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.
Rating: The Good – 86.8 Genre: Jidaigeki Duration: 128 mins Director: Masaki Kobayashi Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yôko Tsukasa, Gô Katô
Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion is a lesser known feature from the jidaigeki genre but one of its most impressive examples. Set in the 1700’s, it tells the story of a dutiful vassal Isaburo (Toshirô Mifune) who has spent his life obeying both his objectionable wife as well as his clan’s elders for the sake of peace and quiet. As the most accomplished swordsman in his lord’s fief, he gets his small pleasures in life from discussing martial arts with his friend and closely matched rival played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai. Things change when his son is ordered to marry one of his lord’s former ladies, Ichi. Although, reluctant at first, things go well as his son and new daughter-in-law develop a proper bond and give him his first grandchild. However, when the lord demands the return of his daughter-in-law, he decides he and his family have taken enough and refuses to send her back. Things inevitably come to a head and a mighty showdown ensues between his clan and the lord’s men.
The story is a remarkable one and even more remarkable is how seldom we have seen it anywhere before or since given its obviously compelling and universal themes. It brings the best out in all the actors and truthfully, this is one of Mifune’s best performances, even if it is less explosive than some of his more famous roles. It’s also a slow burner as the first 90 minutes are spent building the pretext for the action that is to come. However, when it does come, we are not disappointed as Samurai Rebellion offers up some extraordinary action choreography and direction. Equally impressive are the cinematography and lighting which really come to the fore during the dramatic scenes and combat sequences (two scenes in particular to look out for are the moment when Ichi is grilled by the clan’s elders and the final showdown as Isaburo hunts down the musketeers in a breezy meadow).
In many ways, Samurai Rebellion is a spellbinding film. The actors are perfectly in sync with the directors’ immaculate pacing and as good as Mifune and Nakadai are, they are well matched by Gô Katô as Isaburo’s son and Yôko Tsukasa as Ichi. Above all, it is the heart-rendering story of love, family, strength, and courage which we remember best as this is one film that can be appreciated by fans of any genre and by people of any nation.
Rating: The Good – 95.2 Genre: Jidaigeki Duration: 130 mins Director: Kinji Fukasaku Stars: Kinnosuke Nakamura, Shin’ichi Chiba,Toshirô Mifune
Forget any historical inaccuracies, this film is about epic story-telling culminating in the most impressive duel ever committed to celluloid and built around what surely must be one of the more impressive acting performances. This under-appreciated masterpiece portrays an epic conflict involving two brothers vying for the position of Shogun, feudal lords, hordes of ronin, and the imperial court all orchestrated by the master schemer and swordsman Yagyu (in an unforgettable performance by Kinnosuke Nakamura). With Shakespearean levels of intrigue, this tale twists and turns and skips from one corner of Japan to another as the various parties all play out their role. The dialogue is as impressive as the plot as burning ambition clouded with willfully corrupted notions of loyalty to one’s nation and/or empire is impeccably unveiled in each of the characters but to different degrees and always in different fashion. Despite it clocking in at over two hours, there’s an intense momentum to the drama thanks to Fukasaku’s commanding direction and the brilliantly choreographed battle sequences which erupt as swiftly as they are ended. The most startling of these is of course the ultimate showdown between the two most dangerous men in the film. There are few words that can explain Fukasaku’s direction at this point, so visceral and mind-manipulating is it, but suffice to say, there has never been another cinematic duel like it.
Shogun’s Samurai is known mostly for Sonny Chiba’s stunning turn as Yagyu’s son. It’s arguably his best role and as the most emotional character tied up in the machinations of others but also the most fiery, he becomes the heart of the film. Moreover, he balances these two sides to his personality wonderfully never once letting one reduce or take away from the other but instead using one to fuel the other. However, even Chiba is blotted out by Nakamura’s mind-blowing performance. What Nakamura does here is simply medium-halting for surely every other actor who has since seen this performance has stopped in sheer wonder at how this man could, for an entire film, plum such icy depths only to turn everything on its head in the final scene and freeze frame the viewers’ consciousness. It’s an extraordinary piece of work and one that is entirely in keeping with every other aspect to this film.
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.
Rating: The Good – 94.2 Genre: Jidaigeki Duration: 119 mins Director: Kihachi Okamoto Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama,Toshirô Mifune
“The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.” Tatsuya Nakadai takes the lead as an amoral samurai, Ryunosuke Tsukue, who lives frighteningly detached from the world and the people he shares it with. His masterful yet disturbingly idiosyncratic fencing style is the expression of this skewed perspective and is (quite ingeniously) tied inseparably to his character. The story has no overt plot but instead it follows Ryunosuke as he leaves his home village in disgrace and finds what little pleasure he can working as an assassin for a radical militia whom the shogunate engages for clandestine operations. Even with the immortal Toshiro Mifune putting in a memorable turn as the one man Ryunosuke comes to believe he can’t match, The Sword of Doom unquestionably remains Nakadai’s film from start to finish as we watch the evil Ryunosuke descend further and further into a hell of his own creation. From the ice cold stare of his eyes to his grotesquely stilted voice, he breathes a sinister hunger and dangerous malevolence into his character that will chill you to the bone.
Naturally, much of the edge to Nakadai’s performance would be lost if it weren’t for what Kihachi Okamoto was doing behind the camera for this is a masterfully shot and constructed film. At all times, the dark interiors seem to catch what Ryunosuke is reflecting in his eyes and words while the stillness of the camera is as unsettling as Nakadai’s performance as it constantly draws us further into the awful emptiness. The fight sequences are few but startlingly memorable with the central showdown being nothing short of genius for it facilitates the inevitable duel between Ryunosuke and Mifune’s magnetic Shimada Toranosuke, without them ever squaring off against each other. This scene is the ultimate in cinematic subtext for it’s in this moment that the egotistical sociopath and his sword are finally made feel fragile but with no words spoken between them and no obvious interactions shared. It’s also just an awesome piece of film-making driven unerringly by Mifune’s natural burning intensity.
Okamoto’s masterpiece has been both criticised and praised for its erratic and deeply unconventional ending but no matter which way you slice it (pun intended) this is a riveting and frightening character study of a man who in the absence of any moral centre is led by the greedy appetites of “his sword”. There are all sorts of explanations as to why it ends the way it does but when analysed in the context of a film without an overt plot, it makes perfect sense and becomes one of the more punctuating moments in all of cinema. In fact, Coppola (who was obsessed with Japanese cinema of this era) may well have been influenced by it when constructing the ending for his masterpiece The Conversation as the two films close in remarkable similarly fashion.
An interesting but problem ridden account of the decisive WWII battle of the pacific sees Carlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford and others go up against their Japanese counterparts in the form of Toshirô Mifune and James Shigeta. The strength of the this film lies in its honest attempt to capture the ebbs and flows of the battle as tactics, mechanical and human error, courage and above all luck played their respective hands. This goes a long way in recreating some of the anxiety and panic that defined the days events. The cast is littered with big names from the aforementioned to Hal Holbrook, Robert Webber, Robert Wagner, Cliff Robertson, James Coburn, and most exciting of all Robert Mitchum. Though they all bring their presence in different ways most of them are mere cameos and so there’s a tendency to feel rather hard done by as the film continues. But that’s only a minor issue compared to major problems which beset this film.
First off, the Japanese characters either speak English in American accents or in most cases they are dubbed by Americans making no attempt to disguise their accents. While this reduces the authenticity which films like Tora! Tora! Tora! achieved so easily it also makes it difficult to discern which sides the various pilots belong to as they radio back to their ships. Even more unfortunate is the shooting of the battle sequences themselves. Pedestrian at best, laughable at worst, they lack any proper coordination and involve bargain basement visual effects. The director Jack Smight is most culpable here and one suspects his decision to incorporate actual dog fighting footage into those scenes was to compensate for the poorness of those effects but in the end, they only destabilise them further.
All this is a shame because the Battle of Midway is an important and critical moment in WWII and no other film before or since has brought the necessary scale to do it justice. That this is what hardened WWII movie fans are left with is frustrating especially give that it could be avoided. However, for those fans alone, Midway’s successful attempt to give a methodical blow by blow account of the day should prove enough reason to give this one a watch.
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.