Reviewed by
Chris Galloway

Title: Seven Samurai: Criterion (1954)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision - The Mighty Warriors Who Became the Seven National Heroes of a Small Town

A desperate village hires a group of mercenary samurai to protect it from marauders in this crown jewel of Japanese cinema. No other film so seamlessly weaves philosophy and entetainment, delicate human emotions, and relentless action. Seven Samurai is an inspired epic, a triumph of art, and an incredible three-hour ride.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Yoshio Inaba, Seiji Miyaguchi.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Black & White Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Black & White Costume Design, 1957.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio Japanese Digital Mono; subtitles: English, Japanese; single sided - dual layered; 30 chapters; rated NR; 204 min.; $39.95, street date 3/16/99.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck; Original U.S. Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/C-/C-

Seven Samurai was made to make Japanese cinema more fun. It was a rip-off of the Western genre. The Western genre then began to rip-off Seven Samurai.

A classic that is considered by many to be the greatest film ever made, anywhere. I don't know if I can vouch for that. Don't get me wrong. I love this movie, a lot! If someone asks me to name my top 5 favourite movies today, Seven Samurai would be included on the list. It may not always appear there, though. It depends on when you catch me. The reason it impresses me so much is that for a movie that is just shy of 3 and a half hours, it is one of the most exciting, fast paced and intriguing films I have ever seen. I sat down the first time to watch it with my younger brother (this was his first foreign film). Next thing we know it's the 2 hour mark. We both sat there stunned as to how quickly this movie could move. And we haven't even made it to the majority of action yet. This is now one of his favourite films, too.

I'm not a big guy on westerns but this film absolutely captivated me. I avoided it so long because of its length but finally watched it and regretted not doing so sooner. The tale is well known. A village is under threat by bandits, and cannot afford to lose any food to them. They go over many different ideas to get rid of them but can only come up with an idea for hiring samurai. Many are opposed to this because ronin samurai can be even worse than the bandits threatening their village. But it seems to be the only choice.

A few of the villager go to visit a larger town to scope out hopeful prospects. They are laughed at by just about every samurai because the payment for fighting bandits is just rice. They find a very smart and wise samurai named Kambei (Takashi Shimura) and after some convincing they manage to get him to agree to help them. They then journey out to find more. They pick up a few more, each with their own abilities and manage to get up to six in total. A drunk posing as a samurai named Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) manages to find his way to the group, hoping to get in. He follows them back to the village and everyone feels they might as well let him in.

That covers about the first half of the film. The next bit includes training the villagers for battle, and then we get to the battle sequences, which still hold up decent to this day (the recent 13th Warrior has a lot to thank Seven Samurai for). There aren't huge special effects or a lot of blood (you can't expect that for a Japanese film from 1954) but these scenes are very exciting and very well done. The nightmare of filming in mud can only be imagined.

The acting is very splendid. Toshiro Mifune received flack for his over the top performance in its initial release but I never had a problem with it nor do many others. He's desperate to fit in and impress his new samurai friends. Plus he is overly excited about going in to battle. I also liked Takashi Shimura a lot for his wise countenance.

Akira Kurosawa directs the film at a very quick pace. Not once is there a dead spot I can point out (tell me another 204 minute movie that can do that). His 3+ hour time is perfect. This allows for great character development as well as very good action sequences. The relationship between the farmers and the samurai is the pinnacle of the movie, I believe. The samurais do not like farmers for the fact farmers kill samurais. And farmers hate samurais for the fact the samurais have done their fair share of looting as well. There are many scenes dealing with this hate and tension between the groups. Kurosawa, though, never once takes sides. Having Kikuchiyo possibly a farmer once himself was a nice dramatic twist.

The film would later be the standard for future westerns, including it's own Western remake The Magnificent Seven, which may be a great western itself, could nowhere near match up to this movie.

The DVD:

And Criterion has released a modest, if not great DVD for it. This is the first time the film has been available on a single source. You have double cassettes. Or you have the Criterion laserdisc with a zillion discs. Not here. You have a single sided, dual layered disc. It plays straight through, the layer change during the intermission part.

The picture is presented in it's original standard aspect ratio of 1.33:1. While this is the best the movie has looked, the picture is still pretty rough looking. This is in the appearance of grain and marks. But the picture is very sharp. Black and white levels are very good. At times, though, the night scenes are too dark, leaving little to be seen. There is also a problem on one scene that is very noticable. As the young samurai looks into the sky thinking about life, we get a shot of the trees. And we get pixelation! Not a second of it but as long as we're looking at these trees. The branches are all blocky. Other than that, the expected can be found, like the grain and marks I mentioned before.

A restoration demonstration was included. But that disc was pulled. I don't know why (some licensing problem with Voyager I have heard) for sure. The disc I have does not contain that feature. It is a collector's item, though, so if you have a copy with it, consider yourself lucky! It's worth more money! I have not seen one being offered on any auction sites.

The sound for the disc is pretty rough as well. It's mono but it suffers from a bit. There is a lot of background noise. As well, dialogue sounds pretty rough. Yeah, it's Japanese and I don't speak a word of it but it is obviously distorted. Horse galloping effects, other sound effects and the score suffer from this problem as well. It's loud, though. Which may be the problem. A little less would have helped. I'm making it out to be worse than it is, but I just want people to know it is there.

Supplements are fairly sparse, though, but contains more than other Kurosawa films Criterion has released. The big one is a commentary by Japanese cinema expert Michael Jeck. And it's not too good. Actually, it's one of the more annoying commentaries Criterion has with a film (not including those dang audio essays). On average, it's a play-by-play. These drive me up the wall to be honest. You have a scene where someone is looking from side to side and the "commentary guy" saying "he looks left, he looks right, left, right." and so on. Once in a while he offers some good stuff as he gets a bit into Kurosawa's techniques and a little on Mifune. But I think the pinnacle is when he points out the movie's only mistake, which I think a lot of people would notice anyways.

There is also a theatrical trailer with optional sub titles (like the film). And then Criterion's standard colour bars (oh boy!). It's the laserdisc version slapped on DVD. Plus, as I mentioned before, the original release of this DVD had a restoration demonstration. It was pulled off of future printings.

While it's not perfect, I still have to recommend this DVD to fans of the movie. It is definitely the best you'll see of Seven Samurai. A few problems here and there with the transfer but generally a pretty good picture. But the film is definitely a classic and another collector's should get.

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