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The Criterion Collection presents
"This may be the one that kills us."
DVD ReviewSeven Samurai is on that short list of films without which the history of movies seems impossible—as with Citizen Kane or Birth of a Nation or 8 1/2, it feels as if it didn't exist, we would have to invent it. But it is, above all things and all the high-minded language aside, a grand adventure—to steal a phrase from A.O. Scott, it's an action picture for the art-house audience, and vice versa.
And so one of the few questions left for us, then, is this: is Seven Samurai the greatest movie ever made? Awarding those sorts of superlatives usually tell us more about those sitting in judgment than about the movies themselves, but certainly one of the refrains of this magnificent set is that this film is the greatest Japanese movie of all time, and perhaps deserves the top spot in the pantheon of world cinema. It's the kind of conversation without end that has its place over beers or cappuccinos, but regardless of whether you canvass for Kurosawa or not, this is inarguably a phenomenal achievement.
Kurosawa's story is situated quite specifically in 1587, with bandits marauding the Japanese countryside, terrorizing locals in this time of lawlessness. The movie focuses specifically on a single village, whose farmers have been forced, season after season, to give up the lion's share of their crops to these terrifying bandits, leaving the villagers with barely enough to keep from starving. The situation has become untenable, and the farmers are resolved: they will engage a group of ronin, or samurai for hire, to beat back the bandits.
Alas, they have nothing to offer but rice, and any samurai agreeing to participate will be doing it not for financial reward or for glory, but simply to honor their warriors' code, to be the force of good for the defenseless. Takashi Shimura plays Kambei, the first samurai who rises to the challenge; he determines that he will need six comrades to defend the village adequately, and sets about enlisting the rest of his septet.
Certainly the film can seem schematic at times—we see the samurai assemble, devise their plan, and then put it into action. And there's unquestionably a leisurely quality to some of the film, which, at close to three and a half hours, is more than twice as long as most action pictures. But the tale is told with such grace and specificity that, once you give yourself over to the relatively extended running time, it becomes almost rapturous. Neither the bandits nor the villagers are given much individuation—the latter are a cowering mass, the former almost a relentless force of nature, and the focus then is on the seven who have taken up this challenge. The film takes its time in introducing each of them and teasing out their characters, an arduous task given the number of central figures—it's no slight to say that they are as well individuated as another great cinematic group of seven: Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful and Sleepy.
Shimura is grand as Kambei, though in some respects the show part is Kikuchiyo, the prankster of the group—he's played by the fantastically charismatic Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa's greatest leading man. Isao Kimura as Katsushiro, the youngest of the seven, gets a significant amount of screen time as well; in what one of the historians on the commentary track calls the homosocial world of the movie, Katsuhiro is the only one with a love interest, a farmer's daughter in the village, that provides the film with just enough personal contrast.
The influence of this grand movie is everywhere—only the most obvious example is The Magnificent Seven, the Hollywood remake, but younger fans will find the basic premise of this story is the same as the one for A Bug's Life, and every action picture, Western and samurai film made since stands in some respect in the shadow of Seven Samurai. Certainly some of the acting style can seem off-putting to American audiences—the actors are much more presentational, and don't seem to possess even a passing familiarity with Stanislavski, for this is all about exteriority, and yet the physicality of the acting is one of the things that make the movie most approachable for non-Japanese-speaking audiences. The movie proceeds inexorably toward the inevitable battle with the bandits, and even though you know it's coming, it's so handsomely and viscerally made that the climactic scenes of the film are almost unbearably thrilling. "Great" is a word badly overused in our time, but by any measure Seven Samurai is a great, great film.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: Compared to any previous home video release of this title, including Criterion's first go at it, this one is a revelation. Certainly the age of the print can be detected from time to time, but generally the blacks are saturated and balanced, and many of the images are luminous. You can see Kurosawa's signature style not having quite been honed entirely yet; he favors wipes for transitions, but hasn't yet begun to flatten space as severely as he would in the following decades, allowing for some group compositions here that are painterly and stunning.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Either the mono or the Dolby 2.0 track make for a good listen, with a fair balance of dialogue, sound effects and musical scoring. In some alternate universe in which I have an infinite amount of free time, I look forward to learning Japanese and being able to appreciate Kurosawa-san in his native tongue.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 29 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie, Joan Mellen (track one), Michael Jeck (track two)
Packaging: Box Set
The first commentary, recorded in 2005 and 2006, is billed as a scholars' roundtable, but it's really more of a relay, with each of the five academics getting forty minutes or so solo, and then passing the baton to the next. But there's grand stuff in here, about this being, incredibly, Kurosawa's first samurai picture, and providing context and cultural history. As you might imagine, the film is treated with the utmost reverence throughout, and the track even comes with brief text bios for each of the five participants.
Flying solo for close to three and a half hours on the second track is Michael Jeck, and he provides a very illuminating discussion of the technical aspects of the filmmaking particularly, and about the growth of the relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune. This track was recorded in 1988, and will be familiar to those who have seen the previous DVD release, or Criterion's laserdisc version from back in the day.
The second disc also includes the relevant installment of Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create (49m:07s), the Toho Studios series of documentaries, with each episode dedicated to one of the director's films. Shinobu Hashimoto, one of the screenwriters on the picture, functions more or less as our guide, though other members of the production team and a couple of actors are interviewed as well; and there are lots of archival clips of the director himself, as we get a reasonably thorough production history of the movie, with an emphasis on the frequent physical peril in which both cast and crew found themselves.
Disc 3 is dedicated to two more stellar documentaries. My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa (01h:55m:51s) is a feature-length conversation between the director and Nagisa Oshima, commissioned by the Directors Guild of Japan in 1993. It's filmed in Kurosawa's home, and the director is treated as Japan incarnate; there's a good biographical overview, and thankfully Oshima guides Kurosawa through a conversation along different thematic strains, rather than a rote picture-by-picture nostalgia tour. Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences (55m:08s) features all of the film historians included on the first commentary track, discussing Kurosawa's appeal in both the East and the West, giving us a history of samurai iconography, looking at the effects of Noh and Kabuki on the director's work, and paying respect to the American films that were dear to Kurosawa, particularly Stagecoach.
Back on the first disc, you'll find a teaser and three trailers, the most intriguing of which has the sound missing; it features the actors playing the seven samurai in costume and on a soundstage in a cheesy bit of self-conscious promotion that seems out of keeping with the tone of the film. A production gallery brims with snapshots from the set, and posters for the film from all over the world, including ones from Argentina and Poland. The accompanying booklet includes six essays on various aspects of the film, tributes from American directors Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn, and reminiscences on the experience from Mifune.
Extras Grade: A+
Final CommentsSeven Samurai is truly almost unthinkably wonderful, a thrilling and visceral piece of filmmaking, architectural in construction and finely honed in every detail. It is in many respects the definitive Kurosawa film, simmering with action, unflinching about character, and relentlessly tense and taut. It truly has never looked better, and this Criterion three-disc set brims with fascinating supplementary material. The DVD gods have looked bountifully upon us once again.
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