March 26, 2009


1980 film
directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Akira Kurosawa and Masato Ide

It is the 16th century, a stretch of time known as The Warring States, where warlords and their clans constantly feud for control over territory. During a break in one such siege, as soldiers are entranced by the nightly tune of a flute, a sniper's bullet catches Shingen, Lord of the Takeda Clan. In order to keep their clan from appearing weak and suffering a mass onslaught from rival armies, Shingen's death is kept a secret and a petty look-alike thief is rescued from crucifixion so he can take over leadership of the clan until the late Lord's grandson comes of age.

Yes, this is your typical Prince and the Pauper story, with the unnamed thief pulling off a surprisingly good imitation of Lord Shingen, though the realization that what he thought would be a part time gig has now become a 24-hour-a-day responsibility does cause a few slipups. And there's only so much the surrounding swarm of advisers, all in on the secret, can do to prepare him for the occasional unpredictable scenario, such as a night-time ambush where he's told to sit where he is, no matter what, even as soldiers around him are dropping from hidden musket fire.

I know he had to come in at the last minute to replace a performer that instantly clashed with Kurosawa, but Tatsuya Nakadai is quite capable in the dual roles of stoic Lord Shingen and the doubtful thief. There's maybe one or two moments where he goes into some forced, cackling laughter, but it's no worse than some of Mifune's broader roles with the director, and I love how he captures the sense that the thief is learning honor and dignity, even as the noblemen around him are starting to forget.

Tsutomu Yamazaki also shines as Shingen's brother and chief strategist, Nobukado. In an interesting bit of character depth, their similarity originally had him working as his brother's double, until a heavy workload and the discovery of the thief allow him to once again assume his own identity. He now finds himself a mentor to the thief, grooming the man's impersonation of his brother while feeding him lines from the advisers.

Another interesting character is that of Katsuyori, Shingen's son. His illegitimate nature sidelined him from inheriting the throne, so he now finds himself bowing down to an impostor of his father while he's expected to sit and wait for his own child to take command? Hells no! He breaks the family motto of "like a mountain" and amasses forces of his own that he recklessly hurls towards opposing clans. Unfortunately, while the character is potentially interesting, musician Kenichi Hagiwara's performance is not. At times bland, at others over-the-top, he just never quite slips into the role.

There's plenty of other fine performances to make up for it, but one problem I had was that I just didn't get captivated by anyone. The actors are great and their parts no less worthy than prior Kurosawa works, but there's something about the film that keeps them distant. Maybe it's the heavy makeup and distractingly (though beautiful) elaborate hair and costumes, or Kurosawa's on-going love affair with telephoto lenses that leaves him abandoning closeups, or maybe the fact that Kurosawa has largely lost his broad stable of regular performers. It's likely a bit of each, but the fact stands that I just didn't get pulled in by anybody.

Visually, the film is spectacular. The vibrant pastels of DODESUKADEN are distributed a bit more precicely amongst vistas and characters, creating a wonderful dynamic on the screen that further enhances his already legendary composition. And his use of extras, with each army decked out in identifiable colored uniforms, blazing across the scene, lying in wait, kneeling before their masters, or writhing in blood-soaked mounds, is among the most impressive.

My only other major complaint against the film is the music. While Kurosawa wisely keeps it absent for many scenes, and there's a haunting trumpet solo that feels like something out of the scores Ennio Morricone did for Sergio Leone, a lot of the larger, bombastic stuff feels clunky, old-fashioned, and typical. Not bad, just a bit of a letdown.

After over a decade of struggle and suffering, this was meant to be Kurosawa's big return to form. While it's uneven, with occasional moments of excess and the telling lack of his usual scripting partners, I'm glad to say that he still succeeds in pulling off a damn fine film.


(internet movie database)

March 25, 2009

Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography

1978 book
written by Akira Kurosawa

On September 1, 1923, sections of Japan were torn to shreds by the Great Kanto Earthquake. Akira Kurosawa was 12-years-old at the time, outside with a friend, throwing rocks at a cow. When the 8.3 Richter tremors hit, they clung to a telephone pole and watched as buildings crumbled around them. After everything had settled and the fires began to spread, Kurosawa raced home to check on his family. Though damage was done to the house, everyone was alive.

After the fires had burned down and everyone took stock of their homes, Akira and his older brother went out to observe the wreckage. 100,000 people died in the incident and the boys saw their share of crushed, burned, and bloated corpses that day. Akira wanted to look away, but his brother told him, "If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of."

