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 for Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai presents the film on one dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1.
Though I was happy to have the film on DVD originally, even upon its initial release the problems with the transfer (which is more than likely a port of what was presented on their laserdisc) were evident, and even now it looks worse. First, the film does look fairly rough presenting a variety of flaws including scratches, tears, marks, and blotches. But admittedly at the time this didn't bother me as much since it still looked better than a VHS version I had seen, but Criterion's new edition (on DVD and Blu-ray) present a far cleaner image.
The big problem with the transfer is the fact it's laced with artifacts, possibly because Criterion decided to stuff the 3.5 hour film onto one disc. There's ringing and plenty of noise throughout, and it's obvious and always there. The image is still fairly soft and contrast is off with crushed blacks. Details are lost in darker scenes. Pixelation is also an issue during some moments, most noticeable in some shots of trees blowing in the wind.
I lived with it for years but always hoped something better would come out. Thankfully Criterion did revisit the film and I would direct all to look at either the 3-disc DVD or new Blu-ray edition.
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.
The DVD comes with one big feature, a 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 new editions, which spreads the work out over multiple scholars and historians, works a little better.
The disc then closes with the American theatrical trailer. The first printing (which is incredibly rare) also includes a film restoration demonstration that was removed at the behest of Toho (apparently they didn't like Criterion showing how poorly they had been treating the film over the years.) Unfortunately the edition I have doesn't have this as an option in the menu. There's also an insert with a short essay by David Ehrenstein, which makes a decent primer.
And unfortunately that's it. Again, the new editions are the way to go, which present a variety of documentaries and interviews, as well as a newer commentary. It also includes the Jeck commentary so you don't lose anything.
At the time I was happy to get the film on DVD but even then, back in '99 when I first purchased this disc, the release was problematic. The transfer isn't good and the one supplement isn't at all satisfying. Even if one came across this used and cheap, I would still point them to the newer 3-disc DVD edition, or 2-disc Blu-ray edition.