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Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #2 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

October 8, 2010 by  



“Seven Samurai” is Akira Kurosawa’s ultimate masterpiece that has been one of the highlights of the Criterion Collection for more than a decade.  This Blu-ray release of “Seven Samurai” looks fantastic and is the definitive version to watch and to own.  Overall, with the film, commentary and lengthy special features, “Seven Samurai” on Blu-ray is a 5-star release!  Highly recommended!

Image courtesy of © 1954. 2006 Toho Co. Ltd./2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai)

YEAR OF FILM: 1954

DURATION: 207 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 Aspect Ratio), Black and White, Monaural Japanese with English Subtitles

COMPANY: Janus Films/Toho/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: October 19, 2010

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni

Produced by Sojiro Motoki

Music by Fumio Hayasaka

Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai

Edited by Akira Kurosawa

Production Design by Takashi Matsuyama

Costume Design by Kohei Ezaki, Mieko Yamaguchi

Starring:

Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo

Takashi Shimura as Kanbe Shimada

Keiko Tsushima as Shino

Yukiko Shimazaki as Rikichi’s Wife

Kamatari Fujiwara as Manzo – Father of Shino

Daisuke Kato as Shichiroji

Isao Kimura as Katsushiro Okamoto

Minoru Chiaki as Heihachi Hayashida

Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyuzo

Yoshio Kosugi as Mosuke

Bokuzen Hidari as Yohei

Yoshio Inaba as Gorobe Katayama

Yoshio Tsuchiya as Rikichi

Kokuten Kodo as Gisaku, the Old Man

One of the most thrilling movie epics of all time, Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) tells the story of a sixteenth-century village whose desperate inhabitants hire the eponymous warriors to protect them from invading bandits. This three-hour ride from Akira Kurosawa—featuring legendary actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura—seamlessly weaves philosophy and entertainment, delicate human emotions and relentless action, into a rich, evocative, and unforgettable tale of courage and hope.

If there is one title in which many fans of the Criterion Collection have always considered as must-have, must-own, it would be Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film “Seven Samurai”.

The second film of The Criterion Collection, originally released back in 1999 and then re-released in 2006, the third time is indeed a charm as Kurosawa’s masterpiece will now be released on Blu-ray.  And the “Seven Samurai” is a wonderful highlight in the oeuvre of Kurosawa, as it was a film in which the filmmaker wanted to make a real jidai-geki (period film).

Having success with his last film “Ikiru” and previous films such as “Rashomon”, “Stray Dog”, “Drunken Angel” to name a few, “Seven Samurai”stands out amongst his films because not only is it a samurai film, but it’s a film which captures the period of ronin who have no master and are trying to survive, some who have become bandits and pray on the weak villages and for all its 207-minutes of thrilling and compelling cinema, this is a film in which Kurosawa is deeply focused and a film in which he expected nothing less from his crew and his talent, this film demanded pure dedication, talent and staff working in frigid, cold conditions and wanting to make viewers feel that it was just a rainy day and it’s as simple as that.

But this film was anything but simple.  This is a film that demanded one’s respect, one’s dedication in watching this film in its entirety and just be in awe of how thorough, how multi-layered and most of all, how awesome this film would be no matter which generation you came from.  This film is truly a masterpiece.

“Seven Samurai” takes place after the civil wars, a time when samurai who have lost their master are now roaming from village to village just to find a job or ways to survive, meanwhile bandits (former samurai) have went from village to village to kill, cheat and steal young women from the village as their sexual objects.

For one farming village, one of the villagers who is hiding and listening to the bandits hear that they were going to return to the village that they just pillaged, after their crops have grown and are to be harvested.  The village farmers and their families survive off their rice crops and it’s so bad that they hardly have anything left as it is.

The villagers know they are at a breaking point and things are getting worse.  Some want to fight back, but others feel they don’t have what it takes to fight back.  They are scared, they are weak and they don’t know what else they can do.  That is until the village elder recommends them to find and hire samurai’s who would fight for them.  Something the elder has seen once before a long time ago.  Samurai who will come because they are hungry and at the village, they can definitely provide the rice that is needed.

