Criterion // 1954 // 207 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 11th, 2010
"A rich, evocative, and unforgettable tale of courage and hope."
Once, when lamenting the state of Japanese cinema, director Takashi Miike claimed "there are many talented actors and crew, but many Japanese movies aren't interesting. Many films are made with the image of what a Japanese film should be like." There's little doubt in my mind that Akira Kurosawa contributed to the lion's share of what is now the "image of what Japanese film should be like." He directed around thirty films over almost fifty years. His achievement is difficult for Americans to grasp in some ways because although we've had high-profile directors and we've had prolific directors, American cinema has not had a figure like Kurosawa in a long time (if ever). Sure, not all of his films work perfectly all the time, but his greatest hits are undeniable hallmarks of cinematic arts. Some may champion his earlier international debut Rashomon, while others prefer the color extravaganza of Ran, but few will deny the sheer visceral power of Seven Samurai. Because of that (and the fact that they keep making the film look better and better), there's very little reason to complain that this is the fifth time Criterion has released the film on home video. Fans might groan a bit at picking up this Blu-ray set so soon after the excellent 2006 DVD re-release, but ultimately they'll be pleased with the investment.
During Japan's feudal era, a farming village finds itself the object of a group of bandits. Unable to defend themselves, the farmers decide to enlist the aid of Seven Samurai in defending their village. Keeping the village safe from attack is no small feat, and internal strife between the farmers and the samurai ratchet up the tension before the bandits begin their attack.
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then Seven Samurai is one of the flattered movies in history. The film (like Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro) has been remade as a Western (The Magnificent Seven), which itself has been remade. Then there are all the parodies and homages in other ways, including an anime retelling. It's not hard to see why people gravitate towards the film. The plot is both simple and tense. The setup of having the samurai defend the farmers from the bandits seems uncomplicated, but it reveals all kinds of thematic concerns about the place of individuals in society. Then there are the performances. Toshiro Mifune stands out amongst a cast of brilliant actors for his portrayal of the drunken samurai. Finally, the film is somewhat difficult to talk about. It's power lies in the way it can grab your attention and hold you for three solid hours of perfectly paced dramatic action. No amount of waxing ecstatic about its virtues compares to the compelling power of every frame.
But you already know this. Almost all "classic" films are the object of some scorn from somebody. For every person who thinks Citizen Kane is the first perfect film, there's someone else who thinks it's a soppy and melodramatic character study of a boring guy. I'm sure there's somebody out there who doesn't like Seven Samurai, but everybody I've ever talked to either loves it, or their only qualm is that it sometimes overshadows some of Kurosawa's other fantastic films. As far as I can tell, anyone who genuinely gives Seven Samurai a chance comes away satisfied.
The question, then, is what to do with this release. This is time Number Five that Criterion has released the film. First there was the laserdisc, then the first pressing of the DVD that had to be recalled due to a rights issue, the re-release of that DVD minus the offending feature, and then the 2006 restored version. Blu-ray makes Number Five. The update between the first DVD and the 2006 edition was simply staggering. The print was cleaner, the transfer had fewer compression problems, and the difference was almost night and day. That's a bit of a double-edged sword. Those used to the beautiful 2006 DVD edition won't be quite blown away by this Blu-ray (although those who only had the original DVD or laserdisc will be simply staggered). Is it better, though? Absolutely. A bit of the print damage seems to have been cleared up. More importantly, the added resolution gives the transfer a slightly more film-like appearance. The contrast is strong throughout, grain is appropriate, and black levels are surprisingly deep. It's an amazing transfer overall (especially for a film whose original negative has been lost). Outside of a fresh print at an art house revival, this is the way to see Seven Samurai. For sound we get an uncompressed mono track that sounds appropriate for its age. It keeps dialogue audible even if the overall soundfield feels a bit small. There's also a stereo track that messes a bit with the spatial dynamics, forcing the mono into stereo. It's a fine track as well, but a bit unnecessary.
All the extras (including the voluminous Criterion booklet) have been ported over from the 2006 DVD edition. On Disc One, these include the two audio commentaries. The first features a spliced-together roundtable of film experts (Donald Richie, David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, and Tony Kayns), each of whom has a different expertise with regards to Kurosawa. The second track has been brought over from the original 1999 DVD, and on it Michael Jeck breaks the film down, recounting how it was made and how it has been received. The second disc is almost all documentaries. First up is an episode of "Akira Kurosawa: It's Wonderful to Create" that spend 50 minutes on Seven Samurai. Then we get an almost two-hour interview with Kurosawa and Oshimi from late in the director's life. Finally, there's the retrospective created for the 2006 DVD that looks back on the film's history. The rest is promo material, including trailers, photos, and production stills.
Maybe Criterion should have included a reproduction samurai sword? That's the only way I can think to make this Blu-ray release better.
Upgrade decisions are always tough, but Seven Samurai is essential cinema. If you don't own the film, you probably should -- at least give this Blu-ray a rental to say you've seen the film. For those still clinging to their 1999 DVDs, please join us in the twenty-first century by picking up this Blu-ray. Upgrading from the 2006 DVD is really personal preference, but I think fans are going to want the extra bump in quality that hi-def brings to the film, even if there's a temporary hit to the wallet.
For helping the farmers (and creating a classic bit of cinema), the Seven Samurai are not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 207 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Image Gallery