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Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 (1945) November 23, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1940s films, Jidaigeki , 2 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Susumu Fujita; Denjiro Ookouchi; Ryunosuke Tsukigata; Akitake Kono  Territory: Japan

In his autobiography, Kurosawa said of sequels that, like the Japanese proverb about the fish under the willow tree that hangs over the stream, just because you’ve hooked one there once doesn’t mean you always will.  Which is a beautiful way of saying that follow-ups just aren’t as good as the originals.  That, coupled with the fact that the director himself disliked the end result made me a little apprehensive about watching it.

The good news is that Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 is not terrible.  However, it is fervently anti-British-American.  Made at the very end of the Pacific War, it appears Kurosawa decided to make some rather blatant racial statements with this film.  The western characters are boorish, arrogant and cruel, while the Japanese are cultured, humble and decent.  Sugata encounters a boxing match and is appalled at the barbarity and decadence of the sport (and its followers) in relation to the beauty and dignity of his beloved judo.

After demonising western pugilistic culture, Kurosawa then turns to karate as Higaki’s brothers vow to take revenge for his defeat in the first film.  The brothers, one of which is quite mad, are karate practitioners and challenge Sanshiro to a duel against Higaki’s wishes.  However, rather than taking a moralising stance on the two disciplines, the message here seems to be that both arts can co-exist, and presumably by extension, all Japanese martial arts should unite against the inferior western culture. 

 Sanshiro Sugata Part 2

Political and racial issues aside, Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 is fun if somewhat superficial.  There are moments where the viewer is treated to flashes of inspiration in Kurosawa’s camerawork and dramatic settings, but also a vague but undiminishing feeling that his heart just wasn’t in it.  His view was that the tale of Sanshiro had already been told, and while it’s true that seeing him well on the road to being a master of the arts is not as interesting as when he found enlightenment by watching a lotus flower blossom while standing in a pond overnight, the climax on a snowy hilltop is fairly gripping.  By no means one of the best examples of Kurosawa’s art, it is a testimony to his skill that even when firing on one or two cylinders, his work can be watchable and diverting.

Ran (1985) November 14, 2010

Posted by Cal in : War, 1980s films, Jidaigeki , 5 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai; Akira Terao; Jinpachi Nezu; Daisuke Ryu; Meiko Harada  Territory: Japan

Ran is the tale of an old warlord who attempts to cede his empire to his three sons.  After preaching the power of unity, the leader of the Ichimonji house learns that his sons have no interest in sharing power, and chaos ensues.  As the sons vie for power, the warlord finds the only refuge may be with the one son that saw the folly of his plan, only to be disowned and exiled.

This was the first Kurosawa film I watched, but I have to admit I couldn’t really remember much about it.  Looking at it now, after a barrage of his earlier works, it’s obvious that his style had changed quite a lot since his classic black-and-white period.  One has got used to seeing his trademark transition wipes and dramatic use of weather.  Still, it’s no use crying over spilled milk and besides, gratuitous inclusion of such devices may have seemed clichéd and contrived anyway. 

So anyway, about the film itself.  Ran is often described as Kurosawa’s last major work, an accolade (or criticism) that I’ve never fully understood until now.  Although I’ve not yet watched his three final films that followed Ran (stick around here long enough, though, and they’re bound to show up sooner or later), I can easily see the scale of the production is pretty massive.  Apparently in the pipeline since before Kagemusha was even conceived, Ran is similar in style to his earlier film but trumps it on every level.

Although the film does take time to truly get underway and find a groove, the pacing of the story is excellent.  This was to be Kurosawa’s third and final screenplay based around a Shakespeare work – King Lear this time – and again hits gold.  The central characters are Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) as the elderly warlord and his three sons Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu).  But it is the characters in the periphery that bring the film to life, such as Kurogane (Jiro’s right hand man, and not a man to follow orders blindly), Kyoami (the lord’s entertainer and closest ally) and of course Kaede (Taro’s wife, and surely a contender for the ultimate screen bitch).  Kaede sows discontent with the otherwise satisfied Taro in a move similar to Washizu’s wife Asaji in Throne of Blood, and she can be seen to be an extension of that character.  Many scenes including her genuinely make you shiver with revulsion.

