Rhapsody in August

rhapsody 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1991

Studio: Shochiku Films Ltd.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, based on the novel by Kiyoko Murata

Cast: Sachiko Murase, Tomoko Otakara, Richard Gere

Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Shoji Ueda

Music: Shinichiro Ikebe

“Rhapsody in August” should not work. Its four children characters are uninteresting ciphers. They’re tasked with selling lines like “People are apt to forget even a dreadful event like that”… and then the child actors do not come close to being able to do that. The middle-aged characters are even more cardboard, and don’t get me started about the scene in the woods. Yes, I was ready to dislike the movie…

But then I didn’t.

Somehow, despite all of its shortcomings, Kurosawa has pulled off making “Rhapsody in August” something special. It takes awhile, but as soon as you recognize that this isn’t a “film,” but a meditation on subjects so close to Kurosawa’s heart, it clicks. In many ways, this is the movie that “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” could have and should have been, because it succeeds in almost all the ways that anthology failed. Most importantly, it creates emotional resonance for the viewer.

The maestro here deals with the subjects of age and nuclear devastation – ones he’s dealt with them numerous times throughout his career. Here, his point-of-view is somber. Resigned.

MSDRHIN EC006Our story concerns an old woman named Kane (Sachiko Murase), who takes in her four grandchildren for the summer. She has been invited to the death bed of her brother in Hawaii, but he is a man she does not remember nor is she sure he’s really her brother (this is not because of Alzheimer’s so much as it is because she had so many brothers and sisters). Kane was one of the survivors of the atomic bombing, though her husband was not so fortunate – he worked at the school that was directly under ground zero. Kane saw the explosion from her home and raced toward the devastation, and the aftereffects of the radiation made her lose most of her hair.

The four interchangeable grandchildren are, at first, horrible to Kane. They see the opportunity for her to say goodbye to her maybe-brother as a perfect chance to go on vacation to Hawaii! They mock her cooking (she has to prepare everything soft because of her dentures) and complain about not having any appliances. And then they begin to learn about the bomb and how it affected not only their family, but all of Japan. Kurosawa sets up what a big journey this will be early when he has all the kids wearing Americanized t-shirts with US schools and brands on during the first scenes.

There is a haunting sequence where three of the children tour Nagasaki. Kurosawa sets them at the center of a very empty frame when they stand in the schoolyard where their grandfather died decades before. Before them is a piece of metal playground equipment that was warped and half-melted in the explosion. It’s impossible not to think of the old man sitting in the swing set moments before he died in “Ikiru” at that moment, and I think that it is purposeful by Kurosawa. Later, the children visit all the memorials set up for the dead, but do not interact with any of them until they reach a stone that tells of how so many of the dead died of thirst after the blast. The children race into the pond in front of them and movingly splash the monument with water. This signals a change in their characters – they haven’t gained any depth, but we can now see that they are good people.

Kurosawa solely wrote the screenplay here, and he sets up an interesting dynamic. The children want to…need to know more about the bomb and how it affected the Grandmother they have come to love. In doing so, they are tearing open old wounds for the woman – the experience is wholly upsetting to both parties, but somehow necessary.

There is a third generation at play here… the parents of the children and the sons and daughters of Kane, but this is the least interesting aspect of “Rhapsody in August.” These moments play almost like a Greatest Hits from previous Kurosawa. They suspect their American cousin is important and therefore want to impress him. They don’t care about Kane and don’t want to spend time with her or understand her point of view.

Richard Gere is weirdly brought in around the two-thirds mark to meet Kane and, essentially, apologize on behalf of all Americans for dropping the bomb. It’s certainly an odd choice, considering that emotional maturation from Kane that appears to happen here is later undercut by the finale, as is using Gere as a voicebox for all of America. The movie rightly ignores the he-said/she-said of the bomb drop, choosing not to mention Pearl Harbor, the whats, whos, hows and why. Instead, it acknowledges that there are still bad feelings from the Japanese towards America and does the smartest thing possible by personalizing the devastation (both physical and mental) on one woman and her journey. So suddenly bringing in Gere to, essentially, speak for a nation is odd. That said, Gere acquits himself well to an almost impossible role to play, and there is a delightful moment with him and the grandchildren involving a makeshift bed that I very much enjoyed. It’s the most character development any supporting character gets.

rhapsody 3Kurosawa gives us very simple shots and set-ups for most of the movie’s runtime, and considering what a simple story we have, this is fitting. But by doing that, he draws so much more attention to the moments where he does show off. The characters sometimes say that, when the bomb was dropped, it was like a gigantic eye opening over the hills, and Kurosawa blatantly illustrates that in a single shot of amazing power – it feels almost like a Dali painting. There’s another sequence with ants which is one of those metaphors that isn’t obvious… you can interpret the American cousin and the Japanese child watching marching ants make their way up a rose in multiple ways, and that’s a good thing.

And then, of course, there’s that image of Kane running through the storm, clutching her overturned umbrella as she refuses to go quietly into that dark night. It really is one of the most indelible of all Kurosawa images (so much so that it was made into the DVD cover I bought), made all the more heartbreaking by seeing the grandchildren who have grown to love her so chasing her… trying desperately to get to her. Save her. It’s moments like these where “Rhapsody in August” is a poem, one where you might not remember the individual words or phrases, but do remember how it made you feel. The scenes will fade, the melancholy will not.

Notes:

-The movie was apparently controversial because Kurosawa didn’t underline Japan’s responsibility on getting the bomb dropped on them. Really, stupid people? I mean, really?

-No Criterion edition yet, the DVD is released under MGM’s “World Films” brand, has a trailer as supporting material and… nothing else.

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Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

dreams 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1990

Studio: Warner Brothers

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Akira Terao, Mitsunori Isaki, Martin Scorsese

Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Shoki Ueda

Music: Shin’ichiro Ikebe

Look, let’s set aside for a moment the fact that this is probably one, if not the, biggest vanity projects in the history of film. If any single director deserves such an indulgence, it is Kurosawa, especially after “Ran.”

My biggest stumbling block with “Dreams” is that I do not know who would enjoy it. A person who has never seen a Kurosawa movie before won’t find enough here to want to seek out more from the master. And a Kurosawa devotee will only find regurgitations of ideas and thesis’ that the director has stated better elsewhere. The film is, in almost every way, the equivalent of a person waking up from sleep – they vaguely remember a dream that touches on important meditations to that person before the dream quickly dissipates into nothingness. Ah well, at least it’s pretty.

Sunshine Through the Rain

dreams 4The first passage is the film’s strongest, and also its most fairy tale like. Was this what Kurosawa was hoping to achieve with all of his shorts? It is raining, but the sun also shines, and a young surrogate for Kurosawa (Mitsunori Isaki) is told to stay inside – foxes get married during this weather, and he must not witness that. Of course he does, and when he gets home from his excursion his mother hands him a knife and tells him that he has two options – suicide or going to beg the foxes’ forgiveness, even though they rarely grant it.

The passage sets up the biggest recurring theme for the film, and that is that its protagonists almost invariably will witness something strange or spectacular, but never interact with it. It works in this story, but elsewhere becomes hugely grating.

There are little things here that made me smile, like watching young Kurosawa wandering through the tall trees of the forest, much like the characters in “Rashomon,” but this time surrounded by rain. I also love the dark ending, with the boy heading off to his probable death under the beauty of a rainbow. Had all the shorts been this strange and lovely, “Dreams” could have been something very special.

The Peach Orchard

dreams 2The young Kurosawa surrogate follows a girl into a former peach orchard, where everything has been chopped down. Human dolls appear and say they are representatives of the peach trees (or something), then rain down peach blossoms on the boy. And the girl he followed? She is a new peach tree, just beginning to form.

