The Barbican’s Japanimation season continues in March with anime expert Helen McCarthy – co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia – looking at the opening episodes of the 2004 Japanese TV series Samurai 7. A futuristic retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai – incidentally also showing at the Barbican on March 6th – Samurai 7 tells the story of the desperate villagers of Kanna who decide to hire samurai to protect them from the bandits who regularly raid their villages. Known as Nobuseri, these bandits are former samurai themselves who, following the war that ravaged the country, transformed their bodies into near invincible machines and now roam the countryside, terrorizing the powerless farmers. Condemned to starvation by the outlaws’ ever greedier incursions the Kanna villagers send Kirara, their Water Priestess, her younger sister Komachi and the courageous Rikichi to the city to look for samurai willing to take up their cause.
Each episode starts with a short summary of the war in a grainy, ghostly black and white that evokes the 1954 original. These preambles explain how the war marked the end of the samurai era, initiating the reign of the merchants and reducing the proud warriors to either bandits or ronin – poor, masterless wanderers. There is a certain melancholy about the samurai’s tragic destiny right from the start, most clearly expressed in the fatalism of Kambei, the leading samurai, who was among the defeated in the war and believes he is doomed to always be on the losing side. This echoes the bitter ending of Kurosawa’s classic in which the original Kambei mournfully looks at the tombs of his fallen comrades while the farmers celebrate, concluding: ‘We’ve lost again. The farmers are the victors.’
In Samurai 7 the real evil lies not so much with the bandits as with the merchants. The overweight merchant Emperor is a cunning, ruthless character who will stop at nothing to maintain his power. His son the Prince is a creepy spoilt brat whose favourite distraction is abducting young girls for his private garden – one of the subplots involves his efforts to kidnap Kirara. That paradisiacal garden, laden with the most exquisite food and beautiful women, crowns the palace, which itself dominates the city laid out in vertical strata Metropolis-style, its elongated buildings and suspended bridges staggered all the way down to the bustling crowd on the ground. Just as in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, the physical organisation of the city figures its social divisions, the lower classes on the lower level, with the Prince’s paradise as the debased pinnacle of the social order, filled with the vapid luxury of careless, inherited money.
However, while Samurai 7 is a visually stunning, accomplished piece of work, its critique of commerce and class conflict is mere child play next to the thematic complexity of the two film giants it so lavishly references. Placing the emphasis on action and cloyed by too much cuteness, it has none of the sophistication of anime such as Ghost in the Shell, Perfect Blue, or the astounding Paranoia Agent (also a TV series). Samurai 7 is a disappointment: not only does it lack substance but its visual achievements are undermined by the expectations created by its filmic references – a cross-breed of Seven Samurai, Metropolis and futuristic animation should just be way more interesting than this.