April 21, 2009


1993 film
written & directed by Akira Kurosawa
based on the works and life of Hyakken Uchida

Since last July, I've worked my way through all but one of Akira Kurosawa's films (SANSHIRO SUGATA 2 is tricky to find) and here before me lies the task of reviewing this, his final work. I've started this review about a dozen times by now, always going back and deleting the opening lines before I get much farther. It's a struggle putting into words just how much Kurosawa's films have affected me over the last nine months. I feel I've really gotten to know the man as I saw his works, his growth and development over time, even read about his life in his own words, so all I can think right now is how much I'm going to miss him, how regretful I am that we will see nothing new spring from his abilities. But that's life. And what better way for Kurosawa to teach me this reality than through a film where several generations of students hold dear their retired professor, Hyakken Uchida.

It's just before the war that Professor Uchida announces his retirement. He's learned that his published works are making enough to earn a living and feels he's impacted enough young minds by now that he should no longer be required to divide his time between professions. In his honor, a group of former students, most now middle aged with professions and families of their own, put together a big annual birthday celebration where they share drinks and memories, and Professor Uchida faces down his looming death (represented by an astoundingly huge mug of beer) and proudly proclaims, "Madadayo (not yet)!"

Kurosawa has left behind the bitterness and cynicism with which he previously painted these final, aging years, and now projects a more optimistic vision where the younger generation allies to protect, serve, and honor their beloved mentor, best exemplified by the main quartet of Hisashi Igawa, Joji Tokoro, Masayuki Yui, and Akira Terao, all of whom drop whatever they're doing to act as children to the childless man. Despite losing most of his peers who regularly appeared in the broader body of his work throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Kurosawa kept finding new youngsters (relatively) like these that were quickly becoming a new troupe of familiar faces in this final stretch. And as a rare carryover from those earlier days, we get Kyoko Kagawa, beautiful as ever, as the professor's wife.

It's a shame Takashi Shimura had already long-since passed away because I can't help imaging him in the role of Professor Uchida, who greats his students with bright, inquiring eyes and firm lessons coated with a goofy, deadpan wit. But don't take that as a criticism of actor Tatsuo Matsumura, because he excels in the lead, giving the professor all of the qualities mentioned above and filling him with a warmth and insight that makes it impossible for us to avoid respecting and admiring him just as much as his students.

In a storytelling device I haven't seen since Kurosawa's first post-war film, NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH, the story is spread out over a surprising stretch of time, nearly 20 years. We're carried through the stiff optimism of the pre-war days, to the terror of the bombing raids, through the despair of rubble and economic depression, to a gradual brightening of the days as troubles sort themselves out and comfort reigns. It's almost as though Kurosawa took us on a compressed journey of that stretch of films, from 1943's SANSHIRO SUGATA, to 1965's RED BEARD, that mark the beginning and middle eras of his films, and used the theme of old age and multiple generations to mark that of his last.

Once again, I'm not really sure what else to say or if I'm even capable of expressing my thoughts properly. This film is a stunning achievement, not only acting as a reflection upon the director's legacy, but standing up as a damn fine film in its own right, one that had me laughing and crying, cheering and hissing in all the right places. As far as career endings go, you couldn't ask for a finer mark of punctuation than this.

I'll miss you Akira Kurosawa. You truly are The Master.

(internet movie database)

Rhapsody in August

1991 film
written & directed by Akira Kurosawa
based on the novel by Kiyoko Murata

While their parents are off visiting rediscovered relatives in Hawaii, a group of four young siblings and cousins (Tomoko Otakara, Mitsunori Isaki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Mieko Suzuki) find themselves shacked up with their Grandmother, Kane (Sachiko Murase), in a small country home in the mountains outside Nagasaki. Like most kids of the 90s, they find themselves bored out of their minds at the lack of TV and video games, and start wandering through the nearby city and countryside, finding little monuments to the stories told by their grandmother.

Kane, you see, was a widow of the atomic bomb. Her husband, a teacher, was at his school in Nagasaki on that fateful day and fell alongside his students to the ensuing fires. Though the pain still stings, she holds no grudge, despite some worries from others that this might be the reason she held off on joining the trip to Hawaii, where a dying man who may be her older brother (she had about a dozen siblings and isn't sure) married an American woman and started a successful pineapple farm.

