Kagemusha (1980)

Kagemusha (1980) movie poster

director Akira Kurasawa
viewed: 01/31/2016

Akira Kurasawa’s 1980 film Kagemusha, supported in part by funding from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, ushered in his late career successes after more than a decade of challenges and disappointments.  The film’s success, garnering the Palme D’Or at Cannes, helped get his next film, Ran (1985) made.

In some ways, Kagemusha feels like a bit of a dress rehearsal for Ran, particularly in the massive battle sequence and colorful costuming of the armies.

Set in the 16th century, a thief is saved from execution because of his striking resemblance to the feudal lord of the region, Shingen (both roles, thief and daimyo, are played by Tatsuya Nakadai).  Already Shingen has had his brother standing in as a double for him for many years, but finding this new “kagemusha”, or “shadow warrior”, double proves fortuitous when the lord is struck down.  The thief is then employed to keep up the appearance of the daimyo to stave off assaults from rival clans who would seek to attack in the vacuum of power.

Kagemusha is a fine film, though it could be argued that Ran is perhaps better.  Kagemusha‘s most striking imagery comes from a dream sequence which occurs in a lurid painterly surrealism.  Tremendous and vivid.

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.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954) movie poster

director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 04/12/2013

My venture into cinema with my kids has typically been quite a broad one, but seeking to expand it yet further, I set us up with Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai for Friday night.  I, myself, hadn’t seen it until five years ago, shamed-faced as I was to realize that.  But Seven Samurai was actually only the 2nd film that we watched in a foreign language together, with me reading the subtitles to them so they wouldn’t have the challenge of keeping up, but would have the sound of the language in their ears.  They were certainly open-minded about it.  I had, however, forgotten that it was over 3 hours long, which has been more daunting (the length) than many other possible impediments to success with them.

When the intermission rolled around, both Clara and Felix groaned, “What! It’s only half-over?”  Fair enough, fair enough.  Epics are epics.  They require endurance.

Being familiar with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Bug’s Life (1998) (oddly to a slightly lesser extent), I had talked to them about how this film was adapted into those two, and how many elements of the story, characterization, action and adventure had been pulled into many other films since.  Felix has been particularly keen to see many of the films considered to be among the best ever made.  Whether he is at the right age to appreciate them fully, or whether Clara is, might be somewhat questionable, but I also thought that having seen Seven Samurai now, at this age with me, it will be a part of his/her landscape of cinema going forward.

Queried at the end of the film, Felix said it was “okay”.  Clara said she liked it.  These are typical post-movie responses from the two of them, probable to be repeated time and again after many varied films we see together.

For me, it had been five years since I’d first seen it, and while much of it remained strong in my mind, oddly the fact of its epic length had been forgotten.  Maybe that is a statement to how engaging the film is.  Even at 3 hours plus, it doesn’t feel overlong.  In fact, through much of it, the pacing seems apt and energetic.  And really, the kids did not wane through the film.  They made it all the way and were involved throughout.

It really has been the template of a great action/adventure film, from the build up of the characters to the inevitable battle sequence that finishes the story.  Takashi Shimura is great as Kambei Shimada, the eldest, noble, first samurai enlisted to protect the farming village.  I also particularly liked Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyūzō, the quiet, serious, deadly capable member of the team.  And as always, the great Toshiro Mifune is great as the rambunctious, wily rebel, Kikuchiyo.  There is much of class, not so much critique perhaps, but representation in what the ideals of the samurai are meant to be.  Like the classics of the Western genre, which I so often consider in contrast with the Samurai film, such an early genre film tends to establish more of the tropes, traditions, effects, character types than to subvert them.

What I noticed this time that I hadn’t before was that each of the samurai that are slain in the film are felled by musket fire.  None falls to the traditional weapons of the samurai, not swords, spears, arrows, knives, but each are brought down by essentially “cheap shots”.  Set as it is in 1587, these weapons are rare and almost seem anachronistic.  Throughout the siege, though, the samurai are keenly aware of the number of guns that the enemy has, with two of the weapons being uniquely captured by the daring of two of the samurai.  It is the third, uncaptured gun that brings down the last two, even with Kikuchiyo surging forward, bullet wound in his gut, to slay the man with the firearm.

It’s an interesting point, with perhaps some interesting interpretations.  I won’t overly hazard much here.  But I will say that it struck me.

Great movie.  Maybe I’ll give the kids a break next week.

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.

Ran

Ran (1985) movie poster

(1985) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 06/07/10 at the Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

In celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of cinema great Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), a number of retrospectives and re-releases of his films are expected throughout the year.  The first of which to hit San Francisco is a re-release of his 1985 film, Ran, his last great epic, perhaps his last great film, and I took the opportunity to see it in the theater on the “big screen” because my only other experience with it was sadly on a video on television some many years ago.

