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Old School Review: “The Hidden Fortress” (1958)

Written by Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “The Hidden Fortress” is an adventure comedy that notably inspired George Lucas in his crafting of the original “Star Wars”. The film follows two peasants, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) trying to return home after being conscripted into a regional war. They provide the levity in the film, which is more frequently in use here than the majority of Kurosawa’s work (of the films of his that I’ve seen at least). We begin the film with these two bemoaning their predicament after having gotten to the war two days late and forced to bury the dead. They wander across a desolate landscape towards home but find the border now controlled by the recently victorious kingdom, thus forcing them to find an alternate route home through separate kingdoms adjoining one another.

A few scenes later the two stumble across a gold bar lodged inside a wooden stick while making a fire for the night. Bewildered at their luck, Matashichi and Tahei make a mad dash in the morning to find more of the hidden gold. In their frantic efforts, which mostly consist of them bickering over how to divide the gold, they stumble into Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune), a well known general of the defeated kingdom- though they do not recognize him. After telling him their plan to travel through a neighboring region to avoid the newly established checkpoints, Rokurota recruits them to his cause through clever manipulation as he leads them to the eponymous Hidden Fortress. He keeps them busy for awhile by suggesting that the rest of the gold may be buried near the fortress. During that time he retreats to the waterfall hideout of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the nobility left in power after his kingdom’s destruction. There they craft a plan alongside Izumi Nagakura (Takashi Shimura), the elder general, to use the peasants’ idea for their route and to enlist them to help carry the royal family’s remaining gold back home. They also decide to have the Princess pretend to be mute as to avoid detection as she could accidentally reveal herself through speech usually characteristic of nobility. The troupe, consisting of Rokurota, Princess Yuki, Matashichi and Tahei then depart hauling the hidden gold on their backs and in a large cart.

The rest of the adventure is full of high energy moments like the lance (spear?) duel between Rokurota and Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), a general of equivalent rank and status. There’s also quieter beats of tension like the numerous times Matashichi and Tahei create new problems for Rokurota and Yuki by either plotting to steal the gold for themselves or their general fear of getting caught with all this gold. Eventually they sneak into a procession of people marching with hordes of wood towards a fire festival nearby- thus blending into the crowd to avoid being stopped by any watchmen. There’s a lot to like in “The Hidden Fortress” so I’ll spare you all the details for your own discovery, though it is most certainly worth a watch! This film feels like a tonal standout from Kurosawa’s other works. There’s no self serious moral message or compelling heroics, or even universally relatable characters as in other films of his. This film feels most at ease with it’s premise, a high stakes energetic comedy with a sensation similar to those punchy adventure serials from American cinema from the previous two decades before this film’s release. It’s clearly crafted by a master director if you’re paying attention though. Kurosawa’s deft hand at directing and filming is on display for those analyzing shot structure and the handling of movement and blocking. In fact, there’s a scene early in the film before Matashichi and Tahei encounter Rokurota, that’s reminiscent of the ‘Odessa Steps’ scene from “Battleship Potemkin” (also reviewed on the blog @ https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/spacecortezwrites.com/11007) in which dozens upon dozens of people descend down a huge staircase against a horde of guards with guns shooting into the crowd. There’s some question as to whether or not Kurosawa was directly homaging Potemkin, but I imagine he was aware of that uniquely important film at the very least.

If you have any interest in getting into Japanese cinema, this is an easy entry point and I highly recommend it. Especially because it will likely lead you to other excellent films by Kurosawa, or dare I say it, the work of Mizoguchi or Ozu. It’s like recent Academy Award winner Bong Joon-ho infamously said “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The man couldn’t be more right. So if you’re new to foreign cinema, welcome, and if you’re a well worn visitor to the land of subtitles and a difference in perspective, welcome back! ‘Til next time film nerds!

Final Score: Two Peasants, One Princess

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Old School Review: “Dersu Uzala” (1975)

Written by Yuriy Nagibin and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Dersu Uzala” is an adaption of the Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev’s memoir from his military explorations of the Ussuri basin of the Taiga in the early twentieth century in which he meets and befriends Dersu Uzala, a native hunter of the Taiga. This film won the 1976 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and a litany of other awards across international film festivals and awards ceremonies, and it’s easy to see why. While the film may not immediately strike you as an one from the master Akira Kurosawa, either from the Russian language used or the fact that the film was shot on 70mm (the first and only time Kurosawa would do so), it becomes apparent that an auteur is behind the camera when viewing the melodic composure of the cinematography or the impeccable blocking of actors through the wilderness. The story is stylized as an epic, but intimately told through the two main characters of Captain Arsenyev (Yuriy Solomin) and Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk). The film begins with the Captain and his crew traipsing through the Taiga until they find a suitable place to camp for the night wherein Dersu Uzala stumbles upon the campsite with the Russian exploratory group accepting him and offering Dersu the position of being their guide.

