- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Does the new DVD edition of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” the greatest single movie epic made during my lifetime, conclude a 50-year trek toward a complete and definitive version? Perhaps not, since — complete and definitive — can still be nitpicked by admirers or pedants who want to be choosy, but the latest edition will suffice as a 50th anniversary collector’s item and treasure trove for home viewing.

The movie had its Japanese theatrical premiere in April of 1954. Only a month or two had passed since the final sequences were filmed — the concluding battle spectacle on the muddy, windswept terrain of a medieval village, where peasants and their hired protectors, seven masterless samurai swordsmen, unite in a victorious last stand against marauding bandits.

Pre-production had begun more than a year earlier. This masterpiece-in-the-making had proved such a costly proposition for the Toho studio that work was halted for a couple of months in the summer of 1953. The management needed to reconsider its investment — and its trust in Mr. Kurosawa. He had deliberately reserved the finale for the last days of shooting; prudently, he reasoned that once it was done, any scenes left undone would be regarded as expendable.

“Seven Samurai” arrived in the U.S. in 1956. New York had the first theatrical engagement in November. At that time American art-house patrons were looking at a shorter version: about 160 minutes, which still amounted to a cinematically prodigious and stirring fragment. It remained the standard version for a generation.

An initial impression that only export editions had been cut proved incorrect. The roughly 200-minute version of “Seven Samurai” now regarded as complete was shown initially at first-run engagements in major Japanese cities. The rest of the country saw a version whose running time was similar to the export trim. Donald Richie, who familiarized himself with the Japanese film industry while serving with the U.S. occupation army after World War II, became the first scholarly champion of Japanese cinema in general and Akira Kurosawa in particular during the post-war period. He got the restoration ball rolling in a 1965 critical biography of the director, lamenting the absence of a complete “Seven Samurai” in American release.

Longer versions began trickling into circulation, and this trend culminated in an official art-house revival of “Seven Samurai” at 200 minutes in the spring of 1983. It wasn’t just a breakthrough for the original running time. The subtitles were also augmented. Aspects of the screenplay that had been deleted, obscured or under-translated were back in the picture.

This enhancement resulted in a fresh appreciation of what an imposing social saga Mr. Kurosawa and his screenwriting collaborators had devised. Subplots and character points that had seemed intriguing but fleeting in the shorter version were now revealed to be detailed elements in a carefully embroidered tapestry of individual and collective responses to crisis and warfare.

There was further tinkering with the subtitles in a 1988 laserdisc edition and then a 50th anniversary theatrical revival mounted in 2004. The first DVD edition incorporated the commentary track recorded in 1988 by Michael Jeck, a dedicated Japanese movie buff who served as the chief programmer at the American Film Institute Theater until fairly recently. The three-disc set preserves his commentary, often a model of erudition and vocal modulation, while adding an additional commentary track with seven participants, Mr. Richie included.

I seem to have purchased a balky copy. It refused to yield up subtitled tracks until I had fiddled with the on-off options a dozen times or more. Finally, I began to liberate translations of the supplementary material, notably a 1993 TV interview with Mr. Kurosawa (the director died in 1998 at the age of 88) and the “Seven Samurai” portions of a Japanese compilation titled “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create.”

There are several irresistible recollections by members of the “Samurai” cast and crew in “Wonderful.” Actor Yoshio Tsuchiya contributes a slightly hair-raising account of how a fire roared out of control during the sequence depicting a night raid on the bandit encampment. Cast as the brooding peasant Rikichi, Mr. Tsuchiya had his windpipe scorched by the air currents that surged around the flames.

Sometimes the documentary material has double-take appeal. Mr. Kurosawa revives a story of how he rejected several versions of a samurai musical theme by composer Fumio Hayasaka, who then fished a discarded variation out of the trash basket. This throwaway proved the keeper. In the “Wonderful” collection another composer is presented with this anecdote. He listens politely and then contributes a delightful kicker: “Maybe Hayasaka planned it that way.” Let’s hope so.

Recollections of the last battle sequence in “Seven Samurai” are illustrated by more than scene excerpts. We also glimpse a tattered original script and the script supervisor’s copy, covered with miniature sketches that almost efface the text. Vivid memories of the February freeze that accompanied strenuous mock-combat in the mud, rain and wind are humorously enhanced by photographs of Akira Kurosawa at work. In each of them he’s smiling ecstatically.

He must have been at his happiest while supervising and observing the picturesque exertions arranged for his approval that wintry day. Like everything connected with “Seven Samurai” from inception to latest DVD enhancement, the effort has been gloriously worth it.

TITLE: “Seven Samurai”

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1953-54, decades before the advent of a rating system; adult subject matter, with occasional violent episodes and extended battle scenes; occasional profanity and comic vulgarity; 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. Music by Fumio Hayasaka. In Japanese with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME:207 minutes

DVD EDITION:Three-disc set from The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE:www.criterionco.com

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