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Samurai 7 - Box Set

FUNimation // Unrated // February 24, 2009
List Price: $99.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted February 18, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Series:
One of my favorite movies of all time is Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.  I still remember the first time I saw it, how moved and impressed I was by the themes and construction of the film and how fast the three and a half hour running time seemed to whiz by.  When I heard that the classic film was going to be remade as an anime, with a steampunk setting no less, I was pretty leery.  I'm not a huge fan of remakes in the first place and I could easily see how they could ruin this amazing film.

When Samurai 7, as the anime was titled, was released in the US the series was met with rave reviews and DVDTalk even voted it one of the best anime series of 2005.  I decided that it was probably worth watching and went ahead and bought the series, but it was still in my "to watch" pile when this Blu-ray set arrived on my doorstep.  Having had the time to screen the whole series, it's not nearly as bad as I was fearing, but I didn't think it was as good as most critics thought either.
Years after a fearful war has ended, many small rural villages are routinely plundered by bandits, called Nobuseri.  These criminals were samurai during the war, but after the fighting stopped they found themselves without a job but with a taste for killing.  Having access to giant fighting machines the Nobuseri bleed the small villages dry, leaving the farmers with barely enough food to get them through the winter.
When rumors start to spread that the Nobuseri are taking the livestock and women from the farming towns too, one village decides that they have to take a stand.  The town of Kanna sends their water priestess, a young lady with the ability to find underground water as well as see into the hearts of men named Kirara, into the big city to find and recruit samurai to defend their village.  Accompanied by her younger sister Komachi and an aide Rikichi, she locates a morose yet skilled samurai named Shimada Kambei.  She can offer the samurai nothing more than a bowl full of rice every day in exchange for putting their lives on the line in a hopeless battle, but her cause is just and Kambei joins her.  He helps her recruit more warriors for her cause and together they set out for Kanna.
Things aren't as simple as they seem however.  Due to a traitor in their midst the Nobuseri know that the samurai are headed to Kanna.  In addition there are behind the scenes political dealings and assassinations that make the samurai wanted criminals as well as putting them in the middle of a power struggle.
Watching this series reminded me of my feelings towards The Magnificent Seven, a western that was also patterned after Seven Samurai.   The movie was very good, but not as good as the original.  The same can be said for this show.  There's a lot that really works, and some missteps that really hurt the show. 
Being longer than the original movie, the creators had time to delve into the background of the samurai a bit more.  The show is largely character driven and fleshing out the main characters really goes a long way towards pulling the viewers into the story.  The various heroes all have different reasons for risking their lives for a group of people they don't know and getting into their minds elevates the show.
The designs for the show, especially the Nobuseri are excellent too.  They resisted the urge to model the mecha after every other giant robot show and came up with some original designs that appeared both eerie and effective in battle.  The cyborg samurai, Kikuchiyo has a home-made built-out-of-scraps look that suits the character well and is also appropriate given his lineage. 
On the down side, the series extended running time has the creators filling in the extra time with extraneous plots that end up weakening the story.  The main complaint here is the subplot involving Ukyo the spoiled son of a nobleman and the whole but about the assassinated emissary.  In the later the ruling governor uses the murder as an excuse to arrest all of the samurai in the city, forcing the main characters to leave and head for the village.  The former plot gives the battle that the samurai are about to undertake a more important role in the make up of the country.
These are things that disappointed me the most.  In Kurosawa's film the samurai were risking their lives of their own free will for basically nothing.  Win or loose, the battle wouldn't matter at all in the large scheme of things.  That's what makes the movie so tragic and heroic:  they put themselves in a desperate battle because their code of honor says it's the right thing to do.  Not because they are getting paid or to help their country, but because they should.  Pushing them out of the city and making the stakes higher in the battle doesn't make the series more vibrant or exciting.  Risking your life for God, country, and your family is understandable.  Going into battle for people who hate and distrust you; that is an interesting tale.
Having said all that, the series is a lot of fun.  It still has a lot of the charm of the original and it's easy to see why so many anime fans love it.  Thought there are some flaws (including some horrid dialog) the series as a good amount of impact and is impressive both visually and from a story-telling point of view.  It doesn't live up to the original, but what does?
The Blu-ray Disc:  

The 26 episodes that make up the series are presented on three Blu-ray discs.  Each disc comes in its own standard blue case and they in turn are housed in a pressboard slipcase.  Each case sports attractive wrap-around art on the outside and an episode guide on the inside.            
This was one of the first anime TV shows to be created in high def.  It was originally shown in Japan as a pay-per-view series in HD and has appeared in the US in high def on the late, lamented satellite network Animania HD.  This is no up-conversion of a 480i/p product and the 1.78:1 1080p image looks very good.   The lines are tight, the colors are solid and bright and the blacks are nice and inky.  Detail is great, with background details being sharp and well delineated. 
The SD DVDs had some minor aliasing but that's not present in this set.  There is some slight banding in a couple of scenes, but this is fairly rare.  While this presentation does look better than the DVDs, the difference is not as great as the difference between SD and HD with a live action film.
The show comes with Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtracks in both the original Japanese and an English dub.  I watched the dub for an episode and it was fine except that Komachi's voice was a bit too high pitched and whiney for my tastes.  For some reason little kids on English anime dubs sound like adults trying to sound like children, rather than real juveniles, and this series is no exception.
Aside from that both audio tracks were impressive.  The full sound stage was used wonderfully filling the show with impressive audio moments.  The battle scenes are impressive, with the whole room being filled with the sounds of war from wounded people screaming to laser blasts and swords cutting through metal.  The nice thing about this set is that the audio doesn't revert to a stereo mix after the action is over.  A lot of attention goes into the audio mix in even the more sedate sections.  When the emperor is introduced in one scene, for example, he appears in front of a long line of soldiers who snap to attention, one after another, when he appears.  The sound of them clicking their heals together travels from the back of the room to the front quickly but effectively.
The bonus items are pretty limited.  There's the standard clean opening and closing as well as a promotional video and some FUNimation trailers.  The only other extra is a commentary track by the ADR and two actors.  I'm not a huge fan of anime commentary tracks and this one didn't make me re-think my position.  Instead of discussing the themes of the show and comparing it with the original movie, they spend most of the time joking around.  Oh well.
Final Thoughts:
This is a good solid anime show.  If I had never seen the original Seven Samurai, I'm sure I'd be raving about the themes and enticing story.  As it is, this series doesn't live up to the original.  Some of the added subplots weaken the main thrust of the show, and there are some anime clichés that work their way in that make it difficult to suspend your disbelief.  (Jumping up and cleaving a 30 foot tall mecha in half for example.)  Even so, this is a classic story and told with good animation and a respect for the original.  It's exciting and engrossing and well worth checking out.  Along with a good looking HD transfer and some impressive sound, this is easy to recommend.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.
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