A few weeks ago, I finally got around to finishing Samurai 7. It took me about eighteen months to watch the series from start to finish (an indication of quality in itself), and having written reviews for the first five volumes elsewhere, I actually had no intention of blogging it- at least until I reached the somewhat nonsensical ending and realised that something just had to be said.
A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s movie The Seven Samurai, Samurai 7 never really had the most promising of starts- not only did it have to stretch the plot of a two hour movie across twenty-six episodes, but Gonzo also made their trademark move of adding CG mecha to a series that didn’t really want or need them. Could something serviceable really come out of such beginnings, or was the whole endeavour doomed from the start?
Samurai 7 begins when Kanna Villages decides it needs to hire samurai to defend itself from the plunder and pillaging of the mechanical Nobuseri bandits. Water Maiden Kirara duly travels to the city to find seven men who fit the bill, and whilst she could have located them in an instant just by watching the OP, it takes some episodes to actually gather them all together. There’s Kanbe, the stoic leader who tries to cover up the fact that he’s actually lost every battle he’s participated in; Kikuchiyo, the hot-headed mechanical samurai; Katsushiro, the youthful newcomer desperate to prove himself; Gorobe, the performer with bullet time reflexes; Heihachi, the novelty samurai with a taste for rice and a love of all things mechanical; Kyuzo, the dialogue-deficient anti-hero and Shichiroji, the spear-wielding innkeeper. In general, they all exhibit an incredible lack of personality, with only Kikuchiyo actually being a likeable and amusing character.
Nonetheless, to be fair, at the very beginning, there was a brief moment when the series didn’t seem as bad as advertised. For the first couple of episodes, everything seemed bright and colourful, and for the space of an hour, it seemed as if the series might actually work. There might not be much in the way of a plot, but there would be action and amusing dialogue from Kikuchiyo- surely that would be enough?
Sadly, by the time the end of the first disc is reached, the novelty has soon worn off, and the whole thing settles down into a type of mediocrity that persists up until the halfway point of the series. Vaguely interesting ideas, such as the sap feeding Shikimori and their electric power cells are introduced, only to be put to one side in favour of following the more generic task of gathering the stock samurai types together and sending them back to
Having washed away all traces of quality in favour of plain mediocrity, it would have been sensible not to expect anything more from the series- until episode fourteen proved that it was still able to improve. For the next few episodes, the samurais’ fight against the bandits isn’t actually too bad, even if it is only because the series piles on so many action scenes that there isn’t time to notice any other flaws. The mecha-bandits may only exist to be cut to pieces, but the samurai are able to cut them to pieces in style.
Typically, however, it is not destined to last, as the series reveals what we all suspected in the beginning- the basic story just couldn’t be sustained for twenty-six episodes. Instead, the annoying character of Ukyo, a merchant who appeared to briefly antagonise in earlier episodes, is promoted to the status of final boss after discovering that he is the clone of the current emperor and subsequently deposing him. Yes, you may have thought that the sci-fi elements were minor, but all of a sudden there’s an emperor in a life support machine and his various clones.
This change in direction doesn’t really do the series any favours, but there is worse to come. Faced with the prospect of pitting seven men against a huge capital city defended by laser cannons and mecha, there was only one thing to do- throw all pretence of common sense out of the window. All of a sudden, swords become able to deflect energy attacks, whilst giant laser beams are just something to be surfed on. Previously unmentioned explosives are suddenly conveniently placed around the capital, enabling Heihachi to blow it up with the press of a single button. Along the way, several of the better characters die, leaving the more annoying ones to continue their lives unopposed.
As if to add insult to injury, Gonzo, the studio known for style if not substance, cannot even manage to consistently deliver the former in this series. The animation is horribly inconsistent, with episode seven in particular standing out as looking horribly simplistic even on the DVD release (god only knows what the TV version was like). Even the character designs are not particularly aesthetically pleasing in the first instance, with only a few good characters standing out from a run of generic and even ugly types.
Samurai 7 is a series that fluctuates between the tediously dull and the mildly entertaining, occasionally offering a good action scene or an interesting moment in the midst of a wave of thin characters and hastily thrown together plot. It doesn’t rank as one of the most awful series out there, but it certainly doesn’t live up to the wave of hype that preceded it.