film

Old School Review: The “Lone Wolf and Cub” Film Series (1972-1974)

Recently I began watching a Samurai film series from Japan made in the early 1970’s called “Lone Wolf and Cub” based on the hugely popular Manga of the same name. I’ve been slowly wading into the popular Samurai genre of Japanese films for a little while now. I started, as most Americans do, with Akira Kurosawa in “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro”, before plunging into the famed director’s sword brandishing epic “Seven Samurai”. From there I found “The Sword of Doom” partly because that’s a great title- but also because it starred Tatsuya Nakadai (Who gave memorable character appearances in both Yojimbo and Sanjuro) as the lead, with the legendary Toshirô Mifune as a revered master swordsman in a minor, but powerful, role. All of these films have reviews here on this blog, and they left me wanting to discover more! One day after seeing a few reputable cinephiles on twitter take note that the series had landed on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service, I knew I had to check it out. It must seem as though I’m plugging this streaming service all the time- but it is only because I often find films there that I cannot find anywhere else, and as a student of the medium- I always need to see more movies. Always.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lonewulf1.jpg

Rather than go through each film and review them individually, it made more sense to sum up the series as a whole and what made it great. Though, for your convenience I’ve listed each film’s title and year of release below this piece. Throughout these six films the most singular and significant factor that makes them stand out from the rest of the genre is the fact that Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) roams the vast Japanese countryside with his infant son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) by his side. In the beginning of the first film, we see Ogami in his role as the shōgun’s executioner, mercilessly cutting down an incredibly young daimyō (Essentially a Lord in the feudal sense, a form of royalty within Japan’s Edo period. Forgive me if this is inaccurate, I’m only going by slight internet research and how this role is depicted within the films). This is important as it sets this world of cinema apart as a particularly brutal one, not even children can escape with their lives. It also serves as the assumed revenge for Ogami’s wife who was killed by three ninjas afterwards. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but it boils down to the “Shadow” Yagyū Clan framing Ittō for treason and subsequently taking over his executioner’s post. Ogami quickly gathers his son Daigoro and offers the toddler a choice to avoid the hardships of their uncertain future by death or to join his father “On the Demon path to Hell”. Which is, essentially, to wander as assassins-for-hire as they seek vengeance by hunting down all members and known associates of the Yagyū Clan. Obviously, Daigoro accepts the ronin lifestyle.

Holy Mother of Violence!

The hook of the series, for me anyway, is the absolutely insane graphic violence that is on display throughout these films. I’m fairly certain that there isn’t a film in the bunch that doesn’t have at least five severed limbs from anyone foolhardy enough to challenge Ogami. From the candy-cane red blood that sprays from the Wolf’s victims to the inventive and bizarre ways in which he has outfitted Daigoro’s baby cart for maximum carnage- the series is fundamentally soaked in blood and corpses. The villains that seek to destroy Ogami and Daigoro get cartoonishly creative with their various techniques as the films progress. From hiding in walls and stone barriers to literally writhing through the dirt and snow to pursue the Lone Wolf and Cub- these enemies can seem unending at times, though we as the audience know that Ogami’s mastery of his Suiō-ryū swordsmanship is unparalled! These films could be categorized under exploitation within the Samurai genre, and there is plenty to be said about the snap-zooms and bad guys giving whole monologues with swords jammed in their skulls, but there’s enough artistry beyond pure shock and awe that propels these films into a category all their own. What other films series so values extreme bloodletting alongside such strong familial bonds?

Silence and the poetic nature it instills

The use of sound in these films is uncannily serene at times. Depending on the scene, these films can have either a melodic score to accompany Ogami strolling with Daigoro’s baby cart, or a jazzy upbeat tempo to fit the pace. Don’t get me wrong, I love the scenes when the 1970’s funk kicks in to accompany Ogami’s blending of bad guys, but if you’re paying attention you’ll begin to notice the times that have the least noise weigh the most thematically. Below this article I’ve left a link to a video analysis of how these films utilize silence effectively, and I urge you to check it out. Often when Ogami is stoically seated at altars and shrines, the score takes a beat or two back to meditate and breathe inbetween the chaotic fight scenes. The best use of silence in each film, in my opinion, is at the beginning of Ogami’s one-on-one duels with the central villain of the film. Upon drawing swords, each warrior takes his or her stance and waits, calculating, taking only slow measured movements. It is the calm before the storm. It heightens the tension from some of the sillier one-versus-many scenes’ over the top violence and allows a moment of uncertainty to slip in. Who will strike first? Will Ogami come away unscathed? Or will he finally meet his match? The films often put a lot of technical precision, craft, and care into their fight scenes with excellent choreography, but the biggest diversion from this tactic in the series lies in the third film “Baby cart to Hades”. It’s a far slower film than the rest and focuses more on the ulterior dimensions of the warrior spirit within Ogami. Deep within the second act Ogami is forced to endure a ridiculous amount of torture that would make Mel Gibson proud. Through his restraint and self control, he defeats his enemies. These things help to elevate the film series beyond it’s grindhouse attractions.

Cinematography

From thick wooded forests to sweeping sand dunes and even snow topped mountains, the “Lone Wolf and Cub” movies put a heavy emphasis on the locations that our two assassins travel through. Visually, location is front and center where the camera is concerned. Each film does it a bit differently, but whether through differing camera techniques or inventive framing, there is always a sense that the world these characters inhabit is fully realized, if a bit fantastical. I particularly appreciate any scenes that immerse themselves in mood or when depth of landscape is considered. The fight scenes themselves are constructed for the most visceral and eye-popping blood splatter, and it’s a joy to see Ogami take on literal armies of opponents at times. Throughout all the spraying blood, dubiously performed monologues, and patient wanderings through varying landscapes, the cinematographers of these films have thoroughly earned their place in celluloid history.

The Elephant in the room…

While these films are highly entertaining and culturally significant, we must take a moment to acknowledge the sexual acts of violence against women. I am no scholar of Japanese society, especially of any time period or place, but these films do depict several instances where women are taken advantage of. Maybe it’s more off-putting as an American because what we’re shown is a bit more explicit than our legacy of films, at least in the portrayal of the sexual assault. The films explicitly exist in the pulpy and exploitative arena of cinema- so I feel that it’s just wise to know that these scenes exist and could put some viewers off from watching the rest of the films. Though, to be fair, Ogami is never the perpetrator of these violent sexual acts, the villains here tend to be the worst of society. So, maybe making them out to be monsters of every variety was the intention to get audiences on board with Ogami’s particularly violent dispatching of such vile men? So, it can get ugly at times, but, hey people are a mixed bag themselves right? If you can get past these instances of vulgarity, then I would highly recommend giving these films a watch!

Final Score: 6 films, 6 circles of Hell

*Below I’ve listed a couple links to more information on these films that I quite enjoyed and found to be rather informative. If you want to know more about these films, check it out!

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4287-samurai-and-son-the-lone-wolf-and-cub-saga

Sword of Vengeance(1972)

Baby Cart at the River Styx(1972)

Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

Baby Cart in Peril(1972)

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons(1973)

White Heaven in Hell(1974)

Advertisements
film

Old School Review: “Chungking Express” (1994)

Written and Directed by Wong Kar-Wai, “Chungking Express” is a uniquely romantic film out of Hong Kong in the early-to-mid 1990’s. This film falls heavily into the category of “Art film” and it relies far more on the feeling or sensation of its characters and imagery than the logic of plot progression. If that sort of film repels you, then this one may not be for you. Though I do suggest going out of your comfort zone when choosing which movies to watch, broadening one’s artistic horizons is always encouraged. Anyways, this film is essentially split into two halves- almost directly down the middle of the runtime. Each half even has its own cinematographer! The first half belonging to Andrew Lau, and the second to Christopher Doyle.

