Samurai 7 takes the story from the original Seven Samurai movie and wraps it in the guise of a futuristic steam-punk-like setting. It's set in a world where a skilled human samurai can face off on equal terms with a 15-story tall mechanized fortress/warriors called the Nobuseri. It's not the kind of thing you'd call realistic, but in order to enjoy this show I think you have to be able to look through the sci-fi facade and see original story beneith it. I think the setting is really just there to give the old story a new spin and make it fresh for a new audience. But when you get down to the heart of it the themes of maturity, experience, war, and sacrifice are all just as relevant.
The story itself revolves around a village that gets plundered annually by a group of bandits. In order to protect their crop, the villagers send out their "water priestess" Kirara to find and hire a group of warriors to fend off the bandits. It starts out kind of slow and takes its time to develop as the samruai are all gathered. It's like you know that the story is going to develop into something epic, but it's hard to see how at first. It's not until about the midway point -- where the magestrate's son Ukyo makes his status transition -- that the story finally starts to take off.
The slow development may be frustrating for those looking for strait-out action, but I really thought it helped set the mood. Plus it gives the anime a chance to flesh out the background and internal politics of the world. So when the action really does start rolling, you have a better understanding of why things happen the way they do.
The pacing also allows more time to establish the characters' personalities. So when they start to develop and mature the impact of their change is more dramatic. The best example of this is the novice samurai Katsushirou. He's young and naive and full of ideals about honor and romance. But as he journeys to fight the nobuseri and save the village he's faced with many harsh realities. He's ready to die for his cause, but it's when he's faced with the death of others and starts to understand the true price of war that his idealism turns to rage and things start to get ugly.
Other characters develop to varying degrees as well. The one character that really surprised me was Kikuchiyo. At first he just seemed like the stereotypical brash dim-whitted comic relief character, but eventually I really started to like the guy. He had a sense of the real world that the other characters lacked. And there was something about the english voice actor that played him that seemed to bring out a loud-but-honest quality that I grew to like.
The ending of the show was suitably climactic and brought satistfying closure to most all of the characters. There's success, but not without sacrifice. And some people may not like how the romantic relationship develop and end up, but to it's credit the story stays true to the theme of sacrifices made in war.
The animation quality varies through out the show. The CGI parts are consistently high-quality, but the 2-d animation ranges from excellent to average. Regardless though, GONZO did a good job of making the two mediums as seemless as possible. And the visual quality is never a distraction for the story.
The music was good and subtle enough to compliment the mood of the story.
So in the end I'd say this is definitely on my list of recommendations. Don't let the slow start fool you. If it wasn't for the fact that the show aired on IFC I might have never bothered to see it, but I'm definitely glad I did. I even bought the recently released Seven Samurai DVD, and I'm willing to bet that the anime will encourage other fans to follow suit.
On another somewhat distracting note, while watching the show I kept thinking that the plot sounded familiar somehow -- other than from the original movie. And just a few days ago it hit me: A Bug's Life. It has the same basic premise: a village hiring a group of warriors in order to protect them from bandits who annually plunder their crop. So I wonder if the Disney flick was influenced by the original Seven Samurai movie. Hmm... (Wikipedia says so, but that's far from gospel.)