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Books: Samurai 7 Vol. 1

Samurai 7 isn’t a bad manga, just as the anime of the same name isn’t a bad anime. But I had the same problem with both of them: Why remake Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samuraiarguably one of the greatest films ever made in any language or era—and add little or nothing to the original story but length and convolution? I’m not against remakes in principle—I’m against them when they don’t add anything.

When Kurosawa’s estate licensed Yojimbo—another great movie of his—to Bandai for an anime remake, that wasn’t as problematic since Yojimbo was itself a remake, albeit a distant and uncredited one, of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Bandai went back to the original novel and used that as the most direct inspiration for the final product, and ended up with one of the more underrated shows they’ve ever put out. It’s a textbook example of how to do this sort of thing right.

But Seven Samurai was an original—a template-setter rather than a template-follower, like John Ford’s Stagecoach or Hitchcock’s Psycho, or (oh, irony!) Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, also slated for a live-action remake. Why remake something that’s peerless? Because there’s money to be made from a name brand, be it Kurosawa or Seven Samurai, and after a long enough time all the sacred cows eventually get ground up into hamburger.

And so now we have Samurai 7, a franchise that included a TV series, a video game, and now this manga adaptation to round out the product line. What’s curious about Samurai 7 is how it manages to be faithful to the original story without ever quite recapturing the original’s electricity or spirit. It has the words, and even some of the notes, but somehow not the music. By itself it’s perfectly okay, but in the shadow of its older brother it bulks terribly tiny—and I hope you’ll forgive me for saying that there is literally no way for me to review one without talking about the other. If you’re like me, you’re going to have a hard time getting used to the idea that this new Samurai story is more or less about guys cutting spaceships in half.

The original Seven Samurai was set in the turbulent Japan of the 1500s. The story: Bandit gangs tear up the countryside looking for plunder, and have their eyes on a village rich with rice paddies. Once harvest-time comes, they’ll loot the place. The villagers, desperate to survive another season, hire a ragtag cadre of samurai to defend them, and the rest is cinematic and dramatic history. Watch it some time, and you’ll probably be pinching yourself every few minutes and muttering, “Hey, didn’t they do that in [insert name of movie here], too?” Sure, they did—but the point is that Samurai did it first, and may well have done it better than most anyone else ever did since.

Samurai 7 moves the action forward in the future, sort of. It’s set in a time when mankind has colonized the solar system, after Earth itself was devastated in a great war. Many of the great samurai who fought in that war have since become nobuseri, drifting bandits who loot and slaughter for lack of any better fight to have. The technology in the setting may be more advanced—in a classic anime trope, the samurai carry swords that can unleash massive energy waves capable of splitting an airship in half—but the core of the story remains low-tech, sometimes almost incongruously so. The bandits are still after the rice, there’s still only a few weeks left before harvest time, and it’s going to be seven men against forty bandits.

Rather than begin with the villagers and their plight (that stuff’s handled in flashback), Samurai 7 opens with the first of the seven—Katsushiro, the rookie. He’s callow and naïve (his main reason for wanting to emulate samurai is because they get the ladies, don’tcha know), and it’ll take some exposure to real samurai to get him to understand what they’re really all about. This comes when he blunders across a pretty young girl, Kirara, and gets roped into learning about the danger facing her village.

Katsushiro gets in over his head almost immediately. For one, he doesn’t even have any idea how to draw the sword he carries around (he assumes it’s broken), and he’s not even a real samurai in the first place—just someone with enough admiration for what they used to be that he’s taken it upon himself to emulate them. You could pick a worse model, I guess—and in a way, his naïveté actually winds up working in his favor. Seeing poor Kirara and her fellow villagers in such a plight fires him up into a righteous ardor. If he isn’t a samurai, maybe he can become one by faking it real good.