The elder hunter accepts this role and stays with the group for months, doling out tidbits of wisdom gleamed from a life spent in the wilderness. He often puts a point to the soldiers not to waste materials and resources, to respect nature and those wandering through it, and to make the Taiga better off than when you entered it. As the winter months press on, the Captain thins the group and sends most of his men off to different stations and bases. At one point he and Dersu alone head out to a frozen lake to graph any notable points of interest for their topographical survey. Eventually, after wandering far enough into the barren and frigid wastes, the wind picks up into a heavy gust, and despite all of Dersu’s expertise- he loses their tracks as they’re swept away in the blustery conditions. Which leads to easily the most frantic scene of the whole film, in which Dersu realizes that they must race to craft a makeshift shelter in the frozen ice- lest they die a cold death in the night. Hurriedly the two men quickly cut down the tall grass remaining from the autumn, they gather and gather and gather… until the Captain passes out from exhaustion. Luckily, Dersu finishes the straw mound construction and saves their lives in the process.

This film is split into two major parts, the first part being in 1902, with the majority of the second starting in 1907, five years after the Captain’s first foray deep into the Taiga. They had left Dersu in 1902 cheerful to be past the worst of the winter season and happy to have the help of a guide as experienced and knowledgeable as Dersu. Five years later in 1907 the Captain and his new recruits stumbled into Dersu once again to the delight of Arsenyev and those who had heard the tale of the small but wise “Goldi” hunter. The second part of the film is a sort of mirror image to the first part. In it we see a wizened man of nature succumb to the erosion of time, superstition, and degradation of the body come to bear on Dersu. Initially in part two, the group is stalked by a tiger in the wilderness- an important animal to Dersu’s people- and the spirit of the Taiga itself. Dersu effectively leads the group away from the tiger (which we never see in this sequence) but it is an effective foreshadowing of the threat that follows them on this journey. Later on in the autumn, Dersu and company encounter another tiger (we see this one up close) and Dersu accidentally shoots it. This act changes Dersu for the remainder of the journey, he becomes more anxious, argumentative, and mindful of every single action that could be conceived as a “negative outcome” for the Taiga. Later, when out hunting with the Captain in the dawn of winter’s wrath, Dersu discovers that his eyesight has begun to fail him and he immediately has a breakdown- how will he survive if he cannot even hunt for himself? Between his failing vision and firm belief of a curse set upon him by the spirit of the Taiga for killing a tiger, Dersu accepts the Captain’s previous offer to help Dersu by having him live with his family in the city. It isn’t long before Dersu realizes that his way of life is unacceptable in modern society. He cannot cut down trees, set up his tent, or shoot his rifle in the city- he cannot live this way. He asks to be let back to the hills. Understanding of this major decision, the Captain accepts Dersu’s request and gives him a new rifle for the journey. Not terribly long after this, Captain Arsenyev is called to identify a body bearing his card, it is Dersu- he had been murdered for the new rifle he possessed.

This was a departure for the great director, and one of the few films he released after 1965. In fact Kurosawa had attempted suicide after the commercial failure of his previous film “Dodes’ka-den”, which was paired with a complete lack of funding from most Japanese studios. This film, in collaboration with the Russian film studio Mosfilm, was his return to filmmaking after his darkest period. The director had passed his glory days, and at age sixty-five when the film was released, it makes sense that he would focus on a character that similarly had to deal with the encroaching crawl of old age and how to live in a world that had seemingly moved on from everything he knew. There are cues that this film came from Kurosawa though. The focus on the individual, the carefully constructed frames, a near reverence for mother nature and the natural order- and the subtle hint of morality; nudging the audience to give a damn about the things that matter in this world.

“Dersu Uzala” was a fascinating film and I recommend it, especially to anyone that appreciates Akira Kurosawa’s work. It runs a little long, but as they say, the juice is worth the squeeze. Fun fact on the way out, originally Mosfilm wanted Kurosawa to work with Toshiro Mifune for the role of Dersu, but Mifune’s agent declined, the actor couldn’t be attached to a film with such a long production. Give this one a watch!

Final Score: 1 Rifle, the latest model…

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Old School Review: “Throne of Blood” (1957)

Written by Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Throne of Blood” is an adaption of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” set within feudal Japan, the film would lay the groundwork for Kurosawa’s later historical epics “Kagemusha” and “Ran” specifically. Here, once again, we have one of Kurosawa’s favorite leading men in Toshiro Mifune as Washizu, the titular Macbeth. After a successful battle, both Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki), warriors and friends under Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), return to his castle in ‘Spider’s Web’ Forest. On their way there, they encounter a ghostly spirit who tells them their future, Miki will be made commander of the first fortress and that Washizu will be named Lord of the Northern Garrison that same day. The spirit also tells them that Washizu will eventually become the Lord of Spider’s Web Castle itself! Though, she also foretells that Miki’s son will be the next Lord of Spider’s Web Castle after Washizu.

After they return to the castle, both men are shocked when the spirit’s predictions come true and each are given their new titles. Later when Washizu tells his wife, Lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth here portrayed by Isuzu Yamada), she convinces him to hasten the second part of the witch’s prediction and kill Lord Tsuzuki himself when he next arrives. After some debate they agree and Lady Asaji helps to drug the Lord’s guards during a visitation while Washizu kills his superior in the night. They quickly frame and kill one of the guards, and Washizu is moved up the ladder for his deed in killing the Lord’s assailant. The rest of the film is a quagmire of beautifully orchestrated paranoia and guilt built upon Washizu’s acts and lies, especially once the power couple consider the other part of the prediction- that Miki’s son would follow Washizu as the ruler of ‘Spider’s Web’ Forest Castle. Eventually Washizu seeks out the spirit of the woods once more for assurance as the suspicions and sleeplessness build upon themselves, and it expertly leads into the end sequence in which Washizu’s forces feed on his paranoia and end up killing him by a legion of arrows- his men had begun to harbor suspicions that Washizu himself was Lord Tsuzuki’s killer as well.

