Criterion Sunday 316: 乱 Ran (1985)

Twenty years on from first watching this film on (pan-and-scanned, no doubt) VHS at home, my chief memory of the film is a lot of horses rushing back and forth with primary-coloured flags — and yes there’s quite a bit of that in the film — but seeing it on the big screen seems to make a lot more sense of its human machinations. Those battle scenes do get a little repetitive by the film’s close, but the use of the coloured flags makes the engagements easier to follow, and there’s a real sense of physicality that you don’t get with massed CGI encounters of more recent films. Ran also feels like Kurosawa’s swansong (he’d do a few more, smaller-scale, films before his death a decade later), and at the very least it’s his farewell to the samurai period epic he’d become most well-known for after the break-out success of Seven Samurai (1954). The story, as is well known, follows the contours of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with an elderly warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) ceding control of his kingdom to his eldest child — the three here are sons — and in so doing, banishing his youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). When the elder two turn on him, he’s left almost alone, except for his fool, wandering in the wilderness of the Azusa Plain, driven almost to madness by the treachery. The staging is exemplary, with some spectacular and memorable imagery, such as a scene of Hidetora staggering out of a bloodied rampart as it burns to the ground, or an opening hilltop meeting amongst all the local warlords. As the film progresses, the second son’s wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) unexpectedly comes to the fore, quickly becoming the most notable obstacle to peace in the kingdom and pushing the film to its chaotic ending (the Japanese title means “chaos”). And all along the way, Kurosawa presents images of Buddha, implacably and serenely unconcerned with what is going on in the muddy, windswept plains beneath, as they increasingly run with blood.

(Written on 18 April 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Masato Ide 井手雅人 (based on the play King Lear by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄, Masaharu Ueda 上田正治 and Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Daisuke Ryu 隆大介, Mieko Harada 原田美枝子; Length 162 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 17 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

Criterion Sunday 313: 斬る Kiru (Kill!, 1968)

Oddly enough, this sort of stands aside from the rest of the recent run of samurai chanbara films featured in the Criterion Collection, as it has broad comic elements to its (rather elaborate and confusing) story of rival clans fighting one another. Even more to the forefront is its reliance on tropes from the Western (as perhaps filtered through Italy, given the Morricone-like musical cues). Set in the mid-19th century, our two starving heroes wander into a one-horse town (or one-chicken town perhaps), beset by squalling winds, like some blasted valley in the American West, and stumble across a local power struggle. As Genta, the ex-samurai turned yakuza/vagrant, Tatsuya Nakadai exudes a raucous energy, recalling Mifune in Seven Samurai (this film even has its own group of seven rebel samurai, presumably another of its parodic elements, though the source author is the same as Kurosawa/Mifune’s 1962 collaboration Sanjuro). However, Genta has a more self-knowing air, as he brushes off courtly introductions and chuckles at the desperate desires of farmer Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) to become a samurai. The rest of the plot is too complicated to recount here, but suffice to say it’s the local chamberlain Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama) who’s the bad guy, playing the factions off one another. It has all the fight scenes you might expect, but the knockabout comedy moves into different, and rather refreshing, territory.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kihachi Okamoto 岡本喜八; Writers Akira Murao 村尾昭 and Okamoto (based on the short story 砦山の十七日 Torideyama no Jushichinichi “17 Days at Fort Mountain” by Shugoru Yamamoto 山本周五郎); Cinematographer Rokuro Nishigaki 西垣六郎; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Etsushi Takahashi 高橋悦史, Shigeru Koyama 神山繁, Yuriko Hoshi 星由里子; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 312: 異聞猿飛佐助 Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (Samurai Spy, 1965)

Masahiro Shinoda is a filmmaker who makes distinctive pieces of work, and as such has a place at the forefront of the Japanese New Wave (amongst which Oshima and Imamura are probably the best known exponents). His 1969 film Double Suicide has already come up in the Criterion Collection, and it’s an odd kabuki-like performance piece that belies its gruesome title (and I confess it rather confounded me). You would think that the period swordplay chanbara film genre would be more straightforward — and there are indeed some bravura sequences of action and fighting — but Shinoda has a lot of the same visual style, cutting up the action into vignettes and rendering some sequences like abstract works of art in all their monochrome style. Unlike say the Samurai trilogy of Inagaki, or some other key texts set in this era (at the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early-17th century), the fighting isn’t noble and elegant, but rather can be bloody and brutal, with hidden daggers and throwing stars (usually more the province of the less-exalted shinobi or ninja warriors), and protracted fight sequences that lack the grace of some other Japanese works. Still, there’s plenty of style and you can see throughlines to a lot of modern cinema in the way Shinoda stages his action, even if the historical details and names can get a little overwhelming (though I’ve found it necessary to pause to do a fair bit of Wikipedia research at the start of most Japanese period films). This is one of the more striking examples of the genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda 篠田正浩; Writer Yoshiyuki Fukuda 福田善之; Cinematographer Masao Kosugi 小杉正雄; Starring Koji Takahashi 高橋幸治, Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Tetsuro Tamba 丹波哲郎, Misako Watanabe 渡辺美佐子; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 April 2020.

