Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Shichinin no samurai’ (‘Seven Samurai’) is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, regardless of country of origin. The lengthy film, which inspired the American translation ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ and Pixar’s ‘A Bug’s Life,’ tells a story of morality, honor, and sacrifice through the gripping tale of a village that has grown tired of being raided by bandits. Seven warriors are recruited to defend the village from the bandits, their only payment being their meals, and the village’s respect.
So, I know what you’re thinking: what would it be like if we took that classic story, from one of cinema’s all time masters, changed the actors into anime characters, threw in a “water priestess” and her Gungan-ish little sister, giant ass robots, computer effects, and a storyline that extends beyond the defense of the village? Heresy, right? The funny thing is, despite being a huge fan of the original, I found plenty of things to like in the anime reiteration, ‘Samurai 7,’ though it is nowhere near as timeless or magical as it’s source.
Kirara is the water priestess, a young woman who’s life is dedicated to mysticism. Her village of Kanna has been ransacked numerous times by the Nobuseri (bandits), and the village elders have finally decided to fight back, sending Kirara, her young sister Komachi, and peasant Rikichi to the city to find samurai to defend them before the next harvest is due. They quickly cross paths with Kambei, a veteran of many battles, but always on the losing side, who’s strong ideals and heart make him the man they want to build around. After countless rejections from lesser samurai, Kambei is able to create his group of defenders in the inexperienced but eager Katsushiro, the nimble Gorobei, Kambei’s former partner in war Shichiroji, the brutish, childish mechanical samurai Kikuchiyo, mechanical genius Heihachi, and Kyuzo, a silent bodyguard who chooses to help Kambei so as to get the chance to kill him when the fight is done.
There is more this time around than just a crew of bandits to worry about. The Nobuseri are former samurai who have sold their bodies to become mechanical warriors (think Kikuchiyo, but on a grand scale), and they greatly outnumber the seven samurai. Additionally, politicians and merchants wrestle for control of the empire, due to ulterior, mysterious motives that tie directly to the fate of Kanna. When the battle for Kanna ends, a war with much higher stakes will begin.
No matter how many times it gets remade, Kurosawa’s classic will never be equalled. ‘Samurai 7’ puts forth a valiant effort, especially considering the expansive runtime, and how difficult it is to maintain momentum for over ten hours, but it falls short due to a severe lack of heart. The mixture of feudal warfare and mecha does mix wonderfully, but this particular pairing muddies the classic sensibilities to the point that it may be considered a bastardization aimed at those with attention deficit disorder rather than those looking for story.
The show fails a bit due to it’s insistence on plot twists. Clones? Love triangles? Maury Povich style pregnancy drama? There is no shortage of modern trash mucking up this story to help fill the time. The story even sets in place a samurai’s vulnerability to gunfire, yet by the end of the series, has every samurai deflecting shots at their firers as if they were Jedi. Yeah, consistency is lacking a bit. ‘Samurai 7’ even falls victim to a clip show, despite each episode being presented with a short recap of previous events. The fact that the first real emotional impasse of the series is ruined by this cheap and lazy style of storytelling dramatically softens the blow from the events that had just happened.
Flawed as it may be, the show does offer much to enjoy, for a casual anime fan, or a fan of samurai films. The action is amazing, both fast and nasty, with plenty of differences in the characters, making it easy to find one to enjoy following as they progress through their own arc. The integration of CG with traditional 2D animation can be a bit peculiar at times, though for the most part it works quite well, especially considering the fact that the tale being told is that of the old fashioned way of the warrior versus those who sold their souls to be mechanical beings, warriors of tomorrow. I enjoyed the show on my first time through it tremendously, and while more of it’s shortcomings became apparent on second glance, it didn’t prevent me from having a good time.
‘Samurai 7’ hits Blu-ray with an AVC/1080p codec, with a 1.85 aspect ratio, with somewhat mixed results. CG effects dominate the opening sequence, with a beautiful array of colors and explosions galore. The first episode has an intentional “mist” in the scenes, which severely hamper the detail of the show, but as it is a part of the show, this is not the Blu-ray’s fault, and the misty scenes do pop back up a few times later on. I also noticed some vertical blue lines in the cloudscape during the first episode.
The CGI blends fairly well with the traditional 2D animation, but due to some of the hand drawn animation being made on the cheap, with generic, non-detailed blobs, which make the blend at times look a bit awkward. Some shots look like crude traces of character designs, and the 1080p picture makes the scenes that were done on the cheap stand out like a sore thumb. Fortunately, backgrounds are very detailed, and are very sharp and clear, putting the forefront picture to shame at times. Colors can be incredibly vibrant, as every moment the Ukyo character is on screen a rich display of pinks, blues and purples shine, though at times the color scheme of the show can feel a bit drab and plain. Color banding, a common detracting element of animated titles, rears it’s head plenty of times across the 26 episodes. There is also an interesting coloring issue, particularly noticeable during the “The Guardians” episode, where you can see multiple colors on characters' faces, that appear to have been intended to give some shading, but due to the enhanced clarity, make the characters look like they have skin disease.
The show suffers from having different lightly toned colored lines across the screen throughout the majority of the run time. Whether it be from the original prints as an aesthetic choice, or a post production lightening method, it doesn’t help that this Blu-ray picks up every bit and enhances it, making shots look a bit weaker than they should, as these lines move over characters. Additionally, some green coloring can be found in character’s skin tones and hair, which got incredibly distracting, considering the lengthy run time, and they are present throughout the entire series. In short, for every pro, there’s a con. This anime release may put the DVD releases to shame, but it certainly doesn’t shine on its own.
There is much more to like with the audio on this release. ‘Samurai 7’ defaults to the English dub track presented in DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, but a similar lossless Japanese language track is selectable. Having first viewed the show in English from the DVD’s, I went through the series for the first time in Japanese with this Blu-ray release, and found it to be quite enjoyable, just short of being truly impressive.
There is plenty of localized dialogue and a lively ambiance throughout the show spread out through the sound field, creating a nice immersive feel. One can hear countless effects going on at once, as characters scream while their blades cut through the air until they hit their adversaries, creating a high pitched squeal of metal on metal, or as Kikuchiyo cuts down his foes, a reciprocating saw sound. The bass can be very powerful, as well, with the roars of the mechanized warriors rumbling as they pass, never too loud to overshadow the numerous other effects happening at any given time. Effects move seamlessly through the surrounds, fairly often, actually, further immersing one in the action. The dialogue, in English or Japanese, is clear and consistent, and is very easy to follow.
I did find some faults in this audio mix, they may be nitpicks, but they are worth noting. The opening CG sequence recounting some of the scenes of the great war, for example, feels a bit muted compared to the action sequences involving the Nobuseri in later episodes, as the bass rumble that invades the show is definitely not present in this shot, despite the massive scale of the battle being very similar to the opening of Star Wars: Episode III. I also caught some timing errors, like the scene with Heihachi chopping wood, you hear the katana swoosh through the air and the sound of the wood splitting completely in half before he even makes contact.
Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Samurai 7': The Complete Series may be an interesting release, loaded with fun characters, great action, and a story that expands upon the original tale of the village terrorized by bandits. It's also an anime loaded with some content that I’d imagine would make the master spin in his grave. Fans of the show should not hesitate to pick up this release, as it is an effective, solid upgrade, but the uninitiated should sit down to the black and white samurai classic to test the waters before delving into this overstretched translation.