Okay folks, time for a history lesson in filmmaking. In this next segment of the director reviews I am looking at the mighty Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, easily the most popular and critically acclaimed filmmaker in Japanese history and a massive figure in the film industry as a whole. His influence on world cinema is immeasurable as he inspired directors before and after his death in 1998 with many famous names like Sergio Leone (who made two of Kurosawa’s films into Westerns – A Fistful of Dollars & A Few Dollars More), Ingmar Bergman, Takeshi Kitano, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Sam Pekinpah and Francis Ford Coppola all citing his influence in their work. He was an unrivalled perfectionist and a master with the camera. He truly had a gift for attaining the perfect images and he made this his art. Although he was a very humanist writer and a lot of his stories offer glimmers of hope, generally his films offer a bleak insight into a world of disease, war, malice and betrayal. It seemed only fitting that he chose Shakespeare’s King Lear as the story for his masterpiece Ran. Don’t let that put you off though, Kurosawa’s wit was as sharp as his eye and his films offer clever and often hilarious moments. He also writes some of the most touching stories I have ever seen. I’m not one to cry in films but Ikiru and Dersu Urzala were two films that had me on the brink! I have once again selected four films that capture some of Kurosawa’s best traits and are genuine masterpieces of cinema. Enjoy!
The Seven Samurai
This is, in my opinion, the perfect film. It is a flawlessly directed and brilliantly acted film and for such a simple story Kurosawa makes the most of it, and by most of it I mean make it three hours long! Trust me on this when I say, you won’t notice it; those were the quickest three hours of my life. This tale was famously remade for an American audience as the Magnificent Seven, a good film in its own right but one that barely scrapes at the level of greatness that Seven Samurai possesses. Simple story; poor villagers hire seven hungry samurai to bump off fifty or so crack bandits who continually steal crops – the result is complete carnage and lots of death. The samurai fight for the honour and survival of a village seemingly out of the kindness of their heart but as the story develops we find that the samurai’s purpose may not be generosity but because they don’t know how to do anything else. It is a very bittersweet tale that features some beautiful battle choreography that puts lots of modern period action films to shame. Easily one of the most intense and hectic action epics you are ever likely to experience.
This is the story that launched the Spaghetti Western genre through Sergio Leone. After seeing Yojimbo and the sequel Sanjuro Leone teamed up with Clint Eastwood to bring yet another Kurosawa tale to an American audience. Yojimbo tells the story of a nameless ronin or samurai who decides to venture into one of the most dangerous towns in Japan; one that is ruled by two rival gangs who are in constant conflict with one another. Toshiro Mifune plays the samurai who decides to play a long mind game with both gangs to ultimately let them destroy one another once and for all. As Mifune jumps allegiances between the gangs they become suspicious of his motives and decide to turn against him. The one man who is capable of taking out Mifune is Unosuke – a rich merchant’s son who has returned from the west with a secret weapon. This is another immaculately directed film with some graceful action shots and a nicely layered plot. It also tells a poignant story about the dying tradition of Japanese martial arts in the face of growing western influence in the country. It is a thoroughly brilliant piece of cinema that truly marked Kurosawa’s influence in world cinema.
This has been regarded widely as Kurosawa’s masterpiece and the defining moment of his career. I have my own doubts about that as his early films have just as much impact and grace but there is no doubting Ran is one of the most powerful and grand epics ever made. Based on King Lear the story follows the three sons of aging Warlord Ichimonji as he relinquishes his title as leader to his eldest son to bring peace and stability to the region. The result of this is a bloody conflict launched by one of the jealous sons who believes he deserves the title and plunges the entire region into civil war, famine and disease. Ichimonji is left powerless to watch his land fall castle by castle to his sons’ armies. From the building of exact-life sized replicas of ancient Japanese castles to the size of the armies involved in the film you can already imagine the gargantuan scope and astronomical costs involved in the project. Needless to say the film was millions of dollars over budget – the final estimate was $12 million, which meant it was the most expensive film ever made at this point. Despite this it still made a profit! This film is not for the light hearted, one because it is a Shakespearean revenge tragedy and secondly because Kurosawa’s idea of tragedy is worse still. Bloody beheadings and mass culls aplenty! Unlike Kurosawa’s earlier films there is no glimmer of hope for humanity in this film as we watch the inevitable car crash unfold in slow motion. Kurosawa famously describes this as one of his best works so whatever you do don’t pass up a chance to watch this one, go and see how a true epic is made!
I seem to be reviewing a lot of Kurosawa’s period pieces but in truth Kurosawa did a lot of modern films that were just as powerful and brilliantly done. Ikiru is, in my opinion, his best film. It is by far the most touching tale I have ever seen and a brilliant piece of dark comedy. Takashi Shimura gives the performance of a lifetime as Kanji Watanabe, an aging civil servant who feels he has achieved little with his life and discovers that he has terminal stomach cancer. His immediate reaction is to rush out and live the life he always wanted. He meets a young girl from his office and takes her out on the town. He mixes it up with all kinds of people and places to ultimately discover that the only thing that will help him achieve something with his life is closer to home than he previously thought. Although it looks dated now it still captures a certain beauty and charm that few films achieve and can be viewed as Kurosawa’s most upbeat or his most cynical film, decide for yourself. Whatever your point of view this film still stands as a masterpiece and a true classic.
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