Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

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Re: Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

Postby wpqx » Mon Apr 03, 2006 11:18 pm

Pardon the amateurish quality of some of these reviews, many of them were written years ago, but I just feel Kurosawa needs something to start with.

The Seven Samurai (1954) - Akira Kurosawa

The beauty of a grand sweeping epic that we thought forever gone. The restoration of Seven Samurai in 1998 proved to be one of if not the greatest miracles of film. Since the initial American release of the film, the picture has been butchered. Enormous amounts of the film were cut, which resulted in a still unsuccessful film. Back was all its splendor and glory, and monstrously long running time. Like all the best epics though, this doesnt feel like three and a half hours.
It was a monster from the beginning. Akira Kurosawa had gone back to Toho, the MGM of Japan, and he planned to make his first real historical film. He also wanted to put to shame the other historical films that had been crowding Japan. He did just that making an all inclusive epic set in the 16th century. It follows the exploits of three groups of people. There are the farmers, the lower class peasants, with a somewhat honest profession. Then there are the bandits, the dishonest opportunists who prey off of the ill equipped peasants of the world. Then there are the samurai, the defenders of the earth, men of respect and integrity.
All of these groups though become interchangeable through Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifunes samurai is the best case. His parents were farmers, which means he could have easily picked up their trade. Yet they died at the hands of bandits. He wandered around and probably would have become a bandit, had they not murdered his family. So he ends up a samurai, the most undisciplined one, but the most eager, exciting, and admirable.
He has nothing in common with Takashi Shimuras head samurai. He is portrayed as next to Jesus in this film. He never makes a wrong decision, and it is no surprise that he is the first samurai approached by the farmers. Had he not been picked first the rest of the group may not have been formed. It is through his respect and dignity that he manages to round up another six master less samurai. Saint he may be, he is still a warrior, which means he does still kill.
The rest of the samurai have their own personalities, some of which are highlighted better than others. There is the youngest, who craves the adulation of the rest, and tries his best to be older than the rest. Throughout the film we watch him grow up, eventually becoming something of a man. Then there is the samurai who serves as his greatest inspiration. He is always one step ahead of his enemies, and the other samurai. Not surprising that Mifune ends up is slight competition with him, and tries to do what he does.
The basic plot is that a village of farmers are attacked every year and they have had enough. They hire seven samurai to help fight the bandits and protect them. Although greatly outnumbered, and promised nothing but three squares and the fun of fighting, the samurai accept. It is this that helps support claims that this is pro socialist. No one is motivated by money, other than the seemingly evil bandits, or capitalists. There is also the strength in numbers so common in communism. The farmers cant defend themselves alone. It takes the samurai to get them to work together, and proof that the individual is virtually powerless.
This may be refuted by the samurai being given personalities. They all have their own quirks and mannerisms. There are also a few farmers shown in detail. There is also the breakdown of the dream at the end when the farmers turn their back on the samurai, forgetting what they have done in order to concentrate on planting rice. Proof that eventually communism wont work. Either way, Kurosawa might not have had any political intentions in mind.
Not a moment of the film drags, even in the extended version. Kurosawa makes certain of this, keeping his shots short and proceeding. Lots of senseless dialogue is trimmed out, and a great deal is implied rather than shown. The battle scenes are all shown in great detail. They are fast and moving, in more ways than one. Before you know it this film will be over, so dont worry for boredom. Some people do still complain though, oddly enough preferring the John Sturges remake The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Over the years Seven Samurai has gradually been accepted as Kurosawas best film. Despite many great films to choose from, this still gets the most critical attention. The restored version brought about a whole new enthusiasm for the picture, and Kurosawa in general. Many leading critics consider it the finest Japanese film, and one of the ten greatest pictures ever made. High praise for an action film. Well that may be perhaps because this is more than that, as well as more than any one thing, historical picture, drama, or even comedy. It is everything at once, giving something grand for everyone.

Re: Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

Postby wpqx » Mon Apr 03, 2006 11:19 pm

Throne of Blood (1957) - Akira Kurosawa

There seems to be one path in art that must be traveled by everyone. That path is Shakespeare. Nearly every filmmaker has tackled the master at one point in time. Some, like Kenneth Brannagh and Laurence Olivier, have made their reputations on his work. Akira Kurosawa, the most Western Japanese director, was certainly familiar with his work. For nearly ten years he had wanted to adapt his Macbeth as samurai film. He knew just how everything would update, the only thing was someone else was one step ahead of him.
Orson Welles announced his own version of Macbeth in 1948, without samurais, but it was enough to have Kurosawa put it on the shelf for a while. When he had settled down to write the film, there was another setback. He didnt plan on directing it. Kurosawa was just writing the script for a younger director to handle. When the studio saw how expensive his picture would be, they didnt trust anyone else to handle the project. So finally in 1957, Akira Kurosawa set about to make Throne of Blood, his version of Macbeth.
Since his source is Shakespeare, many may think this his most Western film. The story may borrow from Shakespeare, but that is about it. The setting is changed to feudal Japanese history. The acting draws more heavily on the Noh than any other of his films. There is also an overwhelming spiritual essence to the film. Shakespeare wouldnt really deny that there were spirits out there, but Kurosawa uses Eastern mythology to blow up that element from the play.
Toshiro Mifune is our Macbeth. He delivers perhaps his finest performance here, as the easily inspired would be King. Lady Macbeth (Isuzu Yamada) is perhaps even more conniving here. While filming Kurosawa gave her a Noh mask. He told her to act, but to keep her face looking like that. So off went the eyebrows, on went the white makeup and that blank look. Imagine being told to deliver all your emotion with that expression. Somehow she pulls it off, and her performance is all the more remarkable for it.
The story is relatively the same. Two warriors repel a rebellion. On their way back, via that magic forest they encounter a witch (or fortune teller). She tells him that he will be king. They think shes bluffing as before, but she turns out to be right. Mifune now has the power and sets to living like a king. Like all men he is flawed and believes he is not. So he goes to the forest again. When he sees the witch she warns him again. This time saying he is safe until the forest moves.
Well we would all think he is pretty safe, because in the rational world, forests dont move. They dont, but theres a catch. An approaching army gets to the woods. This has served as the forts best defense. Following the paths will get you lost, and only the people under Mifune know their way around the place. So the army tries something new. They all chop down a tree. They then take the trees and use them as camouflage. In one of the most brilliant sequences in movie history, Mifunes own men turn on him and he is eventually bombarded with a sea of arrows.
This final sequence features the films only real close-ups. Kurosawa intentionally keeps his distance from Mifune. He doesnt want him to be identifiable. There are no point of view shots, and there is always space between the camera and him. It is only as he is dying that we get a close look at him. There is also a wonderful continuity in the picture. Like the fog during the final battle, this film seems to just float by. There are no distracting cuts. Everything is smooth, and there are great deal of dissolves here. Like Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard (1950), he tries not to make you notice you are watching a movie.
Kurosawa would return to Shakespeare for his final masterpiece Ran (1985). That story borrowed a little from Macbeth, but was closer to King Lear. Throne of Blood is not necessarily considered a true masterpiece from Kurosawa. It is yet to arrive on DVD. As for his historical films, Seven Samurai (1954), Hidden Fortress (1958), and Yojimbo (1961) are all far more popular. For those willing to hunt it down though they will not be disappointed. This may not be his best historical picture, it runs close to Seven Samurai, but it is certainly a masterpiece, that deserves the same recognition as his most popular films.

