- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

The most persuasive argument for film preservation in my lifetime has been the continuing enhancement of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” which has returned through next weekend in a 50th-anniversary engagement at the American Film Institute’s National Theater at the Kennedy Center.

The last booking of this majestic historical-martial-social epic, the most intimate and stirring of all cinematic adventure spectacles, revealed an unexpected bonus: freshly colloquial and eye-opening translation of the Japanese dialogue, sometimes commensurate with an R rating.

Given the context of the story — a vividly gritty celebration of self-defense set in the 16th century, when impoverished farmers succeed in recruiting a band of samurai mercenaries to protect their next harvest from marauding bandits — the previously obscured verbal bluntness and pungency were not out of line.

However, parents may want to take it into consideration when introducing older children to this superlative movie. They’ll be reading a more outspoken movie while seeing an eyeful of heroic conflict and sacrifice.

I first saw “Seven Samurai” in its original 160-minute import version when I was in high school. By this time, more than four years after its Japanese premiere, the movie already was a revival attraction, one of several foreign-language landmarks that came to my attention while frequenting the long-gone Berkeley, Calif., storefront theaters the Cinema Guild & Studio, managed at that time by Pauline Kael.

Both the auditoriums and the screen sizes were cramped, to put it kindly, so quite a few years went by before I saw a suitably magnified “Samurai.”

Columbia, the U.S. importer, also had renamed it “The Magnificent Seven,” the title of 1960’s durably appealing John Sturges-directed Western homage to Mr. Kurosawa’s prototype, which co-starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.

Film historian Donald Richie prepared the groundwork for an eventual restoration of the complete “Seven Samurai” in his 1965 critical study, “The Films of Akira Kurosawa.” His appreciation was shadowed by a provocative caveat: “Nevertheless, ‘Seven Samurai’ has, outside Japan in 1954, never really been seen. This is one of the major cinematic tragedies.”

Americans weren’t the only ones who had been shortchanged. A later historian, Stuart Galbraith IV, chronicled the careers of Mr. Kurosawa and his pre-eminent leading man, Toshiro Mifune, in a volume titled “The Emperor and the Wolf.” Mr. Galbraith wrote: “Because of its extreme length, the complete ‘Seven Samurai’ … was limited to its first few weeks [of release], and only in Japan’s biggest cities. In rural areas and in subsequent runs it was cut to a more manageable, if compromised length.”

Evidently, the shortened Japanese versions corresponded to the 160-minute export edition, which betrayed little slack and dazzled its first generation of U.S. admirers. A complete reissue began creeping up on the public eager to discover it. There were scattered “special event” bookings toward the end of the 1960s and a PBS telecast in 1972. However, another decade passed before the Japanese distributor, Toho, mounted a full-blown theatrical revival of the whole show, which reached Washington in spring 1983 and clinched the case for greatness.

The cuts had shaved certain episodes to the bone. The restorations disclosed how methodical, straightforward and detailed the complete scenario had been. All the subplots, the private little dramas played out against the larger crisis of defending and saving the village, were systematic and absorbing rather than fleeting.

The cumulative effect added thematic weight and dignity to what always had seemed a nobly envisioned and realized movie. Incredibly, “Seven Samurai” is still demonstrating room for improvement in the first decade of a new century. The video editions of the movie have yet to reflect the recent changes to the subtitles, so for the time being, the most complete “Samurai” is an exclusive at repertory theaters.

Who says things are always going from bad to worse? In this case, a great movie keeps getting better than you realized.

****

TITLE: “Seven Samurai” (“Shichinin no Samurai”)

RATING: No MPAA rating (Made in 1954, decades before the advent of a rating system; adult subject matter, with occasional violent episodes, including extended battle scenes; occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and fleeting sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Mr. Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai. Art direction by Shu Matsuyama. Swordplay instructor: Yoshio Sugino. Archery Instructors: Ienori Kaneko and Shigeru Endo (horseback). Sound by Fumio Yanoguchi. Music by Fumio Hayasaka. In Japanese with English subtitles. Original Japanese release: April 1954. First American release: November 1956

RUNNING TIME: 200 minutes

EVENT: Revival of “Seven Samurai”

WHERE: American Film Institute National Theater at Kennedy Center

WHEN: Today through Aug. 29

ADMISSION: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and older)

PHONE: 202/785-4600

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