Murase is magnificent in the role, perfectly balancing Kane's stubborn grip of the past with a little grin of wonder at the world her grandchildren now find themselves in. It's these sequences that explore the bridging of the generations, how ideas and memories can pass from one to the other even though they may not share the same context, that really paints the heart of this film and, having spent a few years living with a grandparent myself, I felt totally at home. And I've really got to give Kurosawa props for not painting either group as starkly as he did in RAN or I LIVE IN FEAR. These are people who, while colored by their time, can still reflect upon, learn about, and appreciate the things that divide the generations rather than further that gap.

No, it's that middle group, the ones who grew up in the years immediately following the war, that Kurosawa still seams to have a bit of anger toward. Kane's middle aged son (Hisashi Igawa) and daughter (Toshie Negishi) seem far more interested in the wealthy Hawaiian estate than they are in familial bonds and any mention of Nagasaki's past has them tightening their sphincters in the fear that the newfound American relatives might feel awkward and sever ties.

Which brings us to Richard Gere. I know, Gere suddenly popping up in the second half of a Kurosawa film is a strange sight, but he shines nonetheless. He plays Clark, the half-American son of Kane's brother, who first learns of his family's connection to Nagasaki through a letter from the grandchildren. They didn't know such details were supposed to be kept a secret, and their parents start bristling at the possibility they might be cut out of potential prosperity, but Clark doesn't awkwardly pull away like they feared. No, he immediately flies out to Japan to meet Kane and see the school where her husband died, in an effort to fill the gaps of his family's history.

What a beautiful, delicate, powerful movie.

I have a confession to make. I first saw this film at age 14. I knew about the bombs and had a general sense of Japanese culture both during Wartime and in the modern day, but much of the country's history was still alien to me and I didn't know about Kurosawa beyond a few mere mentions of SEVEN SAMUARI, which I wouldn't see for a couple more years. In the interest of complete honesty, I have to admit that RHAPSODY IN AUGUST bored me senseless. The still, silent camera, the frequent conversations about things long dead and gone, none of it did anything for me. But I was young at the time and it would be a few more years before I started growing very close to my grandmother. Watching the film again over a decade later, I feel I was originally like the kids were at the beginning of the movie, jaded and sarcastic, unable to accept something outside their bubble of the present.

I now hold this up to be my favorite of Kurosawa's films. Not only is the exploration of the family beautiful and inspiring, but the way he layers in the realities of history, warts and all, without judging or breaking into lectures, gives the picture the texture and depth we've all come to love from the Master. And the honesty of the ending, the fragile, heartbreaking finale, where Kurosawa acknowledges that every generation must eventually pass on, no matter how tightly its descendants hold to it, once again shows that the skills I prematurely dismissed as fading in my review to RAN are still there in all their glory, ready and waiting to be witness by generations to come.


(internet movie database)

April 16, 2009

Runaway Train

1985 film
directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
written by Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Djordje Milicevic, Edward Bunker, Paul Zindel

(1985 script)

A pair of prisoners, in the midst of a brazen escape from Alaska's Stonehaven prison, hitch a ride on a train that quickly finds itself roaring out of control through the frozen tundra with no breaks and a dead engineer.

You just can't beat a great concept like that. Unfortunately, you can break it a bit.

As I pointed out with my review of the script (see above) through the course of its development, the story took a few bad turns. Though there have been some little tweaks and touchups here and there, the broader rewrite it so desperately needed never came along. Take the setup for example. While the concept is great, it takes nearly half the picture for the story to get going as it rides in the choppy wake of a string of unbelievable coincidences and an unnecessarily extended opening in the prison meant to set up our characters, even though it gives us nothing we couldn't gather in the middle of their run.

And then there's the dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. Though some of the worst groaners have been trimmed out, the words this collection of writers (I wish I knew who specifically to blame) strung together still slide around like marbles in the performers' mouths. Sequences that are supposed to be deep or inspirational stumble through excessive slang and choppy banter. Hell, one of the few great lines in the script, "I expect nothing. I prepare for everything," is inexplicably cut in half.

Despite having this to work with, much of the acting is grand. Jon Voigt commands the screen as Manny, a pragmatic convict "at war with the world" who escapes because he knows it'll be his only hope of surviving a warden lining him up for an assassin's shiv. He's mean, he's a badass, but, most importantly, he's human and we can see the mind working beneath the scarred, bitter face as he understands what he needs to do to save not people, but ideals.

