To put Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' ('Shichinin no samurai') into perspective without use of hyperbole may be a bit difficult. Instead, to help paint the picture of how highly regarded and loved this film is, I'll use the facts. Currently standing at number thirteen on IMDb's Top 250 (while often finding itself in the single digits), 'Seven Samurai' has been called the greatest film of all time (regardless of age or country of origin) by Empire magazine (2010), is the top rated action film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes with a full 100% (meaning Armond White never reviewed it), is one of only two films listed as being considered the greatest action films ever on Wikipedia, was nominated for two Academy Award nominations in 1957 (for Best Art Decorations and Best Costumes, black and white categories), and has been named to more top one hundred (and top ten) all time film lists than I'd care to keep track of. It has been remade and paid homage endlessly ('The Magnificent Seven' series, 'A Bug's Life,' and an upcoming Weinstein Company project starring George Clooney, as well as a full length anime series, and an episode in the second season of 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars,' which was dedicated to Kurosawa.
I'll just come out and say it, though. Few films are as powerful, moving, well constructed, expertly directed or acted as this three and a half hour action epic, Kurosawa's first full fledged samurai film. Many have imitated it, though none have equaled or bested it.
The tale is that of legend. A mountain farming village is under attack by a band of roaming bandits. Having survived numerous past raids for their barley, the peasants fear they won't have enough food for themselves if they're hit again. With the help of the village elder, the group of cowards decide to fight back, and head out to the city, to enlist the aid of samurai to fend off the bandits. Met initially with disdain and aggression, the simple farmers strike gold by gaining the help of unconventional ronin Kambei (Takashi Shimura), and soon after, he enlists the aid of a handful of other warriors: Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young noble-born samurai seeking experience and teaching; Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), an archer and tactician who helps helm the village defense strategy; Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), Kambei's former Lieutenant in past failed battles; Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), a poor swordsman but lively personality and warming presence; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), an amazing swordsman who knows no rival; and, eventually, Kikuchiyo (the legendary Toshiro Mifune), a brazen, boisterous, foul mannered fool who lacks discipline but makes up for it in effort and insight into the peasants' struggles.
Together, the seven warriors must gain the village's trust, instill fighting abilities in the able-bodied men, create proper defenses to channel the raiding bandit army into a point of their choosing, and live to tell about it. Their struggles with the peasants, bandits, and each other may be the end of them, but the bond they share, working for no money or rank, just the rice that they eat, as they selflessly sacrifice their time, ability, and even lives will never be forgotten.
There's nothing that can be said about 'Seven Samurai' that hasn't already been said before, it's been so analyzed and dissected that further attempts would be futile. I won't pretend to be an expert on the film, despite viewing it on many occasions, and I doubt any of my insights into the film will impress fellow Kurosawa fanatics. However, with each passing year, there is a new breed of budding cinema fanatics that may not have heard about this particular film, its impact, and place in history. If I can convince even one of them to give this film a viewing, I'll consider my job here a success.
This is no ordinary movie. In fact, there may never be another movie like it. Running at over 200 minutes in length, 'Seven Samurai' is no ordinary cinematic endurance marathon. In fact, the only time it reminds us that it's any longer than any other film is the intermission found around the two hour mark. The time flies by so easily, it's almost criminal to think that this was reduced by one full hour for its first run in many countries, including the USA. The plot is divided perfectly: the opening provides us a premise, which leads to the search for the samurai. The presence of the warriors in the village leads up to the two part battle, and then, where finale normally would reign, we get a brief, but perfect, view of the survivors, both samurai and villager, as they go back to their completely separate lives, not to intermingle again.
We see the politics of a land we are too unfamiliar with in this day and age, full of chaos in the absence of a strong force of law, with a large separation between the haves and the have nots, with class separation making ascending the ladder near impossible, back in a Japan when firearms were mostly foreign. The people are bizarre by modern standards, brandishing weapons in streets, running around in nothing but undergarments in shared rooms in inns, and working themselves to death if they weren't born into the right class. They're taught that they are what they are, to marry within the same class. It's really pretty backwards, and in that sense, the most difficult part of the film to relate to.
The plight of the people, though, is easily relatable. In the absence of police or political power, we instead see bandits who rape and pillage their way through life having their way with things, keeping an odd sense of balance with the communities that they don't burn to the ground. With the only commodity to offer those who they ask to risk their lives being common, simple food, we see something not found today, in honor, those seeking out challenge, to help, rather than personally benefit. The samurai, who are all more or less ronin, can take advantage of those beneath them, take their rice and sake, and still turn down their proposal. After all, if the peasants object, they're not the ones with the swords! This is a film portraying a human struggle, while the humans themselves are all replaceable cogs. The samurai, they aren't in a place of inner turmoil, they fight, or they don't. They have nothing to prove, nothing to gain, but everything to lose.
