Movie: I've said it before and I'll say it again that remakes of classics are some of the toughest things to handle properly but when given the right amount of creative talent and resources, you'd be surprised at what anime can accomplish. Such was the case with an award winning series like Samurai 7; named the top anime of the year by DVD Talk. Having reviewed Samurai 7 #1, Samurai 7 #2, and Samurai 7 #3, I've found this to be one of the best titles seen in a long, long time. The series is essentially a remake of the classic samurai tale from the legendary Kurosawa which I described previously as: "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. 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 to be 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?"
That leads up to today's review of Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #4: The Battle For Kanna, the pinnacle of the show as it relates to the original movie release. The selection of the team over with, the arduous travel to the village finished, and the preparations of the villagers pretty much covered; these four episodes made up the thematic bulk of the action as tied into the original movie. The episodes were 13) The Attack, 14) The Offering, 15) The Gun and the Calm, and 16) The Storm; each loosely tied to events as shown in the B & W classic though updated and crafted onto nicely enough. The predicament of the Samurai in this modern update has long been that their opponents were so overwhelmingly superior in terms of size of force, technological might, and all other factors that tying it too closely to the original seemed impossible. Thankfully, this proved not to be the case if you look at the big picture since the team's resolve managed to incorporate the primitive elements all that much more creatively as the Samurai met, and largely defeated their foes (with great sacrifices though, chopping down the team permanently in the process). From the larger battles to the smaller engagements, the series proved to mirror many of the events but it wasn't the same show (neither worse nor better- just different though of equal quality) so while I had a sense of déjà vu watching it, I wasn't left with a "been there, done that" feeling at all.
Seeing the rice villagers of Kanna displayed with all their flaws as in the original was surprising enough to me, all too often anime is rightfully accused of glossing over character flaws in the secondary players, but even the protagonists were not left alone here as they were offered in just enough of a different light to make a newcomer sit up and take notice. The only trick now will be how well the surviving team is used to go on a second, equally important, mission that will require them to do a lot more than tackle so heavily armed, brutal robotic thugs. That gives the series more of a twist in that it shows how the characters can be in a sequel as part of the main premise. I won't give away much more than to say that the corrupt merchants are next on the list but unlike merchants of old, these are armed to the teeth and even more powerful than the Nobuseri bandits (and they also know the team is coming their way).
So, if you've been watching up to this point, there's really no need to try and convince you how detailed, how full of quality on all levels, and how engaging the series is. I'm rating this one as Highly Recommended though when the inevitable boxed set is released, baring any unforeseen circumstances, it should merit the Collector rating hands down. I just hope there's some way that Funimation will be able to include all the value adding extras since my limited exposure to them has been nothing short of great. When I think of how few titles have this level of quality shown on the extras alone, I cringe at the fact that too many anime companies STILL offer almost nothing and limit the number of episodes besides. In all though, you won't find a better update show than Samurai 7 though I hope other companies try to top it in the future.
Picture: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #4 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: This time, I had access to the special limited edition version of the release so the extras were all that much sweeter than I had received in the past. Aside from the large, book-like case, were four storyboard booklets that showed an impressive amount of material (they weren't the kind of thin little paper inserts most of us are familiar with on regular releases). There was also a director's commentary on episode 14) The Offering with director of the English language dub, Chris Blevens, joined by his voice actors for Kambei (Bruce Elliot) and Katsushiro (Sean Michael Teague) to discuss not only the episode at hand but the series as a whole too. There weren't a lot of spoilers but they did manage to cover a lot of ground in the commentary that will add to the value of the release. Next up on my "hey this had cool extras" list was another episode from the upcoming DVD release of a CGI show called Mr. Stain on Junk Alley. The short was a cute skit involving Mr. Stain, a Rasta man type hobo, and his pal as they learned the value of music and dance, albeit to excess. If you haven't seen any of these short skits, you've been missing out since they are lots of fun and well worth checking out repeatedly. There was also another paper insert, the large glossy style that has been a standard in the previous episodes, that had sketches, lots of text, and a couple of interviews from two of the Japanese designers of the show (the art guy and the sound director). Otherwise, there was the usual double sided cover, clean opening and closing, and trailers that are kind of standard everywhere these days.
Final Thoughts: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #4 was a really well done show that did not, as is often the case, fall short in the middle episodes. If anything, it stuck by the original script quite closely and did so with a flair that if handled with any less care would have come off as a copy. Thankfully, our friends in Japan showed the proper respect for the deceased legend of cinema and managed to find a new way of showing the same approximate circumstances well enough to invoke more than a grin on my face as I watched it. Watch the show in order, from Samurai 7 #1, Samurai 7 #2, Samurai 7 #3, and then here and I think you'll find the (limited) initial criticism of pacing issues to be unfounded. The technical matters being top notch, the writing being so nicely handled, and even the English dub being so worthy of appreciation (rather than a knowing shrug that it was "pretty good" as a few other top shows have received in recent years-which stand out as high praise considering early efforts mind you), I can't think of another anime series with as much replay value that didn't seem forced to rely on poorly written mysticism or "fill in the blanks yourself" writing. If you enjoy anime, you should like this one but also film fans should walk away with a sense that anime can be so much more. Do yourselves a favor and get the limited edition versions too since the added material really merited collector status.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, and Best of Anime 2005 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.