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"Samurai 7" Vol. 2: Sci-Fi Swordsmen Sophisticated As Ever

Last time on Samurai 7, three peasants by the names of Kirara, Komochi and Rikichi traveled to the city to find some samurai willing to defend their village from the horrible Nobuseri – a band of giant mecha raiders who extort grain from the peasants’ village in exchange for not obliterating the lot of them. However, they are having a tough finding samurai willing to help out at all, let alone anyone with the skill and integrity needed to take on the Nobuseri. Sure, they have Kambei and Gorobei, two seasoned veterans of the great war, and in a pinch maybe the naive Katsuhiro and the brash Kikuchiyo can pitch in, but that’s still not enough to save them in the long term. They need at least three more to really get it together.

On this disc things just get crazier. The assassination of an Imperial Enjoy in the Magistrate’s home results in a samurai hunt, putting everyone involved in the current goal of saving the village – samurai and peasant – in extreme danger. However, it does ensure that the only samurai likely to be left on the streets are ones skilled enough to shred any of Magistrate’s forces. One such find is the eccentric but friendly Heihachi. He is a truly skilled swordsman, but his engineering and technical skills kept him off the frontlines during the war, so he’s never actually killed a man.

As they flee the city to keep from being captured by the Magistrate, Kikuchiyo boldly fights off the Magistrate’s soldiers, ensuring that everyone else can make it to safety. They stay in a nearby village for the night, where the group finds another samurai, Shichiroji, an old comrade of Kambei’s who has settled down to run an inn and bar establishment. He’s willing to come out of retirement to take on the Nobuseri. Meanwhile, the Magistrate’s forces refuse to give up their pursuit, and even if they break off, the peasants and samurai still have to make it past the Guardians, also known as the Shikimoribito.

The Guardians are bizarre, secretive and maybe the linchpin to not only the power of the Magistrate and the merchants, but the power of the Nobuseri as well. Will the peasants and samurai be able to escape the Magistrate’s tyranny while successfully dodging a confrontation with the Guardians, or will their journey get even more arduous while they are still atleast one samurai short of success? That is an issue for the next disc.

Story-wise, Gonzo manages to keep the energy and speed up, and without sacrificing emotion at that. Even though it takes its violence cues from Samurai Jack as it’s basically robot vs. swordsman violence for the most part (though not always, which is likely what earns it the TVPG FUNi put on it), it’s very intensely paced, with unique characters and distinct fighting styles.

The personalities of the lead characters in general are quite enjoyable and entertaining. The interplay between the precocious Komochi and the gruff but lovable Kikuchiyo is really endearing and amusing. Rikichi’s growth as a character from country bumpkin to country bumpkin with a depressing, heart-wrenching past is also welcome. In general, it’s building forward effectively and interestingly without exploitative excess, and though that’s refreshing in general these days, it’s particularly welcome in the case of Gonzo given how prone they are to bank on shock value (SpeedGrapher and Gantz immediately come to mind).

Visually, Samurai 7 is nothing if not intriguing. The storyboarding is quite excellent, and the compositing is seamless for all the the 2-D elements. The key framing is interesting as there is clearly some intentional use of different artists for different types of scenes. In a sense, that intentional visual contrast calls to mind Gainax’s work on FLCL, another series with intentionally unique key work, though it may be a little out of place in a traditional story like Samurai 7. The 3D mechanical CG is definitely a bit nicer than Gonzo’s prior work, but it clashes with both the character animation and the backgrounds. At least it’s lit properly, giving the viewer a sense of perspective. The backgrounds are quite lovely, and the 3D elements here look great, providing depth without conflicting.

Audio-wise, it’s great. The traditional Japanese music really sets the tone without overpowering the dialogue and action, and the overall production of the mix is excellent in both the dub and original Japanese. It’s nice to see FUNimation break out of the habit of mixing to television and instead producing more cinematic mixes, which makes for a much more refined and listenable track in the long term. This fits series like Samurai 7 much better than over-compressed, nearly monaural mixing.

Both voice casts punch in with excellent work, though I must say yet again that FUNimation seems to be pushing their talent farther and farther with every volume. Luci Christian is particularly good with Komochi, capturing the character’s range very well, though Chris Sabat’s work as Kikuchiyo is quite impressive too, as is Greg Ayers’ performance as Heihachi. To put it another way, it’s probably one of the most TV-ready dubs Funimation’s produced to date.

FUNimation comes through with a fairly substantial booklet even in the 30-dollar version, and it’s got a very pretty reversable cover. The discs themselves include a textless opening and ending, character profiles, a weird little animated preview for Mr. Stain on Junk Alley and the usual trailers. The video and audio encoding are quite good as well. The 50-dollar special edition includes the storyboards for each episode of the series as a booklet, so I highly recommend picking that version up if you’re already excited and interested in the series.

Basically, if you’re looking for a samurai anime that you could even show your parents, Samurai 7 fits the bill so far. Good action, good story (as long as you’re not too attached to Kurosawa’s original) and a great disc over all.

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