film

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: “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: “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