The great German composer Richard Strauss was conducting his three-hour-plus Der Rosenkavalier when—or so the story goes—he turned to his concertmaster and said, “My, this is a long opera.”
“But maestro,” the man replied, aghast, “you wrote it.”
“Yes,” the imperturbable Strauss answered, “but I never thought I’d have to conduct it.”
In artistic matters, as in everything else, length is relative. Clocking in at three hours and twenty-seven minutes, Seven Samurai was to be the most popular—and longest—film of director Akira Kurosawa’s extensive career, but that didn’t stop it from making people uneasy. In fact, Toho Studios cut fifty minutes before so much as showing the film to American distributors, fearful that no Westerner would have the stamina for its original length. And the New York Times’s august Bosley Crowther did contend that “it is much too long for comfort or for the story it has to tell.” Yet, paradoxically, more than any other kind of cinema, long films done right have the potential to envelop you completely in character and experience.
The longest hit film since 1939’s three-hour-and-forty-two-minute Gone with the Wind, Seven Samurai came by its length honestly. The script took six intense weeks to write, with the screenwriters—Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni—forbidden visitors and even phone calls for the duration. Preproduction lasted three months, and the film’s 148 shooting days were spread out over an entire year, four times the span that was originally budgeted.
Unlike the often self-indulgent long films of today’s Hollywood auteurs, Seven Samurai uses its length creatively, not merely to burnish egos. Confident of his powers and not in any kind of a rush, Kurosawa proceeds like a master chef, allowing his ingredients to simmer and become tastier, tastier, and tastier still. And this particular story, the tale of a group of masterless samurai coming together to defend a village of farmers against the depredations of roving bandits, seems to demand just that kind of treatment.
Seven Samurai unrolls naturally and pleasurably, like a beautiful scroll or valuable rug, luxuriating in its elongation—it takes an entire hour just for the basic task of choosing the titular seven. Rather than try to ignore time, the film emphasizes its passage, underlining key scenes with a quiet but insistent drumbeat that could almost be a clock ticking off the inexorable seconds.
The film’s length works in its favor in ways both big and small: It allows the samurai leader, whose head is shaved in an opening scene, to gradually grow his hair back. It allows the eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers, as well as the villagers’ martial confidence, to grow believably over time. It also allows us to observe each of Seven Samurai’s many characters in the round, from every angle, to view them as individuals with their own backstories, philosophies, martial arts skills, and reasons for being there. We get to know them naturally, the way we get to know our friends: by putting in the time. We get to experience the emotional arc of the youngest samurai and to understand where the fury of Toshiro Mifune’s ragtag battler Kikuchiyo comes from. When the bandits finally do attack, our hearts are in our throats—we know the defenders so well, and we can sense that not everyone will survive.
The passage of time has one final advantage: it reflects the entirety of the agricultural year, from planting to gorgeous blossoming to harvesting. That’s critical, because the film’s final object is to reinforce the endurance of this kind of life, its toils and struggles. “In the end, we’ve lost this battle too,” one of the survivors says. “The victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.” By showing us nature’s passage as well, Kurosawa ensures that this message comes through loud and clear.
Kenneth Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times and national public radio’s morning edition. his latest books are Never Coming to a Theater Near You and Now in Theaters Everywhere. This piece was originally published in the Criterion Collection’s 2006 edition of Seven Samurai.