Re: Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

Postby wpqx » Mon Apr 03, 2006 11:20 pm

Ohayu/Good Morning (1959) - Yasujiro Ozu

Well this may warrant a slew of tomatoes thrown at me, but in my opinion this is the best film Yasujiro Ozu ever made. Not at all the serious family drama of Tokyo Story (1953), but an extremely light hearted comedy. In fact this is the only film by anyone that I can truly describe as delightful. It seems silly to use the term feel good movie, but this is just that. Hard not to watch the movie with a large smile across your face the entire time. Again with Ozu is seems that everyone is part of one big family, some extended relatives, but the whole community always interconnected.
As for the plot, it is somewhat simple. Two boys want a television. After protest for it, their father tells them they talk too much. In retaliation both brothers decide not to say anything to anyone all day long. It goes on for a while, making the neighbors and their teachers confused about why they wont speak. Eventually their efforts pay off, and when another man in their complex gets a new job, they help him out by buying a TV. That is the gist of the plot, at least in terms of the very central characters. At first though this has all the makings of an ensemble picture. Whether it be the neighbors that have a TV, which all the neighborhood boys go to watch wrestling, or their English tutor and his mother, or just the other neighborhood children and their unique parents.
This is just a movie where everyone seems to win. The boys get their TV, the neighborhood parents reconcile once the boys start talking again, the unwillingly retired man gets a new job and makes a sale, and even the boys aunt and their English teacher seem to be falling in love. There are a few more little victories throughout, but there is one loser in the end. Ill leave the details of that one out of this review, especially considering the potentially disgusting nature of it. Dont misunderstand though, it is still the funniest moment in the film.
After an early dispute over misplaced dues, one mother thought that the other was holding a grudge, hence the reason why her children wouldnt speak to her. The boys have a game of passing gas every time someone pushes their forehead. It is under this pretext that Ozu saves the greatest laugh for, which should be seen rather than read. This practice is a little odd and is familiar to those who saw Ozus earlier I Was Born But . . . (1932). In this film a group of boys hold out there hand and whoever is pointed at has to lay on the ground and pretend to be dead. It doesnt make much sense, but hence why Ozu is the most Japanese of Japanese directors.
Although little of the film is laugh out loud funny, although some is, this is still a perfect comedy. As mentioned before, whenever not laughing there is still a smile on your face. I cant imagine any director capable of creating this much joy through a movie before. It is also impossible to state how much of a joy this is after a countless barrage of elaborate Japanese samurai films. This contemporary family comedy seems to be about the most radical departure possible from the work of the late Kenji Mizoguci. Nothing heartbreaking or sophisticated. Another perfect gem from the master of simplicity.
Ozu, as was typical, plays his cinema down. Every shot is a medium one, with almost no close-ups and nearly no distance shots. Everything is again shot at waste level, with no alternate angles. The camera is also stationary, planted in one spot for the duration of the shot. All these are trademarks of Ozu, who relied on simplicity to convey his message. If it might have been distracting, or boring before, it is perfect here. Accomplishing the goal of not even making us think were watching a movie anymore. Everything is too natural and seamless.
No other Japanese, and perhaps no other filmmaker period could quite understand and appreciate the family unit. He tackled this institution over and over again in his work. Occasionally as a drama, but then he would come out with a comedy. There isnt much different, as the characters are usually the same, and he certainly doesnt change the way he shoots. So stylistically this isnt anything special, but then again none of his films are. Occasionally you just need a picture like this to make everything relative again. Once again I must say, this is his masterpiece.

Re: Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

Postby wpqx » Mon Apr 03, 2006 11:21 pm

Ikiru (1952) - Akira Kurosawa

While getting philosophical, Akira Kurosawa wondered what the world would be like without him, and what people would think of him. From there came the genesis for Ikiru, Kurosawas greatest contemporary film and most Japanese picture. It is the story of a man named Kanji Watanabe, played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura in his greatest role, who finds he has six months to live. We then see what he does, and in the second half of the film, what others say he did.
Like Zhang Yimous To Live (1994), which is what Ikiru translates to in English, this film is truly moving and a little heartbreaking. This is quite a bit more subdued than Yimous film, which still had another forty years to wait before it was made. Whenever we know someone is going to die, and when that person knows we get a little affected. Watanabe is so pitiful, having wasted his whole life with nothing to show for it, that we immediately take pity on him. Kurosawa chooses to show nearly the entire first part of the film directly through Watanabes eyes.
Our narrator points out though that Watanabe has been as good as dead for the last 25 years. He has never missed a day of work, as a government worker, who does little else but stamp papers. He has a son that he doesnt quite understand, and a dead wife. Other than that he is completely alone. This all gets violently shaken up when he learns that he is going to die soon. At first he is terrified. Although he has done nothing for years, he is still scared to die. After a brief period like this he tries to cling to something, so he goes to his son. His son turns him out, and he doesnt even tell him he is sick.
Thankfully there is a girl at his office, who is even younger than his son. She is the exact opposite of Watanabe. She is alive in the fullest sense, and is nowhere near Watanabes perfect attendance. It exactly this that draws Watanabe to her. Yet he soon realizes that she cant simply exist for his entertainment. With no one left to turn to, Watanabe starts to look at his legacy. Wondering just what he is leaving behind. We are then brought back to an earlier scene. This involved a group of women trying to get a run down sump to be turned into a park or playground. They are directed to every office possible, eventually ending back where they started. It is this project that Watanabe decides to dedicate himself to.
Just as we here his resolve the scene stops. The narrator then tells us that he would be dead several months later. So no miracle cure or a regeneration of life by deeds. Yet there is something else. There is a story of someone trying to make good at the last minute. For the rest of the film, roughly forty minutes we are witnessing a memorial after his funeral. All the people who knew him then proceed to tell of his last days. In a series of flashbacks reminiscent of Citizen Kane (1941)we are shown the variances of truth similar to Rashomon (1950).
Ironically though, Kurosawa was yet to have seen Kane. Which means that the forty or so years people have been citing it as an influence on Ikiru have been lying. Proves the point that great minds think alike, or close to it. Unlike Kane, Ikiru starts to fall apart towards the end. The series of funeral guests get a little irritating and the whole ordeal goes on a bit too long. Supposedly this is how all Japanese funerals are, full of loud drunk praising of the deceased. Perhaps this is because it begins as something of an epilogue, but how many epilogues go on for forty minutes or more. The picture also loses most of its heart.
This second half does offer one saving grace though. In fact the finest sequence in the film, and perhaps the finest moment of any Kurosawa film. Once a police officer comes to return Watanabes hat, he tells of what he saw the night he died. The park was completed and it was snowing. First through the bars of the jungle gym, and from a slow pan around the park we see him sitting in a swing. Gently swinging, he is also singing the same song we heard earlier. A great sense of accomplishment on his face, and we are left knowing that he died happily. This is one of the most beautiful scenes in all of film, and this alone makes the entire film worth watching.
Although not as popular as Rashomon, Ikiru has come to be known as one of Kurosawas undisputed masterpieces. It is also deeply close to his heart. Tackling both modern Japan, and the problem identity and living, a common theme of Kurosawas. Like Rashomon this did win a few awards, and did quite well internationally again. Critically it was very well received everywhere, including Japan which was always notoriously harsh with their own art. Here is Kurosawa in a nutshell. His themes and his style in the forefront. A picture perhaps only he could have pulled off.

