While Akira Kurosawa's legendary 1954 epic, The Seven Samurai has been remade once already (check out the excellent western The Magnificent Seven if you haven't already), Gonzo animation proofs that a good story never dies with yet another updating of the film, the 2004 animated series, Samurai 7. While the series was released as a bunch of single discs in 2006 and then as a complete series boxed set in 2007, 2008 sees American distributor Funimation go back to the well one last time, re-releasing the series under their 'Viridian Collection' line in a nice boxed set format. The good news? The series is available in a nice collected edition. The bad news? If you already own the previous releases, there's no reason to pay this one any mind save for the cover art, as it's the only thing that's different.
While Kurosawa's original film was set in feudal Japan, Samurai 7 takes place in the far flung future where a massive war has left many of the small towns in Japan vulnerable to a series of raids and attacks from the sinister Nobuseri bandits who are roaming the countryside. If that weren't bad enough, the Nobuseri are actually former samurai who, during the war, had their bodies mixed in with modern technology to turn themselves into literal killing machines. Given their physical superiority, they basically dominate the countryside and do whatever they please much to the dismay of the various villagers who call the area home. Eventually, the villagers of the small rice growing town of Kanna decide that enough is enough and so they cobble together what little they have to hire a group of noble samurai to protect them from the Nobuseri in exchange for payment in rice, rather than in gold.
A young female priestess named Kirara leaves the relative safety of the village to find the samurai that the village needs in the nearby city. As she makes her way around the soon meets seven samurai who will help her:
Shimada Kambei (Masaki Terasoma/R. Bruce Elliot): a natural born leader who soon devises the ingenious plan that the group will use to defend the village from the Nobuseri, he also has a dark past, one that will come back to haunt him a few times before this mission is over.
Katsushiro Okamoto (Romi Paku/Sean Michael Teague): Katsushiro idolizes Simada Kambei and hopes to learn from him. He's inexperienced as far as actual combat goes, but he's remarkably enthusiastic and his heart is definitely in the right place and he proves early on to be a very fast learner.
Gorobei Katayama (Tetsu Inada/Bob Carter): The clown of the group, Katayama is as deadly with a blade as he is amusing to his comrades. His background is in entertainment, he's acrobatic and quick witted but he's also prone to violence in the heat of battle despite the fact that his character provides much of the comic relief early on in the series.
Shichiroji (Tohru Kusano/Duncan Brannan): an old war buddy of Kambei's, Shichiroji is an experienced samurai who has earned his leader's trust over the years. As such, he's a second in command of sorts - and he's got a grappling hook built into his left hand!
Kikuchiyo (Kong Kuwata/Christopher Sabat): Closer to the Nobuseri than to his fellow samurai, Kikuchiyo paid to have his body turned into a mechanical exo-skeleton. He's temperamental and high maintenance in a lot of ways, but his sword can turn into a massive chainsaw and he's a handy guy to have on your side in a fight. His former life as a village farmer earns him popularity with the current day villagers who want the samurai's help.
Hayashida Heihachi (Junji Inukai/Greg Ayres): A friendly samurai more interested in his next meal than his next battle, Heihachi is more of a weapons guy than an actual fighter. He fashions all manner of inventive gadgets and weapons for his comrades to use in battle and a dark mistake from his past ensures that he is unfailingly loyal to the cause.
Kyuzo (Shinichiro Miki/Sonny Strait): A former bodyguard for hire, Kyzuo is one of, if not the, best combatant out of the entire group of seven. While he's fantastic in a fight, his motives for joining up with the group in the first place are a little suspect...
The twenty-six episodes that make up the complete series are spread out over seven separate DVDs as follows:
Disc One: The Master / The Pupil / The Entertainer / The Loner
Disc Two: The Drifter / The Fool / The Friend / The Guardians
Disc Three: The Bandits / The Journey / The Village / The Truth
Disc Four: The Attack / The Offering / The Gun And The Calm / The Storm
Disc Five: The Remembrance / The Emperor / The Mutiny / The Execution
Disc Six: The Rescue / The Divide / The Lies
Disc Seven: The Oaths / The Last Battle / The Era's End
As the series progresses and the characters start to develop, we get to know these seven core characters better and they each bring their own unique personality traits and characteristics to the group and to the story. As it was in the film that the series is based on, the samurai decide to train the villagers of Kanna to defend themselves from the Nobuseri and as such, we get to know a few of the more important villagers once the plot focuses on that aspect of the storyline. The series winds up being very character driven in much the same way that Kurosawa's film was, though there's no shortage of action scenes to keep things moving at a good pace.
