Friday Night at the Movies: Seven Samurai

This review by James-Michael Smith, originally published at The Examiner, examines The Seven Samurai.
In 1954 the late Japanese director Akira Kurosawa made a film that would go on to become the most critically-acclaimed film in all of Japanese cinema history–and one of the most acclaimed worldwide as well. That movie was called “Shichinin no Samurai” (“The Seven Samurai”).
It was the story of a group of 7 masterless samurai who agreed to help defend a farming village from bandits for nothing more than food and lodging in return. The film would go one to influence western film and even generate remakes, such as “The Magnificent Seven” starring Steve McQueen and Yul Brennar.
In the film the 7 samurai all have differing personalities, strengths and mannerisms and the movie follows their develpment from 7 lone warriors into solidified team who are willing to give their lives to protect the often ungrateful villagers.

This theme stuck out in my mind because I’ve always been fascinated with the parallels between the samurai and the Christian Disciple (which you can read more about here). In this case, the parallel is to that of ministry in general. 
Like the 7 samurai in the film, people in ministry often find themselves committing to seemingly hopeless situations (“Make disciples of ALL nations??”)…
working side by side with others they barely know (think how Jesus’ first followers must have felt–a tax collector and a zealot in the same small group?!?)…
and often serving some who share the villagers sense of ingratitude or even hostility (“This is MY church, so you’re gonna need MY support if you want anything to get done here.”).
Of course, this is not always the case and the rewards often far outweigh the difficulties. But as I watch the 7 in their pledge to protect the village and train up the villagers to fight alongside them, I can’t help but see 7 ministers pledging to serve and equip the Body of Christ to fight the powers of darkness and expand God’s kingdom. Looking at it this way definitely helps to keep me focused on the overall big picture when I’m tempted to get bogged down or discouraged by the details or the mundane aspects of ministry. 
But there is another theme in Kurosawa’s movie which I resonated with immediately; one that is more personal.  In the movie, the 7 are led by a samurai named Kambei and his second-in-command, Gorobei. The others all have their roles and differing skill sets which all work toward the common goal. Even the seemingly-useless or crazy among them, Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo, play vital roles on the team. However, there is one among them who I always related to more than the others–Kyuzo (the one on the far right in the picture up top). 
Kyuzo initially refused to join the group’s cause. He was only concerned with bettering himself as a swordsman and testing his skill against the best in the land. Anyone who knew me in college before I decided to go into ministry can see this parallel!  I never wanted to committ to a church or ministry. Rather, I wanted to study and sharpen my theological/apologetic skill by engaging the best thinkers and influencers who challenged the Christian faith.
However, Kyuzo eventually accepts the mission and joins the team. Sometime during the year between college and Seminary, I finally decided to commit myself to the ministry. It wasn’t a precise moment I can look back on; rather, it was a gradual desire that arose from somewhere within me and which I knew was God’s leading. 
Kyuzo has two other characteristics that I identify with–one negative and one positive. On the negative end, he is often stoic and withdrawn from the others, choosing to observe rather than initiate. This is a personality trait that is shared by the men in my family.  At times both my Father and I have been told we come across as too serious or disengaged, often withdrawing into our heads (fortunately, we’ve had my Mom to help snap us out when needed!).  I’ve done much better at this over the past few years, but my first few years in ministry, right out of college, were often quite Kyuzoesque–neglecting the personal or emotional aspects of ministry in favor of sharpening my skills through books, debates, seminars, open-air preaching, etc. 
On the positive end, though, Kyuzo’s greatest contribution to the team is the fact that he HAS trained so hard and IS a skilled swordsman!  He is not the leader of the team–and he prefers it this way.  However, when it comes time to train the villagers to handle the sword, Kyuzo is the one to whom they look.  I felt this way in my most recent role as a Pastor of Discipleship.  God placed me in a position of leadership, but beneath other leaders to whom I was accountable and whom I was to obey when it came to ministry-related decisions.  And like Kyuzo, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  I know that I am no Kambei or Gorobei. My place seems to be with the villagers, teaching them to wield the sword, battle the enemy, to defend and eventually train those less equipped.  I’ve been called to help make those beside whom I serve better each day as well by sharing what I have learned from the Kyuzos in my life. 
In the end, Kyuzo is not among the surviving samurai.  He dies defending the village.  In fact, the very last scene of the movie shows him and the others who have fallen with him buried with their swords standing over their graves.  I don’t know when my time will come, but I can’t think of a better depiction of the legacy I hope to leave behind for the next generation of Disciples.
“Well done, good and faithful servant.” 
And interestingly enough, the word “samurai” literally means “one who serves.”
Other recommended Kurosawa films for those interested in his work:  “Rashomon” (1950), “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), “Yojimbo” (1961), “Sanjuro” (1962), “Kagemusha” (1980), “Ran” (1985), and “Dreams” (1990).
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  • Rick Presley

    Nice Review. I heartily agree that it is probably one of the finest movies made, followed in close succession by its clones, Samurai 7 (Japanese anime 12 episode series), The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein’s Score really makes this a classic unsurpassed in the genre), and A Bug’s Life. Avoid at all costs the clone Battle Beyond the Stars with Robert Vaugh reprising the Kyuzo role from TMS.
    I would also recommend checking out Sanjuro and Yojimbo, both excellent Kurosawa films along with their Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood clones.
    Lots of ministry fuel in those too.

  • Bill

    I would recommend The Bad Sleep Well, released in 1960, which is Kurosawa’s treatment of the Hamlet story. The commentary about corporate power and greed is priceless if not prescient. The beauty of Japanese films, at least on the part of Kurasawa, is that there is no necessary or usual happy ending which compels much thought and conversation after the movie.

  • Peggy

    I have also resonated greatly with samurai themes … and The Last Samurai is full of potent imagery concerning what it means to have a liege lord, something Christians could brush up on.
    I have heard so much about this film, I can’t believe I have never seen it. I’ll have to remedy that one of these days.
    Thanks for sharing this.