Akira Kurosawa: Samurai Collection (Blu-ray review).


Akira Kurosawa was one of the world’s greatest film directors. Mention Japanese film directors to anyone and they will immediately say Kurosawa and ask them to name one of his works and they will undoubtedly come up with ‘The Seven Samurai’. To write about him would take not just a book but several volumes, so I’m not even going to try. It would be simpler just to describe this new release by the British Film Institute, ‘Samurai Collection’.


I remember watching ‘The Seven Samurai’ on television in the early 1960s, a showing no doubt prompted by the 1961 movie ‘The Magnificent Seven’, which was a similarly magnificent success in the cinemas. It was probably the first time Toshiro Mifune came to the attention of Western audiences and this actor, one of Japan’s greatest, would be synonymous with Kurosawa in many later productions.

The Second World War has been over for almost 70 years but people have got to remember that in the 50s and 60s, Japanese were not generally liked. American, British and Australian movies depicting the war with the Japanese were everywhere in the cinema. John Wayne in the Pacific comes to mind and servicemen returned from duty could not forget the loss of an empire and the cruelties inflicted by the Japanese in prisoner of war camps. A popular childhood game was Japs and Americans and nobody wanted to be a Jap. Thus, there was a barrier in appreciating Japanese movies, a barrier which has lessened over time and, in order to get through to the Western audiences of the era, anything coming from that country had to be good. ‘The Seven Samurai’ broke through that barrier!

Everyone knows the story behind ‘The Seven Samurai’ and the remakes which included ‘The Magnificent Seven’ sequence of movies and even a Science Fiction effort called ‘Battle Beyond The Stars’. Kurosawa made another samurai movie three years later in 1957 called ‘Throne Of Blood’, which was basically a Japanese Macbeth where Mifune played the tragic anti-hero who had murdered the king to take his crown. Three more movies make up the BFI ‘Samurai Collection’, these being ‘The Hidden Fortress’ from 1958, ‘Yojimbo’ made in 1961 and a year later, ‘Sanjuro’. If you watch the spaghetti western, ‘A Fistful Of Dollars’ with Clint Eastwood which was made in 1964, you will see a copy of ‘Yojimbo’, with guns used instead of swords.

Kurosawa made about 30 movies, many of which were brilliant creations in their own right. One of my favourites, ‘Dersu Uzala’, had nothing to do with samurai and was set in the wilds of Siberia, however, asking 100 people, of those who had heard about ‘Kurosawa’, about 99% would mention samurai movies. Like it or not, he has been cast samurai forever. So, if you have seen them before, what is going to attract you to this collection? Well, apart from the fact that they are conveniently collected together, they are presented in Blu-ray high-definition. Having watched the movies from the collection, I can certainly attest to the improvement in quality from previous versions I’ve watched. Movies made almost 60 years ago have been given a new lease of life.

Apart from that, you’ve got all the extra material which goes along with any BFI collection. Where do we start? The original theatrical trailers are something not to be missed. This is followed by a documentary, ‘The Art Of Akira Kurosawa’, an absorbing discussion about the director by Tony Rayns. Lasting almost an hour, this provides a really good bonus. There are short pieces by George Lucas and Alex Cox which were interesting but maybe a little brief. Also included were full-length audio commentaries for ‘Yojimbo’ and ‘Throne Of Blood’ and, while they were reasonable enough to some extent, personally I became bored and turned them off. Audio commentaries are okay sometimes but can be a bit overdone. With movies like these, your own impressions are probably the best. The most tangible of the extras is a magnificent booklet packed full of information and pictures!

This is a good collection, a good package, at a reasonable price and by the time you’ve finished the samurai way will be with you. They are definitely of relevance to Science Fiction because they have been the basis of many movies over the last half-century. George Lucas himself was inspired by ‘The Hidden Fortress’ in the making of ‘Star Wars’ but, beyond this, once you have watched Kurosawa movies you will see similarities everywhere. Too many to mention, it’s patently obvious that the Japanese director has been one of the greatest influences in cinematic history. This is definitely one to recommend.

Rod MacDonald

August 2013

(region 2 Blu-ray: pub: British Film Institute BFIVD972. 4 Blu-rays 668 minutes 5 films. Price: £59.99 (UK). ASIN: B00LA1ZV52

Japanese with optional English sub-titles

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