Seven Samurai - Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
Once again Criterion have pulled out all the stops to create simply the best visual presentation that a classic title has ever known. Here they are dealing with a movie that is over half a Century old, and yet they still manage to come up with the goods, even if 60 years does still take its toll on the image. In the enclosed booklet we get details of how they accomplished the feat, explaining how the original negative could not be sourced, so a duplicate negative was created from the original fine-grain master positive, using wetgate processing. As per most Criterion titles this High Definition digital transfer was then created in 2K resolution on a Spirit Datacine from this duplicate negative. The result is that we are graced with a solid Blu-ray presentation, offering up 1080p High Definition in the movie’s original theatrical aspect ratio of fullscreen 1.33:1.
The booklet further goes on to state that ‘for the extensive restoration of Seven Samurai, several different hardware and software solutions were utilised to address flicker, instability, dirt, scratches, and grain management; including Da Vinci’s Revival, Discreet Fire, Digital Vision’s ASCIII Advanced Scratch and Dirt Concealer, MTI’s DRS, and Pixel Farm’s PFClean.’ The success of Criterion’s hard work is fairly evident in the final result, which boasts exceptional detail on both the longer shots and the close-ups, but suffers a little on the mid-range. Contrast levels are well-managed, black levels are better than ever previously known and the broad range of monochromatic tone are all accurately rendered.
Criterion originally released Seven Samurai on SD-DVD a while back, and this new rendition marks a significant improvement. Whilst there is still a smidge of edge enhancement, and some ringing, these problems largely pass without threatening to interfere with your enjoyment of the movie. For all the hard work done to remove flicker, instability, dirt and scratches – as noted above – there are still many noticeable instances of all of these issues, albeit manageable ones. These can only be expected given the age of the film and the way in which they had to source it, and they too never really interfere with your enjoyment of this classic. Honestly, Seven Samurai has never looked this good, and with a decent layer of perfectly-suitable grain to round off the proceedings, this remains yet another indisputably excellent video presentation from Criterion.
On the aural front Criterion have again done a great job, giving us two different flavours for the original Japanese Audio. The first is a LPCM 1.0 Mono track that has been specified (also in the booklet) as having been mastered at 24-bit from an optical soundtrack print. The second offering is a LPCM 2.0 track (incorrectly listed as a DTS-HD track) that is stated to have been created from original optical track recordings, original music masters and original production sound effects masters. Both tracks boast clear and coherent dialogue, stable for the most part, and accompanied by detailed, presumably highly accurate English subtitles.
The tracks themselves have had ‘clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum manually removed using Pro Tools HD, and crackle attenuated using Audio Cube’s integrated audio workstation.’ And the end result again speaks for itself, its high point definitely coming from Fumio Hayasaka’s memorable, rousing score, which permeates much of the proceedings. The pouring rain creates a keen atmosphere and, along with the whistling wind and rustling rain, brings the movie alive aurally. Choosing between the two tracks is largely personal preference – some may want the more natural, original mono offering, which is a solid, authentic offering; whilst others will not mind the mildly tinkered-with stereo alternative, which imitates what this movie would have sounded like, had it been recorded originally in such a format – and mimics it well. There is a little advantage to be gained, both in dynamics and surround separation, and both tracks still occasionally sound a little shrill – although that's just a sign of age there – but true Kurosawa connoisseurs will likely be put off by the fact that the 'remix' was not, technically, what the Director created to accompany his masterpiece. Still, all in all, as with the solid video, the decent audio too marks certainly the best presentation that this film has ever had.
As with all Criterion releases, aside from providing the absolute best video and audio you could ever possibly imagine, they also try and source all of the extra features that you could possibly want. The release of this seminal masterpiece is not exception in this regard, boasting not one, but two full-length Audio Commentaries to accompany the movie itself, as well as a whole second disc devoted to the rest of the features.
First up we get an Audio Commentary with a selection of Film Scholars and Critics: David Desser, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, Joan Mellen, and Donald Richie, all recorded separately (despite the inaccurate “scholar’s roundtable” moniker). This is a good offering, enriching your enjoyment of the movie as best as it can do with the 20:20 hindsight of all these participants, who discuss various aspects of the production of the classic, its significance in film history, and the legacy that it has left behind which has influenced no end of films and filmmakers alike. Recorded relatively recently (long after the last release of Seven Samurai by Criterion), it is a decent enough accompaniment.
There is also a solo effort by Film Expert Michael Jeck, a specialist in Japanese movies, who provided this offering more than 10 years ago – the track of which was previously an addition on the aforementioned SD-DVD of Seven Samurai. Although this means that many fans will have already come across it, and the track certainly does show its age, it is still great to have it adorn this release – for completeness.
Akira Kurosawa – It is Wonderful to Create is a comprehensive 50 minute Documentary on the making of Seven Samurai. Created a while back as part of the Toho Masterworks series, it takes a retrospective look at the massive, landmark undertaking, with contributions from numerous Kurosawa-gumi – frequent collaborators with the master auteur. Actors Seiji Miyaguchi (the lone wolf from Seven Samurai), Yoshio Tsuchiya (one of the peasants from Seven Samurai, he was also in Kurosawa’s Red Beard and Yojimbo) and Masayuki Yui (who was in a number of Kurosawa productions, including Ran and Kagemusha) are shown in both new and archive interviews, as well as Screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto (who co-wrote nine of Kurosawa’s projects, including Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Rashomon, and who mentions additional unfilmed scenes for this project), Script Supervisor Teruyo Nogami (who helped with the Editing process for many of his movies), Set Director Koichi Hamamura (the props expert for Seven Samurai), Lighting Technician Mitsuo Kaneko (an Assistant Director on Seven Samurai) and Director Hiromichi Horikawa (the 2nd Unit Director on Seven Samurai). This is a great accompanying Making-Of, helping you get inside the magical mind of the man behind this classic, as all of his co-workers discuss their experiences working with him both on this movie and on others. As you can tell from the list of contributors, it is in Japanese, and is the one of the only extras with no English dialogue whatsoever. Thankfully we get solid English subtitles running throughout.
Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences rounds out at just shy of an hour and is a Criterion-exclusive Documentary which takes a very revealing, in-depth look at Samurai themselves, discussing the Samurai era in Japanese history, the Bushido code, and the impact of Samurai on art, literature and, most relevantly, the movie industry, offering up a nice grounding perspective in which to take in the movie. Most of the Commentators from the first Audio Commentary above (David Desser, Tony Rayns and Donald Richie) contribute to this interesting offering which is compulsive viewing for fans of both the movie and Samurai in general.
My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa is nearly two hours in length and basically consists of a long, intriguing interview/discussion between Akira Kurosawa himself and fellow Japanese Director Nagisa Oshima (the man behind Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence). The focus is clearly on Kurosawa, his childhood and upbringing, how his work paved the way for future Japanese Directors to break into the mainstream, the ups and downs in his career, his health and his experiences across 50 years of working in the film industry, as well as the legacy that his movies will leave behind. Recorded in 1993 for the Directors Guild of Japan, just after the release of his final movie, Not Yet, this was possibly the last recorded interview before the Director broke his spine in 1995 and then became a recluse until his death in 1998. As such, it is of immense interest to any fans of the man and his work, a quality, fittingly substantial addition (again completely in Japanese with English subtitles).
There are two galleries on offer, both presenting some excellent and very revealing stills. The first offers up a selection of black and white photos from the set, largely behind the scenes material which is worth checking out. The second gallery gives you 11 different poster variations, including Japanese, Argentinean, British and US, as well as the rather strange Polish variants. All of them are drawn/painted impressions, and most present Toshiro Mifune at the forefront.
We also get four Trailers, including one Teaser. All but one are in Japanese with optional English subtitles, with the last one coming without any sound whatsoever. Kurosawa trailers were always quite interesting because some of them (particularly on the Yojimbo/Sanjuro Criterion set) offered up the only glimpse of Deleted Footage that we were likely to ever see from a Kurosawa film. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, all of the footage here is from the final cut. Still, it is interesting to see these throwback trailers, the style they were done in and the prominence of the main theme.
Finally we get a beautiful 60-page book to round off the package. Reading these books that come with Criterion releases can be a true joy for fans of the respective movies, and this unusually long offering is no exception. Essentially what we have is a comprehensive selection of critic reviews and reflections on the movie and its significance in film history. We get Kenneth Turan’s “The Hours and Times”, Peter Cowie’s “Seven Rode Together”, Philip Kemp’s “A Time of Honour”, Peggy Chiao’s “Kurosawa’s Early Influences”, Alain Silver’s “The Rains Came”, and Stuart Galbraith’s “A Magnificent Year”, as well as tributes from Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet. Rounding out the book there is an excellent offering from Toshiro Mifune entitled “In His Own Words” which is absolutely compelling reading, not least because there is very little – if any – other behind the scenes material featuring the great Mifune enclosed on the disc (I’m guessing his fall-out with Kurosawa didn’t help in this respect). In it Mifune details his start in the movie business, his partnership with Kurosawa and the arduous task of filming Seven Samurai – its pros (getting to basically improvise his entire character) and its cons (the minimal clothing within the freezing environment, with fake rain being sprayed on them continuously), as well as revealing plenty of lovely little titbits, like the fact that his sword-work was often too fast for the camera to pick up. A fantastic way to complete the package.
Seven Samurai is an epic, classic action/adventure. Although obviously much of its lengthy runtime is spent in action, a great deal is dedicated to the creation of solid, memorable characters, honest emotions and realistic interplay between them. Charting the tale of a group of masterless Samurai who are recruited by an impoverished village to protect them from marauding bandits, this is the definitive team adventure. With its ensemble group of unconventional heroic outcasts, it set the mould for many films to follow – from its direct remake, The Magnificent Seven, to The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone. In fact, these are themes and concepts prevalent in dozens of movies every year, even Box Office hits like Inception and The Expendables. And this was where it all started, more than half a Century ago. What is so amazing about Seven Samurai is that it richly infuses an ostensible action/adventure with everything you need to make an absolute film classic – focussing more on developing the characters so that you truly care for their fate, rather than just providing the big set-pieces (which it still does). Inspiring, innovative and globally resonant in the decades since its release, it is an acute character study, wrapped up in a thin veil of socio-political allusions and commentary, and grounded in brutal action and genuine consequence, in a landscape where ultimately nature rules supreme. An absolute masterpiece.
Criterion have once again knocked it out of the park with this amazing Blu-ray release, presenting the fully uncut 207-minute version of the film complete with a lovingly remastered soundtrack and polished visual presentation. Even if this 60 year-old classic could never possibly compete with modern releases (or even slightly younger classics), it has probably never looked or sounded this good. And with a plethora of worthy extras, many of which feature extensive footage and interview contribution from the legend behind the movie, Kurosawa himself, this set is a must-have for all film collections. Seriously, this isn’t just another Top 100 film, this is the kind of film that gets voted in for the number one spot. I simply cannot recommend it enough.
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