- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

The current revival of Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" at the American Film Institute Theater, which concludes a dual retrospective tribute to the great Japanese filmmaker and his pre-eminent leading man, Toshiro Mifune, is the most sustained engagement in Washington in almost 20 years.
The elusive complete version of this superlative historical-martial-social spectacle was first released in Japan in April 1954. It took a generation to replace the initial import version, which ran about 40 minutes short but remained the standard art-house edition for a couple of decades after its New York premiere in November 1956.
Strict uniformity seems to elude "complete" versions. The AFI Theater promises a fresh 35 mm print of 200 minutes. The DVD edition, which includes the audio commentary originally recorded by AFI programmer Michael Jeck for a laserdisc release a decade ago, claims 207 minutes.
I plan to sample both in a matter of days, and I'll report back if there seems to be a missing seven-minute scene in the theatrical version, but I doubt it.
"Seven Samurai" in its gratifying entirety finally reached Washington in March 1982, playing three weeks at the Dupont Circle, then a single auditorium. The AFI booking runs through Sept. 18, with showings every day except Sept. 13 and 14.
The late film historian Donald Richie prepared the groundwork for eventual restoration with a strategic note of regret in his 1965 book "The Films of Akira Kurosawa." Mr. Richie's appreciation was shadowed by the caveat: "'Seven Samurai'" has, outside Japan in 1954, never really been seen. This is one of the major cinematic tragedies." Well, it might have been, but Mr. Richie lived long enough to see the problem remedied.
As it turns out, Americans weren't even uniquely shortchanged. A recent tome by Stuart Galbraith IV, "The Emperor and the Wolf" a combined critical biography of Mr. Kurosawa (the "emperor") and Mr. Mifune clarifies the limited exposure of the uncut version in the country of origin.
"Because of its extreme length," the author reveals, "the complete 'Seven Samurai' was limited to its first few weeks, and only in Japan's biggest cities. In rural areas and in subsequent runs it was cut to a more manageable, if compromised length."
Complete and incomplete, it was a resounding hit in Japan, grossing about $3 million on a production cost that had quadrupled to about $2 million during a prolonged shoot that helped confirm Mr. Kurosawa's reputation as an uncompromising and even profligate artist.
Initially envisioned as a wrap in three months, the movie had exhausted its original budget at that point, the end of August 1953. About 80 percent of the script remained to be shot. The production went on hiatus so the Toho studio could reassess its commitment to Mr. Kurosawa. The management bit the bullet, remained exceptionally patient and got an enduring masterpiece for its trouble.
Nevertheless, the director had intimations of calamity and failure. According to Mr. Galbraith, he told an associate, "Toho might go broke if I keep working on this film. I'll have no choice if they decide to replace me."
Production resumed with a new budget authorization after a two-month break. Mr. Kurosawa was still in charge and still determined to get the optimum impact from every scene. The last shooting days were the most grueling of all, involving the concluding battle sequence between bandits and the mercenary samurai hired by peasant villagers to protect them from plunder. The director was convinced that if he had shot the sequence any sooner, Toho would have called a halt, leaving other scenes unrealized.
"Seven Samurai" became justly celebrated for the kinetic immediacy and dynamism of its imagery, especially in the battle scenes. An extensive and at that time innovative use of telephoto lenses seemed to plunge spectators into the squalor and excitement of the fighting, enhanced during the finale by a pitched rainstorm that leaves the principal battleground a quagmire.
No picture has ever intercut moving images of performers on the dead run with such breathtaking effect. Frequently, the images seem to be seeking more space than the picture frame can accommodate. Compositions seem to crowd the top and bottom and spill over the sides.
An assistant director interviewed in the documentary "Kurosawa," also shown during the AFI Theater series, fondly recalls that Mr. Kurosawa demanded twice as many rainmaking trucks as the standard movie downpour when shooting the last battle. It's also fun to learn from the Galbraith book that this landscape was covered with snow before the shooting commenced. Preparation for the drenched and muddy splendor of it all included diligent snow removal and snow stomping before the cameras could roll.
