Some films offer the Wow Factor first time round. Some get into your bloodstream only on repeated viewing. Only the very best films manage to do both, and this is one.
I have loved this film at the first, second, third and fourth times of watching. The story is 'basic' as George Lucas rightly observes - in his short but illuminating interview which is the BFI DVD's sole Extra he makes the clear point that there are only a mere handful of stories to tell - but that's not what's important.
So what makes it great? First and foremost Kurosawa's wide-angle visual imagination is as stunning as Toshiro Mifune's acting. What could be more memorable, for example, as the panoramic shot early on where a huge band of naked, shave-headed slaves being whipped one way, runs into a similar band being whipped the other? The aftermath of war has rarely been portrayed with such astute, black humour. Indeed a kind of grim, death's-head comedy underlies the whole film, allied of course to the fairy-tale delicacy of the story-telling.
And how wonderful to have a historical epic like this - with its samurai duels, adventures and folk festivals - told from the perspective of the little people at the bottom (the two peasants) rather than the princesses and generals. The magic is, that it simultaneously shows how the ivory-tower Princess herself learns about ordinary life, and learns to love it: the whirling dance of the fire-festival, where she dances incognito amongst her people, is perhaps the most moving event of the whole film, as well as its plot pivot.
This is a marvel, beautifully paced with fast action sequences (in John Ford style) alternating with short, beautiful lyrical interludes. It's part Shakespearean romance, part Samurai epic, and part Japanese Ealing Comedy! At all events, once seen it will never be forgotten.