At his side is Buck, a young lunk of a boxer who sees Manny as a hero and tags along on the escape with the hopes of sharing the spotlight. Eric Roberts is perfect. His Buck leaps and swears with an energetic will to prove himself, but starts to fold when the reality sinks in. What could have been a typical idiot really shines as an innocent kid who's trying so hard to be something he might, deep down, not even want to be.

Rounding out the trio onboard the train is Rebecca De Mornay. Making her character of a swept away grease monkey into a woman could have come off as a forced way to slip a girl into an otherwise purely guy flick, but they handle it quite well, giving her a spunk and determination that gets the convicts listening as she tells them what happened and how they can help her fix it. While not much of the broader script has changed since the draft I reviewed, I'm glad to say that the glaring problems with her character were among the few major tweaks. The unnecessary spiritualization that comes out of nowhere with sudden blurts about God and miracles? It's now tucked into quiet, unspoken, beautiful moments. Her act at the end that was nothing more than cheap exploitation? Greatly toned down into something soft and touching. I'm glad to say her character now shines as strongly as the other two.

The biggest problem I had with the script was the character of Ranken, the brutal Warden of Stonehaven who wants nothing more than to bring these two convicts back under his control. While still a completely unnecessary addition to the story and the image of him swinging around in a helicopter in the 3rd act is still quite ridiculous, John P. Ryan almost makes the character worthwhile. He takes what could have been just another blowhard redneck and gives him a quiet dignity that makes the moments of cruelty all the more shocking when they erupt to the surface, and the tweaks they made to his involvement in the conclusion are actually quite strong.

If the cast has a weak spot, it's the railway technicians. I love the way the story set them up as petty bureaucrats more interested in showing off their hardware and preserving their reputations than they are in saving lives, but other than the always entertaining Kenneth McMillan, none of the characters really come alive. A lot of this has to do with the already mentioned dialogue issues and the fact that elements of procedure that could have been much more meatily explored are glazed over, but the actors don't help. I'm not saying they were bad, they just never quite fit.

Now, as uneven as things turned out, I do have to give props to director Konchalovsky. Though he really needed to develop the material much more thoroughly and there are some questionable choices here and there, he directs it with style, energy, and a realistic attention to detail. The costumes and makeup are especially well handled, capturing the flushed, chapped faces of winter as people bury themselves in as many worn layers as they can get their hands on. And it's all dirty. So wonderfully dirty.

And the train. Man, what a monster that is. Four engines tied together as they scream down the half-frozen rails with melting breaks spraying out the sides. And after it's collision with another car, the gaping, smoldering maw of the beast rips through the gray wasteland like Hell alive. It's a marvelous image.

Unfortunately, the score by Trevor Jones is largely a disappointment. While there is a glorious, haunting dirge over the final sequence, most of the film consists of painfully typical 80s action music. I can't tell you how many otherwise masterful sequences were killed with the fake drumbeat and plucky guitar riffs.

Man, just look at the ocean waves of this review. We go up. We go down. Over and over again, which just goes to show how uneven and frustrating I find this film. It's a good movie, startlingly brilliant at times, but it just never lives up to it's fullest potential. That said, as messy as the buildup and journey are, that ending, that gripping, human finale, which is so purely in the spirit of Kurosawa, always gets me and somehow makes the entire experience worthwhile.


(internet movie database)

April 15, 2009

Runaway Train (1985 screenplay)

written by Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Djordje Milicevic, Edward Bunker

(1985 film)

During the 1960s, Kurosawa's career was starting to cool in his homeland, but over in the U.S., he was rapidly rising to a legendary status. So, inevitably, American studios pitched him a few offers for films shot on their shores. One was TORA! TORA! TORA!, which Kurosawa pushed through development until the studio booted him for fear that his perfectionist ways would drive it vastly over budget. The other was a script called RUNAWAY TRAIN that quickly went nowhere until a renewed interest in the director dusted it off in the 80s.

The plot is simple. A pair of prisoners hatch a brazen escape into a wintry wilderness, only to find their efforts thwarted when the train they hitch a ride on goes careening down the tracks with no breaks and no engineer.

