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"Samurai 7" Light on Action, Heavy on Plot

by on April 12, 2006

At first, the idea of fusing sci-fi with ancient samurai tales doesn’t look all that promising. After all, there are a million ways you could screw something like that up. Then I watched the first volume of Samurai 7, where Kanbe goes out without a protective suit and, with a normal, everyday sword, slices a gigantic battleship in half. From that moment on, I was sold. And now here we are, in Volume 5.

Thanks to the samurai, Kanna Village has managed to defeat the invading bandits. However, Gorobei was mortally wounded in the assault and is now dead. With his loss weighing heavily on their minds, the samurai begin the next phase. Kanbe heads out to save Rikichi’s wife and Honoka’s sister from the Emperor, Hei and Shichiroji oversee the reconstruction of the village, and Kikuchiyo and Katsushiro spend time doing…not much. However, things don’t go so swimmingly when Kanbe is imprisoned, tries to assassinate the Emperor, then is forced to watch while Ukyo’s true heritage is revealed and he becomes the new Emperor. Unable to sit back any longer, Katushiro and Kikuchiyo, along with Kirara and Komachi, travel to the capital to lend Kanbe a hand, but even if they sneak in, can they arrive in time to save Kanbe from being beheaded?

Samurai 7 is one of those titles that just oozes coolness, much like Samurai Champloo, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop before it. But those looking for some hard-hitting sword action will have to wait until next volume, as the only action here are Kanbe’s assassination attempt and Kiku’s outrage at the reason the Emperor hoards all the rice from the farmers. No, this volume is full of plot. The first episode is largely forgettable, as its purpose is to slowly lower the viewer down after the exciting fight, but it seems as though the writers couldn’t fill an entire episode with the samurai fishing or building houses without moving forward with the next plot point, so they turned roughly half the show into a clip show. While it’s decently executed (thanks to Kikuchiyo), it does feel like the show is stalling for time.

Thankfully, the story ramps up in the next three episodes, as we focus on the inner workings of the capital and the samurai concerned over the future. The Emperor’s inner workings are revealed, Sanae reveals her love for her kidnapper, and Ukyo goes through the longest questionnaire ever created (Yes, even longer than the Scientology episode of South Park). I don’t want to give away too many details in the interest of spoilers, but the plot gets thicker as each episode rolls along. The beginning feels a little airy (since it’s essentially setting up the second half of the show), but by the end of the disc I was anxious to see what would happen next, one of the reasons being Ukyo. The flamboyant, clown-like schemer is highly entertaining to watch, though one can’t help but be creeped out when he starts to get really nasty, especially when he starts the Rite of Inquiry.

That being said, the biggest problem is the pace of the plot. I don’t know if it’s because of the lack of action, but the first half of this disc moves at a mind-numbingly slow pace, as if the writers are trying to fill time. Even in the third episode, things are still moving rather slowly, since it focuses mainly on Ukyo’s ascension to Emperor, and since that never leaves the throne room, we spent most of the episode there, and it can kind of drag after a while. Things do pick up in the final episode, since Katsu and Kiyu get some screen time to give us a break from shots of Kanbe rotting in jail or Ukyo reveling in his new power. Still, this little nitpick isn’t really all that much of a troublemaker, and if you’ve been sticking around this long, you’ve gotten used to the way this series works.

Being made by Gonzo, the animation is, of course, absolutely beautiful. The CG, while still being obvious, does blend in extremely well with the 2D animation, and combined with the really cool mech designs, offer up some really beautiful animation, though since most of the disc is made up of people walking and talking, there’s few chances to show off that beautiful animation. The character designs, however, can get really, really freaky at points, especially when it comes to the people sitting in the Emperor’s throne room (like Ayamaro and the priests). Thankfully the main characters are slightly more normal (though only slightly) and overall the character designs work extremely well for this series, though Katsu still looks a bit too female and they can’t seem to draw Kirara right unless she has a close-up. But at least Komachi’s still adorable.

Voice-wise, this series hits another home run, as both languages are practically perfectly cast. The standouts, however, are Anthony Bowling’s Ukyo and Christopher Sabat’s Kikuchiyo. Both performances bring some much-needed lightheartedness to the serious story and serve to make the characters instantly likable. Likewise, Luci Christian’s Komachi is perfect and makes the little girl even more adorable than she already was. The music is very sparse, but is used very effectively. Though since there’s a lack of exciting action scenes, you likely won’t notice it except for the various drums. The opening and ending themes are decent, but not spectacular, though they did grow on me by the end of the disc. One thing of note is that the English voice actors say the Japanese terms (such as Onimusha or Okata), but the terms are translated (into Emperor or M’lady, for example) for the Japanese version subtitles. Rather odd, if you ask me.

On the disc, there’s not much in the way of extras. You have a rather crappy image gallery, lots of trailers, and clean opening and closing (though the clean opening on this disc is the first version, not the one used on the disc). However, inside the case is a rather hefty booklet full of various character sketches surrounding various poems, leading up to interviews with Director Toshifumi Takizawa, Mechanical & Art Designer Makoto Kobayashi, Director of Photography Hiroo Yoshioka, and Editor Aya Hida. The interviews are lengthy, but well worth the read, as it gives you a look inside the making of the show. As with all the other volumes of Samurai 7, the more expensive Limited Edition comes pack with complete storyboards for all four episodes inside a really big box (though not as big as the GaoGarGar boxset in Japan).

Overall, I can definitely recommend this series to someone who wants something a little different in their sci-fi series. Besides, it’s by Gonzo too. Gotta love those Gonzoians!

Episodes on Samurai 7 Volume 5: Empire in Flux:
Episode #17: The Remembrance
Episode #18: The Emperor
Episode #19: The Mutiny
Episode #20: The Execution

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