May 12, 2009

Dora-Heita

2000 film
directed by Kon Ichikawa
written by Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi
based on the novel by Shugoro Yamamoto

Kinoshita. Kobayashi. Ichikawa. Kurosawa. Throughout the 50s and 60s these four names found themselves at the center of the Japanese film industry as each churned out one blockbuster after another. In the late 60s, calling themselves the "Four Musketeers", they decided to pool their efforts into a joint production company, bringing to life new works through their collaboration. Unfortunately, their first production, Kurosawa's 1970 film DODESUKADEN, was a tremendous flop with both critics and viewers. The company was crushed and all four went their separate ways.

But not before teaming up on a script.

Samurai Koheita Mochizuki has been sent by the lord of his clan to act as the new magistrate of Horisoto, a sleazy ghetto full of gambling and prostitution. Word of his skill has spread far and wide, which surprises people who dub him "Dora-Heita", a tricky to translate joke about an alley cat. And it seems, on the surface, to be fitting, as he often dismisses the stiff protocol of the time in a casual, laid-back fashion, and sneaks into town under a different name to partake in drinking, dice, and a few dances with the girls. The stiff council of the chamberlain finds him reckless. A group of young vigilante samurai declare him a disgrace. Hell, even a pair of samurai who've known him for years are left scratching their heads.

But they don't know the truth, that all of this is just a ruse so he can dig down to the deepest roots of the district's corruption, killing the cancer at its heart.

I love Koji Yakusho as the smarmy lead. From his slobbish exterior, to the sly, manipulative mind underneath, there's such a delightful charm to the way he wraps people around his little finger. Though a warrior, he saves violence only for those rare moments where trickery won't work. And when that sword comes unsheathed, man, you better watch out.

Kon Ichikawa, the last of the Musketeers alive when this was finally made, gives us a film very much like its lead: laid-back, charming, easy to dismiss on the surface, but filled with many little surprises. His camera work is quiet but sturdy and his editing, while a little disconcerting in a few scenes that seem to randomly jump around, flows at a smooth pace. The costumes and sets look like they've been with the studio a while, but give it a nice, aged look.

And then there's the humor. Our hero hops on a horse to make a grand escape, only to find it unwilling to go faster than a relaxed trot. A council of stuffy elders spend more time debating cold remedies than they do politics. A Geisha from Edo (marvelously played with wit and grace by Yuko Asano) leaves Dora-Heita shifting when she tracks him down to collect old debts. A pair of secretaries in the magistrate's office have nothing to do but mark down that their boss didn't show up for yet another day. Through these little bits and others, what could have been a stodgy, typical samurai flick takes on a playful energy that makes it so wonderfully human and memorable.

Now, not all of this film is spot on. The story, though veering far enough from YOJIMBO to avoid being a remake, is nonetheless more than similar enough to draw comparison. While that film boiled things down to an apocalyptic finale, the end of DORA-HEITA feels like a bit of a cop-out. Ichikawa spends so much time setting up the ins and outs of the corrupt district that I can't help but feel disappointed when, instead of showing the broader effects the hero's actions have on this society, the focus is instead dwindled down to a few individuals who end up getting off way too easy. It almost feels a little too - I hate to say it - Hollywood. Too happily ever after.

And then there's the music, the cheap score by Kensaku Tanikawa and his synthesizer. There's a few effective moments, such as beats in the background of tense scenes that eek Eric Serra, or what feels like light Vangelis over the introductory montage of Horisoto, but most of the cues sound as if they crawled out of a mid-80s action film. It's an element that's distractingly out of place.

But these are just small complaints against a film that, while not a classic, most certainly entertained. I wonder how it would have turned out had it been made way back then, with the participation of all four Musketeers. Would it have been better? Worse? Bigger? Smaller? I really don't know. Hell, I really don't care. What we got was satisfying enough for me.

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2 comments:

Anthony Williams said...

Having now trod through the works of Kurosawa, can you instantly spot his specific influence and contributions to the scrip for Dora-Heita?

NoelCT said...

Not as well as I could with RUNAWAY TRAIN. The basic setup is one he's used before, but, having not seen anything else from the other three filmmakers, I'm not sure who to specifically credit for what.

Kurosawa connection aside, though, it's still a pretty darn entertaining film.