Criterion Discovery: Seven Samurai
Background: Seven Samurai (Spine #2) is a 1954 action/adventure epic directed by Akira Kurosawa, who holds more Criterion releases than anyone at 36. It is often cited as one of the most influential and epic films ever assembled onscreen.
Story: A group of poor villagers recruit seven samurai to help defend their village from bandits looking to steal the few supplies they own.
The Film: To call Seven Samurai an achievement in cinema is an understatement. What director Akira Kurosawa was able to accomplish in terms of scope and character helped found the foundation for adventure films for generations.
It’s been noted plenty times (as well here in a previous review here by our own JS Shreve) how influential the narrative of Seven Samurai has been on ensemble movies. Films that use the method of introducing characters while they’re in the middle of a story unrelated to the main plot, of gathering heroes to fight for a cause of greater importance, and creating a battle no single hero can fight, all take a page from Kurosawa’s film.With a few small exceptions, only Seven Samurai has been able to mine this story to its maximum potential by delving into the psyche of these samurai without masters. Against all odds and 40 bandits, can they claim victory? And if so, at what cost?
All the samurai get enough apt development to give each a sense of distinct character, with the standout being Toshiro Mifune as the goofball Kikuchiyo. The other samurai are mostly straight-laced, but that’s not to say they don’t stand out in their own rights. One such example is Takashi Shimura as Kambei Shimada, an aging samurai always willing to put the needs of others before himself as he leads the group. In modern terminology, he’s the Liam Neeson of samurai.
But what hits the nail on the storytelling head is the relationship the samurai have to the villagers. Each samurai is fighting for their own purpose (honor, a challenge, etc.) but how it relates to the village struggle weaves a tangled emotional webbing around the characters fighting against the bandit clan. The battle sequences remain one of the finest examples of action choreography. Dozens of actors swarm across the screen as rain and mud pour down upon the villagers and bandits in the climax. It’s a monumental sequence only comparable to Lord of the Rings in terms of execution (scale, not so much).
Supplements: The picture and sound quality aren’t the only upgrades as the English subtitles have been improved, along with the addition of two audio commentary tracks; one presented by film scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie, and the other with Michael Jack, a Japanese film expert. Several documentaries are available to watch detailing a making of Seven Samurai (the fifty-minute doc from Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create), a two-hour conversation between Akira Kurosawa (My Life in Cinema), samurai history in film (Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences).
Overall: While the poor archiving stops the HD transfer from being on par with some others, the picture and sound have a renewed crisp clarity unseen in any previous iteration of the film. Encompassing multiple genres by having a sense of swashbuckling adventure, an untidy romance, and an exploration of the power of community and human spirit, Seven Samurai captures every facet of a true film epic.
Criterion Grade: A
Film Grade: A+