Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Humanity of Kurosawa: The Social and Moral Dilemmas of Seven Samurai and Kagemusha

The Social and Moral Dilemmas of Seven Samurai and Kagemusha is an essay that I submitted as an assignment for the Framing Film module of my first year of Film and Screen Studies. Ultimately, it was awarded a first.

The Social and Moral Dilemmas of Seven Samurai

Using Seven Samurai (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1954) and Kagemusha (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan, USA, 1980) this essay will evaluate the thesis that Akira Kurosawa’s films explore social and moral dilemmas, and show his: ‘concern for humanistic values that reflect psychological truths about people’ (Gazetas 2000: 166).

One of the most obvious social and moral dilemmas in Seven Samurai is one that was faced by the majority of Samurai who were Ronin (masterless samurai) in sixteenth century Japan. Bushido: the ideology of the samurai: ‘elevates the samurai to quasi-aristocracy’ (Silver 2005: 22); therefore, doing anything other than being employed in a clan was seen as a major social and moral disgrace. 

As the first samurai that Kanbê (Takashi Shimura) tries to recruit points out, the idea of being recruited by peasant farmers and without making a profit is: “Preposterous! I can do better that.” For many samurai the prospect of death through Seppuku (suicide through self-disembowelment) was deemed a far better fate.

However, Kanbê is a samurai who has moral beliefs that are bigger than his obligation to Bushido, as the shaving of his head illustrates: ‘a samurai top knot is a key badge of his samurai status and to have it shaved off is a sign of disgrace’ (Kemp 1999). 

Kanbê does this, regardless of the social disgrace it will bring him, in order to masquerade as a priest to rescue a young child from a thief. He exhibits very much the same attitude towards the peasant farmers who want his help. However, he is, initially, reluctant to help because he will need to find six additional samurai who will only get: “food and keep, and the fun of it.” Not exactly the best incentive for a samurai with a strong sense of pride in his place in the caste system. 

His negative demeanour towards the prospect goes a long way in showing how few samurai would share his moral attitude towards helping peasants. What, ultimately, wins Kanbê over is the exclamation that the peasants: “are giving you all they have.” This inspires a different sense of honour in Kanbê and it is one of sacrifice. All Kanbê has, in the world, is his status of being a samurai warrior but, as with the rescue of the young child, he is willing to go on sacrificing that status simply because the farmers, likewise, are willing to sacrifice everything they have.

Now that Kanbê is masterless, this sense of “sacrifice” and helping the oppressed is the only way for him to obtain a fulfilling purpose for his skills and his life. Indeed, as Kanbê warns his young student Katsushirô (Isao Kimura) “Look at my grey hair, what there is of it. I’ve got nothing out of fighting; I’m alone in the world.” There is silence as the other samurai listen to this because they understand exactly what Kanbê is talking about, even if Katsushirô, as yet, doesn’t. 

The other samurai all share something of Kanbê’s moral attitude towards the farmers. Yet one gets the sense that each of these masterless samurai have agreed to do this less through helping the oppressed farmers and more at the prospect of being, once again, a part of a clan: “for the fun of it”. They are doing this for individual purpose and the sense of belonging somewhere:

‘Those who want to see Seven Samurai as social epic in the Soviet manner (the “Soviet manner” of the 1930’s) have excellent reason for doing so. The picture is about groups of people and their social actions. But to see it only as a Russian-style social epic is both to ignore the ending (something no Russian in the 1930’s would have filmed) and to neglect the fact that the film is not only about people – it is also, and mainly, about persons’ (Richie 1984: 99).

The occupation of Japan, following the end of World War II, set in motion a transformation of Japanese culture, which consisted of: ‘the elimination of Japanese militarism and ultranationalism; the fostering of basic human rights including freedom of speech, assembly, and religion’ (Yoshimoto 2000: 222). 

Therefore, the fostering of the individual person over that of ultranationalism was something that would have been very prevalent in the minds’ of the people of Japan; including Kurosawa’s: “I, Kurosawa, live in modern society. Thus it is normal that my “historical” films contain “modern” dimensions” (Cardullo, interview with Kurosawa 2008: 25). 

It is through the character of Kikuchiyo (Toshirō Mifune) that this presence of change finds its strongest manifestation. Revealed as the son of a farmer, Kikuchiyo is now masquerading as a samurai after his village was pillaged and his family murdered: “This baby… it’s me! This is what happened to me!” he exclaims to Kanbê after rescuing a child from a burning mill. 

Much like Japan, due to a state of war, Kikuchiyo has changed himself from one way of life to another. Also, being a symbolic hybrid of two of the main groups of the film: the farmers and the samurai, Kurosawa presents in Kikuchiyo a very modern interpretation of an individual. 

