If you’ve ever seen Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, than you’ll know the basic set-up for Samurai 7, the latest remake of Kurosawa’s classic film. But for those of you who don’t, here’s a brief rundown. In a war-torn land, bandits have been terrorizing the peasant villages, forcing them to turn over their crops in exchange for not wiping them off the face of the earth. One village, however, decides that the only to way to confront the bandits is to venture to the city and hire some samurai to do the fighting for them.
One of the more interesting things about Samurai 7 is that it takes that basic premise, and throws it into the far distant future. The land is still suffering from the ravages of war, but it’s a war that was fought between vast, powerful armies of samurai in their mecha, something we catch a glimpse of in the opening scenes with mecha clashing in the skies and raining destruction down on a peaceful village below. It’s an interesting premise, and one full of promise. However, the first four episodes haven’t quite delivered for me.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The series is actually quite faithful to the original, sci-fi setting aside. And the minor differences — for example, the one leading the search is actually the village’s high priestess, a headstrong woman named Kirara — only serve to add to the premise’s uniqueness. But the main points are all there — the plight of the peasants, the search for the samurai, the tests used to determine who the right samurai are, etc. Even the samurai themselves are, so far, derived from the movie.
There’s Kanbei, the older, wiser sensei figure who, despite his considerable skill, is reluctant to join the peasant’s quest; Katsushiro, a young man desperately seeking to become a samurai of renown; Kikuchiyo, the buffoon who stands in for Toshiro Mifune’s memorable character; and Gorobei, a samurai who now uses his skills for entertainment. And, in the final episode on the first disc, there’s Kyuzo, a deadly dual swordsman who has the beginnings of a personal vendetta with Kanbei.
Of course, anything inspired by The Seven Samurai has plenty of fodder for deeper storytelling. Samurai 7 has some other subplots that could become tedious as the series progresses if done poorly, but if done well, could add much more depth to the proceedings.
However, the subplot with the most potential revolves around the machinations of the city’s governor, who seeks to increase his power by elevating the city’s merchants at the expense of the samurai. Anyone familiar with Japanese history will instantly recognize what’s going on here. The storyline about disgraced warriors who are deemed unnecessary by the society that they created, a society that’s seeking to rebuild itself despite being just as cruel and violent as it’s always been, may be as old as the samurai genre, but it’s still a great source of drama, action, and intrigue. Add to that characters such as Kanbei, who seem to be running from some dark past, and you’ve got some great stuff just waiting to be capitalized on.
Right now, though, the biggest stumbling-blocks for me isn’t the plot, which is rather slow-moving and is merely setting up the characters at this point, but rather, the animation, artwork, and mood. One of the things that initially drew me to Samurai 7 was the gorgeous artwork that graces the DVD sleeves. Sadly, artwork of that caliber is nowhere to be seen in the actual episodes. The opening scenes, which feature a stunning display of mecha combat, are quite beautiful, with some excellent CGI. However, the remainder of the show is rather underwhelming.
The character designs are surprisingly basic and the animation rather choppy, which is surprising considering that a) Gonzo, one of the finest anime studios currently working, had a hand in producing Samurai 7, b) the show had a very high budget, and c) it was created to be broadcast in HD. Lavish it most certainly is not, a point that is driven home especially during the action scenes. Considering that we’re dealing with futuristic samurai with any potential number of enhancements, such as Kikuchiyo’s mechanical body, the duels and action sequences are surprisingly clumsy and uninspired (and even shamelessly rip off The Matrix at one point).
As for the tone, again I can’t help but compare it to the sleeve artwork, which is dark, moody, ethereal, and melancholy. I realize that it’s too early to judge an anime series after just four episodes, but what I’ve seen so far isn’t too encouraging. Put simply, it’s too bright and cheery. For starters, you’ve got some of the dreaded cute kid shenanigans, courtesy of Kirara’s younger sister Komachi, who has taken a shine to Kikuchiyo. I’ve always found that the most enjoyable samurai material, be it anime, manga, or live action, has an ethereal, elegiac sense about it, a melancholy atmosphere that I’m just not sensing with Samurai 7. At least, not yet.
All in all, Samurai 7 is a series that holds an amazing amount of potential. As with most series, I suspect that it’ll be one that develops over time. But right now, the poor animation and unconvincing, even flippant tone does dampen my enthusiasm a fair amount. If nothing else, Samurai 7 does remind me of the greatness of Kurosawa’s original movie; its deep plot, memorable characters, and brilliant action scenes still inspire and challenge artists and filmmakers, even 50 years later.
More information on Samurai 7 can be found at Anime News Network, or at the series’ English website.