Background: In the recent past, I've made numerous comments about classic films and quality anime. I know there are many people out there that "don't get it" when the discussion revolves around anime but just as there were scores of lame Hanna Barbera cartoons, there were a number that many of us old timers hold near and dear to our funny bones (like Yogi Bear). That said, even some of the grumpiest critics recognize that a handful of anime titles compare favorably to the movies Hollywood churns out so regularly (typically relating to the works of Miyazaki) and over the last year or so, I've come to the conclusion that a little series produced by Gonzo and distributed in the USA by FUNimation called Samurai 7 is another that should be equally bandied about. I'm not going to discuss budget, the background of the story by famed director Akira Kurosawa, or other well trodden ground as I have in the past; just a simple note that series of this quality come few and far between (think Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion) with this review concentrating on the final volume of the series; Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #7: Guardians of the Rice.
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?"
In the last volume of the series I reviewed, Volume 6: Broken Alliance, it became clear that the open fighting had given away to far more subtle forms of combat (an area that lead samurai Kambei appeared to excel) as the emperor manipulated the various groups holding some form of power or threat to his reign. The peasants, the Nobusari, the ronin samurai, and even the merchants were all being pit against one another in a vast game of chess with the inevitable winner of the outcome being the emperor himself. Knowing full well of the lies and deceit used by the emperor, Kambei and his friends set out on one last aspect of their mission in order to stave off the coming destruction of Kanna; the village they swore to protect in the earlier part of the show. With only Katsushiro in the village when the mighty capital ship bears down on the village, will the others arrive in time to back him up or just get there in time to see the smoldering ruins as they have with many other villages along the way?
The episodes this time were 23) Oaths, 25) The Last Battle, and 26) The Era's End with a combination of fierce fighting, political intrigue and most of the previous threads being all tied up at the end of the saga. If you've seen the original movie, you'll understand that most of the team bites it in this one and how each dies in combat speaks volumes as to how well the action was thought out with a few subtle surprises that took some getting used to (upon reflection, each had a symmetry to it that made more sense than usual in the disposable manner in which characters die in other shows). I'm not going to spoil the show for you but if you've watched the rest of the Samurai 7 series, you'll be in for a treat to see how it all works out as well as how the characters left standing can be shown as having come full circle. I hated that there were only three episodes and the extras on the regular volume were so limited as to make me wonder if the budget's wad had been shot earlier but I had to rate this one as Highly Recommended for all the factors it had in its favor. This was classic anime in the making to me and the elements combined at the end to forge a new standard in most ways for others to follow.
Picture: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #7: Guardians of the Rice was presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen color as shot by director Toshifumi Takizawa 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).
It's tough to describe the quality of the Limited Edition package without a picture or two. This set was similar to volume five that I had reviewed previously, complete with three sketchbooks.
The sketch books proved to be an invaluable tool to see the evolution of the episodes, with one per episode included. True fans will want the Ltd Ed of the show, regardless of the extra money it will cost them.
Extras: The regular edition had the disc itself with 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 interview with director Toshifumi Takizawa shed some light on a few matters that had been bandied about on various internet forums I've been reading of late. The double sided DVD cover was pretty too but the limited edition was another volume that impressed me overall. The three sketchbooks outlined the action well enough, even providing some material that was ultimately discarded from use for the show (too bad there weren't deleted scenes, huh?) and the book styled box it came it was super high quality too. I know money is tight out there but these have collector written all over them and until a coffee table collection of books is released with the inevitable high definition version of the series, the limited editions will serve nicely in their stead.
Final Thoughts: Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #7: Guardians of the Rice was a sheer delight to watch and listen to in both languages. There was so much going on that multiple viewings will be needed to see it all and while I've been appreciating the series since it first came out, I have to admit that I never thought it would be as complex and richly layered as it turned out to be. The technical qualities, the writing, and the creative energy that went into the show surpassed most of what has come from Japan by a wide margin and even an anime fan such as myself can recognize the difference. In short, Akira Kurosawa's Samurai 7 #7: Guardians of the Rice finished off the wonderful series without missing a beat, tying up the multitude of threads very nicely although admittedly leaving a hint of room for a sequel with some of the characters (hopefully better than the western remake sequels were though). If you're going to pick up one contemporary anime series this year, this would be the one to get, bar none.
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.