When it comes to Shakespeare, admittedly, I enjoy the themes and story structure of his stories (particularly the tragedies) but never from the actual source material itself. This is more of a personal taste issue, but the Olde English is deafening and cumbersome. I recently tried to watch “Henry V” from 1944 directed by Laurence Olivier, but I simply couldn’t get through it. So, I was looking forward to another adaption by Akira Kurosawa. Granted I watched both of his adaptions in “Ran” and “Throne of Blood” out of order, and that may have been a mistake on my part because while I certainly appreciated this film, I was never astonished or transported by the magic of cinema with this film. Thinking back on it, it’s a great adaption, especially with the great Toshiro Mifune in the lead role, but it wasn’t enough for me to Love it wholeheartedly as I did with “Ran”. This may also lie in the nature of this adaption and my taste in general. It’s a moody, atmospheric, tragedy littered with the themes of the source material of greed, political ambition, paranoia, and shame. It’s a damn fine film though and my own taste shouldn’t drive you away from a viewing.

Final Score: Dozens of Arrows!

*Here’s a link to a piece that Roger Ebert wrote about Akira Kurosawa shortly after his death in 1998, while it doesn’t have to do explicitly with “Throne of Blood”, it’s a good piece on the legendary filmmaker as a whole, and if you’ve come to appreciate Kurosawa’s work as I have, give it a read:

https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/akira-kurosawa-focused-on-individual-ethical-dilemmas

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Old School Review: “Ran” (1985)

Written by Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide, and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Ran” is an adaption of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” set during Japan’s medieval era in which an elder Japanese warlord seeks peace by dividing his kingdom among his three grown sons. Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) awakens from a vision after a hunt with his three sons and subordinate clan representatives, to which he decrees his own abdication from the throne. Stunned by the announcement, Hidetora’s three sons each react differently. Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest garbed in yellow, is set to be given the first castle while Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) in red, and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû) in blue, are to be given the second and third castles in order of age and support Taro as the head of the Ichimonji clan. Taro, doesn’t even want the throne, while Jiro seeks it, and Saburo rejects the whole plan as one destined for failure. For his subversive outburst, Lord Hidetora banishes Saburo, and Tango (Masayuki Yui) the lord’s adviser, when he openly supports Saburo’s frankness.

I’ve been working through Akira Kurosawa’s filmography lately, and recently the Criterion Channel (The collection’s streaming service) added the legendary filmmaker’s late-in-career masterpiece to their ranks, and I figured I’d give it a shot. Knowing nothing about the film except that it was an adaption of “King Lear” proved to be a bountiful fortune going into the near three hour film. Of the seven, or so, films of Kurosawa’s that I have seen, this may be my favorite of the bunch so far- and that’s saying something with “Ikiru”, “Seven Samurai”, and “Yojimbo/Sanjuro” in that bunch! In doing some (very) light research before writing this review, I was surprised to find that Akira Kurosawa had trouble securing funding for this film for roughly a decade before it was finally released. Apparently Kurosawa had been going through a period akin to (but nowhere near as creatively apocalyptic) what Orson Welles went through after making “Citizen Kane”. After teaming with a French producer in Serge Silberman, the film found it’s foundation, and began winding towards one of the most engaging epics set within medieval Japan.

Having acquired most of his kingdom through brutal and ruthless tactics, this story is almost entirely about the consequences of Lord Hidetora’s actions and the ripple effect throughout his family as a result. After Saburo’s (and Tango’s) banishment things quickly go downhill for Lord Hidetora. As he moves into the smaller keep of the first castle he finds that Taro is being manipulated by his wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), into usurping Lord Hidetora after the transition of power to control the whole Ichimonji clan. Considering this an affront and needlessly offensive, Lord Hidetora takes leave of the first castle and heads to Jiro at the second Castle. There he finds himself to be more of a pawn in Jiro’s scheming than anything else. Broken by the betrayal of his sons, Lord Hidetora wanders off with his mercenaries and his fool Kyoami (Pîtâ) with no clear direction. Eventually Tango reappears with provisions to help the wandering party, but when he tells them of Taro’s new decree ‘to kill anyone found helping his father‘, they make a last ditch effort to take Saburo’s castle and fortify themselves there. Saburo’s men happen to be leaving as the group arrives anyways, and it isn’t long before both elder sons come to siege the castle and usurp their father from power through death or submission.

The rest of the film plays out like a season of ‘Game of Thrones’. The siege of the third castle in particular is brutal and impeccably staged. Kurosawa’s use of extras as the armies of Taro and Jiro clash with their father’s skilled warriors is beautifully organized. The chaos and bloodshed feel epic all while Lord Hidetora’s mind is blended, madness ensuing from the shock of all that has come from his abdication of power. The layers of history and karma striking back at the Ichimonji clan from within are glorious and well designed. I won’t divulge all of the details of the plot here, but its just so damn good! The way the story keeps digging at Hidetora’s past and forcing guilt and shame upon him for all that he has done is exemplary- just when you think it can’t get worse, it does! I found everything about this film to be just magnificent. From the score to the pacing, to the scheming and manipulative power moves, and revenge against the entire Ichimonji clan were just perfect in execution!

