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

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film

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

film

Old School Review: “The Sword of Doom” (1966)

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto and directed by Kihachi Okamoto, “The Sword of Doom” is an existential samurai film that dwells on a titular character that isn’t exactly altruistic, to say the least. This is, essentially, the story of a villain. A Samurai with a unique style, long lost from any traces of morality, Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) spends the majority of the film brooding and sulking about until he bursts with a flurry of violence. Don’t fret, this film most assuredly lives up to its pulpy title. Ryunosuke appears suddenly in the opening scene when he happens upon an old man praying for death so that his granddaughter would not be burdened by his increasing fragility. He swiftly grants his elder’s wish and moves along nonchalantly. Our protagonist is almost more of a singular force set upon the world than a human character, a skilled swordsman with a thirst for violence.

Early on in the film Ryunosuke’s father, who disproves of the psychopathic Samurai’s technique, pleads with his son to purposefully lose an upcoming fencing match. His opponent’s wife, Hama (Michiyo Aratama) also urges him to concede and throw the match against Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichirô Nakatani). Ryunosuke agrees on one condition, that Hama sleep with him before the match. Hama agrees, though Bunnojo discovers the infidelity before the match’s start and has made the clash a far more personal affair. After the fight is considered a draw Bunnojo lunges for a kill shot, but Ryunosuke’s entire style leans into this tactic, lying in wait for his opponent to strike with his eyes and sword leisurely cast aside. After Bunnojo is slain Ryunosuke and Hama are run out of town and the film cuts to an unspecified jump in time.

A few years later, roughly, Hama and Ryunosuke are married and considering returning to their village. Ryunosuke’s a sake drunk and Hama is resentful of her husband and her situation in life. Ryunosuke hears of rumors that Bunnojo’s brother Hyoma (Yûzô Kayama) is seeking vengeance, so he does a bit of research. What he doesn’t know is that his father urged Hyoma to train under master fencer Shimada (Toshirô Mifune), to wipe the shame of Ryunosuke’s actions from his family’s name. I won’t go into an excessive amount of detail on every plot point, but that is the skeletal framework essential to understanding the film. “The Sword of Doom” harbors a dense and nightmarish atmosphere that is used to great effect. The cinematography and blocking of the actors is magnificient and alleviates any stress that the admittedly convulted plot contributes to. The remainder of the film has some of the best Samurai action I’ve seen in films (so far), and Ryunosuke’s descent into existential paranoia is an excellent departure from his stoic confidence earlier in the film. Though my favorite scene of the whole film is when Ryunosuke witnesses Shimada’s expertise in killing an onslaught of attackers on a wintry night- his skill is enough to shake the soul of the morally corrupt Samurai. Aside from the Kurosawa films in which these two actors frequently come to blows, “The Sword of Doom” takes a different route, the two iconic Samurai actors never cross blades. Though Ryunosuke is profoundly affected by seeing the superior’s swordsman’s technique in action.

This was the final Criterion Collection film that I picked up through a sale they had recently, and it was worth every penny. The Criterion Collection does an excellent job with their film restoration. They clean up the audio and frames of film of any static or dirt and allow the full vision of the original filmmakers to shine through. Criterion commits to a commendable standard of quality that I personally highly value and I cannot recommend them enough. If you’re in need of a good Samurai film and have exhausted the library of Kurosawa, then this is a fine film to sate your katana brandishing needs.

Final Score: Scores of fallen foe

film

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.

2014-04-04-ikiru-rest-8-happy-birthday-chorus

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

Ikiru