No truer explanation can be given to Kurosawa's attention to detail, a vision he displayed through all 30 of his directorial features. Every sight, from joy, to horror, to laughter and hate, are presented to us from a straight on view that allows us to see humanity in all its glory and despair. In this book, Kurosawa decides to recount for us the journey he took to become a filmmaker.

The writing style is clean and brisk, jumping from memory to memory as they trickle from the director's mind. A friendship made as he struggled through school, which would pay off down the road as they collaborated on several future screenplays. A haunting stretch of time in a ghetto apartment, with nightmarish sights rivalling those of his beloved Dostoevsky. A chance encounter that led to work as an assistant director in a profession he never before thought about trying.

As he says in a passage:

I can't help thinking how very strange it all was. It was chance that led me to walk along the road to [...] becoming a film director, yet somehow everything that I had done prior to that seemed to point to it as an inevitability. I had dabbled eagerly in painting, literature, theater, music, and other arts and stuffed my head full of all the things that come together in the art of the film. Yet I had never noticed that cinema was the one field where I would be required to make use of all I had learned. I can't help wondering what fate had prepared me so well for this road I was to take in life.

It's at the halfway point of the book that Kurosawa moves into his film career. Despite his infamous temperament, he quickly became attached to a mentor in the form of director Kajiro Yamamoto, who was open and eager with young Akira and exposed him to every area of filmmaking. Though the book breezes through Kurosawa's own directorial efforts (he'd rather let the films speak for themselves), and comes to an abrupt close with 1950's RASHOMON, it's a wonderful, candid look at the passion of a man committed to excellence in a single art and the encounters he had along the way.

Do I recommend this? Absolutely. Kurosawa fans who haven't read it yet will find a wonderful window into the master's thoughts and development. People unfamiliar with his works will still find a glorious depiction of a man who represented, questioned, and inspired the rapidly changing homeland to which he never entirely fit. And for any aspiring filmmakers out there, there's an appendix in the back filled with little bits of advice on what is needed to make a good film. Study it.


March 18, 2009

Dersu Uzala

1975 film
directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Akira Kurosawa and Yuri Nagibin
based on the book by Vladimir Arsenyev

(1923 book)

Akira Kurosawa had hit a tough time in his life. It took five years to get his last film, DODESUKADEN, off the ground, and it's critical and financial failure sank him into a depression that almost ended with an attempt at suicide. After pulling himself back together, he set out to direct once again, but found that the industry in his homeland had lost interest in him. Looking around for a project, he found himself accepting an offer to go to the Soviet Union and film an adaptation of one of their most beloved stories.

From 1902 to 1907, Captain Vladimir Arsenyev launched a series of expeditions to map out the rugged Siberian wilderness. Along the way, he continuously met up with and quickly befriended an aging native guide by the name of Dersu Uzala.

In the title role is Tuvan theatre actor Maxim Munzuk, who absolutely succeeds at making us fall in love with the iconic character. With his bow-legged trot, piercing gaze, and contagious smile, one can see how such an individual would leave a fond impression in so many hearts, and the enthusiasm of the early half is deftly contrasted against the sinking despair in the later parts as the old man is forced to confront his age.

Also coming from the theatre is actor Yury Solomin who beautifully captures the patient leadership of Arsenyev. While his men laugh and drink like a band of frat-boys, he's constantly on the look-out for new sources of knowledge and wisdom, finding more than he could dream of in the native hunter.

While the rest of the characters are just as undefined as they were in the book, with no names I could recall, or any specific arcs to speak of, Kurosawa still manages to wring a nice dose of individuality from them through his typical use of distinctive looking actors (and, in this case, distinctive beards).

As for the scenic shots, filmed on location in Siberia, Kurosawa once again proves his skills at capturing nature. From the glowing greens of summer, to the gray, deathly autumn, to the white winter wastelands, the director makes the location just as much a part of the story as the actors.

This was a beautiful film. While the story is very basic, Kurosawa gives it a richness and texture that one won't soon forget. After hitting a decade-long lull in his career, it's fitting that he would receive the Oscar for Best Foreign Film with this picture, an honor that gave him what he needed to get his next few projects off the ground.


(internet movie database)

March 16, 2009

Dersu Uzala

1923 memoir
written by Vladimir Arsenyev

(my review of the 1975 film adaptation)

Between the years 1902 and 1907, famed explorer Vladimir Arsenyev led three expeditions along Russia's Eastern border with China, to map out the wildlife, fauna, and native villages. On each of those occasions, he met a native guide by the name of Dersu Uzala. The two quickly became great friends.

