Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is one of the crown jewels of the Criterion Collection. Hailed by many as the greatest of Japanese films, it was one of the earliest Criterion releases and, in recent years, has received some of their most lavish DVD treatments.
16th Century Japan is ravaged by civil war, and a gang of bandits has its sights set on an unassuming farming village. With only a single harvest season before the bandits plan to attack, the villagers set out to find the aid of some ronin, masterless samurai for hire. They succeed in finding the wise Kanbe Shimada, who rallies together a team of six other ronin to prepare the village’s defenses. Together with the farmers, these seven samurai engage in a battle to the death with the fearsome bandit hoard in this unparalleled epic.
At nearly three and a half hours, this is not exactly the kind of film you just ‘pop in’. It is well worth making time for, however, as hardly a minute of it is anything but engaging. I have written previously that large casts in a foreign film can be hard to keep track of, but each of the samurai here are distinct enough so as to be immediately identifiable, and the whole cast is developed enough so as to warrant genuine emotional investment. The cinematography, as is customary with Kurosawa’s work, is lush and striking, making all the various locales characters in their own right. Then there are the battles, naturally, which were far ahead of their time when the movie was first released and have held up beautifully over the years. Everything in this film is organically structured and developed so as to suck the audience in from beginning to end.
With Seven Samurai, Kurosawa revived the samurai film, a genre that had been in decline since Japan’s occupation following WWII. It was his first time making such a film (though not his last) and he utilized every ounce of his skill, every trick at his disposal in shooting it. The DVD’s special features are largely built around this premise, literally regarding the movie as a comprehensive guide to film-making. This comes through in the supplemental documentaries chronicling the film’s making and historical relevance, and even more so via the Timeline feature that lays out the film alongside its duel commentary tracks. Together with a wealth of insightful essays and production stills, this DVD is both a must own movie and an indispensable source on film-making.
While Seven Samurai is unrated, parental guidance is advised given its many fight sequences. It can currently be found in stores or online at Barnes and Noble for $25.