The type of person, in fact, that had been fostered in Japan over the previous years: someone who was not constrained by class or caste and free to determine their own decisions and course of life. But most importantly Kikuchiyo is someone, like Kurosawa, who is not afraid to point out, while looking point blank into camera, what he sees as the faults of humanity:

‘This is Kurosawa, the descendant of samurai, making a public apology for the misdeeds of his cast. And it’s not just ancient history he’s talking about either – the cruelty and gratuitous violence practiced by the Japanese military regime before and during World War II was founded on a perverted, debased version of Bushido. The rape pillage and murder that Kikuchiyo denounces were being perpetrated in the name of the samurai ideal, only ten years before Seven Samurai was made’ (Kemp 1999).

Kikuchiyo’s presence is an apology but also a plea for humanity to acknowledge and stand up to its faults: “the world will not change unless we steadily change human nature itself and our very way of thinking. We have to exorcise the essential or primordial evil in human beings” (Cardullo, interview with Kurosawa 2008: 24-5). Furthermore, Kurosawa shows in his films the dangers of deluding oneself and the damage that ignoring the truths of reality can bring upon a person. 

Kurosawa’s films: ‘deal directly with the difficulty of separating one’s dreams from reality. All of Kurosawa’s heroes become preoccupied with differentiating illusion from reality when faced with moral choices for action, to illustrate the basic theme of self-deception’ (Gazetas 2000: 164). To Illustrate, the ending of Seven Samurai shows the truth of what, ultimately, the “sacrifices” of the farmers and the samurai have brought both the groups. 

With the farmers the sacrificing of their rice has reaped only reward – they are now free to live peaceful and productive lives. Whereas, the “sacrifices” of the samurai has produced anything but – standing at the bottom of the hill, where four of his comrades now rest, Kanbê laments: “We’ve lost yet again. With this land the farmers are the victors… not us.” Through his helping of the oppressed Kanbê had: ‘become human enough to confuse ends and means and forget that everything is means and that there is no end. The true wisdom (cold, comfortless) would have been to enjoy the “fun” while he had it’ (Richie 1984: 103). 

Indeed, it is a cold truth to admit to, Kanbê and the rest of the samurai would have been better off sacrificing their self-deception, in order to realize the reality: ‘that being is the sole end, and that becoming turns into snare and delusion if looked for, hoped for’ (ibid 103). This need, Kurosawa asserts, for humanity to be able sacrifice self-deception for reality is something which forms the central thesis and is played out in much darker territory in Kagemusha.

The genesis for Kagemusha came while Kurosawa was researching the clan wars of the Sengoku Jidai period in sixteenth century Japan: “I grew very interested in the battle of Nagashimo, which remains a question mark in history. No one has satisfactory explained why all the taisho of the Takeda clan should have died, while not one of the Oda or Tokugawa clans did” (Cardullo interview with Kurosawa 2008: 28). 

Kagemusha deals with Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), the war lord of the Takeda clan, who confuses his enemies by having a double. His brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is his initial double because he bears a striking resemblance towards Shingen. However, Nobukado discovers another man who bears an even stronger resemblance. This other man, a thief, (also played by Tatsuya Nakadai) is the Kagemusha or the shadow warrior.

The plot revolves around this Kagemusha having to fully take on the role of the war lord after Shingen dies. The key theme to note here is that the Kagemusha does not just go on to imitate Shingen he literally becomes him: ‘The thief loses his identity as he tries to remold himself into the image of Shingen. During this process of transformation, he seems to identity himself completely with the late lord and lose his original identity’ (Yoshimoto 2000: 348-49).

The Kagemusha’s grasp of Shingen’s identity, or rather Shingen’s grasp of the Kagemusha, is so strong that it not only fools Shingen’s own people, but even manages to fool those closest to him, i.e. his grandson and his mistresses.

In Kagemusha, Kurosawa makes reality and illusion appear to be the same thing: ‘Kurosawa is distinguished from other Japanese directors for his assertion of the principle of individualism. Yet in Kagemusha an autonomous individual does not seem to exist’ (ibid 348-49). 

The individual, in Kagemusha then, is an illusion: “I had to consider how this man could become so immersed in the character of Shingen that he would actually “become” him. I decided that it must be because of the strength of Shingen’s own character” (Cardullo interview with Kurosawa 2008: 28). 

The reality then is that the individual’s sense of identity is washed over by the intoxicating dominance that the power of the ruler, Shingen, exhibits: “Then I conjectured that the taisho who died in battle must also have been charmed or enchanted by Shingen. 

