Sunday, September 30, 2012

Three Films by Akira Kurosawa

[Posted 10/14: Due to some technical issues, only one of these got watched on time. That didn't seem enough of a grand finale to me, nor part of the plan - thus the delay. And the last couple of weeks. I'm backdating this post to 09/30 mainly for various organizational purposes, linking, etc...]

We started off this month's project with arguably the Citizen Kane of European cinema (Jean Renoir's La règle du jeu, 1939). And we're wrapping it up with arguably the Citizen Kane of Asian cinema: Akira Kurosawa's Shichinin no Samurai (1954). And by the way, it will be quite awhile or never before "the Vertigo of..." becomes the new saying.

Seven Samurai peaked on the S&S rankings at #3 in 1982, but is still in the Top 20 for the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. But let's start a little earlier than that.

Stray Dog (Nora inu)
dir. Akira Kurosawa. 1949, Japan.
Criterion essay #1 ... Criterion essay #2
DVD from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Hulu-Plus

escena de Can Vadío (1949)

Sato: Just your typical case of an amateur running amok, although the consequences for the victims are severe.

One of the secrets to Kurosawa's success, and maybe even a valid criticism, stems from how influenced by Western film he was - despite his innovation, and his focus on samurai movies during his prime heyday (the '50s). But I was not prepared for how closely he stuck to the film noir template in Stray Dog. During the beginning, I kept thinking how this could be a shot-by-shot remake of an old American crime movie, even down to some of the snappy patter. But the setting of a bombed-out, dusty, overheated, late-'40s Tokyo was fascinating.

The basic story is that a greenhorn rookie gets his Colt pistol lifted on a crowded trolley, then obsesses about its recovery while being mentored by some more seasoned vets. I'll go ahead and Wikipedia, for what it's worth: "The film is considered a precursor to the contemporary police procedural and buddy cop film genres." Given the timing, I was wondering whether the disarmament of the good guy might have some kind of nationalistic, anti-American post-WWII symbolism. But no, this is a straight-up adventure into a world of crime, driven by honor and duty, during a massive heatwave, with a mismatched pair of cops... you get the idea. We even get a glimpse of the older, more domesticated partner's idyllic homelife. Classic.

So, Tokyo! Our hero sets off into the post-war world of lady pick-pockets, black markets for pistol dealers, a really big baseball game, chorus-line cabaret, a geisha house, fancy and not-so-fancy hotels. Overall, the city seems like a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Some of the early set pieces run a bit too long on just film footage, although seeing 1949 pro baseball in Tokyo was amazing. Towards the end, everything moves a bit too fast. You can see what Kurosawa's trying to do with ramping up the intensity, but it comes off a little blunt. The end of the movie sets up legitimate tension as the cops close their dragnet.

Lots of nice touches throughout the movie. There's the iconic contrast between the jaded veteran cop and the enthusiastic rookie. There's even a WWII parallel between the hero and the villain, and a contrast between how they've handled post-war struggles. Some of the minor criminal characters are drawn well: the aging pickpocket sassing about civil rights, the white-flower marketeer giggling with Sato, the Yakuza bellboy primping for the ladies... The whole film generally looks good, but certain shots really stood out immediately: an early low shot from behind the characters looking up into the starry sky, a converging triple-exposure during the black market wander, the frenzied whirling storm of danger towards the end, and some cool background mirror placement.

By my calculations, this was the fourth movie the two lead actors (Takashi Shimura and Toshirō Mifune) made together - and the third straight Kurosawa to pair them up. I counted 21 total films from the duo, mostly with Kurosawa directing.

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai)
dir. Akira Kurosawa. 1954, Japan.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #17 / Directors' #17
Roger Ebert's Great Movies ... Criterion essay
DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Amazon Instant / Hulu-Plus / iTunes

Seven Samurai trailer (1954)

Other than trying to squeeze in The Hidden Fortress (1958), writing about this one was a major hold-up. For one thing, it's 3½ hours long - and then I wasn't taking notes!

Villager: How can we find a samurai we can pay with only rice?
The Old Man: Find hungry samurai.

