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16 Epic Facts About Seven Samurai

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More than half a century ago, Akira Kurosawa pushed his creative powers to new limits with a film that merged grueling shoots, an unprecedented budget, and an all-star cast to change Japanese cinema forever. Seven Samurai, arguably the greatest film ever made in Japan, combined brilliant performances, revolutionary camerawork, and a respect for period accuracy to create something audiences around the world had never seen before, and it’s still remembered as one of the great movie epics. It’s a flawless film, but making it wasn’t easy. To find out why, check out these 16 facts about how Seven Samurai became a masterpiece.

1. IT WAS AKIRA KUROSAWA’S FIRST SAMURAI FILM.

He’s known now as the genre’s greatest master, but Kurosawa was more than a decade into his career as a director before he made Seven Samurai. It’s the most ambitious and praised of all of his samurai films, but while other directors might have built up to such a massive project, this was actually his first samurai movie. Other classics, including Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), would follow.

2. IT BEGAN AS THE STORY OF A SINGLE SAMURAI.

When Kurosawa first set out to make a samurai film, he sat down with screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto and outlined the idea of a “day in the life” story about a single samurai. The film would be an intimate portrayal of a warrior who got up in the morning, had his breakfast, went to work at his master’s castle and then, after making a mistake, would be so disgraced that he would return home and commit ritual suicide.

Kurosawa ultimately scrapped that story, and instead 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. From that, Kurosawa and Hashimoto developed the idea of a group of samurai hired by peasants to protect them from bandits, and Seven Samurai was born.

3. THE BUDGET WAS UNPRECEDENTED IN JAPAN.

At the time Seven Samurai entered production, most major Japanese films cost around $70,000. Because Kurosawa demanded the authenticity of things like a fully constructed outdoor village location, and because of frequent production challenges, the shoot dragged on and eventually took a year to complete. As a result, the budget ballooned to nearly $500,000—a massive sum at the time.

4. KUROSAWA PROTESTED PRODUCTION DELAYS BY GOING FISHING.

As the production process of Seven Samurai grew longer and longer, producers grew worried that 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.

5. SOME OF THE CHARACTERS WERE BASED ON REAL HISTORICAL FIGURES.

Because copious research into the lives of samurai was done as part of the writing process, some of the characters were ultimately based on real historical figures. For example, the cold master swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), was based on Miyamoto Musashi, one of the most famous samurai who ever lived.

6. KUROSAWA MADE DETAILED CHARACTER NOTES BEFORE THE SCRIPT WAS EVEN WRITTEN.

Seven Samurai was written over a period of six weeks as Kurosawa, Hashimoto, and co-writer Hideo Oguni holed up in a hotel room in Atami, working so hard they didn’t even take phone calls. Even before the scripting process began, though, Kurosawa filled a notebook with detailed notes on each of the seven main characters, including their heights, ages, emotional dispositions, and reactions to battle. Many of his initial character instincts remain in the final film: For example, Kurosawa always imagined frequent collaborator Takashi Shimura in the role of Kambei Shimada, the leader of the seven.

7. IT ORIGINALLY OPENED WITH A BATTLE SEQUENCE.

The film’s famous opening shot features a group of bandits riding over a hilltop and then debating whether or not to attack a village below. According to Hashimoto, the film originally started with those same bandits actually attacking another village, and the ultimate opening shot was what happened after that attack. Kurosawa decided to cut the attack sequence, believing an “unassuming” start was the best way to open the film.

8. IT STARS SEVERAL FREQUENT KUROSAWA COLLABORATORS.

Throughout his career, Kurosawa developed a kind of stock company of actors who he frequently turned to, and several of them have key roles in Seven Samurai. Most famously, Toshirô Mifune worked on 16 films with Kurosawa, including Stray Dog (1949), Throne of Blood (1957), and Yojimbo (1961). Yoshio Tsuchiya, who played the villager Rikichi, went on to work with Kurosawa in Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Red Beard (1965), and more. The most prolific collaborator, though, was Takashi Shimura, who acted in 21 of Kurosawa’s 30 films as a director, including Ikiru (1952), Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Kagemusha (1980).