I was 16 or 17 when Ran came out in 1985 and made its way to my hometown of Gainesville, FL.  It’s perhaps the first foreign film that I became interested in, though I sadly didn’t actually see it on release.  Over the years, I’ve come to a great appreciation for Kurosawa, having been catching up on a number of his films on DVD including The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Rashômon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Ikiru (1952), and The Hidden Fortress (1958), mostly from his fecund early period of success.  I don’t know that Ran is the only of his color films that I’ve seen, but colorful indeed it is.

The film was meticulously storyboarded by Kurosawa, planned over many years, and while based roughly upon some historical elements, the story is heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s King Lear, as well.  An aging lord, Hidetora, who came to power through much battle and bloodshed, decides, somewhat suddenly, to divide his kingdom between his three sons, with his eldest holding the greatest righteous power.  The youngest and most brash of his sons calls him out as a fool for this, as does one of his noble gentry.  He bannishes them both for their offences.

The problem is, that they were right.  His eldest son, Taro, has a devious wife, who, though often stoic and seemingly proper, sows the seeds that will lead to the undoing of the whole clan.  She convinces Taro that his father needs to be humbled and that he needs to stake his claim more solidly on the castle, which leads to an argument and the father’s departure for his second son’s, Jiro’s, castle.  Jiro has followers who cajole him as well, barring his father’s entourage, but not his father himself, from his castle.  In anger, Hidetora is left to wander without a home.

Really, the seeds that are sown are not only what proves to be the vengaence of Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede, but the poisonous spoilage of Hidetora’s years and years of killing, cruelty, and harshness.  While wishing to hang his old age upon some laurels, to enjoy a hard-fought for peace, and to live his life out in some sort of mellowed happiness, all that Hidetora is truly left with is pure carnage, destruction, and death.  It’s an epic tragedy of grand, grand scale.

Kurosawa sets much of the action on the mountainous regions of Mt. Fuji, with thousands of extras clad in the color-specific flagged battle costumes signifying for which lord the soldiers battle.  But interestingly, in some ways, it comes not to matter.  Death comes for all, good and noble, pious, impious, vengeful, ruthless, everyone.  And it’s hard not to be impressed with the grand scheme played out on such grand scale.

There is much going on in the film, much too much to fully comment on here.  But watching it this time, I felt aware of what was perhaps a commentary on the Cold War or at least the destructive power of war, a contemporary vision of the mid-1980’s.  As well, there is Hidetora, whose age is similar to that of Kurosawa at the time the film was made, a perhaps personal character, a perspective on the futility of one’s life’s work, of coming to an age when all is supposedly behind one, and the sizing up of that is not perhaps what one would have hoped for.

While richly colorful, I found some of the color almost garish, while other aspects of it are most lush.  And the acting, particularly that of Hidetora and Lady Kaede is in strange, theatrical contrast to the acting of many of the other performers.  Hidetora wears a ton of make-up, projecting his intense mania as he is struck into madness by the tragedies befalling him and his family, and Lady Kaede, who at times wears a refined, unexpressive make-up, also lurches into moments of grand theatrics.  While these performances and styles reckon back to Noh theater, I am not enough of a scholar of Japanese theater to sort through why those two are the key figures to perform differently.

What is always fascinating in Kurosawa is his mixture of Western and Japanese traditions.  He often used Western texts from Shakespeare (Throne of Blood) to Dashiell Hammett (Yojimbo (1961)) as narrative inspiration for his Samuari and other films, he brought these themes upon a truly Japanese landscape and historically and culturally.  Perhaps this is partially why his popularity in Europe and America was so profound.

Ran fits appropriately at the end of a long list of great, telling, visionary films fitting well within his canon.  It was great to see it again, and to see it on the big screen, a screen large enough to appreciate the breadth and scope of his story and imagery.  I will be looking out for others of his films in this centenury and I recommend the experience.

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.”

Ikiru

Ikiru (1952) movie poster
(1952) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 02/25/09

Plot: bureaucrat discovers that he has terminal stomach cancer and then dedicates his life to building a playground.

Sounds thrilling.
Though I’ve been watching a growing list of every Akira Kurosawa film, I somehow managed to queue this one up before really realizing what it was about.  Like pretty much every Kurosawa film, it’s highly praised and esteemed, but when I read through the basics of the plot I was thinking to myself: “What night of my life am I going to want to watch this film?”

Actually, of the films of Kurosawa’s that I’ve seen, he does have two main types, the samurai period films and the modern or “contemporary” films, which often seem to have a crime theme.  This film is quite different.  Obviously.

