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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 8/18/98
(updated 8/4/99)




Seven Samurai
1954 (1998) - Toho Co., Ltd. (Criterion)

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

Film Rating: A+
One of, it not the, greatest film put on celluloid. It has everything a movie lover could want, and at 3 hours and 23 minutes, there is little fat on this bad boy. Kurosawa is at his most brilliant here -- and that's saying a lot.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/B
Audio is top notch, but mono. Not faulting the original mono, but I always wanted to hear this film swirl around me. The video is harsh and slightly digital looking. This was due to the restoration process, so it's easily forgiven. But you have to admit that having the film all together on one source for the first time in home video history is a big plus. Extras are okay, but nothing to write home about.

Overall Rating: A-
No complaints from me. Other armchair critics are calling it a bad disc, but I like it. It's an eye-pleasing print of, for me, the greatest film ever made. That may give me a bias, but I watched it three times, and each time it didn't bug me -- and I've watched some crappy discs. In fact, I'd be pissed if this DVD sucked. I'm not pissed.

Specs and Features

203 minutes, unrated, full screen (1.33:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch in Chapter 14 at 95:32), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary by Michael Jeck, original US theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (30 chapters), languages: Japanese (DD 1.0 mono) with English subtitles

Review

When the AFI put out it's 100 greatest American films, it was met with great controversy. People argued all over what films deserved to be there and which ones didn't. Everyone had a substitute. Well, imagine that list if it were the 100 greatest films EVER made. Half the films in the top ten American films list wouldn't even be there. Sure, Citizen Kane would still be there -- there's no debating that. But, would it be number one? My answer to that is, quite simply -- nope. Akira Kurosawa's magnificent epic Seven Samurai would be the holder of that spot. You guys can fire out the e-mails all you want, but wait until I tell you why.

Seven Samurai is the most watchable 203 minute of film ever made. Where else are you going to get such character development, action/adventure, and this level of human comedy, without having to live it yourself? Seven Samurai has all of those things, plus it's got some of the best character actors who have ever graced the silver screen, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura among them.

The whole thing was put together by a man who was born to make films. Every film that I can think of that has Akira Kurosawa's name attached is a classic, but Seven Samurai stands as his greatest effort -- and his most accessible. Samurai follows the trials of a village plagued by bandits. Knowing that the bandits plan to strike when their next crop is harvested, the villagers "hire" samurai to protect them from the upcoming attack. At first they have no chance of finding anyone willing to do it, or good enough to handle it, even if they do. That is until they bump into Takashi Shimura's character Kambei. In a brilliant scene that brings up so many different cultural questions and issues -- we see Kambei save a young child taken hostage. Through Kambei, the rest of the samurai are pulled together and head on to a new adventure.

This is a film, with a close to three and a half hour running time. Loads of people simply don't have the time to give to a movie of this length. I can understand that, but you have to go in knowing that this film gives back. The events explained above take place over about an hour and a half -- that's a load of character development, and all of it needed. The way that Kurosawa moves his camera, and sets up his scenes -- it's just beautiful. His heavy use of deep focus technique and camera position says more than words can -- and in this case, Kurosawa is the most eloquent speaker in the realm of cinema. Because of this, we are given what seems to be three films in one. After Kambei recruits his fellow samurai, we go into a sequence where we learn about the other men. Primarily we learn about the samurai known as Kikuchiyo, played by Mifune. Kikuchiyo's past allows the group of samurai to eventually identify with the farmers. They are able to gain their trust and fortify the village better through him. He eventually becomes the heart and soul of both the samurai and the film. It also helps that he is the easiest to identify with out of the seven. Mifune is wonderful in this role, and it is the one role that best summed up his own personality. Wild, angry, funny, caring. He was all these things -- and more. The character is also a surrogate for Kurosawa - having compassion for the farmers, but also disdain. Wanting to be part of his peers, yet striving to be an individual. Kurosawa's career shows these aspects of his own personality.

Many people seem to watch the film, and allow their attention spans to drift in and out, disregarding the small nuances that put the film into focus. One common question is, why do the bandits continue to attack when they keep getting killed? It seems pretty stupid, but there are 2 reasons -- neither of them good, but in the context of the story they make sense. The bandits need what the farmers have to survive. It's not like there's a farming village every six miles, like some corner convenience store. The other reason, is that the Japanese are a stubborn lot. The bandits continue to strike because they must win. That is all, and there isn't much arguing. It may not make sense, but it's true.

The grand luxury of having this film on DVD, is based on its length. Never before has an audience been able to watch this film at home, without having to get up and either change videotapes, or flip a disc. I've watched this film close to 30 times, and this was the first time I went all the way through it without having to get up. Of course, we end up paying for that luxury. The quality of the video is a bit flawed. Although, there is low pixelation, there is a problem with hard edges. Everything seems to be overcompensated for, with hard flat lines. It's noticeable at first, but begins to fade as you watch it. It's still there, but you get used to it. The most likely reason for this is based on the restoration process. The film has been filtered, to remove scratches, rips and other flaws. This gives the film a more digital look that we are used to seeing. I honestly didn't mind, because I've seen some crappy copies of this film. The sound, too, has been remastered. It is loud and bright, and mono. Most of the hiss that has appeared before has been removed and we end up with a wonderful sounding film.

Extras include a commentary track by Michael Jeck, who, when he's good, informs and explains many of the aspects to the film. But when he's bad, he is boring. Most of the time he gives play-by-play commentary. "Here we see Mifune walking across the screen, and now he's scratching." Okay Mike, thanks -- I didn't notice the scratch. It gets on the nerves sometimes. But if you turn it off, you might miss some of the informative things he has to say. So it's a catch 22. Included also is a trailer and an example of the before-and-after effects of the restoration process. It's pretty sparse, but this is a huge film. Just getting it all on one DVD is extra enough.

Bottom line

This is a huge film, and it looks wonderful on DVD, even with its flaws. You won't find it looking as good on video, and with the luxury of having it contained on one disc and one side, you can't go wrong. The film school quality audio essay is fine enough, but gets repetitive between the nuggets of useful information. Don't let the 'man-on-the-street' opinion of this disc affect you. If you love this movie, it's worth the price.

8/4/99 - Important Update

Criterion recently pulled all copies of this DVD, and then reissued the disc without the film restoration montage (showing the before and after effects of the restoration on the print) that we describe in this review. Apparently, their license with Toho, who owns the film, didn't allow for using any footage from the film out-of-context, and they wanted it removed from the disc. Seven Samurai IS still available on DVD, but again, without the restoration montage.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com




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