November 17, 2009

Samurai 7 #26: The Era's End

2004 episode
directed by Toshifumi Takizawa and Yasuhiro Kuroda
written by Atsuhiro Tomioka
based on the film SEVEN SAMURAI by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni

(1954 film)


I'm not sure what to say here. It was a fantastic finale, everything I could have hoped for, but I don't want to give any descriptions for fear of spoiling the last leg of the ride. So humor me as I use this opportunity to reflect on the series as a whole.

It must have been difficult for this creative team, particularly in the wake of the disappointing KAZE NO YOJIMBO, to take another Kurosawa classic, a film held up around the world as one of the greatest ever made, and say they were going to redo it, with spaceships and robots and a comical little kid sidekick. I can image the scepticism, the challenge thrown up by a broad audience, and I can't say that, in their place, I wouldn't have folded and run away.

But, man, did they know what they were doing. Unlike the earlier anime, which pitched out it's source and started from scratch, this series has, at its heart, an extremely faithful adaptation of SEVEN SAMURAI, which not only captures the scenes and dialogue - almost word-for-word at times - but the deeper layers of complex characters and politics of a classist society that are tricky to pin down. And they didn't stop there, adding and expanding and even having the balls to make a few changes along the way, until they had something that bowed before Kurosawa while still standing firm on its own distinctive feet.

The samurai here are every bit as memorable as those of the original. Shimada Kambei, the leader, who outwardly portrays every shred of honor and intelligence a samurai can hope to achieve, though he's always been on the losing side of war. Shichiroji, his right hand man with an artificial right hand, who shed his sword to work in the inn of his love, but didn't flinch when his old friend called for help. Katayama Gorobei, who used his training to forge a new life as a street performer, using tricks and thrills to keep his warrior blood pumping as he throws himself in the path of danger. Hayashida Heihachi, the good-natured mechanic, experienced in war but not in death, who's easy smile disappears at any reminder of the treason he committed in the past. Kyuzo, the steely corporate assassin, so drawn by Kambei's skill that he'll fight by the older man's side just so he can have a chance to cut the other warrior down.

Katsushiro, the young novice, the heart of the group. Though just a part of the ensemble, this series has partially been about his journey of becoming a samurai. What you have to learn. What you have to give up. What you have to look straight into the face of without screaming. More-so than the others, the lengthened screen time has allowed his character to be explored far more thoroughly than Kurosawa ever could have hoped to achieve in the course of a single movie, and, thus, he probably stands out as the greatest, deepest achievement of the creative team.

And then there's Kikuchiyo, a boisterous thug born of peasants, who lost his family to bandit raids and enhanced his body with mechanics in the hope of one day being recognized as a samurai warrior. For the most part, he's been a useful brute weapon and comical clown on the side of the heroes, with little moments of insight where his bluster uncovers hidden truths, so I was thrilled to see him come face to face with Emperor Ukyo in this ep, revealing a theme I was just starting to pick up on. These two are mirrors, you see, both raised in farming villages only to grow into the very thing the other loathes: a pompous aristocrat and a mechanical warrior. I won't say how it ended, but it was yet another fantastic flourish by the creative team.

There were a few stumbles over the course of the series, a rare episode from a wonky guest-director, or a bit of this world which wasn't explained, but, for the most part, this creative team delivered all around. The direction was largely consistent and commendable, the writing intelligent and engaging, the performances fitting, the designs striking, and the score perfectly subdued.

And then, after straying so far from the source the last few episodes (albeit marvelously so), it all wraps up as we return to the final few minutes of Kurosawa's masterpiece. The words and shots are the almost identical, though the meanings now stand apart. Some are deeper, some are different, some loop back around to something familiar. And all of it is so very much in the spirit of Akira Kurosawa.

(series trailer)


(official website)
(anime news network)
(internet movie database)


Anthony Williams said...

Any mixed emotions about wrapping this up or are you ready to move on?

NoelCT said...

It was a wonderful journey, but they ended it in just the right way, so I have no problem moving on.