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Samurai’ re-issue enhances timeless masterpiece

Brian Doxtader | Thursday, March 8, 2007

1954’s “Seven Samurai” is widely regarded as Akira Kurosawa’s finest effort, which in turn makes it one of the finest films of all time. A sprawling, 200-plus minute epic, “Seven Samurai” was groundbreaking for its breadth, depth and well-choreographed action sequences.

The film’s plot is relatively simple – seven samurai band together to ward off thieves who are terrorizing a small village in Japan. Among the protectors are master samurai Kambei (Takashi Shimura), his protégé Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), the headstrong Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) and the master swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi). A series of strikes and counter-strikes lead up to a climactic battle that tests the physical and mental will of each of the samurai.

“Seven Samurai” is a deep and powerful film, with many profound scenes, and its sure-footed narrative keeps the film from flagging, though it certainly requires cinematic patience. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (a trademark of Kurosawa) emphasizes the differences between the samurai, the bandits and the villagers. The appearance of guns highlights the sweeping away of the old way, with Kambei standing as a symbol – the most honorable and pure character in the film, he represents one of the last vestiges of tradition and honor. The same theme would appear in films for years to come (especially in the Western), including Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”

Criterion, one of the benchmarks of DVD quality, already released “Seven Samurai” once before in 1998. It was one of the company’s earliest DVDs, but Criterion has recently reissued the film in a deluxe three-disc special edition. Unlike the original release, which was a single disc, the special edition of “Seven Samurai” spreads the film itself over two discs, which was a great decision, since it optimizes picture and audio quality – the two elements that should really be the bottom line for any DVD release.

The film looks beautiful, having received an “all-new, high definition digital transfer.” The image quality is much-improved over the original release, with deeper contrasts and many of the specks and image imperfections removed.

The audio comes in the original Japanese mono track, with re-done subtitles, though it’s easy to suspect that some of the flavor of Kurosawa’s script has been lost in translation. There are also two audio commentaries – one by film scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie – the other by Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck. Jeck’s deep, insightful commentary, in particular, lives up to the scholar’s reputation as one of Japanese cinema’s foremost minds.

The bulk of the special features come in the form of three documentaries – a 50-minute “making of,” a two-hour video conversation between Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima called “My Life in Cinema” and “Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences,” which puts the film in a historical context. The best of these is “My Life in Cinema” because it really allows the viewer to get an intimate, poignant glimpse into the heart and soul of Kurosawa.

Criterion’s packaging is also quite nice, as the DVDs come housed in an attractive cardboard case that includes a booklet supported by several essays and pictures.

“Seven Samurai” is one of those films, like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Schindler’s List,” that everyone should feel obligated to see at least once. Its epic sweep and passionate sense of purpose make it Kurosawa’s most ambitious film – no small feat from the director of “Ran” and “Rashômon.” The filmmaker may have made several other films as accomplished as “Seven Samurai,” but the 1954 masterpiece has that rare cinematic magic, in which everything about the film works – it is, of course, both timely and timeless.

While realistically it would seem that no release could do “Seven Samurai” justice, Criterion’s re-release outdoes its already-high benchmarks, giving one of cinema’s greatest gems the lavish treatment it so richly deserves.