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The Criterion Collection
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Feudal Japanese villagers hire seven warriors to defend them from 40 mounted bandits. Directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Hailed as the greatest film in the history of Japanese cinema, Seven Samurai is director Akira Kurosawa's undisputed masterpiece. Arguably the greatest of all jidai-gecki (or historical swordplay films), Kurosawa's classic 1954 action drama has never been surpassed in terms of sheer power of emotion, kinetic energy, and dynamic character development. The story is set during the civil unrest of 16th-century Japan, as the cowering residents of a small farming village are seeking protection against seasonal attacks by a band of marauding bandits. Offering mere handfuls of rice as payment, they hire seven unemployed "ronin" (masterless samurai), including a boastful swordsman (Toshiro Mifune) who is actually a peasant farmer's son, desperately seeking glory, acceptance, and revenge against those who destroyed his family. Led by the calmly strategic Kambei (Takashi Shimura, star of Kurosawa's previous classic, Ikiru), the samurai form mutual bonds of honor and respect, but remain distant from the villagers, knowing that their assignment may prove to be fatal.
Kurosawa masterfully composed his shots to emphasize these group dynamics, and Seven Samurai is a textbook study of the director's signature techniques, including extensive use of telephoto lenses to compress action, delineate character relationships, and intensify motion. While the climactic battle against raiding thieves remains one of the most breathtaking sequences ever filmed, Seven Samurai is most triumphant as a peerless example of character development, requiring all of its 2-hour, 37-minute running time to illuminate every essential detail of villagers and samurai alike, including an abundance of humor as Kambei's defense plan unfolds. In terms of its overall impact, Seven Samurai spawned dozens of copycat films (notably the American Western remake The Magnificent Seven) and cannot be adequately summarized by even the most comprehensive synopsis; it must be seen to be fully appreciated, and the Criterion Collection's 2006 DVD reissue is an essential addition to any definitive home-video library. --Jeff Shannon
On the DVDs
According to the accompanying booklet, "the picture has been slightly window-boxed (in correct original 1.33:1 aspect ratio) to ensure that the maximum image is visible on all monitors." The two-disc format was necessary "to maintain optimal image quality throughout the compression process," with dual-layered DVD-9's encoded "at the highest possible bit rate for the quantity of material included." The picture and sound quality are simply amazing compared to Criterion's one-disc release from 1998. The all-new, fully restored high-definition digital transfer takes full advantage of HD's clarity and crispness, resulting in picture detail far surpassing the previous DVD. This also applies to the soundtrack, presented in optional Dolby surround in addition to the remastered original mono track. The new transfer "was mastered in 2k resolution from a duplicate negative created with wetgate processing from the original fine-grain master positive" (the film's original negative is no longer available), and "several different digital hardware and software solutions were utilized for flicker, instability, dirt, scratch, and grain management."
The complete 207-minute film is accompanied by two full-length commentary tracks, including a new track combining the critical insights of film scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Price (author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa), Tony Rayns, and the dean of Japanese film experts, Donald Richie (author of The Films of Akira Kurosawa). Each scholar is given approximately 40 minutes of film-time, and their commentaries represent a unique opportunity to appreciate Seven Samurai from distinct yet complem\ entary critical perspectives. The commentary by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck (from Criterion's original 1988 laserdisc release) The commentary by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck (from Criterion's original 1988 laserdisc release) remains useful as a thorough analysis of Seven Samurai, primarily in terms of visual composition.
