Criterion Sunday 267: 影武者 Kagemusha (1980)

The latter half of Kurosawa’s career is dominated by the two enormous epic-length huge-scale period samurai films he directed in the 1980s, the best known of which is Ran, an adaptation of King Lear (and which will come up soon in the Criterion Collection). However, Kagemusha deserves to stand alongside it and is, in my meagre opinion, possibly better than similar works (like Seven Samurai) from earlier in his career. Partly it’s because the time it took to mount the production meant Kurosawa had a clearer idea of how he wanted the film to look (as attested by the many colourful and detailed storyboards he painted in preparation). However, there’s also a real feeling to the predicaments each of the characters finds themselves in, most of all the kagemusha (or “double”) of the title, who must impersonate a clan chief (both played by Tatsuya Nakadai) and, upon the chief’s death, finds himself doing it full-time in order to confound the clan’s enemies. This sense of what it takes to be a major political actor, a role that even a humble thief can aspire to, gives the film a pathos, a real glimpse behind the machinations of power. There are of course other themes, like the encroachment of Western ideas (whether the brief glimpse of monks, or the sound of guns that overwhelms the traditional weaponry) and the danger of youthful hubris. But for all its length this is a human-sized story about leadership and power, and a beautiful one too in coordinating all the colour and movement across the screen.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 20-minute featurette interview with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who were both instrumental in securing American funding to complete the film, and wax lyrical about their love for Kurosawa, which makes sense if you’ve seen any of their films.
  • There’s a small gallery of side-by-side comparisons of Kurosawa’s immaculately painted storyboards with shots from the film, showing how he rendered literal these imaginative sketches.
  • One of the more interesting extras is a series of five minute or half-minute Suntory whiskey commercials made on the set of Kagemusha, some of which amusingly feature Akira and Francis clinking glasses while looking over images from the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa and Masato Ide 黒澤明; Cinematographers Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄 and Masaharu Ueda 上田正治; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Tsutomu Yamazaki 山崎努; Length 180 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, TBC 2019.

Criterion Sunday 190: 蜘蛛巣城 Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood, 1957)

The most striking aspect of this (very loose) adaptation of Shakespeare is the mist that swirls about the characters, especially at the start as they ride about, lost, in “Cobweb Forest”, and again at the end with its strange uncanny trees. The costume design, too, is richly detailed, as Kurosawa transposes the story to feudal Japan, with a number of competing warlords seeking to usurp one another’s power and thus Shakespeare’s story doesn’t seem out of place at all, even within Kurosawa’s own oeuvre. Toshiro Mifune has never been more expressive in his facial acting — perhaps too much so at times — and the persistent sense of imminent danger, as well as those atmospheric effects, remain the finest achievements of this adaptation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 (based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Isuzu Yamada 山田五十鈴, Takashi Shimura 志村喬; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 January 2018 (and years earlier on TV).

Criterion Sunday 138: 羅生門 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 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the short stories 羅生門 “Rashomon” and 藪の中 “Yabu no Naka” [In a Grove] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa 芥川龍之介); Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Takashi Shimura 志村喬; 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: 隠し砦の三悪人 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 黒澤明; Writers Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄; Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki 山崎市雄; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Misa Uehara 上原美佐, Minoru Chiaki 千秋実, Kamatari Fujiwara 藤原釜足; Length 139 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016.

るろうに剣心伝説の最期編 Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen (Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, 2014)

Another film I’ve belatedly caught up with for my 2015 New Year’s Resolution (one of the co-writers is a woman), I must confess that I’m not familiar with the source material or either of the two previous films in the trilogy, so this is all a bit of a blur. However, it’s an attractively-mounted 19th century period film blur, awash with rich costume design and the swish of samurai swords. If anything, the film resists the lure of its comic-book origins to give in to a videogame or clip-show editing style, and instead essays an almost traditional filmic sense of the jidaigeki, the camera movements more calm than the frenzy of blades one might expect. That said, the heroes all have floppy fringes in the modern style, and beyond their matinee idol looks, I’m not entirely sure a lot more is going on. Still, it’s a good deal better than one might fear and if I just had an investment in the story, this might be a more attractive proposition.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends film posterCREDITS
Director Keishi Otomo 大友啓史; Writers Kiyomi Fujii 藤井清美 and Otomo (based on the manga るろうに剣心-明治剣客浪漫譚 Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki 西脇伸宏); Cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka 石坂拓郎; Starring Takeru Satoh 佐藤健; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 30 December 2015.

Criterion Sunday 53: 椿三十郎 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 黒澤明; Writers Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Kurosawa (based on the novel 山本周五郎 Nichinichi Heian “Peaceful Days” by Shugoro Yamamoto 山本周五郎); Cinematographers Fukuzo Koizumi 小泉福造 and Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015.

Criterion Sunday 52: 用心棒 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 黒澤明; Writers Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Kurosawa; Cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫 and Takao Saito 斎藤; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 7 April 1999 (earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 1 November 2015).