To be honest, I was expecting this to be a much dryer read than it was, with long-winded lectures of all the various topographical features of an area, but Arsenyev keeps his descriptions brisk and gives us just enough to paint a picture without losing the flow of the narrative. The flip-side of the coin, though, is that he keeps his characters just as brisk. Not only are the other men in the expedition rarely named and never explored, but Arsenyev never gives an account of who he himself is. I know this is cobbled together from his journals, but in the process of building a book, was it really so hard to either add an introductory preface or layer in some bits of history here and there? By glossing over these things, the story looses some context.

But as uninterested as the author seems with himself and his men, Arsenyev sure did grow fond of Dersu, because he's the only character described in great detail, from his appearance to his beliefs to his traditions and life story, and it's not hard to see why this lovable wiseman of the woods made such a fond impression.

While I thought it was lacking in parts, this was still a good book which not only taught me much about a region I'm totally unfamiliar with, but explored a wonderful friendship that bridges the cultural divide.


March 12, 2009


1970 film
directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
based on the novel CITY WITHOUT SEASONS by Shugoro Yamamoto

The years after RED BEARD were a trying time for Kurosawa. Not only had the production ended his relationship with Toshiro Mifune, but the release was followed by claims among critics and peers that Kurosawa was old-fashioned. Prospects seemed brighter in America where his movies were garnering much attention, but his first U.S. film, RUNAWAY TRAIN, never got off the ground, and fears about his perfectionism got him fired from TORA! TORA! TORA! just as it was gearing into production.

No, it wasn't a good time in Kurosawa's life. But a light seemed to show at the end of the tunnel when three of his fellow top filmmakers - Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa - decided to form a joint production company with Kurosawa where they would pool their popularity and influence to foster one another's projects to fruition. Their first effort? Kurosawa's DODESUKADEN.

Spread amongst the rubble of a junkyard, a group of people live in rundown huts, gutted cars, or whatever they can cover themselves with for the night. A teenage girl toils night and day to support her drunk, lecherous uncle while her aunt is hospitalized for an operation. A man stumbles through life with dead eyes, eyes that refuse to flare to life even when his estranged wife comes to confront him. A pair of laborers get so plastered each night they either don't notice or don't care that they keep swapping wives. A handicapped businessman constantly comes to the defense of his brutish wife, because she's the only person who truly cares for him. A beggar openly dreams to his placating son about the modern mansion in which they'll one day live. An old man is willing to give anything he owns to help others, as long as they leave him his tools so he can maintain his living. This is all introduced to us through a mentally handicapped teenager, making the rounds in his imaginary trolley car (DODESUKADEN is the clickety-clack sound it makes passing over the rails), and is frequently commented upon by a Greek chorus of wives who gather each day at the one faucet of water at the center of their little village.

Visually, this is a striking, stunning film. Not only is the composition right up there with Kurosawa's finest, but for his first film with color, the director seems to have had a wet dream explosion of pastels, heaping one layer of vibrant brilliance upon another in images that fully soak into a viewer's eye. The dream house on a hill. Poisoned faces. Stacks of plastic bins. Back-lit collections of children's illustrations on paper walls. It's breathtaking.

The stories themselves are a mixed bag. The teenage girl, the dead-eyed man, and the father and son beggars are the only solid, developing narratives, while the rest are more just a collection of incidents and funny ideas. Now, none of them were bad, there just wasn't any cohesion to the material. I think this film is most comparable to Kurosawa's earlier THE LOWER DEPTHS, which was also about the dreams and dashed hopes of people crammed into squalor, but while that was about how they related to one another and eventually united in a joint effort, everyone in DODESUKADEN pretty much keeps to themselves and their own stories, which somehow made the whole picture, in spite of the strength of some tales, feel hollow.

And I guess I wasn't the only one who thought so because the film was both a critical and financial failure, breaking up the joint production company before they could get another feature off the ground and sending Kurosawa into such a deep depression, he just barely failed at killing himself. Another stretch of years would go by before he directed again.

Now, is the film deserving of such an extreme legacy? No. It's uneven and lacks a central focus, but still captivates with original stories and solid performances. And the use of color, the mesmerizing, awe-inspiring images Kurosawa makes with his new toy, alone warrants study and respect.

(internet movie database)