It was a few weeks ago from the time of this writing that I had the opportunity to see Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) in a theater; and at the risk of stating the obvious, it was an experience I am certain I’ll never forget. Of course, I had seen this remarkable motion picture several times before, enjoying it on Blu-ray and DVD in the comfort of my own home; but this was my first time seeing Kurosawa’s masterpiece the way it was meant (and frankly deserves) to be seen. So amazing was the experience that, when it was over, I was mighty tempted to rush on home and start drumming up a comprehensive review for the site. Though I ended up dropping that notion for fear of producing a hollow imitation of what greater minds have said. Seven Samurai is arguably one of the most carefully scrutinized films in the annals of 20th century art; like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s been the subject of videos, essays, even full-length books—meticulously analyzed by people far more intuitive and knowledgeable than myself. (What could I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before?) As much as I enjoyed seeing one of my all-time favorite movies on the big screen, there won’t be a Seven Samurai review coming anytime in the foreseeable future.
There was, however, a second idea for an article which came into my head recently—and this one I was determined to write from the start. As is common with such things, the screening I attended began with an introduction: our host for the evening stepped up to the front of the auditorium and rattled off, for our entertainment, some “fun facts” about the making of Seven Samurai and the extent of its legacy. Or, perhaps better put, he spewed an entirely predictable assortment of factoids which had no doubt been culled from the movie’s Trivia page on IMDb. By this point, I’d already learned a great deal about Akira Kurosawa (and from sources more prestigious and reliable than the Internet Movie Database), so I just sat back and waited for the lights to go down. But then, a certain “factoid” came up and nabbed my attention. Our host (who shall remain nameless) told a rather dubious story which I’d also heard before—because it’s become disturbingly widespread among fans of Japanese cinema. A story my younger self once took for granted. A story which has, for years, been reiterated on websites, on podcasts, and in discourse—despite the sheer lack of evidence to support it and the volumes of information indicative of the contrary.
A story which claims, to use the words uttered that night: “Toho spent so much money making Seven Samurai and a little movie called Godzilla that the studio almost went bankrupt.”
I remained civil, of course, and kept my mouth shut; there was no point in making a scene. But deep within the random archives that is my mind, gears were turning. It was time. Time to raise some important questions no one else seemed to be asking.
A disclaimer before we continue. While I am about to describe in great detail the many things leery about this supposed “bankruptcy” story, I cannot, for the time being, definitively prove it a myth. Despite my best efforts to trace its origin, it’s never turned up in any book, magazine, interview, documentary, etc. in my recollection. On top of that, the websites recapitulating it consistently fail to offer citations; thus, I have no original source to track down and analyze.
That said, there’s plenty of evidence—from plenty of resources—strongly suggesting it’s not true.
Figurative Figures and Actual Figures
As mentioned before, the story goes that the makings of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) ate up so much money that they nearly put Toho out of business, and that the studio only survived because both pictures became hits at the box office. Right away, there are problems with that statement.
Let’s begin with what’s accurate. It is absolutely, undeniably true that both Seven Samurai and Godzilla required budgets quite exorbitant for Japanese features of their day. And with context kept in mind, it’s not the least bit difficult to imagine why. Godzilla utilized a variety of then-untested special effects techniques, namely the process now known as “suitmation,” in which stunt actors donned thick, cumbersome monster costumes and were turned loose on intricately detailed miniature city sets. A production this lavish naturally demanded more funding than what was typically allotted to a Japanese movie. And while the screenplay of Seven Samurai (which included no special effects sequences) probably could’ve been filmed in a miserly manner by the average studio director, Kurosawa’s working methods and his insistence on capturing the exact image in his head ultimately prolonged the shoot to just under a year (filming of Godzilla, by contrast, finished in about three months). Time is money, as they say, and the studio was famously unhappy as Kurosawa continued sacrificing his already large budget at the altar of perfectionism.
These were costly products to make. Of that there is no question. Both films also earned their keep, securing rankings on Kinema Jumpo’s list of the year’s most successful movies as well as attaining further profits in their (edited) overseas editions. Of that there is no question, either. So, where do the problems start showing up?
First off, contrary to what has been reported in some venues, Godzilla was not the more expensive of the two pictures. All costs accounted for—including advertising and printing—disbursements on Honda’s monster movie came to roughly $275,000. Seven Samurai, by contrast, was the most expensive Japanese feature ever made up to that point, with an end budget hovering somewhere between $560,000-580,000 (blown up from an original allocation of $150,000-200,000). Secondly, even if these two movies had come close to sinking the studio, they wouldn’t have been alone in doing so. For there was a third “culprit”—another über-exorbitant Toho picture from 1954—whom repeaters of this urban legend seem curiously unaware of.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) was a gigantic production featuring hundreds of fully costumed actors and considerable location work. Director Hiroshi Inagaki was no rampant perfectionist—more a highly skilled journeyman—and he didn’t have hordes of special effects on which to deliver, but the mechanics of this picture nonetheless resulted in a higher-than-average budget. He furthermore was instructed to photograph it in color, resulting in lengthier filming and more expensive lab work. As assistant director Jun Fukuda recalled, “There were something like 210 warriors on horseback, and 800 samurai extras. […] Filming it in Eastman Color took longer to shoot than black and white […] it took six months to shoot the film.” Inagaki’s picture ended up with a rough budget of $500,000, not too far beneath that of Kurosawa’s movie. As claimed by the press at the time, it was “the second most expensive motion picture to be produced in Japan.”
