Seven Samurai (Blu-ray)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 207 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0, 2.0 stereo Japanese
MSRP: $ 49.95
Release Date: October 19, 2010
Review Date: October 3, 2010
One of the unassailable masterpieces of international cinema, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai remains a remarkable achievement no matter how many times one watches it. Both an epic adventure and an intimate character study, a relentless action film and a meditative reflection on the nature of pride, honor, respect, and love, Seven Samurai cannot really be categorized except as a magnificent achievement, one that stands tall almost six decades after its initial release (to a lukewarm reception, surprisingly enough) and a film that has been studied, copied, and adapted by so many filmmakers the world over that its influence reaches around the globe even to moviegoers who have never seen one frame of any foreign language work of art. It is, quite simply, one of the greats.
In sixteenth century Japan during a period of civil unrest, a renegade tribe of bandits regularly pillages villages of their food and livestock. They pass a village they had robbed of rice the season before and now intend to rob it of its barley once the harvesting season is over. In order to prevent this, a group of villagers led by the fiery Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) and the bumbling Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) go looking for some samurai warriors to protect their village. Though the town elder had thought four might be a sufficient number, the first ronin who agrees to help them, the majestic Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), decides seven experienced fighters will be enough to help train the townspeople to aid in their own defense. Only five true samurai who agree to help can be found, but young but eager villager Katsushirô Okamoto (Isao Kimura) and the wild and undisciplined Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) are also drafted for service.
There isn’t an uninteresting moment to be found in this epic-length saga even though the climactic battles with the bandit tribe only consume the last hour of the movie. Before that, writer-director Kurosawa spends considerable time and effort establishing the personalities of his diverse cast, and the characters are so interesting that you’ll be glad to postpone those battles to get to know these fascinating people better. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud sequences involving practical jokes and outrageous behavior not only from the top-billed Toshiro Mifune but from this varied cast of character actors and leading men, but when it’s time to get serious, the mood changes radically with much surprising grace and splendor. Kurosawa’s controlled compositions are simply mesmerizing to study and are so riveting that frequent revisits to the movie are a necessity in order to catch everything that he has going on within his framework. The three lengthy battle sequences are, of course, beautifully staged and shot, full of vivid action and yet almost painterly in their style and texture (and the last one shot during almost a monsoon would be a muddy mess but, of course, is utterly glorious regardless). Other sequences (training sessions, reconnaissance missions, various fires, and celebrations following successful strategies) are equally compelling and just as memorable. The love story inserted into the film has its purpose (though it’s my least favorite aspect of the movie), but the idyllic grove sequence is so meticulously framed and shot that its beauty is simply ravishing to behold, more than enough reason for its inclusion.
Toshiro Mifune was already Japan’s biggest star at the time of the filming, but Kurosawa lets him have his head here, and he lets loose in a wild and wooly characterization that’s full of bite and bluster but is capable of its subtleties as well, one of the greatest star turns in all of cinema. The great Takashi Shimura is the Mifune character’s polar opposite, a dignified warrior of great skill and few words but one who makes every action count and yet not without his own sense of humor. Also chillingly effective are the dazzling swordsman Kyûzô played charismatically and almost in pantomime by Seiji Miyaguchi and the worshipful idolatry of Isao Kimura as the young fighter and lover Katsushirô. Bokuzen Hidari plays a rather standard comical coward, but his rapport with Mifune throughout the movie makes his stock character tremendously endearing.
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Though clearly the best the film has ever looked on home video, the print used for the transfer has some problems that modern processing simply couldn’t completely erase. There are momentary scratches occasionally and some print damage and gate hairs that crop up once or twice. You may see some slight line twitters as well though again they’re only minor blemishes. Overall, the grayscale rendering is excellent with good albeit varying black levels and admirable sharpness, those many deep focus shots coming though with impressive clarity, depth, and dimension. The subtitles are a slightly brighter white than has been the case on other Criterion Blu-rays and are much easier to read than usual. The film has been divided into 29 chapters.
The disc offers two PCM tracks: the 1.0 (2.3 Mbps) track is mostly clear and most likely sounds truest to its source material, but there is audible hiss and some scratchy distortion on occasion along with a limited low end. The 2.0 (1.5 Mbps) stereo track is louder in volume than the mono track but sounds more processed and contains more noticeable distortion and some crackle than the mono track. The stereo processing is only really apparent during the intermission music, and overall I much preferred the mono track.
There are two audio commentaries available. The original Criterion laserdisc commentary track with Michael Jeck (who sounds remarkably on occasion like Rod Serling) is my preferred choice. The other offers a round-robin selection of authorities on the film with Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, David Desser, Donald Ritchie, and Joan Mellen providing their own individual points of view on the movie. For fans of the film, both are required listening, but Jeck’s masterful blend of scholarship and personal reflection is much more appealing.
The remaining bonus features are included on a second Blu-ray disc in the set. All of the featurettes are presented in 1080i.
“Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” is the segment of this encompassing documentary dealing with the creation of Seven Samurai. The writing of the script, the evolution of the characters, and specifics about the staging of the fire scenes and the climactic battle in the rain are all discussed by a group of cast and crew members. The excerpt runs 49 ¼ minutes.
“My Life in Cinema” is a lengthy question and answer discussion between directors Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima concerning Kurosawa’s life and career, especially his methods of working, opinions of (then) current cinema (the interview was filmed in 1993), and recommendations to current filmmakers. It runs 116 minutes.
“Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences” is a critical discussion of the samurai tradition in history and its application to films over the last century. Among those contributing to the discussion are Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, David Desser, Donald Ritchie, and Joan Mellen, the same contributors to the second audio commentary in this package. Filled with film clips from the movie and other samurai films which preceded it, this video essay runs 55 ¼ minutes.
There are three trailers (one without sound) which run 4 ¼, 3, and 2 ¾ minutes respectively, all in less than ideal condition (showing how impressive the restoration is on the film itself). There is also a teaser trailer which runs ¾ of a minute.
Two galleries are available for stepping through: a behind-the-scenes series of twenty photographs showing cast and crew at work and a poster gallery with twelve posters and one sheets from around the world.
The enclosed 58-page booklet includes cast and crew lists, numerous stills from the film, and a succession of fairly brief but informative essays on different aspects of the movie and its creator by critics Kenneth Turan and Philip Kemp, film historians Peter Cowie, Alain Silver, Stuart Galbraith IV, and Peggy Chiao, directors Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet, and a reminiscence by star Toshiro Mifune.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
5/5 (not an average)
There are samurai films, and then there is Seven Samurai, the king of them all. This movie masterpiece gets its greatest-ever home video release in this Criterion Blu-ray with bonus features that offer much added value to the overall package. Highest recommendation!