Remake or retread? That’s the question facing critics whenever someone updates a classic novel or favorite film, be it Pride and Prejudice or The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. A remake brings new urgency or wit to the original story, new clarity to its structure, or new life to a premise that, by virtue of social or technological change, seems dated—think of Philip Kaufman’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which infused a 1950s it-came-from-outer-space story with a healthy dose of seventies paranoia, or Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which featured a leaner, meaner script than his 1934 original. Retreads, on the other hand, evoke the letter but not the spirit of the originals, embellishing their plots with fussy details, slangy dialogue, or new characters without adding anything of value—think of Ethan and Joel Coens’ deep-fried version of The Ladykillers, which was louder, cruder, and longer than the 1955 film, yet decidedly less funny.
Samurai 7, a mangafication of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, falls somewhere between these poles, treating the source material respectfully without adding anything particularly new or interesting to the mix. The basic plot remains the same: a poor rural village hires seven samurai to protect them from a band of thugs who steal their rice and enslave their womenfolk. Though the manga takes minor liberties with the main characters—one is a headless cyborg, one is a bishonen who always seems to be falling out of his yukata—the samurai bear a strong resemblance to Kurosawa’s original crew, both in terms of their personalities and functions within the group. The manga also preserves the war-ravaged atmosphere of the original, substituting a robot-fueled world war for the carnage caused by sixteenth-century daimyo.
Such fidelity to the source material proves Samurai 7’s undoing, however, as it underscores just how lackluster this adaptation really is. The story unfolds in fits and starts, bogging down in lame comedy and windy speeches that stall the samurai’s inevitable posse formation. Though the fight scenes are competently executed, the artwork has a sterile, perfunctory quality, as if the layouts and character designs were traced from four or five different sources. The mecha elements seem especially incongruous when juxtaposed with the story’s sixteenth-century costumes, buildings, and weaponry; there’s never any compelling rationale for their inclusion, save a desire to surpass the original film’s “wow” factor.
I offer these criticisms not because I view Kurosawa’s original as a sacred text, but because Samurai 7’s creators made such a calculated, unimaginative effort to sex up the material for a new generation of fans. Alas, no amount of bitchin’ gadgetry can compensate for poor pacing, generic artwork, or flat characterizations, even if later volumes promise more samurai-on-robot action. My suggestion: skip the manga and rent the original film. Toshiro Mifune is much fiercer than anything in this samurai-lite adaptation.
SAMURAI 7, VOL. 1• BY MIZUTAKA SUHOU • DEL REY • 224 pp. • RATING: OLDER TEEN (16+)