Samurai 7 does follow Kurosawa’s familiar set-up, right down to the lethargic pacing, which is sure to lose viewers in the early episodes. The hundred or so inhabitants of Kanna, a small farming village, live in fear of a band of 40 former samurai — the Nobuseri — who threaten to steal their rice crops during each year’s harvest. But the Nobuseri are no ordinary bandits; they’re humans who have “rebuilt their bodies into [mechanical] weapons so that they can fight,” and the ruling merchant-run government considers them to be “renowned patriots.”
Facing starvation, the villagers decide, “We’ve gotta kill the bandits!” The village Elder (Andrew Haskett) agrees. “We’ll hire samurai. We’ll let them eat their fill of rice — find us some hungry samurai.” So Kirara (Colleen Clinkenbeard), a beautiful and clairvoyant young “water priestess” (“through the water, I am able to sense different things”), sets out for Kougakyo with her pre-adolescent sister Komachi (Luci Christian) and fellow villager Rikichi (J. Michael Tatum) in tow.
Using her “Dowsing Crystal” — a divining pendulum that has been passed down through generations of her family — the trio navigate dangerous city streets filled with ronin (masterless samurai), gradually recruiting their band of seven samurai saviors. (Very gradually: by the end of the eighth episode, they’re still working on #7. That’s what happens when you have to expand 203 minutes of source material into 26 half-hour episodes.) Chief among them is Kambei (R. Bruce Elliott), “commander of a defeated army,” and the only one who didn’t take up a trade at war’s end, choosing instead to remain a meager samurai. Joining him is his “old wife,” Shichiroji (Duncan Brannan). Explains Kambei: “This is the man who I spent many years sharing joys and sorrows with during the war.” However, Shichiroji doesn’t appear until episode #7 (scheduled for May 13), whose rough animation contrasts with the other episodes’ merging of hand-drawn cell animation with computer-generated imagery and layered FX.
The remaining recruits? Katsuhiro (Sean Teague), Kambei’s young samurai apprentice, who falls for Kirara. Gorobei (Bob Carter), the daredevil street performer who gambles with his life. Heihachi (Greg Ayres), the “toothpick artisan” who chops wood with his katana in exchange for food. Kyuzo (Sonny Strait), the master swordsman who as of episode #8 has yet to make his membership official. And Kikuchiyo (Christopher Sabat), the boastful samurai pretender so memorably and comedically portrayed by Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s original. Can Kikuchiyo’s animated counterpart possibly compete with Mifune’s oversized personality? No, it turns out, so the animators have supplied him with an oversized mechanical body that’s slightly broken down, with a large sputtering muffler protruding from the side of his face like a smoker’s pipe. His character still serves as comic relief, though; a running gag finds him continually losing body parts in battle.
Will Samurai 7 become the “anime classic” that IFC is promising? Too soon to tell. However, as Kambei tells Kirara, “Sometimes, the water you locate will be bitter.”