Seriously, if you enjoy film- this is one of the all time greats and I highly encourage anyone and everyone to give this film a shot. I can’t give this film enough praise, and I honestly need another rewatch to fully indulge in all of the film’s nuances and complexities. It may be a long watch, but it’s more than worth the two hours and forty-two minute runtime.

Final Score: Three sons and countless regrets

*Below is a link to Roger Ebert’s review of “ran” and a video essay by the “Every frame a painting” YouTube channel discussing Akira Kurosawa’s use of movement in his films. Both are simply great and give more depth to the film at hand, enjoy!

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-ran-1985

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Old School Review: “The Bad Sleep Well” (1960)

Written by Hideo Oguni, Eijirô Hisaita, Ryûzô Kikushima, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “The Bad Sleep Well” is a scintillating and scathing rebuke of the cut-throat, corrupt, climate that plagued Japan’s post-war corporations. Most of Akira Kurosawa’s films seem to fit into one of two categories, either his films take place in feudal Japan where Samurai and warring city-states engage in bloody battles, or they’re in the modern day Japan of it’s time and focus on the issues of the day, usually placing a heavy hand on the scale of morality. “The Bad Sleep Well” falls in the latter category and pulls a lot of it’s imagery and style from the American Noir crime genre. This time around, Kurosawa plays with a loose adaption of Hamlet set against the shadowy world of corporate espionage.

Though he may be mute for the first half hour, we’re eventually introduced to our lead in Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator, Toshirô Mifune as Kôichi Nishi. Mifune enters here with less swagger than Sanjuro or Yojimbo, but trade his usual aloofness for a pure and focused sense of revenge and Mifune’s Nishi transforms into a modern day, clean-shaven, Ronin in a three piece suit. His quest is to avenge his late father, who was forced to jump out of a window of the corporation building he worked in to safeguard his superiors and make it look as though he had committed suicide. The film opens with Nishi’s wedding with the daughter of the vice president of that same company, an unwitting innocent of collateral damage in Nishi’s shadow war against the powerful. In the wedding we’re introduced to the majority of the supporting players of the film as Nishi’s well researched scheme come to bits of fruition. Several potent accusations against leading members of the company (which lures the ravenous media to follow the high profile wedding), leads to the police arriving to take several high ranking board members in for questioning- but there’s also a large wedding cake brought in that’s an exact model of their corporate building, with a rose in the window that Nishi’s father was forced from. A perfect storm of shame and attempts at saving face for the company, which is played for comedic effect in brilliant form by Kurosawa.

It’s a good note to start out on considering the dour realities of the third act. In fact, until about the last twenty minutes of the film, it seems as though Nishi’s carefully calculated plans will have won the day. But I’m getting ahead of myself, the majority of the film is spent with three figures of the Dairyu company reacting to the scandals erupting around them as they act to diffuse and smother the growing ramifications of their destructive deeds. After the wedding, Tomoko Wada (Kin Sugai) returns from weeks of questioning by the police only to be given orders from his superiors to jump into the nearby volcano and resolve them of his misfortune, but Nishi stops him, and converts him to the side of justice. With Wada’s help, and his covert partner Itakura (Takeshi Katô), the three set forth a plan of attack consisting mostly of using the ghost of Wada to horrify and panic Shirai (Kô Nishimura), the official that held the most sensitive secret information. The next rung up on the corporate ladder belongs to administrative officer Moriyama (Takashi Shimura) a more unflappable and calculating underling of vice president Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), the major player of the film. Who just so happens to have Nishi as his ever present assistant, plotting the downfall of the Dairyu executives that organized his father’s killing.

Eventually, Moriyama deduces that the only factor relating to all of their troubles is Furuya, Nishi’s father. Further digging reveals Nishi’s true parentage, and while Nishi captures Moriyama for a time in the ruins of a bombed out factory from World War Two, it is too late- Moriyama had already informed Iwabuchi before being captured. There’s a bit more to the story, but that’s the essential facts of it. Nishi’s found out and killed off-screen before we even know what’s happened, and Iwabuchi restores order to the Dairyu corporation- even if it means the death of his daughter, and his own son’s rejection after discovering the truth. It is a cold reminder that fighting against the machine can be frought with peril, and sometimes, people get caught in the grinding gears. With a pensive and sobering tone, one of Nishi’s last lines after discovering his true lack of progress against the corporation was, “I guess I don’t hate them enough“…

Final Score: A 7-story plummet

*Linked below are two more sources on the subject, the first is the YouTube channel, “Every Frame a Painting”s video analysis of Kurosawa’s use of geometry concerning the blocking of Actors in the film. The second is a piece of well written analysis of the film from the Criterion Collection. Enjoy!

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/409-the-bad-sleep-well-the-higher-depths

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Old School Review: “Sanjuro” (1962)

Written by Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “Sanjuro” is the sequel to Kurosawa’s earlier Samurai Ronin feature “Yojimbo” also starring Toshiro Mifune in the lead role. After “Yojimbo”‘s success Kurosawa’s producers pushed him to craft a sequel to the wandering Samurai’s debut. “Sanjuro” is a lighter affair than the first film, often playing off of well established expectations within the sub-genre so often associated with the Kurosawa ‘Western‘ Samurai flick. When asked for a name, the Ronin simply observes his surroundings and gives a random title (Sanjuro) just as he did in “Yojimbo”, seemingly only to appease whoever asked.

We’re quickly introduced to a group of young Samurai in a clan trying to rescue their uncle (Yûnosuke Itô) from the corrupt Superintendent of the clan. Luckily for them they stumble upon the disheveled and aloof Sanjuro who overhears their opening assessment of the clan’s situation, he chooses to interject, and tell them how wrong he thinks they are about the facts of the matter. “Sanjuro” has an excellent balance that keeps the film’s tension intact, and the scenes investing, even though the base story is fairly simple overall. As the nine young Samurai keep switching back and forth from trusting Sanjuro to being skeptical of his intent throughout the film, the dynamism of the large cast keeps the momentum high throughout the film. There’s also the fact that at any given moment Mifune can overshadow an entire screen filled with dozens of people and then disappear into the background within seconds if needed.

With the deft hand of Kurosawa behind the camera the simplicity of the story bleeds into the background of consciousness. Every cut, every use of movement onscreen, and every choice regarding spatial design keeps the seams of the theater curtain from tearing and revealing the secrets behind the illusion of film-making. For having a core cast of ten characters, solely regarding the protagonists, Kurosawa layers the space with them masterfully. He knows how to fill the field visually and uses the geometry of blocking to great effect in every scene, not to mention the ingenious camera movements that clue the audience in on story elements with ease. Most of the film takes place with Sanjuro and the rebel Samurais planning out how they will rescue their uncle and his wife (Takako Irie) and daughter (Reiko Dan). When Sanjuro’s clever conniving fails due to the rebel Samaurais’ incompetence, he finally resorts to the sword. It’s a thing of beauty to watch Sanjuro take stock when he is strategically cornered and plainly frees his fellow Samurai in a room full of guards and then proceeds to slaughter the dozen or so opponents single-handedly.

If you’re looking for a fun Samurai flick but don’t necessarily want the self-seriousness ingrained within the genre, then “Sanjuro” is for you. The sequel is actually pretty funny, and there’s no greater on-screen Ronin than Toshiro Mifune! You can’t go wrong with this one, plus, the very end scene has one of the very best Samurai stand-offs in cinema history.

Final Score: 1 Ronin

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Old School Review: “Rashomon” (1950)

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Rashomon” is a film about the complexities of human nature surrounding a murder with four contradictory eye-witness accounts. In the film three men find solace from a torrent of rain under Kyoto’s Rashomon gate. In the opening a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) are discussing and processing the differing accounts of an event recently taken place nearby. A commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) comes in from the storm and joins the conversation. He’s brought up to date on the situation at hand; a samurai (Masayuki Mori) has been murdered, his wife (Machiko Kyo) raped, and a local bandit (Toshiro Mifune) is the suspect. The woodcutter happened upon the crime scene and was the first to report the incident.

What follows is a series of revolutionary flashbacks to describe the tale as each character remembers it. All retellings of the same event differ, while remaining both true and false. True in that it is how they remember the events, but false in objective truth. The only scenes that are objectively true in what they show us are the ones taking place at Rashomon. Every flashback is an amalgamation of fractured memories, every scene in the forest broke new ground by showing the audience unreliable retellings of the past. This wasn’t a new idea that “Rashomon” originated, but rather a storytelling device that the film popularized. In fact the film is so connected to the idea of contradictory interpretations of past events that they became entwined with each other until ‘The Rashomon Effect’ became part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Each suspect questioned by an unknown official, which leads into each one’s version of the truth. The bandit gives his testimonial first, then the wife, and then the dead samurai- who speaks through a spirit medium, with the woodcutter’s tale kept until the end. All claim to be guilty to varying degrees, and all describe the situation with varying representations of themselves and the others involved. The three men under the Rashomon gate have differing reactions to the events and various recollections of those involved. The commoner is the most cynical of the three, at one point he posits, “Is there anyone who is truly good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe.” The woodcutter is visually distraught by these stories as he tries to reassemble the truth of the matter, while the priest seems to be placing the weight of his faith in humanity upon the outcome of the tale.

The film ends on a high note when the fog of ambiguity is lifted by the sounds of an abandoned child crying out. The woodcutter lifts his spirits and takes on the responsibility of this orphan, proving to the priest that humanity still has hope left in its spirit. The simple act of selflessness gives the film’s end a beacon to strive towards, even if humanity is muddled, complex, and not always truthful- we still strive to be better than our worst habits.

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.“- Akira Kurosawa

Final Score: 1 samurai ghost, 1 over the top bandit, and 1 woodcutter

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Old School Review: “I live in Fear” (1955)

Caution: There will be spoilers..

Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, “I Live in Fear” is the legendary filmmaker’s most direct attempt at fictionalizing the very real social anxieties sweeping Japan post World War Two. The film opens on an unfolding case being discussed in family court. Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune) is a successful, elder, Japanese industrialist that has been taken to court by his family for the unreasonable use of his funds to secure land in Brazil, the only place on earth Mr. Nakajima believes to be safe from Nuclear Annihilation. He wishes to purchase a farm in the South American country and to bring his family with him- to which the whole family objects. Granted, most of the family doesn’t want to uproot their entire lives just to assuage the fears of Kiichi, but as the film progresses we get the impression that the family would have gone on without acknowledging the man’s paranoia and mental health IF he hadn’t begun to use his wealth, their inheritance, to fund several projects that he thought would protect his loved ones from an irradiated doom.

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After much deliberation the family court approves the family’s petition, that Mr. Nakajima’s actions and intentions deem him mentally unfit. Naturally he appeals the notion and as the court machinations move forward Mr. Nakajima only becomes more frenzied with each passing hour. As he unravels, he fails to understand why everyone around him can be so calm when the very fact that the H bomb exists at all should concern every living soul with grave danger. One of the more powerful scenes in the film, in my opinion, happens during a visit to one of his mistresses (the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that our lead isn’t perfect) as he mistakes lightning and thunder to be another bomb dropping- he dives for his youngest son and startles him awake, at which point the mistress snatches her child up and looks at Kiichi with fearful eyes. Eventually he is so distraught by a son-in-law’s suggestion that even Brazil wouldn’t be safe from the fallout of nuclear war, that Kiichi takes drastic measures and sets the family foundry ablaze. The foundry was the source of the family’s wealth- which Kiichi eventually only saw as a deterrent to moving to safety.

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Throughout the film Kurosawa wisely placed Takashi Shimura as the moral center, and therefore soul of the film, in Dr. Harada. In the role as a dentist that’s been accepted by the local community to be on the board of the family court, Dr. Harada is often the one individual to question the group’s assumptions and point out when Mr. Nakajima makes logical points of contention. After Shimura’s spellbinding performance in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” in 1952, it was a cinematic pleasure seeing two of Kurosawa’s most lauded performers onscreen together. Granted, I’m watching Kurosawa’s films out of order, so this may not be as momentous as it felt to me at the time. The two actors play off of each other brilliantly, with Shimura’s reserved and quiet performance set against the rigidity and barely contained anger of Mifune’s Kiichi- it’s an excellent pairing of personalities.

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Kurosawa presents an argument in the film, which party is the sane one? Mr. Nakajima, who’s trying to save lives and avoid nuclear disintegration? Or the World around him that neglects his worries as trivial and misguided. Sirens wail in the background throughout the film and most of the characters have a sort of laissez-faire attitude about the whole idea of nuclear annihilation. Several even acknowledge that while Mr. Nakajima had gone too far- they couldn’t accurately articulate why he should be deemed mentally incompetent. The film’s final scene encapsulates this dichotomy visually with Mr. Nakajima institutionalized in a psychiatric ward. Dr. Harada leaves the institution, having just witnessed a man broken by paranoia, just as Nakajima’s daughter enters and both are anchored in a mourning and uneasiness as they each enter a world that harbors curious intent.

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In reading what others have said about this film I came across the perfect summary of where the film’s head-space lives. In an article from Slate in 2008, by Fred Kaplan, he extrapolates that if someone were to make a similar film on the American psyche post 9/11 “[they] might cover and somehow dramatize: the line between obsession and obliviousness, between whimpering terror and blithe denial; the undeterminable toll on our ‘unconscious minds’ from embracing either course; and the question of whether it’s possible to lead a fully conscious, sane life on some road in between“. All of which is crafted here exquisitely by Akira Kurosawa and his crew. This tragedy is worth a watch, if only to recognize how the outcomes of war can affect a society and it’s people.

 

Final Score: Two minutes, ’til midnight

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Old School Review: Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961)

Spoilers will be included in this review. You have been warned.

Written by Ryûzô Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “Yojimbo” is a Japanese Samurai film, set during the 1860’s, in which a lone Ronin (Toshiro Mifune) happens upon a small town that happens to be besieged by two warring clans with a blood feud. The Samurai then decides to play them against each other to free the town, and possibly make some money while doing so. As the opening credits scrawl by, our Ronin walks into frame as he wanders the countryside. He tosses a stick in the air when faced with a cross in the road, letting fate decide his path. He soon stumbles across a small farm in which he overhears an argument amongst a family. The son doesn’t want to work the hard but simple life of a silk farmer as his father before him and instead decides to join a gang as a hired warrior in a nearby town. The Samurai lets curiosity lead him and soon he’s sitting in a small tavern in that town ran by Gonji (Eijirō Tōno). The cantankerous old man lays out the situation for him and tells him he’s better off leaving town before everyone kills each other.

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Gonji reveals that Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka) and Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) are the heads of the two warring clans, though Ushitora used to be Seibei’s second in command until Seibei claimed that he’d eventually cede his land and power to his son Yoichiro (Hiroshi Tachikawa), a notoriously useless individual. Thus Ushitora broke away from Seibei and formed his own clan challenging the power structure of the town. Each patriarchal figure had made claims to power in the village, Seibei had the local silk merchant and mayor Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara) in his pocket while Ushitora sought the local sake brewer, Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura), proclaiming him the new mayor instead. After listening to the current state of affairs in the town the Samurai decides that the whole town would be better off with both clans eradicated and begins to craft sly machinations between the two.

