The most famous movie of one of the world's most famous directors, Akira Kurosawa. My second viewing.
The movie opens on a small village in Japan in 1586, with a villager overhearing that the bandits who have harassed their village for years will be returning shortly. The villagers weep and shout at each other (in a fashion I've come to think of as very Kurosawa), until the village elder tells them to go hire a group of samurai to protect the village. The four men sent to recruit the samurai are also weak-willed and clown-like in a typically Kurosawa fashion, but once they manage to recruit the older Kambei (Takashi Shimura), things got a lot better for me. Kambei is an experienced, level-headed and relatively old ronin - more importantly, his character feels entirely genuine, instead of the clowns Kurosawa often likes to put on screen as the common man.
I'm making this movie (or perhaps myself, unclear which) sound bad: but once Kambei appears, the drama starts to develop. The villagers have almost nothing to pay with, so their choices in samurai are limited - but they nevertheless find enough warriors to defend the village. They also find themselves being followed to the village by "Kikuchiyo" (Toshiro Mifune), a man who claims to be a samurai but has none of the skills - only an excessive swagger.
The movie is incredibly long at 208 minutes, but it's also a dazzling, brilliant piece of work that deserves every bit of praise that's been heaped on it in the 60 years since its release. It shows battle, depravity, sacrifice - it shows people at their worst and their finest, and everything in between - sometimes all at once. Brilliant.
I only wish I appreciated Kurosawa's other works half as much.