I'm happy to say that I did like The Seven Samurai. However, I didn't like it nearly as well as The Magnificent Seven, and not just because one is about cowboys and the other isn't.
What surprised me the most about this is just how closely The Magnificent Seven follows it. Not just the same basic story -- poor villagers being repeatedly pillaged by outlaws hire champions to defend them -- but down to how some characters were introduced and some of the characterizations. Cowboy and I had a lot of fun pointing out the similarities to each other. That might be what I enjoyed most about the movie, in fact.
Let's start with the characters and how they were similar to those magnificent gunfighters. The main character, Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), was awesome. Brave, resourceful, not above resorting to trickery to save a hostage child... he was one cool cat. He was quite a bit like Chris (Yul Brynner), only even more world-weary. And he had hair. Eventually.
My next favorite was Kyuzo (Sieji Miyaguchi), a master swordsman who had about six lines -- almost exactly like the nearly wordless Britt (James Coburn) who competes only with himself. I really loved one scene where he just ran off into the night to singlehandedly capture some enemy firepower. Comes back several scenes later, exhausted and triumphant.
Then there was the young kid, Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), out to prove himself and become a grown-up samurai.
And probably the most memorable character was Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a clownish swordsman who pretends to be a samurai. In The Magnificent Seven, those two characters got combined to become the humorous youngster, Chico (Horst Bucholz). Kikuchiyo annoyed me at first, with his apelike antics and childish humor. But later on I became kind of fond of him, like the samurai did, so that was a very effective bit of characterization.
Another of the samurai was introduced exactly the same way as Bernardo O'Reilly (Charles Bronson), chopping wood in exchange for a meal, quipping drily about his situation. There was also one who was an old friend of Kambei's, just like Harry (Brad Dexter) is an old friend of Chris'. And there was a cheerful, resourceful guy who was basically Kambei's second-in-command, like Vin (Steve McQueen). Sadly, I had a hard time keeping those three apart, as I'm not familiar enough with Japanese actors or names to remember who these they were.
So. Four very memorable characters and three I got all mixed up. Considering this is a foreign film, entirely peopled with actors I've never seen before, that's quite good.
Only a handful of the villagers were at all interesting or had any development at all. ("Yohei! What's wrong with your face?") But to be honest, as many times as I have seen The Magnificent Seven, I really can only pick out about six of the Mexican villagers as different characters, and I don't know most of their names (so I give them little nicknames, like "Traitor" and "Mr. Purple Shirt" and "Excitable Guy"), so that's not a big difference.
The bandits, though, were a big disappointment. Even if I wasn't used to Calverra, Eli Wallach's charming rogue of a bandit leader, I would have been disappointed by them. They're mostly just faceless baddies.
Um, yeah, this has kind of turned into a comparison between the two movies, not a straight review, but... my reactions to it are all tied up with the remake that I consider to be the finest western ever filmed. Would I watch this again? Maybe some day, but not over and over and over. It starts slowly and gets saggy in places, though not enough that I ever got bored.
Is this a family-friendly movie? Um. The violence is non-gory. There are a lot of scenes of guys wearing nothing but these loin cloth things, so you can see the sides of their butts. And although it's not shown, it's made clear that one character sleeps with a village woman.