The prisoners are your typical set of old/mean and young/stupid. Oscar "Manny" Manheim just won a civil rights appeal against the warden who permanently welded him into his cell nine years ago, and the warden responds to a bout of hero worship on the part of the inmates by setting in motion Manny's assassination. Wanting to get out while the getting's good, Manny launches his escape with the help of Buck, a bumbling knucklehead who decides to tag along because it'll improve his street cred. Despite the lack of creativity in terms of their conception, I give the writers praise for at least digging into the archetypes with a little more depth in a relationship that felt straight out of EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, one of my favs. Manny just wants pure, uninhibited freedom. And Buck, initially desiring glory, quickly realizes he's in over his head.

In something that feels very Kurosawa, we get a nice community built around the operators of the railway system. On one side, we get a man who wants to derail the train, lives on board bedamned, so as to preserve both property and reputations. On the other, there's a dude who wants to keep it going, not so much for the people, but so he can show off the skills of his computerized routing board. I say it feels right up the director's alley because there's some wonderful observations of procedure and the dehumanization of petty bureaucracy.

Now, I bet you're asking why anybody would be remotely interested in preserving the lives of a couple of convicts. Well, they aren't alone. A service assistant named Sara Maguire was swept away as the train took off and now it's her rough knowledge of the vehicle that just might see them through. I'm sure there are many out there groaning that the rewriters found a way to slip a girl into a guy film, but I thought it worked. At least, initially. When she first bumps into the convicts and they react to the presence of a woman in the way convicts typically do, she admirably holds her ground, explains the situation, and recruits them in her efforts to stop they train. After all, what other choice do they have if they want to live? Unfortunately, she only holds up for the first half of her screentime. As the situation gets tougher and tougher, instead of persevering, a strong sense of faith springs out of nowhere and she begins bubbling into prayers and talk about miracles. And when things really get dire? She pops open her shirt and starts doing the dirty deed with a criminal.

Yeah, it really doesn't work. And, sadly, it's not the only flaw in the script. One of the largest is the basic setup. The whole escape of the prisoners feels terribly slapped together and relied heavily on a nearby river that should be much more heavily guarded than it is. Getting them on the train wasn't bad, but the way the engineer croaks from a sudden heart attack, followed by a 20 page stretch where the convicts are clueless to their plight, followed by a crash into another train that cripples the engine, followed by yet another stretch where the convicts are clueless to their ... Anyway, suffice it to say that the opening not only drags far more than it should, it's so damned coincidental as to stretch all plausibility. Why couldn't the "runaway" nature of the train be the result of their escape? Thus making them guilty for their own plight.

But that's not even the worst of it. No, instead of putting much more focus on the psychological tension of the three on the train, someone (I strongly doubt it was Kurosawa, Kikushima, or Oguni) had the idea of adding a villain. Meet Ranken, the Warden of Stonehaven prison, who's exactly the redneck prick of a brutal lawman I'm sure you're picturing right now. In an overly ambitious concept, he's worried the escape, if unthwarted, will lead to major riots in every prison in the country. So he gets in a chopper with a rifle and a heaping dose of attitude so he can brave the blizzard conditions and drag these two varmints back. Let me put this simply: He. Adds. Nothing. If you take him out of the script, it becomes tighter, deeper, and leaner. Whoever it was that slipped this stock asshole into the story should be smacked upside the back of their noggin. That said, the swirlie scene was great.

Is that it in terms of complaints? Nope. I've got to point out the dialogue. Though it mostly gets the job done, there are some terrible stretches of absolutely wretched wordplay in there. An excerpt:

BUCK: You'd better not be jivin'!

SARA: Don't threaten me, punk! What's wrong with you?

MANNY: Yeah ... don't threaten her, punk!

BUCK: What if she's bullshitting?

MANNY: She ain't. C'mon, let's make our move.

SARA: God must've set you guys to me.

Urg. It makes my eyes water to read it. Notice the choppiness, the bad attempts at slang, and Sara's final line that just bursts in from nowhere. The whole script is peppered with these bits.

So, there. We have an uneven character, a sloppy setup, a totally unnecessary villain, and eye watering dialogue. Bad script? Certainly not. It's far from great, but the basic idea and central dynamic, not to mention clever asides with the technicians and genuine roaring suspense, really does make for a powerful, engaging read. Sure, it needs a lot of work and I highly doubt it lives up to the original Kurosawa/Kikushima/Oguni draft (which I'd really love to get my hands on) but there's definite potential for a solid film.