So, the first story arc features the farmers going to a larger village in search of samurai but the problem is, not one of them is interested until they meet Kanbei (played by Takashi Shimura), a strong and respectable samurai who is willing to help.  Alongside with him is a young ronin named Katsushiro (played by Ko Kimura) who wants to learn from Kanbei.  And from there, Kanbei is joined by an old friend, Shichiroji (played by Daisuke Kato) who finds another samurai named Gorobei (played by Yoshio Inaba) and Gorobei ends up finding Heihachi (played by Minoru Chiaki).

With five samurai, we then see Kanbei trying to recruit a master swordsman named Kyuzo (played by Seiji Miyaguchi) and all they need is one and that one is the unusual, wannabe samurai which the group has named Kikuchiyo (played by Toshio Mifune).

The second arc deals with Kanbei and fellow samurai  as they plan out their strategy of defense against the bandits and also training the farmers on how to protect their land and the final third arc which deals with the bandits who now have arrived near the farming village to make their attack and pillage and the samurai and farmers ready to defend their home.

VIDEO:

“Seven Samurai” is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:331.  According to the Criterion Collection”, the original negative of the film is no longer available, so a duplicate negative was created from the original fine-grain master positive using wetgate processing.  This high-definition digital transfer was then created in 2K resolution on a Spirit Datacine from the dupe negative.  For the extensive restoration of “Seven Samurai”, several different digital hardware and software solutions were utilized to address flicker, instability, dirty, scratches and grain management.  Including da Vinci’s Revival, Discreet’s Fire, Digital vision’s ASCII Advanced Scratch and Dirty Concealer, MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean.

I’ve done quite a bit of comparing between this blu-ray version and the previous two Criterion Collection DVD releases and all I can say is that the “Seven Samurai” on Blu-ray is simply fantastic.  This is a remarkable restoration of the original film.  I was noticing detail, for example, the flag that Kikuchiyo hung up on top of the house, you can see the threading quite clearly.  You can see detail and patterns on the clothing much more clearly as well as detail of the surrounding area (the farming village) from the buildings to the fields as well as the closeups of the character’s faces.  You can actually see the strands of hair instead of just one big black and gray mesh, you can see strands of hair which was not as visible on the DVD version.

Blacks are nice and deep, whites and gray contrasts are just right.  I didn’t see any artifacting, massive flickering or even edge enhancement.  You do spot some scratches but nothing major.  There is also a good amount of grain present in the picture. This is clearly the best looking version of “Seven Samurai” right now and fans of the film will be in awe of how beautiful this film looks!  Fantastic!

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

According to the Criterion Collection, the surround mix was created from original optical track recordings, original stereo music masters, and original production sound effects masters.  The original monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from an optical soundtrack print.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated audio workstation.

Audio is presented in Japanese LPCM 1.0 (mono) and Japanese LPCM 2.0.  The package does mention a Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio track but this was mistake on the packaging.  But for the most part, audio is quite clear and if there is one thing that fans will notice is the clarity of Fumio Hayasaka’s score.

Donald Richie, author of “The Films of Akira Kurosawa” wrote in his book about the differentiation of the music which I noticed much more in this soundtrack.  Drums are associated with the bandits, folk-music, flute and percussion with the farmers and a male chorus (low humming) with the samurai.  Audio was excellent and I detected no audio problems, hissing or dropouts whatsoever.

Optional English subtitles are included.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Seven Samurai – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #2” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features presented in HD (1080i):

Disc 1:

  • Roundtable Audio Commentary – The following audio commentary is by  film scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns and Donald Richie.  Originally included on the “Seven Samurai” 2006 DVD re-release, the audio commentary features a different scholar taking on about a half hour or more segment of the film and giving their commentary for the film.
  • Audio Commentary – Featuring the original audio commentary from the 1999 Criterion Collection DVD release by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck.