Largely, the film is a critique of burocracy, the particularly lugubrious kind that existed in Japan at the time of this film’s production, when forms upon forms existed and certain occupations were like that of the protagonist of this film, a human rubber stamper.  Whole divisions of people who sit around with stacks of paper, essentially “doing nothing”.  In Ikiru (translated as “To Live”), Watanabe, the bureaucrat in question, discovers that he has stomach cancer and probably about six months to live.  Reflecting on his life, he feels that it has amounted to nothing, his job is pointless and empty and he feels rejected by the son that he dedicated his life to raising.

After a series of adventures in “living” by carousing with a writer that he meets in a bar and enjoying life with a young woman that he formerly worked with, Watanabe comes to realize that he can contribute something through his means at work and dedicates what is left of his life to building a playground where a cesspool currently exists and is troubling a local neighborhood.  So, in other words, instead of “doing nothing”, he pushes to do “something”.

The first half of the film is about his discovery of his illness, his analysis of his life, and his adventures with the writer and the young woman.  A little further than halfway through the film, he dies, and the second half of the film takes place at his wake, where his co-workers and family reflect on his final months and his accomplishments (though they only come to understand him through the discussions at the service).

The film is good, certainly, featuring many of Kurosawa’s regular actors.  There is a lot of interesting camerawork in the film, framings, uses of sound and so forth, and the film is visually interesting.  In some ways, through parts of the film, it feels almost like an Ingmar Bergman film or something, but its heart is the critique of this uniquely Japanese system of burocratic bizarreness.

I don’t know.  Not my favorite of his films, but still a good film.  Seems strange among the others that I’ve watched of his of late.

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.

Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai (1954) movie poster

(1954) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 10/17/08

After watching Rashômon (1950) just recently, I decided that I’d waited long enough to watch the some of the great films of cinema, hoping to see them initially in an idealized environment, on the big screen, with a nice clean print, rather than on DVD.  I decided that I’d waited long enough to have these experiences.

Seven Samurai is one of those experiences.  One of the most well-known “foreign” films in America, in the Western world, in which cinema is still dominated by America, not just by English language film.  Also, being a film that has inspired so directly such other films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), and quite frankly so many big action films.  Whereas Rashômon is still such an avant-garde and contemplative film, Seven Samurai is the template for the big action film.

Much like the Western in American cinema, the samurai film is a combination of archetypes and standards, social criticism and social history, and a landscape seemingly bared naked for the cinematic experience.  I only recently have delved in any depth into this genre, starting this year with Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (1966) and Kill! (1968), recommended by a friend.  Though not my first foray into the genre, this venture this year is my first real serious foray into it.  It’s profound, fun, and completely engaging.

Seven Samurai‘s experience is profound.  Though like much of the most influential cinema, it’s modern day profundity is only truly comprehensible in context.  So many tropes, techniques, and characteristics are not only adopted, absorbed, infused, but just plain part of the language of cinema, the invisible language, the standards and traditions, the types of things that one wouldn’t notice at face value.  Kurosawa’s innovations are more invisible to a modern, contemporary audience.  Yet, this film is pretty fucking rock and roll still.  It hold up.  It holds up big time.

In my research, such as it is, that I do in preparation of writing here, I’ve found that in the post-WWII era in Japan of cinema, of samurai genre films, this film was still quite early and no doubt influential.  Kurosawa is cinema.

I read many years ago, as I was getting re-inspired in film that Nicolas Ray was once analogized to being “cinema”.  “Nicolas Ray is cinema”.  Well, “Alfred Hitchcock is cinema”.  “Akira Kurosawa is cinema”.  There are indeed those auteurs from all over the world whose reputation is not simply well-earned, but pretty much a fucking fact.  Kurosawa is a fact.  Kurosawa is as important a director as there is.  Like D.W. Griffith, like Emil Cohl.  Like Buster Keaton or John Ford.  Cinema would not be cinema in our contemporary understanding without Kurosawa, without Seven Samurai.

Art. Commerce. Hybrids.  The 20th century.  What history, long-term history, if such a thing comes to exist and to constrain and understand our own lifetimes, will think of him, to this day and age, his work stands its ground, his work has earned its place.  And while open to political and social criticism that changes with period and knowledge, his achievements are absolutely obvious.  No more so, no less so, than in Seven Samurai.  A film not at all unlike The Magnificent Seven (1960) or The Great Escape (1963), the kind of cultural artifacts that are not yet artifacts, the kind of cultural artifacts that are still cultural activators, still cultural traits and truths, still something with great influence and potentiality in our world.

Pretty fucking rock.