When Akira Kurosawa's savage masterpiece, "The Seven Samurai," was cut for Western distribution, film scholar Donald Richie called it "one of the major cinematic tragedies." The sorrow has been avenged. After 28 years, the stolen minutes -- 50 of them -- have been returned: Total running time is a glorious 208 minutes and there's not an unworthy second.
Visual and technical dynamism fill every segment of this stark, beautiful, black-and- white action classic. Multiple cameras and angles, slow motion, silence of death, tense score and Kurosawa's perfect staging of horse- and sword-action scenes converge as violent ballet. Restored footage bolsters characters and enlarges upon subplots.
It all coexists within a primal story line -- seven strong men protect a weak farming village from a band of 40 brigands at harvest time. The plot was adapted by John Sturges in "The Magnificent Seven," which was released in 1960 and caused the recall of all prints of the 158-minute version of the samurai film.
Even so, Kurosawa brought Japanese film to the attention of the Western world. Tetsuya Sumi of the Kyodo News Service, who followed his career onto the set of "Kagemusha"(1981), says Kurosawa's characters are easily understood by Westerners because they are more Shakespearean than Japanese. "Seven Samurai" looks like a Japanese film but is also outside Japanese tradition.
"Kurosawa believes in power, strength . . . and is much more interested in weapons than village life," says Sumi. "He also is not very much interested in women." Still, "The Seven Samurai" offers an overview, if dramatically skewed, of peasant life. It includes the elders, male and female, the young virgin, the soiled wife, the children -- a complete circle.
Kurosawa, called the emperor of the Japanese film industry, felt that Japanese films tended toward blandness, like green tea over rice, and he wanted richer foods and richer films.
Toshiro Mifune, who starred in the television series "Shogun," has added much of the seasoning to Kurosawa's works, notably "Rashomon," "The Throne of Blood" and "Yojimbo." Mifune's physicality, humor, fierce presence and amazing talent communicate absolutely, without words. His mime needs no subtitles.
Mifune, the world's best-known Japanese actor, gives a bravura performance as a would-be samurai who defends to the death in this film. The leader of the samurai (the "lonely" in Japan) is played by the late Takashi Shimura, a remarkable classical performer and a regular in Kurosawa films. Here he also serves as alter ego to Kurosawa, a patriarchal and dynamic man who, says Sumi, strong-arms those qualities into every scene.
Truly, no film education can be complete without seeing Kurosawa's work, particularly "The Seven Samurai," as an unsevered film. THE SEVEN SAMURAI -- At the Dupont Circle Theater.