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.
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The Bad Sleep Well

bad sleep well 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1960

Studio: Kurosawa Production Co.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Eijiro Hisaita

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Kyoko Kagawa, Takashi Shimura

Cinematographer: Yuzuru Aizawa

Music: Masaru Sato

In some ways, it shocks me that “The Bad Sleep Well” is the first film Kurosawa chose to make with his new production company. It’s a dark noir with a bleak ending starring Mifune in a decidedly unsexy role that serves as a public service announcement about corporate greed. Not sure how he expected it to make a profit. And then the other part of me speaks up, reminding me that Kurosawa probably had desperately wanted to make this film with these messages for awhile and may have been hobbled by Toho, so this was a “now or never” moment for him. Whatever the case, I’m happy he did, because this is a damn good movie.

Mifune plays a man named Nishi or, more accurately, he plays a man who plays a man called Nishi. He’s posing as Nishi to help bring down corporate corruption, which years ago resulted in the death of his father. He’s quite ruthless – marrying the lame daughter (physically lame, personality-wise she’s pretty cool) of Iwabuchi, who runs the corporation he’s trying to bring down, just to get closer to the nest of vipers. Well, at first it’s just for that reason, anyway. Things get complicated when Nishi develops real feelings for the woman, named Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa).

Critics often cite this as a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” attempting to wedge it into an adaptation trilogy with “Throne of Blood” and “Ran.” And sure, if you squint at the “son seeking revenge” narrative and bump the third act of “Hamlet” to the first act of “The Bad Sleep Well” and then squint some more, there’s some truth there. I understand why critics do this – using the word “Shakespearean” makes everything seem more “important,” but it also does a disservice to the world Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters are building and the message of the film (which is quite different from that of the Bard).

In many ways, this is the most daring film Kurosawa has made since “Ikiru,” or perhaps ever. He has such faith in himself and the story he is telling that he does wild things with the structure and narrative that are basically unheard of before or since. His main character does not speak for the first half-hour of the movie (!), he only states his full motive an hour-and-a-half into the movie (!!) and the climax happens off camera (!!!). And yet, in each of these cases, “The Bad Sleep Well” is somehow strengthened by these choices.

The first 20-odd minutes are devoted to one of my favorite Kurosawa set-pieces ever. It’s a familiar setting to fans of the maestro, with a group of people talking about a character or situation in order to get exposition out but also set the stage, almost like a Greek chorus. He’s done it poorly (“The Quiet Duel”), well (“Seven Samurai,” “The Idiot”) and brilliantly (“Ikiru”) and this is one of those brilliant times. A bunch of reporters show up to Nishi and Yoshiko’s wedding to cover the arrest of two members of the evil corporation. They define the situation, the stakes, the rumors of corruption, and also define Yoshiko and Nishi in ways the characters will later overturn for us…but it’s neat to throw down those red herrings early. This is the kind of sequence where the humor is incredibly black and characters scream things like “If you hurt my sister, I’ll kill you!” and no one acts like it’s crazy town.

bad sleep well 2The sequence climaxes with the delivery of a three-foot high wedding cake shaped like the evil corporation’s headquarters with a rose stuck in the window designating the place where Nishi’s father died. Subtle? Nope. Absurd? Yes. If Francis Ford Coppola had put a threat-cake in “The Godfather” the movie would have been laughable. And yet somehow, with Kurosawa at the helm, it works.

Consciously or not, Kurosawa has Mifune dressed exactly like Clark Kent, a somehow fitting disguise for Nishi. Nishi’s arc is one of the most interesting in all of Kurosawa’s oeuvre. He dies off camera just before achieving his goals in a truly tragic finale, but upon second viewing you pick up parts of his character and what Kurosawa was going for. At one point Nishi laments that he’s not wicked enough for this game, and that “To overturn evil, you have to become evil yourself.” Nishi is, at heart, a good man…and therefore unable to achieve his goal. He also states that he wants to do it “…for all the people who don’t even know they’ve been had.” It would appear he misses this goal, but on second glance you realize that he does win over the two most important people – his wife and brother-in-law, children of the villain and blind to his machinations until Nishi opens their eyes. The co-writers underline that this is a victory by having other characters tell Nishi that Yoshiko “will never understand.” Turns out she does.

Hollow victories? You could argue yes, but I don’t believe so. Killing off Nishi offscreen is a baffling decision at first, until you realize that seeing Nishi’s loved ones reacting to the tragic news is far more upsetting than seeing the tragedy happen itself. To understand the power, you have to see the aftershocks, and that is what Kurosawa rightly chooses to highlight.

bad sleep well 3The film is beautifully shot by Yuzuru Aizawa in his only collaboration with Kurosawa…after this he’d be relegated to films like “Godzilla vs. Meglodon.” I don’t know why they never worked together again, because they make an incredible team here – making each frame ooze with noir style, never moreso than in the secret hideaway (That tremendous shot where man and wife are separated by a fallen beam? Beautiful!) and in the long office break-in scene.

Quibbles? The music! Good lord, but what was up with that weird circus music for Nishi in the second half? And could the music in the first half telegraph the emotions we’re supposed to feel any more obviously?

I was beginning to lose faith after the one two suckage punch of “The Lower Depths” and “The Hidden Fortress,” but “The Bad Sleep Well” is a Kurosawa masterpiece. I love that he gives no easy answers but is unafraid to ask the hard questions. It’s a movie that you adore intellectually, but the sucker punch hits you right in the heart. What a special film.

Notes:

-Kurosawa’s obsession with feet continues with all things Yoshiko-related. That first shot of her two feet, one lame and one normal, is impossible to look away from.

-The Criterion DVD is fine, but definitely needs an upgrade.

The Hidden Fortress

hidden fortress 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1958

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujita, Misa Uehara

Cinematographer: Kazuo Yamasaki

Music: Masaru Sato

“The Hidden Fortress” is without question the most important film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre to American audiences. People who have never watched another foreign film in their lives will have heard of and probably seen at least sections of this film because of its connection to “Star Wars.” It represents most people’s introduction to Kurosawa – and why wouldn’t it? It helped inspire one of the greatest films of all time, has a manageable running time (unlike “Seven Samurai”), doesn’t involve an intimate portrayal of death (“Ikiru”) and doesn’t have a confusing title (“Rashomon”). A viewer will often start with “The Hidden Fortress” and then move on to Kurosawa’s other, greater works.

It’s also obviously one of the most important works to any scholar of Kurosawa – representing the first time the master worked in TohoScope, the Japanese equivalent of CinemaScope. To me, this is the most beautiful film I’ve seen so far on this journey. And not just barely – by a landslide. Images from this movie and the way Kurosawa frames the characters in widescreen are stunning, equal to anything in the careers of Hitchcock, Kubrick or Malick. There are shots in this movie so beautiful they are impossible to forget.

So you cannot overstate how important “The Hidden Fortress” is to film history and to Kurosawa’s body of work.

That said, I really dislike the movie.

hidden fortress 2When I first watched it a few years back, I hated it. I was in the middle of watching a bunch of Kurosawa’s classics and loved every one… and then “The Hidden Fortress” happened. Going back into the movie this time, I felt like I had a new perspective and understanding of what Kurosawa was attempting to achieve. The lower classes, the everyman perspective, is the most important theme in his career – one he went back to again and again (so far it was a major driving force in “The Most Beautiful,” “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail,” “No Regrets For Our Youth,” “One Wonderful Sunday,” “Drunken Angel,” “Stray Dog,” “Scandal,” “The Idiot,” “Seven Samurai,” and “The Lower Depths”). So of course it makes sense that Kurosawa would frame “The Hidden Fortress” from the perspective of two fools.

