FROM THE VAULT: 1954 Seven Samurai Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura Director: Akira Kurosawa The film: The quintessential Japanese movie, at least to foreign audiences, Seven Samurai has been a permanent fixture on many an international critics' top 10 list ever since it was released in 1954. Criterion's upgrade of its original (and first) DVD release from 1998 has been eagerly anticipated ever since it was announced several months ago, and the launch of this new three-disc package has been widely acclaimed as the home-movie event of the year. Loosely based on historical events by director Akira Kurosawa and co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, Seven Samurai tells of a group of impoverished villagers who persuade a group of samurai to protect them from bandits. Well-known for having been remade in the US as The Magnificent Seven, its influences extended much further, with several of the film's techniques, especially in editing and the use of long lenses and slow-motion, having been adopted by filmmakers as diverse as Sam Peckinpah and John Woo. This was also the first of countless purely 'samurai' films, both for Kurosawa - of samurai stock himself - and for Japanese cinema. Neither specifically jidai-geki (period film) nor chambara (swordplay action), it combined elements of both with a thoughtful, critical study of the samurai code of ethics (bushido) and a critique of feudal Japan. It also introduced a new kind of film realism to international cinema. At 31/2 hours, Seven Samurai helped establish the 'long film' (although it was cut after its initial run and not seen at full length for some years after) as standard. Such is its pacing and rhythm, however, that it seems less like an epic than a fairly brisk action film. While Toshiro Mifune is the best-known member of the cast today, in 1954 his billing took second place to Takashi Shimura as the leader of the seven. The contrast between his role as the quietly fierce Kambei and his previous Kurosawa role as the feeble, dying civil servant in Ikiru has been called the greatest back-to-back change of character ever seen on film. Soon after its release, a panel of critics at Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo voted Seven Samurai the fourth best film of the year. Some four decades later, the same publication chose it as the best Japanese film of all time. The extras: Criterion has thankfully kept the excellent, breathlessly informative Michael Jeck commentary included on the original DVD release (which first appeared on its laserdisc edition back in the mid-1980s). A new commentary features specialists and Criterion regulars Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie and Joan Mellen speaking for 40 minutes each. Mellen is the only disappointment, especially considering her commentary covers the final and most dynamic 40 minutes of the film. Her delivery is stilted, stumbling, and obviously read from notes, which is a letdown after Rayns' and Richie's conversational, scene-specific talks. The 50-minute episode of the 1990s Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create! TV show specific to Seven Samurai is supplemented by a documentary of similar length discussing the film's background and production, with all five commentators taking part. Next up is a conversation filmed in 1992 between Kurosawa and director Nagisa Oshima, which covers many of Kurosawa's films, and provides some valuable personal insight from the man himself. Four trailers and a stills gallery round out the extras. This boxed package is also supplemented by a nicely bound, heavily illustrated booklet containing nine essays and tributes by various Japanese-film experts. Finally, the newly restored film transfer is a revelation, making the earlier Criterion effort look like a pirate copy.