The segment is only memorable for the sight of all the dolls on a weird, beautiful four-tiered garden. It is an image that is both laughable and transcendent. Laughable because it is often in long shot with the dolls in elaborate costumes doing odd, disparate choreography. Transcendent because of the shower of peach blossoms that fill the shot, which gave me goosebumps.

The Blizzard

dreams 5The short feels endless, with a group of mountain climbers lost in a blizzard and searching for camp. They falter, one after the other, with the final one encountering a beautiful angel or demon who tries to get him off the edge of a cliff. Once she disappears, the snow lets up and camp is only feet away.

This segment and “The Tunnel” both feel like old E.C. Comics from the ‘50s, and while that works in “The Tunnel’s” favor, here you know where this one is heading from the start and then wait, and wait. There’s a lovely shot of icicles that lingers while you wait for everything to play out, though.

The Tunnel

dreams 6The most interesting of the shorts, at least for me, sees a soldier heading home through a tunnel, only to find he is not alone – the tunnel is also haunted by the ghosts of all the soldiers from his battalion. While in every other short the main character is a cipher, here the soldier must interact with these ghosts… convince them to move on.

Kurosawa has been struggling with his feelings on war since his second film, and alternately exploits the “beauty” of such battles while also condemning the actions of those who create them. His most dire statement was in his previous film, “Ran,” which ended with a blind man standing precariously on the edge of a cliff, his promise of safety useless at his side. The segment’s most outstanding moment comes when the soldier desperately looks to his fallen friends and cries out: “They call you heroes but you died like dogs!” It’s a perfect encapsulation of the mixed feelings we’ve been getting from the maestro throughout his entire career, and almost (almost!) makes the entire thing worth it.

Crows

dreams 7The segment is notable for Martin Scorsese’s cameo as Vincent Van Gogh, who speaks to the adult Kurosawa surrogate (complete with his trademark hat!), played by Akira Terao. There is fun seeing Kurosawa shoot what is either France or the Netherlands and seeing such brightness and color, but the segment ends unfortunately with the surrogate wandering through Van Gogh’s paintings in an underwhelming obvious bit that seems more akin to something you’d see on “Sesame Street” than to Kurosawa.

Mount Fuji in Red

dreams 8Japan is literally on fire, with the grandfather’s horrors from “I Live in Fear” coming to vivid life in this segment. It’s neat to see Kurosawa playing with big scale special effects and choosing to keep them playful and artistic instead of realistic (my favorite shot of the entire film is when we see the snow melt on Mount Fuji), but the content here is entirely redundant… though it is better than the next bit.

Oh, and there is one hilarious moment where, after the blast, someone is explaining how he is going to die. He removes his glasses to clean them, thinks twice, and just throws the glasses away. Oh how I wish such humanity was on display elsewhere.

The Weeping Demon

dreams 3The nadir of the film, it just repeats everything we’ve just seen in “Mount Fuji in Red,” but even more literal (if that’s possible) and with ugly horned demons that look like they went to the same make-up artist as the father in “Dodes’ka-den” after he got food poisoning. Please don’t get me started about the giant dandelions, I’d rather not think about it.

Village of the Watermills

dreams 9A stunning location that Kurosawa obviously saw and then struggled in figuring out how to utilize. His surrogate wanders through the beauty and then has a talk with one of the residents, who speaks in that cranky, obvious way old wise men do in movies like this. Then there’s a procession that feels more Fellini than Kurosawa, but still is a beautiful way to bring to a finish an otherwise dreadful segment.

I recently rewatched the incredible, silent documentary “Antonio Gaudi,” which showcases the greatest architect of all time by simply shooting his work… regarding it. I almost wonder whether Kurosawa should have created the beautiful images and then just regarded them, pulling out all pretense of storytelling. Would the movie have been more successful? Perhaps. It’s hard to call “Dreams” a quantifiable failure because, as I wrote when I opened this article, it’s a vanity project.

Did Kurosawa achieve what he wanted to achieve?

Notes:

-The Criterion release has a documentary about the making of this film that is a half hour longer than the feature. I must admit that I love that Kurosawa’s art is used as the cover art of the package, and the script for the never-shot ninth dream is fascinating.

Ran

ran 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1985

Studio: Toho, Acteurs Auteurs Associes, Orion Classics

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide, Hideo Oguni

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Mieko Harada, Peter

Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, Asakazu Nakai

Music: Toru Takemitsu

“King Lear” is a masterpiece. “Ran” is an even greater masterpiece.

The original play is one of the Bard’s finest, but one must allow for the possibility that another artist can improve upon his words and story. Kurosawa took all the best parts of Shakespeare’s work and then found ways to improve on them. Nothing the master does here is easy – any other filmmaker, no matter how talented, would have buckled under the hard, curious choices Kurosawa makes. But by taking those chances, the film becomes transcendent. When you step back and view the movie as a whole, it becomes clear that it is one of the greatest pieces of art of our time… or any time.

How’s that for praise? So where do I go from here…

Well, I suppose, to the story. Co-written by Kurosawa, Masato Ide and Hideo Oguni, they transport “Lear” to ancient Japan. The king is now a warlord named Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai). Not just any warlord, Hidetora has conquered land after land, until everything he can see is in his charge. As the film opens, he decides to “retire,” essentially, and gift land and a castle (since he’s got plenty) to each of his three sons. His most beloved son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), declares that this will only end in blood and chaos and, in a fit of rage, Hidetora disowns him.

Of course, Saburo was right, and soon the blood begins the flow…

Hidetora is not a good person. None of the characters are, except one. The warlord has killed countless people, and after slaughtering kings and other warlords has forced their daughters to marry his sons. The first is Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), who is the single righteous character, and has forgiven Hidetora for his sins — a gesture that the warlord cannot comprehend. The other is Kaede (Mieko Harada), who reacted… less sweetly. But more on her later.

Despite being a monster, Hidetora stupidly expects that his sons will live in peace with one another. Oops. Had he waited until after his death to have his intentions made clear, the chaos and bloodshed of the first two acts would have still probably happened in about the same manner they happen in the film. But allowing Hidetora to witness them, powerless to have any effect on them, adds in an extra layer of tragedy.

ran 3Even though we are essentially watching scorpions trapped in a bucket stinging one another until they are all dead, we still invest ourselves emotionally with the characters. Every time I watch the movie, I am shocked that this happens… and yet it does. This is further surprising considering one of Kurosawa’s visual techniques – he shoots nothing in close up. Whereas other directors and cinematographers would lean on those close ups in order to underline emotion and help us engage with the cast, Kurosawa keeps his distance.

And yet we still care.

So much of this has to do with the first few minutes of the film. Yes, we immediately see Hidetora powerfully take down a boar, but later he falls asleep mid-conversation. He might be a warlord, but he is still an old man. In a gesture so small and yet so resonant, Saburo cuts down two large branches and sticks them into the ground near his father, shading him as he sleeps. Horrible people, but through that one act of kindness, we care. Perhaps a comparable movie is the first “Godfather” film. Because Michael cares about Kate, we care about Michael. And because we see Vito in moments of humanity… moments of kindness… our heart aches when he dies. The same is true here.

ran 4Perhaps another part of it is that “Ran” has one of the greatest villains in the history of film with Lady Kaede. For me, she ranks right up there with the Joker, the Reverend from “Night of the Hunter” and Hannibal Lecter. Eyebrows painted high on her forehead, Kaede is the second variation on Lady Macbeth that Kurosawa has given us, after Lady Asaji in “Throne of Blood.” They have the same creepy slow squeak of their kimono whenever they move, but Kaede just blows Asaji away. In my “Throne of Blood” article I wrote that Kaede is “a tornado of a woman capable of slow manipulation and fierce battle depending on what tactic she needed to take,” and indeed she is. But the most interesting thing about her is that she is the only character in the entire film to get a happy ending. After being forced to marry into the family that slaughtered her family, Kaede has rightfully been plotting revenge for (one assumes) decades. And she does just that. The film lingers on her character even after the death of Hidetora to show her moment of triumph, and though she is immediately slaughtered (it happens offscreen, but we do see a glorious spray of blood hit the wall as she is beheaded), she gets the opportunity to learn that she has won. This is purposeful – Hidetora lives just long enough to see everything he built fall and Kaede lives just long enough to see the same thing. As written, it is nearly an impossible character to play, and yet Harada manages to pull it off with a tour-de-force performance. It’s not many actors who can go from begging to strength to literally sucking the blood from the neck of the man who killed your husband as a seduction tactic, and yet she does. Bravo.

