Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
Honour, humanity and sacrifice
A region 1 DVD review of Criterion's 3-disc Special Edition of SEVEN SAMURAI / SHICHININ NO SAMURAI by Slarek
 
"Whatever you do, see Seven Samurai."
Life changing advice from a father to a son

 

I was 17 years old and had just got into film school and was full of apprehension. I'd also landed a holiday job in London at an establishment close to Waterloo station, which was a mere 5 minutes walk from the National Film Theatre. It seemed too good an opportunity to ignore, so I joined the NFT and soon received my first programme of monthly screenings. It was full of titles both familiar and exotic-sounding, movies someone who had grown up on a diet of local cinema and TV screenings had not even heard of, let alone seen. My father, from whom I inherited my love of film, was interested in what they were showing. He glanced through the brochure and, on handing it back to me, said just six words that were to forever change my viewing habits and my perception of just what constituted cinema:

"Whatever you do, see Seven Samurai."

I was aware of the title from the film books I had started to collect and read and that it was held in extremely high regard, but my father's words carried considerably more weight. Such recommendations were rare, but always worthwhile – previous titles had included Double Indemnity, West Side Story, The Godfather and A Clockwork Orange, all now favourite films of mine. But he was, by nature, not a devotee of foreign language films – it's not that he had a problem with them, it's just that, like many viewers in these pre-home video days, his access and exposure to them was limited. But here he was, recommending that I see a Japanese film, and one that was apparently over three hours long. At that age I wasn't even aware there were films that ran for that length. I certainly couldn't imagine sitting through one.

This was a good time to be discovering Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai). Heavily cut to 160 minutes for its western release, it had only recently been restored to the full 207 minute version we know today, and this was the print the NFT would be screening. I emerged from the cinema with the conviction that time had somehow been distorted. My watch assured me that I'd been sitting in the cinema for over three hours, but I knew in my heart of hearts it had been only about forty minutes. I've seen the film countless times since and the same thing happens – time just disappears. I don't know another film that achieves this so invisibly. But then, there isn't another film on earth quite like Seven Samurai.

I'm not going to pussyfoot around here – as far as I'm concerned, Seven Samurai is nothing short of perfect cinema, and I'm making that judgement on the basis of thirty-plus viewings over a period of twenty-five years, and the last viewing really was as thrilling as the first. I'm assuming that the vast majority of you reading this have at the very least heard of the film and that a good proportion have seen it at least once. If you haven't, then put it at the top of your new year resolutions, and I mean the top. Stuff the diet, forget about the decorating and remember my father's words. For the very few of you who do not know the film I have no words of admonishment, just envy for the magical first viewing still lies ahead.

The plot has been reworked and recycled many times since and is deceptively straightforward in concept. In feudal Japan, a farming village threatened by bandits decide to hire samurai to protect them and their harvest. The problem is they have no money with which to pay them and can only offer food and lodging, hardly an attractive prospect for members of a proud warrior class. It takes just a couple of minutes of film time to set this up, something internationally celebrated director Kurosawa Akira does with blinding economy, and in seemingly no time four of the farmers, led by the anxious Rikichi, are off to town in search of potential protectors. The recruitment of the samurai occupies a substantial proportion of the film's first half and is a constant delight, each of the samurai introduced in a manner both memorable and reflective of their personality. Rarely have I seen such a range of characters so beautifully and quickly defined, each of these scenes a wealth of inventive and entertaining character detail.

The casting is universally faultless and is key to the creation of such a range of vivid and memorable personalities. Kurosawa favourites Shimura Takashi and Mifune Toshiro are deliciously cast as the calmly knowledgeable and authoritative Kambei and the brash, excitable, wannabe samurai Kikuchiyo. But they are matched all the way by the supporting cast that inhabit their roles so completely that it's hard to imagine the actors dressed in modern clothing – the youthful novice Katsushiro (Kimura Isao), the good natured Gorobei (Inaba Yoshio), the ever optimistic Shichiroji (Katô Daisuke), the cheerful Heihachi (Chiaki Minoru) and the introspective master swordsman Kyuzo (Miyaguchi Seiji) all play their roles to perfection, and I haven't even touched on the farmers and bit-part players. I think it's fair to say that this was the film that convinced me once and for all that if you're going to watch a foreign language film then it should be subtitled and not dubbed. So much of what makes the characters in Seven Samurai live so vividly on screen is due to how the dialogue is delivered, whether it be Katsushiro's youthful enthusiasm, Kyuzo's matter-of-fact minimalism ("Killed two," he states simply after returning from a one-man raid on the enemy camp) or Kikuchiyo's boastful arrogance and, in two of the most famous scenes, tearful fury.

