NYT, April 1, 2006
'Samurai 7': An Animated Series Based on a Kurosawa Classic
By DAVE KEHR
[image] In "Samurai 7," a Japanese series loosely based on Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai," villagers search for warriors to fight marauding bandits.
George Lucas has acknowledged the influence of Akira Kurosawa's 1958 samurai film, "The Hidden Fortress," on his "Star Wars" saga, and there are many other examples in the science fiction and fantasy canon that play on the powerful resemblance between bushido blades and light sabers.
Imperial Edo is reflected in the malignant intergalactic empires of space operas; the long-suffering Japanese peasantry becomes the victimized population of peaceful planets like Luke Skywalker's Tatooine; and the pure-hearted samurai of ancient folk tales mutate into the idealistic warriors who populate films like the "Lord of the Rings" cycle.
With "Samurai 7," an elaborate, 26-episode animated series from Japan that starts tonight at 10:30 on the Independent Film Channel, the circle is closed. Broadcast in Japan in 2004, the series, produced by Gonzo Digimation under the direction of Toshifumi Takizawa, is a retro-future reimagining of Kurosawa's best-known samurai film (and one of the best-known Japanese films in the West), the 1954 "Seven Samurai."
The similarities between the projects seem fairly superficial. In the original, a village of starving rice farmers, tired of having their yearly crop stolen by bandits, sends a group of emissaries to a neighboring city, in hope of finding unemployed samurai hungry or idealistic enough to fight for food and lodging. The villagers return with one dignified veteran fighter, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), who enlists six other candidates. They include Heihachi, a samurai so poor that he has been reduced to chopping firewood for a living; Katsushiro, an eager young apprentice who hasn't yet earned his samurai stripes; and, most famously, a raging, colorful drunk, Kikuchiyo — the role that turned the charismatic Toshiro Mifune into an international star.
In the anime version, the rice farmers are still starving, but the bandits now ride around in flying horseshoe-shaped fortresses, which they use to terrorize the locals into turning over both crops and women. The envoys to the big city are three anime-friendly figures, redesigned to appeal to the youthful audience of Japanese animation: Kirara (with the dubbed voice of Colleen Clinkenbeard) is a water priestess, with a midsection bared à la Britney Spears, who uses her "dousing crystals" to tell her which samurai to hire. She is accompanied by her adorable kid sister, Komachi (Luci Christian) and Rikichi, a boy from the village, whose desire to fight masks a terrible secret. Only Rikichi is a character in Kurosawa's film.
The neighboring city has become a "Blade Runner"-like dystopia, a maze of tiny streets filled with industrial debris, somehow clinging to the side of a mountain. It is the redoubt of the merchant class, a power newly emerged since the end of the last great war. Fritz Lang's silent science-fiction epic, "Metropolis" (1926), also enters the picture at this point, with the series's visualization of a multitiered society, in which the wealthy and powerful live in pleasure gardens located at the top of the mountain, and the poor and oppressed huddle in the less desirable levels below. As in the original, the villagers manage to recruit the formidable Kambei (with the voice of R. Bruce Elliot, and facial features that strongly resemble those of Warner Sallman's widely commercialized portrait of Jesus). Kikuchiyo, regrettably, turns out not to be a colorful drunk, but a hulking, lunkheaded, poorly assembled robot, who has the rasping, braggart voice (Christopher R. Sabat) of a professional wrestler, and the impulse control to match.
The eight episodes made available by IFC don't move the action much beyond the recruitment phase, but that may be the most emotionally engaging section of the scenario, and certainly one that has been effectively recycled in many films since "The Seven Samurai," from its 1960 American remake as a western, "The Magnificent Seven," to "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." It's the assembly of the peer group, not the actual fighting, that counts most in the anime version. For lonely adolescents, the ability to select and seal the loyalty of friends remains a fantasy even more potent than chopping heads off authority figures.
The design and execution of the animation is extremely good for television. (According to the publicity material, the budget for each episode was $300,000 — about twice the usual rate for animated television series.) Visually, it stands up to recent theatrical anime like Rintaro's 2001 "Metropolis" (not a Lang remake, but certainly Lang-influenced), though it doesn't attain the imaginative heights of the feature work of Mamoru Oshii ("Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence," 2004) or of Satoshi Kon's magnificent "Millennium Actress" (2001).
But with 18 episodes to go, "Samurai 7" has plenty of time to develop its ideas and images into something more; there's enough ambition here to suggest that the show is worth sticking with.
IFC, tonight at 10:30, Eastern and Pacific times; 9:30, Central time
Hiroyuki Takazawa and Shinichiro Ishikawa, executive producers; George Lentz Jr., executive in charge for IFC; Nobutaka Kasama, animation producer; Toshifumi Takizawa, director; Daisuke Ito and Kazuhiko Inomata, producers. American staff: Gen Fukunaga, Cindy Brennan Fukunaga, executive producers; Daniel Cocanougher and Barry Watson, producers.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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