Movie: There are few names in film making as revered as Akira Kurosawa and for good reason. The man was a master in so many ways that it's easy to forget his humble beginnings. One of his best movies was, of course, the Seven Samurai, a movie where a ragtag group of samurai warriors battled evil bandits to protect a small farming town for little in return. More has been written on this film than probably any other movie in the history of Japan (if not the world) due as much to the complexities of the characters as the style Kurosawa used to make it. Over the years, the film has served as the inspiration for a great many other stories, including today's review of Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7.
The anime series is as much a tribute to the original movie as a futuristic update contained in a full 26 episode series by Gonzo as released domestically by FUNimation Entertainment. If ever there was a wealth of material to explore and revisit, it is surely the original tale by the legendary Kurosawa and thankfully, based on the first four episodes contained in Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 Vol. 1, I have the pleasant task of telling the rest of you how great this series promises to be. Here's the overview from the back DVD cover before I get too far into my review, noting that it sets the stage for the series quite nicely:
"Set in a futuristic world that has just witnessed the end of a massive war, scores of villages are terrorized by Nobuseri bandits. But the Nobuseri are no normal bandits. They were once Samurai, who during the war integrated their living cells with machines to become dangerous weapons now appearing more machine than man. Absolute power corrupts, and their reign of terror is increasing its hold on the countryside. But one group of villagers has had enough, deciding to hire samurai to protect their village. Kiara is a young priestess who travels to the city seeking out protection. One by one, she encounters brave samurai that the war has left behind. These men and women of skill and valor are each unique and not without their quirks. But can they come together as one to defend the helpless village?"
The initial episodes all focused on the beginning premise and recruitment of four skilled samurai. In episode 1) The Master, the farmers of the Kanna Village make the desperate decision to hire samurai to protect them from the hordes of mechanized bandits left after the war. They send their water priestess, Kirara, and her friends to go to the big city for this important mission. The first samurai they encounter worth his weight in gold is Kambei, a seasoned samurai with the kind of leadership skills they need to recruit others to the cause.
The second episode 2) The Pupil, found the group coming across the willing (if unskilled) Katsushiro, a man too young to have fought in the great war but with all the spirit needed to spur the others into action. Kirara's reluctance to accept him (due to her divining crystal not lighting up in his presence) matters little to him as he has little of the bittersweet memories the other wandering ronin (masterless samurai) have. Complicating matters is the fact that a selfish little troll, in the form of a magistrate's son, takes a shining to Kirara and it may well be that Katsushiro is her only hope.
The third episode, 3) The Entertainer, had the cast encountering Gorobei, an extremely talented samurai who survives by means of entertaining an increasingly jaded crowd. Unlike some of the other cast members, he is very pragmatic about life and wastes little time concerning himself with principle, much to Katsushiro's dismay. By this point in time, Kikuchiyo, a samurai who himself transformed into a mechanical being, joined the cast although his skill is questionable (certainly compared to his incredible strength). In many ways though, he is a blood brother to the philosophy of Gorobei.
In the fourth episode, 4) The Loner, Kyuzo, crosses paths with the cast. His claim to fame is having enough skill to go head to head with any other living samurai, including Kambei, but working for the magistrate as the modern day equivalent of a brutal hitman. He seeks to refine his skill ever further as the end of the age of samurai appears closer on the horizon. By the end of this episode, it becomes clear that the task at hand is as much staying alive as it is to bring the needed warriors to the village to protect it.
Okay, how does the series hold up to the original material you ask? It holds up extremely well in my opinion. While Seven Samurai may indeed be referred to by many as the perfect movie, the modernization of it can be viewed as an homage more than an attempt to cash in. As I understand it, the amount of money spent on this series equates to making it one of the most expensive movies (far surpassing any anime series to date) in Japanese history with something akin to $8 million spent on it. Every dollar shows up on the screen too with a complex layer of backgrounds and technical excellence rarely found these days; providing me hope that future volumes live up to the promise set forth here. I know some purists will dismiss this one as yet another wannabe but as the owner of an original OOP copy of Criterion's release, I think action fans will find a lot to like here.
Another benefit of this update is that it provides a more complex tale in the samurai vein, milking the additional material that details the rise of the merchant class along with the decline of the warrior age of honor, truth, and skill as embodied by the samurai. Say what you will about war, military progress, and the mindset needed to promote such things but the fact remains that the duplicity of the merchants and their world will likely be a major factor in the remaining volumes, and a welcome addition given what was shown here. I haven't seen any criticism of the show just yet (the movie comes out tomorrow and even the official website had precious little information for this fan) but taken on its own terms, this seems like one of the best anime releases of the year already, no small task given just one set of four episodes is available at this time. I'm going to rate it as Highly Recommended for a general audience and even higher for anime fans of action releases. FUNimation has another winner on its hands with Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 but check it out for yourself rather than rely on critics like myself.
Picture: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 Vol. 1 was presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen color with a healthy mixture of traditional anime techniques as well as the increasingly common CGI modern series are employing. I saw no visual flaws worth mentioning, including no compression artifacts or video noise, with a seamless look to most of the combined styles this one used to convey the story. On sheer look alone, it merited more than a second glance due to the manner in which the elements were used to tell the time tested story as modernized by anime. I watched it several times and saw more detail each time but the story kept me focused, drawing me in over and over again, so any flaws you see will be the product of a vivid imagination or weak equipment outside of stuff so minor that fans aren't going to care about.
Sound: The audio was presented with the traditional choice of a 5.1 Dolby Digital track in either the original Japanese with English subtitles or a English dubbed track. I listened to each track and found subtleties to enjoy with both of them, unlike many dubbed series that fall far short of the mark. The characters all sounded exactly right, without the kiddy styled goofiness used to often to draw a younger crowd. The special effects were also solid, using an understated method to achieve the auditory aspect of story telling. Lastly, the music score was well fitted to the show, making me long for a music CD of the material in order to hear if it would stand alone as so few scores to anime series are capable of. In general terms though, there was a lot of separation between the channels, great dynamic range, and a lot of care put into the audio worth upgrading an audio set up if need be.
Extras: Most of the time, extras consist of a very limited batch of trailers, clean openings and closings, and a crummy paper insert. While this release had those, it also had an excellent 32 page multi-colored booklet that gave the creators a chance to shine with their impressions, some solid artwork and character diagrams, and some wonderful background data to appreciate. I can't say enough about how much value this extra added for me and if there exists a better version somewhere (many anime releases come in two versions, the basic version and the frills laden bonus releases), it wouldn't bother me one bit. There was also a nice little section on the DVD to provide background data on the main characters but the booklet ruled in my eyes.
Final Thoughts: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 Vol. 1 only had four episodes on the DVD but the quality of the show in all aspects was enough to make me forget my usual leanings towards the quality versus quantity need for five episodes. The visuals, sound, and animation techniques used were head and shoulders above the majority of works available these days, proving the costs were well worth it this time. Due in large part to the reverence the creative team appeared to have for the legendary Akira Kurosawa, the show was nothing like the usual knockoffs I've come across and my hope is that the following volumes are as well handled as this one was. Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 Vol. 1 is certainly a feather in the cap for FUNimation and another leap forward on their part for dominance in the field of anime.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 article or regular column Anime Talk