Criterion Sunday 233: 野良犬 Nora Inu (Stray Dog, 1949)

A fine crime procedural, which follows a young detective (Toshiro Mifune) who has his gun stolen from him in a moment of weariness on a tram, and spends the rest of the film tracking it down, learning along the way the serious consequences of such a breach of attention. It has a noirish hue, as Mifune goes deeper into the sleazy underworld, and throughout there’s a tangible sense of suffocating heat, characters constantly wiping the sweat from their faces, their clothes suffused with damp. It set up Kurosawa’s interest in refining pulpy generic storylines that he’d further pursue in subsequent films with Mifune and over his career.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with many of the Kurosawa discs, it includes a short documentary about its making, part of a Japanese TV series called It Is Wonderful to Create. The format remains consistent: text-heavy and reliant on interviews, with original archival materials interspersed with the words of surviving collaborators. The art director who worked on the film is interviewed wearing a Guns N Roses t-shirt, so there’s that. The image of Mifune doing a little jig, as relayed by the (then) young co-star, is also amusing.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三; Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Takashi Shimura 志村喬; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 October 2018 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998).

Criterion Sunday 221: 生きる Ikiru (1952)

Clearly one of Kurosawa’s greatest films, it’s also perhaps a little forgotten — possibly not amongst hardened cineastes, but that at least is the feeling I get when talking about Kurosawa with other casual film lovers. Part of this is undoubtedly that it’s not set in the shogun era of samurai and peasants (like, say, Seven Samurai), but rather contemporary Japan. It’s about a humble bureaucrat (played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) who mournfully realises the failure of his life as he gets a cancer diagnosis, and has to deal with that. There’s a hint of Rashomon to the latter half of the film, as people argue at his wake about his lasting achievement — the construction of a children’s playground — but the framing of it, as flashbacks from his funeral, clearly indicate that it is altogether too late in his life. It is, however, poignant and heartbreaking, and feels like a movie that’s not so much depressing in its accounting of a person’s life, as perhaps a little hopeful that some may at least achieve something despite all the obstacles placed in their way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • A fairly easygoing documentary (an episode of a TV series, It Is Wonderful to Create, which pops up on most of Criterion’s Kurosawa releases), which uses interviews with surviving members of Kurosawa’s cast and crew to shed light on how he made his films. This one features Miki Odagiri (the young woman who befriends Kanji after his illness is diagnosed, and then finds him a little creepily intense) talking about Kurosawa’s methods of inspiring her performance, as well as screenwriters and technicians. There’s not a huge deal of insight, but it’s pleasant enough.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄; Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Miki Odagiri 小田切みき; Length 143 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 July 2018 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1997).

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 2: 七人の侍 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.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Audio commentaries: There are two of them, which is pretty extravagant for such a long film. The one I’ve listened to features a roster of scholars and critics tag-teaming one another for 40 minute chunks. Some are more technically minded, focusing on Kurosawa’s framing, camerawork and construction of the images, while others (like Tony Rayns) focus almost exclusively on the developing thematics that Kurosawa is drawing out with his characters and scenarios.
  • As we’ll see from the rest of the Criterion releases of Kurosawa’s films, there’s an episode of the Japanese TV series It Is Wonderful to Create, specifically the one focusing on this film (there’s an episode per film). It’s all fairly straightforward, featuring interviews with surviving cast and crew members, archival documents, voiceover narrative and plenty of on-screen text.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄; Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Isao Kimura 木村功; 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).