Seven Samurai Review
One need only look at the scenes from the film used in the menu screen of this new Blu-ray release of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, to appreciate just what a master of cinema the great Japanese director was. Throughout this 3½ hour behemoth, not a single shot is wasted or, merely perfunctory. From simple landscapes or two-shots to awe inspiring mountain panoramas and crowded battle scenes, Kurosawa’s direction is a pleasure to behold. Tellingly, the 3½ hour run-time flies by.
Seven Samurai tells the story of a simple farming village constantly under siege from wild bandits in 16th century feudal Japan. With no recognisable government or administration able to help and the village crops ripening by the day, the farmers know they must act in order to protect their precious harvest from the ruthless bandits. Advised by the sage-like village elder Gisaku (Kokuten Kodo) to employ some ‘hungry’ Samurai to protect the village in return for only 3 meals of rice a day, some of the men travel to a neighbouring town to seek out some likely candidates.
Here we are introduced to the wise and experienced Kambei, (Takashi Shimura) who will become the leader of the group, young Katsushiro, (Isao Kimura) who wishes to be Kambei’s apprentice and become a Samurai himself, cheery archer Gorobei, (Yoshio Inaba) Shichiroji, (Daisuke Kato) an old ally of Kambei’s, Heihachi, (Minoru Chiaki) who keeps the morale of the group up and the silent but deadly swordsman Kyuzo, (Seiji Miyaguchi). We also meet the enigmatic, errant fool Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) who seems intent only on causing trouble and drowning in the local Sake.
Once assembled, the group return to the village, firstly, to find the villagers wary of these incoming Samurai ‘taking their women’ and generally being a bunch of lairy thugs and then, to begin training the farmers to be pro-active in the defence of their homes and their crops. Kambei, Gorobei and Shichiroji between them devise a plan to protect the village from 3 sides but, crucially, leave a gap to tempt the enemy in. The stage, then, is set. Let the bandits come!
There is just so much to love about this film. It’s little wonder it holds so many high place rankings in various polls and on internet movie sites. So many great performances in an incredible cast but I feel I must single out Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, who delivers a performance as good as anything I’ve ever seen! Marlon Brando won the best actor Academy Award for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront in 1954, the year Seven Samurai was released, but I would suggest Mifune’s turn as mercurial Kikuchiyo is better. (For the record, I think Brando’s turn in A Streetcar Named Desire is far more Oscar worthy but he was snubbed that year, while the other main players in Streetcar all won their respective categories. Strange place, this Academy!)
Dramatic wipe cuts - don’t get me started on the Star Wars parallels - intense action, rain soaked battle scenes, daring stunt-work, fulfilling emotional journeys and such a thought provoking, bittersweet ending, it’s all here. This is where it all started for Uncle George! A long way from Jar-Jar Binks! This is undoubtedly a movie which should be in every serious cineastes collection.
Presented in the 1.33:1 aspect, this BD transfer of Seven Samurai is magnificent. We truly are living in a fantastic age for home video releases. To have classic titles like this in such great condition is marvellous.
In the accompanying booklet we are told that the film was restored by Toho in Japan using an original 35mm fine grain master positive and delivered to the BFI. Further digital restoration was undertaken to remove further instances of film damage and warping.
Despite the above statement I am unclear as to whether this BD uses the same source which was used for the Criterion BD release from 2010 or whether Toho Company produced a new duplicate neg for the BFI. Certainly, the same process was used in Criterion’s case, as no original negative survives, so it could well be. Whatever the case, this is a lovely looking transfer. Of course there are still minor dots and spots now and again and there is the tiniest hint of flicker at the beginning of the film (A common trait in old movies) but this ceases almost immediately. I also noticed two instances of jarring between cuts but these must be related to the original source and can no longer be cleaned up. In any case, these are very, very minor details and they in no way distract from the viewing pleasure. Likely, you would only notice after repeated viewings or by being an anorak like me. Everything else about the transfer is, simply, astounding. Sharpness, stability, contrast, brightness and detail are night and day improvements over previous DVD releases. It really is like seeing the film anew. Blacks, whites and greys are surely just as they were intended to be and the films natural grain is present and correct. Averaging a respectable bitrate of about 25 Mb/s, I am delighted with this transfer of Seven Samurai. – Note – The film can be viewed with or without the intermission which comes about halfway through by activating this feature in the Set-up menu on the Main Menu screen.
There is only one audio track. It’ the original mono audio and it’s a re-mastered, lossless beauty. It conveys every gust of wind, rustle of grass, clash of weapons, drop of rain and cry of anguish superbly. The excellent soundtrack, by Fumio Hayasaka, enjoys a much more robust time on Blu-ray. Scored sparingly, and all the better for it, the hypnotic Japanese chords and rhythms spar with the rousing battle theme precisely as the picture requires. The subtitles are clear, well translated and are also removable.
I have to express a smidgeon of disappointment in the amount of extra material backing up this cinematic masterpiece on BD. And a 60th anniversary BD release at that! Nevertheless, the main extra is very good. The Art of Akira Kurosawa is a 48 minute chat with Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns. Rayns speaks enthusiastically and at length, obviously, about the man himself and reveals an incredible amount of fascinating background information. I didn’t know too much about Kurosawa, the man, so I found this very worthwhile and enjoyable. The other ‘on disc’ extra is the original trailer for the film, aslo cleaned up and in HD. I would have LOVED a commentary, at least, on such a landmark film but no can do. It may be worth noting that the US Criterion BD has a barrel load of extras on it, including a commentary. The final extra material is The BFI’s usual exemplary booklet featuring essays’ by Philip Kemp and Gavin Lambert.
If you’ve reached this part of the review I’m sure you’ll know how I feel about this BD release. I think I’ve reached superlative saturation point with regards to the movie itself and nothing else I can say will best what I’ve already slavishly rambled. I only wish we had a larger quantity of extras, more befitting the ‘60th Anniversary’ of such a classic of world cinema. Regardless, this is still a must have for anyone interested in film and the history of cinema.