Criterion Sunday 311: 獣の剣 Kedamono no Ken (Sword of the Beast, 1965)

Having recently rewatched the Jason Bourne trilogy, it’s clearer how some of the generic beats of that story have endured even for half a century. As this film opens, a man who has been left for dead is seen blinking into life, as he is charged by his own clan with a murder and must go on the run. We do eventually learn he is the samurai Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), as well as who he has killed and the reason why. In transpires that Gennosuke was involved in an attempted reform of antiquated values within his clan that has gone awry (this is after all set at the end of the Tokugawa period, and the American Commodore Perry, instrumental in the opening up of Japan near the end of this period, is given a namecheck). When he runs into a samurai stealing gold from another wealthy clan, he perceives something of a kindred spirit, though all relationships in this film (as one feels was likely the case amongst real samurai) are cagy and tentative. There are strong women in this film who are treated badly, and there are men too who try to uphold some form of honour, but by the end it seems more clear that there can be no viable reckoning of honour in such a broken system, so all that unites these disparate people is the sword. However, it’s generally a rather more jolly picture than Samurai Rebellion, and has a jaunty sensibility that suggests some of Kurosawa’s samurai films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • None at all, save for the booklet essay.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hideo Gosha 五社英雄; Writers Gosha and Eizaburo Shiba 柴英三郎; Cinematographer Toshitada Tsuchiya 土屋俊忠; Starring Mikijiro Hira 平幹二朗, Takeshi Kato 加藤武, Go Kato 加藤剛, Shima Iwashita 篠田志麻; Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 19 April 2020.

Criterion Sunday 310: 上意討ち 拝領妻始末 Joi-uchi: Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu (Samurai Rebellion, 1967)

I’ve recently been watching quite a run of quiet little domestic dramas from the 1930s directed by Mikio Naruse, which I liked well enough, yet I feel a little conflicted I’m giving the best review now that I’m back on the rather more familiar cinematic terrain of the chanbara (samurai film) and jidaigeki (period drama, in this case the mid-18th century). That said, Masaki Kobayashi is one of the real ones in Japanese cinema; after all, he made the equally brilliant Harakiri (1962) and Kwaidan (1964). He’s possibly an even greater stylist in some ways than Kurosawa, whose mythos he’s obviously building on by using the same screenwriter as wrote Seven Samurai, and by casting Toshiro Mifune only a few years after Yojimbo and Sanjuro as Isaburo, the ageing vassal to a local clan warlord (daimyo). He’s also cast Tatsuya Nakadai as Isaburo’s closest compatriot, each of them competing to be the greatest swordsman in their territory — a detail set up in the opening scene that will, of course, come back into play at the end.

Kobayashi knows brilliantly how to frame and cut shots, and there’s an architectural sense of space amongst these formal indoor settings, with careful use of dollies and zooms to move around the rooms, until of course the walls of the house are removed to help aid the upcoming battle. All details point towards a final showdown, as the moral drama unfolds, in which Isaburo’s family become embroiled in a struggle over a woman — indeed, the Japanese title more straightforwardly frames the story as being one focused on a traded wife, a pawn in a struggle between clan chief and his vassal. While there’s no overt conflict until very near the end, the film methodically moves towards this outcome, ratcheting up tension with the aforementioned technical skills, not to mention a brace of fine performances, not least from Yoko Tsukasa as the traded wife Ichi, and Go Kato as Isaburo’s son Yogoro whose wife Ichi becomes.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Relatively sparse extras include a three-minute segment of a 1993 interview Kobayashi did with Masahiro Shinoda (who directed Double Suicide), in which he offers a few reflections on this film, notably that Mifune was not focused on it at all, somewhat coasting through the project, though of course still acting effortlessly well.
  • The only other extra is the Japanese trailer, which cuts together most of the film, including the final confrontation.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel 拝領妻始末 Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu by Yasuhiko Takiguchi 滝口康彦); Cinematographer Kazuo Yamada 山田一夫; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Go Kato 加藤剛, Yoko Tsukasa 司葉子, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢; Length 121 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 16 April 2020.

Four Underappreciated Films by Hirokazu Koreeda: Distance (2001), Hana (2006), Air Doll (2009) and The Third Murder (2017)

The filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been turning out warmly-received films since his fiction feature debut Maborosi in 1995. Many of them — certainly, it seems, all of the most acclaimed — are warm-hearted family dramas, whether dealing with children directly as in I Wish (2011), with parents of kids in Like Father, Like Son (2013) or with young people in Our Little Sister (2015). However in many ways that’s only half his output, as he’s also made plenty of films that don’t fit quite so neatly into this framework. I was planning on writing a post about maybe one of these, but then I realised I had a vast cache of reviews of films that really aren’t very well known by this famous director, and I wonder how many great directors could have made great films if they’d been given as many chances. For one example not even covered here, there’s his latest English/French-language The Truth (to be reviewed here later this week), but there are also these four films reviewed below: a film about terrorists; a period drama; a sex drama; and a legal thriller.

