‘Samurai’ suit up for the space race

Futuristic toon take on classic to hit Mip TV this year

TOKYO — Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Seven Samurai” (1954) is the source of one of Hollywood’s earliest remakes of an Asian film — John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) — and has inspired dozens of films over the years.

Now it’s heading into space as a science fiction tale in high def 3-D animation, thanks to animation powerhouse Gonzo Digimation and TV sales and acquisition outfit Media Intl. (Mico).

“Samurai 7” will consist of 26 25-minute episodes. First teasers are skedded for the MipTV mart in Cannes in the spring with the first full installments ready by summer.

“There has been initial interest from U.S. DVD companies, but we think that it is also well suited for TV networks,” explains Kyoko Kiriyama, chief manager of Mico’s business development department.

“Samurai 7” transfers Kurosawa’s tale of impoverished Japanese farmers who hire unemployed samurais to defend them against bandits into the distant future. Inter-planetary war has raged between human settlers who have colonized various planets. “Samurai 7” starts at the beginning of an unstable peace, similar to the setting of Kurosawa’s original, which played out after the end of the centuries-long civil wars in Japan.

“Gonzo and us (Mico) were considering a different project for a co-production when we learned that the animation rights for the ‘Seven Samurai’ were available,” recalls Kiriyama. “This was an obvious choice.”

The toon trades on the international name value of the original plus the present infatuation with samurai stories.

Gonzo and producer Shoji Murahama (“Submarine Number 6”) decided to do the new project in high definition, not least because Japanese networks, especially pubcaster NHK, are keen on new content for their digital HD services.

Visually, Gonzo’s animators and designers have come up with a fusion of traditional Japanese samurai costumes and the accoutrements of science fiction films and manga — “The Seven Samurai” meets “The Matrix.”

The result: “Samurai 7” is a costly project by Japanese animation standards, at a hefty $300,000 per episode, more than double the average price for similar product not in high def.

Add to that Gonzo’s 3-D CG fusion with 2-D animation, and “Samurai 7” is set to be one of Japan’s more interesting animation exports.

“In the West, most people think animation is only something for kids,” says Kiriyama. “But ‘Samurai 7’ is a story which can fascinate adults too.”

He is aiming at a target audience of 12 to 40, with an emphasis on older teens.

For Mico, who took a 50% stake in the project, it’s the first time it has invested in a co-production on this scale. “We want to become more active in production, and this is a great opportunity,” says Kiriyama.

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