The 50-minute "making of" documentary, from Japan's 2002 Toho Masterworks TV series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create emphasizes Kurosawa's colla boration with co-screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, including production footage, crewmember interviews, and a reverent visit to the rural inn where Seven Samurai was written over a six-week period of intense seclusion. The two-hour "My Life in Cinema" interview with Kurosawa was recorded in 1993, with fellow filmmaker Nagisa Oshima serving as a gentle admirer, colleague, and well-informed historian of Kurosawa's career. "Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences" is a richly informative documentary that places Kurosawa's classic in both historical and cinematic context, examining its place in the jidai-gecki (swordplay) genre, its accurate depiction of samurai codes and traditions, and its stature as the prototype for many films that followed. The lavishly illustra ted 58-page booklet includes eight brief essays on various aspects of Seven Samurai, each written by noted film scholars or film directors (including Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet). Also included is a reminiscence by the great actor T oshiro Mifune, excerpted from a conversation recorded in 1993. Taken as a whole, the remastered three-disc Seven Samurai ranks as one of the finest DVD sets ever released. --Jeff Shannon
Stills from Seven Samurai - 3 Disc Remastered Edition (Click for larger image)
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Plot: It's 16th century Japan, and a small village of farmers are under threat from a band of ruthless bandits. Their only hope is seven samurai who muster their courage and skill to combat the sinister marauders. It's not only a good action adventure, it also tells the story of friendship, romance, and the human spirit. In Japanese with English subtitles.
The movie takes place in feudal Japan, primarily in a poor farming village. When a farmer happens to overhear that a gang of bandits plan to raid the village after their harvest, there is a huge uproar and the village is consumed with despair. They eventually decide to travel to a nearby city to find some samurai to assist them. Bit by bit they assemble a team, until they travel back to the village and prepare everyone for the upcoming raid.
The depth of the movie is not done justice by a concise plot summary, though. The movie really explores its themes very well. The film examines class roles during feudal Japan, and not just “peasants good, bandits bad, samurais badass” as we might expect. For instance, when the samurai first come to the village, the villagers themselves hide and act only a little less scared of the samurai than the bandits. There is a lot of tension there and the film doesn’t really paint either group as “right”, but more so just shows them playing the social roles society expects and what influence that really has on them.
Another idea this movie meditates on is that of combat. At first when we are introduced to the samurai in the movie, they are these impressive, noble figures. But as the movie goes on, we get a closer look at them and see that fighting is who they are. We see that being a "badass" isn’t something to emulate, because in the end all you’re left with are memories of loss and pain and you can never really be a part of the celebration. Your existence is just being involved in one conflict to the next until the day you die.
A lot of these concepts sound familiar, and that’s because they are. This movie was made in 1954 and has (along with other Kurosawa films) influenced cinema in countless ways, as well as inspired movies based directly off of it (ranging from Magnificent Seven to A Bug’s Life). There are so many things you’ll see in this movie that you’ll recognize from other movies, from cinematography techniques to plot devices, to themes, that I couldn’t even begin to list them here. Luckily, these are all executed with such nuance and skill that the movie never feels outdated. This movie is still great even by today’s standards.
Part of the reason the movie has so much depth is because of its length. At two hundred and seven minutes (that is three hours and twenty seven minutes), this movie goes on for quite a while. Even with long movies that I love there are usually points where I feel like the movie is dragging. This movie, however, is extremely well paced. None of the scenes included in the movie feel like fluff and everything is told in a grounded, yet interesting way. This is a movie that uses its long length to its strength (heh) and not to its detriment.
The cast also does a fantastic job. Each person really played their roles well, especially Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, who are two actors Kurosawa collaborated with very often. Combined with excellent writing, the samurai are very compelling characters, though some feel a little less compelling than others. The villagers with named roles also do a solid job in all their rolls.
While it is hardly a significant part of the film, the action is also well done. There is nothing flashy or gritty about the fighting that goes on in the movie. There are no crazy jumping attacks, duels between masters of the sword, fancy techniques, or lone samurai taking on an army single handedly. Just people rushing at each other with swords and spears. I personally liked it, but its definitely a matter of personal taste.
In the end, this movie is one that has definitely earned its reputation as a “timeless classic”, which is no easy feat. Just be sure to remember that when you tune into this you’re still watching a movie and not some transcendent manifestation of artistic perfection. With all that in mind, this movie really has everything you could hope for, from light hearted to melancholy moments. Because of both the depth and breadth of this movie, it transcends its genre and therefore gets a 5.