The past month has been an incredible time for high-definition releases, including masterful editions of classics like Psycho, The Exorcist, King Kong, Apocalypse Now, The Alien Anthology and Back to the Future but, in way only they can, Criterion has given everyone else a run for their money with their high-definition two-disc set of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai.
Going all the way back to spine #2 in the collection, this marks the third (not counting laserdisc) release for Seven Samurai. While most of the features are a port of the three-disc DVD edition released in 2006, the picture on the Blu-ray is nothing short of stunning. Combined with an overwhelming collection of supplements, it’s hard to imagine there ever being a finer edition of this film on home video.
Arguably the finest action film of all time, Seven Samurai has been a classic since its original release in 1954. Set in 16th century Japan, it tells the epic story of a village that hired seven ronin to defend against violent bandits. Starring Toshiro Mifune in their seventh (of 16) collaborations, Seven Samurai was remade in America as The Magnificent Seven, though its story has also inspired numerous films including, perhaps most unlikely, Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and it’s influence stretches to this day with a summer full of “team” movies like The Losers, The Expendables, The A-Team and RED.
There’s not much that can be said in a review of the film itself that hasn’t been written in the last six decades, but I’ll preface a focus on the special features by reiterating that Seven Samurai is 100 percent required and rewarding viewing for anyone interesting in cinema on just about any level. Though it still plays shockingly well to a modern audience, the influence and impact of Seven Samurai can’t be underestimated.
Disc One offers two different commentaries, the first being the Michael Jeck commentary from the company’s original laserdisc release. Jeck (a man I had the pleasure of working with once upon a time at the American Film Institute) knows his Kurosawa through and through and his sharp and insightful facts are well-delivered. He appears on one other Kurosawa track (Throne of Blood), which is equally great.
In addition to Jeck’s track, there’s the new track that was added to the 2006 reissue featuring film scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie, all of whom would be well-worth listening to alone but who, combined, form a rather fantastic mass of information. Though not all recorded in one sitting, there’s something nice and meta about a team of criticdom’s finest tackling an ensemble film like this.
Disc Two offers all the supplements (impressively all available in HD), beginning with the Toho-produced Akira Kurosawa: It’s
Wonderful to Create. Created in 2002 and running nearly an hour, the documentary is in Japanese with subtitles and features quite a few interviews with a large number of Seven Samurai’s original talent.
My Life in Cinema, though, may be the most interesting feature, offering a video interview between Kurosawa and fellow filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. Seeing both legends on stage together is enough to give you goosebumps and there’s not a dull moment in the nearly two-hour running time.
Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences is another nearly-hour long affair that goes in depth into Samurai culture and its depiction on film, featuring all of the commentators from the joint audio track.
Rounding out the set is a number of vintage (but HD) trailers and behind the scenes photo and advertising galleries. Off disc, a thick booklet offers essays from Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Stuart Galbraith, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Lumet and an interview with Toshiro Mifune from 1993.
Housed in a cardboard slipcase (a slimmer version of the one used for the 2006 re-release), Seven Samurai is a very attractive package and, already matched by Criterion’s Blu-ray editions of Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Kagemusha, will hopefully find itself surrounded by even more Kurosawa HD upgrades in the near future.