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"Samurai 7" Vol. 1: Not Your Grandpa's Kurosawa

You know, I’m not kidding with the title. If you’ve got a serious attachment to the original film Samurai 7 is based on, you might just want to turn back now. It’s a pretty radical reinvention, mixing sci-fi elements into a general Edo-era-ish setting. And lo and behold, Toshiro Mifune’s character has been turned into a robot. That’s probably not something a purist is going to enjoy. However, if you’re looking for a good samurai series that doesn’t end in “Champloo,” Samurai 7 is probably worth your time. To put it another way, it’s the best title Gonzo Animation made in 2004.

Samurai 7 is set after a war where many samurai fought in grand battles, often against other samurai who had melded their living bodies with giant robots. When the war ended, the merchants, who were the true driving force of the country, had won. The poor people in the countryside were left to fend for themselves, and the mechanized samurai became bandits known as the Nobuseri. The peasants of the nation live in abject poverty and constant fear of the Nobuseri, who always make off with their crops. But one village wants to stand up to the Nobuseri, so three peasants, Kirara, Komochi and Rikichi, go to nearest city to find some samurai who still have honor and skill and are willing to fight to stop the Nobuseri—even though the peasants can only offer rice in return.

In the first disc, we meet Kambei, a samurai who fought bravely in the great war, but whose calm and noble demeanor hides a past he feels is shameful; Katsuhiro, a young man who wishes to be a samurai, though he has never truly faced battle; Kikuchiyo, a man who is now a machine and whose mechanical strength makes up for his lack of formal training; Gorobei, who has used his skills to become a street performer, and Kyuzo, a consummate swordsman whose skill bests even Kambei’s, and who at the moment is on the side of the merchants, though I’ve got a feeling he’ll come around to the side of the samurai soon enough.

In terms of story, direction and character, Samurai 7 is a very nice throwback to shows like Outlaw Star: We get right into the action, we’ve got a good set of events going on in every episode, and the cast is being built up episode by episode without it dragging. It’s not deep or artistic, but it’s fun and probably one of the more tightly-directed Gonzo titles in a while. The peasants in charge of the search are an interesting bunch, the samurai are a neat group of characters, and even the over-the-top merchants (especially Ukyo, the bratty son of the city’s magistrate) are effective. The blend of past and future elements works a lot better than one would expect, feeling oddly natural and normal. Everything seems to flow together in this show. If the average new anime were this good, I’d be watching a lot more anime these days.

Audio and video are very well-done. Gonzo made its name trying to do things with animation that people don’t expect, and they do a damn nice job in Samurai 7: lovely compositing, great animation, really snappy storyboards (especially for the fights) and pretty backgrounds and use of color. The music’s very good, with excellent attention to foley and detail in the mix. The voice work out of both casts is also top-notch. FUNimation is now a serious rival to the LA studios and talent, and I think they’ve got the Canadian studios beat at this point. The raw talent displayed in English vocal direction and performance is just awesome.

The DVD, even the stripped-down “normal” version I have, is at the upper end of FUNimation’s current releases, with the usual extras (character profiles, textless OP and ED,) plus the original Japanese promotional video and a very thick, informative booklet. If you are already into the show, you would be wise to get the deluxe version, which includes the storyboards for each episode as individual booklets (I’m tempted to double dip myself, if that’s any indication to the series’ quality.) Audio is crisp, and the video’s nicely encoded too.

I’ll admit that I was very skeptical of Samurai 7. The concept seemed forced, and it’s really such a classic film that a modernized version seemed pointless. But Gonzo and FUNimation have really come through with Samurai 7. As long as you don’t mind the idea of Toshiro Mifune as a mechanical man, and as long as you’re not that afraid of some violence (FUNimation gives it a “TVPG”), check out Samurai 7.

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