Cinema, like all idea(l)s, doesn't stop at manmade borders. There are indisputably such things as national cinemas, a series of characteristics shared by many of the films produced in a country, though the boundaries are fuzzy and defined as much by the works they cannot easily circumscribe as the ones that fit neatly into historical boxes. But there is no American cinema without French cinema, no Italian cinema without Japanese cinema, no German cinema without Brazilian cinema, and so on. Not today anyway. I suppose there was a discrete and homogenous unit called French cinema when the first train arrived at the station, but then again Edweard Muybridge was a British expat and the magic lantern may have come from the Dutch. I've also heard tell that in ancient Greece, the people used to kill time in between wars by watching shadows on the cave walls. Maybe Godard is right and we owe a few millennia of backdated intellectual property rights to the Greeks.
One of the great pleasures of studying film history is watching the flow of certain currents of cinema from nation to nation, and the eddies rippling back in the other direction. It's not always easy to track their progress as they gradually dissipate across the globe, but, at least with the broader perspective provided by decades of hindsight, we can sometimes bob along with the flotsam and jetsam.
Less than ten years after the war and just a few years after the official end of the Allied occupation, Akira Kurosawa was one of several directors credited with repopularizing and redefining Japanese cinema both at home and to the international community, with award-winning films like "Rashomon" (1950) and "Ikiru" (1952). But this very Japanese director also had an abiding love for the American Western (John Ford especially) and his blockbuster hit "Seven Samurai" (1954) owed much to that then dominant Hollywood genre. Its elegiac story of lawless border towns and macho, independent-minded sword-slingers fighting for red-toothed justice, defending disenfranchised farmers against unchecked evil, could just as easily have been staged in 19th century America as in 16th century Japan, and indeed it soon would be.
Just as Kurosawa's samurai film (and many of the samurai films to follow in its wake) was transformed by the American Western, so too did it transform the American Western, sometimes in a straight shot across the Pacific in a direct remake like "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) or by a more meandering route, in another direct remake by an Italian director and an American TV star (1964's "A Fistful of Dollars"). Isn't that a beautiful thought? An Italian director remaking a Japanese film that was partly inspired by what was once considered a uniquely American genre (and already remade by Americans) creates one of the most iconic Westerns of all-time that spawns a whole new sub-genre of its own that, in turn, gets reabsorbed by Hollywood because, for crying out loud, everyone loves spaghetti. Currents everywhere.
By no means was "Seven Samurai" the primary engine that transported us from the classical Western to the era of the revisionist Western, but it was one of the first way-stations, just a few stops past "High Noon" (1952). The inevitable change would have occurred without "Seven Samurai," but it certainly helped to speed up the process. Would Sam Peckinpah's ode to the dying white-hatted cowboy hero, "Ride the High Country" (1962), have come out quite when it did without Kurosawa's affectionate but mournful treatment of his samurai whose old-school brand of heroism rendered them obsolete?
Of course that's just a Western (in two senses of the term) view of "The Seven Samurai" which is also, as you might have guessed from the title, very much a samurai film, one of the longest-standing genres in Japanese cinema. Kurosawa's film transformed that genre as well, and not just with its cowboy inflection. Let there be no doubt that Kurosawa was clearly out to make a crowd pleaser and that he succeeded from the first minute to the 207th. But he also wanted to update the samurai film, his primary contribution was to change its look.
Though there are several elaborately staged battles, they are not the pretty, perfectly choreographed ones, leaning heavily on traditional Japanese theater, that audiences had come to expect from samurai films. In "The Seven Samurai," sword fights are sloppy, fractured, chaotic affairs. The viewer, like each of the combatants, has a limited view of events. Telephoto lenses take us uncomfortably close to the action where rearing horses and splatters of mud constantly obscure our perspective. These great, glittering samurai stand knee deep in the muck and the mire as they slash at the hapless souls who wander into striking range. Here, the stuff of legends is caked with dirt. They are brave, but they understand the wisdom of running and hiding when necessary. Most of them are immensely skilled, but sometimes they miss, sometimes they fall, and sometimes they die, though Kurosawa doesn't deviate too much from tradition here, granting his fallen warriors their heroic movie deaths.
Transforming multiple genres on both sides of the ocean provides plenty of reason to honor and imitate "The Seven Samurai," but its enduring popularity is also attributable to the infinite malleability of its story. The basic structure of the script (by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni) is a marvelous piece of engineering, providing the kind of framework that makes screenplay guru salivate. Accept the mission, recruit your team, train to kick ass, kick ass. And whoever is alive gets to hang around for the bittersweet coda. Nothing writes itself, but there's no wonder that dozens of filmmakers have adopted the same structure in various formats and often with great success. If you're going to be derivative, derive from the best. Even a watered down shot of 100% proof carries a hell of a kick.
"Seven Samurai" was one of the earliest entries in the Criterion Collection (Spine Number 2, just after "Grand Illusion") and is probably the heart and soul of the Collection if you can pick just one title for that honor. I remember how exciting it was just to be holding this talisman in my hands at the time and I couldn't have cared less about its various technical qualities. Let's just say that Criterion's 2006 souped-up re-release was embraced by cinephiles around the world.
The restoration history of this film is a bit complicated, so I will repeat Criterion's words:
"The original negative of the film is no longer available, so a duplicate negative was created from the original fine-grain master positive using wetgate processing. This high-definition digital transfer was then created in 2K resolution on a Spirit Datacine from the dupe negative. For the extensive restoration of ‘Seven Samurai' several different digital hardware and software solutions were utilized to address flicker, instability, dirt, scratches, and grain management…"
In other words, they aren't working from a pristine source so it's not surprising that there are a few instances of damage visible. What is surprising is how little there really is. If you're comparing to a virtually-perfect restoration like Criterion's recent "The Thin Red Line," you might be able to get picky, but you'd also be eyeballing apples and oranges because of the difference in age and other mitigating factors.
If it sounds like I'm trying to "excuse" anything, I'm not. There's nothing to excuse. This 1080p transfer is wonderful, rich in detail (count those leaves!) and with very strong black-and-white contrast. Once slightly-fuzzy close-ups (from the original release back in anther millennium) are now rendered in sharp relief. Toshiro Mifune needs to be experienced in high-def.
The Blu-Ray is presented with both LPCM 1.0 (Mono) and LPCM 2.0 (Stereo) options. The back cover art incorrectly identifies it as DTS-HD Master Audio. The main difference on the stereo soundtrack is in the presentation of the superb score by Fumio Hayasaka which does sound a little deeper at times (I only compared a few scenes and I will admit for the hundredth time that I'm no audiophile), but I think most people agree that the Mono track is preferable as a truer and "purer" representation of the sound design. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio
The extras are duped from the 2006 SD-DVD re-release.
The first disc includes the restored high-def transfer of the film (which takes up most of the storage space on the disc) and is accompanied by two commentary tracks. The first is a track by scholar Michael Jeck which was originally recorded in 1988 (presumably for the laser-disc though I haven't confirmed that). The second is described as a "Scholar's Roundtable" and features separate recordings (made in 2005 and 2006) from several critics: David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie. Quite the lineup of heavy-hitters and Anglophone specialists in Japanese cinema.
The second disc is packed with three lengthy features.
Criterion has included another installment of what must be the infinitely long Toho Masterworks series "Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create" (49 min), this time the segment addressing "The Seven Samurai." It features interviews with Kurosawa, writer Shinobu Hashimoto and cast members.
"My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa" is a feature-length (116 min.) 1993 interview of Kurosawa conducted by filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. I have only sampled 20 minutes of this, but it is quite lively as you would expect when Oshima is involved. This was originally recorded for the Director's Guild of Japan.
"Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences" (55 min.) brings together the critics who provide the "Scholar's Roundtable" commentary track on Disc One with the welcome addition of Criterion go-to man Tadao Sato. For anyone who bitches about critics, I point you to this insightful, focused and entertaining guided tour through the history of the samurai film and the unique place "The Seven Samurai" holds in it. This is a fantastic extra.
The second disc also offers three Trailers, a Teaser (all from re-releases of the film) as well as Still Galleries that include Behind-the Scenes photos and a series of Posters from various countries.
The thick 56-page square-bound booklet (also duped from the 2006 re-release) includes essays from critics Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, and Stuart Galbraith IV along with tributes from directors Sidney Lumet and the recently-deceased Arthur Penn. The booklet concludes with an excerpt titled "Toshiro Mifune: In His Own Words" described as " adapted from a conversation between Teruyo Nogami and Toshiro Mifune, which took place on August 25, 1993 at Mifune Productions, in Tokyo. Translation by Ted Goossen, professor of humanities, York University, Toronto."
"Seven Samurai" may be the defining film of the Criterion Collection. It's certainly one of the defining films of post-war Japanese cinema and, come to think of it, post-war cinema from anywhere. This may be the most anticipated Region A high-def release of 2010, and Criterion has not dropped the ball. Viewers who purchased the 2006 SD release invested a nice chunk of change in the massive upgrade from the ancient relic that was previously available, and didn't have to think twice about it. Upgrading from the SD to the Blu-Ray, with identical extras, is a more difficult decision but I suspect that die-hards who only splurge on one or two 1080p upgrades this year will put this on their short list. Because, after all, it is "Seven Samurai" and what more needs to be said?