Sanjuro (1962)

Sanjuro (1962) movie poster

director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 03/31/2014

Sanjuro is Akira Kurosawa’s sequel to his great 1961 movie, Yojimbo, with Toshiro Mifune more or less reprising his role as the masterless but masterful samurai, finding himself in complex political situations and turning things on their heads.  And then splitting some heads of some bad guys.

Sanjuro features a more contrived plot, with Sanjuro showing up amid a group of young would-be samurai who are about to get embroiled in a political fiasco.  They don’t size up their situation right, initially planning to attack the more noble lord, while really getting set up by the villainous one.  By now, Sanjuro can size up a town of characters and easily make out who is good and who deserves to die.  He winds up protecting the young men and leading them in their endeavors.

The film’s tone features perhaps a bit more comedy than in Yojimbo, but lacks the darker seriousness that runs through the 1961 masterpiece.  Some of it is quite good, like the captured bad guy who turns out to be more tuned in and good than some of the original gang.  Some a little less so, in the mother and daughter aristocrats who are naive but naive like a fox, winding up offering wisdom against the violence and killing.

The film does seem to take a different stance on the killings, responding to the advice of the older woman.  Sanjuro reconsiders his use of violence, sparing the aforementioned captive, and ultimately trying to bring about a resolution without the bloodshed.  It’s all for naught in the end, with actually a rather punctuated and gushing moment of bloody violence.  The ending seems to take this pacifist forced again into violence a bit more forcefully.  But since Kurosawa never brought him back himself, one can only speculate what became of him.

The character of Sanjuro was one more highly associated with Mifune, as iconic as any in Japanese cinema.  But the movie Sanjuro is the lesser follow-up to its brilliant predecessor.

Yojimbo (1961)

Yojimbo (1961) movie poster

director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 03/27/2014

I continue my march through “major films I’ve never seen” or films by major directors that I haven’t seen.  The thing is, that I have seen Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo before.  It was a long while back, but wouldn’t qualify it for this particular trek/trope.  But in planning to see Kurosawa’s 1962 film Sanjuro, I came to realize (which I did not know) that it was a sequel to Yojimbo.  Since it had been long enough that I hadn’t seen it, I thought it prudent to watch it prior to seeing the sequel.

I’d definitely say that Yojimbo is perhaps my second favorite Kurosawa samurai film, after Throne of Blood (1957).  Yojimbo is definitely one of Kurosawa’s best-known films.  It inspired not only its own sequel but was recreated by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which of course had two sequels itself.  Yojimbo is considered to have been roughly adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.

A lone ronin, the eternal Toshiro Mifune, randomly finds his way into a village that has become torn apart by two warring factions.  The ronin winds up playing both sides against one another, offering to work for whoever will pay him better, while really planning to bring them both down in a bloodbath.  He’s happy to see them make their own bloodbath and just watch from above.  Of course, in the end, he unleashes his sword on all the leftover villains.

The film is largely quite comical, perhaps one of Kurosawa’s most humorous movies.  It’s a sort of simple scenario, yet quite poetical in its way.  Totally brilliant film.

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956) movie poster

director Hiroshi Inagaki
viewed: 08/19/2012

The final segment of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island, is the culmination of a masterful epic.  I had watched the first film, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) a couple weeks before and then watched Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) following up with the finale the very next day.  It’s actually one of those film series that really works best if seen all together, in one sitting, or within direct proximity to one another.  it’s a single story, a fairly complicated one, whose cohesion relies upon the others.

It follows the path of Musashi Miyamoto from poor rebel to enlightenment and mastery.  For this finale, the story focuses on how Miyamoto (Toshirô Mifune) learns to go back to the earth.  He stops looking for fights and moves to a small village and takes up farming.  He fights against brigands when they come, but continues to eschew females (who all fall for him).  Ultimately, his nemesis, Sasaki Kojirō (Koji Tsuruta) (who should be his good friend except samurais, like gunslingers it seems, have to fight each other to prove their worth), sets up the ultimate battle.

The battle takes place on a beach at sunset, the most masterful sequence using natural light in the series.  Inagaki employs natural settings and natural light throughout the film when he can, achieving some amazing moments, while occasionally sometimes darkened scenes.  When it works, it’s brilliant.  The finale is brilliant in its simplicity and setting.