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The Samurai then proves his violent worth by making a spectacle in the middle of town by killing three of Ushitora’s men and then aligning himself with Seibei. Seibei then decides that with the new Samurai on his side he must defeat Ushitora and his hired men that very day. When asked his name the Ronin happens to be looking out an open door and responds with Kuwabatake Sanjuro, the first name meaning Mulberry field (The same type of field he was looking at), and the surname being a wry definition of the thirtieth son, but he implies that it’s closer to a meaning of his age-though he admits he’s “..actually closer to forty”. After they agree on a price for his help in the coming battle Seibei goes to discuss logistics with his wife Orin (Isuzu Yamada), which Sanjuro secretly listens in on. Orin devises a plan to simply kill the Samurai once the fight is over so they don’t have to pay his high costs.

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As both clans appear on the opposing sides of town, rabid and eager to end their feud in a bloodbath, Sanjuro walks across to Ushitora and announces that Seibei has offended him and that he declines the fight. Sanjuro then climbs the ramshackle tower in town to watch the two clans fight to the death with a gleeful smirk. Though before anyone can get the nerve to kill, a scout on a horse reels into town to warn that a government official is on his way to inspect the town and it’s wares of silk and sake. To the disappointment of Sanjuro everybody drops their swords and quickly rush to make the town appear as if everything is normal. The government official stays a grueling ten days until another government official is murdered a few towns away, forcing an early departure from the corrupted elite.

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Sanjuro overhears two drunken assassins talking too much at Gonji’s tavern shortly after this, revealing that it was Ushitora who hired them to commit the other official’s murder. Armed with this knowledge Sanjuro captures the killers and delivers them to Seibei for a price, after which he heads to Ushitora and tells him that it was Seibei’s men who captured the two. Ushitora, shocked by this reveal, pays off Sanjuro for the information and then orders the kidnapping of Seibei’s son Yoichiro. Things get out of hand quickly after this as Ushitora makes an offer for Seibei to retrieve his son in exchange for his two murderers, but instead he double-crosses Seibei by shooting the two killers before Seibei can reclaim his son. Seibei had expected this double-cross however and had preemptively kidnapped Ushitora’s claimed mayor Tokuemon’s prized prostitute, Nui (Yoko Tsukasa). Sanjuro later finds out that Nui isn’t truly a prostitute but a bargaining chip as her husband Kohei (Yoshio Tsuchiya) had owed a gambling debt to Tokuemon and couldn’t pay off his debts, so Tokuemon took Nui instead.

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Sanjuro ponders this and eventually tricks Ushitora into revealing where Nui is kept and investigates with Ushitora’s younger, and far dumber, brother Inokichi (Daisuke Katō). Sanjuro quickly kills the guards, while distracting Inokichi, and then sends Nui, Kohei, and their child away into the night with the gold he received from both clans. He shows Inokichi the dead guards and sends him back to Ushitora to warn him of the attack and that Nui must have escaped or been captured back by Seibei’s men. This results in a fast escalation of violence and sabotage in the town. First Tazaemon’s silk stock is set ablaze, then Tokuemon’s sake barrels are destroyed as the town’s financial industry becomes ruined and unprofitable.

Eventually Ushitora’s youngest brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the only gun toting gangster among the bunch, becomes suspicious of Sanjuro’s role in all of this and discovers evidence of his double-cross against Ushitora and beats Sanjuro without his sword. Jailed and bloodied, Sanjuro outwits Ushitora’s guards and crawls to Gonji for help. Gonji enlists the casket maker’s (Atsushi Watanabe) help in transporting Sanjuro out of town to heal in a small shrine in the cemetery, but before they leave they stop to witness Ushitora’s final attack against Seibei as they slaughter the opposing clan in entirety. As he recuperates Sanjuro practices throwing knives, but is pulled back into town when he hears that Gonji, who had been delivering food and ointments to Sanjuro, has been captured by Ushitora and his men. The final showdown is very reminiscent of the classic western trope of a showdown through the street on opposing sides as Sanjuro precisely and efficiently kills Ushitora and his remaining forces, he even bests Unosuke and his pistol, with his throwing knife. The final moment is given to Tazaemon though, who appears from the rubble beating a prayer drum, seeking his prey. Finally he finds Tokuemon and kills him, thereby ending the blood feud and violence. Happy with this conclusion, Sanjuro exits the town to the beginning of the credits roll.

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This was a great Samurai film from Akira Kurosawa. There was a lot to love with this film. The framing, cinematography, the performances and action, everything was a tightly knit piece of genre entertainment and I genuinely loved it. I started with this Samurai film after finding out that Sergio Leone’s first film in his infamous “dollar trilogy” A Fistful of Dollars (starring Clint Eastwood) was a remake of this film. You can definitely see the love of this film in Leone’s remake, and I really enjoyed recognizing how that transition was made between the two. If you’re looking for a classic Samurai film from one of the best filmmakers of the twentieth century, you can’t find much better than this!