April 14, 2009


1985 film
directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide
based on the play KING LEAR by William Shakespeare


Old age. It creeps up our souls like a snail on a mossy branch. Inevitably, no matter how big our name, nor how great our accomplishments, we will find ourselves, our vision, our legacy, gradually drifting to the side as the younger generations take our place. Some accept this with dignity, allowing themselves to fade off into the sunset. Others rage against it to their dying breath.

And a few go mad.

Kurosawa must have realized his peak was behind him by this point, that deals were getting harder and harder to strike, support more and more difficult to find, and one collaborator after another falling into the grave. Why else would he descend upon KING LEAR, the story of a powerful, successful leader pushed to the side due to his age and the ambition of his children, with such passion and fury? Sure, he'd already explored similar material before in I LIVE IN FEAR, but here it was personal. Now it had become a dark reflection of the director's life.

The film opens with a boar hunt. Though old and lean, with pale skin and a flowing white beard, Lord Hidetora of the Ichimonji clan cuts an imposing figure as he firmly draws back a bowstring while riding full gallop. This is a man who started small, with little land and a modest castle to his name, but he rapidly rose, using ruthless, brilliant tactics to pull all surrounding lands under his domain. Today, he'll be forced to confront two ominous events. First, the only boar he's able to kill is old and worn, unfit for eating. Secondly, the hunt leaves him so exhausted, he nods off into slumber during an important meeting with a pair of neighboring warlords.

Realizing that his time has come and gone, he decides to divide his lands amongst his three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. While the eldest pair heap the idea with flattering praise, Saburo brushes it off as naive. He knows that the same passion his father had, the desire to unquestionably rule everything in sight, burns in the blood of his brothers and that no peace will be lasting. Enraged, Hideotora banishes Saburo and splits the lands between the remaining two.

And that is where we get to an important message in the film: don't trust those who dispense easy flattery, but hold close the ones who are open and honest, even when it's not what you want to hear. First Taro then Jiro start chipping away at the lord, taking his title and property in their names. When he makes a stubborn spectacle of himself, they put out orders for his very life, culminating in a scene of apocalyptic horror as a castle burns, all of his retainers and concubine are slain, and he wanders off, little more than a spectre, a shadow, gaping in a stupor of despair.

This would all be quite marvelous were there not one major problem: Tatsuya Nakadai. I've found him to be a wonderful actor in the past and it's great to see at least one holdover from Kurosawa's old troupe of regulars, but his portrayal of Hidetora just doesn't work for me. Sure, Kurosawa shoots the character in some striking ways, but the acting itself and the increasingly garish makeup are far too theatrical in my opinion and constantly took me out of the moment.

Thankfully, that's the only performance I had a problem with. Jinpachi Nezu is great as Jiro, the middle son who eventually takes the Lordship, largely through the ambitions of others. Mieko Harada is terrifying as Lady Kaede, a nefarious schemer who moves from one brother to another, imposing her will upon them both mentally and physically. Masayuki Yui is stout and dependable as Tango, a General who refuses to leave the service of the Lord who banished him. But the standout definitely has to be Peter as Kyoami, Lord Hidetora's jester. He starts off a typical Fool, bounding about as he makes up songs and jokes at his master's expense, but gradually finds himself the sole caretaker of this aging, abandoned man. He's almost a reflection of Hidetora's soul, cocky at first, getting away with lines a nobleman would never think of, then a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen as things get dire, and finally, as the Lord hits his deepest despair, as an angry voice to his own self loathing. And Peter plays it masterfully.

I've already written a review of the script (see above) that says how much I preferred this adaptation to Shakespeare's original play, but let me add that I credit much of this to the presence of Hideo Oguni. First joining Kurosawa's writing team with 1952's IKIRU, Oguni's contributions have been an essential part of Kurosawa's greatest films. There's a sharp, sarcastic cynicism to his contributions that were missing in KAGEMUSHA, stuff like a leader lining his army up on a hill as a sign of support, only to start a war, or the triangle of Lady Kaede and her two husbands, or a tag involving a severed head head, that gives the material a striking depth and a resonant ring of genuine despair. Sadly, though he'd live on for another 11 years, this would be both his last collaboration with Kurosawa as well as his final contribution to film.

