Criterion Sunday 138: Rashomon (1950)

Though it may be one of those films that’s always on a best-of list somewhere, and therefore has the sense of being a boring dusty old classic, thankfully it’s for many good reasons and none of them involve being bored. Whatever else, it must be one of the most influential movies ever, not least for its audacious structure, moving back and forward in time and presenting overlapping testimonies on a rape/murder, each of which conflict with the others. It’s a film about the power and responsibility of storytelling, and of the infinite variety of interpretation, made by a filmmaker who — more than most others — has utter mastery over narrative exposition in filmic form. Kurosawa really is peerless in this regard; every cut and every scene moves the narrative forward in some way, or develops a theme of the film. The acting is iconic (suitably so) and much has been written about the sun-dappled cinematography. But for all the exegeses and critical plaudits, it stands up as a film which still entertains and educates.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is a documentary called A Testimony as an Image (2012). This is, essentially, a making-of extra, albeit with the benefit of over a half-century of hindsight. The few remaining living crew members who worked on Kurosawa’s film come together to discuss their memories of its creation, so we get plenty about how the script came together (from one of the assistant directors, and a script supervisor), then about the set construction (from one of the lighting people), about that notable cinematography and the challenges of shooting in a dark forest, and about the stresses Kurosawa was under to get the release finished despite setbacks include a studio fire. It’s based around these reminiscences, with a few archival shots and some explanatory text, but these elderly men (and one woman) retain vivid memories and their recollections are worth listening to.

Also on the disc are around 15 minutes of excerpts from a documentary about cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and a short address to camera by Robert Altman about how all the influences he stole from Kurosawa and from this film in particular. There’s also a halting radio interview with Takashi Shimura from around 1960, which is interesting if not especially enlightening. Donald Richie’s commentary track helps to pull out a lot of the themes, and engages the viewer with an awareness of all that Kurosawa and his team achieve in the film, making it even better and more interesting (I rewatched it with the commentary immediately after the film, and it didn’t get boring at all).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto (based on short stories “Rashomon” and “Yabu no Naka” [In a Grove] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) | Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 14 April 1999 (as well as earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 January 2017)

Criterion Sunday 116: Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958)

By this point, Kurosawa knew pretty well how to craft a samurai film as a version of a Western. There’s an effortless feel to his filmmaking, probably helped here by focusing the story so much around not Toshiro Mifune’s warrior, but instead the foolish comedy characters of the peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) whose avarice constantly blinds them to the dangers they’re in. Of course Mifune does his eye-catching thing of being strong and supportive as the General of a defeated tribe, while the tribe’s Princess (Misa Uehara) shows quite a bit of self-determination, even if she can’t be in a scene — even ostensibly disguised as a peasant — without looking obviously imperious. To that extent, some of the adventurous heroics strain credulity, but the film never sacrifices character-grounded observation to action setpieces or silly plot contrivances. This is a film that remains invested in its characters most of all.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara | Length 139 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016

Criterion Sunday 53: Tsubaki Sanjuro (Sanjuro, 1962)

After the success of Yojimbo the year before, Kurosawa practically rushed into production of this sequel, ahead of his bigger production High and Low the year after. It seems on first pass to be a talkier thing, as Toshiro Mifune’s wandering (and effectively nameless) samurai happens upon a plot by nine youngsters against an apparently corrupt chamberlain, an intricate court intrigue that can be at times difficult to follow. However, the gist is that the more experienced Mifune has the sense of the situation, guiding the youngsters away from rash action and directing their energies towards the real target, a henchman (Tatsuya Nakadai) of the local superintendent who is manipulating events to his own advantage. In doing so, Mifune finds himself in plenty of situations in which he is called upon to fight, but this time he’s not just out for money as in the first film, but for more honourable reasons. In fact, the film finds even more comedy than the first film, especially in the foolishness of the nine kids Mifune is in charge of, who act at times rather like a wayward family of cygnets following their mother (visualised literally at one point, as they follow him off screen in a line). It’s a beautifully shot film, too, with a large number of perfect compositions framing the ten faces, Mifune always set apart from the others. For all that it seems to have been made quickly, it’s in many ways the equal of Yojimbo and a worthy successor.

Criterion Extras: This is a relatively slender package, with a small gallery of production stills featuring Kurosawa and his actors on set, as well as a commentary by scholar Stephen Prince, and another episode of Japanese TV series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Prince covers all the bases pretty well in his exhaustive discussion, including various of the swordplay moves, and some careful notes on the framing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa (based on the novel Hibi Heian by Shugoro Yamamoto) | Cinematographers Fukuzo Koizumi and Takao Saito | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015

Criterion Sunday 52: Yojinbo (Yojimbo, 1961)