In effect, they committed suicide at Nagashimo: that is, they martyred themselves for Shingen. They must have been in love with him, as it were” (Kurosawa 2008: 28). Indeed, as Nobukado comments about Shingen: “He stepped straight into the hearts of others.” In short, the line dividing reality from illusion becomes very murky, indeed, when the power the ruler exhibits is strong enough to engulf and corrupt this distinction:

Kagemusha highlights the ambivalent interaction of reality and image by refusing to reduce the relationship of Shingen and the thief to that of original and copy. Whenever the original and the copy are ready to be absorbed into a binary schema, Kurosawa introduces a third term to problematize that specular relationship’ (Yoshimoto 2000: 350).

Kagemusha then is an even stronger endorsement for the preservation of the self, than that of Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s message is clear: you cannot let the influence of your rulers be so strong that it leads you astray from your own sense and reality of individual identity. Therefore, in Kagemusha: ‘Kurosawa’s construction of personality, which once embodied the optimism of the postwar years, collided with the institutional nature of political and economic power in the modern world’ (Prince 1991: 274). 

Kagemusha is Kurosawa’s updated view of the individual and a warning on how the modern world is threatening it.

Existentialism: ‘a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will’ (Oxford), clearly, must have been a strong driving force in Kurosawa’s personal life for it to keep cropping up in his films. 

It is through this constant inclusion and examination of existentialism that Kurosawa possesses a: ‘concern for humanistic values that reflect psychological truths about people’ (Gazetas 2000: 166) become very apparent: 

“I suppose all my films have a common theme. If I think about it though, the only theme I can think of is really a question: Why can’t people be happier together?” (Richie interview with Kurosawa 1984: 229).

The inclusion of social and moral dilemmas in Kurosawa’s films is what he uses to illustrate why he thinks people can not be happy together. Whether these social and moral dilemmas be concerned with caste systems, hypnotic rulers or perverted ideologies etc, they are there to illustrate to Kurosawa’s audience the problems of humanity - in the hope that maybe he can inspire his audience to change humanity for the better:

‘His period dramas, for example, each have a contemporary significance, and, like his modern films, they are typified by a strong compassion for their characters, a deep but unsentimental, almost brusque humanism that mitigates the violence that surrounds them, and an abiding concern for the ambiguities of human existence’ (Cardullo 2008: 1).

Kurosawa was somebody who truly understood what it meant to be an individual and the value of individuality. It is Kurosawa’s constant preoccupation with existential exploration in his subject matter that allows his films to speak to each and every individual of his audience. It was this ability which assisted in his crossing of cultures and his films to be understood and enjoyed in the west, as well as their native east: 

‘Kurosawa could be called 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’ (Cardullo 2008: 1). 

Furthermore, the textual and formalistic richness of Kurosawa’s films inspire unending discussions and interpretations. However, one has to be very careful in this respect because Kurosawa was a man who had repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction over what he deemed as false ideas that had been read from his films: “I have never read a review of a film of mine which did not read false meanings into it” (Richie interview with Kurosawa 1984: 214). 

Even in the readings of his films Kurosawa had a strong distinction as to what was actually there in reality and what was merely being inferred by self-deception. However, whatever are, in fact, Kurosawa’s intended readings for Seven Samurai and Kagemusha one thing is certain: ‘Kurosawa is an extraordinarily complicated person’ (Richie 1984: 227) and it is only appropriate that his films and their messages about the rest of humanity should follow suit.


Gazetas, Aristides (2000) ‘Postwar Japanese Cinema: 1950-1990’, in An Introduction to World Cinema. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers pp161-170.

Silver, Alain. The Samurai Film. Expanded and Revised Edition. New York: The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc, 2005, p.22.

Richie, Donald with additional material by Mellen, Joan. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Revised Edition. London: University of California Press Ltd, 1984.

Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema. USA: Duke University Press, 2000.

Cardullo, Bert ed. Out of Asia: The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Abbas Kiraostami, and Zhang Yimou: Essays and Interviews. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.

Prince, Stephen. The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Revised and Expanded Edition. Pinceton: Princeton University Press, 1991, p.274.

Oxford Dictionaries [Online] Available from: [Accessed 07.04.2011].


Seven Samurai (film); Akira Kurosawa. 162 minutes. Japan: Toho Company, 1954.

Kagemusha (film); Akira Kurosawa. 180 minutes. Japan, USA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Toho Company, Kurosawa Production Co, 1980.

Video Essay for Seven Samurai (DVD); Philip Kemp. 19 minutes. UK: British Film Institute (1999).

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