Seven Samurai Done Justice on DVD
Akira Kurosawa was the Japanese director most lionized in the West. He put himself on the artsy crowd's cinematic map with his 1950 film Rashomon, but his calling card among regular filmgoers is Seven Samurai. Even many of those who have seen only The Magnificent Seven know that the American film is a straight transposition of Kurosawa's original picture to the Old West.
Seven Samurai is set in the period of disorder in Japan prior to the establishment of stability under the Tokugawa Ieyasu in the 17th century. Desperate farmers, plundered again and again by marauding bandits, resolve to recruit samurai for their protection. However, the villagers have little to offer except food---samurai typically want something more substantial in the way of payment---and their recruitment effort seems doomed to failure. The farmers' luck turns when they witness the rescue of a child from a violent bandit by the seasoned samurai Kambei (played by Takashi Shimura, a veteran of many Kurosawa films). The philosophical Kambei is able to gather six other samurai in an attempt to protect the village.
Why does this film strike such a resonant chord in Westerners that it has enjoyed popularity since the '50s and even inspired Western imitations? Regular criticism focuses almost entirely on Seven Samurai as an archetypal action film and seems to attribute its success to this trait. However, Kurosawa's approach to filmmaking demanded that this be far more than an action flick. Such films today are often the most mindless products of cinema. The real attraction of Seven Samurai is the way in which the action illuminates the character of the players---the poise of the leader Kambei, the coolly perfect fighting skill of Kyuzo, the boyish enthusiasm of Katsushiro, or the inferiority-driven mania of the would-be samurai, Kikuchiyo.
Discussions of Seven Samurai perhaps inevitably focus on the bravura performance of Toshiro Mifune as the semi-comical, semi-serious Kikuchiyo. This character is indeed a major focal point of the film, but too strong an emphasis on this most famous of Japanese stars can lead to an underestimation of the quality of the other performances. Kurosawa was a stickler for appropriate casting (and, indeed, about every aspect of his films); all the characters are very finely drawn, down to the very smallest roles.
Any viewer familiar with the film only from earlier videotapes or prints is in store for a much more pleasurable viewing experience with this DVD. An impressive amount of tasteful and restrained restorative work has gone into this reproduction. Subtitles are clear and easy to read, and the visual and audio tracks are quite good for a film of this vintage.
Supplemental features include the now-standard theatrical trailer, plus a non-stop commentary track. A running commentary is one thing in a short film like High Noon, but it's perhaps a bit much for one that runs almost three and a half hours. While many interesting background facts are revealed, they might have been more palatable in a separate documentary. Perhaps the most interesting supplementary feature is the restoration demonstration, wherein segments of the film are shown to give the viewer a good feel for the subtle nature of the operation on the original print.
For those interested in Japanese cinema, this disc is about as perfect a rendition of a 1950s Kurosawa film as one is likely to encounter.