It had been so long since I'd previously seen Seven Samurai, that it had been on VHS (videotapes). I still remember the fused 2-pack they came in. For some reason, I recalled it being totally action-packed... like non-stop action. But there's a whole lot of gathering and planning, although it does move briskly. With a large cast of characters with similar hairstyles and clothing, it does an admirable job of introducing them to the Western audience (me).

Fearing an upcoming bandit raid, some villagers gather to discuss their options. An impetuous youth wants to stand & fight, although that seems foolhardy. A fearful oldster wants to buy them off with crops & bended knee, although that's not much different than being raided. A hysterical woman suggests mass suicide - that'll bring the magistrate around! (There might be some flaws in her plan as well.) The scene introduces important characters, their overall situation, each's motivations and fears, and sets the stage. Finally, they all decide to consult The Old Man, who tells of a village that survived bandit raids by hiring samurai for protecion.

So a group of villagers head to the city in search of samurai - the classic fish-out-of-water country-mouse scenario (to mix my animal story metaphors). They meet an older samurai who uses brains even more than brawn - he's Takashi Shimura, the older cop from Stray Dog. There's a greenhorn samurai who follows along, and a wildman of an imposter - played by Toshirō Mifune, the younger cop. With an actual samurai leader, the crew begins to be put together. Much entertainment ensues, and the raw rookie gets to test his sneak attack skills. Then the action reverses itself, and the city-mice head out to the country. The villagers are terrified of the samurai, and maybe with good reason. The oldster who feared that the bandits would steal his daughter is now afraid that the samurai will, and maybe with good reason.

The villagers and samurai gradually warm to each other and their common purpose. Training takes place, preparations are made, fortifications built, the concept of a stolen gun returns. Although everything before qualifies as great film, here is the real meat - and you can totally see its influence on a million later action movies. And it's pulled off masterfully. You absolutely always know who's who, what's what, the why, where, and when... which I don't think you can always say of modern action movies. Also, there's definitely no sense of the invincible good guys with perfect aim, who can dodge bullets or swords. There's too many little details and random trivia for me to delve into. I'll just say that probably more than any other film I watched this month, Seven Samurai is maybe the least under- or over-rated one (at #17 for both Sight & Sound critics and directors). Definitely a top 20 of all movies of all time.

High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku)
dir. Akira Kurosawa. 1963, Japan.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #323 / Directors' #322
Washington Post 1986 movie review ... 1998 Criterion essay
DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Hulu-Plus

High and Low U.S. trailer (1963)

Cop: The kidnapper's right. That house gets on your nerves. As if it's looking down at us.

Yep, back to crime! Although this one starts with all the menace of a trade dispute (ladies' shoe manufacturing of all things), it's as better than Stray Dog as 14 years of experience would indicate. It's got kidnapping, a giant phone receiver, very nice modern B&W photography, and more. During the shoe industrialist's rant about his commitment to not paying the ransom, the other people in the room turn away one by one. I couldn't figure out whether this was a reaction to someone breaking their calm reserve, or a show of disapproval (or both). It happened a few times in the movie, and always reminded me of when everyone turns away from the racist ranter in 12 Angry Men (1956).

Like with ballistics in Stray Dog, we find some of the now-standard procedures and evidence sciences in effect: telephonic audio analysis breakthroughs, automotive paint chip analysis, trolley expert consultation, notepad reconstruction from underpage impressions, and group presentation of investigation updates (with nifty one-shot flashbacks). In the meantime, there's corporate intrigue, family drama, a rockin' GI nightclub, and lots and lots of heroin. I really didn't expect this movie to delve into Drug Alley.

O yeah, and the story takes place in the port city of Yokohama. So you've got your high-priced, mountainside mansions and villas (high) and your industrial factories and urban slums (low). Mt. Fuji plays a prominent role during the investigation. There's a neat trick with some factory burn-off smoke. The club scene with the obnoxious Americans provides some awesome undercover disguises and super-sleazy music and dancing. Really good and fun and engaging - my only complaint would be the sometimes difficult-to-read subtitles.

I really tried to get The Hidden Fortress watched, to make it 4 by Kurosawa... but the delay had just gone on too long. And after the full month, my film-watching abilities were drained!

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