Samurai 7 - Complete Series Review

Based on Akira Kurosawa’s epic classic Seven Samurai, this anime updating, spread across 26 episodes on 7 DVDs, expands the story into even greater epic proportions, while at the same time remaining essentially faithful to the characterisation and themes of Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

In addition to the regular hazards of suffering from drought, the peasants of Kanna village have to contend with fearsome bandits who arrive every year to steal their crops, taking what little they have, and even abducting their women. The farmers are ill-equipped to defend themselves from these incursions, but decide they have to do something about them. They send a couple of villagers into the city with what little rice provisions they own to try to hire some samurai hungry enough to come to their aid against the attacks from the giant mechanical bandits and their enormous flying warships. That’s right, "mechanical bandits" and "flying warships"...

The futuristic setting for Samurai 7 isn’t as much of a stretch as you might think however. George Lucas has often acknowledged the influence of Kurosawa’s films on his work (particularly Hidden Fortress), and when you see a small village community here in a setting not unlike Tatooine, being brought violently into a larger conflict on a scale they could never imagine, the underlying influences of the original Star Wars movie are even more evident, and not at all out-of-place when you see that futuristic look and feel brought back into Samurai 7. Like the decline of the Jedi, the merchant era in Samurai 7 has seen the decline of the warrior ethic in favour of an Imperial mandate that favours the wealth that can be accumulated through commerce, but it is also a social situation that has resonances with Japanese history, and it’s one that makes the epic pretension of Samurai 7 valid and worthy of expansion upon the original Kurosawa story.

Samurai 7 takes its time to elaborate upon these circumstances in the opening episodes of the story where the villagers are desperately trying to recruit the samurai who are going to help them save their village. The task has been given over to Kirara, a young priestess who has a sacred place in the village as the Mikumari, the maiden of the shrine who bears a crystal which helps her divine water sources, but the farmers hope that her skills can also lead them to the right kind of samurai that their village needs. There are plenty of starving samurai to choose from after the great wars, but they are a sad bunch whose power and influence is on the wane. It is the merchant class which is now rising in prominence (and who are directly or indirectly responsible for the impoverished conditions of the peasants). This battle between the classes is fought out in these early episodes of recruitment of the samurai, setting the background and the scene for what is to follow.

What these early episodes also do quite effectively, is define the distinct characteristics of each of the chosen samurai and demonstrate the unique qualities they have which will come into play in the defence of Kanna Village. Surprisingly - considering the futuristic setting – these remain largely faithful to Kurosawa’s original characterisation. There’s the sensei, the inexperienced young boy, the showman, the woodcutter – even Toshiro Mifune’s hot-head character is transformed effectively here into a rampaging and blundering mechanical samurai Kickuchiyo, whose bravery is beyond question, but who has a propensity to act before thinking and in the process has the habit of losing a few vital mechanical body parts. As well as defining each of the characters and setting the scene by pitting them against Ukyo, the merchants, the city troops and the forces of the Empire, the battles also serve to bond the group together most effectively as a unit even before they face the decisive task for which they have been hired, but also shows the areas of weakness that they need to build upon.

So long however does the search for the samurai take that the bandits are well aware of their intentions even before they have gathered their full complement of seven warriors. The series however finds other means of generating suspense and, at the same time, some humour, as in the consequently necessary clandestine journey of the samurai to the village. The villagers’ fear of the samurai is furthermore compounded since the bandits have threatened serious retaliation against them should they welcome the samurai into the village. While this inevitably takes away from the element of surprise that is so vital in their confrontation with the overwhelming forces of the bandits, Samurai 7 uses this variation from the original plot to its advantage, helping to prevent the story from slipping into predictability for those already familiar with how the original plays out, extending it considerably beyond the finale of Kurosawa’s film. Realising that there is more at stake than the problems of one little village, and the samurai have to take their battle much further here – right to the heart of the Empire.

If the strength of characterisation and purpose is attributable to Kurosawa to a large degree then (and even Lucas to a lesser extent), only developed further in the animated series, the animators deserve full credit for the imaginative fight sequences which define the samurai and bond them as a group, as well as measure the pace of the otherwise drawn-out length of the story. If the animation is not always consistent, imaginative or original elsewhere - and largely often quite static - in the fight sequences at least there is a sense of dynamic and choreography, to say nothing of thrills, adventure and a building sense of tension. CGI graphics are not quite seamlessly integrated into the traditional cel animation, but are used appropriately for the complex machinery of the Nobuserai, setting a distinction between the machine-corrupted samurai and ordinary citizens.