Final Score: One Samurai, two clans, & a dog

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Old School Review: “Ikiru” (1952)

*This film was released in 1952-There will be spoilers*

Written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Shinobu Hashimoto and directed by Kurosawa in 1952, “Ikiru” (translated as ‘To Live’) is a drama that is considered by many to be Kurosawa’s finest achievement from his lauded filmmaking career. The story follows Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-aged Japanese bureaucrat that discovers that he has stomach cancer, a death sentence that forces him to search for meaning as he reflects on a life that he’s wasted stamping forms that only serve to waste people’s time. The beginning of the film perfectly sets up the roundabout rigmarole that goes on in the local government departments, proving the inefficiency of bureaucracy. A group of mothers are trying to get a cesspool in their neighborhood cleaned up and made safe for their children, but each representative in turn says that such a project would be better serviced by the next department until they’re brought back to where they started. Finally they lambaste the clerks in Kanji’s office and leave discouraged.

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Kanji learns that he indeed does have stomach cancer and initially tries to find meaning in the pleasures of life, but discovers in the midst of a nightclub that this is no solution. After befriending a young novelist (Yūnosuke Itō) in a bar Kanji admits that he’s worked his whole life for his savings, and now that he’s dying-he doesn’t know how to spend it. The novelist is entranced by Kanji’s story and whisks him away on a tour of the nightlife. Kanji enjoys himself for awhile, but at one of these parties a piano player asks for requests, and he responds with “Gondola no Uta”, or “The Gondola Song” an old romantic ballad, and the pianist begins to play as Kanji solemnly sings in a manner most soul crushing; “life is brief fall in love, maidens before the raven tresses begin to fade before the flame in your hearts flicker and die for those to whom today will never return.

Eventually Toyo (Miki Odagiri), the youngest member of Kanji’s section at the public works, tracks him down to get his stamp of approval for her to quit and move on to a more fulfilling occupation. They end up sharing the rest of the day in each other’s company as Kanji realizes that she despises the public works as much as he does. He clings to Toyo even after she leaves the public works because her youth and joy remind him of what he wants out of life. He eventually reveals his situation to her and she points out that she only gets happiness by working in a toy factory knowing she is making children happy-which is the realization that propels Kanji to do something meaningful with the remainder of his time on Earth. In one of the many perfect shots of the film Kanji rushes out of the cafe as a separate group sings Happy Birthday to a colleague as he descends a staircase in a representation of his rebirth, he has found his purpose.

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What I found to be particularly effective were the scenes without Kanji, where those closest to Watanabe, co-workers and family, talk and gossip about his actions and intentions. It brilliantly focuses on the reactions and suspicions of those in his orbit, who are unaware of his illness and the existential crisis that he is facing. Coworkers often cite the fact that the corporate world is full of competition and that many will likely look to fill Kanji’s seat at the head of the table after he misses his first day in thirty years. His son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and his fiance are the unknowing culprits of the most painful things said to Kanji throughout the film. They are distant in nature and only seem to want to retrieve Kanji’s retirement funds to buy a house and start their own lives. Kanji even attempts to tell his son about his stomach cancer but the discussion turns sour upon misdirected assumptions about Kanji and Toyo. Which is all the more painful as earlier in the film there are several sequences that show the longing he has for Mitsuo as he was raising him, his wife and Mitsuo’s mother had died young, so Kanji provided for his son the only way he knew how. He worked long hours at a job filled with meaningless paperwork and never remarried for the sake of his son. Kanji clearly misses the closeness he once shared with his son and there are some effectively brutal scenes throughout the film that accentuate how far the divide has grown in that time. Once Kanji finds his purpose, to not only clean up the cesspool referenced earlier in the film, but to build a children’s park in its place, he effectively disappears from the film. We only see the fruits of his labor, and his path there, through flashbacks after his eventual death. Which leads me to the most satisfying portion of the film.

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My favorite part of the film is when we jump five months in the future to Kanji’s wake after the park has been built. We are soon informed that the deputy mayor and his aides have also attended Kanji’s wake after giving a rather self serving speech at the park’s opening ceremony. The wake is interrupted by a slew of journalists waiting outside as the mayor discounts Kanji’s efforts to get that park made, they scoff at the reporters who assert the local citizens’ opinion that Kanji Watanabe built the park. “They don’t know how government works!” they proudly defend, and that no one man could build that park. Since Kanji didn’t tell most people that he had stomach cancer the claim is made that even he didn’t know that he had the illness, thus having no clear drive or motivation to complete the project and thereby discounting the claims that he deserved credit for getting the park built. The whole sequence is intercut with flashbacks from the last five months in which Kanji visited every person and department possible to push and plead for people to simply do their jobs. Efforts to paint him as intruding on the jurisdiction of other departments fall short after several people point out that Kanji was threatened when he got in the way of powerful people wanting to build a red light district there. Others also begin to remember Kanji referencing that he didn’t have time, that he seemed intent on his goals before his time ran out. This effectively sets the record straight for the remaining bureaucrats and Kanji’s family as they realize that he knew that he was going to die the entire time. We then see the final moments of Kanji Watanabe’s life as he swings in the park in the snow. He looks content, tired, and full with happiness as he sings “Gondola no Uta” one last time, but with a joyful heart this time.

life is brief.
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips
before the tides of passion
cool within you,
for those of you
who know no tomorrow

Final Score: 1 brand new hat & the satisfaction of fulfillment in life

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