9. THE MAIN THEME WAS ORIGINALLY THROWN AWAY.

For Seven Samurai, Kurosawa again worked with friend and collaborator Fumio Hayasaka, who also composed the scores for classics like Stray Dog (1949) and Rashômon (1950). Hayasaka composed several pieces for the film, but when he played them for 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.

10. SEIJI MIYAGUCHI INITIALLY TURNED DOWN HIS ROLE.

Seiji Miyaguchi was offered the role of Kyuzo, the film’s greatest swordsman, and he wanted to turn the role down because he’d never done any movie swordplay before. 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.

11. TOSHIRÔ MIFUNE STAYED IN CHARACTER AT ALL TIMES.

The famously controlling Kurosawa gave an unusual amount of freedom to his greatest collaborator. Mifune, cast as the wild but soulful Kikuchiyo, stayed in character the entire time he was on set, and even improvised various comedic bits for his character. He would later say it was one of his favorite roles because he was able to “be himself.”

12. KUROSAWA’S LIGHTING TECHNIQUES CAUSED AN EYE INJURY.

For the love scenes between Shino (Keiko Tsushima) and the Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), 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, Tsushima’s eyes were ultimately injured by overexposure to the glaring light.

13. TWO DIFFERENT FIRE SEQUENCES DIDN’T GO AS PLANNED.

For the scene in which Gisaku’s (Kokuten Kôdô) 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 Kurosawa needed.

Even more dramatic was the sequence in which the samurai and the villagers burned down the bandits’s fortress. According to Tsuchiya, 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, 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.

14. IT CHANGED KUROSAWA’S SHOOTING TECHNIQUE FOREVER.

For several scenes, particular the climactic battle, 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.

15. THE FINAL BATTLE WAS A GRUELING EXPERIENCE.

Seven Samurai was never supposed to be in production for as long as it was. This meant that the final battle sequence, which was originally set to be filmed in the summer months, was shot in February. Shortly before the filming of the 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. Kurosawa himself, who stood in the mud with his actors, apparently grew so cold that he started to lose his toenails.

16. KUROSAWA HAD THE PERFECT DESCRIPTION OF THE FILM.

Seven Samurai was unlike anything Japanese cinema—let alone world cinema—had ever seen. It took period movie accuracy to new levels, and it luxuriated in its runtime of more than three-and-a-half hours. When asked to describe what kind of film he made, Kurosawa had the perfect response: “A movie as rich as a buttered steak topped with grilled eel.”

Additional Sources:
Criterion Collection DVD commentary by film historian Stephen Prince.
Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create (2002)

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11 Black Friday Purchases That Aren't Always The Best Deal
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Black Friday can bring out some of the best deals of the year (along with the worst in-store behavior), but that doesn't mean every advertised price is worth splurging on. While many shoppers are eager to save a few dollars and kickstart the holiday shopping season, some purchases are better left waiting for at least a few weeks (or longer).

1. FURNITURE

Display of outdoor furniture.
Photo by Isaac Benhesed on Unsplash

Black Friday is often the best time to scope out deals on large purchases—except for furniture. That's because newer furniture models and styles often appear in showrooms in February. According to Kurt Knutsson, a consumer technology expert, the best furniture deals can be found in January, and later on in July and August. If you're aiming for outdoor patio sets, expect to find knockout prices when outdoor furniture is discounted and put on clearance closer to Labor Day.

2. TOOLS

A display of tools.
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Unless you're shopping for a specific tool as a Christmas gift, it's often better to wait until warmer weather rolls around to catch great deals. While some big-name brands offer Black Friday discounts, the best tool deals roll around in late spring and early summer, just in time for Memorial Day and Father's Day.

3. BEDDING AND LINENS

A stack of bed linens.
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Sheet and bedding sets are often used as doorbuster items for Black Friday sales, but that doesn't mean you should splurge now. Instead, wait for annual linen sales—called white sales—to pop up after New Year's. Back in January of 1878, department store operator John Wanamaker held the first white sale as a way to push bedding inventory out of his stores. Since then, retailers have offered these top-of-the-year sales and January remains the best time to buy sheets, comforters, and other cozy bed linens.

