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.
- 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.
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.
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).
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 黒澤明; Writers Eijiro Hisaita 久板栄二郎, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 (based on the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain); Cinematographers Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一 and Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Sunday 15 February 2015.