Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE SEVEN SAMURAI [SHICHININ NO SAMURAI] – Fumio Hayasaka



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Groundbreaking Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was researching samurai lore for a planned film that would focus on a single day in a samurai’s life. He abandoned this idea when Toho Studio producer Sōjirō Motoki presented him with a tale, which intrigued him – aggrieved farmers hiring samurais to protect their village from bandits. He crafted a script with the assistance of Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, and secured Motoki’s blessings to proceed. This would mark Kurosawa’s first foray into a samurai film and he recruited a fine cast to realize his vision. He meticulously researched historical samurai to create identities for each of the seven. For his seven samurai he brought in Takashi Shimura as Kanbei Shimada, a war-weary ronin who leads the group; Yoshio Inaba as Gorōbei Katayama, a master archer and second in command; Daisuke Katō as Shichirōji, Shimada’s former lieutenant; Sejii Miyaguchi as Kyūzō, a skilled swordsman; Minoru Chiaki as the amiable Heihachi Hayashida; Isao Kimura as Katsushiro Okamoto, a young and untested warrior; and lastly Toshiro Mifune as the comic Kikuchiyo, a commoner pretending to be a samurai who eventually earns the right to be called one.

The story takes place in circa 1586 during the Sengoku Period of Japanese history and offers a classic morality play. Bandits threaten a village of farmers and plan to steal their harvest. Grandad, the village elder convinces the town folk to resist, and conceives of a plan to hire ronin (samurai with no allegiance) to defend the village. Shimada and his party of six agree to defend the village and take on the bandits, who number 40 and possess three guns. After a brutal battle Shimada triumphs, but with heavy loses as four of the seven are killed. In the judgment of movie critics and film historians, The Seven Samurai stands as Akira Kurosawa’s Magum Opus, a magnificent epic graced by timeless beauty, which is juxtaposed by violence as it explores the ambiguities of the human existence, and which proved to be the inspiration for numerous American remakes, most notably John Sturges’s 1960 classic The Magnificent Seven. On full display is the foundational ethos of Japanese culture – that action, not words, serves as the best and clearest manifestation of how one feels. The film was a stunning commercial success earning more than twice its production value. It also brought Kurosawa critical acclaim, earning two Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

Kurosawa’s natural choice for composer was trusted collaborator Fumio Hayasaka, who had served him well on several earlier films including Drunken Angel (1948), Rashomon (1950) and Ikuru (1952). Hayasaka was provided two months to compose his score and wrote nearly three and a half hours of music consisting of over three hundred cues with variations. Hayasaka grasped that Kurosawa’s storytelling with “The Seven Samurai” embraced the Japanese aesthetic known as mono no aware, which translates as “the pathos of things.” One immediately discerns how Hayasaka’s music enhances Kurosawa’s vision, channels this pathos through its support of character development, film narrative and pacing. Hayasaka was a self-taught musician whose style embraced a Western romanticism that incorporated traditional Japanese sensibilities. Most interesting was Hayasaka’s choice for instruments for the film. Embracing what Bernard Herrmann did with The Day The Earth Stood Still (1952), Hayasaka chose to omit the string section of the orchestra from his score, save a cello and acoustic guitar. He intuitively understood that he needed to shed the warmth and romance afforded by strings, instead speaking to the violence, which would unfold amidst nature’s beauty. Lastly, he infused his soundscape with a shinobue flute, Taiko drums, and other traditional Japanese instruments.

Hayasaka made two purposeful choices in fashioning his score, first that he would leave the battle scenes unscored, allowing the sounds of battle and nature to carry the film imagery, and second, that he would employ leitmotifs for his score. He composed three primary themes for the film including foremost, the Samurai Theme, which serves as the animating identity of Shimada personally, but also transpersonally of his samurai as a group. The minor modal theme is rendered in three forms; with triumphant fanfare, a confident march with heroic trumpet calls, and lastly, a sad, bittersweet rendering for scenes of grief and death. The Farmers Theme is quintessentially Japanese in its sensibilities; a simple folk melody emoted by wordless male chorus. The pastoral theme is rhythmic, animated by woodwinds, low register piano and bamboo stick percussion, and supports scenes where they are plowing, planting and harvesting. The Bandits Theme offers a study of minimalism. It emotes as a repeating drum rhythm with occasional stabs by low register strings, which disrupt its rhythmic flow – an allusion of the coming conflict to be faced by the village and their samurai defenders.