Visually, this film suffers a bit in comparison to the violently vibrant KAGEMUSHA. Don't get me wrong, it's beautiful with crisp figures against flowing landscapes, but there's something missing. There's a dullness to the imagery, and Kurosawa's shot composition, usually one of his greatest strengths, just doesn't leap off the screen with the same vigour. Granted, his eyesight was starting to fail him at the time and he was putting more and more trust in others to see that it all came out properly. Or maybe it's intentional, a reflection of the fading old lord and his living hell. I really don't know. All I can say is that my attention kept wandering away from the work of a filmmaker who typically pulls me in. Maybe it isn't just the duller palate but, as with KAGEMUSHA, the fact that he was drifting away from closeups and shots of striking depth. The stuff he's doing with these two film is more like a filmed stageplay with elaborate backdrops. It's still good, but doesn't intimately draw me into events in that way that films are more than capable of doing.

I'm not really sure how best to explain it, but the film just doesn't entirely work for me. The script is among Kurosawa's strongest, the supporting cast is there, and the design simply brilliant, but the lead was off and the technique starting to fade. It truly is a bittersweet experience to admit that a master of the craft has finally slipped from his peak, but that's the very thought that goes through my head as I listen to the ethereal score drifting over the end credits like the last breaths of a dying man.


(internet movie database)


undated screenplay (published draft)
written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide
illustrated by Akira Kurosawa
based on the play KING LEAR by William Shakespeare


Hidetora Ichimonji is the fiercest warlord of his day, having conquered lands left and right until everything within sight of the modest castle in which he began is under his claim. But he's growing old. During a ceremony, he announces his intention to divide the lands amongst his three sons. He holds out three arrows. Individually, they are easy to break. Bound together, they hold strong. Taro and Jiro, the oldest of his boys, praise his wisdom and eagerly await their newfound fortunes. However, the youngest, Saburo, says that his father is naive to believe that all three will stand so united when the same desire for individual power that brews in his blood flows through theirs. To prove his point, he breaks the three arrows over his knee.

Enraged, Hidetora banishes Saburo and divides the land between Taro and Jiro, only to find that his youngest son's prophecy has come all too true. Wanting more power than they've already been given and impatient for their father to die, the two begin to strip the old man of what's left of his title, even going so far as to threaten death to any man who lifts a finger to assist him as he wanders with a rapidly declining group of retainers in search of food and shelter.

I can see why the story of KING LEAR resonated so strongly with Kurosawa. Not only had he explored similar themes of a patron going senile only after he'd already been declared so by children who simply didn't agree with him in the earlier film I LIVE IN FEAR, but similar things had been going on in the aging Kurosawa's life. All of his friends and frequent collaborators were either dying or drifting away. The Japanese film business which had so praised Kurosawa and raised him up as an international symbol had declared him old-fashioned and stopped funding his projects. And like the heroes of these two stories, the only people he could reach out to for help were foreigners.

Reading this script, one truly does get a sense of the despair Kurosawa must have been feeling as he was brushed aside and watched as all of his great accomplishments started falling on deaf ears. Unlike Shakespeare's LEAR, Hidetora's not already drifting into insanity at the story's beginning, he's still being the exact same person he always was, it's just the rest of the world that's moved on.

Though the brothers do have people in their inner circle that pushed them to their actions - a conniving wife, a shifty general - it truly is their fault for how they allowed their father's image of power and ferocity to crumble alongside the kingdom that their greed tears down. This is best exemplified by an apocalyptic scene of horror near the middle of the script where an assault on a castle has former allies turning on each other and raping and pillaging one another at the drop of a hat. It's no wonder such things drive the old Great Lord to the sunken pits of his own despair.

I also have to give props to Kurosawa for the wonderful character of Kyoami. I thought Shakespeare's The Fool was a waste of a character, tossing out meaningless jokes at the expense of a man who should be fierce enough to hack off the joker's noggin, and who totally disappeared without explanation halfway through the story, but here, while Kyoami starts off the same way, he soon finds himself the sole caretaker to the once proud warrior who has now turned into a fragile shadow of his former self. The clown sobs, "Heaven and earth have turned upside down. I was mad and made him laugh before. But now he is mad and makes me laugh."

