A desperate village hires seven samurai to protect it from marauders in this crown jewel of Japanese cinema. No other film so seamlessly weaves philosophy and entertainment, delicate human emotions and relentless action. Featuring Japan's legendary star, the great Toshiro Mifune, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is an inspired epic, a triumph of art, and an unforgettable three-hour ride.
Criterion's original DVD of Seven Samurai (notable for containing a later removed restoration demonstration) is presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 on dual-layer disc. Because of the aspect ratio the image has not been enhanced for widescreen televisions. This edition can be easily distinguishable from for the 1999 second printing as it lists the runtime of the film as 203-minutes on the back cover. The film still runs 207-minutes, like the second printing.
The only difference between this first printing released in 1998 and the more common second printing (and beyond) initially released in 1999 is that the first printing contains a restoration demonstration. The transfer appears to be exactly the same otherwise, which means it has all of the same problems. Most of the issues stem, I'm sure, from cramming the 3.5 hour film on a single disc so compression is a constant issue, with pixilation being particularly rampant (shots of trees show blocking patterns in the leaves and branches). Edge halos show up and ringing is a common problem and contrast seems to be boosted a bit, with blacks eating up details in darker sequences and whites bordering on blooming. The image is also pretty soft around the edges.
Though a lot of clean-up has been done damage is still pretty rampant. There are a lot of scratches raining through, specs of debris, dust, stains, reel change markers (even though the included restoration points out they cleaned these up), tram lines, and more. In all fairness, judging by the restoration demonstration, damage was far worse, but in comparison to the newer DVD and Blu-ray editions released by Criterion, this one still needs quite a bit of work.
At the time I was fine with the presentation, especially compared to VHS and the odd television showings, but it hasn't aged well at all.
The mono track is also lousy, but some of it has more to do with the source. There's still plenty of noise in the background along with pops and scratches. It's flat as a whole, and music can be screeching. The track also has a slightly synthesized sound to it. Though the tracks present on the new editions aren't perfect, they're still much better than what's presented here.
This first printing was quickly discontinued and pulled after Toho demanded Criterion drop the restoration demonstration (I'm not entirely sure why, though it is suspected Toho didn't like the suggestion they don't take proper care of their materials) and because of this it is a bit of a collector's item since it is more rare than the later printings that are missing the demonstration. Otherwise the editions are the same.
It still includes the decent but problematic audio commentary by scholar Michael Jeck, which also appears on the new editions. It's a little dry, and does contain some interesting historical observations, and notes on Kurosawa's technique and attention to detail, but in the latter area they're not things most people will miss on their own. It also falls victim to being a play-by-play, simply calling out the action on screen. I can't completely blame Jeck, though, since he does have to carry it for well over 3 hours. He does an admirable job, but the new commentary on the newer DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion, which spreads the work out over multiple scholars and historians, works a little better.
The aforementioned restoration demonstration is also included. Running 5-minutes it offers a series of notes and before-and-after comparisons showing the amount of work that went into restoring the film. It is fairly impressive at times, especially in the restoration of the rather large tears and rips, and the amount of dirt removed is staggering. It also offers examples of the audio restoration work that went into the film. One example shows how the gun shots would drop out, but these were repaired and placed back in. It's an interesting feature, though it being removed from future pressings and editions isn't a huge loss.
The disc then closes with the American theatrical trailer. There's also an insert with a short essay by David Ehrenstein, which makes a decent primer.
Still a light edition. Though the restoration demonstration is still interesting the newer editions released by Criterion clearly blow this one away.
Since the image and sound is still lousy and the supplements are still slim in comparison to the newer DVD and Blu-ray editions Criterion released, this rare version, which includes a restoration demonstration removed from all future editions, is really only for collectors.