Akira Kurosawa's original idea for the film was to make it about a day in the life of a samurai, beginning with him rising from bed, eat breakfast, go to his master's castle and ending with him making some mistake that required him to go home and kill himself to save face. Despite a good deal of research, he did not feel he had enough solid factual information to make the movie. He then pitched the idea of a film that would cover a series of five samurai battles, based on the lives of famous Japanese swordsmen. Hashimoto went off to write that script, but Kurosawa ultimately scrapped that idea as well, worrying that a film that was just "a series of climaxes" wouldn't work. Then, producer Sôjirô Motoki found, through historical research, that samurai in the "Warring States" period of Japanese history would often volunteer to stand guard at peasant villages overnight in exchange for food and lodging. Kurosawa then came across an anecdote about a village hiring samurai to protect them and decided to use that idea. Kurosawa wrote a complete dossier for each character with a speaking role. In it were details about what they wore, their favourite foods, their past history, their speaking habits, their reaction to battle and every other detail he could think of about them. No other Japanese director had ever done this before.
Often credited as the first modern action movie. Many now commonly used cinematographic and plot elements--such as slow motion for dramatic flair and the reluctant hero to name a couple--are seen for perhaps the first time. Other movies may have used them separately before, but Akira Kurosawa brought them all together.
The movie is set in 1586. We learn during the scroll scene that the real Kikuchiyo was born in year two of the Tensho era (1574) and she is now 13 years old. Japanese convention considered a child to be one year old when they were born and advanced their age one year each new year.
This was the first film on which Akira Kurosawa used multiple cameras, so he wouldn't interrupt the flow of the scenes and could edit the film as he pleased in post-production. He used the multiple-camera set-up on every subsequent film.
This film is often described as the greatest Japanese film ever made, including by well-known Japanese film historian Donald Richie and by "Entertainment Weekly", in its list of The 100 Greatest Films of All Time. Interestingly, despite its widespread commercial popularity, it was not particularly highly regarded by Japanese critics at the time of its release (the early 1950s is now regarded as a sort of Golden Age of Japanese cinema).
Early in the writing process, six of the samurai were conceptualized, all loosely based on historic figures. For example, Kyuzo was based on Miyamoto Musashi, one of the most famous samurai who ever lived. Originally Toshirô Mifune was meant to play Kyuzo, the extremely stoic master swordsman. However, Akira Kurosawa and his collaborating writers decided that they needed a character they could more identity with who wasn't a fully-fledged samurai, so Kikuchiyo was created. Since Kikuchiyo didn't have a historic basis, Mifune was allowed to do an unprecedented (for a Kurosawa film) amount of improvisation in the part.
Akira Kurosawa refused to shoot the peasant village at Toho Studios and had a complete set constructed at Tagata on the Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka. Although the studio protested the increased production costs, Kurosawa was adamant that "the quality of the set influences the quality of the actors' performances . . . For this reason, I have the sets made exactly like the real thing. It restricts the shooting but encourages that feeling of authenticity".
Toho pulled the plug on the project several times when it ran over budget, forcing Akira Kurosawa to go back and personally argue with the board of directors, which was convinced that Toho was making a flop.
Akira Kurosawa did not get along well with Yoshio Inaba (Gorobei), deriding him and yelling at him for most of the shoot. Although Inaba appeared in a minor role in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957), he apparently found the experience of shooting this film so stressful that he limited the amount of film work he did after it.
As the production process grew longer and longer, producers grew worried that Akira Kurosawa was spending too much on the film. As a result, production was closed down "at least twice." Instead of arguing, Kurosawa simply left to go fishing, believing that the studio had already invested so much money into the film that they wouldn't simply scrap it. He was right.
According to Yoshio Tsuchiya, for the scene where the samurai and the villagers burn down the bandits' hideout, the production had to have a fire truck standing by on-set in case of emergency, but all of the nearby fire trucks spent the day fighting actual fires. So the crew simply had to wait for a truck to arrive. In the interim, Akira Kurosawa and his crew sprayed gasoline around various part of the fortress set, in order to be sure it would burn thoroughly. When the time came to actually shoot the sequence, the fire started much faster and burned much hotter than expected, but the cast still had to work hard to get it done in one take. As Kurosawa shouted "Keep going!" off-camera, Tsuchiya had to approach the door of the fortress in an attempt to save his character's wife. As he did, the roof collapsed, and the rush of hot air severely burned his windpipe. Tsuchiya also noted that, by the end of the shoot, the fire had grown so hot that it burned the grass on the cliffs above the set. Kurosawa was apparently so stressed by the ordeal that he cried as firefighters extinguished the blaze.
Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni wrote the final script over 45 days, taking no phone calls or visitors, with few exceptions. The constant writing took a toll on their bodies and sickness was rampant in post-war Japan; at one time Kurosawa wound up in the hospital with roundworms.
Shortly before filming of the battle sequence began, heavy snow fell, which meant the crew had to water down the set in order to melt the snow. That, plus the scripted plan to shoot the sequence in a dramatic torrential downpour, meant that the cast was working in deep, thick mud. Because it was the dead of winter, the mud would often grow frozen, leaving the cast--in their period-accurate sandals--freezing as they tried to carry out the action. Akira Kurosawa himself, who stood in the mud with his actors, apparently grew so cold that he started to lose his toenails.
For the love scenes between Shino and Katsushiro, Akira Kurosawa wanted to achieve a "glittering" effect in Shino's eyes. To do this, he used angled mirrors on the ground to reflect light up onto her face. Because of constant retakes, Keiko Tsushima's eyes were ultimately injured by overexposure to the glaring light.