We are an hour into the film before the samurai arrive at the village they have pledged to defend and it still feels as if we're in the opening stages. Here the blend of action, drama and humour is precision balanced, and the cast of characters expands considerably to include a love interest for Katsushiro, a band of giggling children to provide an audience for Kikuchiyo's clowning, and an old woman who appears only once when a bandit is captured, but you'll remember her long after the credits have rolled. The character interaction, of which there is much, also increases our understanding of, and attachment to, both the individual samurai and the farmers, a frightened community forced to recruit men they would normally fear. With good reason, as it is later revealed.

To detail further plot details would take up time that would be better spent watching the film itself. Its length allows a depth of development that gives rise to narrative arcs within arcs and a level of character detail and interaction that no other action film has ever achieved. Indeed, so well developed are the dramatic and character elements that I have trouble, despite its breathless action sequences, actually categorising Seven Samurai as an action film at all, in the main because the is so much more to it than that. No argument here, Die Hard is a top notch action movie, but its characters, as has become the norm for the genre, are little more than well drawn cartoons. In Seven Samurai they are all recognisably human – drawn from history and legend, but with the strengths, failings and everyday concerns of the common man.

Every scene – and I do mean every scene – is beautifully handled, usually working on multiple levels, advancing the narrative or expanding on character information and often both in tandem, while subtextually providing further food for thought. The narrative surprises and rewards are timed to perfection, often layered to produce multiple hits from a single scene or story strand. A personal favourite occurs after the farmer's rice is stolen and they are left with nothing to feed the samurai they are trying to recruit, which leads to a moment of desperate, pathetic sadness, interrupted by a gloriously unexpected gesture of solidarity, topped later by the words "I accept your sacrifice." Oh man, I go all shivery just thinking about it. And there are so many such moments, running the full range from the intimate to the epic: Kikuchiyo's enthusiastic participation in the harvest; Katsushiro lying down in a bed of glowing white flowers; the jump-cut high speed tracks of the running samurai (an image much re-used in subsequent cinema); the battle flag that gives Kikuchiyo his own shape because "You're special"; Heihachi pausing his enthusiastic wood cutting to cautiously move his sword away from the watching Gorobei; Kyuzo's Zen-like fascination with a single flower before suddenly leaping into action; farmer Yohei's despairing reaction to just about everything; the kidnapped (and we presume raped) farmer's wife who would rather die than face her husband again; the way Kambei's eyes rest on Kyuzo when all others are on his opponent; Kikuchiyo holding the baby of a slaughtered family and weeping "This baby...it's me!" ...and there are at least a hundred more. To top it all there's the final battle, an astonishing sequence fought in Kurosawa's beloved rainfall that has rightly earned its place as one of the finest in film history, a conflict staged on a grand scale that is as tragic as it is breathtaking, as sad as it is thrilling.

I could write about Seven Samurai until there are enough words to fill a book so large that it would break a bone if it fell on your foot, but see little point in doing so. This is a film that has been so widely analysed and written about that anything I might add (and I'd venture everything I've already written) has very likely already been said by others, and probably in more detail and with greater eloquence (the two commentaries and eight written essays that accompany this DVD only scratch the surface). The danger for newcomers approaching such a weight of critical analysis is that they can be scared off by the expectations it builds, suggesting a film they will admire rather than enjoy. But they have no reason to be. Seven Samurai is indeed magnificent cinema, but it is also stupendous entertainment – it tells a great story, is crammed with wonderful character interplay, plays successfully with just about every emotion you care to experience, and is consistent cinematic dynamite. The script is superb, the performances divine, the cinematography and editing both dynamic and purposeful, and the music score one of the most memorable in cinema history. Dramatically compelling throughout, the film is also rich in metaphor and subtext, commenting on Japanese society both past and (then) present and carrying worthwhile lessons for humanity as a whole. The action, when it comes, is still breathtaking today, the swordplay moving away from artificial theatricality of earlier jidaigeki works to a realism that changed its portrayal in film forever.

