The year is 1954. Akira Kurosawa, one of Japan's most prolific filmmakers releases his ronin masterwork, Seven Samurai. It quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed and popular films in Japan, selling even more box office receipts than Godzilla, released the same year. Much like Godzilla, it set the standards for its particular subgenre; and while it may not have broken box office records around the world, it has influenced worldwide cinema and television to the present day. From westerns, to science fiction, to kids movies, to Marvel, you don't have to travel far to see this film's extensive influence.
When a handful of ronin get hired by a village to defend it against a horde of bandits, the fates of these samurai serve as equal parts action-adventure epic, and allegory on the many evolutions of Japan, both in the era depicted and in the decade of the film's production. The war-scarred past, the uncertain present, and the bittersweet future all make for a poignant and unrelenting journey through considerable loss and rediscovery. And when people describe this film as an epic, a quote from the late critic Roger Ebert I think summarizes this best, “the word epic refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision.”
While Seven Samurai may not be a sprawling high adventure like Lord of the Rings or Ben-Hur, even after 67 years, it remains a taut and sublimely constructed story about the nation of Japan, and its relationship with itself. While a handful of technical aspects haven't aged particularly well, when taken in context of its creation, it remains a bleak and harrowing film—that also somehow doubles as a buddy road comedy, and as a result, the film's often outright hilarious. While these funny moments can easily be credited to the off-the-walls improvisation by Toshiro Mifune, the whole cast manages to strike a healthy balance between the deathly seriousness of their task and their lighthearted comradery.
Naturally, one of the most influential movies ever made would eventually receive an anime adaptation, and in 2004, this reality was made physical by the gang over at Studio Gonzo.
Founded by a gaggle of ex-Gainax staff, Gonzo was highly prolific in the early 2000s, cranking out a sizable number of anime series and films each year, which included adaptations and original works. And, honestly, while I considered this my favorite anime studio when I was a teenager, and they have a number of kickass series under their belt, I do not know how they got the rights to do this series.
When you think about the original film, you think classic Japanese melodrama meets action war movie—so how is the final studio pick going to the peeps behind Gantz and Burst Angel (which were both released immediately prior to this adaptation)? Well, regardless of which logo was put on the DVD case, Gonzo snagged the property, and the 26-episode series Samurai 7 was born.
The series follows the narrative framework of the original film, with many scenes, character traits, and lines of dialogue directly lifted from Kurosawa's opus. But Gonzo also did their thing, and added mechs, steampunk, genetic manipulation, economic conspiracies, some weird quasi-post-apocalyptic setting that reminds me of the wilds in Vampire Hunter D, a weird love triangle that never actually goes anywhere, and a whole lotta typical zany anime silliness. Now, just by that description, I can imagine anyone immediately being turned off, or completely intrigued, and you'll soon see that I am pretty firmly in the latter camp. Sure, my snobby film school brain may scream “Heresy!” in my ear, and my old professors would weep from the shame, but the reality of the situation is that I honestly believe that when re-evaluating the two creations in the modern era, the anime series provides more for newer audiences than the original film.
However, that doesn't mean I consider one better than the other, or that one should be consumed without the other. This is specifically due to what each version individually offers. Their differences in format, length, and their attitude toward the same material make the two fairly contrasting experiences—steampunk mecha carnage withstanding. While I do not have the time to get into all of the differences and similarities, and what they do for each incarnation, I wanted to focus on a few key details which I feel best explore the strengths and weaknesses of each story, in relation to one another.
The most consistent throughline in both is their treatment of the tempestuous changes that fundamentally altered Japan as a nation and culture. While the original film uses far more subtle implications to investigate these changes, with many moments of quiet introspection providing the bedrock for its active themes, the anime blatantly explores these overarching shifts within the world's narrative. It constantly reaffirms the general animosity towards the merchant class, and how the modern era places a far greater importance on commerce than tradition. Subsequently it provides more clear, and easily digestible means for the audience to understand how the warrior class, which were once considered the epitome of the culture, became bodyguards, roving bandits, or bums lining the city slums. Interactions amongst the bandits, ronin, peasants, and nobility allow a far more rounded exposure to all levels of these cultural shifts. It showcases how people adapt to survive, refuse to accept that times have changed, or ineffectually lament at the differences in the world as time passes them by.
This conflict can be best summarized by a line spoken by Kanbei Shimada, played by incomparable Takashi Shimura, at the end of the original movie, “In the end, we lost this battle too...the victory belongs to the peasants. Not us.” While the samurai prevail against the bandits, and allow the lives of ordinary people to progress and improve, the world doesn't revert in its abandonment of the samurai way of life; their current situation and prospective future remain the same. The era is still coming to its close.
