Masterful 'Samurai'; AFI Revives Kurosawa, Mifune collaboration.(ARTS)(MOVIES)

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Byline: Gary Arnold, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …