Short Attention Span Review™
The text below the break is part of a DVD review originally published on March 5th, 2000.
Here are some updated thoughts: Here’s another non-science fiction offering re-posted from my deep and dusty archives.
When I dig up an old review, especially an old DVD review, I often strip off bits and pieces that aren’t relevant. In this case I decided to leave the entire review intact, for the main reason that I was reviewing a very expensive Criterion Collection edition of Seven Samurai. Criterion is an organization that prides itself in “gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” My disappointment in the DVD is clearly evident below, especially its lack of “original supplements,” but it’s saved by a great movie made by the masterful Akira Kurosawa.
Foreign movies are an acquired taste, especially if it requires 3.5 hours of reading subtitles. But sometimes it’s definitely worth the effort. Every movie buff is obligated to watch these Kurosawa’s classics:
- Seven Samurai (later made into the western The Magnificent Seven)
- Yojimbo (later remade into the western A Fistful of Dollars)
- Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth)
- Ran (based on King Lear)
I threw this DVD in the Sony expecting a lot more than was delivered. Perhaps my expectations were elevated based solely on the fact that this medium is supposed to deliver crisp, bright, clear video and deep, rich, vibrant sound. I have to remember that the vast majority of movies out there were filmed prior to the advent of digital media, and the reproduction of these films will not gain any substantial help by encoding them onto DVDs. A previous DVD that I reviewed that also suffers from this paradox is Forbidden Planet. So from now on I’m going to call DVD reviews of films prior to 1980 or so, Classic DVD Reviews. I’m not going to pull any punches and go easy on them just because they’re movies with older production techniques . . . if the video, audio, and extras are subpar, or have not been cleaned up, I will let you know.
So that brings us to Seven Samurai, a film that dates all the way back to 1954. The overall quality of the video and audio are certainly below what we would expect from a modern transfer. I’m sure the Criterion team did the best job they could cleaning up this film prior to transfer, eliminating a lot of the dust and scratches inherent in the master . . . but there is still a lot to be desired. The video is still plagued with noticeable flecks, scratches, and miscellaneous defects, which initially annoyed the hell out of me, but were quickly forgotten as I became more engrossed in the story. The most annoying problem the video has is a very jittery look, as if you are watching an old movie from the 1920’s on a slightly out of synch projector. The brightness and contrast of the black and white picture seems to fluctuate slightly as well. These two coupled together give the video a wavering look. To top it off, there are several scenes that are shot much darker than the rest. The fundamental black and white image is clear and crisp, it is just plagued with too many problems (again, due to the date of filming) that make the video substandard.
I bet you’re wondering about the audio. Forget about it. Though not inundated with all the problems the video has, the audio is still not something you would want to show off your surround sound system with. There is no surround sound. There is no stereo for that matter. There is Dolby Digital 1.0 in all it’s monaural glory. The overall sound is fairly clear, though obviously lacks pretty much any dynamic depth. There are many sequences in the film where the audio is slightly distorted or muted. The audio is nothing to write home about.
Finally we get to the all important, and often overlooked, extras. Well, they’ve pretty much been overlooked again. Sure Seven Samurai is nearly 50 years old, but all they have for extras is a theatrical trailer and an audio commentary track. That’s it? The film is made by Kurosawa, one of the most influential filmmakers ever, and you guys can’t find ANY more extras to put on this disc? Some history? Some director information? Something . . . anything more?! Shame, shame on you Criterion!
Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, et al
Genre: Action / Drama
Media: Film, 207 minutes
Rating: Unrated (USA)
Box Office: $2.2 million
So the technical aspects of the DVD might shy you away from this one, but not all is lost. The main reason we buy and watch movies is for the movie itself, and this one is a classic. I’m going to start right off with a little warning: the Criterion edition (original Japanese release) is 3.5 hours long! The original US theatrical release was a full HOUR shorter. This is one of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces, and is actually entitled Shichinin no samurai. His movies have influenced many of America’s great directors including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Lucas modeled his Jedi Knights off the samurai, and Star Wars is loosely based on Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Many of Kurosawa’s films have been adapted into Hollywoodized versions, including the Seven Samurai which was turned into The Magnificent Seven (a western) here in the United States.
The story is long in development and rich in character. It takes place in the 16th century and deals with a small Japanese village that is ravaged by bandits following the harvest each year. The farmers, unable to defend themselves, send a group to a nearby town to enlist the help of some samurai (actually ronin, which are samurai for hire) to help protect them. Their payment? Three square meals a day while on the job, which they eventually share back to the villagers later in the story! This may not seem like a lot, but it was a period of civil war and times where tight. After unsuccessfully searching, they run across Kanbei, an experience samurai, who agrees to help them. He tests and enlists five more samurai. They are eventually joined by Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) who is a psuedo-samurai who was born a farmer’s son and thinks both samurai and farmers are wretched, yet deep down has a heartfelt compassion for both. Though Kanbei is the main character, Toshiro Mifune steals the show as Kikuchiyo. His portrayal of the tortured samurai is brilliant. All the other samurai are very even keeled and fairly unemotional. Mifune’s character is all over the emotional map portraying a drunk, a comic, a warrior, a passionate farm boy, and in a great scene, a scolding samurai. You may not recognize his name, but I’m sure you’ll recognize his face. He was a staple in nearly every Kurosawa film, and was one of the greatest actors in Japanese cinema.
Let’s get back to the story. At first the villagers are frightened of the samurai stereotyping them as rapists and thieves, but the seven eventually win over the trust and respect of the villagers. The samurai end up training them to help during the defense as they prepare the village for the attack which is inevitable. As you can probably guess, the story has a happy ending for the villagers, but an unhappy one for the samurai.
The subtitles are managed very well, and there isn’t so much reading that it detracts from actually watching the movie. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a subtitled movie with lines upon lines of text to read! For movies this long it’s extremely important that the subtitles are optimized.
Woeful technical aspects of the DVD (more legacy problems than anything) are positively offset by one of the greatest early filmmaking efforts ever to come to the cinema. Though this might be a bit long for the average person, this is a great tale of sacrifice, honor, and struggle during a time of civil war in Japan. The filming and action sequences are great, and you get to witness Mifune emerge as a star. If you’re already a Kurosawa fan . . . well, you’re probably not even reading this review.
Note: I’m revisiting and re-posting many older articles (almost 200) I’ve written (or contributed to) over the years, either for my own purposes or as contributions to other sites now long digitally decayed and dormant. These reviews/articles will appear in their nearly raw, unaltered form, with a few updated thoughts at the beginning of each.