Movie: One of the quirks of remaking a movie into television show is how you handle the points beyond the movie's original premise. One of the most recent examples would be how Stargate evolved into Stargate SG-1 by adding in a whole hierarchy of enemies and then made up new ones once those were properly vanquished. Were it not for the development of this idea, the series would've been short-lived to say the least. Well, in a similar situation the Kurosawa classic, Seven Samurai was recently updated in Japan with a huge budget anime series, which right out of the gate with Samurai 7; was named the top anime of the year by DVD Talk. Having reviewed Samurai 7 #1, Samurai 7 #2, Samurai 7 #3 and then Samurai 7 #4, 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 increased 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 #5: Empire in Flux: Limited Edition. The episodes were 17) The Remembrance, 18) The Emperor, 19) The Mutiny, and 20) The Execution. With these four episodes, the series finally leaves the original classic behind completely as the bandits are pretty much defeated and the group remembers the sacrifice of their fallen comrade. The initial idea is that the job of the group is not yet through since the peasants have their rice fields to reap and they are still in need of rebuilding their community after the devastation they were visited with. Each member of the team finds a different focus for their efforts, but Kambei embarks on a solo mission to rescue the stolen wives and girlfriends of the villagers that the bandits sold to the Emperor at the mysterious capital city. As a matter of honor, he leaves without the others, considering it to be a suicide mission, though some days later, his friends decide that he's going to get their help whether he wants it or not.
Interestingly enough, little is known of the Emperor or his means of controlling the various factions throughout the land by this point. That changes when the revelations of how the system works are discovered by the team. The bandits, the peasants, the remaining samurai, and the merchants are all involved in a precarious ecosystem held together by the Emperor's control. As Kambei and crew learn of how things work, an internal power struggle ensues where their arch enemy Ukyo becomes the favored clone of the Emperor, a divine descendant destined to rule the land. When Kambei makes a bold attempt to free the women from the grasp of their captors, he gets quite a surprise which ultimately puts his neck on the chopping block. Without spoiling the action for you, suffice it to say that Kambei doesn't want to die just yet (with his quest unfulfilled) and his teammates aren't too thrilled at the prospect either. Contrary to the opinion of a limited few, Kurosawa himself would've probably embraced the furtherance of the story given how things picked up from the end of what he made previously (though admittedly updated in some bizarre ways). I continue to believe the series is worth a rating of Highly Recommended thanks to how well it has continued with what was already a near perfect tale to begin with. The political machinations of Ukyo to ascend onto the throne as well as how the story sets up to finish were all deeper than previously seen in the series and a great launching point for the rest of the episodes to conclude.
Picture: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #5: Empire in Flux 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. As a side note, reports that the audio tracks have been messed up are greatly exaggerated (as usual) though your personal preferences may impact your enjoyment somewhat. The dubbed tracks on the series follow the standard practice of livening up the special effects and music to somewhat higher levels than the original track. This doesn't make either of them better, or worse, just slightly different. The same could be said of the subtitles, which were not identical to the spoken language tracks on the dub. On a properly balanced system, you should have no issues with the audio (and on a generic, through the TV speaker set up, the effect is the same, though of course limited).
Extras: I originally received the barebones version to review this time and needless to say, the extras were limited. There wasn't even an episode from the upcoming DVD release of a CGI show called Mr. Stain on Junk Alley as on previous volumes. There was also another paper booklet insert, the large glossy style that has been a standard in the previous episodes, that had sketches, lots of text, and interviews from director Toshifumi Takizawa, art designer Makoto Kobayashi, director of photography Hiroo Yoshioka, and editor Aya Hida. Otherwise, there was the usual double sided cover, clean opening and closing (in the form of theme songs), and trailers that are kind of standard everywhere these days. Thankfully, the limited edition was every bit as good as I expected, with a set of four sketch books (one from each episode) . Rather than rely on words alone, here are a few pictures to better display the extras included in the large box they came in:
It's tough to describe the quality of the package without a picture or two. This was the set (not including the DVD).
The sketch books proved to be an invaluable tool to see the evolution of the episodes, with one per episode included.
Final Thoughts: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #5: Empire in Flux was conceptually the leaping point from where the entire creative team was heading into the unknown without the guidance of the time tested material forming the original story. While the rest of the show was a great tribute to the classic movie, this was where the pedal hit the metal in terms of proving their salt. In short, they were not found lacking as the intricacies of their work seemed to follow the ebb and flow of the original far better than previous updates (that were easily attempts to cash in on the success of the original, like The Magnificent Seven Ride Again as but one poor example). It helped that the production values remained consistently high too but in the end, Samurai 7 seemed to be the kind of show that will stand the test of time and also stand on it's own two feet, as more than a tribute to the original. In that sense, Gonzo and FUNimation are both to be congratulated for a job well done. Get the whole series and you'll see what I mean but this is one of those shows that lives up to the original marketing hype and surpasses it by a wide margin.
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.