A surviving screenwriter, Shinobu Hashimoto, recalls the inception of the project: a character study that observed the last day of a samurai warrior. To Mr. Kurosawa's chagrin, the documentary record seemed too skimpy to fill out a dramatically definitive day. The writers' historical research into the civil wars that plagued Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries led to an item about a village that attempted to repel bandit raids by recruiting defenders among outcast and impoverished samurai. That pretext, elaborated for a story set in the early years of the 17th century, proved a godsend for the collaborators and movie posterity.
There was seldom a slack episode in the 160-minute version of "Seven Samurai" that became familiar to its first generation of admirers. The complete version remained incisive and compelling while the exposition expanded by 25 percent. Only one very minor character had been left on the cutting-room floor: a disgraced, weakling samurai encountered at the same stable where the delegation of peasants is lodging while seeking protectors.
This unfit specimen illustrated the bottom of the barrel, but in the early going, you can't be certain that the most ferocious of the eventual seven Mr. Mifune as the magnificent brute named Kikuchiyo might not belong at the bottom as well.
The cuts shaved certain story elements to the bone, but coherent remnants remained in the 1956 version. The restorations revealed that a considerable pile of shavings came at the expense of early scenes, especially those emphasizing the poverty and desperation of the four bewildered villagers entrusted with scouting and hiring samurai.
A number of foreshadowing images and shot sequences also were considered expendable in the interests of saving time. Seeing them restored, one could appreciate how methodical and straightforward the complete scenario really was. All the subplots, all the private little dramas played out against the larger drama of the village's defense and survival, were systematic rather than fleeting.
The cumulative effect added thematic weight and dignity to what always had seemed a nobly envisioned and realized movie. Every element was depicted in greater detail and depth: the frailties and virtues of the characters; the tangle of obligations and misgivings and affinities that link the peasants with their hired warriors; the preparations for battle that anticipate the fabulous payoffs in the rain and wind and muck; the social codes, psychological wounds and concepts of personal honor that influence group and individual behavior.
The personality contrasts among the seven were always superbly anchored by Mr. Mifune's savage, grandstanding Kikuchiyo and Takashi Shimura's reserved and sagacious Kambei. The leader of the seven, Kambei, seems to possess peerless credentials when he informs the farmers that he has plenty of battle experience, but only in losing battles. This record takes on a special significance in the movie's final sequence.
These central performances embodied martial heroism at extremes of beauty from elemental gusto and impetuosity in the case of the childish but fearless Kikuchiyo to battle-wise foresight and discipline in the case of Kambei.
The Mifune performance remains one of the most inventive and satisfying extravagances in the history of the screen. Tarzan may have mingled and grappled with wild creatures, but Kikuchiyo seems to embody them in a humorously transcendent way, partaking of hyena and ape and panther on his way to cinematic glory as a combative marvel. He also set a standard for bare-bottomed heroism that no one has rivaled.
Mr. Mifune was a privileged cast member. He sat in on the screenwriting sessions. Kikuchiyo was an afterthought. The samurai contingent seemed to have peaked at six, with Mr. Mifune earmarked for the role eventually played by Seiji Miyaguchi, the austere master swordsman Kyuzo. Eventually, the merits of a loose cannon became evident to Mr. Kurosawa and his co-writers.
As the actor recalled, "During one discussion, they decided that if all the samurai were serious, the story wouldn't be as interesting. And then Kikuchiyo was born. Kurosawa said, 'This is your role. You can do anything you want with the character.'"
Happily, this trust led to the forging of a loose cannon for the ages, brilliantly deployed within a movie spectacle for the ages.

****
TITLE: "Seven Samurai" ("Shichinin no Samurai")
RATING: No MPAA rating (Made in 1954, years before the advent of the rating system. Adult subject matter, with several violent episodes, including elaborate battle scenes in a 16th-century setting)
CREDITS: Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Mr. Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai. In Japanese with English subtitles. Originally released in Japan in April 1954. First American release, November 1956. First American release of the complete version, December 1982.
RUNNING TIME: 200 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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