DISC 2:

  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create – (49:10) The making of “Seven Samurai” as part of the Toho Masterworks series “Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create” featuring interviews with Kurosawa’s key collaborators, writer Shinobu Hashimoto, set decorator Koichi Hamamura, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, actors Seiji Miyaguchi and Yoshio Tsuchiya and more.  This is a wonderful documentary for anyone who wants to know how this masterpiece was made.  This feature was originally included in the 2006 DVD release but is now presented in 1080i.
  • My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa – (1:55:59) Filmed for the Directors Guild of Japan in 1993, this featurette showcases director Akira Kurosawa talking with filmmaker Nagisa Oshima.  Two two talk about Kurosawa’s life and career.  This conversation between the two is very cool, especially if you have followed the careers for both filmmakers!  This feature was originally included in the 2006 DVD release but is now presented in 1080i.
  • Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences – (55:12) A documentary exclusive for the Criterion Collection, this documentary takes a close look at the history of samurai in Japanese life and art and the influence of the samurai figure in film leading up to Kurosawa’s masterpiece.  Another awesome documentary featuring Tony Rayns, Donald Richie and David Desser discussing samurai in Japanese films.  This feature was originally included in the 2006 DVD release but is now presented in 1080i.
  • Trailers and Teaser – Featuring three trailers (3-5 minutes each) and a teaser (:42).
  • Galleries – Using your remote, you can view galleries via behind-the-scenes and the film’s movie posters.

EXTRAS:

“Seven Samurai” comes with a slipcase and a 60-page booklet. The booklet features essays by Kenneth Turan (The Hours and Times), Peter Cowie (Seven Rode Together), Philip Kemp (A Time of Honor), Peggy Chiao (Kurosawa’s Early Influences), Alain Silver (The Rains Came), Stuart Galbraith (A Magnificent Year), A Tribute from Arthur Penn, A Tribute from Sidney Lumet and an interview with Toshiro Mifune (In His Own Words).

Also, the “Seven Samurai” is presented in a digipack case in which both the case and the booklet fits into a slipcase.

Like many fans of the Criterion Collection, I purchased the original “Seven Samurai” when it was released, followed by the DVD re-release and then here I am once again reviewing another magnificent release of the film but this time on Blu-ray.

“Seven Samurai” on Blu-ray has much more detail and clarity than any previous release of the film and for those who are passionate about the film, this is the definitive version to own.

There is no doubt that the Criterion Collection is passionate about Akira Kurosawa and his work.  From the various Criterion Collection releases to the eclipse series releases and the AK100 set released earlier this year, Akira Kurosawa is a filmmaker that many people all over the world respect and with the announcement of the Blu-ray release of “Seven Samurai”, needless to say, many fans have been waiting patiently and it was definitely worth the wait.

The film exemplifies the magnificence of Kurosawa and here we are with a beautiful release of this film, with the intermissions and not hacked and cut like when it first was released in the US.  In Japan, it was uncut.  In the US, in 1954,  this 207 minute film was reduced to 160 minutes and further cuts were made.    And I can’t even fathom this film being shortened, as nearly every minutes, every hour of this 207-minute film was important to the story.

But there is so much to love about “Seven Samurai”, it’s storytelling is well-paced, the characters especially the samurai were well-planned and their scenes were well written, the discussion of strategy was well-thought and planned and the action is well-executed.

Both actors that have worked with Akira Kurosawa in his previous movies, Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune were fantastic!  Shimura as Kanbei, the disciplined leader who is aware, always thinking and is very astute when it comes to the samurai way and always practicing caution with his knowledge of strategy and how the farmers can use their surroundings to their advantage.    It’s one thing for Shimura to shine two-years earlier as Kanji Watanabe in the 1952 film “Ikiru” but in “Seven Samurai”, Shimura fit the part as a samurai leader.  Convincing and a leader onscreen that wins your respect and you want this man to truly succeed.

