Sunday, 6 April 2014

DVD Review: Seven Samurai

Back in the late '60s and '70s, my father used to take me regularly to our local cinema, where we saw the likes of 'Fear Is The Key'and 'Puppet On A Chain' amongst many others. One film in particular stayed with me for years afterwards: John Sturgess' 'The Magnificent Seven'. Little did I know that a Japanese film existed that inspired Sturgess' movie. Years later, I encountered the work of a filmmaker named Akira Kurosawa, and came to understand the influence of 'Seven Samurai', not just with regard to 'The Magnificent Seven' but also to a wide range of other films.

'Seven Samurai' is set in 16th century Japan, where a group of villagers rely on the annual crop for food and sustenance. Unfortunately, bandits have previously launched raids on the village, taking the one thing that ensures continued survival. Now, the harvest is imminent once again, and the prospect of losing their food supply sparks fierce debate amongst the frightened people. Defending the village themselves is not an option - "We're farmers, not soldiers" - so a decision is eventually made to enlist the services of Samurai who they hope will work for food as payment. For the villagers, Samurai warriors are seen in a fearful light; something to be wary of, and not ideal people to pitch camp in a community that includes women. But, initial objections are defeated and seven Samurai eventually agree to end their period of temporary unemployment and join forces with the villagers, some of whom are willing to be trained for a limited form of combat. It's here that one of this film's many strengths comes to the fore, as bonds are formed and a team is built to defend the village with courage and all the strengths and weaknesses of mortal man emerging. Fortitude, humour and romance all inhabit this 207 minute film, where the tension of waiting for the enemy to arrive can be cut with a knife.
"When everything seems tranquil, that's the most dangerous time of all" declares one of the brave warriors, launching us into a phase where the future of the village and its people will depend on battle plans and the skill and tenacity of front line troops. The fight scenes are beautifully staged, and when the final mud-splattered battle begins amidst driving rain, the bravery and fascinating tactical battle lead us to a finale that, whatever the ooutcome, the guns-for-hire can never truly win.

2014 marks the 60th anniversary of this classic, and The BFI have put together a limited edition Blu-ray steelbook, and a DVD re-issue, also re-mastered in high definition.

Picture quality on the DVD is more than acceptable, with a cleaner print than previously existed, over here at least.
The film can be played with or without the original intermission, and the BFI have included the original theatrical trailer. On the extras front, Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns talks for 47 fascinating minutes about Kurosawa's life and career, discussing the director's formative years; the breakthrough of 'Rashomon' at the Venice Film Festival and how it transformed both Kurosawa's career and the Japanese film industry. Tony also recalls a BBC screening of 'Seven Samurai'- in the days when we only had two TV channels - as part of a world cinema season and a fallow ten year period where Kurosawa bounced back with international support. Tony actually met Kurosawa on one occasion and talks about the impressions he got, together with the story of Kurosawa having dinner with Beat Takeshi. It's a greatly informative talk, and is joined here by a BFI booklet which contains essays from Philip Kemp and Gavin Lambert. Gavin provides a beautifully written review of the film, while Philip's essay puts the film in its historical perspective, explaining Kurosawa himself was descended from a Samurai clan, and going on to discuss how Toho studio tried to persuade Kurosawa to shorten the film, and also highlights the filming techniques employed on the eleven month shoot.
Philip also contributes essays on Kurosawa who passed away in 1998, and Toshira Mifune, who died a year before his director, and gave a wonderfully physical performance here as Kikuchiyo.

'Seven Samurai' will be released by The BFI on 17th April.

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