Updating a classic story for modern times is always a risky gambit. In an age where the terms ‘remake’ and ‘reboot’ seem to be bandied about as the new buzzwords, it’s sometimes a groan-inducing prospect to hear that some old, beloved TV show or movie is about to get a new lick of paint and an ‘update’ to drag it into the 21st century. So you can imagine how sceptical I was when first I heard of ‘Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai 7’ – a retelling of the infamous late director’s equally infamous ‘Seven Samurai’ handled by studio Gonzo.
The now-legendary story of Seven Samurai is one of those golden affairs that seems so simple, yet so hard for writers of modern movies to capture these days. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of a small, impoverished township whose residents, beset by merciless bandits and tired of having their produce taken away by them, hire seven wandering samurai to dispatch their antagonists.
Slotting the first DVD into the player and watching the title sequence roll, the viewer is greeted within seconds with a gigantic space battle between spacefaring galleons and giant robots. So yes, this is definitely a radical re-telling. If you’re a die-hard fan of Kurosawa’s original movie, and this revelation causes you to roll your eyes, then I’d advise you to move swiftly along. On the other hand, if you’re possessed of an open mind (and because I worked hard to put this review together, you scallywags!) you might want to read on. Because, truth be told, Samurai 7 does some very interesting things with this story.
The show’s presentation is typically high, as we’ve come to expect from Gonzo. That opening sequence of the first episode, which features one of the lead characters flying into battle against a horde of cybernetic samurai, really announces the show’s visual style and quality. The mix of CG and digital cel animation is pretty easy on the eye for the most part, although there are some moments of inconsistency as the series progresses. It’s a part of the show that makes a dazzling first impression in the early episodes, but wobbles somewhat later on. Pleasingly, though, there’s never anything you could describe as being of poor quality.
Special mention should go to the great attention that’s been paid to depicting the world the story takes place in. There are some beautifully realised settings and locations, and the tasteful use of colour palettes and lighting effects all works to build an environment that feels credible. Gonzo know their stuff in this regard.
This being a Funimation-handled release, we get a high quality dub – one of their best, I would say – which is helped all the more by a tight ADR script. There’s some memorable dialogue (something I really feel can’t be said of enough anime) delivered with conviction. It’s not perfect, though. I could live without Sonny Strait’s slightly over-played Kyuzo, whose gravely snarl is just not quite on the mark for me. And while I enjoyed immensely Christopher Sabat’s turn as Kikuchiyo, which offers proof of the man’s range as an actor, it’s possible that it could grate with some viewers. Similarly, Robert McCollum’s sinister Tessai seems to hit a slightly wrong note. But let’s not misunderstand: The standard of voice acting here is high in all cases – it’s just that a few of the voices here seem ill-fitting with the tone and maturity of the script.
The show’s soundtrack is superb, with a catchy opening theme and a beautiful outro piece, while the in-show spot music is nicely varied. Much like the setting of the story, there’s a mix of the traditional and historic with the more modern. Orchestral cues are complimented with the odd burst of subtle electronica, and it’s all very well judged to add to the show’s sense of atmosphere and identity.
So what of Gonzo’s handling of this classic story?
In a word, it’s brilliantly done. In spite of the science fiction (science fantasy?) dressing, there’s a certain adherence to the qualities and developments of the original subject matter that is heartening. Obviously, there are deviations, and this being a 26 part series, there’s some welcome expansion of the core storyline, which gives the show a chance to forge its own roots and build its own world, while heading in directions not explored by Kurosawa’s work.
The samurai themselves are a colourful bunch, and their recruitment into the ranks of Kanna’s hastily assembled defence force takes up much of the early episodes. Besides the grizzled veteran Kambei, we meet the thrill-seeking street entertainer Gorobei, the happy-go-lucky wood chopper Heihachi, surly mercenary and man of few words Kyuzo, Kambei’s old comrade Schichiroji, the boisterous braggart Kikuchiyo (a robot samurai – who’d have thought, eh?) and the young self-styled samurai Katsushiro. This septet of swords for hire are recruited by a party from the beleaguered village of Kanna, comprising of the young water priestess Kirara, her sister Komachi, and the guilt ridden Rikichi. A broad cast? You betcha!
First glance might suggest that these characters are little more than clichéd archetypes – certainly a common criticism I hear levelled at the show – but that’s truthfully wide of the mark. Watching their interactions with one another, and seeing them demonstrate the unique skills they bring to the group is very entertaining – proof that there’s nothing wrong with a cliché if it’s executed well and allowed to grow beyond itself. Go with the flow and you’ll find these characters quickly become three-dimensional personalities. You’ll find yourself rooting for them, sympathising with them and maybe even despising them a little bit. They each have an arc of their own, and while some are served better than others, these strands do much to keep the series compelling and highly watchable. It’s quite the multi-faceted story.
Unfortunately, after the conclusion of the initial ‘villagers in trouble’ arc, when Kambei heads off to the Merchant Capital to seek an audience with the local Emperor, things sag a little. There’s something about the handful of episodes there that just lacks the spark and excitement that was seen before, and for a brief time it feels like we’re treading water. At the lowest ebb, we’re forced to watch the series’ stunning opening battle sequence repeated in full as a backing to some lengthy expositional dialogue. That’s a shame, as it sticks out as a moment where the show feels a bit cheap and average, and leaves the impression that Gonzo might have been running out of money. It’s part of a recap episode that feels (as they so often do) redundant and unnecessary. Thankfully, the show starts to pick up apace from there on in, dispelling any fears that it’s about to descend into stock-footage-palooza as the show heads to its finale.
And what a finale! It’s not often these days that I can claim a series comes to a perfectly judged conclusion, but Samurai 7 scores big here, wrapping up in memorable style. True, the resolutions to some of the character arcs may not come as expected – they may not, I suspect, even be the resolutions that you’ll want – but it’s a satisfying, unsentimental conclusion that packs a wallop on several levels and leaves a deep groove afterwards.
Whatever nigglesome faults this series may have, there’s no question that it stands out as something quite unique. Most importantly, it’s a whole lot of fun, and stands head and shoulders above most of the adventure series I’ve seen just lately. The Akira Kurosawa tag may frustrate fans of the legendary director’s work (it was always going to be a risk slapping that name in the title) but fans of sci-fi, high adventure and good storytelling will find much to enjoy.