There is no aspect of Seven Samurai without layers. Every element, which includes all storytelling and filmmaking tricks known, is built from the ground up, given the time and care needed to create what is a small story into an epic of cinema.
Akira Kurosawa tells this story of a tiny village in late 1590’s Japan with an eye for their struggle, their starvation, and their desperation. The camera lingers on these isolated farmers, depressed and distraught over their grim chances for survival. It never moves, just sits. The images are powerful, resonating with the audience, and generating sympathy.
The village decides to hire samurai to defend them against the coming onslaught from thieves, and what they discover are some of the most varied, intelligently crafted characters in all of cinematic history. They are defined and developed, led by Shimada (Japanese great Takashi Shimura), and livened up by the goofy Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), his antics bringing out the characters in these written roles while keeping spirits high.
Seven Samurai expertly balances it all, doses of humor, drama, forbidden love, action, and strategy, each as well developed as the last. It is incredible, not only in how these elements come together, but how they create a natural air around them. The samurai are not glamorized, overdone heroes. They are humans, the full range of emotions displayed by all a lost art in modern Hollywood. Most film audiences have never seen a fully realized character on screen.
That’s not to say Seven Samurai is a film for only the hardcore film buff, partially a misconception given its foreign origins and lack of notable faces to a western audience. American viewers have their versions of this tale, from 1960’s Magnificent Seven to the more recent Pixar effort, A Bug’s Life. It’s a timeless tale, the surface level being a story of the underdog overcoming the odds (which the latter effort takes on full bore), going deeper to reveal honor, established morals, and ethics.
The samurai here have a code to live by, unspoken and even unwritten on screen. The cowboys of Magnificent Seven are there to help the poor village as true western heroes, standing up for what’s right. The samurai are so much more, which is what has kept them as captivating screen characters for over 60 years now.
Seven Samurai can be dissected in so many ways, from its sprawling cinematography, poignant script, and internal dialogues. It’s a stressful film to discuss, the fear of missing something grand weighing greatly on all but the most privileged film scholars. What’s great about Seven Samurai though is that you don’t need to be able dig deep into its narratives and motivations; it’s as effective a surface level tale as it is a piece of cinematic art, a treasure of the medium.
Criterion releases the film to Blu-ray in a generally stunning hi-def presentation, the 200+ minute film given an exceptional AVC encode that rarely falters. In just terms of its digital, technical merits, it is not perfect though. Undoubtedly, the length and space factor playing a role in the visible compression that appears rather visible on brighter portions of the screen. The chase through the barn near the hour mark shows some rather jarring artifacting on the clothing of the characters, those notable bands of horizontal compression evident against the daylight sky as well.
Another concern is interlacing. This is far less frequent than the loss of grain structure due to the encode. There is an edit at 10:28 where the screen wipes into the next shot, interlacing apparent for a few frames until the pass is complete. During the final stand-off between the villagers and thieves, there are three frames where it again becomes a problem at 3:18:31. These are are all quick to pass instances, but not the only ones. Others are hidden by motion, and only glimpsed by the videophile or trained eye.
Beyond those problems, Criterion’s restoration efforts have paid off. The grain structure is generally resolved, appearing natural and film-like with the exception of those certain scenes mentioned above. Damage is minimized, scratches and such left to those scenes of heavy smoke/dust being kicked up where the battle becomes difficult. The worst of it occurs on the top and bottom of the frame, the bottom being the more common victim, where hair and stable dirt impede on the image for entire scenes. Flicker has been all but completely removed, save for a scene in the barn at 30-minutes in. The print used is also stable, and few frames have gone missing, unlike the original camera negative.
Gray scale is preserved, the rich and consistent black levels breathing life into the image. Clean whites leap off the screen, the contrast completely adequate to the film’s needs. Of great importance is the detail, meticulously presented here with all of the beauty of those expanse countryside shots coming through at home. The bamboo huts and their straw roofs are stunning in their definition, and facial detail is striking on more than few counts. There are no instances of objects shimmering, and few shots seem degraded enough to stick out.
There some instances of softness, a close-up of Shino at 2:39:15 losing the sharpness battle. A stray shot or two also appear somewhat digital, the harsh outlines certainly not natural to the source. Like everything else that is minimally invasive to the overall quality of this transfer, it’s not enough to get worked up over, and the experience of seeing this film with this caliber of detail, depth, and definition, is truly something to treasure.
There are two flavors of audio mixes here, both of them uncompressed PCM. The original mono mix is definitely the worst off, the flatness of it all doing the aged audio no favors. Dialogue is heavily strained, and the elements clash with each other. Separation between them is quite poor, and the level of damage evident is at times distressing.
The second, a stereo effort, doesn’t deal with much in terms of positional audio, although a stray horse or two may barely become split from the opposing channel during some of the battle scenes. The effect of this mix is purely clarity, and it succeeds. From the opening credits, Fumio Hayasaka’s brooding drums are presented with the most minimal level of distortions, and flutes carry a level of clarity never before possible. The same goes for each theme in the film.
Dialogue in this stereo PCM mix is clean, coming through the speakers crisper and without the muddy nature of its mono counterpart. Only one scene in the film is of any real concern, a conversation at 50:15, where the rushing water behind the characters is somewhat overpowering, and the spoken words sound unnaturally elevated. Otherwise, there are no drop-outs or extensive hissing within the track, a real winner for Criterion.
This is a two-disc set, surely because of the length. The first contains only commentaries as extras, the initial one with Michael Jeck. A scholar’s roundtable mash-up track is the second featuring David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayms, and Donald Richie.
The second disc begins with Akira Kurosawa: It’s Wonderful to Create, a documentary from Toho’s Masterworks series, running 49-minutes while detailing his career. My Life in Cinema is a two-hour sit down interview with Kurosawa from 1993, covering a wide range of topics in fantastic detail. Origins and Influences looks at the samurai and their influence on film from around the world for around an hour. Trailer and galleries remain.