To be honest, I didn't really get into Shakespeare's play. I found it cluttered and convoluted, and lacking a clear sense of where it was going right up until it hit the unnecessarily brutal ending. But I have to give Kurosawa full praise for not only tidying it up and shining the spotlight on its strongest features, but for turning it into something that is purely his own. The way he latches onto the themes and shows a willingness to follow their lead over that provided by the source material, or the way he has the story evolve out of the authentic setting and rich characters, it all feels so very Kurosawa.

And I can't wrap up this review without praising the paintings he did during the development of the story, all of which are included with the published script. Through violent strokes and a fierce use of color, he brings this rich tale to vibrant, striking, terrifying life. And yet the most memorable of these images isn't one of war or ritual, it's the final illustration that closes out the book. I'll let the words of the script describe it:


On top of the steep stone wall, Tsurumaru is at a loss.

The evening glow is now in its final stages. The last light of day will soon fade, and darkness will reign over the realm.

Against the background of the last glow of evening, the small figure of Tsururmaru is standing alone on the lofty stone wall in the remains of the castle.



April 12, 2009


1990 film
written and directed by Akira Kurosawa

Hitting 80 at the time of this film's release, Kurosawa's life and career were starting to slow down. So after using RAN to vent his rage and despair at the younger generations that shoved him aside, he seems to have cooled and took this film, a collection of his actual dreams, to reach back and reflect on his life.

Sunshine Through the Rain

When it starts to rain on a sunny day, a boy is told by his mother that he should stay indoors because this is the weather the foxes of the forest have their weddings in (picture a Noh routine from the cast of CATS), and they don't appreciate the prying eyes of us humans. So, of course, the boy goes to watch.

Right up front, the cinematography is among the finest in Kurosawa's career. Not as piercing as his early use of wide angle lenses, nor as distant as his recent love-affair with telephoto, this finds a nice balance between the two with a polish and glow that show he's finally got a firm handle on the colors he once so vibrantly blew to life. And I believe this is the first use of F/X in his films that I can recall, with a beautiful composite matte over a field of shimmering flowers.

The Peach Orchard

In another childhood dream, a boy follows the fleeing figure of a girl to a staggered field where a peach orchard used to grow. There he's confronted by the dolls used in an annual celebration of the fruit, who berate him for the neglect his family showed to the trees.

While little more than an excuse to slip some more Noh theatrics on the screen, Kurosawa arranges it masterfully with a colorful, multi-teared performance. And props to his inventiveness for immediately following their traditional music with a western bit of pipe organ praise, which is in turn followed by the jingle of a xylophone.

The Blizzard

A quartet of men trudge through a frozen wasteland. Their faces are frostbitten and their clothes caked with ice. They can't agree what direction they're heading in or how long they've been out. All they can do is put one foot in front of the other.

This one starts out a pure, haunting nightmare, filmed entirely in agonizing slow-motion with no sounds at first aside from rasping breath, clomping footsteps, and the endless howl of wind. I really have to give Kurosawa props because I could absolutely feel the hell these men were stuck in and wished I could wake up.

Unfortunately, it takes a sidetrack with the sudden appearance of a spirit which significantly cuts the horror.

The Tunnel

Following the war, a retired soldier is walking down a road, when he comes to a tunnel. It's guarded by a demonic dog and seems to be filled with the spirits of his fallen comrades.

This one starts off strong with what I'd call Kurosawa's closest attempt at a pure horror flick, but once the dead soldiers pop up, it falls flat with nothing new to offer that I haven't seen in a dozen TWILIGHT ZONE imitators. I know this segment was either partially or entirely directed by Ishiro Honda, but I don't think that's the problem because there's no significant difference in the filmmaking quality that I can spot. I just think it's a mediocre story.


Here is where we're introduced to a recurring character who we'll follow throughout the rest of the flick. He's a young man I call The Director, because his lanky build, clothes, and signature hat are obviously modelled after Kurosawa.

While looking over the works of Vincent van Gough at a museum, The Director find himself entering one of the paintings and, after meeting up with the eccentric painter, goes on a journey through more of the masterful works.

As with all of his appearances in the film, Akira Terao makes for a nice protagonist as The Director. He keeps things subtle and doesn't draw undue attention, acting mainly as an everyman point of view for the audience. And who's that as Vincent Van Gough? None other than director Martin Scorsese! While I wish someone would've polished up the translation of his dialogue just a tad, he cuts quite the figure as the eccentric painter who dishes out just a tiny bit of advice before the sun compels him to wander off and paint something more.