Four additional secondary themes were woven into the fabric of his score. The Elder’s Theme offers a mysterioso carried by wordless low register men’s chorus. It too has multiple expressions; on the personal level it supports his revered role as the aged village patriarch, while on the transpersonal level it is the embodiment of reason and wisdom. The Recruitment Theme is eight notes in construct and supports villager attempts to hire the samurai through offers of food. There is a comedic underpinning of this theme with its playful woodwinds and horns. Next is Kikuchiyo’s Theme, which serves as his identity and differs greatly from the score’s other themes. Kurosawa specifically asked Hayasaka to animate him with a Mamba, so as to make him more accessible and relatable to Japanese youth. And so the young Kikuchiyo is supported with a modern comic jazz vibe, carried by baritone saxophone, piccolo and bongos banging with the cadence of a mamba. Worth noting is that once he joins the group as its seventh member, his identity becomes one with the collective, animated by the Samurai Theme. His personal theme thereafter only resurfaces when he is acting independently from the group. Lastly, we have the Love Theme, which underpins the romance between Katsushiro and Shino. It is gentle with a lightness of being, that at first takes one by surprise as it emotes not with oriental sensibilities, but instead with the exotic colors of the Levant. Tragically “The Seven Samurai” has come to be known as Hayasaka’s cinematic requiem as he would die just a year later at the young age of 41 from tuberculosis.

“Titles” opens the film with the Toho studio logo and supports the roll of the opening credits. Hayasaka offers us an unsettling extended rendering of the percussive Bandit’s Theme, a repeating drum rhythm with occasional stabs by low register strings, which disrupt its rhythmic flow – an allusion of the coming conflict to be faced by the village and their samurai defenders. As the music ends we experience a horde of mounted bandits carried by the thunderous hoof falls of their horses. While perched on a hill over-looking the village they resolve to raid the village during the harvest and then ride off. In “To the Little Watermill” the desperate villagers seek out the wise counsel of the village elder. As they walk to his hut their progress is carried by the Elder’s Theme’s chanting by wordless, low register men’s chorus. Hayasaka provides both reverence and mystery to support the scene. The Elder persuades the villagers to resist the bandits by hiring samurai to defend the village. “Samurai Search” reveals several samurai walking through the village streets. The Recruitment Theme with its confident and somewhat comedic 8 note march-like cadence of woodwinds and horns contrasts with the Elder’s Theme as the villagers seek out possible samurai to hire. A harsh rebuff to a villager’s solicitation by a samurai severs the music dramatically.

“Kanbei & Katsushiro” offers a nice thematic contrast. In the scene, Kanbei has rescued a young boy and slain his captor. Hayasaka scores the aftermath and supports Kanbei’s departure with an extended rendering of the proud march-like cadence of the Samurai Theme. His noble deed has earned the admiration of Katsushiro who follows him, and then begs for Kanbei to take him on as a disciple. Kanbei agrees and they continue on together carried by the proud Samurai Theme. At 1:55 we segue into the Kikuchiyo’s Theme, which emotes with a modern comic jazz vibe, carried by baritone saxophone, piccolo and bongos banging with the cadence of a mamba. The music supports his irreverent interaction with Kanbei who turns away, unimpressed with Kikuchiyo’s assertion that he too is a samurai. The Samurai Theme recaptures the scene and supports Kanbei’s departure. In “Rikichi’s Tears – White Rice” Hayasaka introduces his Farmers Theme, which is quintessentially Japanese in its sensibilities; a simple folk melody emoted by wordless male chorus. There is despair in Rikichi’s meager offer of rice to Kanbei, but Kanbei, with dignity accepts, his nobility magnified by a proud statement of the Samurai Theme.

“Two Search for Samurai” is carried by the comedic Recruitment Theme as the villagers continue to proposition samurai to defend their village. At 0:25 a scene change reveals Kanbei using Katsushiro to test Kyūzō’s skill. After he easily thwarts the assault, Kanbei diffuses his anger with praise and an entreaty to join their cause. A personalized and more intimate variant of the Samurai Theme carries the scene. We are now offered a wonderful score highlight with “6 Samurai”. The samurai now number six and as Kanbei reminisces Hayasaka graces us with an extended more intimate rendering of the Samurai Theme on solo cello. Within its expression is revealed both sadness and the bond of loyalty among the men. In “Extraordinary Man” we have comic relief as a drunken Kikuchiyo joins the gathering and makes a fool of himself before passing out. The comedic bongo driven Kikuchiyo’s Theme carries his foolishness. “Morning Departure” offers score highlight as we are graced with an exquisite rendering of the Farmer’s Theme on solo oboe attended by kindred woodwinds, which supports the departure of the six samurai. At 0:27 we segue gracefully into the Love Theme in a scene change where we se Shino washing her hair. The melodic flow is severed by the intrusion of her father Manzo who commands that she cut her hair to look like a boy, so as to avoid enticing unwelcome advances by the samurai.