Continue reading “Four Underappreciated Films by Hirokazu Koreeda: Distance (2001), Hana (2006), Air Doll (2009) and The Third Murder (2017)”

Criterion Sunday 309: 雨月物語 Ugetsu Monogatari (Ugetsu, 1953)

It’s odd to watch this film expecting a supernatural horror film because those elements don’t appear until the latter half of the film, although there’s a slightly uncanny sense created all the way through. It sets its 16th century scene amongst some poor villagers, one of whom, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), is a potter who is desperate to make money in the local town from selling his wares, having discerned that people seem to be paying more in a time of impending war, while the other (Eitaro Ozawa) wants to be a samurai but is rejected by the local clans for being a poor peasant. When the civil war comes to their very doorstep, they flee, but — much to the consternation of their wives (Kinuyo Tanaka and Mitsuko Mito) — making sure to take the pottery, intending to make money across the water. However, as the action moves across this mist-covered body of water, the film itself seems to move from the real world into a sort of supernatural state, where the dead and living interact, as previously strong family bonds fall apart under the influence of money, mingled with the desperation of a wartime economy. As such it seems to be a reflection not just on the corrosive power of capital, but on wartime avarice leading to self-destruction, the break-up of the family and ultimately death — which makes sense given when it was made. The wives thus come to play a much stronger part, as a sort of moral chorus to the foolishness of the two men, whose actions doom both families in different ways.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Matsutaro Kawaguchi 川口松太郎 and Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 (based on the collection of stories by Akinari Ueda 上田秋成); Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Mitsuko Mito 水戸光子, Eitaro Ozawa 小沢栄太郎; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 12 April 2020 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998).

Criterion Sunday 302: 切腹 Seppuku (Harakiri, 1962)

A film named after ritual suicide was never likely to be a thrilling prospect (at least not to me; you do you if that kind of thing gets you excited). However, it turns out this Japanese samurai-era thriller has very little actual seppuku in it, indeed one could argue that the very idea of this kind of ritual dishonour is what the film is keen to address, because neither of the masterless samurai (ronin) who enter the Iyi clan house, both looking haggard and desperate, is really looking to commit suicide. Instead, through a series of elegant shots and beautiful compositions arranged around the hardened and determined face of Tatsuya Nakadai in the lead role as Hanshiro, we get a series of flashbacks that make it clear that there is little honour in the samurai code and that plenty of people (like the Iyi chief played by Rentaro Mikuni) manipulate it to their own ends. In fact, there’s an ultimate bitterness and anger at the way in which those who have fallen on hard times are treated, and the brutality of the Iyi response is what Hanshiro is seeking to confront. It’s a film with depths of darkness in every frame, as within each character, and while it has a lot of the generic tropes that other more famous films (those of Kurosawa for example, and Rashomon doesn’t feel too distant to this one), but it twists them in complex ways: a fight sequence isn’t just a bit of fun swordplay, it’s a fundamental question of honour, and unlike in Kurosawa’s films it’s just one man against a (flawed, ignoble) system.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a ten-minute introduction by film scholar Donald Richie about the themes and meaning within Harakiri.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel 異聞浪人記 Ibunronin ki by Yasuhiko Takiguchi 滝口康彦); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎, Akira Ishihama 石濱朗; Length 134 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 20 March 2020.

Criterion Sunday 280: 大菩薩峠 Daibosatsu Toge (The Sword of Doom, 1966)

There’s what feels like an almost unceasing parade of swordplay violence in this film, resulting in scores if not hundreds of piled-up casualties, largely of our antihero Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), though Toshiro Mifune weighs in for one memorable scene that gives the otherwise unstoppably evil-doing Ryunosuke a moment of brief pause. It’s enough to make you think that maybe that’s what the film is doing: the title could be referring to Ryunosuke’s sword, after all, but perhaps by extension it’s all swords and “doom” is just the outcome of violent behaviour. The film is set near the end of the shogunate, so samurai are on the decline and this film enacts in a sense this final death rattle of lawless mercenary violence. It does this with some fantastically composed monochrome style, as Nakadai moves blankly (he has the unfeeling mien of a sociopath) towards both swords and doom, with nihilistic rigour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kihachi Okamoto 岡本喜八; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazato 中里介山); Cinematographer Hiroshi Murai 村井博; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Yuzo Kayama 加山雄三, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代, Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎; Length 119 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 29 November 2019.

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.