“The Warring Age. On the battlefield, there were samurai. On the land, there were peasants. Following the war, the samurai became bandits who stole rice and trampled upon the villages. Resistance brought death. Their resounding mobility was the object of the peasant’s terror. And then . . . ”
And then, the bandits donned their robotic flying battle suits, with their massive butterfly-shaped transport ship — itself stretching hundreds of feet into the sky — following close behind, cutting a blazing swath through the sweeping rice fields.
Fans of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic The Seven Samurai, which spawned John Sturges’s 1960 The Magnificent Seven, are going to be surprised at what they find in Samurai 7, the Japanese animated series that debuts April 1 on the International Film Channel. (New episodes will air at 10:30 pm every Saturday through the fall.) The production notes promise “26 mind-blowing episodes.”
After viewing the first eight half-hour long episodes, do I consider my mind to have been blown? Well, not yet. But I can tell you that even the most critically praised anime programs have been slow burners, acquiring significance in retrospect only as the transparent (at first) plot threads begin to connect. Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Cartoon Network’s ongoing Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex are two of the best.
And what new ideas does Samurai 7 offer? Well, there’s the switch in medium from Kurosawa’s gloriously composed black-and-white photography (shot by long-time collaborator Asakazu Nakai) to high-definition color animation. And then there are those giant robots. But is it original? Art director Hiromasa Ogura imagines a colorful yet dirty future not of the cliché’d Blade Runner variety but of the post-apocalyptic, and equally cliché’d, Mad Max mold. Still, when the dust kicks up (as it does frequently when deadly katanas slice through robotic hides), you won’t likely complain. If there’s one thing that anime excels at, it’s kinetic action.
What’s more, the archetypically socialist story of a group united withstands the transition from the 16th century to an indeterminate future. Kurosawa’s film, after all, bore the influence of the American Western, and many Westerns borrowed from the Japanese chambara genre, so the dusty milieu feels appropriate. Sure, the junk-pile city of Kougakyo (where most of the first six episodes take place) may be a carbon copy of the Mos Eisley Spaceport from the Star Wars films, but wasn’t George Lucas’s space opera an elaborate reproduction of Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress? And Kurosawa isn’t the only Japanese director whose influence is evident. His interest lay with the warrior; it was Kenji Mizoguchi who represented the lives of women and merchants, both of whom are defining additions here.