Both halves of the film follow lovelorn police officers in Hong Kong. The first half follows Officer 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) in the midst of his listless drudgery, the symptoms of a recent breakup. He’s taken to buying canned pineapple with the expiration date of May 1st- thereby giving himself a month after the break to wallow in self pity. When the date comes, he decides to eat the entirety of the canned pineapples he’s collected and then go out to a bar and try to seduce the first woman he sees. That first woman, however, happens to be a someone we’ve seen along side Officer 223’s malaise. We get almost no information about this woman (Brigitte Lin), other than the fact that she’s involved with some serious criminals. She’s always sporting a blonde wig and sunglasses, something that looks straight out of a 1940’s Noir’s femme fatale wardrobe. We witness her oversee a bunch of Indian men as they prepare to smuggle large amounts of heroin, watch her dance with a white man in a nightclub (possibly indicating him to be her superior), and observe as she goes on the run in an escalating foot-chase through the crowded marketplaces and streets of Hong Kong with a few haphazard shootouts along the way. By the time she escapes into a quiet bar and has a few drinks to settle her nerves, officer 223 enters in civilian clothing- eyeing her as his next obsession of love. From here, the two share a night of communal drinking, awkward expressions, and a sexless night at the officer’s apartment as he watches old movies late into the night as she sleeps unconsciously next to him. When she mysteriously exits in the morning, we follow officer 223 on his habitual route to the Midnight Express fast food shop, which just so happens to be frequented by another officer, number 663 (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung).

The second half of the film changes up it’s color palette and tonal sensibilities while still focusing on another officer experiencing love-loss in Hong Kong. This half is drenched in a colder blend of colors, whereas the first was submerged in deep reds and yellows. It’s also more akin to a rom-com dipped in whimsy than the first’s playful experiment in aspects of pulpy crime; a woman in danger, some gunplay, all existing in a subsect of a criminal underworld that exists parallel to everyday life. Officer 663 is also experiencing a sense of purposelessness in the aftermath of a breakup with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow). After the flight attendant leaves 663’s apartment keys, accompanied by a handwritten letter, at the Midnight Express we’re introduced to Faye (Faye Wong), the cashier with a pixie cut. After everyone else in the kitchen has read the letter, Faye indulges and takes a keen interest in officer 663. Faye’s interest quickly turns into a strangely, quirky, obsession as she repeatedly sneaks into his apartment to clean and rearrange his things. In other films, and in real life, several of her actions would seem alarming and unstable at times- but here it’s presented as playfully romantic. Which incorporates into the film’s thesis on relationships, both in the wake of longing and the potential of a new love. Taking the film as a whole, it’s harbors a unique ideology in which change is inevitable, but also that you must open yourself up to allow for the potential of a new positive evolution to take place.

This was an interesting film to take in. On its own merits, “Chungking Express” has something unique to offer- even if I didn’t quite love it as much as I anticipated, the film’s reputation exceeded itself for me personally. Though I am glad to have seen it. I admired the techniques employed throughout both halves. Melding slow motion, pixelation, and freezing the foreground while simultaneously blurring and speeding up the backgrounds of officers 223 and 663 in certain compositions helped to establish them as alone in a sea of people constantly on the move. Even though the film immerses itself in the wallowing of dissolved relationships- it retains a sheen of dreamy optimism that pairs well with it’s hypnotic nihilism, resulting in something truly bittersweet. I caught this film on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service (The Criterion Channel), and I cannot recommend the service enough. If you love old cinema and foreign films from every era, its worth your time.

Final Score: 1 month’s worth of canned pineapple

*For a deeper dive into the film and further context, check out the link below! I found the article to be an illuminating read:

https://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/216-keynote-chungking-express/

film

Old School Review: “White Heat” (1949)

Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts and directed by Raoul Walsh, “White Heat” is a crime caper starring James Cagney as Cody Jarrett, returning to the type of role that made him famous years prior in films such as “The Public Enemy” or “Angels with Dirty Faces”. Admittedly, if you open a gangster flick with a train heist and close it out with an explosive shootout, I’ll be there with a smile as wide as the grand canyon. As a fan of genre cinema, “White Heat” was an excellent example of everything that I love about these films. Larger than life performances combined with strong pacing and intelligent characters on both sides of the law led the film to take a few delightfully unexpected routes. Jarrett’s gang follows a strict system and those who fall behind are killed with callous and pragmatic means. The treasury agents chasing down the gang are just as clever however and constantly nipping at the gang’s heels at every turn.

We follow Jarrett as the leader of a ruthless gang as they effectively stop a train and get away with a few hundred thousand to spare. Cagney’s charismatic but highly unstable portrayal of Cody Jarrett is the diamond-cut core of the film, but the surrounding cast all gave impeccable performances that helped to buoy the film throughout. Cody was a fascinating gangster character as this role opened up the psychology of such a killer- at least as far as a film in late 1940’s America was going to explore. The volatile killer had an unusually strong connection to his mother portrayed by Margaret Wycherly in a solid role as “Ma Jarrett” who seemed by Cody’s account to have been tragically surrounded by con men her whole life. Cody’s wife Verna, played by Virginia Mayo, was an interesting sort of femme fatale- not quite the image you may be conjuring of noir films like “The Maltese Falcon” but she was seemingly caught in the mix and in-between lovers. Big Ed, played by Steve Cochran, was the subordinate gangster with big ideas of his own, including killing Cody and stealing away Verna. These two offered a few great points of interest and tension as Cody orchestrated a long con in getting sent to a prison in Springfield, Illinois for the confession of a far smaller crime that supposedly took place at the same time as the train robbery near Los Angeles. All crafted to obfuscate and disorient the cops on their trail.

John Archer was believable as Phillip Evans, the head Treasury Cop in Los Angeles chasing down the Jarrett Gang, and instrumental in organizing a tit-for-tat game of chase across the country and back. Luckily, just as Cody got sent to prison Evans calls up a friend in the agency, Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who specializes in undercover stings by infiltrating prisons and getting close to the criminals they’re after. After a quick cover is drafted, Hank, now known as Vic Pardo, gets sent to the same cell as Cody, and inadvertently saves Cody’s life from a hit ordered from Big Ed on the outside, and is quickly indoctrinated as one of the gang. The various plot-lines and character decisions from this point on where exciting and joyfully unexpected.

“White Heat” was both nostalgic and refreshing on my first watch through. It held up a lot of the well known tropes and norms of the gangster films of the time, but this post-war thriller pulled a few fast ones and introduced a few more shades of villainous character analysis.If you’re looking for a classic black and white gangster film starring one of old Hollywood’s leading men, then give this one a look! I caught it on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service- (The Criterion Channel) and I cannot recommend that platform enough if you enjoy older (or foreign) films.

Final Score: 1 Giant Ball of Fire

film

Old School Review: “The Man in the White Suit” (1951)

Written by Roger MacDougall, John Dighton, and Alexander Mackendrick, and directed by Mackendrick, “The Man in the White Suit” is a satirical comedy set in the laboratories of several textile-based companies in early 1950’s London. Alec Guinness stars as Sidney Stratton, a chemistry genius working on the latest applications to fibers in the textile industry, though he prefers to work back in the corners, unseen. Sidney is initially fired from the first laboratory we encounter him in once the accountants find his costly receipts. Once he’s gotten a job over at the Birnley mill, albeit as a lowly laborer initially, he makes friends with the blue collar workers such as Bertha (Vida Hope) as well as Daphne (Joan Greenwood) the daughter of the industry mogul, Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) himself.

Sidney eventually becomes an unpaid researcher at Birnley by gushing over new machines arriving in the laboratory, exposing his knowledge and skill. It isn’t long before he’s back at work on his everlasting fiber theory, and after a series of explosive attempts he succeeds in creating a fabric that never wears down, repels dirt, and is unrealistically durable. Both the heads of industry and the blue collar workers initially believe the eureka moment to be innovative, groundbreaking, grand even– until they realize what a perfect clothing fiber would mean to their industry and livelihoods. Sidney then crafts a suit, with a luminous white glow, to showcase his miracle. The rest of the film is devoted to the hi-jinks that befall Sidney as he attempts to contact the press and move his product to sale.

With both the Industry titans and the mob of the masses initially suspecting each of revolting against the other, it was quite entertaining seeing Sidney attempt to sidestep each group and outwit them. The industry titans try bribing and tricking him to sign away his rights to the fiber while Sidney’s working-class friends try to talk him out of this to save their jobs. With only Daphne on his side Sidney almost gets away with his miracle of fabric, until both the kings of industry and the working class realize that for once, they’re on the same side. The last few scenes are of Sidney literally running through the streets in his white suit being chased by mobs of people until he’s cornered. Someone from the crowd grabs at him, and tears a piece of the suit off. To their shock and relief the crowd of rich and poor alike burst into boisterous revelry as dozens of hands reach out to rip off pieces of Sidney’s suit. After the revelation that the chemically enhanced fiber deteriorates over time, Sidney is fired from Birnley’s Mill and seems down on his luck as he’s leaving the mill. That is, until he looks back at his notes one last time, his eyes widen, and he smiles as he defiantly remarks, “Of Course!” before running off down the street- presumably to find a new laboratory to perfect the latest correction to his everlasting fiber.

Final Score: 1 White Suit and 1 Man’s ambition

film

Old School Review: “Ugetsu” (1953)

Written by Matsutarô Kawaguchi, Akinari Ueda, and Yoshikata Yoda, and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi “Ugetsu” is a film that hides its true intentions behind the veil of a ghost story. The supernatural aspects of the film cleverly disguise the introspective look at the different sexes and how war frenetically warps both. Frankly, the idea of ghosts here aren’t what modern audiences may expect, it is an older representation of the dead that take issue with moving on from this world. There are no jumpscares here, but there is a moral tale that should cause concern and, dare I say it, a deeper level of fright than your typical horror show. We are set in sixteenth century Japan during a civil war in which two lower class families are torn apart just as much by the greed and avarice that foments during wartime, as their own miscommunications.

Mizoguchi’s camera is almost always flowing in poetic fashion, mastering the long take and transitions that emit an ethereal tone.

Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and Tôbei (Eitarô Ozawa) are the men of two small households in a rural village near the shores of Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province. Genjurô, a potter, and Tôbei, an ambitious fool with dreams of becoming a Samurai, head to a larger village nearby that’s heard to be having a small economic boom due to the encroaching war. Despite the concerns of their wives, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) Genjuro’s wife, and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) Tobei’s wife, the two men hurry off to earn money, material value, and in their eyes; the satisfaction of their wives despite their own fears of inferiority. Which is nonsense to begin with as both of their wives tell them that they are enough for them as they are. Despite the worries of their wives and the village elder, the two men come back successful with a small batch of earned income, which only bolsters their egos to earn more silver and gold the next time they embark.

This scene was excellently shot and eerily immersive.

As Genjurô and Tôbei rush to prepare their next batch of pottery in their kiln, the approaching war marches upon their doorstep before they can properly assess their work and are forced to leave while it burns, unattended. The two men begrudgingly trot off with their families as soldiers arrive in their village, but it isn’t long before they are so consumed by the idea that they might lose all of their effort that they run off to check the kiln. To their surprise, the pottery was completed without harm and they quickly gathered their product and convinced their wives to travel with them to the city to sell their goods once more. They choose to take a boat across the lake, avoiding the foot-soldiers of war. However once on the water, and the fog rolls in, we are at once transported from a wartime historical drama to one of supernatural happenings. An unspoken sense of dread spreads as another boat emerges from the mist with a dying man to warn them of pirates out among the waves. After which they decide that sneaking about the edge of the water might be safer. Genjurô’s wife and boy head back towards safety, but Ohama fears that Tôbei’s dreams of becoming a Samurai could overtake him, so she departs with them to hurry along the selling process.

A newly decorated Tôbei discovers Ohama working as a prostitute.