(Before we continue, sources for those who desire them: Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa and The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.)
So even if Godzilla had been a factor in some near-bankruptcy gamble, it would’ve played second—no, third—fiddle to two notably more expensive features made that same year. (So, why no ubiquitous cyberspace story about a duo of Toho-produced samurai movies threatening to derail the studio?) Now, switching back to the main topic at hand, all three movies required a great deal to get made; but did they pose any actual threat to the studio in the long run? The overwhelming lack of evidence would suggest no.
Let us address that now.
Oh Evidence! Where Art Thou?
To reiterate from my disclaimer: I have yet to come across any reliable source even suggesting the rumor in question is true. In fact, in my experience, it’s been consistently absent in every serious study done on Japanese cinema of this time period.
Consider, for instance, Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson’s The Japanese Film – Art and Industry, first published in 1959. Perhaps the single greatest study on cinema from the Land of the Rising Sun, Richie and Anderson’s book covers, among other things, all the major Japanese studios in existence at the time—detailing their origins, their histories, their personnel, their politics, their strengths, their shortcomings, even their respective close encounters with bankruptcy. Having said that, the authors address and articulate, at various points and with great detail, the many roadblocks Toho had endured up to that point (for instance: the postwar labor strikes of the 1940s, which set the studio back in more ways than one until producer Iwao Mori stepped in and put the company back on its “financial feet”). And yet, nowhere in the text, in any chapter, is there mention of the studio nearly foundering in 1954—for any reason at all, let alone because of the simultaneous shooting of Godzilla and Seven Samurai. Both films are (separately) covered and credited for the revolutions they spawned (the rise of the Japanese science fiction picture, then a recent thing, receives some page space), but never are they paired together as culprits of anything greater than that. Nor are the expenses incurred by Inagaki’s samurai movie blamed for any kind of short or long-term suffering within the studio.
Absence of proof is of course not proof of absence, but this was a comprehensive study made just a few years after the supposed “bankruptcy debacle.” The fact that Richie and Anderson omitted such an event from their book—and that it remained omitted in updated editions; and that no other Japanese film historian, to my knowledge, has ever published a single word on it—could very well indicate it never happened at all, that the studio experienced no serious financial peril that year.
Not So Dangerous Financial Danger
In preparing for this article, I sought insight from film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, author of such books as Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! and The Toho Studios Story. When I asked for his opinion on whether Toho nearly collapsed shooting Godzilla and Seven Samurai, he told me:
“I found no evidence of that at all, and there’s probably no truth to it, either. Seven Samurai did go over budget, but I’d doubt the final cost of the two films combined was even 7-8% of the total negative cost of the studio’s annual slate that year. So, no, it wouldn’t have bankrupted them, even if the films had flopped.”
That, too, makes imminent sense in context. As expensive as these films were and as miffed as the Toho execs would’ve surely been had one or all of them flopped, the studio was holding up very well on a financial level and more than likely would’ve survived. At the time, the Japanese film industry was in full force, cranking out—literally—hundreds of films each year. While Toho’s bastard child Shin-Toho (formed during the unrest of the earlier mentioned labor strikes) was struggling along due to poor management and insufficient bookings, the parent company was thriving, spawning an average annual output of 60-100 pictures, with a total of 68 Toho-produced films released in 1954 (hence the 7-8% negative cost estimate Galbraith suggests above). Very few of these smaller pictures shot in 1954 would’ve had budgets even remotely comparable to that spent on Seven Samurai or even Godzilla; but with an overall quantity that huge produced in a single year, the combined costs would’ve greatly outdistanced the two films under discussion, and then some. On top of that, Toho, then as now, owned many of its own theaters, meaning they could keep a greater percentage of the profits.
And profits there were. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 1958, the average Japanese citizen at the time attended up to twelve movies a year; and for Tokyo residents, the number metastasized to twenty. That, in turn, was reflected in the often claustrophobic packing of movie houses. As Richie and Anderson write in their book, contemporary theaters in Japan were typically jam-packed with audiences, to the point where every available inch of space was used to fit another body. “The aisles at the sides and down the middle are full of people. Some even sit on the edge of the stage while others stand outside the exit doors looking into the auditorium.” The movies were there, and so were the audiences.
This is not to say, of course, that Japanese films made in the 1950s never flopped or that Seven Samurai and Godzilla were incapable of flopping; but the truth of the matter is that the industry and the studio were, by and large, in good shape. Had the two movies (and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto–don’t forget about that one!) bombed, the studio likely could’ve afforded to go on due to the omnipresent audiences and the vast multitude of other pictures they were simultaneously cranking out and profiting from. (In short, it would’ve taken more than two or three flops to put the Toho of 1954 in any kind of dire straits.)
That alone makes this Godzilla + Seven Samurai = Bankruptcy “factoid”—questionable and unlikely from the beginning—seem all the more dubious in the end.