I’ve been (rightly or wrongly) thinking of this series as sort of the “height” of the traditional samurai film.  The production was doubtlessly expensive, starring the classic Mifune, featuring the traditional values of the genre: nobility, spirituality, honor.  I need to do some more reading to see if this is really true or not.  Judging from the samurai films of the 1960’s and 1970’s that I’ve seen, it appears, like the Western, to have become a genre ripe for social commentary, inverting classic tropes, contrasting well-established tradition.

One of those factors is the role of women in these films.  It’s either the “whore” or the “virgin”, both pathetic and limited in their way, in their parts they play, in their range of experience.  Certainly, these roles in the Edo period for women were probably greatly limited, controlled, and subjugated, but the film never looks to comment on this, rather it seems to perpetuate or at least not to evaluate it on its terms.  Again, probably something of equal in your traditional Western, too, in the 1950’s.

A great epic.  See it all together if you can.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) movie poster

director Hiroshi Inagaki
viewed: 08/18/2012

Part two of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai TrilogyDuel at Ichijoji Temple expands the narrative of the first film, giving direction to where the story will culminate in the film’s final segment, Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956).  Musashi Miyamoto (Toshirō Mifune) seeks to further his learnings and abilities as a great samurai, discovering more and more that the greatness of a samurai is not just in his skills and success in duels but in his own peace of mind.  Meanwhile, he develops a rival in Sasaki Kojirō (Koji Tsuruta), who sees Miyamoto as the one samurai that he must defeat, while the character of Matahachi (from the first film, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1955)) fades away as a profligate drunk and fool.

Miyamoto continues to gain female adoration, of his own love Otsu, the courtesan Akemi, and even another very experienced courtesan.  He also picks himself up a follower, a boy who wants to train alongside him.  Miyamoto furthers his nobility and experience, his fan club, and more.

Typical of trilogies, the middle part bears the problem of neither beginning nor end as far as the larger narrative goes.  It’s not such a problem for this film, really, other than the story keeps getting more and more complicated.  It would probably be best to watch all three of these films in sequence together.  I did follow up Samurai II with Samurai III so that helped.

As I noted about Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, the films are beautifully executed, and they seem like big budget studio productions at the height of a classic style.  Inagaki uses both sets and locations for the film, varying back and forth with good cohesion.  What is really striking about his outdoor shooting is his commitment to natural light.  The culminating battle in Samurai II takes place at dusk, and as Miyamoto is ambushed by a craven group of samurai, he backs himself into a rice paddy as the light begins to fail.  This technique of shooting in that “magic time” of dusk is further realized in the finale in the battle on the beach between the two heroes.

It’s great stuff, not quite as good as the first film, but great especially within the context of the whole.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

Samurai Trilogy Criterion DVD box-set cover


director Hiroshi Inagaki
viewed: 07/29/2012

In chatting with a friend recently about the Samurai film genre, I came to realize that I hadn’t actually seen a samurai film in ages.  This same friend recommended Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, which I knew that I had in my film queue but didn’t really know much else about.  It seems the time was ripe to start up again with one of my favorite genres.

I’ve often considered the Samurai film to have a lot of analogues with the American Western.  It’s not a perfect match, in that as historical dramas go, the period ranges from a more Swashbuckling era through to the modern Western.  And of course, the codes, history, and settings are purely Japanese.  The analogues that I see are more in the types of drama and action, of violence and justice, of a templated genre ready-made for an auteur to utilize for social commentary, coded within traditional imagery and storylines, as well as the historical and cultural truths that lie in in and belie it.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto is epic, particularly in that it is the first of three films.  It stars the inimitable and ubiquitous Toshirō Mifune as the titular Samurai, though most of the film he goes by Takezo.  He comes from a poor village and is a rebellious, angry young man who wants to rise to become a samurai and earn fame and fortune and nobility.  He and his friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) head off into battle but end up on the losing side, running from the victors.  Matahachi takes up with a widow and her daughter, abandoning his bride to be Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa).  Takezo returns to his village to inform them of what has happened but is considered an outlaw and tracked down and captured ultimately by a wily priest, who ties him up and hangs him from a tree, trying to teach him humility and piety.  Ultimately, Otsu sets him free but then he’s captured again by the priest to teach him further.  By the end of the film, he’s off seeking his fortune, abandoning Otsu against his heart’s desire.

Mifune’s Takezo has a broader range of emotion than some of his other protagonists.  He feels betrayed by his family, seeks his fortunes for himself alone, until he is rescued by Otsu, he seems only out for himself.

The film is color, which is a striking contrast to most of the samurai films that I’ve seen from this period.  It seems to suggest a greater budget perhaps, which is also evident in some of the battle sequences.  Inagaki’s camera tracks numerous shots, advancing warriors, running through the forest, through crowds.

