One of the most thrilling movie epics of all time, Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) tells the story of a sixteenth-century village whose desperate inhabitants hire the eponymous warriors to protect them from invading bandits. This three-hour ride from Akira Kurosawa—featuring legendary actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura—seamlessly weaves philosophy and entertainment, delicate human emotions and relentless action, into a rich, evocative, and unforgettable tale of courage and hope.
Criterion releases one of their staple titles on Blu-ray, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 on the first dual-layer Blu-ray disc of this two-disc set. Unlike Criterion's previous three-disc DVD edition of the film, which spread the film over two discs, the film is presented in its entirety on the one disc.
I only own the original single-disc DVD edition and not that three-disc reissue so I can only compare to that original edition, which was incredibly problematic, laced with compression artifacts including pixilation, and based on a print in pretty bad shape. The new high-def transfer found here is rather breathtaking and far exceeds that DVD presentation, easily the best I've yet seen the film on home video. It's vastly sharper, presenting far more fine details, limited only by the source materials. Blacks are surprisingly deep with very distinct gray levels, and contrast as a whole looks spot on; even darker sequences I recall being hard to see are much clearer.
The print used is in much better shape, though it's not without some issues. There are marks and dirt at the edges of the screen at times and there are still plenty of tiny scratches found throughout, probably getting heavier during the last third of the film. They're noticeable but not overly distracting, but I'll take these over the alternative; in the past on some DVD editions Criterion has softened the image to hide these types of scratches, making the image hazy. Thankfully Criterion has not gone this route and the image remains sharp and crisp.
Past the damage present Criterion's transfer is still a stunner, really quite breathtaking.
Criterion presents two lossless linear PCM tracks, both in Japanese, the first one being a single-channel mono track, and the other being a 2.0 channel track. The second track is incorrectly listed as a DTS-HD track on the back, but it's no matter since neither sound particularly good, though I blame it more on materials than Criterion.
The mono track is fairly flat and lifeless without much of a punch in the music or action sequences, and voices don't sound completely natural, but it at least sounds clean and lacks much in the way of distortion. On the other hand the 2.0 track has more oomph and power behind it, sounding louder in comparison, but it comes off incredibly distorted and edgy, at times quite heavily, making it hard to listen to (irritating even) and in turn this aspect leads me to prefer the mono track.
Still, having said that, either one sounds far better than the track found on the original DVD Criterion released, which had plenty of issues, and in the end I blame the source materials and not Criterion for any of the problems. Something tells me short of some technical miracle this is about as good as it will ever get.
It appears Criterion has ported over everything from the previous editions (not counting the restoration demonstration briefly found on the rare first printing of the original DVD edition) and have put together a fairly impressive and comprehensive edition for the film.
The first disc is devoted entirely to the film (which takes up most of the space on the disc) but does include two audio commentaries. The first commentary was recorded for the three-disc DVD edition. Called a 'scholar track' it features David Desser, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie, and Joan Mellen. Everyone is recorded separately, which is a common practice for Criterion, but this one does differ from those. Usually those tracks edit the comments together but this track gives each commentator a roughly 40-minute portion of the film to cover before we jump to the next. I actually liked this presentation, breaking up some of the monotony that can occur with lengthy audio commentary tracks (as the other track on this disc can show.) Though there is a lot of repetition, specifically about Kurosawa's editing and visual style (as well as some of the technical aspects of the film) each one does concentrate on a certain specific aspect, such as Prince covering the more social aspects of the film, Rayns looking at the influences from the film, and Richie's first-hand experience of the film's original release, recalling the reception and even the actual premiere. I found Mellen's portion, the last one, the weakest, kind of limping along, but overall, despite maybe some repetition between the commentators, it's a nice track.
Criterion also includes the original commentary by Michael Jeck that was recorded in 1988 for the laserdisc edition and then reused for both Criterion DVDs. I've never been overly fond of this track, though Jeck really does try. I think part of the problem really is that Jeck has to keep your interest for 207-minutes on his own and despite some great sections, filled with some informative bits on the production, release, the actors, actual Japanese history, and even pointing out the film's 'one technical mistake,' he can't keep it completely interesting and does fall victim to simply describing what is going on on-screen. It's not an awful track by any means but again I've never considered it a great track, simply okay, and of the two found here I would certainly direct most to the other commentary.