If you haven’t seen the film, throw out any notions of how it looks, because you are wrong. While one would expect drab darkness in the costumes and insidious tones in the cinematography, we get neither. Instead we get over a thousand glorious, colorful costumes (which won an Oscar) that Kurosawa often frames against lush colors of green, red and orange. Nakadai is covered in garish overdone old person make-up which in almost any other movie would be laughable (this type of make-up hasn’t gone well for Kurosawa before). The music is sparse where you would expect it to crescendo, and I have already mentioned all the medium shots instead of close ups. It’s almost as if the master set out to turn every visual cliché on its ear, and not only managed to pull it all off, but make it look great.

ran 2It’s a testament to how engaging “Ran” is from a story standpoint that I’m just now getting to the battle scenes, which eclipse anything in Kurosawa’s oeuvre…and indeed probably 99% of other filmed battle scenes. By the time the battles hit, we are so engaged emotionally that the actual warfare is an afterthought – and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. What a joy it is to behold. That shot of Hidetora walking down the stairs of his burning castle. The shots of the cavalry galloping towards the woods, with no music and just the overwhelming thud of the hooves. Watching the sky darken over the field of battle when real clouds block out the sun. The sight of an army atop a hill. Filmmaking doesn’t get much better than this, folks.

The ending is the darkest Kurosawa ever created – even darker than “Kagemusha” and “I Live in Fear.” It seems to argue for the opposite of the themes that Kurosawa usually illustrated earlier in his career, and why not? People change. The world changes. His life was obviously very difficult, but in the end he still remembered that the art mattered. That the art lasted. Like the great paintings, plays, books and films of our time, “Ran” will last. And that final image of the blind man on the edge of the precipice, abandoned by his gods and ever closer to falling, remains possibly the most haunting final moment in film history.

Notes:

  • Because of some shady dealings, “Ran” was not chosen as Japan’s entry for the 1985 Academy Awards. Thankfully, members of the Academy still rallied and got Kurosawa nominated for Best Director (every now and then the Academy gets something right), and the movie was also nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and won the Oscar for Best Costumes. Japan’s entry that year wasn’t even nominated for Best Foreign Film, and “Ran” lost in all other categories to “Out of Africa.”
  • The Criterion DVD is long out of print but worth spending the extra money for, because the supplements are essential to any fan of the film. Sidney Lumet’s incredible introduction alone makes the hefty secondary market prices worth it.
  • Roger Ebert’s Great Movies entry on “Ran” is also essential.

Kagemusha

kage 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1980

Studio: Toho, 20th Century Fox

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki

Cinematographer: Takao Saito

Music: Shin’ichiro Ikebe

Visually, “Kagemusha” is the best looking film Kurosawa has made so far, eclipsing even “The Hidden Fortress” and “Dersu Uzala.” More than that, every single scene is good, often wonderful. If we are using Howard Hawks’ definition of a great movie (“three great scenes, no bad ones”), then “Kagemusha” is indeed great.

But great as it may be, it’s not very good.

As noted above, all of the ingredients are certainly there… and yet the parts exceed the whole. The movie seems to be about a lot of things, but at the same time is about nothing. You don’t engage with the main character (actually, I’m fairly certain the main character isn’t really our main character), and by the time we come to the final, stunning image…I was left cold. I was wowed by the visual beauty, but not emotionally moved. It’s very telling that none of the main characters take part in the climax of the movie – they all sit at the sidelines, pedestrians to their own fates.

And yet the excellence of the individual scenes and the beauty of what Kurosawa and his cinematographer Takao Saito achieve throughout make you almost able to wave off how impersonal it all feels. Almost.

In the 1500s, three clans battle with one another. When the leader of the Takeda clan (Tatsuya Nakadai) is assassinated by a sniper’s bullet, he lives long enough to put into motion a plot for a common Thief who is virtually identical to him (Nakadai again) to pretend to be him for three years’ time, preserving the clans’ safety. And thus the leader’s brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is tasked with ensuring that the Thief completes his mission.

Why three years and not until the young heir to the crown is an adult? No idea. There’s also a subplot where Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), the illegitimate son of the leader, is grumpy because his son has been chosen as the heir, not him.

kage 2There is so much potential for the story here…potential that is never really acted upon. Kurosawa has returned again and again throughout his career to the question “What is the measure of a human being?” and one would think he would be exploring that here as well, considering the premise. And perhaps he was, as evidenced by one of the final shots – when the Thief races through the bodies of the murdered armies and is himself shot, Kurosawa interestingly cuts to the empty chair of the clan leader, implying that the Thief had become the leader metaphorically. There are discussions between Nobukado and other characters about how the Thief had started to resemble the leader more than just physically, but this isn’t justified by any of the Thief’s actions. The Thief creates a close relationship with the leader’s grandson, but the grandson is quick to point out that he was afraid of his real grandfather. The Thief tries to ride the leader’s horse, but is immediately thrown. The Thief is asked to make a single military decision, but his answer is merely a mimic of something he heard earlier, not his own thoughts. Finally, the Thief has a dream where the ghost of the Leader is chasing him, not embracing him or merging with him. I would have bought that the Thief became completely loyal to his adopted clan, but the end takes it three steps too far because it is not set up.

Or Kurosawa and his co-writer Masato Ide could have taken it in the other direction, where the Thief runs the clan into the ground because he is not the equal of his double. But that film was not to be either.

These are all symptoms of the main problem of “Kagemusha,” which that it does not know who the Thief is. Yes, it’s inspired that Kurosawa and Ide chose a Thief to, essentially, steal away the identity of the clan leader. But who is this guy? He seems to fervently disagree with the clan’s politics at the beginning, but that never gets paid off. He seems to have a sense of humor, but aside from a scene or two that is never paid off. He seems to be a lot of things, but the only real trait he has is being a cipher.

It’s not Nakadai’s fault – he’s a very good actor and shines extremely well when given something to play with… though you still can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Toshiro Mifune had played the role. This is the fault of the writing. Because the writers do not define the Thief before he takes the place of the leader, the actual act of the impersonation doesn’t have the suspense or pleasure it should bring the viewer.

Speaking of the impersonation scenes, this is also a major missed opportunity. Every time Nobukado walks the Thief into a room of the castle, he introduces the Thief and then says that the people know the secret. The brother does. All the generals do. The illegitimate son does. A group of seven bodyguards do. Basically everyone in the castle except the mistresses and the leader’s grandson know the secret… and that robs most of the scenes of any suspense they might have had. There’s one very funny scene of the Thief and the leader’s mistresses where he almost blows his cover, but that’s really it. It’s never played for real suspense, there are no real shocks and, when the cover is finally blown, it feels like a major anticlimax.

Perhaps Kurosawa picked the wrong protagonist. Shift the film over to Nobukado and perhaps it would have been a masterpiece. Every time he speaks with the Thief, he is essentially talking to a carbon copy of his dead brother – talk about a weird grieving process. And all of the pressure is really on him… he’s got to keep the Thief under control, the Generals happy and the clan together, all while keeping a titanic secret. Now that’s a story I would love to see, and it’s telling that in many scenes your eyes shifts to Nobukado, even though he is not the primary focus.

Now that I’ve walloped the movie for 1,000 words, I should underline that I still think you should see it… and as soon as possible. There are things in “Kagemusha” I have never seen on film before, and moments of transcendence that basically reach out of the screen, grab the viewer and shake him.

kage 3The movie lives in moments both intimate and sweeping. There’s a scene early in the movie where a messenger delivers an important report. It’s been done thousands of times before, many by Kurosawa. But he finds a fresh perspective here, with the messenger running through what appears to be a sea of dead bodies… that are revealed to only be sleeping. There’s a shot of soldiers framed against an orange/red sky that is the most beautiful image of war ever put on film – better than anything Kubrick, Malick or Spielberg ever cooked up. The first shot of the film is endless, in a wonderful way. It shows the throne room, with three virtually identical men sitting near one another, facing away from each other. The dialogue content is great, but Kurosawa’s simple frame has you searching desperately for where the split screen is, and just when you think you’ve figured it out (it’s gotta be the candlestick!), he then has the characters move in such a way that makes you scramble to rethink again.

This is the first time Kurosawa has really used color to his advantage. “Dodes’ka-den” was a failed experiment (not just visually, but that’s another story), and though “Dersu Usala” is definitely one of the most visually appealing of the maestro’s works, it uses natural forest colors for most of its running time. Here, the entire movie looks like a colorful painting. From the stunning costumes and fabrics to the shots of rainbows, weather and clouds, the master is working on a different level here. It never gets more beautiful than the aforementioned dream sequence, which feels somehow like a silent film ascetically while also resembling a Monet painting. It’s the kind of sequence where you want to rewind it as soon as you finish it, just to drink in its beauty over and over. It all never looks real (the blood at the finale might as well be literally paint brushed on the horses and soldiers by Kurosawa himself), but in this case the palate makes it visually transcendent.

Then, of course, there’s my favorite sound effect in the movies: hundreds of horses galloping all at once. It’s not quite as overwhelming and awesome as “Ran,” but it’s pretty close.

It’s interesting to compare “Kagemusha” to “Dersu Uzala.” If I were stacking the two together, “Dersu Uzala” is by most definitions a lesser film. The dialogue is a trainwreck, the pacing off and the premise told thousands of times before. It’s got a couple of great moments, but just as many clunky bits. And yet, I still like it more than “Kagemusha” because I love Dersu as a character, and this film might be really pretty in all the ways that count, but it’s also soulless.

Notes:

  • The Criterion disc is incredible. It has an unmissable conversation with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who helped Kurosawa find funding for this movie, as well as a 45 minute video comparing Kurosawa’s artwork to the finished film.
  • “Kagemusha” was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, as was the Art Decoration.

Dersu Uzala

dersu 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1975

Studio: Daiei Film, Mosfilm

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Yuri Nagibin, based on the book by Vladimir Arsenyev

Cast: Maxim Munzuk, Yury Solomin

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai, Yuro Gantman, Fyodor Dobronravov

Music: Isaak Shvarts

What is the measure of a man?

It’s a question Kurosawa revisited often, most notably in “Ikiru” and “Red Beard” previously, and again the master returns to it. This film came out at the lowest point in his career, after the implosion of “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” the rumors of his mental instability, the bombing of the schizophrenic “Dodes’ka-den,” his attempted suicide and his inability to find funding for anything in Japan. And while the film was shot completely in Russia with an almost entirely new crew, it feels like a great Kurosawa movie – like the maestro had finally managed to overcome whatever darkness had surrounded him… and just got back to making great movies with great characters and great stories. And while the scope of “Dersu Uzala” is certainly epic, Kurosawa never forgets that awe is never genuine without intimacy.

The true-ish story of Dersu Uzala (played here by Maxim Munzuk) is one that he had been trying to make for decades, and the writing posits a tremendous understanding of this very fascinating enigma. He’s a man who lives simply in the woods, hunting and roaming from place to place, never settled and never wanting more than the basics. He is, for all intents and purposes, a hermit. And yet within Dersu’s soul is a kindness and engagement one would never expect. Every person he encounters (which, obviously, are very few), he treats with dignity and openness, wanting to share his lifestyle and ways with anyone who will listen. Aside from the whole living in the woods thing, does this guy sound at all familiar to you?

dersu 2There is a slight frame story of a military captain named Arseniev (Yury Solomin) searching for the unmarked grave of Dersu. After that, we are flashed back several years to 1902 and the origin story of how Arseniev met Dersu – all with the backdrop of sweeping, epic shots of the Shkotovo forests shot in astounding 70 mm. Though in many ways this film represents Kurosawa going back to the basics, one thing has changed: In his older films like “Rashomon” he shot up through the trees into the sky. Now he shoots down into the trees toward the earth. Attach whatever symbolism you like to that observation.

The story is split down the middle, with the first half focusing on the first encounter of Arseniev and Dersu and the forming of their friendship. The second half is when they are reunited years later, when Dersu is losing his vision and becoming incapable of living the life he wants. Critical reaction when the film came out was positive (the movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), but critics mostly said that the first half was incredible, while the second sagged. I feel like the opposite is true.

When Dersu first meets Arseniev and his men, all of the expected things take place. Arseniev is a cipher, dreary except in his relationship with Dersu (shades of “The Great Gatsby” and “Sophie’s Choice” abound, with their bland narrator way less interesting than the title character) The men mock him for his smell, his way of life, his seemingly silly insights into the forest…etc. Kurosawa falls back on one of his most unfortunate clams – having the group of soldiers laugh so obviously at everything Dersu does. In the most clichéd scene in the film, the men are in a shooting competition to prove their manhood, and Dersu unsurprisingly blows them all out of the water by not only hitting the bottle they are swinging for target practice, but the string attached to the bottle. Would Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Yuri Nagibin have been more successful if they had allowed Dersu to just seem nuts until he saves Arseniev’s life? I think so.

The movie perks up incredibly during that sequence, where Dersu and Arseniev are unable to head back to camp because they are surrounded in the wilderness by thin ice. Kurosawa goes to pains to show that these are real actors who are actually standing on real ice that is cracking in places, upping the stakes even further. What follows is a dizzying, wonderful sequence, one of the best in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, where the men start slicing straw down to build a make-shift hut that will save them from freezing to death.

dersu 3The second half of the movie is much more bittersweet. Time passes, the two old friends reunite and there is another crackerjack suspense scene, this time involving Dersu in a flooding river (also shot very obviously without stunt men in a real flooding river). But the real heart of the second half is a quiet scene where Dersu finally admits to himself (and Arseniev) that he cannot see. It’s heartbreaking, and watching Dersu attempt to change his way of living to become acclimated to his macular degeneration by joining Arseniev prove to be some of the saddest passages in all of the master’s work.

Of course, one cannot mention the movie without mentioning the look. While Kurosawa’s use of color in “Dodes’ka-den” was disastrous, here it is vivid and deep. When Arseniev first visits the woods, Kurosawa blasts them in a deep red, almost like a horror film, and as Dersu’s point of view becomes more pronounced the light becomes more natural. The film was shot on 70 mm, and it’s one of those movies that truly needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It’s worth the wait. Other “epic” films like “Gone With the Wind” and “Lawrence of Arabia” are great on the big screen but hold up incredibly well on the small screen too. I feel like “Dersu Uzala” works as well as it does because its scope allows you to forgive the many storytelling flaws of the first half and the blandness of Arseniev. I would probably be less forgiving if I were watching it on an iPad.

And seeing it on a smaller screen robs the movie of its most interesting vision: Dersu’s face. Maxim Munzuk gives a great performance, but Kurosawa seems obsessed with his face and look – lingering shots on him and his reactions to those around him. It’s one of those faces which is not handsome, but is impossible to look away from or forget. Long after the memories of the forests and the river and even the ice fade, you’ll remember Dersu, and smile.

Notes:

-The film also reminded me of the works of Werner Herzog, specifically his one-two punch of “Aguirre: Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.” You get the same epic views of vistas that you can’t quite believe were actually captured on film, and there’s that inherent sense of danger as you see the actors encountering life-threatening things. But while Herzog’s masterpieces lacked humanity, Kurosawa has it here in spades.

-The film is only available on a pretty shitty Kino DVD, and there’s no sign of a Criterion release. This is a shame, since the movie needs some restoration and watching the Kino version at home won’t fill you with the sense of wonder you need to fully engage. Take my earlier advice and wait until you can see it in 70 mm at a revival house. Or call Criterion and start insisting that they get their act together and get the rights to the movie.

Dodes’ka-den

dod 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1970

Studio: Club of the Four Nights Productions, Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hasimoto, based on the book by Shugoro Yamamoto

Cast: Yoshitaka Zushi, Kin Sugai, Toshiyuki Tonomura

Cinematographer: Yasumichi Fukuzawa, Takao Saito

Music: Toru Takemitsu

“Dodes’ka-den” comes with a lot of baggage, most of it unfortunate. After becoming marred in an abortive attempt to direct a part of “Tora! Tora! Tora!” it was rumored that Kurosawa had become mentally unhinged, and it was difficult for him to find funding for his next feature. With most people now glued to their television and movie attendance in decline, Kurosawa formed a company with three other iconic Japanese directors, hoping that their pedigree would help films get produced. This movie was to kick off everything, and was intended to make a huge splash…then it bombed and was the first and last movie the production company would release. The film’s failure is famously (though never confirmed to be) one of the reasons Kurosawa attempted suicide in 1971.

Yeah, like I wrote, a lot of baggage.

Because of that, you really want “Dodes’ka-den” to be some kind of masterpiece, considering all the suffering that went into it and that it (possibly) caused. Some people do really like it – the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and it’s received the prestigious Criterion Collection treatment (like most of Kurosawa’s films). I do wish I could say “Dodes’ka-den” is great… but it isn’t.

Actually, I’m not quite sure what it is, either.

I watched this movie three times for this article, and I genuinely don’t know what Kurosawa was trying to do with the film. I also don’t know why he would choose this story for the film that would launch his new major production company and bring hoards of Japanese away from the television and into the theater. The film roughly translates to “Clickity-Clack” (which, again, isn’t the best title to bring people in) and it focuses on families and people who live in a dump. There’s no main character, either.

That said, my opinion about whether this was the “right” film is neither here nor there. What matters is the quality of the film itself. This is another one of Kurosawa’s stories focusing on the poor and destitute, but though one would imagine that actually physically living in a dump would be even worse than the shattered, broken building of “The Lower Depths,” you would be wrong. For a dump, there is barely any trash around, just a few broken rocks, and most of the houses (yes, houses) have silverware and full serving sets. The dump also gets alcohol deliveries daily. So even though Kurosawa seems to be saying that the characters are living in squalor, the reality is that it seems more like a lower middle class neighborhood. And a pretty one at that – this is Kurosawa’s first color film and he overuses it throughout, making the dump look positively beautiful in places, while in others the cinematography and set design is so interesting that your attention drifts away from the less-interesting things happening onscreen and onto the colorful walls and other sets.

There are several storylines, none of them particularly gripping, and all seem to have a different tone. The one group that does live in actual squalor is a father and son who get food poisoning. There’s one about two couples who swap partners and are almost endlessly drunk. Another tells the story of a girl raped by her uncle while her aunt is in the hospital and becomes pregnant. The “Dodes’ka-den” of the title refers to a mentally handicapped young man who pretends to be a trolly operator all day, marching through the dump while repeating the title over and over again. There’s more, much more, and yet despite six or seven main threads Kurosawa has to explore, the results all feel empty and half-formed.

dod 2The most problematic of the storylines is the one of the father and the son. The Father keeps pretending that they’re going to move into a big house, and Kurosawa uses weird cutaways to a fantasy house that seem like something out of a children’s movie. Every time the house changes or alters thanks to the Father’s words, we get a new version of the house. After the father insists that undercooked meat isn’t undercooked, and he and his son both eat it, they get food poisoning and progressively get sicker. The Father refuses to get help and the son dies. In theory, this could be an infuriating (in the right way) story where you feel so much for the child… it could be a story that “says” something. But Kurosawa inexplicably slathers the two actors with such over-the-top “sick” make-up that they look like vampire zombies (yes, zombies that are vampiric). How are you supposed to care about a dying child when, every time you look at him, you expect him to turn into a bat? Worse, at the climax of the story, when the child dies in front of his father, we get barely a few seconds to process it before Kurosawa does a random smash cut away from it to women laughing. Why? What I’m trying to say is that this story does not work on any level.

Dod 3What’s most frustrating about “Dodes’ka-den” is that there are great scenes in it. An annoying woman (you can always tell a character is going to be annoying when he or she carries her cigarette low in her mouth) barters with a vegetable salesman (yes, they have vegetable salesmen in dumps too, apparently) over the price of cabbage, all the while tearing pieces off so it weighs less. Then, when she gets the price she wants, she stuffs all the torn pieces into her bag as well. There’s another scene where a girl is wrapping flowers, showing such quiet strength as her uncle just attacks her verbally, blaming her for all his problems. The scene where the boy first gets into his imaginary trolly and sets off for the day is beautiful.

And yet, I can’t believe that those scenes are in the same movie as a delivery boy who delivers exposition about as clunky as your usual telenovella. Or a metaphor so labored and obvious as when the uncle rapes the girl on a bed of red roses. Or that the father/son storyline ends by having Kurosawa pull back to show the father standing at the pool of his imaginary house. Or the aforementioned make-up.

“Dodes’ka-den” is one of those movies where you want to dismiss it, but the few great things in it make you unable to. There was still greatness in Kurosawa, but this is not a great movie. I wish I understood more of why Kurosawa wanted to make this movie…wanted to tell this story so badly, and why he chose this as his “comeback” film. There are so many questions and too few answers for a movie that frankly doesn’t deserve all the time invested in unwrapping its mysteries.

Notes:

-One of the most annoying things that Kurosawa repeatedly does in his films is having characters act “hilarious” while drunk. It doesn’t work in “Madadayo,” or “The Lower Depths” or “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” and it certainly does not work here. In fact, the only time drunken fools ever were worth the time and investment in a Kurosawa film was in “Ikiru,” which tends to be the exception to every rule.

-This is the only Kurosawa film I believe I would actively avoid watching again.

Red Beard

red beard 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1965

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide, based on the short story collection by Shugoro Yamamoto and the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai

Music: Masaru Sato

Which moment in Akira Kurosawa’s filmography most perfectly encapsulates him as an artist? Is it the old man singing in the snowy park from “Ikiru”? Or the graves in “Seven Samurai”? If you want to go all pessimistic, you could choose the old king walking out of the burning castle in “Ran” or Mifune and the arrows in “Throne of Blood.” Or you could even go for great moments in his lesser films. Perhaps something like the girl crying as she rechecks her work in “The Most Beautiful” or the penniless lover summoning up an imaginary orchestra in “One Wonderful Sunday.”

red beard 3Any of those would be good choices, but for me the most meaningful moment in all of Kurosawa is from “Red Beard.” A young thief named Choji is on the verge of death, and the women of the clinic where he’s being treated run to a well that is said to lead to where souls go after death. They scream the boy’s name into the well, begging his soul to return. I’m getting chills just writing about it. That scene stands not only as the most humane, transcendent moment in Kurosawa, but in all of film. It doesn’t get better than this, guys.

And no, despite the name, “Red Beard” is not a pirate movie. Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune) is the head doctor at a “rural” (i.e. poor) clinic in Edo in the 19th century. But though the movie is titled “Red Beard,” it’s not really about him – it’s about those lives he touches. It’s about the cocky upstart doctor Noboru (Yuzo Kayama) so disgusted with being placed in the clinic that he refuses to acquiesce to any of Red Beard’s rules. It’s about the dying old man who tirelessly works to help the clinic, forever trying to settle a debt with his soul that he never will. It’s about Otoyo (Terumi Niki), a pre-teen sex slave saved from a brothel by Red Beard and slowly nursed back to health at the clinic. And yes, it’s about Choji (Yoshitaka Zushi), the thieving liar who unknowingly helps Otoyo in her recovery.

The movie is the most deliberately paced of Kurosawa’s career… and by deliberate I mean “slowly.” But this isn’t a film with a beginning, middle and end – not really. And if you go into it expecting that, you’ll be let down. Patients enter and exit the story in odd structural places, long flashbacks that would hobble a lesser movie are begun at strange junctures. The most expensive portions of the film, which involve fires and an earthquake, are part of a flashback that would be cut out of 99% of other movies. But in pacing “Red Beard” this way, Kurosawa brings out the humanity of his characters. He understands that in this film, no single character can have an arc like one would expect (though the asshole upstart doctor’s arc comes close) and so he doesn’t spoon feed the audience. Only a master could pull it off, and Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters manage it beautifully.

There are moments in “Red Beard” that go completely off tone with everything that happens before and after. A female patient called the Mantis seduces Noboru in a scene right out of a film noir. There’s a sequence where a naked, conscious woman is in surgery that is jarring in its brutality, but totally necessary to Noboru’s journey. Right around the halfway point, Red Beard takes on a bunch of pimps at a brothel, using his knowledge of human anatomy to hit just the right places and break all the right bones. It seems like something out of a samurai movie. And yet, isn’t that the way life is? Things go along normally, then a piano randomly drops on someone.

Look, all of the above, from the pacing to the tone shifts to the flashbacks, could be interpreted as “flaws” in “Red Beard,” but they are the things that make the movie a masterpiece. Some critics list it in the same breath as Kurosawa’s other greats, but others dismiss it to varying degrees because they want something more straightforward. But in telling this story in all the ways you wouldn’t expect, Kurosawa has created something unlike any other film in history. And, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s a movie I love fiercely. That said, this should absolutely not be the first Kurosawa you watch – it’s the kind of movie that you indulge in after taking in many of his other masterworks and feel like you understand his voice as both a filmmaker and a human being.

“Red Beard” is also a big turning point for the maestro. While this movie is absolutely optimistic, almost every film Kurosawa would create after was brimming with pessimism and depression. This is not surprising, since Kurosawa attempted suicide after the failure of “Dodesukaden.” Here was a movie where every single one of Kurosawa’s wants was catered to – the shoot lasted two years, an entire town was built exactly as it would have been in the 19th century and instead of recreating weather, Kurosawa would just wait for it to happen naturally. He became notorious because of this and would have trouble raising money for his films for the rest of his life. It also marks the end of the most creative and excellent run of movies in Kurosawa’s filmography, starting with “The Bad Sleep Well” (many would argue it started a movie earlier with “The Hidden Fortress”) and includes no less than five back-to-back masterpieces (the others are “Yojimbo,” “Sanjuro” and “High and Low”).

But was it worth it? Like that playground in “Ikiru,” people can hem and haw about the making and Kurosawa’s eccentricities and his difficulties before and after the film, but in the end this masterpiece of a movie is still here. So yes, it was.

And then there’s Mifune.

red beard 2Here, Mifune portrays Red Beard as a blunt object – a brilliant man too tired to talk down to those around him anymore. Instead of talking them through their maladies, the doctor puts them in situations that help them understand what’s going on themselves. And, in doing that, he helps them get well. He could have portrayed this man in a thousand different ways, from saintly to a variation of his sarcastic, scratchy wildcard. Instead, Mifune allows the other actors to take center stage in scene after scene, making them better actors by giving them their spotlight and challenging them only when he needs to. Until the end, he remains the most generous of performers.

And this is the end. It’s bittersweet that this is the last time Mifune collaborated with Kurosawa. You can’t help but imagine what the actor would have brought to a movie like “Madadayo,” or as the insane king in “Ran,” and his shadow will always remain over all of Kurosawa’s later movies, great as they may be. Yes, that’s how important their work together was. Kurosawa challenged Mifune by not casting him in easy roles (instead of the kind dentist in “I Live in Fear!” Mifune portrays the possibly-insane-definitely-paranoid man at least 35 years older than Mifune was at the time), while Mifune brought spontaneity to Kurosawa’s films that were often so perfectly (sometimes too perfectly) shot and choreographed. They… fit.

And with that, we come to the end of the second act of Kurosawa’s career. What lies ahead is darker…angrier. While for so long he tiptoed so perfectly between tragedy and redemption, he was about to fall into the abyss.

Notes:

-This is one of the most frustrating releases in Criterion history. Oddly expensive considering the lack of extras, “Red Beard” has never gotten the proper upgrade it deserves.

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” article on “Red Beard” is some of his finest writing.

High & Low/Heaven & Hell

high and lowThe Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1963

Studio: Toho Studios, Kurosawa Productions Co.

Screenwriter: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Tomoyuki Tanaka, based on the book by Evan Hunter

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kenjiro Ishiyama

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito

Music: Masaru Sato

“High and Low” has about six different movies wrapped into its two-and-a-half hour running time, and all of them are pretty awesome. Even more impressively, this is one of the rarest of thrillers – one without a main character. The only other one I can think of is Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M,” so “High and Low” is in good company.

I much prefer the literal translation of the Japanese title, “Heaven and Hell,” and it addresses one of Kurosawa’s most revisited themes – wealth verses poverty. In the middle of a sweltering summer, someone has been staring up from the hells of the city ghetto to the stunning, air-conditioned house on a hill that overlooks the city. The house is owned by National Shoes executive Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), and the man in the ghetto decides to drag Gondo out of his heaven and down into hell.

But before that happens, we get 20 minutes of intrigue about women’s shoes. And it’s so much more gripping than any storyline about women’s shoes has any right to be. Gondo is fending off a group of executives who want to start producing cheap, shitty shoes. He’s putting his entire fortune on the line in order to take control of the entire company.

Then, suddenly, that drama is interrupted by a phone call – Gondo’s son has been kidnapped, and the ransom is roughly everything Gondo was going to spend on the takeover. 99% of lesser movies would have turned it into some sort of conspiracy, but Kurosawa and his three co-screenwriters have other ideas in mind. Turns out the kidnapper didn’t take Gondo’s son – he took the son of the Chauffer (Yutaka Sada) by mistake. The kidnapper doesn’t care, though – he insists on getting the ransom, otherwise he kills the Chauffer’s son, and banks on Gondo being humane enough to not let that happen.

Suddenly we have an incredibly gripping ethical dilemma. Would you give away all your hard-earned money to save the life of someone else’s child? The screenwriters have their cake and eat it too, framing Gondo’s decision to pay the ransom as the right thing to do…and absolutely nuts. When other characters offer opinions (in one incredible scene the police watch as the Chauffer gets down on his knees and begs for his son’s life), our sympathies keep aligning in different ways. There is no easy answer, and after Gondo gives his fortune away, Kurosawa ensures that we understand how devastating the consequences are – the right decision doesn’t mean it’s the easy one.

high and low 3I make this sound like “High and Low” is all about Gondo, but it isn’t. After the first hour, the point-of-view shifts away from the shoe mogul and onto the detectives trying to figure out whodunit. The shift point is an incredibly tense sequence on a bullet train, where the police helplessly watch as Gondo throws his fortune out the window. The boy is returned, but the police still have work to do. The way the screenwriters handle the transition is brilliant – you feel frustration with the police for not helping Gondo keep his money… and then Kurosawa cuts to a room full of sweating, exhausted police officers and outlines just how much work the officers have done on the case. And it’s a lot.

It’s just as gripping as the ethical dilemma, albeit in a completely different way. There’s something so wonderful about watching competent people doing their jobs well. The lead detective on the case is named Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), and his character is kept purposely bland. We needed to get into the mind of Gondo to understand his decisions, but with Tokura the case is what we want to focus on. The detective might have inner demons, a drinking problem, or whatever other cliché you can think of, but we wouldn’t know from the movie. Tokura is a cipher, easily upstaged by the supporting detectives like Bos’n (Kenjiro Ishiyama), and I think it’s the smartest thing Kurosawa could have done.

I also have to ask what the hell happened to Kurosawa’s relationship with Takashi Shimura. He continues to be cast in almost every one of Kurosawa’s films, but he’s barely visible in any of them. Why not cast him as Bos’n or the lead detective on the case? Why not cast him as Gondo and make Mifune the detective? It seems like such a waste of potential to see Shimura relegated to such nothing roles.

high and lowThe identity of the kidnapper is revealed fairly quickly in a non-showy manner. It’s a medical student named Ginjiro (Tsutomu Yamazaki)…and he seems pretty normal, as far as kidnappers are concerned. In “M,” the pedophile was played by Peter Lorre, with his round, child-like face and bulging eyes. It’s hard to forget that face. Ginjiro is vaguely handsome, stick thin and his face is barely memorable. He could be anyone, and that’s part of why the casting is effective. When the movie shifts gears in the final act from the investigation to a game of cat-and-mouse between the kidnapper and the detectives, Kurosawa puts a pair of reflective sunglasses on Ginjiro (it’s the middle of the night, but whatever). In doing so, he wipes away all traces of emotion from the kidnapper’s face, which makes his actions all the more unpredictable and, consequently, the sequence more tense.

The detectives follow Ginjiro down into the most hellish parts of the city – into brothels and crack houses where women in withdrawal scratch the walls until their nails break off. And then, to complete his metaphor, the screenwriters have the kidnapper head to the coast – he’s almost pulled off his murderous scheme and reached his “heaven” when the police find him.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” the movie unravels in the final five minutes as a psychology explains every. single. motivation. behind Norman Bates’ actions. It’s so hammy that it reads as comedic today. It’s a testament to Kurosawa’s genius that he refuses to give us any easy answers. There’s an incredible final sequence where Gondo meets Ginjiro in prison. We learn that Gondo has started working for a smaller shoe company but has free rein to do what he likes… but learn nothing about Ginjiro’s motivations. He hints, cackles and has a mental breakdown… but he gives no answers. And isn’t that scarier? What added value would the movie have if the screenwriters had explained away his motivations?

“High and Low” remains one of my all time favorite Kurosawa films. We’re heading into the home stretch of the most fruitful, masterful section of the maestro’s career, which started with “The Bad Sleep Well,” includes “Yojimbo,” “Sanjuro,” “High and Low” and will wrap up with his next film “Red Beard.” Any of these masterpieces would be enough to solidify a director’s legacy as one of the greats, but to have all five in a row? It’s a run unsurpassed by any other filmmaker.

Notes:

-Need I mention Kurosawa’s obsession with feet here? I mean, Mifune plays a shoe designer.

-It’s oft said that “High and Low” directly inspired Dick Wolf in the creation of “Law & Order.” Who knows if it’s true, but it certainly is plausible.

-I’m pretty surprised that this has never gotten an American remake, since its storyline is such a great hook. Actually, I’m just gonna call my manager real quick…

Sanjuro

sanjuro 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1962

Studio: Toho

Screenwriter: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Takako Irie

Cinematographer: Fukuzo Koizumi, Takao Saito

Music: Masaru Sato

When reading through the reviews for “Sanjuro,” I began to notice a trend. So many would read that “Sanjuro is often seen as an ugly step-brother to ‘Yojimbo’” or “underrated sequel” in reviews that would then go on to rave about the many qualities of the film. When did this idea begin that “Sanjuro” has somehow always been considered less than “Yojimbo”? Why does everyone just assume it’s not as well liked? The movie has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and an identical Audience score, not that one should really give a shit about either of those scores… and really, I only mention them because they support my narrative. The point is — both movies are masterpieces.

And despite the fact that “Sanjuro” is a sequel to “Yojimbo,” comparing the two films is basically an “apples” and “oranges” situation.

sanjuro 3While “Yojimbo” was a samurai comedy, it also “said something” about masculinity and the samurai. “Sanjuro” has no such aspirations… and it works better without them. It manages to be both a screwball comedy and a comedy of manners, walking that tightrope in a way that only someone like George Cukor or Howard Hawks could pull off. It’s the “lightest” film Kurosawa ever directed, and even the final scene, which teases that it aspires to have weight, has one of the bloodiest punchlines in film history – bold and wonderful, completely off tone with the rest of the movie and yet fitting in perfectly.

The story, co-written by Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima, takes the samurai from Yojimbo…who might be named Sanjuro (but probably not)…and drops him into a story of political corruption and kidnapping. But in a fun way! I hesitate to write that Sanjuro teams up with nine fledgling samurai, because there is no real time when they function well as a team. It’s more like he ensures they don’t immediately die in any given moment. Using that silly little thing called logic, Sanjuro realizes quickly that the man the samurai suspect of corruption is actually the good guy and is about to be kidnapped. A race to find the man, free him and make things right in the world takes place… in other words, hilarity ensues!

sanjuro 2Kurosawa and Kikushima develop quite a delightful ensemble to surround Sanjuro – and each manages to bring out an interesting aspect of the main character, with bonus points awarded if it’s brought out through annoyance. There’s the “bad guy” whose life is spared by Sanjuro and quickly switches sides, coming out of the closet he’s been confined to from time to time to offer his opinion on the proceedings before voluntarily going back into his closet. The nine samurai are essentially interchangeable (and rightfully so, considering how they are used in the story), but Kurosawa frames them as often as possible in seven dwarf poses, filling (and sometimes cramping) the frame with their shenanigans.

My favorite is the wife of the kidnapped man (Takako Irie) who, as far as I can tell, doesn’t even get a name in the movie. But the way she interacts with Sanjuro is aces all the way through. She doesn’t believe in violence, you see, which is somewhat awkward considering Sanjuro’s line of work. They bicker and he develops a sweet respect for her, and their relationship reaches its zenith during a not-so-daring escape. They reach a high wall and she can’t get over, so Sanjuro must get down on his hands and knees and have her climb up over his butt to escape. The choice of dialogue, the framing and Sanjuro’s face all combine to make the scene transcendent.

Despite the comedy, Kurosawa and Kikushima build and structure the story impeccably. Take every scene, strip out the comedy and it would function perfectly well as a tense thriller. The second half of the movie involves two neighboring houses that are connected only by a stream, and Sanjuro’s rescue plan involves the dropping of flowers into the stream and the flow of water. It’s one of those ideas that works on an intellectual and visual level – something Hitchcock would have been proud to put in one of his own films.