Kurosawa's Ran

The one moment that stands out in Ran is the scene where Hidetora walks defeated from a huge burning castle – which is done for real.  Much as I hate to say things like “you couldn’t do that these days” and “oh, that’s so much better than a modern CGI shot”, the fact is that you couldn’t do that these days and it is better than a modern CGI shot.  Although Kurosawa’s eyesight was failing, Ran is visually stunning to the point of being a work of art in itself – often without drawing attention to itself in a look-how-clever-this-shot-is kind of way.  However, there’s no escaping the fact that Ran underperformed at the box office in Kurosawa’s country and presumably put the kibosh on any plans the great director might have had to make a similar spectacle in the future.  However, thinking about it another way, it’s surprising that such a film as Ran exists at all.  To that, we should simply give thanks.

The new region A & B Blu-ray from Optimum Releasing is a huge disappointment.  The transfer is passable but unimpressive, but the truly unforgivable thing is that the 71-minute making of feature that was available on Optimum’s own DVD is nowhere to be found.  In fact, there are no extras whatsoever on the disc.  So I’ll be hanging on to my DVD for now.

Screenshot from a standard definition source.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) November 3, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1940s films, Jidaigeki , add a comment

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Denjiro Ookouchi; Tadayoshi Nishina; Kenichi Enomoto  Territory: Japan

Even if you did not know the circumstances Japan found itself in when The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was filmed, you would probably still sense that something just wasn’t right.  The country was freshly defeated in the Pacific War, and budgets were tight (and electricity frequently cutting out altogether), resulting in the film looking surprisingly cheap for a Kurosawa production.

Based on the Kabuki play Kanjincho, which itself is based on the Noh play Ataka, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is a fable in which a band of bodyguards escort a fugitive lord through hostile territory, including through a barrier outpost, dressed as monks.

 the-men-who-tread-on-the-tigers-tail.jpg

Kurosawa fell foul of the censors yet again – this time being accused of mocking the Kabuki play with the inclusion of Kenichi Enomoto, an eminent comedy actor, as the porter.  His character, while often annoying, provides an interesting protagonist for the film, offsetting the staid nature of the guards and their charge.  The censors did not take kindly to the addition, failed to submit the correct paperwork, and the film was officially banned for a number of years.  Some articles available online state the film was banned by the occupying American forces due to the film’s feudal themes, but this is certainly not the case – the occupational forces, by all accounts, enjoyed the movie.

Despite the fact that Kurosawa does a good job of wringing tension out of the plot, the end result is unsatisfactory.  The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail feels a lot like a TV play with its short running time (around 59 minutes) and lack of location shots (a lot of the exteriors seemed to be shot on a soundstage).  I couldn’t help but feel quite deflated at the end, distinctly feeling that the film was missing a final third.  Nevertheless, one thing you can’t say is that this film is too westernised – it is definitely one of Kurosawa’s most profoundly Japanese films I’ve seen.

Sanshiro Sugata (1943) October 28, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1940s films, Jidaigeki , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Susumu Fujita; Denjiro Ookouchi; Yukiko Todoroki; Takashi Shimura Territory: Japan

Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut was made in something of a fit of enthusiasm – the script was written in one sitting and the director “was just excited” at getting his first proper directing job.  The tale tells the story of Sugata Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita), a young headstrong jujitsu practitioner who comes under the tutelage of judo master Yano (Denjiro Ookouchi) and falls in love with a rival’s daughter.  The girl’s brother, Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) quickly establishes himself as the villain (he is the only character dressed in western clothes – this film was shot during World War 2) and demands to fight the young man to the death.  

sanshiro-sugata.jpg

The first thing I noticed upon watching Sanshiro Sugata is how familiar it all feels if you’ve seen even a handful of Shaw Brothers kung fu films from the 70s.  A casual viewer will feel right at home with Sanshiro Sugata – the philosophy of discipline, the teacher/pupil relationship, the fact that the hero is initially forbidden to fight the villain and the warring schools are all instantly recognisable staple elements of the genre.

