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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Toshire Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono, Dolby Surround
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  207 Minutes
Release Date:  September 5, 2006

"Why didn't you build a fence there?"

"A good fort needs a gap.  The enemy must be lured in so we can attack them.  If we only defend, we lose the war."

Film ****

Akira Kurosawa is such a complete master of technical filmmaking that his technique rarely calls attention to itself.  Every subtle lighting choice, every camera position or movement, every use of deep focus, wide angle lenses, or extreme close up so tightly serves the narrative of his story, you donít tend to consider until afterwards what a cinematic marvel the picture is.

Case in point would be Seven Samurai, often referred to as the greatest film to ever come out of Japan.  More than anything else, this movie serves as one of the supreme examples of the art of storytelling on film, and even at over three hours in length, the story and characters are so engrossing, the time seems to fly by quickly.  But Kurosawaís true gift is his ability to use the art of cinema to enhance his story, making it more dramatic, more comic, more human than any other medium would allow.  His story is strong enough to stand on its own merits, but the methods Kurosawa uses to capture said story on film bring the moments to new heights and new life. 

If the story seems familiar, thatís because the plot of Seven Samurai has been mimicked a few times in our own filmmaking culture, from The Magnificent Seven to the animated hit A Bugís Life.  Interestingly enough, even though the samurai picture had been a popular and successful genre in Japan, Kurosawa created with this film something that owed more homage to the American Western film. 

The samurai warrior was akin to the European knight of the middle ages, under Japanís own feudal system.  The samurai was born into his caste, and trained at an early age to do nothing but fight and serve his lord in battle.  However, Kurosawa broke convention with his film to tell a samurai story during Japanís civil war years.  It was a time when many lords had been killed in action, leaving their samurai without a job, and no known trade other than fighting.  Some maintained the code of the samurai as best they could, but others opted to make their living by brutal force rather than starving.

During this time, a village of farmers has been scoped by a group of bandits, who determine to come back and rob them at the end of the season, when their harvest comes in.  The farmers are distraught.  They cannot defend themselves against their attackers, and the theft of their grain will only mean their starvation and economic ruin.  In an act of desperation, they send a few men out in search of samurai warriors, hoping that some will come to their aid in exchange for all they can offer, which amounts to three bowls of rice per day.  Such a task will not be easy, considering the meager rewards, and not to mention that many of the villagers have had unpleasant encounters with samurai on the run in the past, and donít trust the warriors.

Most of the filmís first half deals with the recruitment of the samurai, led by Kambei (Shimura), an older, battle weary warrior whoís a bit tired of fighting, but recognizes the farmersí plight and ends up leading the resistance for them.  It is during these scenes that most of the key characters come into play, as the final group ends up with a number of vastly different personalities coming together for the common cause, including the young would-be-apprentice Katsushiro (Kimura), who is learning the ways of the samurai, and the slightly off kilter Kikuchiyo (Mifune), a wildly physical warrior whose background slowly reveals itself over the course of the picture.

The odds are not good, with seven samurai having to defend a village on all borders against a team of 33 bandits.  The next phase of the film involves the strategic planning:  how can they feasibly do it, and can the farmers help?  There are a few comic training sequences as the warriors attempt to train the villagers on how to handle bamboo spears in order to protect themselves.

Much of the filmís second half involves the battle scenes, which amount to several smaller skirmishes leading up to one larger one.  Again, Kurosawa defies convention by opting not to use carefully choreographed, balletic swordplay scenes so popular in their day.  These are real people who are really fighting for their lives.  Itís not always pretty.  Kurosawa doesnít want to thrill the audience with the spectacle of the action, but rather, contemplate the reality of death, and the tragedy we often bring on ourselves as human beings.

The story is terrific, but consider the technique:  Kurosawa uses depth of field and spatial relations in a most impressive way, giving many scenes a multi-dimensional quality.  There is foreground action, but there is also often something deep in the background, also perfectly in focus, that applies an extra layer to the story at hand.  Sometimes when the actors or the camera moves, object cut across the foreground in front of the principle action, adding yet another dimension to the space.  Such shots appear natural and fluid, and donít call attention to themselves, but the technical difficulty of capturing such a vast depth on film is staggering.  Kurosawa does it time and time again, treating them like throwaway shots.  But every element of every screen composition has been carefully controlled and meticulously planned, right down to the rains and winds.

This technical mastery enhances and enlivens the storyline, making it decidedly and uniquely cinematic in the process, and making it a film that can be enjoyed on multiple levels.  Itís entertaining enough on the surface to be a great movie watching experience, but there are many subtle depths to be explored upon repeated viewings, for those who prefer to go skimming for cinematic treasure.

Video ****

Criterion's remastered Seven Samurai is a beauty to behold.  The print looks cleaner than ever before, with more contrast and sharpness than you've ever seen.  The black and white photography is crisp and clear, with good use of a wide range of grayscale, and thankfully, images are sharp throughout, which allow you to appreciate Kurosawaís masterful use of deep focus photography.  Simply superb!

Audio ***

The new addition here is a Dolby 2 channel surround track, which is quite good.  I admit it was a little distracting at first, having seen the movie countless times, but I got used to it quickly and enjoyed the more immersive audio experience and the extra dynamic range brought out by the music score and the action sequences.  The original mono is still here and intact for purists.

Features ****

This three disc set is loaded to the gills, friends...the extras include:

  • 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
  • A 50-minute documentary on the making of Seven Samurai, part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create
  • My Life in Cinema, a two-hour video conversation between Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima produced by the Directors Guild of Japan
  • Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences, a new documentary looking at the samurai traditions and films that impacted Kurosawa's masterpiece
  • Theatrical trailers and teaser
  • Gallery of rare posters and behind-the scenes and production stills
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Kenneth Turan, Stuart Galbraith, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Lumet and an interview with Toshiro Mifune

    Criterion has outdone themselves once again!


    Jean-Luc Godard once referred to film as ďtruth, 24 times a secondĒ, and that is highly indicative of what Akira Kurosawa presents with his movie, Seven Samurai.  He uses his camera to capture the reality of emotion, be it joy or sorrow, humor or fear, and channels the energy into his storytelling.  Almost everything one needs to know about technical filmmaking and how to apply it to story and characters is contained within.  As one of the most revered and influential pictures in cinema history, itís a define must see.  And with this definitive special edition three-disc set from Criterion, there's no way this film shouldn't be in your library.

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