Movie buffs don't need an introduction to Seven Samurai, the movie that inspired countless Westerns - spaghetti, curry and other types that possibly exist. We Indians know this movie as the one that inspired Sholay (alongside "Once upon a time in the west").
I think there isn't a point comparing Seven Samurai and Sholay, apart from the basic 'bandits vs villagers' theme there isn't much of 'apples-to-apples' here (See it that way, there is much other than the family killing scene and faintly familiar musical score that's common between 'Once upon a time in the west' and Sholay too) . I want to point out one big difference though. While Sholay had a fear-inspiring villian who had classics for lines, the bandits in Seven Samurai are practically faceless. Their menacing presence is felt through out the movie, you slide to your seat's edge many-a-time anticipating their murderous strike - Kurosawa does take care of that excellently - but it is just the undercurrent of fear and suspense for a large part not their presence that keeps you on your toes.
The movie practically swims with important characters, many of them critical to the story. It is to Kurosawa's credit that the screen doesn't get cluttered with 'me-too' caricatures even though there is plenty to tell and a plethora of characters to show(case). He is known to have prepared dossiers on each character detailing backgrounds, dressing styles, habits and mannerisms minutely and that effort shows. You know you can't take it all in one viewing, especially when you have to deal with a welcome bother called suspense.
Pardon my digression here, but when on the topic of how things can get muddled if you have too many characters at hand, look no further than Raj Kumar Santoshi's tribute to Seven Samurai, China Gate. Story wise, this one is much closer to Seven Samurai than Sholay. Execution wise, well that's another story all together. For a movie made with such grandeur, the only thing I can recall today is Urmila's item song 'Chumma Chumma". That tells you how disastrous the movie was. Of course, you don't need comparisons with Raj Kumar Santoshi's China Gate to understand the greatness of Seven Samurai, but it definitely offers you a perspective on why a master director is required to pull off with elan, an epical story. End of digression!
One of the best things about Seven Samurai is the detail laid out for viewers before the real action begins. We know the village boundaries, the fortifications, possible breaches, the layout of battle ground - all that's needed to enjoy a good fight. And what an enjoyment it is! Given the excellent dossier-driven characterization, we get to know our heroes and their strengths very well. And then, there is the 'scoreboard' type 'fallen headcount of bandits' the lead Samurai Kambei maintains, which makes the fight even more gripping.
The class differences between farmers and samurai are brought to fore in many sequences. The farmers initially treat samurai as paid sentinels, nothing more - they do warm up later, but there are always aware of the 'double-edged swords' they are handling. For instance, a villager chops his daughter's beautiful hair, so that she doesn't appear an eyeful to the Samurai..Other villagers hide their (already hidden) rice from Samurai and feed them only barley for many days.
The sequences where Kambei, the first samurai recruits others are very interesting. So are the ones that give us tidbits about their backgrounds. Since the proposition doesn't involve money or fame, he has to look for those who do not mind adversities for the sake of doing the right thing. Kambei says in the end to another Samurai 'we too lost this battle, the villagers are the only victors' - this line underlines the kind of deal the Samurai bravely walked into.
Some details about Samurai (and some villagers) emerge as if Kurosawa is giving us brownies for staying glued to the seats; not that he has to dangle brownies, but he does it all the same. And that give you a feeling of watching a movie with layers of suspense. For instance, You don't understand Kikuchiyo's character completely till the very end.
Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, the grand old man of the village (very much like our dear old AK Hangal - ఇద్దరి పాత్రలకి ఎక్కడా పోలిక లేదనుకోండి) and the villager with perennially pathetic face (who also makes an appearance in Ikiru) - without an exception everyone performs superbly. The setting, especially the village looks very real much like our Sholay's Ramgarh.
Ultimately, you have to give it to Kurosawa for his strong script, attention to detail and flawless execution (well, almost!). Strongly recommended for multiple viewings.