In 1954, two of Japan’s greatest filmmakers joined forces to create what would become one of the most beloved movies of all time. Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and director Akira Kurosawa had collaborated on important films before, but none of their earlier work displayed the ambition, technical mastery and thematic density of Seven Samurai.
Kurosawa uses the film’s relatively simple premise — a community of farmers hires a band of displaced samurai to defend their village — as a foundation for a remarkably complex piece of work. The picture is simultaneously a rousing adventure, a profound examination of moral issues, a historical epic, and a bittersweet romance, and it works equally well on all of these levels.
That the aims of the screenplay were so brilliantly realized was largely due to the contributions of many artists at the top of their game: composer Fumio Hayasaka and actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, among others, did some of their finest work on Seven Samurai. Something about the project, which was far more expensive and elaborate than most Japanese productions of the period, inspired everyone who worked on it, and this was particularly true of Nakai. Watching the film today, one is struck by the cinematographer’s refusal to take any moment for granted; even simple dialogue scenes are extremely dynamic, thanks to a clever use of mirrors to create a shimmering effect on the actors’ faces.
The filmmakers combine this mirror technique (pioneered by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa on Rashomon) with effects from a variety of natural elements to keep the imagery kinetic in quiet close-ups as well as action sequences. Kurosawa and Nakai also rely heavily on telephoto lenses, which compress space dramatically. By incorporating images of widely varying perspectives in the same scene, the filmmakers add extra dynamism to their compositions.
Nakai’s images look terrific on The Criterion Collection’s new, three-disc special edition DVD. Criterion has released several versions of Seven Samurai — it was one of the company’s first forays into the DVD format — but none has exhibited the clarity of this new disc. The subtleties of Nakai’s lighting are well served by a sharp transfer that preserves the photography’s tonal range in both the formal deep-focus compositions and the kinetic action. Clarity is also the defining trait of the crisp monaural soundtrack, which allows the viewer to closely study Kurosawa’s often-atypical juxtapositions of sound and image.
The package features several new supplements, as well as some borrowed from earlier Criterion releases. The excellent commentary by film scholar Michael Jeck that was previously featured on a Criterion DVD and laserdisc appears here, and it is joined by a second commentary track shared by five other film scholars and critics: Stephen Prince, David Desser, Joan Mellen, Tony Rayns and Donald Richie.
Like many other Criterion releases of Kurosawa’s work, this package features an episode from the series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create that contains production details and interviews with Kurosawa and several key collaborators. Two more documentary featurettes, “Origins and Influences,” a new piece on the traditions and films that influenced Seven Samurai, and “My Life in Cinema,” a two-hour conversation between Kurosawa and fellow Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima, provide additional insights.
Theatrical trailers round out the set, which also contains a booklet featuring affectionate essays by filmmaker Sidney Lumet, film critic Kenneth Turan, and other fans of the film. The numerous supplements and the improved transfer justify the DVD’s price tag, even for cineastes who already have Seven Samurai in their collections.