The thing that’s surprising, re-watching this samurai film by Akira Kurosawa, is just how grimly violent it is. There are severed arms, spurting blood, and all kinds of injury details that seem almost shocking in the context of a black-and-white 1960s film, least of all one with the time-hallowed prestige of Yojimbo. In fact, the way the film gleefully works against that ingrained prestige — such qualities as come from being a period-set film with established stars and director, and its subsequent induction into the hallowed Criterion Collection, not to mention plenty of best-of/best-ever lists — is what makes it most interesting, and for me a more essential Kurosawa than his more-feted Seven Samurai (1954). It’s clear from its story of Toshiro Mifune as an unnamed and directionless ronin that plenty of later directors were watching carefully and cribbing notes, too, whether acknowledged influences like Sergio Leone’s ‘Man with No Name’ films, or rather more subtle ones — the Han Solo character in Star Wars (and thus much of Harrison Ford’s subsequent career) seems lifted from Mifune here, who has a laidback charm even as people scurry anxiously and murderously around him. His travels bring him to the small, bitterly-divided village where the film is set, where he keeps his identity guarded (calling himself only Sanjuro, for a field of mulberry he spots when asked the question), and largely hangs out at a local inn while surveying the shuttered buildings around him and their wary occupants. Watching Mifune play the various factions against one another to his advantage is delightful — he promises his services as a bodyguard (yojimbo) for ever-increasing fees to whomever is most desperate — and when he’s not impressing them with his bravura skills, he’s sitting back and watching each side unravel. It’s all shot in crisp black-and-white with lots of deep focus shots and musical accompaniment worthy of the Western genre Kurosawa so loved. It’s one of Kurosawa’s very best, and was popular enough that it would lead to a sequel the following year, Sanjuro.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa | Cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Takao Saito | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai | Length 110 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 7 April 1999 (earlier on VHS at home in Wellington, June 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home in London, Sunday 1 November 2015)

Criterion Sunday 24: Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low, 1963)

After so many period samurai-related collaborations between Kurosawa and his lead actor Toshiro Mifune, it’s somewhat jarring to see a story from these two which is set in the modern world, although the police thriller was another genre with which Kurosawa had plenty of familiarity, and this is far from shabby as a film. Shoe company executive Kingo Gondo (Mifune) starts out the film in his apartment, high above Yokohama, apparently battling with his board to take over his company, before the film adeptly and speedily veers away from what promises to be a business drama into something a bit darker, as a kidnapper calls him demanding a ransom for his child — except that it turns out the kidnapper has taken Gondo’s chauffeur’s child. The high and low, then (or “heaven and hell” in the literal translation), turns out to be a story of the class differences in a rapidly developing capitalist society — the high being Gondo’s splendid isolation in full view of the rest of the city, contrasted with the low of the kidnapper’s squalid dwellings amongst the sailors and the drug addicts in a close-packed streets and alleys of the city. But it’s also the difference between Gondo’s executive and his chauffeur, and between where Gondo starts off and where he ends up; it’s a productive dichotomy, certainly. The film is all crisply shot in monochrome widescreen, and structured in distinct acts — the first is a long sequence of elaborately long-take shots in Gondo’s apartment, before moving first to the cramped confines of a bullet train, and then to the police investigation around Yokohoma (led by Tatsuya Nakadai’s detective), in search of the kidnapper. The depiction of some of the city’s squalor doesn’t always convince (its drug den seems torn from the pages of a particularly sensationalist tabloid), but it does capture a good sense of the cosmopolitan spirit of this seaport town, and the story never lets up on the tension of the hunt.

Criterion Extras: There are some great bonus features here, including a 30-minute TV interview from the 80s with Toshiro Mifune as he looks back on his career, which touches only briefly on his years with Kurosawa but which remains fascinating, as he chain smokes his way through a series of exchanges with a cheerful Japanese lady host. The documentary It Is Wonderful to Create, from just before Kurosawa’s death, is more informative, featuring a number of interviews with key personnel, and which gets into details about how a lot of the film was shot and how certain scenes were put together, both technically and creatively. There’s also a commentary by an academic which is pretty informative, too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai | Length 143 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Sunday 15 February 2015

Criterion Sunday 2: Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954)

Kurosawa was the director who largely introduced Japanese cinema to Western audiences (with Rashomon a few years earlier), and that makes sense given his fondness for American genres and tropes. Seven Samurai, despite its 16th century feudal Japanese setting, has plenty about it to recall generic war movies and Westerns, so it’s appropriate that it re-entered the Hollywood vernacular a few years later as a Western, The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa’s film concerns a small impoverished community terrorised by vagabonds, who need to hire itinerant samurai to protect them. If this is the core of the story, then its running time of well over three hours is concerned more with developing the identities of each of these samurai, though Toshiro Mifune’s over-eager youngster and Takashi Shimura’s patient elder samurai steal the show. There’s a showdown at the end, and amongst it all is plenty of solid character work and the same kind of unfashionably unshowy message about war that Renoir did so well in La Grande illusion.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Isao Kimura | Length 207 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Sunday 21 March 1999 (also previously on VHS at home, Wellington, May 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 5 October 2014)