Monday, November 07, 2005

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Akira Kurosawa

The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

For those that have heard of Akira Kurosawa but have never seen any of the great director’s work, here is a list of essential classics. Acknowledged as the creator of not one, but many undisputed masterpieces (Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, Ran, Rashomon, High and Low, Dersu Uzala, Stray Dog, Red Beard, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, The Idiot), Akira Kurosawa helped to revolutionize Japanese Cinema while providing inspiration for other directors (George Lucas: Star Wars, John Sturges: The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dollars). Kurosawa was particularly successful with adaptations of great literature, using works by Shakespeare (Ran, Throne of Blood) and Dostoevsky (The Idiot) as a springboard to create some of his more compelling and complex narratives.

1) Seven Samurai (1954)
This film has rightly earned unanimous international acclaim since its release in 1954 for providing us with a complex story rich in historical overtones handled with absolute technical brilliance and superbly realized by a notable cast that features some of Japan’s finest actors from the period.

Desperate farmers hire seven samurai (who wander the land after the fall of warlord feudalism in 16th century Japan) to defend their land from bandits who pillage their village. The samurai organize to train their meager army of not-so-innocent peasants, create a plan of defense, and enact one of the greatest hand-to-hand battle sequences ever conceived and delivered on film (the final battle sequence occupies nearly 1/3 of the movie’s total 3 ½ hour duration). Seven Samurai is an outstanding allegory of social reconstruction conceived in post WWII Japan and has inspired countless imitations but few rivals. (The film served as a blueprint for The Magnificent Seven, and is thought by many critics to have revived the Western genre in American cinema).

2) Ikiru (1952)
Kurosawa’s heartbreaking chronicle about a man searching to give meaning to his empty bureaucratic life once he discovers he has stomach cancer. The first half of the film focuses on the principal character as he wanders the seedier side of Tokyo nightlife. The second half of the film takes place at his funeral, where many members of the community gather to debate his greatness and/or folly. Finely sculpted characters, a unique narrative structure, an inquiry into what constitutes our individual identity, and an unparalleled performance by Takashi Shimura make Ikiru an unforgettable film event.

3) Rashomon (1950)
Rashomon features several breakthrough ideas on film narrative and structure. The movie opens amid the ruins of Rashomon, a palace once occupied during the great era of warlords. The beggars that find shelter there swap stories and we become the audience of a tale of the rape and murder of a princess. When the suspects appear at a trial, the story is told through the multiple perspectives of its participants.

4) Ran (1985)
Based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Kurosawa has his great warlord divide his province between his three sons to fatal consequences for all. Ran is perhaps one of Kurosawa’s most well-known film by American audiences and received several academy awards for its stunning art direction and costumes.

5) Yojimbo (1961)
Great music and comic action drive this follow-up to Seven Samurai, and forms a companion piece to Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962). Fans of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven will find the original model to retain all of the psychological intrigue and action of its western-styled descendant.

6) Stray Dog (1949)
Kurosawa often instigates his more successful character studies by turning the world of his protagonist upside down. In the unforgettable Iriru, the central character discovers he has stomach cancer and will enjoy precious little remaining time on earth. In High and Low, a rich businessman’s life careens toward disaster when his son is kidnapped by greedy corporate extortionists. In Stray Dog, a young detective (played by Toshiro Mifune in his first film with Kurosawa) leaves a crowded streetcar on a miserably hot day only to find his gun has been pick-pocketed. As in Ikiru, this existential crisis forces our hero to hit the seedy streets of Tokyo in search of his weapon, or his symbolic identity. Echoing noir classics like The Big Sleep, once detective Murakami penetrates the criminal underworld a whole new swarm of crimes unfold as Mifune descends further and further into psychological and social chaos.

7) Throne of Blood (1957)
This powerful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in the tradition of Japan’s Noh Theater may be one of the greatest readings of the bard’s oeuvre. Kurosawa re-imagines Macbeth as Isuzu Yamada (acted miraculously, as always, by Mifune), a brave knight fighting to protect Spider’s Castle. While returning to from battle to receive a medal of valor, a forest spirit foretells his future and the rest is the stuff of history – warrior kills king and becomes king only to be killed by another warrior who takes the throne for himself.

Brilliant photography exploits Kurosawa’s insistence on shooting the majority of the film in extreme fog, which ideally underlines the idea that the land itself is closing in on the mad warrior. The final scene, where arrows rain down on the dying warlord, is one of the more celebrated (and imitated) endings in cinema.


Blogger Bryant said...

I've always had a fondness for Dreams. I don't know if it's a masterwork, but images from that movie (particularly the first section (it's episodic)) and the bit with Picasso have stuck with me.

Oh and thebit with the soldiers.

6:42 PM  
Blogger Clurg said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:42 PM  
Blogger Clurg said...

I feel the same way about Dreams. After the first time I saw it, I had to lay on the floor, listen to Hildegard von Bingen, and ended up wetter than James Lipton trying to hold Scorsese's hand.

Then again, I have almost felt the same thing watching any of the other Kurosawa films listed here.

Oh, Evander has put out some great stuff, by the way.

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