Actor Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo is phenomenal.  A popular actor in Kurosawa films such as “Drunken Angel”, “Stray Dog”, “Rashomon”, in “Seven Samurai”, Mifune masterfully plays the wannabe samurai Kikuchiyo who tries to convince everyone he is a samurai but his public display, awkward, weird, unusual, abrasive and crude at times, shows that he is a man with a kind heart and a man who wants to be with men like Kanbei and earn his respect as one of them.  But no matter how unusual Kikuchiyo is….whether he is impulsive, talks a lot, laughs a lot and downright mouthy, this is a character who rises to the occasion.  He is a man who does all he can to defend the farmers from the bandits, he is also a man that will earn the respect of his comrades.

Awesome performances by both men but also everyone in this film.  The main characters to the supporting characters are well thought of, are well-utilized…and each talent and even the crew braved through cold weather, cold water and gave the best performance onscreen as Kurosawa demanded and expected the best and got the best performance out of them.

As mentioned, the film is 207 minutes long but by no means does the film make you want to look at the clock.  I’ve seen long films before but with “Seven Samurai”, I was glued to my seat.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film,  “Akira Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954) is not only a great film in its own right but the source of a genre that flowed through the rest of the century.” (from Roger Ebert, “The Great Movies”, pg. 400)

“Seven Samurai” is a wonderful triumph in cinema.  Kurosawa’s wanting to create a jidaigeki samurai film but wanting to make it real, making it entertaining for the viewer that no matter how long the film is, the viewer is captivated.  We know this war with the bandits is not going to go perfectly, some will live and some will die.  We watch to see how well the plans of Kanbei are executed, how well prepared the farmers are in defending their home and we see how ruthless and cunning the bandits are and how they also have other weapons such as muskets and bows and arrows to their disposal.

Film critic Pauline Kael wrote about “Seven Samurai” (in her , “It is the Western form carried to apotheosis – a vast celebration of the joys and torments of fighting, seen in a new depth and scale, a brutal imaginative ballet on the nature of strength and weakness.” (from Pauline Kael, “For Keeps”, pg. 61)

“Seven Samurai” is a battle of underdogs vs. a large group of samurai-turned-bandits and we find ourselves supporting the seven samurai and the farmers in hoping they can become victorious?  But with victory comes a price.   But it’s not about just the battle, it’s about the relationships of each characters.  The samurai who follow the Bushido way, the farmers who hire the samurai for protection but at the same time, have their own set secrets of what they have done to samurai in the past.  The farmer who lives with revenge for the wife that was taken from him, the man who wants to be a samurai but sympathizes with the farmers for a reason.  There is so many layers within this film, masterfully pieced together, amazing shots that Kurosawa is known for and like a maestro, manages to make the 207 minutes an incredible cinema experience.  The word “masterpiece” can be a bit misused and even overused but there is no doubt, “Seven Samurai” is a Kurosawa masterpiece and a truly a magnificent film.

As for this Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of “Seven Samurai”, there will be some who may want to know if it’s worth it, especially after purchasing the magnificent 2006 DVD release.  While not having any newer special features, you do get the best presentation of the film (and special features) in HD, as well as the two audio commentaries, the three lengthy special features that with special re-release and the booklet as well.  This is truly the definitive version of “Seven Samurai”, a wonderful HD version of the film and if that matters to you, then “Seven Samurai” on Blu-ray is absolutely worth it.

“Seven Samurai” is Akira Kurosawa’s ultimate masterpiece that has been one of the highlight release for the Criterion Collection for more than a decade.  It’s a film that many cinema fans have in their collection and if you are a cineaste is practically essential to have in your film collection.  This Blu-ray release of “Seven Samurai” looks fantastic and is the definitive version to watch and own.  Overall, with the film, commentary and lengthy special features, “Seven Samurai” on Blu-ray is a 5-star release and it receives our highest recommendation!

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