Released by: Madman Entertainment.
Aspect Ratio: 16:9 (anamorphic)
It is always a risk taking a well respected original work and re-interpreting it, you have to somehow remain sufficiently faithful to the source material that fans of the original aren't dismayed to see something that shares the name only and yet you also need to introduce enough that is new to make it not merely a copy. It is quite a highwire to navigate and many times attempts to do so come off quite badly, often leading to a not entirely unjustified complaint about TV and Movie producers having a lack of imagination requiring them to produce inferior replicas of succesful shows.
Gonzo chose to tred that narrow path with their release of Samurai 7, a twenty six episode TV serial version of Akira Kurosawa's classic film 'Seven Samurai'. This isn't the first reinterpretation of that work, MGMs 'Magnificent Seven' wins that place I think. But it is the first I have seen to take the movie story and expand it out to a full length series. Something that is a little unusual in anime as the normal trend is to take a succesful TV series and condense it into a movie, sometimes with less than spectacular results. I'll admit that when I first heard about this project I was somewhat dubious. Much as I enjoy Akira Kurosawa's original film it does drag a little in places and the thought of stretching that plot to fill twelve hours odd of screen time worried me. I also couldn't easily see how they could retell the story and bring something new to it. All the same I figured I would give the first disc a try just to see what Gonzo did with it.
I am glad I did.
The end result is instantly recognisable as being both the original story and strongly dominated by the romanticised view the Japanese hold of Samurai. (Something, oddly enough, Akira Kurosawa's film went a long way to try and play more realisticly.) Yet it also is quite a fresh take on the story being set sometime in the future where cybernetic augmentation, interplanetary travel and energy weaponry all feature - yet the supreme weapon of battle is still the Katana wielded with skill by a Master swordsman. This quxiotic fusion of ultra high technology with more traditional Japanese social structure gives the series the chance to feature some dazzling visual spectacles yet keep very true to the core story of Seven Samurai.
We open to battle scenes where scores of cybernetic warriors are skirmishing in the skies as part of the final battles of the great war that preceeds the series storyline. Here we see Kambei fighting bravely and skillfully against overwhelming odds to buy time for his allies to retreat. It is a deftly done set of scenes that informs the viewer of several things rapidly. First that this is the future and combat technology often involves the routine cyberneticisation of footsoldiers to become heavily armored and armed warriors. That the action and violence in the series is going to be stylish and hyper-realistic, unlike the source film, where Kambei is literaly able to slice a battleship in two with one stroke of his sword. Finally we see why Kambei is so reluctant to get involved in another fight and why he embodies the spirit of Bushido even as, as we learn later, he is not hung up on the formality of it. We don't see how the battle ends or how succesful Kambei's efforts are.
The scene shifts to bring us to the primary motivators for the series, villagers who live a in a remote alpine environment and tend to the rice crop. Ideally they would like to sell the rice crop directly themselves but they are plagued by the Nobuseri, the bandits of the piece, who come shortly after the harvest to collect the farmers toil - barely leaving enough for the villages to survive the winter. They are fed up with this and the crop harvest this year has been poor leading them to fear that the Nobuseri will steal all their crop, leaving the farmers to starve. While other villages have attempted to thwart the Nobuseri every attempt has been ruthlessly crushed to set an example for any other villages contemplating it. Clearly they need help so a plan is hatched, using rice as payment to hire Samurai to aid the village and a Water Priestess is dispatched to the city to find help.
It isn't an easy task, Samurai are used to fighting for feudal lords as highly paid retainers. Many find the offer insulting, despite the fact that work for Samurai is scarce but they cling to their honor. Complicating matters is the fact that the city itself is a dangerous place for those not wise to it's factions. Thus the rest of this volume is about the search for Samurai prepared to take on the job of helping the villagers defeat the Nobuseri whilst also dealing with the challenges the city environment throws up.
In many ways this series shouldn't work as well as it does. The mix of the heavily anachronistic social structure fused with such advanced technology should rest uneasily but I think they ke to it is the exaggerated hyper-real feel to the fighting that lends the series a fable like feel where the details aren't as important as why the characters are behaving as they do. In many respects this is also what differentiates the series from the movie too, here the focus is on building the seven up as an heroic and noble cadre, if a little flawed. Akira's work was careful to show that both the Samurai and the Peasants have definite and often conflicting agendas - often with good reason fearing each other. It is perhaps a little too early in the series for this to be coming to the fore although even the establishing character moments in the film show this conflicted relationship. We shall see if Gonzo develop this in future volumes.
Visualy this is an extremely lush series. A 16:9 anamorphic transfer, pretty much as expected for a post 2002 anime series, shows strong vibrant colours while a 5.1 soundtrack unscores it. There aren't much in the way of extras on the discs but we go get a 32 page booklet that has various concept drawings, interviews and the like in it to give a better handle on both the series and the making of it.
I think the one major bum note in my opinion is the choice of music for the opening and ending credits. It isn't that the music is bad - more that it is incongruous. Through the episodes themselves the music is very traditional with a sparsity of instrumentation that fits the tone of the story perfectly. Yet the opening and ending are perfectly pleasant yet unremarkable modern pop-tunes. It just doesn't fit with the series all that well, fortunately with sensibly placed chapter stops one doesn't need to listen to it particularly. So it isn't really a serious problem at all.
All in all I am pleasantly surprised. This looks likely to be a strong series that presents a fresh take on a classic film's plot. Here is to future volumes maintaining the standard...