Inherently, I like the idea of framing a film from the perspective of the lowest character or characters. Chaplin, of course, did this to great acclaim, as did Welles with “Chimes at Midnight.” And certainly most of the all time greatest directors have some variation on “the fool’s film” in their oeuvre. Using that point-of-view is an interesting perspective, one that worked beautifully for Kurosawa in several of the above films.

But if you choose to do nothing with that perspective, what exactly is the point of doing it in the first place?

Our two fools (Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto) start as fools, are horrible human beings and remain horrible human beings throughout the film. I’m just going to refer to them as “the fools” instead of giving them names because their characters are absolutely interchangeable. They have no loyalty to one another, let alone the trio of presumably smart characters who do nothing but save their lives over and over again. And yes, for a beat or two their squabbling is funny and enjoyable. Then it’s tedious. Then it’s frustrating. Then you just wish they would go away. Then you cringe every time the movie cuts back to them, especially when they draw straws to figure out who gets to rape a woman first. They attempt to sell one another out. Then they attempt to sell out their protector. Then they attempt to sell out the princess. They are greedy. They are useless. And at the end they are rewarded for it.

But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the story those fools find themselves in. After trying to enlist in the army but being mistaken for the other side, the fools escape and make a plan to head home. The only problem is that the border between their countries is well-guarded, so they intend to go south to a third country and then cross into their own country from there. Also needing to get across the border with hundreds of pounds of gold is a Warrior (Toshiro Mifune) and a Princess (Misa Uehara). The groups uneasily team up to cross the borders together, all while the enemy General (Susumu Fujita, returning to Kurosawa’s work after being his first leading man in “Sanshiro Sugata”) closes in on them.
Why are we wasting our time focusing on the fools when every other character is more interesting? They are comic relief, sure, but Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters (all of whom worked with him on his other masterworks) surely should have understood that the main characters in a story should have an arc. The Fools should change as individuals thanks to the events of the film. And no, I don’t consider three lines of dialogue thirty seconds before the finale changing. I presume that if the camera would have followed them for another twenty seconds they would be slitting one another’s throats for the gold. Why are we supposed to root for them? Why should we care?

More than that, they don’t affect the plot in any major way aside from coming up with the plan to skirt the borders. Every other major decision is made by the Warrior, the General and the Princess. In fact, the fools actively hobble the adventure on multiple occasions. What is the point of putting them front and center if you are not going to have them push or pull the plot machinations?

That’s bad writing, plain and simple.
hidden fortress 3Meanwhile, every other character seems more dimensional, fascinating and endearing. They also have arcs. And this is the thing that kills me about “The Hidden Fortress” – there is a great movie there, one that could match Kurosawa’s mastery of the camera. One with real emotional resonance. The Warrior sacrifices his sister to save the Princess. The Princess learns to become a good leader from the journey. There’s a former prostitute Girl who the Princess saves and immediately becomes impossible to look away from. She has absolutely no allegiance to the Princess and Warrior, but chooses to stay and risk her life time and again for them. The evil General turns out to be not so bad after all, and his friendship with the Warrior is unexpected and moving. There’s a scene near the end of the second act where the Princess, the Girl and the Warrior have been captured and are speaking with the General… and they just address one another as human beings – all inherently good people who have flaws but have learned things on this journey together… and I actually teared up. It’s beautiful – one of the best scenes I’ve seen in Kurosawa’s films.

But the Fools? Nope.

They start stupid, stay stupid and end up stupid. In “Yojimbo” most of the town stayed stupid, but there was a point behind it. In “Sanjuro” they were fools at the beginning, but the group slowly came around to understanding and respecting the samurai. The fact that the other characters continue to include the Fools on the adventure actually reflects badly back on them and makes the viewer think they are less intelligent than they are.
Alter the main perspective to the Warrior, or the Princess, or the Girl…hell, even the General, and you’d have a great movie. It’s quite telling that all of the best scenes in “The Hidden Fortress” have the Fools offscreen. And not just the amazing action set-pieces like the horse chase or the spear fight. I’m talking about the smaller moments like the Princess’ heartbreaking reprise of the song she heard at the ceremony the night before. That said, the Fools and their lack of evolution wrecks the movie for me every time they come onscreen. This film is shorter than much of Kurosawa’s work, but it feels much longer.
I honestly feel like, if George Lucas hadn’t cribbed the first 15 minutes of “Star Wars” from this movie, “The Hidden Fortress” wouldn’t even be mentioned as one of Kurosawa’s notable achievements. It makes fundamental storytelling errors and no one seems to talk about it. The underlying message appears to be as follows – It’s good to be a Fool and let everyone else make the decisions for you and maybe things will turn out okay. Don’t trust anyone, even your friends. Life is about money. I disagree with every one of those sentiments, and I cannot imagine that’s what Kurosawa intended when he was crafting the film, especially considering his other masterpieces directly speak against these values.

Also, can someone please explain to me how that gold got in the wood?!?!?

Notes:

-I am obviously in the minority with this opinion. Critical reaction is overwhelmingly positive. Even Armond White loves it. That said, give me C-3P0 and R2-D2 any day.

The Lower Depths

lower depths 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1957

Studio: Toho Company

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, based on the play by Maxim Gorky

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Bokuzen Hidari

Cinematographer: Kazuo Yamasaki

Music: Masaru Sato

“The Lower Depths” is a film I like in theory, but dislike in execution. It’s a crazy, muddled mess that hits on many of the recurring themes Kurosawa holds dear, but manages to do absolutely nothing with any of them. So what went wrong?

The film is based on a play by Maxim Gorky, unseen or read by me, that looks at the lives of a group of the poor and destitute, all living in an ancient tenement that would fall apart if breathed on improperly. The characters have names, and yet Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Hideo Oguni would prefer us to know them by their descriptor – the Thief (Toshiro Mifune), the Pilgrim (Bokuzen Hidari), the Actor (Kamatari Fujiwara). In theory (there’s that phrase again), this is smart because it informs the viewer that there are millions of people like this out there in the world who are human beings. In execution, all their signifiers do is underline their cliché character. Surprise surprise, the Actor is a drunk whose years of alcohol abuse have hurt his ability to memorize lines. The Thief is a scoundrel who may or may not be redeemed by the love of a good woman. And so on and so forth.

lower depths 2All the characters are broken and have been broken for years – stuck in a life of squalor and mental blocks so they don’t comprehend how bad it has gotten. Kurosawa is adamant that we empathize with these characters, ciphers though they may be, so he supplies us with the Pilgrim character. Takashi Shimura must have either been sick or busy, so Hidari is given the role. Hidari (like every actor in the film) had long been a part of Kurosawa’s recurring ensemble, with his eternally worried face and broken smile. Though some of the men believe the Pilgrim has a dark past, while he is at the tenement his only purpose is to serve as a sympathetic ear to the other characters. Well, that and to dole out cliché after cliché as advice in the same way moms, Lucy from “Peanuts” and Charlie Chan do. He allows the other characters to have their say (even if they are merely spouting lies to make themselves feel better), then gives a fortune-cookie worthy bit of advice before turning to the next character and asking “What’s your deal?”

It gets old.

Again, I totally get what Kurosawa is going for – in theory it’s very smart and could have worked. In execution, it falls flat on its face. So does the entire first hour (!) of the two hour film. “The Lower Depths” is an ensemble film, and as a result Kurosawa and Oguni refuse to push focus on any one character. The viewer is left rudderless, taking in all the information being thrown at him but not engaging with it. I usually take many pages worth of notes while watching these movies, but here I didn’t write anything down for the first hour… because I didn’t know what I should be lingering on. This is a movie where you almost have to watch it twice, because you can only make heads or tails of the first half after seeing the second half.

lower depths 3Things finally heat up when the Landlady (Isuzu Yamada) goes all femme fatale in order to seduce the Thief into killing her husband. Yamada just played Lady Macbeth in “Throne of Blood” but here is much more emotional – a total mustache-twirler of a villain, but at least she’s having fun doing it. We in the audience thank the heavens, shouting silently “Plot! Finally!” The way Kurosawa pays off this development, though, is a whole other story.

So the Thief is in love with the Landlady’s sister (Kyoko Kagawa), but the Thief has slept with the Landlady in the past. Obviously, no one will be very happy when the details of the triangle come to light. When they do, Kurosawa suddenly goes extremely melodramatic, almost to the point of farce. If Tyler Perry magically went back in time and visited set while these scenes were being filmed, he might have taken the director aside and said, “Akira, don’t you think you’re being a little…over the top?” The Landlady throws a kettle of boiling water at her sister. The husband is beat up by almost everyone in the tenement, and ends up dying. The sister cackles like a banshee while dramatically holding onto a plank of wood. One of the other residents plays music in the background. Everyone yells at everybody as if they were on a telenovela. It’s… baffling, especially when one compares it to the snail’s pace of the first two-thirds.

It’s also infuriating from a technical standpoint, because Kurosawa goes big just when he should have kept things claustrophobic. Though there are just a handful of exterior shots, Kurosawa keeps the camera indoors for the majority of the first half of “The Lower Depths.” Again, I get what the director was going for – by not giving us any escape from the squalor we become more mired in it. Look at what claustrophobia did for “Rear Window” and “12 Angry Men.” And yet Kurosawa seems to be afraid to go all in – he allows the characters to walk outside for exchanges from time to time, and the entire above sequence, which occurs just when the walls should be closing in for the characters and the viewer, is staged almost completely outside, allowing us to breathe when we should be squirming. It’s infuriating, because so much of the earlier stuff is shot no better than a multi-camera sitcom, with the viewer rarely seeing one entire side of the main room.

So after the big melodramatic sequence, all of the interesting characters are gone…leaving us with all the ciphers for a good 20 minutes of drunken babbling. The fact that none of these characters are “good” people isn’t what bothers me – all I demand out of a character is that he or she engages me, and these sorry sacks do not. The final ten minutes in particular are a horrendous retread of the bad “getting drunk” sequence that serves as the epilogue to “The Men Who Tread On the Tiger’s Tail.” You get annoyed, just wanting the movie to end, and by the time we learn that the actor has hung himself offscreen and a character stares directly at the screen with the “Could it be any more of a metaphor?” final line, you’re just thankful it’s over.

I seem to be in the minority in my dislike of this film. Most critics enjoy it, even if not on the level of the maestro’s masterworks. But then a critic will call it a black comedy, and then I question their ability to comprehend what Kurosawa was trying to achieve – just because a movie has comedic elements to try and dilute the overwhelming gloom does not make it a comedy. For me, though, this is a major miss for Kurosawa, one where all the elements were there but failed to cohere together in a way that would make it either emotionally resonant or memorable. He got a similar point across better in “I Live in Fear,” “Stray Dog,” “The Bad Sleep Well” and even in lesser works like “Drunken Angel” and “One Wonderful Sunday.” Watch those instead.

Notes:

  • The Criterion release is pretty crazy, not in that it put Kurosawa’s version in the same set with a similar adaptation by Jean Renoir, but because it openly seems to pit the two against one another in all the ancillary material. In Alexander Sesonske’s article on Renoir’s version, he all but dismisses the film, and even points out that the director said Kurosawa’s version is better. Well, that’s true, but the bar wasn’t exactly high – Renoir was hobbled by a horrendous lead performance of Junie Astor.

Throne of Blood

throne of blood 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1957

Studio: Toho Company

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Minoru Chiaki

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai

Music: Masaru Sato

Oftentimes filmmakers don’t quite know what to do with the supernatural trappings in Shakespeare. The ghost in “Hamlet,” the witches of “Macbeth” — instead of embracing it, most directors will choose to downplay or figure out ways to sidestep the horror of it all. Of course they do – on first blush, Shakespeare is the most upper crusty of all the crusts (wrongly), and horror is usually (wrongly) seen as a laughable genre that is barely given any critical consideration. But instead of shying away from it, Kurosawa uses “Macbeth’s” plot as an excuse to make a horror movie. And not the Hammer-style horror film that was about to hit the stratosphere in England – this is horror in the style of Carl Laemmle and Universal.

The story diverts from Shakespeare’s in ways both large and small. Despite stripping away the language and all subplots, when you step back and look at the movie, Kurosawa has still successfully rendered the story of Macbeth, keeping all the essentials. Here Macbeth is a warrior named Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), who has just seen major success in battle and is given a major promotion by his Lord (Takamaru Sasaki). That promotion was foretold by a ghost in Spider Web Forest (Chieko Naniwa), who also teases that Washizu will one day be lord himself. Washizu’s wife Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) is determined to make Washizu the new lord, no matter how much blood she gets on her hands. And then the killings begin…

Kurosawa and his cinematographer Asakazu Nakai shoot every scene as atmospherically as possible, which means using the fog machine liberally. The first introduction of Spider Web Castle cannot help but make the viewer think of Dracula’s castle. The trees of Spider Web Forest were ostensibly shot on location, and yet they have the feel of the Universal backlot – everything seems a little wet and very ominous. There’s an incredible shot where Washizu and his travelling companion and friend Miki (Minoru Chiaki) still think they are far from the castle and sit to discuss the encounter with the ghost. The camera places them at opposite ends of the frame while, behind them, the fog slowly lifts to reveal the castle looming over them. The room where Washizu and his wife must stay while the Lord is there is the same room where a former traitor committed suicide, and his dried blood covers half the room, smeared on the wall and pooled on the ground. Do you wonder how exactly a suicide could cause so much spatter? Of course… but that’s beside the point.

Kurosawa also is very smart in the way he uses sound to create a sense of unease. The way arrows whiz, the way horses gallop…everything sounds a little off. Kurosawa uses and re-uses the same horse scream throughout the movie numerous times to put you on edge (perhaps this is a bit much, a horse scream is heard on the soundtrack in one shot where a horse is standing perfectly still and is at ease). His most ingenious move is the squeak of Asaji’s kimono against the floor whenever she walks. It seems harmless at first, but the noise overtakes the scenes where it appears, almost feeling like nails on the chalkboard for the viewer… and I mean that as a compliment.

That said, Kurosawa sometimes goes overboard in the atmosphere. I mentioned the calm horse that still is made to sound like it’s screaming in pain, but there are also long sequences of characters wandering that are just too much. When Miki and Washizu attempt to escape Spider Web Forest and get back to the castle, there are endless shots of them lost in the fog. While that sort of thing worked in “Stray Dog,” here it grates long after it has made its point. Also, then the duo discover the ghost for the first time in the forest, the ghost has a long poem it speaks while the men just stand and watch that could have been entirely lifted from the film without losing anything.

throne of blood 2Yamada’s Lady Asaji is the most interesting character in the film in the same way Lady Macbeth is the most interesting character in any staging of the play. Actually, Asaji is one of the most interesting aspects of Kurosawa in general because he does two variations on this character… first here and later with Lady Kaede in “Ran,” his adaptation of “King Lear.” Kaede is one of the greatest villains in the history of film, a tornado of a woman capable of slow manipulation and fierce battle depending on what tactic she needed to take. Asaji is good, but not that good. Yamada plays Asaji completely devoid of emotion – a beautiful sociopath who speaks lies and half-truths as if they are simple facts, and because she never seems to inflect in her dialogue the result makes you want to take her words as facts. The way the camera lingers on her in scenes is unnerving, and I’ve already mentioned the squeak of her kimono. Her unsettling calm makes the payoff of her losing control and washing her hands over and over all the more impactful.

She’s a great partner for Mifune’s Washizu, who is all bluster and… little else. Mifune’s make-up makes him look vampiric (another Universal horror nod), and his armor makes him look uber-masculine, and yet Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni go out of their way to underline that he’s basically a worthless, easily manipulated individual. We hear about all his savagery and bravery in war, but we don’t see it. Instead we see a scared man galloping a horse lost in the woods for several minutes. It’s Asaji’s idea to kill the Lord, and instead of following Washizu and see him actually commit the act, Kurosawa stays with Asaji while she waits. When his former friend won’t give him entrance into his fortress, Kurosawa makes a point that it is Washizu’s wife’s idea to use the Lord’s coffin to get in. The only time we see him try to rally his troops, he’s laughing maniacally and saying things like “A ghost told me that I was going to be Lord and now I am so you should listen to me, ‘cause I’m going to be this way until the trees attack.” If someone said that to me right before I went to war for him, I would be quickly turning in my spear and that little flag they attach to your butt. It’s a ballsy move for the filmmakers for sure, but they actually manage to get away with it because of Mifune’s bluster.

Of course, there are certain problems with the play that the movie also has issues with because Kurosawa does not adapt the story far enough. The first is the iffy fate of Lady Asaji. It has always bothered me in the play that her character doesn’t get more of an exclamation point at the end of her sentence, and that problem remains in “Throne of Blood” (“Ran,” meanwhile, rectifies this and offers up an incredible end for the character). And no filmmaker has ever been able to pull off the trees closing in on the castle well. Kurosawa really gives is a good shot by framing it almost like German expressionism, with the trees darting to and fro in the mists and fog below…but it still just doesn’t work.

throne of blood 3You know what does work, though? Those arrows. The climax of the film sees Washizu’s men turning on him and firing hundreds of arrows at him, hitting him several times before one finally gets him right through the neck. It’s a brutal, bloody, ballsy finish made all the more impressive because you can see that they are real arrows that are really being fired at Mifune.

We have been so lucky to get several masterpieces that have been adapted from Shakespeare’s work. Kenneth Branagh’s had two with “Henry V” and “Hamlet.” There’s Loncraine’s “Richard III” and Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight.” But like “Ran,” “Throne of Blood” manages to tell a fantastic story and also make us not miss Shakespeare’s dialogue, which is almost unbelievable. And yet, there you go.

Notes:

-There’s a wonderful essay in the Criterion booklet about the translation and subtitling by Linda Hoaglund.

-I like Roman Polanski’s version of “Macbeth” well enough, but don’t buy it as the masterpiece most have declared it to be. Justin Kurzel’s 2015 version of the film is a hot mess of bland reinterpretation, though Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is sublime. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Orson Welles’ version yet, and eagerly await Branagh’s adaptation because, let’s be honest, it’s got to be coming soon, right?

I Live In Fear

I live in fear 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1955

Studio: Toho Company

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni & Fumio Oguni

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Eiko Miyoshi

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai

Music: Fumio Hayasaka, Masaru Sato

As the opening credits of “I Live in Fear” roll across the screen, we find ourselves staring at over a dozen medium shots of busy people making their way through Tokyo streets. In terms of the staging and edits, it’s not much different than a movie like “North By Northwest,” but Kurosawa and his composers provide the sequence with weirdly instrumented and orchestrated music, like something out of a monster movie. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” wouldn’t be released for a few months, but between the awesome poster and this opening, it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to believe the viewer was watching a science fiction film. That was, after all, how most film studios were dealing with the imminent threat of nuclear apocalypse. In America, we had our “Monolith Monsters” (giant killer rocks) and our “It Came From Beneath the Sea” (giant killer octopus) and in Japan they were already on their second Godzilla movie (both of which co-starred Takashi Shimura) when this was released.

Never one for subtlety (not that a skyscraper-sized monster is exactly subtle), Kurosawa threw all metaphor into the wind and instead just faced nuclear apocalypse head on – telling the story of a man named Kiichi (Toshiro Mifune) so obsessed and fearful of the nukes that he wants to move his entire family to South America… the only safe place in the world (insert your own joke here).

It’s an intimate story and could not be further removed from “Seven Samurai,” but locks into place Kurosawa’s track of doing a small, intimate drama then switching gears for his next film and doing a big audience pleaser. Yes, for every “Throne of Blood” and “Hidden Fortress,” there is a “The Lower Depths” and “The Bad Sleep Well.” This would peter out around “Red Beard,” but it’s hard not to look at his years of gear-switching as an incredibly smart way to ensure he gets to tell the intimate stories he wants to by also being the big director who brings in all the masses.

i live in fear 2Mifune is the lead here, but unrecognizable from “Seven Samurai.” His character is in his late 60s, and Mifune is buried under old-age makeup and a very unfortunate near-buzz-cut grey hairstyle. In his first scenes, Kurosawa’s camera lingers on Mifune for a few extra beats, as if he’s allowing the audience to just be in awe of his actor’s transformation. And upon first glance, it’s easy to be cynical and believe that Kurosawa simply cast Mifune because he was a superstar and his transformation would bring curious moviegoers to theaters for a movie that would otherwise be an almost-impossible sell. Why not cast Shimura, who already played older incredibly convincingly in “Ikiru”? But, as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Kurosawa actually made a brilliant decision – Shimura would have been all wrong for Kiichi, and Mifune quickly overcomes the make-up and manages to craft a brilliant character and performance that it’s almost impossible to look away from.

As soon as the premise of the movie is stated about 10 minutes in, you realize that this is a movie where it’s impossible to get a happy ending. No, I didn’t expect Kurosawa to set off nukes at the climax (though frankly I wouldn’t have put it past him), but there is just no easy way out of this story. We first see Kiichi in family court because his family is suing him – they want him declared mentally incompetent to prevent him from spending all his money to move them to South America.

The way Kurosawa manages to paint everything grey instead of black and white is astonishing. Is Kiichi crazy? Well, he has several mistresses and illegitimate children, so we know he doesn’t always make the best decisions. But crazy? Let me ask you this, dear reader – how often do you think about the weapons of mass destruction littered throughout the world, many of which are in wrong or crazy hands? How often do you panic as our clock ticks nearer and nearer to midnight? I certainly try not to, because if I did then I would have to deal with it…and it all feels too big and scary to be dealt with realistically. But wanting to face the problem head on should not make one insane, right? It’s weird, sure, but crazy?

And then there’s Kiichi’s family which, like many such families in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, are complete assholes. They make it clear early and often that all they care about is Kiichi’s money…and this whole moving to South America business will leave their bank accounts depleted. His mistresses and illegitimate children worry if he’s found insane that their flow of money will be taken away. Sure, Kiichi wins a few over by the end of the movie, but there is barely a scene where any one of them approaches him in a loving manner or make an attempt to understand his paranoia. All this even though Kiichi is trying to move them out of love. Because he doesn’t want to see them hurt. Despite his screaming and smacking at a random annoying son, Kurosawa and his screenwriters go out of their way to underline that Kiichi loves his family more than anything – while waiting for the verdict of the court, he doesn’t curse them or threaten to cut them from his will. Instead, he buys them all soda. The most powerful scene in the movie comes right before Kiichi has a nervous breakdown – he goes to visit his family and begs them at length to move with him. 99.9% of other directors would frame the scene on Mifune, slowly panning in toward his face as he becomes more and more desperate. Kurosawa frames it as one medium shot with the entire family in it, Mifune framed at the edge, overcome by the neutral faces and demeanor of those he loves.

But really, are they wrong to be so cold to him? I wrote that they are assholes earlier, but they really do have a point. Upending everything you’ve known and moving to a different continent seems…well…crazy, no matter what the motivation. And yet Kiichi still seems quite sane in his convictions, and can you blame him? It’s shocking how much mileage Kurosawa gets out of this question, and you find yourself siding with both camps throughout, until the stress really pushing Kiichi to insanity.

It’s quite the quandary, and Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters employ their oft-used technique of having neutral characters talk about the action onscreen in order to explore the question even more. They craft an entire B-story about a dentist named Harada (Shimura), who first helps rule in the family court proceeding and then…well…feels guilt about his decision. Frankly, despite a decent performance by Shimura in a thankless role, the entire subplot should have been excised from the movie because it adds nothing. Harada and the other court workers talk about the quandary, but that dialogue would have been better if it had been a conversation between Kiichi’s children. Mifune has a wonderful moment where he admits to Harada that he’s scared out of his mind that the world is about to end, but it would have been more affecting had it been in front of the kids he’s trying to win over.

i live in fear 3As you realize almost from the beginning, there is no happy ending to be found here. But I am surprised that Kurosawa ended it so tragically, with Kiichi in an asylum believing the apocalypse is upon him every time he looks at the sun. In a way, it informs his Shakespeare adaptation “Ran”…but that character deserved his unhappy ending. And at least in “The Bad Sleep Well” the main character is put out of his misery. Here, there is only a shattered man and a family that are almost completely intent on moving on as quickly as possible. But perhaps that’s what Kurosawa was going for – in giving Kiichi a totally unhappy end, he ensures that the man’s struggle isn’t lost on us, and that his legitimate concerns haunt us long after the movie fades to black.

Notes:

– Like Kiichi, Kurosawa was obsessed with the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, especially near the end of his life and career. He devoted two of his sequences in “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” to such an apocalypse, and “Rhapsody in August” dealt with old wounds from the bomb being reopened.

– This movie was a turning point in Kurosawa’s professional relationship with Shimura. Though Shimura would appear in a myriad of future films with the master, it was never again in a substantive role. Up until this point, Kurosawa would either focus his movie entirely on Shimura (“Ikiru”) or make it a two-hander (“Stray Dog,” “Scandal,” “Drunken Angel,” “Seven Samurai”). But something changed here. Does it have something to do with Shimura’s role being shoehorned in here? Or did Kurosawa finally settle on Mifune as his muse?

Seven Samurai

seven samurai 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1954

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Daisuke Kato, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Siji Miyaguchi, Yoshiro Inaba

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

I want to start to write about “Seven Samurai” by addressing its length. I know, I know. With a movie that is so incredible in so many ways, its three-and-a-half hour running time should be an afterthought. And yet when you tell anyone even the least bit tuned into cinema that you are about to watch it, he or she will invariably first bring up the length before anything else. Here’s the thing, though – “Seven Samurai” never “feels” long. I’ve watched it probably a dozen times by now and I’m always surprised when the intermission hits. And I’m guessing 99% of people who watch the movie feel the same way.

Perhaps part of this comes from the fact that Kurosawa always ensures the viewer is so keenly aware of where he or she is within the movie. Throughout, he spells out and then re-iterates exactly what is happening and what is going to happen again. The three-act structure could not be clearer:

Act One: Village in danger – recruit samurai to help

Act Two: The samurai prepare the village for the bandits

Act Three: The village and samurai fight the bandits

In doing this, he makes you think that you are in familiar territory and know what is to come, which makes the surprises and small reveals in every scene all the more impactful.

seven samurai 2Each of the seven samurai who volunteer for the mission is an archetype, but an incredibly-well drawn one. Of most note are Takashi Shimura’s Kambei and Toshiro Mifine’s Kikuchiyo. Kambei’s introduction is great – with the samurai shaving off his hair in order to fool a kidnapper into thinking he’s a monk…and in the process rescuing a child. Kikuchiyo is the wild card of the group, not even technically a samurai since he falsified his birth information (he’s really a farmer’s son), but slowly he becomes accepted. He also is apparently very itchy – Mifune would recur the scratching tic for many future characters in Kurosawa films. Oh, and he doesn’t wear pants.

With seven samurai and five notable visitors to juggle as main characters, Kurosawa decided to fill the film with a lot of different faces. While so many modern movies are end to end with interchangeable hunks or dames, all the faces here are different and, more importantly, interesting. Take Bokuzen Hidari, who plays a frightened villager here and is a recurring player in many of Kurosawa’s films. I have never seen such a face before – managing to seem like he is in complete terror even when he’s smiling. Your face is just drawn to him in any scene (in previous Kurosawa films he had a Hitler mustache, which made him look even more interesting), and a testament to how good casting can tell you all you need to know about a character who may, in a lesser movie, come across as thinly written.

Or look at Keiko Tsushima’s Shino, who is one of only two notable females in the film. A beautiful girl, her coward of a father chops off her long hair and dresses her up as a boy because he is terrified that one of the samurai will take her virtue. Tsushima is a lovely actress – Kurosawa isn’t afraid to play up the awkwardness of her hair or dress throughout – but still has her fall in love with the youngest samurai (Isao Kimura). Their courtship is great in theory but the least interesting part of the movie – all Shino does is cry or run or scream things at her beloved.

Now onto all the brilliant technical prowess Kurosawa shows, which still exceeds the very best the modern action masters can muster up today. Since he was co-writer of the screenplay, he knew to set up very specific things visually in the script, and have the characters comment on them. Think about how each character’s fighting style is immediately introduced and commented upon by other characters. In doing that, during the muddy fight scenes and more distant shots we can still tell who is who because we recognize his fighting style. In the second act, we are given a tour of the village and then also see where every landmark of the village is on a map Kambei has with him at all times, so when the action happens in the third act, we are always aware of the boundaries and where the villains are. Even smarter, since Kurosawa doesn’t make time to develop the bandits as anything other than sneering silent-movie villains (not a criticism – seeing them together is a very cool visual and all we need), Kambei creates boxes for every bandit on the map, checking them off one at a time so that we always know where we stand.

With this as our foundation, Kurosawa can take more chances visually during the action stuff. His choice to shoot action concurrently from three different angles is well-known, and his choice to shoot in deep focus is a masterstroke. Time and again, he pulls our focus from one character deeper in frame to something closer, and in doing so ratchets up the tension without having to stoop to cliché dialogue or over-the-top musical cues to underline the stakes.

seven samurai 3Also, when Kurosawa illustrates the anarchy that is happening in the various action sequences, most notably when one or two bandits are brought to the center of town to a trap, or during the climactic rainstorm attack, we do not get lost. We know where we are, so the real emotion comes from trying to figure out which characters are being murdered and who is assaulting who. I can only imagine that Steven Spielberg studied these sequences frame by frame when planning the opening attack in “Saving Private Ryan,” because that’s the only film I can think of that captures the same flavor of “grounded” chaos.

And then, of course, there’s the way things work out for everyone involved, which remains shocking even today since generations of Hollywood filmmakers who were inspired by Kurosawa did not have the balls to do things like killing off the most beloved character. That’s right, Kikuchiyo is killed during the final raid after managing to off the bandits’ leader. Imagine Han Solo being offed at the end of “A New Hope” instead of Obi Wan, who survives in “Seven Samurai” in the form of Kambei. We are wired to expect the mentors to die, giving way to the new generation of heroes, and the writers even have Kambei talk about how tired he is of bloodshed. And yet when the battle ends, the veteran survives while the wildcard without the proper training dies. It makes sense logically, but when was anything in the movies logical? Further, the young Samurai does not get the girl…she goes back to her village life and he is left contemplating whether the way of the samurai is right for him. So not only does Han die and Obi Wan survive, but now Luke isn’t so sure about this whole “Force” thing? Wow.