Most will know that the film was remade in Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven, whose status as one of the greatest westerns has always bemused me. It's a well made and enigmatically cast film, but I've yet to sit through it without being constantly reminded how much richer and more entertaining each of the scenes and characters are in Kurosawa's original. I almost prefer Roger Corman's 1980 Battle Beyond the Stars, a tacky, low budget science fiction remake that nonetheless wears its cheese on its sleeve in a way that is actually quite endearing.

I've always had trouble narrowing my favourite films down to anything below about three hundred titles, but know for a fact that if I was forced to choose just five to spend the rest of my viewing days with, then Seven Samurai would not only be in that five, but right at the top. It is, as I said, cinematic perfection, and more deserving of the term masterpiece than almost any other film I can think of.

sound and vision

Seven Samurai was only the second DVD title released by Criterion when they made the switch from laserdisc and one of the first DVDs I ever owned (a gift from Camus when he was on an editing assignment in Amsterdam, if I remember right). This early release included a restoration demonstration that I gather was later removed after at the request of Toho studios, as it reflected badly on their own preservation efforts. Shown side-by-side with the original print, Criterion's efforts were impressive, with large numbers of blemishes removed, but the resulting restored print still exhibited considerable wear and tear in the shape of vertical scratches, dust spots and frame flicker. The improved sharpness and strong contrast were a revelation to those of us new to DVD at the time, and still hold up well today. However...

There have been considerable improvements in digital repair and enhancement technology in the intervening years (the first Criterion version was released back in 1998) and anticipation levels shot up here on the news that Criterion were to have another go at Seven Samurai. And the result is nothing short of stunning. Yes, there is still some visible damage and flicker, but the vast majority of it has been rendered virtually invisible, with dust spots rare and scratches even rarer. The contrast range is glorious, more subtle than on the original release with more shadow detail, but still with excellent black levels. The level of detail in some shots is astonishing for a once damaged film of this vintage. Even if you have the original release, the improvements to the picture alone make this an essential purchase. The 1.33:1 framing is slightly windowboxed to combat the overscan on CRT TVs. The film is spread over two discs to keep the bitrate as high as possible.

The original Japanese mono soundtrack has also been cleaned up further, removing the (albeit subtle) hiss and crackle that still remained on the first release. The limited dynamic range still betrays the film's age, but this never feels like a compromise and is as good as the film is likely to sound. The Dolby 1.0 mono is joined by a new Dolby 2.0 surround mix that although pushes some of the atmos effects around the room, has the detrimental effect of breaking up and distorting the dialogue, rendering it considerably inferior to the mono track.

A new English subtitle track has been included that for my money loses some of the poetry of the earlier and more widely recognised translation included on the first release. Thus Heihachi's amusing explanation his approach to killing enemies – "Well, it's impossible to kill them all...so I usually run away" becomes "There's no cutting me off when I start cutting...so I make it a point to run away first." Not only is the language changed here, but the inference of the dialogue is different. Indeed, Joan Mellen at one point quotes Kyuzo's minimalist response to defeating two bandits on his one-man raid as "killed two," which is exactly as it was subtitled on previous prints (and which I also quoted above), rather than the newly expanded "Two more down" on this version. (For the record, Kyuzo actually says "Futari," meaning just "Two (people).") More anachronistic is the inclusion of modern slang, with the newly confident farmers describing the bandits as "wimps" and the film's only swear word – chikkusho – given the translation "Hot damn!" (For the record the word is variously translated as "dammit," "slut" (when referring to a woman) and "shit" – the previous subtitle translation went with "sheeyit!")

extra features

I'm always a bit nervous about so-named 'expert' commentaries, especially those on US DVD releases, which although often fact filled are sometimes delivered in the manner of a dreary university lecture, without the passion, memories and anecdotal asides that make the best filmmaker commentaries so appealing. Good writers do not always make engaging talkers, especially when they are reading from a pre-prepared script, and even when they have interesting things to say, their delivery can still send you into a snooze.