I eagerly look forward to the following two films.

Drunken Angel


Drunken Angel (1948) movie poster

(1948) director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 12/30/10 at the Viz Cinema, SF, CA

To celebrate the centennial of the birth of Akira Kurosawa, one of the great film directors of the 20th century, I was expecting to see a lot of his films playing at local repertory houses.   Outside of catching Ran (1985) at the Embarcadero earlier in the year, I didn’t get a chance to see any other of his films on the big screen in 2010.  It turns out that the films primarily played at the not so heavily advertised Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the small Japantown movie theater Viz Cinema in San Francisco.  On randomly checking around, I saw that Viz was showing a series of six films to close out the year.

I’d never seen Drunken Angel before.  It’s the first of sixteen cinematic collaborations between Kurosawa and star Toshirō Mifune, who is young and slim and clean-shaven as a suave tough in this film.  The “drunken angel” of the title is Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular, as an often besotted doctor, whose drunkenness and outspoken attitude has kept him in the poorer reaches of Tokyo, servicing the working class and also the criminal element, rather than having achieved a larger, more successful practice.

The film is considered a social critique of post-war Japan in the years immediately following WWII and the humbling occupation by American troops.  The film is set around a festering mire, laden with trash and oozing with disease.  If anything, it is the film’s central image, a stagnation that stands in for perhaps the Japanese psyche at the time.  The mire is surrounded by the young toughs, the prostitutes, and the destitute.  And whether suffering from alcoholism, tuberculosis, venereal disease, or depression and malaise, it’s a bleak place.  But Shimura, as the doctor, still seeks humanity and hope amidst the garbage.

The film opens with Shimura treating Mifune, who has been shot in the hand in a skirmish.  The scene is the best in the film, deftly sketching the characters, the brooding yakuza and Shimura telling it like it is to him.  He diagnoses Mifune with TB and gruffly tells him to clean up his life.  There is much colorful detail played out, from a door that won’t stay open to Shimura’s handling of his instruments.

The film is a melodrama primarily, with touches of humor.  And while I’ve seen it referred to as film noir as well, I would think that perhaps portions of it could be seen in that light but I don’t know if it fits neatly into that category.  It’s an excellent film however its sorted, and it shows Kurosawa’s masterful hand throughout.  I’ve come to appreciate Kurosawa immensely in recent years, joining the chorus, perhaps in that regard.  But I am eager to see more of his films and when I can, see them on the big screen.

The Sword of Doom

(1966) director Kihachi Okamoto
viewed: 07/10/10 at Viz Cinema, SF, CA

It wasn’t until I looked in the newspaper that I happened to notice that one of the best samurai films, a personal favorite, The Sword of Doom, was playing as a double feature at the new Japantown movie theater Viz Cinema, which I had never been to, nor even knew exactly where it was.  In fact, it was playing with Kill! (1968), another excellent samurai film also directed by Kihachi Okamoto and playing as part of a series of samurai films both old and new at the Japan-oriented theater.  Viz opened only a year or two ago (I lose track) and shows largely a lot of modern Japanese films that don’t get imported by other means plus a lot of anime.  A friend of mine who’s a big anime aficionado had been there and described it to me but I’d never been there.  But the opportunity to see this great movie on film on the big screen…too good to pass up!

The Sword of Doom is an immensely stylish, striking film.  From it’s opening sequence, in which an old man is cut down for no good reason by the ruthless samurai, Ryunosuke Tsukue, aspects of the film’s visual style are apparent.  Ryunosuke’s enormous hat obscures his face, but it also is used to frame shots, from close-ups to medium shots.  As will recur with great profundity in the final battle sequence, in which the walls and doors of the geisha house burn and are torn to shreds, Okamoto used many physical elements to create each image’s framing.  And some of these appear rapidly through action-packed cuts, while others linger for more steady durations.  The whole of the film is a visual pleasure.

But it’s not just the visual aesthetics that make The Sword of Doom such a masterpiece.  It tells the story of a potentially insane, near serial killer, of a samurai, who has little emotion other than wild-eyed blankness, who kills without morals or meaning.  That the protagonist is more anti-hero and yet is not utterly unsympathetic demonstrates the emotional complexity that Okamoto achieves in this film.  It’s not a morally simple tale at all.  And the ending, which occurs during a violent battle sequence with a huge body count, which freezes on a frame of Ryunosuke’s twisted, terrified face, leaves an open-endedness to the story (which apparently was originally to be followed by more than one sequel), and leaves the viewer in a state of shock of sorts.