The remaining supplements are then found on the second dual-layer disc.
First up is another segment from the Toho Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. This 49-minute piece differs a little bit from others in the series, most notably in the fact we get to see the narrator who usually speaks over. Through interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew (or through archival footage) the documentary covers the writing process, the casting (going into detail about each character,) and of course has recollections of the actual shoot from participants and the many problems faced, particularly with weather and scenes involving fire. There's also mention of deleted scenes and an alternate opening (that Kurosawa didn't shoot because he felt it was too 'impressive') and we also get to see many of the notes and notebooks made before and during filming, all on display at a museum. Like others in the series it's filled with some fascinating information about the making of the film and contains some great interviews with everyone involved.
The next feature is a great find, a 115-minute interview with Kurosawa by director Nagisa Oshima, called My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa. Though fairly static (it's filmed in what appears to be a den with two, maybe three cameras) it's a fascinating interview as Kurosawa covers his life from getting into painting to getting a job as an assistant director to becoming a director. He gets very personal at times, talking a little about his brother, who would eventually commit suicide, and talking about some of his favourite films. He goes into great detail about the Japanese censors and dealing with them before and during the war (his rather pleasant demeanor disappears almost completely once he starts talking about them,) his fondness of Russian literature, Dostoyevsky in particular, and his thoughts about the war, including his fear as to what could have happened if Japan had won. While it's a little disappointing that he doesn't cover a lot about his films (barely mentioning Seven Samurai) it's still a wonderful, very candid interview with the director.
The next supplement is a sort of addendum to the 'scholar' commentary track, a 55-minute segment called Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences, featuring the same participants of that track, Richie, Prince, Desser, Mellen, and Rayns. Divided into three sections the participants give some historical background to the Samurai and their role throughout Japanese history, then moving on to how they are presented in Japanese films, particularly the silent era, even including scenes from some of the existing elements that still remain from these films. They all then concentrate on Seven Samurai, and other 'Samurai Films' (which isn't really a genre to the Japanese according the participants here) from that era, including other films by Kurosawa, and their overall impact. Some material is repeated here from the commentary track, but I found the look at earlier Japanese films and the historical context a great addition to the set.
The set then closes with a selection of trailers, which includes three theatrical trailers and a teaser ranging from original trailers (one of which has no audio, apparently lost) to reissues. Then Criterion includes a photo gallery, which includes production photos and then a small selection of posters from around the world, including Japan, Poland, Britain, Argentina, and the U.S.A.
Finally, closing off the set, is a thick 56-page booklet featuring a number of essays. Kenneth Turan looks at the length of the film and use of its time, followed by Rayns who looks at the western influences found in the film and Kurosawa's fondness of John Ford (right down to the sun glasses.) Philip Kemp writes about the Bushido and the Samurai code (covered also in the commentaries and documentaries found on the disc,) Peggy Chiao covers influences on Kurosawa ranging from books to art, and Alain Silver looks at the compositions found in the film. Stuart Galbraith IV then closes off the more analytical essays with a piece about the film's popularity. Criterion then includes two short but excellent tributes by Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet. The booklet then closes with a wonderful reprinting of an interview/conversation with Toshiro Mifune about how he got into acting, first working with Kurosawa, and then filming Seven Samurai. An absolutely wonderful booklet.
Jeck's commentary may be the weakest element, and there is some repetition found throughout the set, but as a whole it's a great collection of supplements, the Kurosawa/Oshima interview being the genuine treat on here. An excellent job by Criterion, and a large improvement over Criterion's original DVD edition (which only included the Jeck commentary.)
In all it's pretty much what I hoped for. Despite some minor issues with the source materials we're given an absolutely wonderful presentation, quite stunning really, and with that (plus some great supplements) this release comes as a no-brainer for fans.