Criterion Sunday 16: 宮本武蔵完結編 決闘巌流島 Miyamoto Musashi Kanketsuhen: Ketto Ganryujima (Samurai Trilogy III: Duel at Ganryu Island, 1956)

The Duel at Ganryu Island is the final film in Inagaki’s trilogy about the famous 17th century samurai Musashi Miyamoto, and it follows on from the introduction of our hero as a young man in the first film and then his peripatetic years as a wandering ronin in the second. By this point he is widely renowned, and courted by powerful leaders, but elects instead to live in a humble fashion by a village. Again, there are reminders of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in the way Musashi works to protect the village near which he lives from bandit attacks, but for the most part the film again focuses on his relationship with Otsu and Akemi, two women who’ve been in love with him for much of the trilogy’s running time. The visual palette is once again richly coloured, and Inagaki and his cinematographer (different on this film than the previous two) show a fondness for long shots with plenty of depth of focus. The big challenge for Musashi — and the conflict with which the film ends (at sunset once again, as with both previous films) — is his fight with the charismatic Sasaki Kojiro; both of them have been developing swordplay techniques which are put to the test here. The surprise for me has been quite how immersive and enjoyable this series has been, despite not being much aware of it beforehand. Inagaki has every bit the technical mastery of his more famous compatriots, and a sure sense of storytelling that still allows for plenty of character development. It’s a fine way to end an excellent run of films.

Criterion Extras: As a result of this project, I’ve been buying a lot of Criterion editions of the films, but it would surely be almost impossible (or would probably bankrupt me) to watch every film in its Criterion edition. However, where I have, I will add a note about the extras. I’ve mentioned already the beautiful colours of the film, and of course, as you’d expect, these have been rendered wonderfully by Criterion. As far as the extras go, all we have on the Samurai Trilogy are the original trailers, along with some short (c. 8-10 minute) video pieces in which an academic discusses the historical context for the real character of Musashi. These are all perfectly informative, if hardly up to Criterion’s usual standard.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki 稲垣浩; Writers Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao 若尾徳平 (based on the novel 宮本武蔵 Miyamoto Musashi “Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa 吉川英治, and the play by Hideji Hojo 北条秀司); Cinematographer Kazuo Yamada 山田一夫; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014.

Criterion Sunday 15: 続宮本武蔵 一乗寺の決闘 Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijoji no Ketto (Samurai Trilogy II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, 1955)

Like many second films in trilogies, this second instalment of Inagaki’s story of 17th century swordfighter and cultural hero Musashi Miyamoto seems to lack a focus, although unlike the first film it heads towards something of a cliffhanger. Musashi travels to Kyoto to pick a fight against a samurai school that is home to his former friend Matahachi, calling out the school’s sensei, though the men there are at first dismissive of Musashi’s talents, drawing him into a massed battle scene once again reminiscent of the denouement of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The film also introduces a challenger to his position of swordfighting dominance with Sasaki Kojiro (Koji Tsuruta), a matinee idol of a man who intitially just follows Musashi warily, intent only on observing him. However, despite the increased number of battle scenes, the heart of the film remains his relationship with the women, primarily Otsu (Kaoru Yuchigusa), who continues to follow him, as well as the younger Akemi, who had tried to tempt him (unsuccessfully) in the first film. Finally, the style changes a little, and though the colours are still vibrant, there seems to be a rather darker tone, not to mention a studio-set feel to proceedings, slightly more stylised than had been the case in the first film. Still it keeps Musashi’s education moving forward, and sets up the third and final instalment nicely.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki 稲垣浩; Writers Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao 若尾徳平 (based on the novel 宮本武蔵 Miyamoto Musashi “Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa 吉川英治, and the play by Hideji Hojo 北条秀司); Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto 安本淳; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014.

Criterion Sunday 14: 宮本武蔵 Miyamoto Musashi (Samurai Trilogy I: Musashi Miyamoto, 1954)

One of the things that becomes clear from watching the Criterion Collection releases is that someone there really likes samurai films (known as chanbara in Japanese, a subset of jidaigeki or ‘period films’). And when I say likes them, I mean really REALLY likes them. There’s a 25-film boxset of Zatoichi films coming up (quite a lot) further down the line, as well as many others in between, but here, an early release, is this trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki. Such was the popularity of its titular hero (Musashi Miyamoto, referred to as Takezo in this film, as he does not receive his samurai name until the end) that this wasn’t even Inagaki’s first trilogy of films about Musashi. He was a legendary swordsman, not to mention author and artist, who came to prominence at the very start of the 17th century in Japan, and Inagaki sets out to depict his journey. To see these films now, it hardly seems surprising to see the great Toshiro Mifune in the title role — after all, in this very same year, he also starred in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — though the two roles are quite different. In Kurosawa’s film, he’s a bit of a fool, but here he commands respect — or at least comes to do so by the end, for this first film is dedicated to Musashi’s earliest exploits. A lot of these revolve around the women who fall in love with him, though it’s Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), the jilted fiancée of his friend Matahachi, who has the most lasting relationship with the wandering ronin. The narrative arc of the film is towards Musashi’s maturation (he is even locked in an attic with a stack of books for three years at one point), rather than any big conflict or battle, and the route towards this is via a series of incidents, through which familiar characters start to thread. This all works rather nicely, no little thanks to the richly colourful cinematography, and fine ensemble performances. It would be for subsequent films in the trilogy to develop his fighting skills.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki 稲垣浩; Writers Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao 若尾徳平 (based on the novel translated as “Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa 吉川英治, and the play by Hideji Hojo 北条秀司); Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto 安本淳; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Kaoru Yachigusa 八千草薫; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014.