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 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.

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.

Criterion Sunday 90: 怪談 Kaidan (Kwaidan, 1964)

There is no doubting this film moves at a slow and deliberate pace and makes as much use of silence as it does of sound, but these are feelings that pass fairly swiftly as you get drawn into the uncanny atmosphere created by the studio sets and bold non-naturalistic use of colour (Kobayashi’s first film in colour, after a career of monochrome political and social dramas, some of which will show up later in the collection). There are four stories here, the longest being the third, “Hoichi the Earless”, but all of them largely revolve around the living betraying the secrets of the dead and being punished for it. The other stories are likewise strong, from the shortest, “In a Cup of Tea”, in which an author (Osamu Takizawa) is haunted by a face in his tea, to the first two: “The Black Hair”, following a poor swordsman (Rentaro Mikuni) who foolishly leaves his first wife to seek his fortune; and “The Woman of the Snow”, wherein a strange woman (Keiko Kishi) saves a young fisherman (Tatsuya Nakadai, doing his best gormless expressions), but with a caveat. It’s all set in a mythologised era in which the living and dead seem to live closer to one another, with characters like Takashi Shimura’s priest in “Hoichi” being unfazed by the idea of an undead army gathering in an amphitheatre to listen to blind bard Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura)’s epic oral tale unfold. We listen to it, too, and it’s a wonderful thing, but then Toru Takemitsu’s score throughout is revelatory, with its musique concrète textures integrated into the action almost as a chorus (and sometimes replacing diegetic sounds altogether).

Criterion Extras: This new disc presents the full 183 minute cut (the older Criterion release only had the shorter cut), and adds some more extras. There’s a 15 minute archival interview with the director reflecting on his work, as well as a fuller piece with an assistant director who worked on the film and explains the genesis of this latest restoration.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Keiko Kishi 岸惠子, Katsuo Nakamura 中村嘉葎雄, Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Osamu Takizawa 滝沢修; Length 183 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016.

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 24: 天国と地獄 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 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.