As expected, Tôbei runs off after spotting a decorated warrior in the crowd. Ohama chases after him to no avail while Genjurô remains to sell their wares. Not long after Ohama’s rush to find Tôbei, Genjurô is approached by Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) and her aide. They point out a few dishes and a sake set and tell him to bring them to the Kutsuki mansion just outside of town. Now, here’s where each of the four major characters have major scenes surrounding their decisions and failures. Tôbei eventually finds a suit of armor and sneaks about to the battlefield where he stumbles upon a dying general of the opposing faction who asks his accompanying lieutenant to execute him by decapitation. The loyal underling abides, wipes tears from his face, and takes the head of his fallen master right as Tôbei attacks from behind, killing the lieutenant and hurrying away with the stolen head as his prize. He finds the nearest barracks, presents the head of an enemy general and is rewarded fondly with a fitting rank, horse, and a small regimen of soldiers to command. Ohama’s luck is not so kind, as she’s captured by random footsoldiers, raped, and thrown to the street. She eventually finds work as a prostitute and runs into Tôbei with his men at an inn. They argue at length in a scene where I personally thought Ohama might actually kill Tôbei, but eventually they abate and both discard their new personas and return to the village having learned that unchecked ambitions can have great costs.

Lady Wakasa’s seductive illusions further illustrate how war inflicts suffering on men and women alike- even carrying some trauma to the afterlife.

Genjurô and Miyagi, however, fare worse fates than that of their neighbors. Given that Mizoguchi’s main narrative focus is the suffering of women due to the ambitions of the men in their lives during times of heightened conflict, the overarching narrative between Miyagi and Genjurô is particularly grim. While Genjurô heads to the Kutsuki manor with Lady Wakasa’s order, Miyagi and their son Genichi are attacked on the road home by rootless foot soldiers. In a moving sequence Miyagi is hassled for the food she’s carrying, Genichi strapped to her back, but the men quickly overcome her and stab her to death with their spears and trot off with their spoils to devour them in the background- all while Genichi wails in the foreground clasped to his dead mother’s back. This macabre scene paired with the dream-like pleasures Lady Wakasa offers to Genjurô may cause a battle of emotional turmoil in the gut- and as this film’s historical setting is used as a reflective mirror to Japan’s postwar sensibilities, it’s introspective look at Japan’s wartime morality is powerful and poignant. Eventually Genjurô is confronted by the reality that his new illustrious lover may not be all that she seems, a local shopkeeper turns pale at the mention of Kutsuki Manor and a wandering priest notices that Genjurô has been in contact with supernatural forces and applies exorcistic tattoos all over his body. When he wakes from his illusory nightmare and sees that the Kutsuki manor has been in ruins for years, Genjurô returns home sober and in need of his family. Waiting for him there are Genichi and Miyagi, with food and a bed roll waiting. It isn’t until the morning after that Genjurô realizes that his wife’s ghost was watching over their son, and he goes back to solemnly fire up his kiln, and help Tôbei tend his fields.

Miyagi’s final moments…

In retrospect, I did enjoy this film. Mizoguchi has a unique direction, and his narrative focus is one that is often underrepresented- especially in his own time. While this film did not capture me or necessarily take my breath away, it was a good film that I respected. This was the first film of Mizoguchi’s that I have seen, and I’ll definitely be returning to his library of films in the future. I recommend this one to anyone interested in the film’s sociopolitical message or simply to see another Japanese master of cinema. I recommend giving the links listed below a look if you want to know more about the film and the creators involved with it.

Final Score: One Potter, One Samurai, and One Ghost

The article below is what drew me to check out Mizoguchi in the first place. Having recently seen a lot of Kurosawa and Ozu films- I found this article’s title to be both provocative and mystifying. Thus credit, where credit is due:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/better-than-ozu-and-kurosawa-mizoguchi

*Here’s another focused review that provided a lot of good context for the film and Mizoguchi as a creator:

https://deepfocusreview.com/definitives/ugetsu/

*Lastly, here’s another in-depth analysis of “Ugetsu” that I found fascinating:

https://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/ugetsu-bd/

film

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…

film

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