Kurosawa takes this opportunity to stage a few brilliant recreations of the master's painting, capturing everything but the thickness of the strokes. I almost wish the budget was higher because most of the later journey through art is done with some painfully obvious blue screen and it would've been neat to see Kurosawa bring more of them to life.

Mount Fuji in Red

We're back to nightmare mode as nuclear anxiety literally erupts across the screen. It seems all six of those newfangled nuclear reactors in Japan have gone the way of Chernobyl and all the atomic energy they've pumped into the atmosphere is driving Mt. Fuji into full-on eruption.

Through The Director's eyes, we see the striking composite work of the chain reaction, the screaming crowds with nowhere to run but the depths of the sea, and the slowly gathering clouds of radiation waiting to gobble up whoever's left behind.

The Weeping Demon

In what might be considered a sequel to the last short, The Director wanders through the deserts outside of a rubbled city. The only plants that grow any more are giant dandelions, and it's in a grove of these weeds that he meets a demonically horned man, the victim of nuclear mutation, who discusses with him the fate of a humanity with nothing left to consume but itself.

Let me take a moment to point out the excellent production design work here. Not only are the giant dandelions flawlessly realistic, but the horned humans are pulled off in a way that feels operatic and tragic instead of silly, which I honestly thought they'd be.

Village of the Watermills

After the apocalyptic hell of the last two nightmares, brightness once again prevails as The Director finds himself in a little riverside village filled with watermills. Here the people are free of modern convenience and pesky science, live full lives up to 100 or older, and take each passing as an opportunity to celebrate life instead of mourning death.

And thus we come full course. We started with the simple fears and desires of a child, then the deeper scenarios of a developing mind, the anxieties and existential questioning of adults, and finally the acceptance of old age. While I can't say I agreed with the fatalistic messages of a number of the shorts, Kurosawa was 80 at the time and had certainly earned the right to feel what he felt.

But the filmmaking, man was it beautiful. I thought his technique was starting to slip in RAN, but here it's not only still alive with his depth of color, composition of camera, texture of fabric, vibrancy of nature, and smoothness of editing, but I won't hesitate to say that this is some of the sharpest filmmaking of his career. While I don't think it's a movie for everyone and some will likely be turned away by its episodic nature and dream logic, it's truly worthy of the word masterpiece.

(internet movie database)

King Lear

1603? play
written by William Shakespeare

(my review of the 1985 film adaptation, RAN)

Ambition can be a very, very dangerous thing.

King Lear of Britain is getting old and wishes to divide his lands between his three daughters. Goneril and Regan instantly start gushing in an attempt to get more goods than one another, but the youngest, Cordelia, doesn't bite. Her father knows how much she loves him, so why must she embarrass herself with a display? Enraged, Lear disowns her and splits his kingdom in half among the other two.

There's some interesting stuff to be said here about the ties between a father and child, where unsaid devotion can be far stronger than pretty words heaped upon words. As much as those two say they care about the old man, they just want him to die so their respective husbands can quickly increase their social standings.

I have to admit that I got a little lost at times what with one betrayal after another, mainly because it's not just the sisters that are hatching things, but in a completely different household, we get Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, who starts an elaborate campaign of misinformation so as to assume his father's title. The two stories keep batting back and forth at one another for the stage, only really coming together in the last two acts. While the ties were nice, and similar happenstances mirrored one another well, it just got to be a bit too much to handle at times.

And then there's the tone. At times, especially in the first half, all the backstabbing, dismissals, and manipulations almost take on a comical frenzy, and there's even a parroting Fool whose job appears to be nothing more than hanging at the King's side and putting him down for no good reason. But once eyeballs start getting gouged out and people die, all sense of fun and mischief disappears to heart-rending tragedy.

I know, I know. Once again I'm probably getting more critical than I should of a classical work that someone of my limited grasp shouldn't even bother trying to analyze, but I can't help finding the play uneven. Bad? Hell, no. But a bit all over the place at times, as though Shakespeare just kept throwing one element into the story after another until he finally saw how to wrap them all together.

But it's still a good story in the end, with solid characters, and a tragic finale that shows that the most trusted people in our lives are sometimes the ones we cast aside.