“Wild Warrior’s Coming” reveals Kikuchiyo’s comedic attempt to join the group as the seventh samurai. The Samurai Theme carried by faux regal horns support his efforts. In “Seven Men Completed” Kikuchiyo at long last join the group with his theme carrying his progress. In “Katsushiro & Shino” we have the first extended rendering of the exotic Love Theme as Katsushiro and Shino meet in the fields as they pick flowers. She feigns being a boy and flees. Katsushiro pursues and overtakes her only to discover her identity as a woman. The both feel shamed for different reason, but we discern a nascent attraction. Most interesting is that Hayasaka does not alter the tempo of the theme as Shino is running from Katsushiro. “Katsushiro, Come Back” reveals Katsushiro returning to the village atop the Love Theme, informing us that Shino is on his mind. In “In the Forest of the Water God” we are graced with wondrous pastoral beauty. Katsushiro and Shino rendezvous in the forest and Hayasaka supports the moment with their love theme carried tenderly by woodwinds. This is a wonderful confluence of music and film imagery. “Wheat Field” reveals the flowing bounty of ripe wheat shifting to and fro in a gentle breeze. Hayasaka uses a solo oboe emoting the Farmer’s Theme as a pastorale to carry the scene.

“Interlude” offers a well-needed intermission for the three hour and 27 minute film. It is a wonderful score highlight as strings return to the orchestra fold for a truly sumptuous rendering of Hayasaka’s primary themes. The suite, which opens with the Love Theme is exquisite and perfectly captures the beauty and magnificence of Hayasaka’s score. “Harvesting” is a score highlight that offers a splendid extended rendering of the Farmer’s Theme, which supports scenes of the villagers harvesting their crops. Its expression is syncopated, animated by spritely woodwinds, low register piano and bamboo stick percussion. The marriage of film imagery and music is spot on. In “Rikichi’s Trouble” he storms out from the harvest, furious when the samurai upset him. The Elder’s Theme carries his hidden torment and rage. We conclude on a sad rendering of the Samurai Theme as Heihachi finds him by his campfire. The plaintive and more lyrical rendering of the Samurai Theme is sustained in “Heihachi & Rikichi” as Heihachi attempts to console Rikichi. “Farm Village Scenery” offers a montage of scenes where we see the villagers plowing, digging and fortifying a defense network for the village. Hayasaka supports the montage with the Farmer’s Theme, whose cadence and instruments he shifts to and fro with each change of scene.

“Weak Insects into Samurai Ways” reveal our lovers alone amidst a sea of flowers. Shino voices her regret that she was not born into Katsushiro’s samurai cast. She entices him to kiss her, and his hesitation elicits her to mock him to act like a samurai. Hayasaka supports the scene with a syncopated and exotic rendering of the Love Theme. As they return to the village in “Foreboding of Bandits” they discover a scouting party of bandits. They escape without notice and the Bandit’s Theme supports the scene. In a poignant scene not supported on the album, the samurai set fire to a hut where several bandits are sleeping. The large hut is engulfed, and they mercilessly slay the men as they flee the burning building. To Rikichi’s surprise his wife who was kidnapped, comes out of the building. He runs to her, but her shame is unbearable and so she turns from him and walks back to her death into the flames. Hayasaka supports this painful scene with a plaintive solo shinobue wailing over the Bandit’s Theme. I found it a remarkable confluence and regret that the cue was not included on the album. Back at the village the samurai hoist their colors in “Flag” the Samurai Theme sounds with triumphant fanfare to support their pride. The proud moment does not last as the bandit horde appears on the hilltop and commences their attack. The bandits probe East, West and South and are repelled by the village defenses. In “Sudden Confrontation” Shino and Katsushiro run into each other and a brief quote of the Love Theme sounds as he runs past her to the front lines with a scarecrow.

In “Magnificent Samurai” the samurai await the dawn, which will no doubt bring another bandit attack. A succession of shifting dark low register orchestral chords resonate as a solitary trumpet sounds a forlorn Samurai Theme aloft. Woodwinds join as Katsushiro opens up to Kyūzō that he is a magnificent samurai who he admires. It is a heartfelt scene, which Hayasaka supports well. In “Kikuchiyo Rises to the Occasion” Kikuchiyo sneaks into the bandit camp and steals a musket and a splendid set of leather armor from a deserter the bandit leader just executed. His comic mamba theme carries his exploits. The next day the bandits attack the open North entrance, where Kanbei has set a trap. The battle is fierce and Hayasaka chose not to score it, again preferring instead to allow the sounds of battle and nature support the imagery. As the second day closes, the bandits have lost twenty-three of forty, and the samurai two; Gorebei and Yohei. As they venerate their fallen comrades the Samurai Theme sounds on horns as a lamentation. Regretfully this was omitted from the album. In “Tryst” it is the aftermath of the 3rd battle. Shino lures Katsushiro into a hut where they at last surrender to passion and make love. Hayasaka scores the allurement tenderly with a variant rendering of the Love Theme carried by acoustic guitar and exotic flute. The actual lovemaking is not filmed or scored. In “Manzo & Shino” Manzo discovers what Shino has done and is shamed. He begins beating her until stopped by Kanbei. The Love Theme is sustained as the couple exits the hut, but dissipates with Manzo’s rage.

