When you find out that a film is being remade it rarely fills you with much hope, especially if the original was such an absolute classic as Akira Kurosawa's epic Seven Samurai. Admittedly Kurosawa's stories have always fared pretty well when appropriated by other filmmakers, and Seven Samurai itself has been successfully transferred to other settings in classic western The Magnificent Seven and Pixar cartoon A Bugs Life. However, this time it's being turned into an anime series, and a sci-fi series at that.
The story - for those who haven't seen any of the films mentioned above - revolves around a village of browbeaten peasants who are forced to give all of their crops each year to a group of marauding bandits. Desperate to break free of this situation, but powerless to fight the bandits themselves, the villagers send one of their number to the nearest city to recruit samurai to protect them. However, with the samurai age over many samurai have become bandits themselves, and with only rice to offer as payment to potential saviours do the villagers stand much chance of finding honourable and powerful protectors?
Despite the fact that it is made by current wonder-studio Gonzo, and that it is the first adaptation of Kurosawa's masterpiece to be officially endorsed by his estate, you can't really see before watching it how this series will work. For one it is considerably longer than the original film so will have to add a lot of material, and secondly it will have to emulate awesome performances from Japanese acting giants Takeshi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. I really approached it with some trepidation, particularly as Seven Samurai is amongst my favourite films, but I was more than happy to find that Samurai 7 manages for the most part to live up to it's heritage.
The problem with most remakes is that they try too hard to emulate the original, and instead end up a pale pastiche of whatever they are based on. Samurai 7 successfully avoids this, taking the story and characters as it's base but using the added length a TV series provides to really explore the characters' past and motivations. The series adds a lot to the original, from the futuristic setting to some added peripheral characters and side stories, and it takes a fresh look at the main characters too. The most startling change to anyone familiar with the original is that the impetuous Kikuchiyo - originally played with such emotion and energy by Toshiro Mifune - becomes a gigantic, hulking robot swordsman in this version. Despite sounding like a shocking prospect this, like near enough everything else in this volume of Samurai 7, works surprisingly well. The series takes some of the best aspects of its source and adds plenty of great material of its own, the slower pace of the series (after four episodes only five of the titular seven samurai had been encountered, and less had agreed to help) allows plenty of time to explore the stunningly designed world that Gonzo have created. The animation and design of both the characters and scenery is as superb as you could hope for, and the cast are convincing in both English and Japanese, although the Japanese does seem somewhat more authentic. The action scenes are simply amazing too, full of energy and brilliantly paced, whilst the flashbacks to the war - rendered in CGI - have to be seen to be believed.
But with this kind of thing there is always one big drawback. You know what is going to happen.
Whether than bothers you depends on whether you have seen the original and on your own point of view. The creators do copy some scenes nearly exactly from the original film, but they do try and throw in some curve balls too. Situations are changed, characters don't always do what you expect them to. The thing is though that you know what they will do in the end, Samurai 7 appears to be an updated version, not a new interpretation, and so the story is likely to eventually come to exactly the same conclusion as the original film. Where this series will win out is on how it gets to this conclusion, and on the strength of this volume it is going to be a great ride. The characters so far have been excellent, and Gonzo's interpretation of events carries enough variation and breathtaking action scenes to step out of Kurosawa's shadow.
Samurai 7 should have fallen flat on its face, but instead it blends the familiarity of Kurosawa's classic film with some interesting new elements and a style of its own, emerging more than worthy of the great director's legacy. There can be no higher praise.
A nice selection of standard extras, clean opening and closing sequences, trailers and some decent and unusually lengthy character profiles adorn this DVD. Shame there is no mention or comparison with he original film, but still a pretty good selection.