Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: The Seven Samurai

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, April 22, 2001

“Have you killed many enemies?”

“It’s impossible to kill them all. So usually I run away.”

Special features

Commentary Track9

Probably the most influential samurai film, starring Toshirô Mifune and directed by Akira Kurosawa. It inspired more than just samurai: “The Magnificent Seven” was “Seven Samurai” remade into one of the most influential westerns.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
DirectorAkira Kurosawa
WritersAkira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Movie Rating8
Transfer Quality7
Overall Rating6
  • Academy Ratio
The Seven Samurai (horizon): The Seven Samurai scene (horizon)

This is a long movie: 207 minutes, according to the DVD packaging. That’s almost three and a half hours! There is an intermission right about at the halfway mark, and I’ll tell you, after over an hour and a half, with another hour and a half to go, we needed it! We stopped, loaded up on more sake and rice, and stretched. (And discussed how even the actors in “The Magnificent Seven” seemed to have been chosen to look like the actors in “Seven Samurai”.)

All 207 minutes, with the possible exception of some overdone crying on the part of one of the farmers, was worth it. (One of those guys had a face like Jim Carrey.) You will especially appreciate this if you get a chance to see it a second time through. There is something happening everywhere, something always being advanced towards the story. Watch it twice, then watch it with the commentary. You’ll be amazed.

This is an adventure film: a village is beset by bandits, and the villagers try to hire some samurai to protect their village. The first part of the movie is the villagers trying to find some out-of-work samurai “hungry” enough to do the job for the wages that the villagers can afford (mostly, rice). This part of the movie has some of the funniest scenes. After they manage to find six samurai, the rest of the movie is about the protection of the village, and how the samurai—and the villagers—might be able to manage it. Don’t go in looking for a standard samurai movie. You’ll find very few sword fights. Off hand, I can only recall one true sword fight in the entire movie. And if this is the first time you’ve seen “Seven Samurai”, expect to see a few things you’ve seen before: “Seven Samurai” is one of the most-copied adventure movies I know of. There have been at least two direct copies of it (“The Magnificent Seven”, and “A Bug’s Life”, and there are probably more), and some of the things it did for the first time, such as the way they did the “search for the heroes”, has become an almost-standard in the adventure genre.

The Seven Samurai (war): The Seven Samurai scene (war)

This is a black and white movie in 1.37 to 1 (academy) ratio. It is presented in Japanese, with the English subtitles turned on by default. It appears to be 1.33 to 1, as 1.37 to 1 pictures usually are on home video, even on DVD. I could complain, but there just isn’t much missing. Fortunately, unlike American movies of the time, the credits and titles are centered instead of aligned left and right, chopping off the beginning and end of letters. Here, it isn’t obvious what we’re losing, if anything, so it is less obviously a problem.

Some of the subtitles aren’t that good; in the beginning, the very important history is completely unsubtitled. You can switch to the commentary to get some of an explanation, however. I wonder whether Criterion commissions their own subtitles, or if they use pre-existing ones? This was a fairly standard, maybe slightly above-grade subtitling job. “Please sir, I fever to ask!” is one of the odder errors, combining both a misspelling and a grammatical error.

The Seven Samurai (resting): The Seven Samurai scene (resting)

The commentary is very nicely set up: there is a “chapter list” for the commentary that matches to the movie’s “chapters”, but lists as the chapter titles what the dude is talking about. The commentary itself is also very good, although very dry. It is uncommonly dense, and full of information about Kurosawa, the actors, where they came from, what they would be recognized as by Japanese viewers, and what is or is not surprising to Japanese viewers. Michael Jeck is perhaps a bit overly in awe if Kurosawa, but it’s a great commentary. He’s listed on the DVD as a professional historian. Despite the length of the movie, you’ll definitely want to watch it again with the commentary. Make use of your DVD’s last location memorization feature. (Called “last memo” on my Pioneer, this is the first Criterion DVD I’ve seen that supports it.)

The commentary was probably made for the laserdisc version. At a few points in the movie, Jeck talks about how you can slow down your CAV to see how things are done. For example, he claims that the arrow shots were not special effects scenes, but rather were real shots with arrows and expert archers. If a character was going to get hit by an arrow, that actor would wear a thick wooden block, which the archer would shoot at. I slowed down the movie where he mentioned that and it certainly looks like that’s the case! It must cut down on retakes pretty heavily. That’s a major incentive towards getting the scene right the first time.

One of the things I noticed with this movie is that Criterion disks (I also have “Carnival of Souls” and “Chasing Amy”) are designed solely for English speakers. Ironically, most movies whose supposed sole market is English also have non-English dubs and subtitles (which I believe is a good thing), but the Criterion disks I have—which have features never duplicated in other regions—either have no other languages, or in the case of Seven Samurai have subtitles to translate the native language to English. There are probably licensing issues involved, but I’m sure non-native speakers of English would not mind seeing some extra subtitles on these wonderful and unique DVDs.

The Seven Samurai (ready): The Seven Samurai scene (ready)

The video has been beautifully restored and is very crisp and clear. There are certainly some scratches and level problems, but these are minor and few. (Note that earlier reviews of this DVD claim that there is a comparison of “pre” restored and “post” restored video, but I have not been able to find that on my copy.) It compares well with other movies of that time period that I have from the United States.

If you’re a fan of the movie, you definitely want this DVD. If you’re a fan of westerns or action films, you’ll definitely want to rent it or buy it. And if you like commentaries that discuss in detail how films are made, you’ll also want to take a look at it if just for the commentary. This is an influential early action film that is fun to watch and re-watch.

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

DirectorAkira Kurosawa
WritersAkira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
ActorsTakashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune
Spoken languageJapanese
Special FeaturesCommentary Track, Trailer
More links

If you enjoyed The Seven Samurai…

For more about Criterion, you might also be interested in Carnival of Souls and Dazed and Confused.

For more about hard-boiled, you might also be interested in Casablanca, Shaft, The Night Stalker, The Usual Suspects, Tokyo Drifter, Bordersnakes, and The Blowtop.

For more about influential, you might also be interested in Birth of a Nation and Carnival of Souls.

For more about Japanese, you might also be interested in Tampopo, Tokyo Drifter, and Japanese Country Cookbook.

For more about role-playing games, you might also be interested in Excalibur, Ghostbusters, Highlander, and The Road Warrior.