While this line is spoken by Kanbei in the anime, the context in which it happens is far different, mainly due to the entire second half of the anime expanding the scope of the conflict from being solely about the chaos wrought by the bandits and an unresponsive government, to the imperial palace and nobility being actively complicit in the misery of their people for the sake of personal prosperity and ambition. This different emphasis leads the audience to have more palpable empathy for the samurai as romantic heroes, and the valid criticism leveled at the ronin actually loses some of its efficacy and emotional resonance.
To expound on what I mean by this, let's take a look at the scene where Kikuchiyo tells the rest of the samurai off for their behavior. In Kurosawa's movie, Kikuchiyo manages to worm the location of a weapons and armor stockpile from the villagers Manzo and Yohei, and upon revealing these items to the other ronin, they are immediately repulsed. This is due to how these items were attained, as the villagers hunted down samurai in the aftermath of nearby battles in order to get them. While Kanbei and the others show great contempt for such dishonorable actions, Kikuchiyo angrily reveals how the villagers' choices are mere byproducts of the world the samurai created; with every battle their lands are razed, homes burgled, and wives and daughters raped, destroying the illusion that samurai are somehow of a more moralistic stock than those of other classes.
Kikuchiyo doesn't excuse the behavior of either group, but reveals to the cast and audience how all of the active parties are guilty for the current state of affairs. Complicity comes in varying shades, and nothing of this newfound era was born in a vacuum. The weight of this reality is shared by the other ronin through their silence in the aftermath of Kikuchiyo's words - they cannot refute what he says, which also wordlessly implies that they also took part in the condemned actions. This is done privately, with the only villagers in attendance being the Yohei and Manzo, and remains one of the more dour moments shared between the comrades. They all seemingly start to come to terms with the reality of the samurai, rather than mythologizing what the samurai were supposed to represent.
And just on a technical level, the intensity of Mifune's acting, Kurosawa's editing, and the footage shot by Asakazu Nakai, make this scene one of my favorites in 1950s cinema. I've watched this scene more times than any other from Seven Samurai, and it hits me right in the chest, each and every time.
In the anime, however, Kikuchiyo makes this speech after Manzo attempts to betray the samurai to the bandits, for the sake of his family's farm, and Kikuchiyo makes a big show of things in the center of the village, with all of the ronin and farmers there to witness. Not only is the context for this outburst given considerably more weight due to the circumstances, but Kikuchiyo directly defends Manzo's actions while simultaneously condemning him, which is then echoed by several other villagers, proving that Manzo is not just the odd one out, many people share his sentiments. Enough is kept from the original dialogue to retain the scene's power, while enough is altered to make the scene evoke a greater connection between all of the characters, for better and for worse.
But when comparing the results of each scene side-by-side, the implications can be dramatically different. Even though we can somewhat cultivate a sense of what honor and tradition means to the samurai, everyone can understand betrayal. It manages to bring the villagers and ronin closer together in their efforts, making them comrades of a different sort, and allowing a sense of respect to foster between them all. But it also provides greater depth to each of the samurai which wasn't present in the original work, and how they react to the whole situation better explores the differences between each of the characters, allowing for a deeper, more natural chemistry to brew between them.
And while this scene isn't remotely close to the technical brilliance of the film, that doesn't mean that the anime doesn't hit some phenomenal notes in its visuals and sound design in order to squeeze a few wayward tears from its audience.
But as I mentioned earlier, these changes are largely brought about by the different formats and durations that each project utilizes. You can explore characters and settings considerably more in a 26-episode series than you can through a three-and-a-half-hour film, and the anime makes good use of its time. While we aren't free from the dreaded recap episode, it only really occurs once within the show, and the overall narrative doesn't break down for the sake of repeated exposition. It manages to keep us informed enough to understand the rules of the world, while also keeping the story flowing consistently to keep us engaged.
However, that doesn't mean that the anime is completely bereft of shortcomings and repetition, this is Gonzo we're talking about here. While a few action sequences in the original film are the only definite instances you can see the limitations of the medium at the time, especially when the villagers gang up en masse on individual bandits, and you can clearly see how they're all stabbing the ground instead, Gonzo's approach to the material will definitely shut down some interest based on the inconsistency of its visuals. The quality of the animation can cause massive whiplash, like many projects Gonzo released in the mid-2000s. Whether it is a severe lack of in-between frames, compositing flubs, quirky modeling, constantly reused animation, or awkward integrations of 3D elements, you're going to feel as if more corners were cut than not. Though, just with how they paced the story, I will be the first to give credit to Gonzo, because they certainly made the most of their resources when they needed it to count.
