Akira Kurosawa died last weekend. And when I was in a video store a few days later, I found myself gravitating toward the "foreign" shelf to see if any of his Japanese films from the '50s and '60s - which provided my introduction to Japanese cinema - might be there.

There was only one. Predictably, it was Kurosawa's 1954 epic masterpiece, "The Seven Samurai." And if you can only have one, that's not a bad choice.Before we go any further, I might as well be honest up front - this is turning into a pitch for foreign-language movies. BUT HOLD ON. Before you turn the page because you honestly believe you're allergic to subtitles, think about how frustrated you were when you went into Blockbuster last week and couldn't find anything new and different as you plowed through 79 copies of "The Wedding Singer" and 62 copies of "U.S. Marshals."

As NBC would say, if you haven't seen "The Seven Samurai," it's new to you.

True, it's in black and white. True, it's in the Japanese language, with English subtitles. But it's also so thoroughly engrossing, exciting, hilarious and entertaining, you just may wonder why it took you so long to look it up.

And if you still just can't see yourself trying to read subtitles while watching a movie . . . well, here comes the pitch.

The first foreign-language film I ever saw was French (the 1964 colorful musical "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," in a theater with my parents), and the second was German (the 1931 black-and-white thriller "M," with Peter Lorre, on a Los Angeles television station). Disparate pictures, to be sure, and between them, an intriguing introduction to the world of foreign cin-e-ma.

I was instantly hooked.

But without the advantage of home video, or the means to get out the suburbs and into downtown Los Angeles, I was unable to see many others until I went to college a few years later. There, I found a theater on campus that screened foreign films with some regularity. And it wasn't long before I saw my first Japanese film. You guessed it. "The Seven Samurai."

Going in, I didn't know the film had been the basis for "The Magnificent Seven," which I had seen several times. But it wasn't long before I figured it out.

"The Seven Samurai" is essentially a Japanese Western, telling the story of a samurai warrior who gathers old comrades together to help a small village ward off marauding bandits. The villagers' motivation is survival. For the warriors, it's all about honor.

The combination of action, humor and heart, along with Kurosawa's ability to combine artistic directing choices with strong narrative structure, make it a movie for the ages. It is set in the 1600s, it was released in the 1950s, and now, in the 1990s, the film remains as timely, universal and fascinating as ever. And it will probably remain so for another 50 years. At least.

After watching "The Seven Samurai" for the first time, I looked at the poster in the lobby to learn the director's name - Akira Kurosawa. I knew his was a name to watch for.

Later, at the same theater, I saw a Kurosawa double-bill - "Yojimbo" (1961; the basis for the movie that made Clint Eastwood a star, "A Fistful of Dollars") and "Sanjuro" (1962). And after that, my favorite of the bunch, "Rashomon" (1950; also remade as an American Western, "The Outrage").

In Hollywood, the word "genius" is bandied about with so much regularity it has pretty much lost its meaning. But "genius" applies to Kurosawa in a way that remains unique. He was a filmmaker of uncommon talent, and he understood the human condition in a way that helped his movies cross international barriers. They opened the door for an appreciation of his Japanese culture in a visceral way that transcends merely reading about it.

Among Kurosawa's other films worth looking for on video are "The Hidden Fortress" (1958; said by George Lucas to have inspired the characterizations for "Star Wars"), "Throne of Blood" (1957; a samurai version of "Macbeth"), "Ran" (1985; samurai version of "King Lear"), "Dersu Uzala" (1975) and "Kagemusha" (1980).

There are others, of course - including contemporary movies and genre pictures. But these are his most famous, and for good reason.

And while watching them may not convert you to foreign films, they will certainly provide you with an understanding of Kurosawa's greatness.