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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Samurai 7: Box Set
Samurai 7: Box Set
FUNimation // Unrated // July 1, 2008
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted September 8, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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So here I am in the unfortunate position of offering up a dissenting opinon for "Samurai 7." The series, a bold anime reworking of Akira Kurosawa's classic "Seven Samurai," earned a good deal of buzz following its debut on Japanese TV in 2004, buzz which only grew louder once the show premiered Stateside on the cinephile-centric cable outlet IFC. The series eventually received a hefty batch of positive reviews right here on DVD Talk (click here to find them all); the staff even went on to name it the best anime DVD release of 2005.

And no, I didn't much care for it.

Sure, it's visually striking, but not for what ranks among the most expensive anime series yet produced. Sure, its epic sweep is riveting, but only to a point, and after a while, the filler outweighs the meat of the tale. Sure, the blend of the futuristic and the archaic is inventive, but too many of the steampunk designs seem ill-conceived. And sure, the series showcases the best of what anime has to offer, but it also showcases the worst, with the corny dialogue and the too-broad humor and the annoying kids. Who thought it would be a good idea to put wide-eyed children in the middle of "Seven Samurai"?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the series is most effective when it remains most faithful to the original. Themes of honor, duty, and class still abound, and they're handled smartly, revealing the timeless nature of Kurosawa's drama. When the changes are merely cosmetic - flying robots instead of human bandits - the feeling is that it's an innovative twist on an old legend; the heart of the story will always be powerful, whether the leads are in ancient Japan, or the American old west, or here, in this strange new-old future.

But Kurosawa's film was a mere (!) three-and-a-half hours in length, while the series' producers have ten hours to fill, and there's only so far you can stretch the source material. Sometimes it works, as the extra time provides some extra breathing room for the story and its characters, especially in the early episodes, which focus on the recruitment of the samurai. Often, however, the producers widen the scope a little too much, things get cluttered; there's an entire plot thread regarding power struggles, corruption, and villainy in the empire's capital city, and we just don't need it.

Perhaps I should back up: the story retells that classic yarn about a scrappy group of samurai hired to defend a village from ruthless bandits. Here, the setting is a post-war society in a sci-fi land that mixes an absence of technology (the village resembles the 16th century setting of the Kurosawa film) with steampunk technology (the bandits resemble makeshift flying garbage cans - probably not the best design choice for your villains, but it keeps the hi-tech looking low-tech), then adds giant robots in the classic "mecha" mold.

The series maintains the samurai characters from the original film, more or less: there's Kambei, the wise but weary leader; Katsushiro, young and never battle-tested; Kikuchiyo, the blowhard who's not really a samurai but a farmer who hopes to fake it; and so on. Of them all, Kikuchiyo suffers the only major alteration, being used in an expanded comic relief role that's more obnoxious than funny. (His rare serious scenes, meanwhile, are quite touching.) He's also reworked the most for the sci-fi setting; his body has been fused to a (roughly assembled) robotic exoskeleton, creating a stunning character design, a sort of giant in a buckets-and-pans suit of armor.

Added to this is the story of Ukyo, heir apparent to the empire. Rather than make the samurai's defense of the village a simple, small-time affair (its seeming insignificance was important to the themes of Kurosawa's film), "Samurai 7" uses the village battle in a major role to Ukyo's power struggles. Once the series uses up the last of the film's storylines, it's forced to set off on its own in this expanded universe, and the producers turn their attentions to the fate of the entire empire. But what starts off as an intriguing extension of ideas - here, the rise to power of the post-war merchant class adds a new layer to the film's study of the caste system - quickly crumbles, as the political intrigue fails to find footing. Ukyo is an uninteresting villain, and there's too little in his storyline that fascinates.

Other additions - namely that of an "adorable" little sister who provides wrap-up narration in many episodes - are too oddly out of place, as are random attempts at humor that ultimately irritate. (One episode is devoted to the samurai in drag, and you're right, it's not that funny.)

For the most part, "Samurai 7" is a gorgeous project, with rich animation presented in a stunning muted color scheme. But every once in a while, a character design seems rushed, and the difference is distracting. Worse, the choice to render the mechas in 3D computer animation and everything else in tradition hand-drawn 2D isn't as clever as it thinks it is, nor do the two styles mesh as well as they should; again, it's distracting. Still, the backgrounds and most of the character animations are beautiful.

So there you have it. The best anime release of 2005, the title with a long string of our coveted "Highly Recommended" ratings, and I walk away unmoved. I can see the appeal of "Samurai 7" but not the success. It's too poorly paced, with misguided emphasis on the wrong story elements distracting too heavily from the parts that work, ultimately ranking as little more than ambitious, admirable failure.

The DVD

"Samurai 7" is no stranger to DVD, having seen numerous Region 1 releases in the past few years, all from FUNimation, the company handling the series' American repackaging and dub. First came seven individual volumes, at three or four episodes apiece, followed by a complete series box set in 2007. Now comes another complete series box set, this time under the studio's "Viridian Collection" banner, retailing at half the price of the previous set. Other than new slim cases (four total) and new box artwork, these are the same discs as before, so if you're a fan and already have these, there's zero reason to upgrade.

All 26 episodes of the series are spread out over seven discs, identical to their earlier releases. The episodes are:

Disc One: "The Master", "The Pupil", "The Entertainer", and "The Loner".

Disc Two: "The Drifter", "The Fool", "The Friend", and "The Guardians".

Disc Three: "The Bandits", "The Journey", "The Village", and "The Truth".

Disc Four: "The Attack", "The Offering", "The Gun And The Calm", and "The Storm".

Disc Five: "The Remembrance", "The Emperor", "The Mutiny", and "The Execution".

Disc Six: "The Rescue", "The Divide", and "The Lies".

Disc Seven: "The Oaths", "The Last Battle", and "The Era's End".

Video & Audio

The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks splendid, showcasing the best of the series' animation. Colors are rich and detail is plentiful, with the "muted" look coming through wonderfully. Compression issues are completely absent. Some slight interlacing was noticeable in a few rare scenes.

Both the original Japanese soundtrack and FUNimation's English dub are presented in your choice of Dolby 5.1 and 2.0. The stereo mix is surprisingly bold, while the surround mix is, naturally, even better, with effects and music coming through marvelously. Two optional English subtitle tracks are provided: a dialogue track for use with the Japanese soundtrack, and a signs/text/lyrics-only track. The latter subtitle and the English 5.1 dub are the discs' default settings.

Extras

For such a popular title, this set is disappointingly lacking in bonus material, with much of what we do get winding up repeated past the point of redundancy. All seven discs include their own two-minute slideshow of stills from the series (labeled "Image Gallery" and presented in 1.33:1 full frame). At least those change with each disc, unlike "Textless Songs", which are the series' opening (1:28) and closing (1:29) credits, presented without the credits, highlighting the theme songs. (1.78:1 anamorphic, with removable English subs.) They're the same on all seven discs, which makes sense if you were buying them individually, but not here.

The rest of the extras per disc are:

Disc One

Text page "Character Profiles" for Katsushiro, Kambei, Kirara, and Komachi.

"Promotional Video": An extended introductory trailer for the series. (5:22; 1.78:1 flat letterbox; in Japanese with non-removable English subs.)

Trailers for several FUNimation releases (including one for the next volume of "Samurai 7").

A promo for "Lupin the 3rd" plays as the disc loads; it's locked so you can't skip it.

Disc Two

Text page "Character Profiles" for Rikichi, Kikuchiyo, Ukyo, and Shichiroji.

"Mr. Stain on Junk Alley": A full-length episode ("Refrigerator") from this dialogue-less CGI comedy series about a guy, a cat, and a lizard fumbling their way through the ghetto. Meh. (7:05; 1.78:1 flat letterbox.)

Trailers for several FUNimation releases (including one for the next volume of "Samurai 7").

A promo for "Kiddy Grade" plays as the disc loads; it's locked so you can't skip it.

Disc Three

Text page "Character Profiles" for Kyuzo, Nobuseri, Gorobei, and Heihachi.

"Mr. Stain on Junk Alley": Another episode ("Heavenly Bird") of the not-very-funny series. (7:55; 1.78:1 flat letterbox.)

Trailers for several FUNimation releases (including one for the next volume of "Samurai 7").

A promo for "Full Metal Alchemist" plays as the disc loads; it's locked so you can't skip it.

Disc Four

Commentary on "The Offering" by voice director/actor Christopher Bevins and actors R. Bruce Elliott and Sean Michael Teague, all from the English dub. It's the only commentary to be found in the entire set, so it's disappointing that there's not much said here. The trio gives plot recap in between some jokes about the show, and little else.

"Mr. Stain on Junk Alley": Yet another bonus episode ("Cassette Tape"). (7:06; 1.78:1 flat letterbox.)

Trailers for several FUNimation releases (including one for the next volume of "Samurai 7").

A promo for "Desert Punk" plays as the disc loads; it's locked so you can't skip it.

Disc Five

Trailers for several FUNimation releases (including one for the next volume of "Samurai 7").

A promo for "Dragonball Z" plays as the disc loads; it's locked so you can't skip it.

Disc Six

Trailers for several FUNimation releases (including one for the next volume of "Samurai 7").

A promo for "Negima" plays as the disc loads; it's locked so you can't skip it.

Disc Seven

Trailers for several FUNimation releases.

A promo for "Kiddy Grade" plays as the disc loads; it's locked so you can't skip it.

Final Thoughts

Despite your thoughts on "Samurai 7" itself, there's too limited an audience for this release. Most fans likely have this series in their collections, and I can't see them buying it again just to save a few inches of shelf space. To those of you, I say Skip It. New fans of the series and those that haven't yet purchased the old set might appreciate the lower price, but will grumble over the same old mediocre extras. You've waited this long to buy, and this set delivers no reason to start now.

However, I'll aim a slightly higher rating of Rent It at the rest of you, those who have yet to experience the series, those who are curious about the fuss. Ignoring the triple-dip nature of the release, and focusing entirely on the program's value and disc quality, there's enough here to earn a peek or two, but not enough to demand repeat viewings.
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