The art direction by Hiromasa Ogura is absolutely stellar. The cityscape of Kogakyo, the village of Kanna, the interiors of the Capitol Palace, the desert wasteland bridging them all together—all ooze their own brand of strange, and there isn't a setting that I don't enjoy in some way. Though, my favorite bit of background would probably be Masamune's workshop. It looks like a pile of leftover machine parts, and it perfectly represents his character. Not only for his utility to the main cast as a mechanic, but for his past throughout the Great War. Though his backstory is hardly alluded to directly, his body being a mess of augmentation and homebrewed repairs, and his impressive knowledge stretching across numerous disciplines makes him more intriguing than any badass mystery that Kyuzo is able to drum up. In complete transparency, out of the minor cast, Masamune is my favorite character, and I wish he was even more involved in the central plot. He is entirely an original creation of this series, with no existing counterparts in the 1954 film, and he fits in wonderfully. While he is introduced as the man who created and maintains Kikuchiyo's mechanical body, it becomes clear fairly early on that he provides a source of outside counsel that the main cast need whenever they reach an impasse. He doesn't have an issue putting any of the samurai in their place, regardless of their status—he is a sobering voice in the chaos, and manages to be wiser in the ways of the world that Kirara simply lacks.
And, speaking of Kirara (the main stabilizing force within our gaggle of heroes), she is another invention of the series, though she does have a counterpart in the original movie: Manzo's daughter, Shino. Now, one of the weird decisions made in the anime is that Kirara plays Shino's original part of being Katsushiro's love interest, all the while Shino is still a character in the series too. She is only really relevant in the episode where Manzo betrays the village—an event which did not occur within the original movie—and is largely ignored after that point. While Kirara has a far more active role in the story than the original Shino, being the main determinant in finding the seven samurai, her part is largely derivative, pulled from the character Rikichi. The same could be said somewhat of the little sister, Komachi, who also has no parallel in the film.
While these alterations can be seen as mostly reducing the strength of what Rikichi was in Seven Samurai, so he's not much more than a man who refuses to listen to reason, I wouldn't trade Komachi's snark and sass for anything. Though I would say that Kirara could have been handled better than serving as transportation for the deus ex machina crystals she touts around to find the plot. Sure, it's a better reason for how these people all end up together, when compared to the coincidental tone the original film seems to enjoy. But why they decided to evolve Kirara out of Shino, yet keep the shell of what she once was, will continue to baffle me. Shino wasn't used well enough in the original, and she was done fairly dirty in the anime.
And that oddness doesn't even begin to touch the inconsistencies within the anime's world logic: such as whether or not magic exists, the limitations of each samurai's power and skill, the reason they need tortoise-powered mail carriers when airships exist, or why any sort of telephone isn't around while they simultaneously use computers complex enough to fully and instantaneously sequence DNA. While I do love this series, I do recognize how it can do itself a disservice by underutilizing its own assets. Though I will always hold Samurai 7 in high regard, I would absolutely be down for a modern remake by new creators which more completely explores what was first achieved here.
The original Seven Samurai is far more focused on the death throes of an era, as seen by those who have been displaced as a direct result. They live in a time where everyone must find their own way, where the warrior class no longer could demand respect and tribute just for the sake of their own existence. Samurai 7 is deeply in love with the myth of the wandering ronin, so they outfitted them with superhuman glamour and gave them a battlefield of spectacle to be artists of war. Though, they also provided a playing field for how samurai of different stripes and circumstances chose their path into this new and uncertain future. Independently, each version of this story holds many thrilling and powerful moments, all hitting separate chords for different reasons. Though they are both products of their time, when digesting them in context to their original releases, it is fairly obvious to see why they remain so compelling decades after their premieres.
While I am certain that every audience member will have a particular preference for one of these versions over the other, even if you somehow aren't a fan of either, I would still recommend that both of these works be consumed to augment one another, rather than watching them in competition. With remakes of Seven Samurai continuing to rear their heads, the appeal of the story and what the foundational framework has to offer is as strong as ever, and with anime becoming increasingly popular worldwide, I feel it's time to reexamine our appreciation for the 1954 film, and also to update and further explore what Gonzo began in 2004.
And if you've appreciated or taken issue with my interpretations and conclusions, then I'd love to know! Leave a comment down below, be sure to follow us over at the Anime News Network, as well as my personal channel Criticlysm for similar content, and we appreciate your continued support. We've got content every week, so be sure to subscribe, ring the bell, and stay tuned. Thank you.