The second surprise is that Kurosawa’s style is already much in evidence.  Already in place is his use of weather as a mood setter, transition wipes and dramatic camera set-ups.  Only the short montage scene of discarded shoes is clunky and forced.  Elsewhere, he seems totally at ease, effortlessly evoking tension and letting the characters propel the story along.  While judo is not at aesthetically pleasing as some more “showy” martial arts, Kurosawa does a fine job of making the bouts dramatic.

My highest expectation was to appreciate Sanshiro Sugata, not to like it.  Instead, I found it compelling and fun.  There are seventeen minutes missing due to wartime censorship – the authorities found too much in the movie that was “British-American”, but intertitles were added in the fifties’ re-issue of the film from the script (which survived) to fill in the gaps.  Although a complete cut of the movie would have been preferable, the surviving footage tells a complete, if obviously abridged, story.  And the climactic scene atop a windswept hill should be seen by all fans of Kurosawa to witness the birth of his genius.

Zatoichi at Large (1972) October 17, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1970s films, Jidaigeki , 2 comments

Director: Kazuo Mori  Starring: Shintaro Katsu; Rentaro Mikuni; Hisaya Morishige  Territory: Japan

Ten years after the first installment of Zatoichi, we find ourselves on the twenty-second sequel.  That’s right, someone sure knew how to churn out a winning formula.  Having seen none of the intervening titles in the sequence (yet), I can’t comment on their quality, but you can see that the series had travelled quite far into cheap exploitation from their relatively classy beginning.

But while Zatoichi at Large occasionally relies on toilet humour and bizarre sideshows, there is still an element of his former chivalry and honour.  Ichi is wrongly accused of robbery and murder by a swordsman he admires while saving a town from a ruthless yakuza gang.  Instead of cutting his accusers to ribbons, he instead apologises and tries to pay back the “stolen” ryo. 

zatoichi-at-large.jpg

Like a lot of Japan’s action cinema from this period, the film is superficial, throwaway but still strangely enjoyable.  And of course Ichi is still a draw.  But doubters to my “Zatoichi is gay” theory will be dealt a hammer blow at the scene where he disrobes a group of men with his sword and asks them to dance naked for him.  Yes, he might say to a woman that she has a beautiful body, but he is nevertheless blind and isn’t fooling anyone.  Well, not me anyway.

Here’s a small but important point for anyone wishing to check this film out – Zatoichi at Large has been released in the UK mistakenly labelled at Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage.

Throne of Blood (1957) September 28, 2010

Posted by Cal in : War, 1950s films, Jidaigeki , 4 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Minoru Chiaki; Isuzu Yamada  Territory: Japan

My literary tastes are more Stephen King than William Shakespeare, but even I recognised more famous elements of Macbeth in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.  Kurosawa transplants the Bard’s tragedy to feudal Japan – something he would do again years later with King Lear for Ran.

Dripping with atmosphere, Throne of Blood is a heavy, plodding affair rather than a swift-moving thrill ride.  In fact, for the first hour and a half, all the action occurs off-screen.  That’s not a criticism, you understand – the slow pacing makes the later events all the more shocking and impressive, and I’m all for a bit of delayed-gratification when it comes to Kurosawa films. 

Throne of Blood 

For those unfamiliar with the story, General Washizu (Toshiro Mifune, of course), along with his good friend Miki (Minoru Chiaki) lead their army from certain defeat to a rousing victory.  On their way back to their fortress, they encounter a spirit that predicts that one day, Washizu will rule over the entire kingdom, eventually being succeeded by Miki’s son.  Washizu, a loyal and unambitious servant of the lord scoffs at the prophesy, but his wife Asaji (an ultra creepy Isuzu Yamada) starts to sow the seeds of power into Washizu’s mind, and the prophesy starts coming true.  However, Washizu finds that fate and destiny are slippery and misleading things.

From the opening shot of a castle being slowly revealed through dense fog (a theme that recurs during the film) to the frankly astonishing climax (yes, they’re real arrows), Throne of Blood is essential Kurosawa and essential Mifune.  What’s more, the film is definitely improved by repeated viewings, when things that passed you by first time get a chance to sink in.  Brilliant.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) September 21, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 5 comments

Director: Kenji Misume  Starring: Shintaro Katsu; Shigeru Amachi; Ryuzo Shimada  Territory: Japan

Nineteen years into my love affair with East Asian films and I’ve just got around to Zatoichi, one of the most famous characters in the swordsman-with-something-wrong-with-them subgenre of martial arts thriller. 

The Tale of Zatoichi is the first of many films featuring Ichi (to give him his proper name – “Zato” is a kind of title) as the blind masseuse who is also a dab hand with a blade.  Employed as a heavy by a yakuza gang on the brink of war with a rival gang, Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is drawn to his opposite number Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), a fellow swordsman living by a similar code of honour but who is working for the gang Ichi’s been hired to wipe out. 

tale-of-zatoichi.jpg
 

The surprise to me is how little action occurs during the vast majority of the film.  Rather, The Tale of Zatoichi is a dramatic character study of two honourable men who are doomed to fight to the death on the whim of intellectual inferiors whether they want to or not.

The relationship between Ichi and the ailing Hirate (who is plagued by consumption) is an unusual one.  To my mind, there definitely seems to be a strong sexual tension there, as seen in their curiously stilted and awkward dialogue and their mutual admiration, although Ichi trotting out the eternal pickup line “come here often?” when the pair first meet on a riverbank is probably unintentional.  I’m not normally sensitive to this (for instance, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing in least bit gay about the films of Chang Cheh*) but I just could not overlook the homoerotic overtones of this film and can only conclude that the pair are hopelessly in love with each other.  Of course, this only makes the fact that they have to fight to the death even more tragic – Edo-period man-love must have been pretty hard to come by.

Anyway, sexual issues aside, The Tale of Zatoichi is one of those classic action movies that I’m getting increasingly fond of as I grow older.  It’s not too quickly paced to allow an old-timer to get confused, looks all nice in classic black and white, and is a must for anyone who gets teary-eyed at tales of honour and sacrifice.  Yep, that’s me all over.

*Except for perhaps this one.

Shogun’s Samurai (1978) September 1, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Uncategorized, Action, 1970s films, Jidaigeki , add a comment

Director: Kenji Fukasaku  Starring: Hiroki Matsukata; Teruhiko Saigo; Sonny Chiba; Etsuko Shihomi  Territory: Japan

Notable for being the only film in history to have more than one million people named in the opening credits*, this film (which is also more accurately called Intrigue of the Yagyu Clan) is a feudal-era tale of backstabbing, warring brothers vying for the role of Shogun following the sudden and suspicious death of their father.

Epic and not a little confusing, Shogun’s Samurai is not a film to dip in and out of.  The ensemble cast is indeed massive, and features the legendary Toshiro Mifune in a relatively minor role.  The movie’s greatest strength is the character development, and the fact that you genuinely don’t know who is going to take the seat of power in the end.

Shogun's Samurai

But a rather unfair comparison springs to mind about halfway through and sadly just doesn’t go away: Kurosawa would have done it better.  Although being sub-Kurosawa (but what isn’t?), Shogun’s Samurai is more than worthy of a viewing.  I would have liked a tighter script with the trimming of a few of the more minor characters, but there is still much to recommend about the movie.  Not least Sonny Chiba running around in an eye patch cutting people up left, right and centre.  Oh yes…

*This is not true, but it certainly feels like it.