Kurosawa is a legend in cinema for a reason. Historically, 'Rashomon' may be the film that put him on the map, but 'Seven Samurai' showed he's a master of any genre he puts himself to. The perfect, methodical pace, strong attention to detail, and amazing camera angles and use of camera techniques like slow motion were advanced for their time, making for a riveting experience even today. I still have yet to find a single film even close to this length that doesn't labor to get there, or leave me wondering how much longer until I'm done. 'Seven Samurai' literally grabs your hands, and won't let go until it's finished.
Mifune may play the most wild, entertaining, and deep character of the lot, but that doesn't mean his performance isn't equally amazing. He brings the farmer turned "samurai" character of Kikuchiyo to life, with his "anything you can do, I can do better" swagger that is often proved wrong, drunken rages, gleeful shrieks, and hearty laughter that make the character so very lovable. It's also quite fun to see his absolutely humongous blade in every shot, defying practicality, a parallel to his very existence. Shimura also is deserving of much praise, as his portrayal of the patient and brilliant loser of a warrior whose pride no longer matters is the very archetype for many characters we've seen since, including Yoda (back in the days when he was still a puppet).
Tragic, yet joyous. Historical in context, yet entirely fictional (based solely of a minor footnote in history of a village that also hired samurai to defend them). Dead serious, yet amazingly humorous. 'Seven Samurai' is a film that defies convention, and still stands strong among every single film ever made, ready to chop down any that get in its way. Like the legend of Musashi Miyamoto, this film may go down in history as the basis of what a samurai truly was.
The Disc: Vital Stats
One of the Criterion Collection's best selling titles makes its debut on Blu-ray domestically (having previously been available in Japan with no English options as a part of the Masterworks Collection, released late last year) across two Region A locked BD50 discs. The release is housed in a cardboard slideout box, with a fold over digipak housing the two discs on opposite sides. Oddly enough, the booklet included in this set rests in the digipak, rather than outside it. It features essays from eight writers, as well as an excerpt from Mifune, alongside plenty of still photos in black and white. This film is spine number 2 in the Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray sets, though it was spine 67 in the Laserdisc collection.
The (arguably) greatest film of all time isn't the greatest looking Blu-ray disc of all time, as Criterion's 1080p AVC MPEG-4 (1.33:1) encode is slightly problematic, often unimpressive, and nowhere near as astounding as some of their other classic films on Blu-ray. This isn't a matter of age. It's a matter of consistency.
This black and white classic sports some great details, with superb close up details, fine definition in foliage and surroundings, and top notch shadow detail not to be reckoned with. The makeup line for topknot caps is constantly visible, a testament to the clarity. Black levels are superb, though there is some tiny bits of light flickering that can alter them. The transfer is free from artifacting, aliasing, and banding, while DNR is minimal, a tactic employed by Criterion on all of their releases to some effect.
All that said, after all the clean up done to the materials Criterion used, there's still a veritable ton of tiny bits of dirt, lines, and scratches all over the film. Detail levels jump mid-shot far too often, sometimes with what feels like a dull pulse every few seconds that recurs far too often, from start to finish. Ringing is present, as well though it's minimal, to be sure. If it weren't for the random dullness mid-shot, this would have been a pretty great release, regardless of the fine sprinkling of dirt and debris that remains. As is, it's just good, not quite worthy of praise.
'Seven Samurai' is presented with a faithful Japanese Linear PCM (uncompressed) Mono track that has been worked on by Criterion in the past to try to clean up the material and make it sound as new as possible. The liner notes of this release detail the process and work done to the sound elements, but even with the added attention, this film doesn't sound amazing, and chances are, it never will.
Dialogue sometimes has a problem with clarity and distinction, is sometimes a bit shrill, and can find itself buried beneath other sound elements. The score has no problems reaching highs and lows, and even maintaining discernibility beneath every other noise in the film. Ambience is also clear without problem. The film can sometimes sound harsh, no matter what volume level it is set at (though adjusting is never necessary, despite the quiet nature of this release). There is still a bit of whir in the background at times, and some distracting crackle, despite the restoration process. Do not take the low score for an insult. 'Seven Samurai' sounds just fine. It just does not boast the clarity and strength needed to earn praise.
'Seven Samurai' is many things. It is one of the greatest films ever made, standing alongside 'The Seventh Seal,' and 'Citizen Kane.' New films may come and go and capture the minds and hearts of the people, but on pure execution, story strength, acting and direction, few films can even enter the same stratosphere as the Samurai classic from the most legendary Japanese director who ever lived. This Blu-ray release of one of Criterion's mainstays isn't too strong technically, but it carries over all of the extras from the fan favorite three disc 2006 DVD re-release. It's not perfect eye or ear candy, but it's still an upgrade. Highly Recommended.