The final battle commences in a rainstorm and the bandits are defeated, but with grievous loss as Kyūzō and Kikuchiyo fall. The next day we see the villagers resuming life with the planting of the rice crop in “Rice Planting Song”, which Hayasaka supports with a joyous rendering of the Farmer’s Theme. Shino runs past Katsushiro and their eyes meet, but she rejoins her villagers and farmer’s way of life. Katsushiro accepts her choice, but we see regret in his eyes. We conclude in “Ending” where we see Kanbei, Shichirōji, and Katsushiro gazing up at the hilltop, where we see the four grave mounds of their fallen comrades, each crowned with their swords. The juxtaposition of the joyous villagers in the fields and the samurai is poignant. Kanbei remarks “In the end, we lost this battle too…. This victory belongs to those peasants. Not to us.” Hayasaka brings the film to closure with a final horn declaration of the Samurai Theme, which swells to a stirring flourish.

Kurosawa through the years retained a special love for Hayasaka’s Samurai Theme, and had it reworked into a song with lyrics by Hayasaka himself. In the years following his friend’s death people related that they would often hear Kurosawa singing the song on the set. I offer the lyrics for the second verse, which perfectly capture this film’s emotional “mono no aware” core:

“Like the wind, the samurai
Blows across the earth.
Cho ryo furyo hyo furyo
Hiyaruro arayo hyo furyo
He who was seen yesterday is no more today.
He who is seen today will be gone tomorrow
Unaware that tomorrow is his last,
How sad he is today.”

I would like to thank Roslin Records for issuing this classic score. The audio restoration by Chris Malone created a stereophonic experience, which was a distinct improvement over the original monaural sound. The reader is advised that I could not secure a CD version of the score and had to rely on a MP3 digital download from iTunes. The quality of the recording does not achieve current industry standards, and I hope that in the near future a label brings Hayasaka’s Magnum Opus to the public with a new recording. Hayasaka captured the emotional core of Kurosawa’s bittersweet vision, in which the contrast of the Samurai, Farmers and Bandits themes perfectly embodies their sensibilities, and enhances the film’s narrative and imagery. For me what elevates Hayasaka’s creation is how seamlessly his music is woven into the film’s tapestry. It is spotted judiciously and although present, it is never over-bearing or intrusive, a testament to perfect synergy. I believe this score to be a classic of the Golden Age and Japanese cinema, and highly recommend that you add it to your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to the wonderful “Interlude” cue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjN2A8HXlSo

Buy the Seven Samurai soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Titles (3:17)
  • To the Little Watermill (1:00)
  • Samurai Search (0:49)
  • Kanbei & Katsushiro – Kikuchiyo’s… (3:43)
  • Rikichi’s Tears – White Rice (2:09)
  • Two Search for Samurai (1:30)
  • 6 Samurai (2:51)
  • Extraordinary Man (1:13)
  • Morning Departure (1:02)
  • Wild Warrior’s Coming (0:35)
  • Seven Men Completed (1:24)
  • Katsushiro & Shino (2:43)
  • Katsushiro, Come Back (0:11)
  • In the Forest of the Water God (1:34)
  • Wheat Field (0:27)
  • Interlude (5:18)
  • Harvesting (2:05)
  • Rikichi’s Trouble (1:51)
  • Heihachi & Rikichi (0:57)
  • Farm Village Scenery (2:35)
  • Weak Insects into Samurai Ways (1:49)
  • Foreboding of Bandits (0:26)
  • Flag (0:20)
  • Sudden Confrontation (0:25)
  • Magnificent Samurai (2:29)
  • Kikuchiyo Rises to the Occasion (0:49)
  • Tryst (1:02)
  • Manzo & Shino (1:02)
  • Rice Planting Song (1:22)
  • Ending (0:43)

Running Time: 45 minutes 47 seconds

Roslin Records (1954/2014)

Music composed and conducted by Fumio Hayasaka. Orchestrations by Masaru Sato. Score produced by Fumio Hayasaka. Album produced by Chris Malone.

  1. Riley KZ
    April 25, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    Excellent review for an excellent score in an excellent movie. Insanely in-depth bud!

  2. David
    February 4, 2018 at 12:27 am

    Cool review! Thanks for taking the time. I am very much enjoying this surpisingly over-looked classic score to a masterpiece film. The recording isn’t as sonically polished as modern scores can be, but I find that adds to it’s charm and even creates a kind of “primitive” style of sound similar to Basil Poledoris work on Conan the Barbarian that can really transport you back to an earlier time. Maybe that is just me. 😀 I’d love to hear a proper Rashomon release as well.

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