On the downside, it is the traditional episodic television series elements that intrude on the otherwise epic quality of the series. A strong inspirational leader is certainly required, but looking very westernised and almost like Jesus, Kambei is rather too superhuman, lacking the emotional qualities of Takashi Shimura’s portrayal in Kurosawa’s original 1955 film. It has to be said that this quality is perhaps more evident in the rather self-important Messianic toned voice-acting of the English version, and less of a problem in the original Japanese version. Rather more annoying is the inclusion of the kiddie element in the form of Komachi, a young girl who irritates no end and has a cutesie closing sequence of her own in which she summarises the adventures of the day. Fortunately, this element, as well as the horribly inappropriate Pokémon-like opening rock song and the traditional moodier closing ballad, the coming episode previews and the start of episode recaps can fortunately all be excised with a few flicks of the next chapter button. This also has the benefit of considerably reducing the running time without having any impact whatsoever on the plot.

Surprisingly, although the series largely follows the plot and intent of Kurosawa’s original film, it’s the post Kurosawa episodes of the series that become rather more predictable, falling back into repetition and showing less imagination than the first two-thirds of the story. Any slackness in the over-extension of the story however is largely compensated for by the thrilling, spectacular and quite moving finale, which fully lives up to the qualities of its original source, delivering action and adventure, as well as an important life-lesson.

Samurai 7 is released in the UK by MVM, as a 7-disc box-set collection. The DVDs are in PAL format, on dual-layer discs, and encoded for Region 2.

Despite some problems with the usual NTSC to PAL conversion and the inevitable interlacing, the video quality is excellent. On a regular CRT display at least you will scarcely be aware of any conversion issues, the image having superb stability, good definition and no motion artefacts. Motion artefacts or combing caused by the interlacing isn’t really a problem on a progressive display either, and will only become noticeable when flicked through in freeze-frame. However, the standards conversion has introduced other issues which may be evident in panning movements, losing the smoothness of the flow and causing jerking artefacts where lines break-up. Chroma noise and colour banding can also be detected if examined closely enough. In the main though, regardless of the display device, the image will look perfectly fine and the issues mentioned cause no significant problems with viewing.

Two audio options are provided – the original Dolby Digital 5.1 Japanese track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 English dub. Both function quite well without being over-showy. There is little use made of the low-frequency channel and the surrounds are also used sparingly and only where appropriate. The clarity, tone and mixing are all fine.

Two English subtitle tracks are provided, as well as the option to view without subtitles at all. One usefully translates signs and notices only, for those listening to the English dub, the other fully translates the Japanese text. The subtitles are not dubtitles, ie. – they are literal translations and consequently differ slightly from the more colloquially translated English dub. The font for the subtitles is yellow, and while white subtitles would be preferred, the tone used here doesn’t conflict too much with the series’ colour schemes.

All of the discs contain similar extra features. Most of the discs have four Character Profiles divided up across the set, and all have textless versions of the Opening Song – Unlimited (1:30) and Closing Song – Fuhen (1:30), as well as a selection of MVM Trailers. Disc 1 has a TV Promotional Video (5:23), which is basically the opening prologue with some character introductions, Disc 2 has the Seven Samurai Trailer (4:04) for Kurosawa’s original film and Disc 4 has a Director/Actor Commentary for episode 14, although it’s just the American voice-actors who participate in this.

It may not be a match for the original film, the animation may not always be the most fluid or innovative, and the kiddie television elements may be a little intrusive in places, but Samurai 7 demonstrates a keen awareness of the essential elements that make Akira Kurosawa’s original film nothing less than a masterpiece – the strength of the characterisation that supports the vital human elements of a thrilling action and adventure film. Retaining these qualities then, making them the focus of the story and putting the strengths of the animation in their service, Samurai 7 is able to move the story into a futuristic updating and marvellously expand further on the original idea, and that’s well worth eleven and a half hours of anyone’s time.

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