The Seven Samurai, Ranked

Movies Lists Akira Kurosawa
The Seven Samurai, Ranked

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is the blueprint to…well, too many films to list here. It’s not just a century-defining action film, setting in stone many archetypes that we still see today. It was a game-changer for Japanese cinema, the culmination of an expensive, lengthy and often challenged production that broke new ground for Kurosawa’s filmmaking. At 70 years old, it’s delightful that it still lives up to its reputation: It’s an intricate, entertaining and compelling historical epic of lone wolves in the tumultuous Sengoku period uniting to fend off a band of cruel bandits from a village on their last legs. But the collective strength of the samurai, plus the effectiveness of their combat instruction and battle tactics, are one thing—how do these formidable warriors rank against each other? We don’t care that they’ve all been committed to the cinematic canon for the best part of 70 years, it’s time to sort the gokenin from the hatamoto and rank the Seven Samurai.

Here are the Seven Samurai ranked:

7. Shichirōji (Daisuke Katô)

Listen, nobody’s saying that any of the Seven Samurai didn’t pull their weight, but in terms of leaving an impact on the audience, Shichirōji comes dead last. The only samurai with any pre-existing connection to other members, Shichirōji is easily convinced to join the campaign because it’s led by his old friend, Kambei. They used to serve the same lord and are thrilled to be reunited, mainly because Kambei thought Shichirōji dead when the lord’s castle burned down; Shichirōji took shelter in a ditch while the fortress collapsed around him. He’s a round-faced, bald and friendly warrior with years of experience under his belt, but only seems to survive until the very end because Kurosawa and his co-writers (Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni) forget to do anything with him throughout the film. Perhaps his and Kembai’s passive survival is part of the film’s commentary on the entrenched, biased protections of the samurai hierarchy.

6. Gorōbei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba)

This bearded strong man is the muscle of the group, and one of the first to be recruited. We get to see Kambei’s flawless recruitment strategy of inviting a samurai to their abode, trying to attack them with a branch, and judging their ability to deflect it. While the samurai have not been offered financial reward for their efforts, Gorōbei is moved by the plight of the farmers, and ultimately joins up because he likes Kambei’s vibe, and wants to be his friend. Unfortunately, he is killed off-screen as the bandits lay siege to the village, but not before he fires off some killer arrow shots.

5. Katsushirō Okamoto (Isao Kimura)

The young, headstrong Katsushirō is the original Kambei fanboy; the devotee chases after his soon-to-be master and emphasizes his adherence to the samurai code for most of Seven Samurai. Despite not impressing us with combat finesse, he’s a crucial lens into the commentary on Japanese feudal roles laced through the film. As Katsushirō falls for local village girl Shino (Keiko Tsushima), we see a growing disillusionment with the strict samurai code—but when he’s caught sleeping with her by Shino’s father Manzō (Kamatari Fujiwara), he doesn’t accept his perceived violation of trust and respect among the villagers, letting the other samurai make excuses for him. You get the sense that this failing is on Katsushirō’s mind for the rest of the film—there are blindspots to the power dynamics between serfs and samurai that undermine their commitment to protect the meek. Katsushirō is one of three samurai to survive the attacks, taking these uncomfortable lessons wherever he goes next.

4. Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki)

The first of the seven to be killed, Heihachi does a lot with a little before he’s shot in the chest during an early skirmish with the bandits at their encampment. Heihachi is dead broke when we meet him, happy to chop wood for food and upfront about his deficiency in skill. But his honest charm and good spirits keep everyone in a cheerful mood—he even designs the banner you can see on many custom Seven Samurai posters. As the villagers are being trained to ward off the bandits, Heihachi seems a little out of his depth—we see him unconvincingly argue that their enemies will be just as scared as them—but his likable, sincere personality also proves an asset. When the sensitive and hair-triggered farmer Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) lashes out at a joke being made about him getting married, it’s Heihachi who’s able to comfort him with the 16th century Japanese equivalent of a “bro out.” Fittingly, Heihachi is shot while saving Rikichi from the aflame bandit encampment.

3. Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi)

Undoubtedly the biggest badass on the team, the ronin Kyūzō best exemplifies the stoicism of the samurai mythos. He’s introduced dueling an inferior samurai for kicks, displaying a reluctance to kill his arrogant and foolhardy opponent, but does so anyway in quick, devastating blows. While initially showing reluctance, the stern, thin-faced Kyūzō sees the mission as an opportunity to perfect his skill against many new targets. He has several key moments in the extensive battles: He draws first blood against bandit scouts, and in the heat of battle he calmly ventures down a smoky path into enemy territory to retrieve a bandit musket, which prompts Katsushirō to enter full fanboy mode. It’s fitting that he dies by retrieving a musket’s bullet, one of two samurai felled by the bandit chief in the rain-and-mud-soaked last gasps of the battle.

2. Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura)

Takashi Shimura collaborated with Kurosawa some 21 times, and his role as samurai leader Kambei Shimada shows less of the frailty and vulnerability of his more well-known roles. Kambei is wise, decisive and a born leader—a key tactician for the battle against the bandits, able to wrangle disparate personalities under his mentorship. He’s aged but able; we meet him shaving his topknot to impersonate a monk in order to retrieve a baby hostage, and after the criminal stumbles out of his hut, he waits until his killer emerges with a bloodied sword before he’s allowed to keel over, dead—that’s the level of embodied control this ronin wields. There’s also no better actor than Shimura to portray the gradually diminishing surety the samurais feel about their mission—at the end, when over half his disciples have been slain, the enormity of the violence this class of noble, dictatorial warriors have performed alongside the bandits is obvious to Kambei.

1. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune)

When Kurosawa and his writers were planning their epic, they originally only wanted six samurai. They then realized that six characters with nearly identical codes and personalities was not conducive to genre-defining success, so Kurosawa recast Toshiro Mifune (he was originally going to play Kyūzō) as the wild card Kikuchiyo, encouraging him do improvise and do some real freak shit. As a result, Mifune is riffing on a sublime level, shifting between a hapless drunk and a dangerous tornado with maniacal, fearsome glee. But Kikuchiyo also unlocks the brunt of Seven Samurai’s class commentary; as a peasant who became a samurai, Kikuchiyo exists at a nebulous midpoint between samurai, villager and even bandit, truly loyal to no class and proving his battle prowess despite embodying fewer of the classic samurai values. When he dies, lurching at the bandit chief and killing them both in the process, his half-naked body lies limp in wet mud, expiring the moment that his exhausting and perilous mission has been completed, as if his samurai code has decided there is no more use for him. He also carries his lengthy sheathed sword like he’s in Final Fantasy VII and shows his ass for much of the battle. When six other samurai dare to do the same, then we’ll think about knocking him off the top spot.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin