It would be hard to argue that any other film in Japanese film history has had more influence and impact than Akira Kurosawa’s epic 1954 film, Seven Samurai. Even if it could be argued that the director made better films in his half a century career, Seven Samurai stands as a unique and uniquely positioned landmark work, held dear in the heart of an entire country, and highly respected by not a few people outside of it, for reasons that usually require lengthy analysis to properly articulate.
So it might seem overly ambitious to make an anime version of such a film, particularly when Kurosawa was known to have been disappointed that American director John Sturges had somehow missed his point when he made The Magnificent Seven in 1960. Executive Producer of Studio Gonzo, Shouji Murahama, does not however need to fear any criticisms of that kind with the equally epic Samurai 7.
Samurai 7 is everything that a good remake should be. Not only does it understand its source material, it is capable enough to bring its own views to bear, and as a result is not afraid to freshen the perspective for an entirely new generation of viewers. The division between commoner and warrior is as visible as it ever was in Kurosawa’s story, but in Samurai 7 the ‘bandits’ are government-built mecha – warriors who gave up their bodies for power, and who do the deeds of the government in a bid to maintain order and economic control.
This imbalance of power between the indefensible and the unassailable is a common theme not only in anime but in numerous fictional narratives, because it generates such fundamental conflict and tension, but with this particular alteration to the original material, the message is changed. In Seven Samurai, Kurosawa was trying to inspire hope and confidence in a post-war Japan. In Samurai 7, this solidarity of renewed purpose is important, but the accounting of those in power is even more crucial. The villagers are still the little people, but their struggle to survive is no longer against those breaking the rules, but ultimately against those making them. Defeating the Bandits, it seems, was only half the story. Samurai 7 is the other half.
Continuing from where Kurosawa left off is no small ambition, but the series, borrowing some scenes almost directly from the film, is carried well by its chambara influences. The heroes are not inclined towards moral debate over the wisdom in sharpening their swords once more; these people know there is no purpose for them past their ability to kill, and they are happy to be of some use again. And in this version, it’s not the farmer-turned-samurai, Kikuchiyo (played by the inestimable Toshiro Mifune in the film, and voiced with equal charisma by Gongu Kuwata in the anime) who provides the focus for the viewer, but the youngest samurai, Katsushiro. Struggling to find his place in the world, his is the viewpoint that serves as the moral sounding board; he is the one who experiences the horror of what those he admires have long become inured to, and who is in a unique position to question it. It’s his journey that keeps the show grounded in reality and prevents it from turning into a mindless ‘instant kill’ spectacle.
Not that the action isn’t spectacular. In fact, the closer to the end it gets, the more spectacular the action becomes until, in its own way, it’s as affecting and as meaningful as the final battle in the film ever was. There is no want for epic drama by then, and no turning back for any of the characters even if they had wanted to, which brings it full circle, back to Kurosawa’s magnificent vision in spirit if not in scene. It’s an amazing achievement, to say the least, that this series manages to take the work of a master filmmaker and make it its own, without losing any of the respect due the original. That it’s entertainment at its best – animated or otherwise – in the process is perhaps, all things considered, only understandable.