Before I begin today’s Triple A, I feel it is only right that I give my regards to Japan and all the people struggling in the wake of the earthquake/ tsunami disaster. It is devastating to see so many people’s lives uprooted by something so natural and out of our control. I do not wish this on any nation, and anyone suffering from such an event has my deepest sympathies. As for Japan, we here owe them an outrageous amount of debt for how much they have contributed to the culture of… just about everything media related: animation, videogames, comics, card games, you name it. I would like to credit a big source of their inspiration now:
It was 1954 in a Japan far, far away, when now-legendary playwright Akira Kurosawa wrote and directed a film known as Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai in the west), a story that takes place in a Japan of the late 1500’s and chronicles the attempts of one desperate farming village to seek the help of rogue Samurai warriors to defend their home from an army of bandits coming to raid their village at the end of the harvest. While the Samurai do emerge triumphant, their victory is not without serious casualties, and they have nothing to show for their burden but a few bowls of rice. Seven Samurai, over time, has become one of the greatest and most influential films ever made, and one of the few Japanese films that is widely known on the western border.
And then in 2004, Gonzo Studio made an anime about it and called it Samurai 7.
As far as adapting from the original source material goes, Samurai 7 does a swell job of keeping all the more important elements of the original film alive while taking a fair amount of liberties that don’t overstep its boundaries. In fact, all seven samurai and the majority of the farmers have the exact same names and basic personality traits (for the most part, we’ll get to that later) as their movie counterparts. The setting in the anime is more a futuristic steam punk version of Japan, yet there is still farming on the outskirts of town, such as where the main conflict in Kana Village takes place. The bandits plaguing the farmers this time around take the form of mechanized cyborgs by the name of The Nobuseri; former samurai who have lost their beliefs and replaced their human forms for mechanical ones.
The second thing new to the anime is that the farmer tasked with finding the samurai in the movie, Rikichi, is now accompanied by a village priestess, Kirara, who uses a magic pendant that helps her seek out worthy samurai, as well as her little sister Komachi, who tags along just for the heck of it. Yes, clearly these characters were added simply to diversify the cast, add love interests, and appeal to the female demographic, but what are you gonna do? A necessary addition that genuinely does bring some appealing moments, particularly with these two:
Speaking of which, lets talk about the characters. The original film was over three hours long and gave plenty of time to flesh out all seven of our lead protagonists before the big final battle took place. However, in this 26 episode animated series, the majority of the samurai, while all having great performances, aren’t nearly as dynamic character-wise, and unfortunately end up becoming all-too-common stereotypes:
Shichiroji “Momotaro” is the friendly life-long war buddy stereotype.
Katayama Gorobei, the former warrior turned entertainer, while not as stereotypical of most ethnic characters, is in-and-of himself a stereotype.
Kyuzo is the badass, tight lipped, former-baddie-turned-good-so-he-may-have-the-pleasure-of-defeating-Kambei-himself stereotype.
This leaves only three who actually have some depth:
Hayashida Heihachi, the nomad of the group, who is hired not for his skills as a fighter, but for his intellect, mechanical prowess, and his innate ability to improvise with his surroundings. Normally very non-confrontational, Heihachi has an unsettling past that leads him to be extremely volatile toward traitors.
Okamoto Katsushiro is the young inexperienced warrior who easily grows the most as a character throughout the series. The only downside is that his entire development cycle- everything from his waning devotion to Kambei, his romantic interest in Kirara, to the sheer amount of beatings he takes- is all too predictable from start to finish.
Then there is Kikuchiyo. Let’s be very clear here; Unless your name is Komachi Mikumari, there is A 90% chance this character WILL drive you bat**** insane for the first 11 episodes, at least. He’s this giant cyborg that constantly yells at the top of his metallic lungs with this fuzzy roboticized voice, he’s extremely clumsy, intelligently stupid, and oh yeah, he’s voiced by Christopher Robin Sabat.
What you heard right there was the sound of my editor Christopher Pranger groaning in agony. (Pranger’s note: How did Gus know?!)
I say first 11 episodes, because Episode 12, titled “The Truth,” happens to be my favorite in the entire series for one reason, and that is for the epic tirade Kikuchiyo gives that is quite possibly the greatest monologue of Mr. Sabat’s career. Kikuchiyo, behind his big loud boisterous façade, is the most sympathetic and understanding of the farmer’s lack of trust in the very samurai that have come to protect them, because he used to be one of them. He was born a farmer then chose to become a samurai to earn respect. In addition, to make himself suited for battle, he gave up his human state to be a machine not much different from the very bandits they are fighting. So in essence, Kikuchiyo has elements of all the first three factions built into his characterization.
Besides the samurai, I feel there are two more characters worth mentioning. The farmer Rikichi, while taking a backseat in screen time to Kirara, I feel is extremely underrated. Many of his emotional struggles, the majority of which dealing with his wife’s capture, make him the most sympathetic of the farmers, and next the Katsushiro, he grows the most as a character throughout the series. Then there is Ukyo, the show’s main villain. While not all the protagonists have that much depth, this guy has plenty, which is definitely an interesting change of pace from other villains in most PG action series. There are even entire episodes devoted to showing Ukyo’s progression from a petty, spoiled-rotten son of the magistrate to the cunning, strategic emperor of the entire region.
Pretty much every shortcoming this series has, story or character-wise, can be blamed squarely on the fact that the creators wanted to take a moody, atmospheric film made for adults in the 1950’s and turn it into a high stakes, fast-paced, action series for young adults in the new millennium, which I will say right now, they succeed with flying colors. This isn’t one of those slow-moving action series that takes episodes of plot progression and dramatic buildup to get to the good part, oh no. There is action all the time, right from the get-go. The real reason why many of the main protagonists don’t get that much depth is because they are busy fighting, and when they are not fighting, they are talking about fighting. All the dialogue scenes are about preparing for the war, and they are highly confrontational, dripping with anticipation. The fights themselves are sharp, clean, and well choreographed. In that respect, it moves at a pace more closely resembling a fight in Avatar rather than the fights you see in many of the Shonen Jump series.
One quick confession I should make is that the animation works on a pretty steep curve, i.e. it only looks its best when it wants to. There are several padding moments (particularly a big portion of episode 7) where the animation drops from a solid A- to an F without warning. It’s embarrassing to say the least, but I will also remind you that Gurren Lagann (Still the most epic anime ever) also had a few of these problems. By the later half of the series, the animation does even out, and when it’s time to show off, it does just that.
To wrap this up, Samurai 7 in an incredibly well paced action series with a great setting, dramatic moments, and a wonderful sense of tone and spirit. As clichéd as some of the characters may be, they are still welcome archetypes and are all performed with some excellent voice talent. In fact, I for one thought Funimation’s dub was one of the better dubs of any anime I’ve heard recently.
Samurai 7 and the original film Seven Samurai are both available on Netflix Instant Play. I watched the anime first, and personally I think that’s the best route. The film is such a timeless classic that watching it right before the anime would spoil so much of the fun the new version brings.
Want more anime? Have a look at these: