Background: When all is said and done, there's a reason why many people cling to the classics for inspiration. These classics take many forms, from poems, to great books, to songs and movies; but in the end, they are classic because they can stand the test of time. Such was the case with an epic adventure of medieval warriors fighting against rogue bandits as filmed by the late, great Akira Kurosawa during the 1950's called The Seven Samurai. If you like cleverly written action sequences, feats of daring do, and the kind of quality that stands as an achievement decades later, you'll appreciate the movie on many levels which is why I was initially skeptical about a series starting awhile back called Samurai 7 as released by FUNimation Entertainment. To my surprise, it was endorsed by Kurosawa's family and showed a lot of creativity and care itself, making it one of my all time favorite anime series to enjoy. Well, the second to last volume of the show, Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #6: Broken Alliance, came out and advanced the story even further, so here's my review of this delightful tale.
Movie: 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?"
If you've followed the events up to the last volume of the series, Volume 5, you'll know that the initial battle against the bandits to save the village of Kanna is over with the bandits defeated for the moment. The samurai, led by Kambei, have taken their losses but decide to finish the job and restore the kidnapped women to their rightful homes. This was where the series departed from the original movie and so far at least, had proven to be a great deal of fun as the story switched gears to focus more on the intrigue surrounding why the bandits have been allowed to pillage the countryside by the emperor as well as the rest of the situation. Now, in episodes 21) The Rescue, 22) The Divide, and 23) The Lies, the team is put to their greatest tests of all as they must protect Kambei's head as it rests on a chopping block, free the women, and deal with the new emperor as quickly as possible, knowing each moment may be their last.
Interestingly, the infighting between the samurai lends itself to the maneuvering by the emperor and he takes advantage of the lack of communication between the various groups, sending out more Nobuseri to raid the villages of the country just as he sends out ronin to protect the villages. The ensuing struggles cause each group to suffer greatly as his powerbase is strengthened and potential threats eliminated one by one. Kambei reads the situation as it truly is but convincing his fellow samurai the truth is not so easy when they are split up and at odds with one another, with the deceit of the all powerful emperor clearly evident when scores of assassins set out to eliminate the samurai once and for all in the most expedient and quite manner possible. The story starts to reach the climax as the character's motivations and personalities come to light more than ever, each growing by the revelations that come before them. With battles on a smaller scale and the end in sight, Kambei makes plans to deal with the threat of the emperor and the capital once and for all, as seen in the concluding episodes of the final volume.
If you've come this far, there's no way you're going to miss the remainder of the series as Kambei and the remaining samurai finish the job they started. With but one volume to go in the series, it was clear that the threads were going to wrap up quickly with massive amounts of carnage taking place as traditional enemies made pacts to restore balance in the country with the hopes of survival increasingly slim. While this volume was less geared to providing sword battles and large scale warfare like some of the earlier episodes, the layers of the writing were deeper as they couldn't rely on blind action to keep the interest of the viewer and on that level alone, I thought the show was worth a rating of Recommended. I disliked the three episodes per volume approach as much as usual and the relative lack of extras combined with it to lower the rating for me but as part of the greater whole, the show was still well above average in terms of quality. When the series eventually gets released as a boxed set, I wonder if any new extras will be included though since they were getting pretty light here (the booklet was still top notch but there was far too much space on the DVD to leave off something of merit).
Picture: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #6 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. 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: The disc itself had some trailers, a clean opening, and a clean closing. For the most part, that's as light as it goes to still register as even having extras so I was thankful that there was still a thick booklet inside the DVD case. The artwork was as magnificent as ever, if not even more so, and the two part interview with character designer Takuhito Kusanagi shed some light on a few matters that had been bandied about on various internet forums I've been watching. The double sided DVD cover was also appealing but without the booklet, I'd have been pissed off about otherwise weak extras.
Final Thoughts: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #6: Broken Alliance provided another quality piece of the puzzle as to where the show could possibly improve on the original movie as the political maneuvering and machinations of the new emperor took center stage. The alliance of samurai was fraying at the edges thanks in part to the manner in which each perceived the events unraveling and the ultimate ending of volume seven was set up nicely. The technical matters were as solid as ever and the story complex enough to provide plenty of room for speculation once the series is over about possible sequels though it's clear that the likelihood that they could shine as brightly as this series has to date is pretty remote. In short, Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #6: Broken Alliance proved to be as complex as the rest of the series and will entertain fans of the series wanting to see how direct action is sometimes the wrong way to approach a situation when politicians get involved. Good work.
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.