Sanjuro (1962) May 7, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Action, 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshirô Mifune; Tatsuya Nakadai  Territory: Japan

A corrupt Superintendent holds a decent town Chamberlain captive, while his nephew and eight friends plot to free him.  They are aided, whether they like it or not, by ronin Sajûrô (Mifune), who quickly proves himself indispensable to the group.

I have to admit a slight disappointment with this workmanlike sequel to the superb Yojimbo.  Mind you, coming straight off Red Beard, and with a general feeling that everything Kurosawa touched in his monochrome period turned to gold, I perhaps had unrealistic expectations.

Sanjuro It’s certainly lively enough, and I would recommend anyone new to this film to pay very close attention to the opening dialogue between the eight young men as it provides vital information.  I missed the significance of this dialogue and found myself completely lost and having to go back and watch it again.  But that’s my own fault…

The film has more of an emphasis on action and has an undeniably lighter feel than its predecessor.  The character of Sajûrô is as unstoppable as he was in Yojimbo, and watching Mifune cut a swath through his enemies is as satisfying as ever.  And when he goes undercover to find more information on the captives, the drama does increase significantly.  Also, it’s interesting that the humour in Kurosawa’s films (when present) seems to have aged pretty well, as there are a couple of comic touches (particularly a scene where our heroes are forced to celebrate a victory in silence) that are still funny. However, I missed the weight and tension of Yojimbo, and while no Kurosawa film can be said to have been hastily put together, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going through the motions a lot with this film, which by all accounts he wasn’t.   

I do feel like Sanjuro will be a film I will appreciate better with time and repeated viewings, and despite my disappointment, I still actively enjoyed a lot of it.  Which does reinforce my unrealistic expectations theory.

Red Beard (1965) April 2, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 2 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshirô Mifune; Yûzô Kayama; Terumi Niki; Tsutomu Yamazaki  Territory: Japan

A young, newly qualified doctor grudgingly takes a job at a clinic for the poor.  But the young Yasumoto (Yûzô Kayama) is arrogant and ambitious, and considers himself to be above his calling.  However, under the guidance of the clinic’s head physician, Kyojô Niide (Toshirô Mifune), the young doctor begins to learn compassion and humility.

Anyone doubting Kurosawa’s genius behind the camera only has to watch the first half of this epic tale of two doctors and their various patients.  The director’s visual style is not hampered one bit by static location (besides, one sub-story told through a series of flashbacks allows him free reign to show his stuff on a larger scale) and one shot had me scratching my head wondering how he’d done it (I’m talking about the “well shot”, and I believe the answer, if you are interested, is here).

Red Beard

In his final role for Kurosawa, Mifune gives a fantastic performance as the humble, compassionate and patient doctor who mentors the new recruit in his spartan clinic.  When Yasumoto’s bad behaviour, fuelled by his desire to be a Shogunate doctor, becomes apparent at an evening meal, Niide (nicknamed Red Beard by fellow doctors) keeps calm and says: “Even bad food tastes good if chewed well.  Same with work.”  I have yet to see all of the Kurosawa/Mifune collaborations, but I have to say that this is the strongest performance I’ve seen from the actor.  I’ve no idea if the scene is taken from the book by Shugoro Yamamoto, or whether it was an inclusion by Kurosawa, but Mifune also gets to show off his ability at brawling when he beats up (and then bandages up) an angry mob.  Mifune hardly breaks a sweat while injuring his foes, in a scene reminiscent of an unarmed Yojimbo.

Any film lasting nearly three hours (slightly longer including the intermission) needs a certain spark to compel the viewer to watch, and Red Beard indeed flies by.  However, in the final third, the film’s episodic nature finally becomes apparent and for me, this stops the movie from becoming one of the greatest films I’ve ever watched.  But don’t let that put you off – Red Beard is still one hell of a great film, and further proof that Kurosawa and Mifune were one of the greatest director/actor combinations of all time.

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