This article contains spoilers.
Akira Kurosawa originally wanted Seven Samurai to be a story of six strait-laced samurai protecting a village against outside enemies. It wasn’t until later that he decided that the movie needed an “off-the-wall character”—specifically a weirdo LARPing as a samurai from a long, prestigious lineage. That was perhaps the decision that turned Seven Samurai from a great film to a phenomenal one.
Kikuchiyo (played by Toshiro Mifune) displays an inspiring progression. He starts off as an awkward itinerant who claims to be a samurai, but he can’t even do that right—his assumed identity suggests that he’s a thirteen-year-old girl, which is everything he’s not. He isn’t taken seriously by the other samurai and is initially excluded from the group. Yet over time he gains the trust of the samurai and the village, and he displays himself as a source of inspiration, both in terms of strategy and boosting morale. When he’s killed towards the end of the film, he is commemorated just like the other fallen samurai, his burial mound expressing the respect that his brothers-in-arms and the villagers had for him. What’s most important about Kikuchiyo, however, is the way his character enriches the film’s plot and deepens its emotional power.
The most striking part of Kikuchiyo’s character is his background and identity. He’s the son of a farmer who pretends to be a samurai and seeks to gain acceptance from other samurai. Indeed, he doesn’t even recall the name that he was born with and which he would have been known as in his days as a farmer. It’s almost like he wants to abandon his peasant past. But this is gradually peeled away, starting from the moment he chides the other samurai for causing farmers to develop a sense of aggression. We begin to see the side of him that he’s intentionally hidden from us—a perspective into samurai/bandit aggression that is personal rather than the emotionally detached view of the samurai. And it exudes a powerful resonance: the samurai can do nothing but sulk in shame because they know he’s absolutely right.
One of the most emotional scenes in the film, in my opinion, is the scene that explores the aftermath of the bandits’ attack on the old man Gisaku’s mill. Gisaku’s daughter-in-law, with child in hand, stumbles out of the mill before falling dead in Kambei’s arms. Kikuchiyo holds the child and shouts, “This baby… is me. This is just what happened to me!” And the mystery of Kikuchiyo’s past continues to unravel; it turns out that he was perhaps the sole survivor of a bandit attack on his home village. We can imagine what it must have been like for him: being alone amid burning buildings, surrounded by the strewn corpses of his loved ones, unsure where to go next or what to do next. Kikuchiyo is another victim of the never-ending cycle of violence that has affected villages across Japan for generations and which the seven samurai are trying to prevent. All the other samurai joined for altruistic or righteous reasons, or to prove themselves worthy (as in the case of Katsushirō)—but none of those reasons could be as heartfelt or personal as Kikuchiyo’s. Ultimately, this adds emotional depth to the film and provides us with an insight into the human face of war, violence, and aggression.
Kikuchiyo doesn’t only reveal to us the tragedies of war and aggression, however. He also teaches us the importance of teamwork and the consequences of irresponsibility—the hard way. Inspired by Kyūzō’s raid on the bandits’ nest, Kikuchiyo breaks from his position as a guard on the front lines and infiltrates the bandits in search of muskets. While he’s able to return with a couple of muskets, his actions cause the bandits to launch another attack on the village, which (although an overall victory) eventually leads to the deaths of several villagers as well as the samurai Gorobei. Kikuchiyo’s unruly personality initially causes him to remain somewhat distant from the other samurai, leading him to want to prove himself and gain their praise—just as Kyūzō was lauded when he had brought back muskets from his raid. Yet perhaps the best way for Kikuchiyo to prove himself would have been to never ignore his team responsibilities, even if he desired a moment of glory that could bring him praise and honour. After all, the fight to defend the village is a team struggle, and each samurai and villager must play their part; the film is titled Seven Samurai, not Kikuchiyo and the Six Samurai (or something of the sort). When the team has put together a detailed strategy for battle, an individual’s egoistic, unannounced deviation, even if initially successful, may induce unforeseen damage.
Nevertheless, for all of Kikuchiyo’s flaws, it is important to highlight his crucial role in the village’s success against the bandits. He is firstly resourceful: it is he who brought the villagers to conquer their fears and meet the samurai for the first time by raising a false alarm, and later he comes up with the idea to ambush the bandits by burning their hideout and slaying anyone who attempts to escape. He’s also able to inspire the samurai and the villagers to keep on fighting, especially when he raises the samurai’s banner over the village during Heihachi’s funeral. His peasant background also allows him to become closer to the villagers: perhaps no other samurai has been as popular among the village’s children as Kikuchiyo, who seems to be genuinely loved. And when Kikuchiyo is killed in the final attack, he is truly missed by those who survived him, who recognize his role as a fighter, a team member, and a human being. While Kikuchiyo’s wild side may initially seem unprofessional and off-putting, it allows him to stand out and contribute much more character to the narrative than the other six samurai could have provided. Sure, Kambei’s wisdom is admirable, Kyūzō is an undoubtedly excellent swordsman, and Katsushirō’s romance with Shino adds sentimental yet pitiful thoughts on forbidden love; yet it’s Kikuchiyo who becomes the dynamo powering the plot, presenting to us some of the film’s most entertaining and heartwarming scenes.
Of course, no discussion of Kikuchiyo can be complete without mentioning his wonderful portrayal by Toshiro Mifune. It isn’t easy playing a character who displays both extreme oddity and profound solemnity—and do that in an incredibly convincing manner. But Mifune has excellent acting chops, and he’s able to pull it off unbelievably well. He makes the audience laugh when he exhibits Kikuchiyo’s oddball side, and simultaneously he instills overwhelming emotion in Kikuchiyo’s most sorrowful moments. Furthermore, he’s able to effectively contrast Kikuchiyo’s bizarreness with the serenity of the other samurai, played by Takashi Shimura and others (who are each excellent actors in their own right). Kikuchiyo’s lovability as a character rests not just on his personality, but also on Mifune’s ability to express that personality and place it in an environment that allows it to stand out and shine.
While I was watching Seven Samurai, I had a slight complaint that, despite Toshiro Mifune’s top billing, Kikuchiyo didn’t have enough screen time. The movie didn’t make him seem like the protagonist. But the more I thought about the movie and his character, the more I realized how integral he is to the entire film. With the amount of screen time that he received, he was able to take the film to new levels of emotional expression. Without explicitly mentioning it, his character exposes the terrible travesty of aggression and implores the audience to consider how war affects the innocent who are caught in the middle of it. He shows us the importance of teamwork and sticking to one’s responsibilities—and what can go wrong when collective strength is marred by selfish, individualistic desires. What’s more, his personality creates opportunities for innovation, inspiration, and adoration, driving some of the film’s most stirring scenes.
All of this may have been difficult to express had the film been merely about six ordinary samurai going about their business. The story itself would undoubtedly be compelling, the themes insightful, and the ensemble performance full of talent—but without Kikuchiyo and all that he stands for (as well as Mifune’s performance), Seven Samurai would not have been able to fully project the sentimental and cinematic power that has made it one of the greatest films of all time. Six Samurai would have been fascinating, but Seven Samurai is phenomenal.