The biggest difference between the original film and the animated series is the setting. Using a sort of steampunk/cyberpunk mix of influences, Gonzo has given Kurosawa's timeless story a very obvious facelift and added lots of different elements in the form of mechanical characters, costume design, and different forms of advanced technology. There are differences in the plot (an extension of the epic battle scene, a love and a love triangle being the most obvious) but we'll avoid detailing those too much as it tends to border on spoiler territory - even if you are familiar with the film, this series holds some welcome surprises. The end product is an interesting mix of classic samurai/chambara storytelling and animated science-fiction, but amazingly enough, it works. There's an obvious love and affection for the source material and the series references the original film on a very regular basis. The careful attention to detail gives the show considerably more depth than you might expect from what is at its core an action/sci-fi mish-mash, but the series does a great job of exploring themes like honor, loyalty and the samurai code and it takes an intelligent approach to the epic story it wants to tell. The series also takes a look at the way different classes of society interact with one another - the way the poor interact with the warrior class, the way that the warrior class interacts with the wealthier merchant class, etc. and this gives the series an interesting political slant.
Of course, as good as the story and the character development may be, it's important, especially with animation, that the visuals are of the same quality. Thankfully Samurai 7 delivers on that level too. The design work is incredibly detailed and just as impressive are the backgrounds where so much of the series plays out. The colors, the character design, the mechanics and the overall look of the show is incredibly slick and very easy on the eyes. There are a few times where some of the characters get a little bit too cutesy but that's a minor complaint - the animation is as epic in its scope as the storyline is in its depth.
In the end, this is one of those projects that just comes together wonderfully. Amazingly enough, Samurai 7 completely succeeds in capturing the spirit of Akira Kurosawa's original film and manages to give it an interesting spin. The changes made to the story will probably irk some purists out there but Gonzo has managed to craft a truly unique and enjoyable series that, even at roughly ten hours in length, is over far too soon.
Every episode in this collection is presented in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen and aside from the fact that the transfer are, sadly, not flagged for progressive scan playback they look pretty decent. Color reproduction is very nice and there's a lot more detail than you might expect to see present in the image. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts at all and edge enhancement is minimal. There is some shimmering along diagonal lines in some spots and a little bit of aliasing but aside from that, the picture is quite good here. Black levels stay nice and strong and shadow detail is good. Contrast looks to be set properly and everything comes through looking quite spiffy indeed. The series aired on cable in high definition, so hopefully it's only a matter of time before the series comes out on Blu-ray, but in the interim, these transfers are very nice despite the interlacing issues.
Audio options are provided in Japanese and English in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo while optional subtitles are provided in English only. As long as you're either fluent in Japanese or cool with subtitles, the Japanese 5.1 track is the way to go here. It's quite immersive with plenty of directional effects coming at you from all over the mix during the appropriate moments. The more dialogue driven scenes come primarily from the front of the mix but they're always clear and audible. Levels are well balanced and your subwoofer will make its presence known more than a few times with some nice rumble in the low end when called for. The English dub contained in the set is of reasonably good quality and it sounds just fine, but the voice don't quite fit the series as well as the Japanese voices do and its for that reason that the Japanese 5.1 track gets the edge. The two 2.0 tracks are also of nice quality, though obviously they don't offer as much depth as the two 5.1 mixes can.
Aside from animated menus and chapter stops, in text format, every disc in the collection contains an Image Gallery, a pair of Textless Songs (Opening Song - Unlimited and Closing Song - Fuhen) and trailers for other Funimation releases such Samurai Seven, Burst Angel, Gunslinger Girl, Fruits Basket, Jay & Silent Bob Do Degrassi!, and Full Metal Alchemist. In the sub-menu for each specific episode you'll also find a
Preview that generally runs less than half a minute in length.
The first three discs contain a few Character Profiles, which are basically just little text essays that provide some very basic information on each of the seven characters in the show. Included only on Disc One is a Promotional Video (5:20, non-anamorphic widescreen) that plays a few clips from the series with some text beforehand to get you excited about the prospect of watching the series before ending with a climactic Samurai Seven logo. Appearing on Disc Two, Three is Mr. Stain On Junk Alley (7:06), a strange computer animated short where a hobo gets into it with a cat and lizard over something he finds in an alleyway.
On Disc Four you'll find a commentary from American voice actors Bruce Elliot (Kambei), Sean Michael Teague (Ktasushiro) and the voice director, Chris Bevins, for The Offering. Sadly, this commentary isn't all that interesting, most of it is the three participants making general comments about the show as it plays out in front of them (and us), periodically interjecting to offer a brief factoid or make a joke. There isn't very much information in here about their work on the show or about the series in general.
While the extras certainly could have used some more tender loving care, at least the audio and video quality are solid. Those who already own previous incarnations of the series won't find any reason to double dip but anime fans or those interested in a modern reinterpretation of one of Akira Kurosawa's finest films ought to give Samurai 7 some thought. It's an interesting and entertaining take on the classic film told with style and as such, this release of the complete series comes highly recommended.