At first there’s only him, but before long there’s a second one—sorta-kinda. That would be Kikuchiyo, the disembodied head of an android that Kirara’s little sister found on a scrapheap. The head still works—it talks, it vents steam (physically and verbally), and it has even more of a gung-ho attitude than Katsushiro does. He’ll need the attitude to make up for little things like, oh, lack of a body, but apparently the farmers have an old agricultural ‘bot back at home that might fit him nicely.

Even without a body, he’s still useful. As in the original, Kikuchiyo works as a kind of agitator / rabble-rouser / one-man cheerleading squad, saying the things that no one else can say (or wants to). He (“he”?) quickly sees that Katsushiro, for all of his lack of polish, has plenty of vinegar to make up for it. The two of them even pair up, in a way better seen than described, when a bandit hides out in a local house with a baby as a hostage.

They don’t end up being the baby’s savior, though. That job goes to Kanbei, an older samurai who embodies everything that the samurai used to be, wanted to be, and possibly everything they could have been. He’s skilled, but he takes a self-deprecating view of himself: he’s only skilled because he ended up living this long, and his last battles were complete fiascoes. He listens to the villagers, takes their plight seriously, but seems despondent of being able to do anything about it. For a village like that, for that many attackers, you need … at least seven people.

They get them. Katsushiro, Kikuchiyo, and Kanbei for starters, but after some sweat and trouble they add four more to the roster: Gorobei, who knows of Kanbei and is only too happy to fight next to him for nothing more than three hots and a cot; Shichiroji, the spear-carrier, another old friend of Kanbei’s, cigarette perpetually plastered to his lower lip; Heihachi, a somewhat thick-headed fellow (and not metaphorically, either) but with plenty of gusto and a weapon he made himself; Kyuzo, skilled and taciturn, but maybe a little too remote to be entirely trustable.

We also don’t have to wait for the next volume to see them in action. Author and artist Mizutaka Suhou throws them into a battle on the way back to the village, as setup for what’s to come. This stuff’s decently done—in fact, it’s fairly fun to read—but, again, only as long as you don’t think about how far it strays from the source material. In fact, the worst offense in this regard so far is the handling of one of the villager’s wives. In the original movie, she’d vanished and gone to join the bandits out of her own free will; the gradual way we learn about this is heartbreaking and masterful. In the manga, too many of the beans about her are spilled and too early, and so it becomes mere bathos instead of tragedy. Bad move.

Under it all, for me, the biggest issue was the fact of the whole thing. I wouldn’t have minded a straight adaptation of the original story. Can you imagine, for instance, Takehiko Inoue bringing his Vagabond art style to an adaptation of the original film? Then again, that might have been a mistake of its own kind, replacing one kind of slavish imitation with another. Maybe it’s better that the remake we got is at least an attempt to branch out in different directions, but that doesn’t mean it was ever a good idea to begin with.

Art: Mizutaka Suhou’s designs remind me a bit of the work Ryotaro Iwanaga did for Pumpkin Scissors—clean and uncomplicated, with a good sense of energy for the characters when they’re in motion. But he doesn’t skimp on the backgrounds, and in a story that is allegedly taking place in another time and place (even if it’s essentially a reworked version of feudal Japan with bigger guns), such details help add that much more of a sense of place.

Translation: I rarely, if ever, have anything negative to say about a Del Rey translation, and this book’s no exception. They’ve kept the right-to-left page order, annotated things that don’t translate easily (the annotations themselves in a Del Rey manga typically have some crash-course cultural stuff), and retained honorifics, too.

The Bottom Line: Taken by itself, Samurai 7—like the TV show before it—isn’t bad at all. Most people, I suspect, will read or watch it first and then maybe go check out the original film. I could criticize them for getting their priorities backwards, but I’m not naïve enough to assume they’ll change their mind just because I say so. It doesn’t change my view, though: what we have here is a competent piece of work that can’t help but live in its original’s shadow.

Tags: Akira Kurosawa Japan manga review

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Books, External Book Reviews, published on 2009/04/01 16:48.

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