4. HOLIDAY DÉCOR

Rows of holiday gnomes.
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If you are planning to snag a new Christmas tree, lights, or other festive décor, it's likely worth making due with what you have and snapping up new items after December 25. After the holidays, retailers are looking to quickly move out holiday items to make way for spring inventory, so ornaments, trees, yard inflatables, and other items often drastically drop in price, offering better deals than before the holidays. If you truly can't wait, the better option is shopping as close to Christmas as possible, when stores try to reduce their Christmas stock before resorting to clearance prices.

5. TOYS

Child choosing a toy car.
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Unless you're shopping for a very specific gift that's likely to sell out before the holidays, Black Friday toy deals often aren't the best time to fill your cart at toy stores. Stores often begin dropping toy prices two weeks before Christmas, meaning there's nothing wrong with saving all your shopping (and gift wrapping) until the last minute.

6. ENGAGEMENT RINGS AND JEWELRY

Rows of rings.
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Holiday jewelry commercials can be pretty persuasive when it comes to giving diamonds and gold as gifts. But, savvy shoppers can often get the best deals on baubles come spring and summer—prices tend to be at their highest between Christmas and Valentine's Day thanks to engagements and holiday gift-giving. But come March, prices begin to drop through the end of summer as jewelers see fewer purchases, making it worth passing up Black Friday deals.

7. PLANE TICKETS AND TRAVEL PACKAGES

Searching for flights online.
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While it's worth looking at plane ticket deals on Black Friday, it's not always the best idea to whip out your credit card. Despite some sales, the best time to purchase a flight is still between three weeks and three and a half months out. Some hotel sites will offer big deals after Thanksgiving and on Cyber Monday, but it doesn't mean you should spring for next year's vacation just yet. The best travel and accommodation deals often pop up in January and February when travel numbers are down.

8. FOOD AND SNACK BASKETS

Gift basket against a blue background.
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Fancy fruit, meat and cheese, and snack baskets are easy gifts for friends and family (or yourself, let's be honest), but they shouldn't be snagged on Black Friday. And because baskets are jam-packed full of perishables, you likely won't want to buy them a month away from the big day anyway. But traditionally, you'll spend less cheddar if you wait to make those purchases in December.

9. WINTER CLOTHING

Rack of women's winter clothing.
Photo by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash.

Buying clothing out of season is usually a big money saver, and winter clothes are no exception. Although some brands push big discounts online and in-store, the best savings on coats, gloves, and other winter accessories can still be found right before Black Friday—pre-Thanksgiving apparel markdowns can hit nearly 30 percent off—and after the holidays.

10. SMARTPHONES

Group of hands holding smartphones.
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While blowout tech sales are often reserved for Cyber Monday, retailers will try to pull you in-store with big electronics discounts on Black Friday. But, not all of them are really the best deals. The price for new iPhones, for example, may not budge much (if at all) the day after Thanksgiving. If you're in the market for a new phone, the best option might be waiting at least a few more weeks as prices on older models drop. Or, you can wait for bundle deals that crop up during December, where you pay standard retail price but receive free accessories or gift cards along with your new phone.

11. KITCHEN GADGETS

Row of hanging kitchen knives and utensils.
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Black Friday is a great shopping day for cooking enthusiasts—at least for those who are picky about their kitchen appliances. Name-brand tools and appliances often see good sales, since stores drop prices upwards of 40 to 50 percent to move through more inventory. But that doesn't mean all slow cookers, coffee makers, and utensil prices are the best deals. Many stores advertise no-name kitchen items that are often cheaply made and cheaply priced. Purchasing these lower-grade items can be a waste of money, even on Black Friday, since chances are you may be stuck looking for a replacement next year. And while shoppers love to find deals, the whole point of America's unofficial shopping holiday is to save money on products you truly want (and love).

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Food
The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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