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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: “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: “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

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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