In recent decades, Yasujirô Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) and this film have consistently polled as the two greatest Japanese films ever made in both Japanese and foreign movie lists. However, the two master directors had radically different styles and approaches, were employed (for the most part) by different studios and thus worked with different crews. In fact, the only person associated with both films is the prolific character actor Eijirô Tôno, who played Numata, a drinking buddy of the elderly protagonist, in "Tokyo Story" and the desperate kidnapper whom Kambei confronts in this film.
Fumio Hayasaka composed several pieces for the film, but when he played them for Akira Kurosawa, the director rejected them. Desperate for something that would please the filmmaker, Hayasaka decided to play him a piece he'd composed and then discarded. Kurosawa liked it, and it ultimately became the "Samurai Theme," the most famous piece of music in the film.
Akira Kurosawa quickly earned a reputation with his crew as the "world's greatest editor" because of his practice of editing late at night during the shooting. He described this as a practical necessity that is incomprehensible to most directors, who on major production spent at least several months with their editors assembling and cutting the film after shooting is completed.
The film's final battle scene, originally scheduled to be shot at the end of summer, was shot in February in near-freezing temperatures. Toshirô Mifune later recalled that he had never been so cold in his life.
According to Shinobu Hashimoto, the film originally started with the same bandits attacking another village, and the ultimate opening shot was what happened after that attack. Akira Kurosawa decided to cut the attack sequence, believing an "unassuming" start was the best way to open the film.
For several scenes, particular the climactic battle, Akira Kurosawa knew there were pieces of action that he could only capture once. So, to maximize coverage of the action, he set up three different cameras at various points on the village set, and later cut the footage together to create a dynamic sequence of events. This, combined with telephoto lenses that allowed the cameras to zoom in on the action, created a revolutionary filmmaking style that Kurosawa continued to use throughout his career.
Seiji Miyaguchi wanted to turn down the role of Kyuzo, because he'd never done any movie swordplay before. Akira Kurosawa convinced him that he would make the sword scenes work through camera angles and editing, and Miyaguchi ultimately agreed to take the part. Shortly before shooting, he took a two-day "crash course" in swordplay, and by the end he was so exhausted he could barely move when photography actually began.
When reading the scroll Mifune presents the them, the other samurai laugh. Kikuchiyo is a girl's name made up of two parts, like Betty Sue in America. That's why the samurai laugh so hard at the name. Obviously Mifune's character is illiterate and can't read the scroll himself and it's a very subtle thing that the other samurai choose to tease him about the age and not about choosing a girl's name. The name translates out to a Thousand Generations of Chrysanthemums (Kiku = Chrysanthemum and Chiyo = one thousand generations.
For the scene in which Gisaku's mill is burned down by the bandits, the crew initially covered the mill in fabric in order to light it on fire without burning the entire structure, the theory being that they could then keep shooting at the location without destroying the mill. Ultimately, according to assistant art director Yoshirô Muraki, this made the set "soggy" and future takes only produced smoke, not fire. In the end, the mill was rebuilt and burned down three times in order to get all of the footage Akira Kurosawa needed.
As is revealed when examining the family tree, this film takes place during the Sengoku period. This was shortly before it became illegal for the peasant class to possess weapons, with the samurai class being allowed two swords. It was also during the period that Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the ruler of Japan (known as the "second unifier" who put an end to squabbles between lords) and responded to the growing influence of western missionaries by an ultimately ineffective effort to banish them from Japan. As the minor wars between the warlords had come to an end, many samurai lost their positions, with many of them becoming ronin / mercenaries, which was the lowest class of samurai. For the purposes of this story, we see a range of samurai from the lowest opportunist to the pure ascetic.
The character played by Toshirô Mifune has no name, and is given Kikuchiyo by his companions. In Yojimbo (1961) (also directed by Akira Kurosawa) his character has no name (the one he gives to the bandits is fake).
Tatsuya Nakadai: One of the samurai who is seen walking through the town. This uncredited bit part is the second known film appearance by Akira Kurosawa's regular, Nakadai, who would quickly become one of Japan's most accomplished actors. His active career continues more than 50 years after this film,/
Akira Kurosawa: [names] Kikuchiyo is a girl's name made up of two parts, like Betty Sue in America. That's why the samurai laugh so hard at the name. Obviously Toshirô Mifune's character is illiterate, and it's a very subtle thing that the other samurai choose to tease him about the age and not choosing a girl's name! Kiku translates to "chrysanthemum" and Chiyo to "1000 generations". This is in fact one of several occasions in which Mifune's character in a Kurosawa film has a name composed of a plant and a number of years.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
After Shichiroji agrees to join the samurai, Kambei, in a camera close-up, says to him, "Maybe we die this time." The picture than shifts to show Shichiroji, with Katsushiro standing behind him. Kambei, Shichiroji, and Katsushiro are the only three samurai to survive.
None of the seven samurai are bested in sword-fights, archery or spear-fighting by the bandits. All of the four samurai who are killed in the film are shot by a musket. The only one of the seven who fires a musket in return is Kikuchiyo, who is not technically a samurai and doesn't kill anyone with the shot.
The only three samurai survivors--Shichiroji, Katsushiro and Kambei--were the first three title character actors to die in real life: Daisuke Katô; (Shichiroji) died in 1975, Isao Kimura (Katsushiro) in 1981 and Takashi Shimura (Kambei) in 1982. Minoru Chiaki, who played Heihachi, the first Samurai killed, was the last of the title character actors to die in real life (1999).