And yet, emotionally, it works beautifully. We engage, our hearts break when Kambei is shot, we have mixed feelings when the young’un questions his way of life, and we pray that Kambei finds some peace with his life. We do this because Kurosawa and his co-writers have told us a great story, one that we thought we knew…but it turns out he had a few tricks up his sleeve after all.

Notes:

– “Seven Samurai” was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1957 – Art Direction and Costume Design (again, remember that the main characters don’t wear pants!). It was not even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. And what movie won Best Picture that year, you ask? “Around the World in 80 Days.” People complain and complain that the Oscars have turned into a laughingstock, but they’ve been this kind of awful for decades now.

– “Seven Samurai” was the second film Criterion released on DVD, with a horrible cover and zero special features. When it was reissued several years later, the company went out of its way to give it the bells and whistles it deserved – and the release stands as perhaps the best in the history of the company. It’s well worth your dollars and cents for the essays alone… all eight of them.

Ikiru

ikiru 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1952

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri, Nobuo Kaneko

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

“Ikiru” is about the most important part of a person’s life…the part so many are afraid to talk about or engage in. A part that rarely is touched upon seriously in filmmaking because it hits too close to home.

No, I’m not writing about death.

I’m writing about living…about accomplishment.

The fact that the old man at the center of our story dies is almost beside the point – the movie is about the idea that he actually lived.

And in focusing on that, Kurosawa takes us on a journey to look at the difference between fact, truth and interpretation. The fact is that Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has stomach cancer. This is irrefutable – we see the x-ray in the first image of the film. The truth is that Watanabe made the decision to use the final six months of his life to create a park and change the world around him for the better. The interpretation is how much he actually had to do with the accomplishment, discussed by small men after Watanabe’s death.

His physical death, anyway. Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni give us our first impression of Watanabe by having a narrator tell us that “This man has been dead for over 20 years.” Spiritually dead – trapped beneath a literal mountain of paperwork, his only apparent job is to be stamping each paper before sending it off. He has a vast savings and lives with his son and daughter-in-law, both of whom do not respect him and have long since stopped trying to connect with him.

Shimura is incredible as Watanabe. The character has shades of the guy Shimura played in “Scandal,” but the actor goes to a more subtle place here. Watanabe shuffles, his back always hunched and his shoulders always slumped. We only really see him sitting up straight in the photograph displayed at his wake, and it’s important to see it there to understand how much life has worn him down.

ikiru 3Oddly, we don’t really get to know Watanabe for the first 40 minutes of “Ikiru.” We watch him at his job, see him realize he’s going to die in six months and quietly break down that night…but he’s really a cipher. Part of this is because of what I wrote above – he’s not really “alive,” but the other part is because Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters give the viewer time and space to contemplate death ourselves. A character overtly states (not to Watanabe) “What would you do if you only had six months to live?” and as the old man processes the information, we think about how we would process the information. How we would react. What we would do…who we would tell? This is important, because in giving us the time to personalize the situation to ourselves, we become more emotionally engaged with Watanabe’s decisions later.

And then we do begin to invest ourselves in Watanabe. He contemplates suicide, but it’s not for him, and then befriends a man at a bar (Yunosuke Ito) who promises to show him a good time. The man takes him to an arcade, a strip club, a night club… and I’m pretty sure prostitutes become involved at a certain point. Watanabe has “fun,” I suppose, but it wears him down. The sequence is incredibly long, but purposefully long in the same way that the similar sequence in “Scandal” was, or the long sequence of the cop searching for a gun dealer in “Stray Dog” was purposeful. It shows that, while these fun and games might be meaningful on the surface and make you happy for a few hours, there is no lasting effect and it gets tiring quickly. It tees up Watanabe’s decision to want to do more with his life just as much as his relationship with the young woman from his work (Miki Odagiri) does.

Enabled, Watanabe finally makes the decision to do something with the little time he has left – and that is to use his job to ensure a cesspool in a bad part of Tokyo is drained and replaced with a beautiful children’s park. The metaphors in this section are a bit on the nose, even for Kurosawa – his young friend tells Watanabe that his nickname at work is “the Mummy” (get it? Living dead!) and when the old man makes the decision to do something, in the background a group is singing “Happy Birthday” (get it? He’s being born again!). But any creakiness in the metaphor territory is immediately forgiven by the ballsiness the writers pull next – Watanabe makes the decision to build the park, puts on his hat and rushes out the door…

…and then we jump six months ahead and he’s dead.

ikiru 2That’s right, we don’t see his decline and we aren’t treated to sad bedside treacle – he’s just gone and we are at his wake. In doing this, Kurosawa simply avoids being saccharine or elevated. Watanabe may be gone, but the park did get built. In fact, he died one snowy night in the park, singing as he swung on the swingset. All of his fellow employees are at the wake, as are his family. The Deputy Mayor dismisses Watanabe’s contributions to the park, giving himself all the credit. But once he leaves, the remaining employees begin to discuss what really happened. Others don’t want to give Watanabe the credit (they did, after all, help out too), but a few employees sternly refuse to back down.

This is the section where the truth of the movie becomes open for interpretation, at least for the movie’s characters. As an audience, we saw how keen Watanabe was on creating the park before we flashed forward, and through small flashbacks in this final hour we see the lengths which he went to ensure it was built.

Watanabe did what so few people can – he created something extraordinary. We know how difficult it must have been… not just from the flashbacks that show the death threats or his declining health, but because Kurosawa sets up right at the beginning the amount of red tape that exists in Watanabe’s office. And yet he pulled off the impossible.

As humans, when we see something extraordinary, our first reaction is to rationalize it. It’s a horrible trait, but one we’ve done all throughout history. Because if we have to deal with the fact that a person is capable of doing something so impossible, then we also have to make peace with the fact that we did not. So we minimize the accomplishment. Diminish it. Do anything we can to make it less extraordinary than it is. But that’s the great thing about the extraordinary – do all of the above and it’s still there, still being extraordinary. The little men in the wake can hem and haw all they want about how much or how little Watanabe did to get that park created, but it does not matter – because in the end the park is still there.

Just like “Ikiru” is still here.

In Roger Ebert’s wonderful Great Movies essay on “Ikiru,” he writes that it is one of the rarest of movies in that it could actually inspire someone to change the way he or she lives. What an extraordinary legacy. Watanabe would be proud.

Notes:

  • Speaking of Roger Ebert’s essay, he chose this movie as his second “Great Movies” entry, after only “Casablanca.”
  • Kurosawa would revisit “Ikiru’s” themes again and again throughout his filmography, and notably his last film, “Madadayo,” is a sister to “Ikiru.” That movie follows the life of a retired professor who is beloved by his students, and how the small eccentricities of everyday life build up to a legacy. It’s not as good as “Ikiru,” but a fitting end to the master’s career.
  • Kurosawa would also use the image of the playground later in his career, purposefully echoing it in “Rhapsody in August” when some children stare at a warped, melted swingset that was directly under the atomic explosion in WWII.

The Idiot

idiot 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1951

Studio: Shochiku Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Eijiro Hisaita, based on the story by Fryodor Dostoevsky

Cast: Masayuki Mori, Toshiro Mifune, Setsuko Hara, Yoshiko Kuga, Takashi Shimura

Cinematographer: Toshio Ubukata

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

If “Rashomon” comes with a lot of baggage, then “The Idiot” is that mysterious passenger who slips into the coach mostly unseen. It’s wedged in between the movie that made Kurosawa’s career in “Rashomon” and would be followed up by two of the greatest movies of all time: “Ikiru” and “Seven Samurai.” And yet, like “Scandal,” it’s fallen through the cracks of history. Most of the critical analysis of the movie only compares it to the movies that surround it (Michael Koresky’s Criterion essay on the film talks almost as much about “Rashomon” as it does “The Idiot”), or talks more about what the film could have been. I’ll talk about that first to get it out of the way, because I’m more interested in talking about the actual guts and bones of the movie itself.

