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. As with many works of art, people try to update the story from time to time but the best attempt I found recently was Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 vol.1
Here's a quick overview of what I said about that first volume to help explain the latest addition to the series, Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 vol. 2, the subject of today's review: "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 episodes this time were 5) The Drifter, 6) The Fool, 7) The Friend, and 8) The Guardians. The primary thrust of them was to add to the cast of samurai joining the cause as Kirara's quest continued to meet resistance from the ruling merchant (and his spoiled son). An important government figure is assassinated and the Magistrate takes advantage of the situation to route out all remaining samurai in the city as suspects, placing them under lock and key. Needless to say, the group of adventurers sees this in decidedly mixed terms with one thought being it will make recruitment more difficult while the other holding that any samurai lame enough to get caught by the officials wouldn't be worth having. It does present some unique problems however and forces the team on the road when all is said and done, causing the loss of one party member while others joined up.
The underlying theme that the Nobuseri (the mechanized bandits that are the main problem of the villagers hiring the samurai) are still out there and in need of being stopped was downplayed in the initial episodes as Ukyo, the Merchant's spoiled son hot for Kirara, attempts to gain her for his own (much to the dismay of his father). Kikuchiyo, the mechanized man-turned-machine, continues to turn in the comic relief (sometimes unintentional at that), with the addition of two strange samurai, Kambei's old friend Shichiroji, and a young but skilled Heihachi (the wood chopping samurai). Fleeing the area under duress, they meet a set of powerful warriors with strange attributes, the Guardians, who are powerful enough that even the Magistrate's men leave them alone. In all though, the spirit of Kurosawa's original movie did not meet the dreaded sophomore slump as some have claimed, even if a few of the scenarios weren't as great as the rest of the cast.
As I said before: "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 vol. 2 but check it out for yourselves rather than rely on critics like myself."
Picture: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 vol. 2 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: The extras were decidedly less interesting this time but managed to capture my interest nonetheless with the standard image gallery, character profiles, textless songs, trailers and double sided DVD cover complemented by an incredibly silly (though totally addictive) CGI show called Mr. Stain on Junk Alley. The short was a hilarious skit involving three characters, Mr. Stain, a Rasta man type hobo, a sweater wearing cat named Palvan, and a little lizard called Rings as they sought to quench their appetites by scrounging the junk in an alley of a city. You'd have to see it to believe it folks but I want more!
Final Thoughts: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 vol. 2 was full of the same qualities that made Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 vol.1 one of the best, if not THE best anime release of the year. The artwork, music, story and care that went into putting them altogether were so exceptional that most of you will find it a quantum leap ahead of most other series released this year with no hint of a sophomore slump throughout the four episodes. If the rest of the series can maintain this kind of quality, it should be the crown jewel in the FUNimation empire, all for good reason mind you, and win accolades for years.
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