It’s an amazing movie, one of my favorites that I’ve seen of the samurai genre.  I was disappointed that the Viz theater wasn’t actually showing the film as a double feature with Kill!, rather ushering us out to potentially buy another ticket for the second film. It helped me a bit because I’d sat through another double feature the day before and was feeling that it would have been truly indulgent to sit through another one.  In the end, the need to pay for and wait for the second feature was enough to usher me all the way out of the theater and on to other things.

But I have to say, it was great to get to see The Sword of Doom again, and actually on the big screen.  I will be quite tempted to go back and catch another samurai film from their mini-festival before it ends.  It’s not a bad little place, this Viz theater.

The Hidden Fortress


The Hidden Fortress (1958) movie poster

(1958) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 06/14/09

My continued travels in the realm of the samurai film bring me back yet again to the Japanese master director, Akira Kurosawa, whose own works in the genre make up for almost half of the notable films listed on Wikipedia.  And while other directors have been quite interesting, Kurosawa, as noted, made so many films in this genre, that it’s almost a career unto itself, a series of films that can be viewed as part of a whole.  And while I am still far from understanding that whole, my comprehension does grow every film.

The Hidden Fortress is perhaps more comical than many of his other films, whose humor is often more subtle or just low-key.  But the film starts with a pair of thieving peasants, escaping from a battle scene in which they’d hoped to profit, having been forced to bury the dead and now reek of death and quibble and fight constantly.  These two are actors Kurosawa uses frequently, and their characters here are simpleminded and singleminded, driven by fear and only tempered by cowardice.  Their bantering and arguments (and perspective, being the lowest on the social order in the film) have been noted by George Lucas as his inspiration for the droids in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977).

They happen upon a wily fellow, Toshiro Mifune, who sees that these two have happened upon some of the store of gold that belongs to his embattled princess that he serves.  She is holed up in the titular hidden fortress, hiding out from other clans that would have her dead.  And Mifune is trying to move her across the realms to a place where she can be reinstated to power along with her family’s store of gold.  The peasants never fully understand what is happening, but are cowed to play along for fear and greed.

The princess is kind of interesting.  Raised “as a boy” according to one line of dialogue, she runs around in shorts and often takes a pose, arms akimbo, atop mountain passes, with a decidedly authoritative way, meant to be read as masculine.  She’s clearly feminine, but her disguise is one of class, to make her appear as a deaf-mute peasant woman (whose value is considered extremely low, so low that once a man realizes that she cannot hear or speak, opts out of trying to purchase her as a slave).  She’s a bit of a proto-feminist, never quailing in her protective needs, but enthralled by the life on the outside, enjoying deeply a pagan burning of firewood and dancing that is held by some peasants while they are on the run.

It’s an enjoyable film, certainly, and it features many good characters and some interesting action, including a duel with spears and an impressive race on horses for Mifune to cut down some soldiers who might report back about them.  The tonality switches between the more intended comedy of the two peasant thieves and the more noble adventure of the nobles.  But I have to say that some of the comedy was harder to appreciate than others.  Some moments of the two peasants’ bickering have genuine flair and humor, like when one of them complains that the other “blinks too much”.  But also, they are so shallow, so given to switching their loyalties to one another given an opportunity at more money that it’s less funny than tedious.  But that’s just me.

Not my favorite of Kurosawa’s films, but still a solid, excellent film.  He was indeed “the man.”

Samurai Rebellion

Samurai Rebellion (1967) movie poster

(1967) dir. Masaki Kobayashi
viewed: 03/23/09

It was only last year when I started getting into Samurai films, and the ones that I’ve been watching have been the recommended ones through Netflix and most of them have been produced for DVD by the Criterion Collection, which is the best of World Cinema, pretty easily.  I’ve been enjoying them quite a bit, but I am still sort of gaining a full perspective on the true tropes and traditions within the genre.  The films I’ve seen are sort of the high watermarks of the genre, and in some cases are pretty stylized.  How much do they differ from the average?  How do you tell your John Ford of Samurai films from your William A. Wellman, for instance?  Is the Western the best parallel in Western cinema to compare?

I’m still working this all out.

Samurai Rebellion is directed by Masaki Kobayashi, whose film Kwaidan (1964), a telling of four ghost stories from writings by Lafcaido Hearn, is one of the most recognized of Japanese cinema.  Something I’ve actually seen as well.  His film Harakiri (1962) is also in my queue.

