"Seven Samurai"

A Japanese film scholar gives new life to Kurosawa's sword-fighting epic.

Published May 31, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"Seven Samurai"
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura
Criterion Collection; original full screen (1.33:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Audio commentary, trailer

Every so often a DVD comes along that makes you forget all the fluff found on most discs and reminds you just how cool this technology can be. This is the case with Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece "Seven Samurai," outstandingly packaged and presented by the Criterion Collection. The picture and sound are both cinema quality, but what makes this DVD such a treat is the superb audio commentary by Japanese film scholar Michael Jeck.

You already know the story: Beleaguered 16th century Japanese villagers seek to thwart local bandits by hiring the services of seven out-of-work samurai warriors. The samurai, led by Takashi Shimura but with Toshiro Mifune serving as their clown prince, meticulously plan out the village's defenses, stage a preemptive raid on the bandits' lair and then pull the villagers together for the climactic battle that leads to the film's bittersweet close. This is the movie that spawned numerous Hollywood knockoffs, from "The Magnificent Seven" to Roger Corman's "Battle Beyond the Stars," though none has come anywhere close to the original's epic grandeur and subtle undercurrents.

Jeck's commentary is the real revelation -- and, because the film is subtitled, a rare occasion in which the voice-over does not prevent viewers from keeping up with the dialogue. He approaches his task as if giving a three-hour lecture for a film class, and no detail is small enough to escape his notice. Kurosawa fans will gain a whole new appreciation for one of cinema's greatest directors as Jeck describes how nearly every shot was created and how the film's intensity was consistently magnified. Even the wind and rain became characters in Kurosawa's hands, underlining a scene's emotional impact.

Typical of Jeck's insights is his spotlighting of a single samurai walking down the street as the villagers seek out their saviors. This samurai is not to their liking and his appearance in the film is limited to no more than a couple of seconds. But Jeck is able to note that this was none other than Tatsuya Nakadai, who would go on to become one of Japan's biggest stars. Kurosawa himself must have seen something in the actor's brief walk-through. He would go on to cast Nakadai as one of the leads in "Yojimbo."

By David Lazarus

David Lazarus covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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