There are certain scenes that only become comedic upon further scrutiny. Take a scene in a barn, where a character monologues about hay for a good two minutes. The dialogue is amazing, and by the end of it you have convinced yourself that hay is truly the greatest of all things on the planet. Then the movie ends, you contemplate the scene and realize… hay. Really? And you laugh.

Toshiro Mifune could play this character in his sleep (and basically did, in the unofficial sequel, “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo,” which Kurosawa had nothing to do with), so it’s refreshing to see him really dig into the character. Sure, he falls back on his usual manly scratching in a few scenes, but there are plenty of other moments both big and small where Mifune adds little extra character touches that make all the difference. You also get a real sense here of what a generous actor he was, making his reaction shots to dialogue and character more subtle in order that the other actor get the laugh instead of upstaging them.

And then there’s that final scene. Like I wrote earlier, it really shouldn’t work. And, if crew members’ show-off stories are to be believed, the big spurt of blood that ends the film with an exclamation point was a total accident. And yet I don’t believe it. The rest of the scene is written and staged with such over-the-top seriousness and pomp that it would have fallen flat if not for that spurt. I mean, hero and villain stare at one another for 20 seconds before fighting. 20 seconds! And Sanjuro’s dialogue after, punctuated with that smile? It only works knowing in advance about the blood geyser.

I love “Yojimbo,” and in many ways I love “Sanjuro” more. In his career so far, the maestro has made many fine points about life and our place in it, painted many a rich metaphor and dove deeper into many nasty subjects than any other filmmaker from that time period. Not here. It’s just so fun to see Kurosawa cut loose and have fun with his samurai and all the seriousness we expect from him.

Notes:

  • Michael Sragow’s essay in the Criterion disc is pretty useless. Even though the film has already had a blu-ray upgrade (and is usually sold in a boxed set with “Yojimbo”), I feel like it needs a better release with even more bells and whistles. It’s got the usual Stephen Price commentary and the usual “It’s Wonderful to Create” documentary, but not much else.
  • I’m continually surprised that so many actors would voluntarily cut their hair into the cuh-razy period samurai hairstyles that we see in “Sanjuro.” I mean, seriously? I love Kurosawa’s attention to detail and enjoy the hairstyles in the film, but whoa. Doesn’t working on a Kurosawa film and chopping your hair like that automatically mean you can’t get another film role for six months?

Yojimbo

yojimbo 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1961

Studio: Toho/Kurosawa Production Co.

Screenwriter: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa

Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa, Takao Saito

Music: Masaru Sato

Certain classic films feel like they were a complete trial for all involved – you can see onscreen the filmmakers stretching and just reaching transcendence…despite the hell it took them to get there. Think of movies like “Gone With the Wind,” “Schindler’s List” or “Apocalypse Now.” But then there are other classics that seem to appear fully formed. They play to all of the cast, writers and filmmakers’ strengths and you regard the movie, thinking “Well duh! Why didn’t they do this years ago?” Now think of movies like “North By Northwest,” “Jurassic Park” or “La Dolce Vita.” Everything just seemed to click.

And that’s how I feel while watching “Yojimbo.”

It perfects Toshiro Mifune’s whole jaded/smart/wildcard persona that he seems to have been rehearsing with Kurosawa all the way back to their first collaboration on “Drunken Angel.” Kurosawa (along with his frequent writing collaborator Ryuzo Kikushima) address all the major thematic touchstones of his career – poverty, wicked fools, one man going up against a seemingly impossible institution – and also throws in a samurai because that’s always cool. Mix it all together and, voila!, you’ve got a classic movie. If only it could always seem so easy.

yojimbo 3Mifune plays a samurai who probably isn’t named Sanjuro, but it’s the name he gives when asked. His robes are slightly tattered and, for a samurai, he seems to care one hell of a lot about money. We first see him literally at a crossroads and throwing a stick in order to find out which way to head next. As soon as he walks down the path pointed out to him, the plot is thrust upon him. He finds himself in a small town overrun by two warring crime bosses – and as a result the few good people left are barely surviving. The main street in the town is either filled with evil minions or completely empty (except for a dog that walks around with a random severed hand in its mouth – yum!).

Sanjuro gets the lowdown from two of the only good people in town – the restaurant owner and the casket maker. The casket maker is the only businessman in town who seems to be profiting from the gang war…though later, when the bodies are stacking up, he opines “When the fighting gets this bad, they don’t even bother with coffins.” Sensing an opportunity to make a profit and do some good, Sanjuro calls out the thugs and immediately kills off two and disarms another (literally, he chops off the guy’s arm!) and finds both gangs fighting over who will get him as their bodyguard.

The gang leaders believe that they are playing a game of chess and that Sanjuro is the most powerful player… but what they don’t know is that the game doesn’t matter because there’s a bomb under the table. Not my best metaphor, but still apt. The heavies on both sides are all idiots – Kurosawa puts him in garish make-up that makes them look like silent movie villains (he did the same thing for the bandits in “Seven Samurai”), and so it’s easy at first for Sanjuro to outwit them. They plot to kill him after he does their dirty work pretty loudly in a place where they can be overheard, after all.

But the smartest man in the room taking down dumb people one at a time can get pretty tedious (do you hear me, “House of Cards”?!), so Kikushima and Kurosawa throw in several fascinating wrenches, most notable of which is a new villain in the form of one of the boss’ brothers Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), who arrives with a gun and a deep suspicion of Sanjuro. He actually catches Sanjuro red-handed and beats him senseless, which is a nice shock to the system for the audience – this is real.

The movie is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen so far in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, sometimes matching “The Hidden Fortress.” There is this incredible shot that manages to show Sanjuro arriving for his last battle, Unosuke heading off to the battle and the old man strung up in the middle of the town – all introduced in the least-expected way – that is breathtaking. Though he does this often in other films, “Yojimbo” seems very concerned with getting information across through images alone with as little dialogue as possible (after the first 15 minute endless dialogue dump). And he’s smart to do this – the movie doesn’t feel oddly silent, but the lack of in-depth dialogue makes it feel more like a visceral experience.

yojimbo 2Another one of “Yojimbo’s” strengths is that it does not linger. In “Seven Samurai” Kurosawa took stereotypes and gave them time to create depth, but here we have no real interest in getting to know the scorpions of the town. Sanjuro is an enigma, and we gain more insight into his character by seeing the ingenious ways he responds to situations more than we would through monologuing. His “friends” in town are not afforded any depth, and are essentially interchangeable. And why not? What more did we need to know about them? The movie is under two hours long, and that feels just about right. We get the epic sweep we need and the plot complications a story like this requires, but it also keeps the story economical. Instead of adding epilogue after epilogue (you just know at some point there must have been a beat where Sanjuro threw another branch to choose his next journey), as Kurosawa has done before in lesser films, the maestro simply ends the film seconds after Sanjuro succeeds in saving his friend… and it’s the perfect note to end on and, more importantly, the right one.

What strikes me most about “Yojimbo” watching it again, is that it’s always smarter than it needs to be. For a movie where most of the characters are idiots, it does not talk down to its audience. The dog with the hand, having one of the heavies carry the coffin, Sanjuro hiding under the floor… all beats lesser films would have not spent the extra draft or two crafting. And, as mentioned above, Kurosawa makes it look easy, which is a sign that it was probably really hard.

Notes:

  • Since you are voluntarily reading a blog about Kurosawa, it should not come as a shock to you that the maestro’s next film is a sequel, entitled “Sanjuro.” More interesting is that there are two other unofficial sequels that Kurosawa had nothing to do with. The first is “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo” – the 20th film in a series about a blind swordsman. Though Mifune certainly looks like Sanjuro, he gets a real name in the film and is working for the government, so it’s pretty obviously not the same character. The second is “Incident at Blood Pass,” which feels more true to Kurosawa’s vision of the character, albeit with less body scratching. Neither are especially great films.