Criterion's 3-disc release of Seven Samurai boasts two 'expert' commentaries, both new to this release. The first, a so-called Scolar's Roundtable, presents an interesting solution to the potential problem of listening to a single academic talk for three-and-a-half hours. Structured in the manner of a relay race, it has one scholar talk for 40 minutes or so and then hand over to another for the next section. The writers in question – Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie and Joan Mellen – are all recognised experts in their field and there is plenty of interesting information served up, although there's also a great deal of pointing out the obvious, from camera shots ("Kurosawa cuts to close-up here..." – I know, I can see it on screen!) to what the characters are doing or feeling. It's actually worth putting up with this to get to the good stuff, and film students should have a ball with this. In terms of delivery, Stephen Prince is the liveliest and Joan Mellen the sleepiest-sounding. Richie provides a nice anecdote that even he at first thought was a dumb answer to a dumb question, but has since realised its truth – asking Kurosawa once what his films were about, he got the response, "Why people aren't nicer to each other?"

The second commentary is by Michael Jeck, who also has some interesting things to say about the film, Kurosawa's life and career, the performances and especially the film's only swear word (see above), but not enough to fill the film's running time, resulting in plenty of pointing out the obvious and a few silent moments – they do not last too long, but are broken with occasionally frivolous comments on the action or characters.

The other extras are spread across the three discs.

Disc 1

There are 3 trailers and one teaser, all Japanese originals. Trailer 1 (4:10) is for the restored print and carries a prologue gives away part of the ending. Trailer 2 (2:57) is presented without sound, which has been lost, and is of particular interest, combining film extracts with costume design paintings, behind-the scenes footage and shots of the cast performing in costume against a blank studio background. Trailer 3 (2:43) is the more conventional of the three. The Teaser (0:40) for a "final theatrical run" and is heavily windowboxed for reasons unspecified.

The Production Gallery consists of a number of behind-the-scenes stills and film posters from around the world. It has to be said that the Japanese posters are far and away the best.

Disc 2

Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create! (49:08) is part of the Toho Masterworks series, and includes interviews with a number of Kurosawa's key collaborators and archive footage of the man himself, including brief interview snippets. This is a very enjoyable and scholastically invaluable piece that covers a lot of ground from the viewpoint of those who were there, and it's also great fun in places. Obviously this is in Japanese with optional English subtitles – only the detailed captions that accompany some interviews are not translated.

Disc 3

My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa (115:52) was shot for the Director's Guild of Japan in 1993 and comprises a video interview with Kurosawa conducted by fellow filmmaker Oshima Nagisa. Kurosawa talks in great detail about his early life and his film career and I do mean great detail – this is a near two-hour interview shot with just two cameras with only the occasional slow zoom or cut to close-up or out two two-shot to provide visual variety. Playing as a more relaxed take on the BBC's Face-to-Face format, this is nonetheless an invaluable piece, probably the most comprehensive interview with Kurosawa committed to either tape or film and crammed with interesting information about his life, work and opinions. His notebook entry, made when he was still an assistant director, that Japanese films needed to be "more dynamic" is a particularly telling comment in light of the work he became famous for.

Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences (55:09) is a documentary created specifically for this DVD release that looks at the history of the samurai in Japanese life and art, samurai films and literature and its specific realisation in Kurosawa's masterpiece. Built around interviews with the Scholars' Roundtable participants and Tadao Sato, probably Japan's most respected film critic and author of several authoritative books on Japanese cinema, there is some overlap with the commentary, but this is a well edited and enjoyable piece that would serve as a fine introduction to those new to Japanese history and culture and the Jidaigeki genre.

Finally there is a Booklet of the sort you'll find in Masters of Cinema releases, containing eight short essays on the film and Kurosawa, including contributions from filmmakers Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet and Toshiro Mifune's own recollections of the shoot.

summary

What more is there to say? One of cinema's most glorious works is given superlative DVD treatment, once again establishing Criterion as the leaders of the pack. Despite the cost of importing the disc, I can't recommend it highly enough. Just marvellous.



The use of Japanese naming convention of surname first has been used for all Japanese names.

Seven Samurai
shichinin no samurai

Japan 1954
207 mins
director
Kurosawa Akira
starring
Mifune Toshiro
Shimura Takashi
Kimura Isao
Inaba Yoshio
Katô Daisuke
Chiaki Minoru
Miyaguchi Seiji
Tsushima Keiko

DVD details
region 1
video
1.33:1 windowboxed
sound
Dolby mono 1.0
Dolby surround 2.0
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Scholars' roundtable commentary
Michael Jeck commentary
Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create documentary
My Life in Cinema interview with Akira Kurosawa
Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences documentary
Theatrical trailers and teaser
Posters and behind-the-scenes stills
Booklet
distributor
Criterion
release date
5 September 2006

review posted
31 December 2006