How can I not give this DVD release the highest possible rating? When Criterion wants to give lavish treatment to a classic movie, they typically assemble releases that put many of the mainstream studios’ “Special Editions” to shame. In fact, you could easily consider this three-disc set (plus book of essays) a film class in a box.
You can find a plot summary for “Seven Samurai” in many places around the Internet, so I’m going to skip the story recitation and get straight to this incredible DVD set. First up, we have a beautifully-remastered image that’s as good as this movie will ever look, barring a Blu-ray and/or HD-DVD release. It isn’t pristine, but you have to remember that this is a 50-year-old film that was shown over and over and over again during the decades before digital video preservation came along. As a result, Criterion had to work with the best elements they could find, but they clearly pulled out all the stops as they worked to present the best possible picture.
The movie is spread across two discs, with most of the bonus materials on the second and third DVDs. On disc one, in addition to three trailers and a teaser, as well as galleries of behind-the-scenes photos and theater posters, we have a pair of commentaries: one with scholars and critics Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie, and Joan Mellen, and another with Japanese film expert Michael Jeck.
Both exemplify the idea of a film class in a box: the tracks immerse you in a classroom-like experience that’s akin to listening to a professor lecture. The participants in the group track were recorded separately, with each one given a different part of the film to talk about, rather than the commentary switching between them. Some of them sound like they might be reading from prepared scripts, which gives them stilted deliveries, but the information they impart is priceless. Assuming, of course, you enjoy a classroom-like experience.
The Michael Jeck commentary was ported over from an earlier DVD of the film, which was in turn brought in from Criterion Collection’s 1988 laserdisc release. There’s some overlap with the other track in the information he presents, but he’s watching the movie from a historical point-of-view, as opposed to “What does the composition of this shot mean?” kind of stuff, so there’s still plenty to be learned here.
You might think you’d know everything you needed to know about Kurosawa and “Seven Samurai” from those commentaries, but disc two adds to the data dump with another installment of “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create,” a series that’s also featured on Criterion’s recent two-disc release of “Ran.” This one covers the making of the film from the initial idea through post-production, with plenty of interviews from surviving participants. A very engaging piece.
Over on disc three, the centerpiece is “My Life in Cinema,” a two-hour conversation between Kurosawa and fellow filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. Filmed in 1993, it covers the director’s life, his early days in the Japanese film business, and the kinds of battles he fought to make sure his vision was retained in his movies. It’s a comprehensive interview that’s a must-watch for Kurosawa fans and a great introduction to the director for newcomers.
Finally, a new documentary, “Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences” closes out the third disc. Running nearly an hour, it features interviews with the critics found on the group commentary as well as with Japanese scholars. Obviously, it looks at what influenced the creation of “Seven Samurai,” including the history of the samurai, as well as how it affected the Japanese movies that came after it. Like everything else in this release, it’s a fascinating look at the film from yet another angle. Again, we’re talking film class in a box. By the time you finish everything in this set, you should be able to write a 30-page paper on the themes Kurosawa explored in “Seven Samurai.”
And no cribbing from the booklet that Criterion also included. It features essays by Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, and Stewart Galbraith IV, along with tributes by Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet and a reminiscence by Toshiro Mifune. Think of it as a winter break assignment after spending all fall semester dissecting “Seven Samurai.”