The film itself is definitely stylized in its compositions and juxtapositions. Kobayashi’s camera spends a lot of time on the forms and shapes of the exteriors and interiors of the buildings in which most of the story unfolds.  Many compositions are almost abstract, shaping the specified world in which the characters live, artifice, patterns, sharp-edged pathways.  The characters live and move amongst these shapes and structures, and perhaps that is metaphorical of the story, in which a loyal swordsman is tested by the rulings of his lord, forcing a bride on his son and then recalling her to his side.  The structures of the Edo period feudal system and structures of social behavior (having to accept rulings with dignity and humility or be in contempt of the lord) are conforming and controlling, too.

The film actually takes almost all of its time before any blood it drawn.  Perhaps the opening sequence, in which star Toshirô Mifune tests a sword by cutting a straw man, is a comment on the bloodlessness of this film.  Mifune’s noble samurai who has followed the rules, accepting a hateful wife by arranged marriage and following the clan orders, which has left him a type of “company man”, realizes, by recognizing the love between his son and the former concubine who was forced upon him as a wife, he is moved to “rebel” against the system.  This rebellion is one in which violence is only the final outlet, in which his honor and pacifism have gained him nothing.

It’s not until the final 15 minutes or so of the 2 hour film that the blood starts flowing.  And it doesn’t really flow.  It’s just the point when the swordsman has to start using his sword.

It’s interesting in that respect, and I considered the parallels perhaps between the samurai who has accepted the social world around him, kowtowing to the lords and “upper management”, turning finally at the end to a personal integrity.  Is it in a sense like a modern “company man”?  The Japanese “salary man”?  It was 1967.

Though this film is shot in very effective black-and-white.

How do I put this within the catalog of Samurai films that I’ve seen thusfar?  Not sure where to file it.  And I mean that in terms of trying to understand the full scope of what is happening within the film, how it goes against the approaches of the genre, and how radical its position might be.  It’s interesting, certainly.

But I do prefer the films of Kihachi Okamoto, The Sword of Doom (1966) and Kill! (1968), as well as the ones I’ve seen by Akira Kurosawa.  Still, it’s interesting stuff.

Throne of Blood

Throne of Blood (1957) movie poster

(1957) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 11/19/08

After watching several of famed director Akira Kurosawa’s films, I can say that Throne of Blood is a true masterpiece.  The story is adapted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and rendered in midieval Japan, directed with significant influence of Noh theater, a traditional Japanese type of performance.  It’s a mixture of many things, yet classical, compelling, epic, strange, surreal and beautiful.  It is said that this is one of Kurosawa’s most formalistic structured films, and certainly that is notable.  Kurosawa had an amazing ability to draw from Western narratives and create films that are unique and still very Japanese.  Of the films that I’ve seen in recent years, Rashômon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and The Bad Sleep Well (1960), this has been the most striking and stunning of the four.

Kurosawa is a huge name in world cinema, and these films are part of the influx of world cinema into the United States via the distribution of Jannus films starting in the 1950’s and now housed on these excellent Criterion Collection DVD’s.  Of the 20th Century, it is easy to say that Akira Kurosawa was one of the most important, influental and masterful directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, or Howard Hawks.  I compare him more with the American directors because his films were also essentially genre films, spanning genres, and while perhaps more outwardly “arty” than the American work, his avant-garde qualities are embedded in his more tradtional narratives compared with the major filmmakers from Europe and elsewhere.

The cinematography and the structure are fascinating.  The film’s first shot emerges from the fog, a memorial to a castle (Spider’s Web Castle, the literal translation of the Japanese film title), and out of the fog emerges the story.  I’ve read Macbeth many years ago and am familiar with generalities about it, but not by any means in any depth.  Two military heroes emerge from a significant battle and get lost in the Spider’s Web Woods on the way back, encountering a witch, a figment of evil.  The film has both a naturalism and a fantastical aspect, moving between the location shots, near Mt. Fuji to sound stage performance, that is more dramatic, more theatrical, but filmed with power and wholly cinematic.

The two are foretold of their rise in rank, and further of Washizu (Toshirô Mifune in the Macbeth role) to the throne, and further still, Miki (Yoshiteru Miki), his best friend’s son to the throne as well.  Spurred by Lady Washizu, Mifune is led to acts of treachery and ruthlessness, self-fulfilling the prophecies and ultimately bringing doom to himself and the kingdom.

Every aspect of the film is brilliant.  One of the finest ever.  Totally awesome.