Kurosawa originally envisioned “The Idiot” as two films, and the runtime of both halves was well over four hours. This was before “Rashomon” hit the stratosphere and the co-writer/director did not have the power he would soon yield, so when a test screening did not go well, executives at Shochiku Studios welded the two halves into a single film and began chopping. I could not find out how much, if any, control Kurosawa had over the final cut, which is two-hours-and-forty-five minutes in length. The second half seems (mostly) intact, but the first half is obviously chopped to bits, with intertitles explaining a LOT of character relationships, motivations and actions. There is even one especially annoying title card that explains what Fryodor Dostoevsky meant when he was writing the original source novel… as opposed to just letting the movie speak for itself. Legend also says that years later when Kurosawa made another movie for the studio he searched for days in their archives to find the missing footage – and couldn’t.

idiot 2So yes, “The Idiot” is a fragmented mess at the beginning. But I can only analyze what actually made it to screen, and that’s what I’m going to do. 95% of the other critical analysis frames anything written as “It’s Kurosawa’s destroyed masterpiece!” or something similar. But did it really have the makings of a masterpiece? I don’t want to write about what the movie isn’t… I want to talk about what the movie is.

The idiot of the title’s real name is the innocent Kameda (Masayuki Mori), and we open with him just back from the war after almost being shot to death. He meets Akama (Toshiro Mifune), a rich and rogue-ish figure and strikes up a friendship with him. They both end up falling in love with Taeko (Setsuko Hara), a kept woman just escaping her bounds. She doesn’t want to sully Kameda’s innocence, but isn’t really in love with Akama either, so the pendulum swings back and forth. At some point Kameda begins to court a woman named Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), but all Ayako does is seem to yell at him about either being an idiot or loving Taeko.

idiot 3Just writing that out, I’m thinking to myself “Gosh, that’s not a lot of plot for an almost three hour movie,” and I can’t imagine what else Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Eijiro Hisaita threw into the over four hour version. The fragmented opening really makes it difficult to engage with the story until about half an hour in… it took me two or three times to make it past that point anyway. And once you get what’s going on, you find yourself rewinding to watch the opening again to make sure you understand everything.

Cards on the table, even though I have read a few of Dostoevsky’s texts, I have not read the novel upon which “The Idiot” is based. Dostoevsky strikes me as an almost impossible author to adapt, though that hasn’t stopped a ton of filmmakers trying…the old chestnut “Crime and Punishment” in particular. His work is just so internal – so much to do with the inner workings of people’s minds and why they make the choices they make. So a large percentage of “The Idiot” is people talking about the way they feel over and over. How I feel, how you feel, how I feel about the way you feel, and one hell of a lot of talking about how Taeko must feel and why she’s acting like an insane person when making any decisions. To highlight the obsessions of these characters, Kurosawa and Hisaita embrace melodrama.

Let me state here that melodrama doesn’t have to be a bad thing, even though critics have adopted the word as such over the past two decades. “Gone With the Wind” is melodrama. “Titanic” is melodrama. The best sequences in “The Idiot” are pure melodrama, particularly one from the first half where Taeko is essentially being bid upon at her birthday party. Will she remain a kept woman? Over a dozen partygoers watch and follow her every word and movement, and the character makes such a strong impression that it almost (but not quite) makes up for the countless sequences where she isn’t around but other characters talk about her motivations. When Kameda knocks over an expensive vase and people are calling him an idiot, Taeko reminds them that the vases are hers and simply drops the second one. Pretty badass. The sequence climaxes brilliantly, with Taeko taking a bag of a million yen and tossing it in the fire, daring one of her suitors to pull it out while the entire party watches the money burn. So awesome.

Hara gives the best performance in the movie, and by far the best female performance in a Kurosawa film to date. There’s something so electric about her face here… it’s so organic that you really feel her character figuring out things and making decisions right then and there, however crazy they may be. They don’t seem crazy when she is onscreen because Hara is so beautiful, seductive and enigmatic that she could sell the audience on anything. It’s only after she’s gone and the other characters are talking about her that the viewer begins to think “Hey, that doesn’t quite make sense! Like at all!” I’m happy she had a fruitful career with Ozu after this, but just wish she would have made a few more movies with Kurosawa.

Mori is also very good as Kameda, in that you sympathize with him and at the same time kinda want to strangle him. He holds his hands to his jacket collar about 30% too much, though. Mifune is perfectly cast as Akama, and like Mori has a tightrope to walk. Mifune has to be dangerous, but also must allow his friendship with Mori’s character to seem grounded and real… all without any character motivation track laid aside from a lengthy intertitle. That he pulls it off is impressive… that he pulls it off well is most impressive.

Kurosawa and his cinematographer Toshio Ubukata shoot the film for the most part very simply. The big set pieces work because a big deal isn’t made of them…put the camera on the actors and let them do their thing. It’s a marked difference in how Kurosawa approached “Rashomon” and would soon handle “Seven Samurai,” but I feel like Kurosawa was so slavish to “The Idiot” novel that he was intent on letting Dostoevsky’s work be the star, not him. The sets are impressive, as are the frigid outdoor locations chosen because Kurosawa obviously wanted the entire affair to seem Russian without putting it in Russia.

I feel like I’m writing a lot of great things about “The Idiot”… and yet in the end I didn’t like it very much. The parts all work well, but taken as a whole it’s a lopsided emotional mess that makes its point but then can’t help but underlining it for an extra 45 minutes. Most of Kurosawa’s later work is long but rarely feels that way – he gives each film just enough runtime to tell the story he needs to tell and then exits stage left. If it’s three hours, that’s fine. Here I get the impression that “The Idiot” could have made a crackerjack 90 minute movie where Taeko was involved much more than she is in the second half. That way we see the emotions of the main characters instead of hearing about it repeatedly.

If this odyssey has taught me anything about Kurosawa, it’s that the more he adopts a story to his personal style (even if it’s an adaptation), the more successful it can be. He was trying to tell “Stray Dog” in the style of an author and failed, but the movie ended up amazing because it was really Kurosawa’s voice in the void. In trying to be so true to Dostoevsky, he loses himself and why he’s so singular as a storyteller.

Notes:

-Not crazy about the music of Fumio Hayasaka here. It’s too insistent… to intent on telling you how you should be feeling about any given scene, and up way too high in the mix.

– Takashi Shimura has a small, thankless role here but absolutely kills it. His confession that Kameda owns a farm is instilled with so much more emotion than it should possibly have. What a great actor.

Rashomon

rashomon 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1950

Studio: Daiei Film Co. Ltd.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto, based on the story by Ryunosuke Akutagaa

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Machiko Kyo, Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori

Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

Well, this is it. The big one.

“Rashomon” changed everything. It opened the United States to world cinema in a way that had never been seen before. It won an honorary Oscar. It made Kurosawa’s career – if there was no “Rashomon,” there probably wouldn’t be any “Seven Samurai,” “Red Beard” and certainly no Western co-funded films like “Ran” and “Kagemusha.” I cannot underscore enough just how important “Rashomon” is to Kurosawa’s career and to the history of cinema.

So you can see why it took me awhile to make peace with the fact that I just don’t like it that much.

