Rating: The Good – 89.4 Genre: Jidaigeki, Drama Duration: 162 mins Director: Akira Kurosawa Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken’ichi Hagiwara
Uniquely stunning psychological drama about a lowly thief and uncanny double for one of feudal Japan’s most powerful daimyos and his inwardly crushing effort to assume the place at the head of that great Lord’s armies after the latter is secretly assassinated. Akira Kurosawa’s lesser known masterpiece translating as “The Shadow Warrior”, is a soulful examination of character backdropped against starkly visceral concepts of death and afterlife set amidst some of the best choreographed action sequences on Kurosawa’s CV. Tatsuya Nakadai turns in yet another mind-blowing central performance as both the mighty General Takeda Shingen (known as “the Mountain) and his eventual impersonator, seamlessly deconstructing both his characters so that their boundaries ultimately phase in and out much like the film’s wider treatment of life and death, reality and unreality. As is usually the case with Kurosawa’s feudal epics, the story is overflowing with rich support players brought to life by a splendid cast with the boisterousness and social deference that has defined the quintessential jidaigeki performances. The historical context tantalises Kurosawa’s corporeal tome as the fascinating intrigue of the era imbues the plot with a steady drama. In place of a building tension in plot, the inner journey of Shingen’s “Kagemusha” takes centre stage crystallising in emotionally punctuating moments that exhibits the best of both Nakadai and Kurosawa’s crafts. Shinichirô Ikebe’s haunting score and/or the diegetic sounds of the various battles’ creakings become the glue to these moments leaving Kurosawa’s audacious vision to actualise around them in a manner not easily forgotten. One moment in particular, a mesmerising depiction of the Kagemusha finally “becoming” “the Mountain” in front of his troops and enemy alike, is a perfect coalescence of these smaller workings of genius and this master director’s unmatched broad visual aesthetic. Kagemusha nearly didn’t happen as Toho Studios ran into financial difficulties during production but thankfully George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola stepped in and convinced 20th Century Fox to finance the remainder of the shoot. It’s no small thing to say that despite their own monumental achievements, that assistance still counts among their most important contributions to cinema.
This inspired meditation on class, morality, passion, and duty is Akira Kurosawa’s finest hour behind the camera and possibly Mifune’s finest hour in front of it. As funny as it is touching, there’s not a single aspect of this film that could’ve been improved upon and it offers more than perhaps any other. Watch how Kurosawa wonderfully counterbalances the necessarily languid scenes where the characters are waiting for the battles to commence with the shocking brutality of those battles one they begin. As incredible as Toshiro Mifune is he’s equalled by Takashi Shimura’s simmering portrayal of the head samurai which is one of most quietly powerful pieces of acting ever captured by a camera. With every rub of his shaven head Shimura expounds kindness, generosity of spirit, and a keen sense of leadership and in doing so, his performance as much as any other aspect of the film reflects the soul of this poingent masterpiece. Timeless.
A lesser respected film from Kurosawa that in many ways actually exceeds his other films. For the most part this is a more light-hearted examination of small town politics and intrigue than Yojimbo. Toshira Mifune’s Sanjuro (a veiled reprisal of his Yojimbo role) again wanders into the middle of a power-struggle but this time he reluctantly helps the good guys out a sense of pity and decency as opposed to his previously more mercenary motives. The film glides forward with ease as the local samurai keep us entertained with their slapstick shenanigans. However, these scenes are quietly punctuated with tempered but beautifully choreographed scenes of fighting and emotional outburst. In one of Mifune’s most powerful moments on screen we see him chastise the bumbling samurai and given the Japanese context this is as much a heart-wrenching experience for Sanjuro as it is for the samurai. The film climaxes with one of the greatest cinematic counterpoints when its tempered pace explodes into vicious life in a manner which fittingly contrasts the relatively predictable life of the townspeople with the way of the warrior. Sensational.
A wandering samurai arrives in a town split by two powerful and warring families and sees the chance to play both sides against the middle. Inspired by John Ford’s westerns, Akira Kurosawa created a new brand of cinematic hero by blending the disciplined and ruthless focus of a wandering swordsman (with more than a few echoes of the legendary swordsman Musashi) with the sweeping and dramatic film-making style of the Hollywood western. The result changed not just Japanese cinema forever but also Italian cinema (by influencing Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns) and American cinema (by influencing a whole raft of iconic heroes from Dirty Harry to Snake Plisken).
As you would expect from a film which brings together two of Japan’s most sensational actors (Toshira Mifune as the hero and Tatsuya Nakadai as the villain) with one of its most innovative and supremely talented directors, the dramatic tension of Yojimbo was unparalleled at the time and has rarely been equalled. The look of the film is completely unique and the images (such as the dog trotting away with the severed hand) will stay with you forever. And then on top of all that there’s Masaru Sato’s iconic score.
One of the all time great thrillers, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low is as comprehensive, meticulous, and masterful a nail-biter as the genre has given us. Toshirô Mifune stars as a powerful shareholder in a major shoe-making company who on the eve of a risky move to take over the company, is targeted by a kidnapper looking for a ransom. Unfortunately, for him, he’s leveraged himself to such an extent that to pay the ransom will mean financial ruin and unfortunately for the kidnapper, he kidnapped the chauffeur’s son by accident!
The first half of the film unfolds as a fascinating moral drama where Toshira’s Gondo sways between his dual determination not to give in to the ransomer and not to let anything happen to the child. The resolution is utterly gripping and peaks in a truly beautiful cinematic moment that sees both Mifune and Kurosawa at their magnificent best. But just when you think it cannot get any more tense, the police investigation begins in earnest, as the detectives demonstrate all the zeal and passion which Gondo’s sacrifice inspired within them. There has simply never been a better dramatisation of a manhunt and the forensic investigation involved as the great Tatsuya Nakadai runs his charges through the paces.
Kurosawa brings a broad array of style and technique to this sprawling film. The early parts of the film see clever use of set design and some wonderful staging to set the claustrophobic nature of the close drama. The manhunt is constructed with overlapping sequences and gently inserted flashbacks as the actions of the individual officers are recounted in systematic and startlingly clear fashion. Kurosawa blends it all together with the majesty of a great orchestra conductor so that the audience is kept perfectly up to speed despite the complexity of the investigation. Finally, the film moves assuredly into all the gritty splendor of the great films noirs as shadows and sound are fused in sublime fashion. The acting is immense too with Mifune revealing a vulnerable and layered character which grows progressively and at all times believably as the events unfold. Nakadai gives a reserved and intelligent performance as the lead detective and together they give Kurosawa’s deconstruction of integrity real substance.
High and Low is an intense and powerfully gripping film that towers head and shoulders over many of the countless movies to have tackled similar topics. As a mystery, crime thriller, and film-noir wrapped up in one package its not only astoundingly seamless but great value too!
Rating: The Good – 92.3 Genre: Jidaigeki, Mystery Duration: 88 mins Director: Akira Kurosawa Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori
A notorious bandit is arrested and put on trial for the murder of a samurai and rape of his wife. The differing testimonies offered by the suspect, witnesses, and victims (with the dead samurai’s being provided through a medium) all add unique clues to figuring out what happened but none seem to provide a satisfying overall picture. Akira Kurosawa’s seamless psychological and philosophical exploration of truth and personal perspective was as daring as it was imaginative. Not only was it way ahead of its time cinematically but it also foreshadowed seminal scientific critiques of eye-witness testimony in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Though the story is necessarily disjointed, Kurosawa’s tracking of it through editing, staging, and his own use of perspective ties the whole thing together in visionary style. The cinematography too is astounding as the stark daylight in the “reconstruction” sequences is used to telling and quite relevant effect while the capturing of the gatehouse (Rashomon) sequences reflects the murkiness of the witnesses’ accounts as those accounts themselves are analysed in retrospect. The acting is utterly sensational from Takashi Shimura’s low-key and even sinister performance as the woodcutter to Toshira Mifune’s blistering turn as the vicious bandit charged with the crime. Rashomon has gone on to influence countless movies and movie-makers alike and one viewing of this arresting piece of cinema will explain exactly why.
Kurosawa’s first outing under the umbrella of his own production company is this loose adaptation of Hamlet (the second and most under-acknowledged of his magnificent Shakespearean trilogy). Beginning with an elaborate wedding sequence in which a corporate leader’s daughter and his personal secretary are married, this intricate tale is set up as the main players and internal politics are laid out through the amusing conversations of gathering reporters. The reporters are gathered because the fraud squad are expected to arrive with arrest warrants for senior company figures which pertain to bribery, embezzlement, and the suicide of a senior clerk after he threw himself out of a seventh story window the year before. Interrupting the curious speeches, a second wedding cake arrives in the shape of the corporate headquarters with a rose protruding from the aforementioned seventh story window. It’s a sharply realised moment made even more effective as the room full of guests attempt to politely ignore the awkward implications. This a truly brilliant opening and culminates perfectly with a deliciously reflexive remark made by one of the reporters. As the story progresses, the sender of the cake escalates his persecution of the executives until each are pitted against the other in a Machiavellian strategy of revenge.
Toshirô Mifune is the young groom whose involvement in the story grows interestingly throughout the first and second act. He brings a reserved intensity to the role that reflects the momentum of the film at a more focused level and moves from seething hatred to compassionate friend and indeed husband with a graceful ease. Kamatari Fujitara and Kô Nishimura are excellent as the two grovelling executives at the bottom of the food chain and Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura scores well as one of the evil superiors.
The Bad Sleeps Well is a beautifully shot film-noir. The depth and contrasts seem to effortlessly combine to frame character and action alike while the tableau shots of the wedding in particular are simply spectacular. Kurosawa’s use of sound is just as impressive and the scene in which he backtracks Fujitara’s characters funeral with a secret recording of his bosses’ gloating is reminiscent of Welles at his best. The true virtue to the film is the writing which lays out a plot as complex and fascinatingly structured as the best of the French or US variety. There’s a wonderful balance to the script as the cold business settings are offset by some touching personal moments with the contrast between the pitiless and warm dialogue of the two sequences being the most striking. The film does seem to have trouble in second-third act transition which slightly imbalances the mood which had been so carefully set early on. However, the ending more than makes up for it as everything is snapshot back into focus.
The Bad Sleep Well is a ruthless indictment of corporate culture in Kurosawa’s Japan where CEOs operated with impunity by preying on the submissive mentality of lackeys who would go as far as killing themselves rather than let their betters take the fall. It’s also a profound meditation on revenge and how the only way to fight evil is to become it and where any mercy results in slaughter.