied Kyuzo. Kyuzo could not let it pass and so provoked the fool into demanding a fight with bare blades, resulting in an unnecessary death.
To be sure, it was the fool's fault, but it is easy to imagine how Kambei in the same situation would have acted differently and avoided the tragic result. In his opening scene, Kambei discards appearances to save a life, and in the scene with the nameless samurai, he humbles himself, rather than provoke a fool. So Kyuzo is a bit lofty (his post is appropriately the hills), but he has a redeeming virtue: the fact that he thinks better of it and joins the group shows that he is aware of his shortcoming. He sees in Kambei a practice of the Way that transcends his own.
Katsushiro idolizes Kyuzo at first sight, while he shouts at Kikuchiyo at their first meeting. The ambush of the scouts pairs the two opposites, who work together silently and effectively, with Katsushiro looking on (the flowers tremble where he crouches). Later, there is a comic rivalry as Kikuchiyo goes on a gun-raid to prove to Katsushiro that he is just as good as Kyuzo.
Kikuchiyo is one whose whole life is bravado to cover terrible affliction. His affliction is that of the farmers, for he is one of them, and that's what makes him the link. (Appropriately, his post is the bridge.) When he falls to his knees looking at the baby in his arms and saying, "This is me!"it is an earth-shaking moment for him. In acknowledging his own helplessness, weeping for himself, he is doing something he has never done since he became a man. His transforming moment is Gorobei's death, following right on the heel of Yohei's. Whereas before, he could not abide being at Heihachi's grave, he spends the entire night before the final battle at the graves of Heihachi, Gorobei, and Yohei.
The Katsushiro-Shino love theme is regularly juxtaposed with the Kikuchiyo-Yohei themethe bond Kikuchiyo has formed with the funny old man, who is like the father Kikuchiyo never had. Katsushiro's first encounter with Shino coincides with the first scene between Kikuchiyo and Yohei, in which Kikuchiyo mimics the old man. Kikuchiyo's attempt to ride Yohei's horse is wittily juxtaposed with the scene in which we learn that Katsushiro doesn't know what to do with a woman.
On the night before the final battle, the Kikuchiyo theme (which we now see is about death) and the Katsushiro-Shino theme, which is about life and love, climax together. Katsushiro and Shino's night of passion is presented in short, alternating cuts with Kikuchiyo's final transformation from a peasant rogue with a stolen pedigree to a true samurai. Samurai and farmers are welded into a unit, burning with white-hot heat.
The transition to the next day is particularly affecting. We hear Shino's whimpers (Manza has beaten her in a passion) as we see the sudden pelting rain put the fire out. The people quickly scatter, Kambei last, leaving Shino and Katsushiro alone in the square.
The education-of-Katsushiro theme comes to its crisis when Kyuzo is killed. Katsushiro is mad with grief and will heedlessly hurl himself on the killer, but Kikuchiyo pushes the youngster down to protect him, goes in his stead, and gives his own life. For Katsushiro, this is the redeeming deed of a bad life. For Katsushiro it is a growing up. When Kambei says all the bandits are dead, Katushiro falls to his knees with horrendous sobs, pent up for days.
In the final scene, Rikichi sings and plays drum accompanied by his erstwhile rival Manzo on flute. Rikichi sings with gusto and has a big smile on his face. The women sing the responses and move in unison as they plant the rice-seedlings. They are survivors, they have suffered much, but the rhythmic life of the village helps them heal.
Without quite knowing how it happened, samurai and farmers are in their own worlds again. Shino's eyes meet Katsushiro's, and she almost loses her footing. She, too, feels the pain of this distance. Samurai and farmers died side by side. They shared the most profound feelings it is possible to share. But now it is like a dream. The village returns to its rhythmic life, and suddenly the samurai are looking in from the outside.
The bandits in the movie are just the bandits. They are nameless, featureless, storyless. They might as well be animals, and this necessarily shifts our focus to the human drama as it unfolds within the village. The external evil is only a proxy for the real evil that farmers and samurai have to overcomethe evils that sunder them and the evils of their individual weaknesses. And this is a spiritual triumph and redemption for the various characters.
Thus, Yohei overcomes his timidity and kills the enemy. Kyuzo overcomes his pride, and instead of winning worldly fame in matches, wins eternal fame in a dung-heap. Kikuchiyo overcomes a bad life and dies a hero. Katsushiro overcomes his superficial picture of what a samurai is and realizes he is not one yet. He and Shino both overcome their class differences to fall in love. Rikichi achieves catharsis in the tragedy of his wife and can be happy again. Heihachi overcomes the amused detachment with which he usually goes through life, and he gives 100%. Kambei overcomes his feeling of age to be an inspiring leader.
In the white heat of a crisis, two groups, at the top and bottom of the social ladder, form an unlikely alliance. They are hard-tried, and they triumph. Some higher spirit animates them, and something new is born. This something new transcends both their worlds, it is as big as humanity itself. No one is untouched.
But such profound upheavals cannot be the stuff of everyday life, and we wouldn't want them to be. For Katsuchiro and Shino to get married and all the surviving samurai and farmers to become "friends" and visit each other would not be a good ending. They don't want to live in each other's worlds. Each feels at home only in his own familiar world, even with its suffering. Indeed, wasn't it the purpose of this war to preserve the farmers' world for the farmers?
A tear-jerking farewell scene would be a possibility, and Kurosawa would have done it well; but he has given us something else. Nature parts samurai and farmers even before they part themselves. The villagers, except Shino, have turned to their labor and have already seemingly forgotten the samurai. They instinctively know that the things that have happened are too deep for words and must simply stand for themselves. No attempted gesture could suffice to express their feelings. Farmers don't feel comfortable with great things. They feel comfortable with little things, like seeds. So they revert to what they know, and there is an eloquence in that.
For the samurai, it is different. Each is alone, with his own burden, his own fate; and Kurosawa will not fail to give us a summing up. Kambei says to Shichiroji in words that echo their first conversation: "Again we've survived." Looking back and forth, in wonderment then a flash of understanding, he adds, "Defeated again." For winning is not what being a samurai is about. The graves of Heihachi, Gorobei, Kyuzo, and Kikuchiyo are outlined against the sky. The way of the samurai is sacrifice.
Thus, Kurosawa's protagonists, both samurai and farmers, heed the call of their own destiny and do not long to be other than they are. Even the young people bow to it, though they cannot conceal their pain. Still, what happened was a quiet revolution. Kambei, Shichiroji, and most of all Katsushiro will carry it in their hearts. Yohei will be a byword for bravery. Four samurai will abide here in the villagefour samurai who, driven by a great and mysterious spirit, died in a dung-heapgave their lives in a cause not their own.