By all accounts, I should love “Rashomon.” Kurosawa is right up there with Chaplin, Almodovar and Hitchcock among my favorite filmmakers, and without this movie, I might not know him at all (see above). I usually adore a story told through multiple perspectives – one of my all-time favorite novels is Agatha Christie’s iconic “Five Little Pigs.” And it’s the master being experimental and trying things no other director at the time would have dared. And yet, each of the five times I’ve sat down with this film, I hope that the spell it has cast on countless others will capture me as well… only to be left wanting. Don’t get me wrong, “Rashomon” is certainly a masterpiece – a great movie that broke boundaries cinema didn’t even know could be broken, but even though it’s a great movie, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good one.

And in a film so concerned with the definition of truth, I figured it was important to start this essay relating mine, though I know for a fact that it is vastly different from the next guy’s…

We open during a downpour in a group of ruins where a Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a Priest (Minoru Chiaki) have taken shelter. Another Man (Kichijiro Ueda) joins them. The Woodcutter happened upon the stabbed body of a Samurai (Masayuki Mori) in the woods and, with the Priest, witnessed the court testimony of the three people involved with the murder. First we hear the story from a Bandit’s perspective (Toshiro Mifune), then from the slain Samurai’s Wife (Machiko Kyo), then from the Samurai himself through a Medium. Finally, the Woodcutter explains that he actually saw the murder and gives his side of the story. None of them agree, and in the end the Samurai, the Bandit and the Wife all end up taking credit for the murder. Oh, and at some point a baby becomes involved.

rashomon 2Now before I get to the many, many good things about “Rashomon,” let me first just throw out the main stumbling block that I cannot overcome – the acting. It’s out of control, with every actor going back and forth between non-acting (seriously, the entire opening of the film appears to be about people who have had too much ZZZquil) and way Way WAY over-the-top acting. There’s no in between – no moment where I thought to myself “Wow, he/she did a good job with that character moment.” It was only me shocked by one extreme or the other. In Robert Altman’s introduction to the film on the Criterion release, he waves off the acting, simply stating that it must have been the acting style of the time in Japan. As someone who has watched all of Kurosawa’s previous films, and quite a few pre-and-postwar Japanese movies, I can firmly state that it’s false. The character Shimura played in the previous Kurosawa film “Scandal” was a “big” character, and yet never came close to the cackling that Mifune or Kyo make on a regular basis. Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay on “Rashomon,” which is otherwise awesome, waves off the acting as well because “Kurosawa was not looking for realism.” He also writes that the acting actually works because “many of the sequences are, essentially, silent.” Um, no.

Looking further, we must notice that the acting is “over the top” in the flashbacks and utterly subdued in the “present” scenes. My guess is that Kurosawa was perhaps trying to underline the difference between the “reality” of the characters’ minds and the reality of the rainstorm. Maybe? But, even if that is the case, it does not work. The acting continually takes me out of the movie to the point where it often ceases to be enjoyable, and since “Rashomon” is unquestionably a movie of great subtlety and nuance, the acting sticks out even more like a sore thumb. Worse yet, since each of the three main players are portraying four different characterizations of the same character, it’s a huge missed opportunity.

The introduction to the entire conceit is terribly flawed as well. The Woodcutter states early that he just doesn’t understand what has occurred, but when the Man doesn’t show much interest, the Woodcutter and the Priest launch into these speeches that amp up the story we are about to see in such a way that it will never be able to live up to expectations. Here is some of the Priest’s dialogue: “I, for one, have seen hundreds of men dying like animals, but even I’ve never before heard anything as terrible as this. Horrible, it’s horrible! There’s never been anything, anything as terrible as this, never! It’s worse than fires, wars, epidemics, or bandits!” Really, Mr. Priest? I mean, really?

Once we launch into the court testimony, things do get very interesting – not just in that the characters disagree with one another but in the various ways that they do. When the Bandit tells his version of events, Kurosawa’s film breaks from the Bandit’s point-of-view only once: just before the Wife consents to sex with him. He could never have seen the Wife when she looks to the sun and is overcome with lust, but in his mind she must have done this because he could have never raped someone he “loves” so much. In the stories of the Wife, the Samurai and the Woodcutter, it’s obviously rape, but the most shattering moment of the assault comes from a line in the Samurai’s perspective. The husband looks at his Wife, shattered and still emotional from being sexually assaulted, and the husband states (through the medium) that she had never looked more beautiful. Even now, remembering that moment, I still shudder.

rashomon 3Also really ingenious is the way Kurosawa frames the first three testimonies, with the characters looking toward the camera when they are speaking. In other words, the audience is questioning these characters as “we” try to get to the bottom of what is going on.

It’s also fascinating to me how Kurosawa handles the Woodcutter’s perspective. We open on him stating that he does not understand and the only time we physically see him in flashback is watching him wander through the woods and coming upon the body. Then he states that he actually saw everything, which is contrary to what we saw in the flashbacks previously. Then again, how reliable are the flashbacks? Are they showcases what the characters actually believe happened, or simply a dramatization of what they are saying? Thanks to the nature of the film, we’ll never know, but depending on where you fall on that subject, the Woodcutter’s testimony becomes even more questionable. Note that, throughout his entire story, we never actually see him. We don’t see him happen upon the rape aftermath. We don’t see him follow them as they change positions for the battle. In fact, the point-of-view here is entirely omniscient, not personal, and the story appears more of a “greatest hits” of the earlier three stories more than an individual’s perspective of it. The Wife is comatose but also a femme fatale. The Bandit is cowardly but also a monster. You can see where I’m going with this – I don’t actually believe that the Woodcutter was there and made up the story himself as a way to make sense of everything that happened earlier in the day.

Of course there’s no way to prove it. My hypothesis has just as much merit as the next guy’s, completely right but at the same time completely wrong. Though I want to hold back too many “Citizen Kane” comparisons because I feel like they fit better with Kurosawa’s next film, they fit here too – the more you try to answer questions, the more questions you’ll find. I love “Citizen Kane” more than 99% of other films, but don’t have that same affection for “Rashomon.” Like the flashbacks themselves, on the surface it has everything I could want in this type of story, but the more you squint and the more you question, the less fulfilling it seems. Stephen King wrote a great novella called “The Colorado Kid” about a mystery with no possible answer, but the point for the main character was that you want to keep looking, hoping you’ll see something new and different. Despite my ambivalence to many aspects of “Rashomon,” I see myself continuing this strange dance with the film for years to come, hoping to find the point…not of the movie’s mystery but unlocking its appeal for myself. Maybe some day…

Notes:

-This is the first of Kurosawa’s masterpieces on which Roger Ebert devoted one of his “Great Movies” articles, and though I point out a disagreement with his writing above, I want to underline here that they are all incredible reading that gives so much insight into Kurosawa’s work. Be on the lookout for his writings on “Seven Samurai,” “Ikiru,” “Red Beard,” “Ran,” and “Yojimbo.” They are essential.

-The woman at the center of the story and her rape is fascinating to look at from a feminist perspective, particularly how the three men see her after the event as opposed to her own interpretation of what had happened to her and how it ultimately caused her to take her husband’s life.

-There are a couple of incredible tracking shots of the Woodcutter walking through the woods at the opening of the film where nothing happens but the viewer is still totally invested because of the beauty.

-There’s a little-spoken-of American remake of “Rashomon,” (unseen by me) called “The Outrage.” Paul Newman takes the role of the Bandit, Claire Bloom as the Wife and Laurence Harvey as the husband. The director was Martin Ritt, who also directed “Hud” and “Norma Rae” and it was adapted by Michael Kanin, who wrote the Hepburn classic “Woman of the Year” and also wrote two television adaptations of “Rashomon” before this film. Maybe it’s good?