Re: Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

Postby wpqx » Mon Apr 03, 2006 11:22 pm

Rashomon (1950) - Akira Kurosawa

For many this was the first Asian film. At age 40, Akira Kurosawa introduced the western world to not only his work, and that of his country, but of an entire continent. The film that did it, would remain for years the most popular Japanese film, and truly among the most influential pictures ever made. All this came out of pure chance. Although Kurosawa did make the picture, it wasnt he who introduced it to the rest of the world.
Venice sent an invitation to Japan for a film for their film festival. Prior to this Japan practically never participated in foreign festivals of this sort, another change brought upon by Rashomon. Although somewhat popular in Japan, Rashomon was not among the front runners. After Guilliana Stramigioli who was the head of Italiafilm in Japan, saw the film, she recommended it. After much debate she eventually won out, and the film ended up winning first prize in the 1951 festival. Perhaps without the intervention of Ms. Stramigioli, the West may have never noticed this film, and perhaps all of Japanese films would have stayed at home.
As it was though things worked out well for the film, and its director. Kurosawa became one of the most popular directors in the world, although his Japanese audience was modest. Yet dont by any means think that this is the first Kurosawa film, or even the first excellent Kurosawa film. He had maid roughly ten films beforehand, of which Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949) were the best and most readily available today. Watching those films, or some other previous pictures of his, one might notice quite a lot of familiarity in a film apparently so new.
Kurosawa had wanted to make the film for a number of years. The source of the stories comes from Ryunosuke Akutagawa, something of a Japanese Edgar Allen Poe. A tragic figure whose work remains deeply special to his culture. The title is from one of his stories, but that is about all Kurosawa took from that one. A little more of the plot is taken from another Akutagawa story, In a Grove. After signing a one year contract with the Daiei company, he managed to get the picture through. It was a risk, and the company boasted that they had no idea what their film was about. Of course they had no trouble taking credit for it once it became successful.
The essential plot seems relatively simple. A commoner, a priest, and a woodcutter are standing under a gate in the rain. The priest and the woodcutter keep repeating It doesnt make any sense. After the commoner inquires, they proceed to tell him a story, four times over. There are a few things agreed upon. First, there is a bandit who rapes a woman and then confesses to killing her husband. Then there is the woman who says that she killed her husband, after he shunned her following the rape. Through a little imagination, we are then shown the story from the side of the dead husband, who also claims to have killed himself. Then we get the eye witness account, from the woodcutter. He says that the two fought a duel after the rape, and the bandit won. Herein lies the confusion.
If we went by consensus then it appears as though the bandit was the murderer, but why would the other two lie? After all it isnt as though they are trying to protect themselves, the husband is already dead anyway. This is where Kurosawa really makes you think, and think, and think some more. In the end there is no solution. In order for any story to work, a great deal of exceptions would have to be made. Although Donald Richie, author of the Films of Akira Kurosawa, makes a good case for the woodcutter to be the possible murderer, he too admits that there really is no solution.
So knowing this it is safe to say that this isnt some impossible murder mystery. The killer is completely pointless to know, or even the details of each story. There is something else at the heart of this film and that is mankinds impossibility to tell the truth. He contends that is in our nature to lie, as the priest says, But it is because men are so weak. Thats why they lie. Thats why they must deceive even themselves. Here we have the thesis statement if you will for the film.
Like all impossible films, this one was still attempted to be figured out. Many offering their own interpretations, or solutions. It seemed though that even the harshest critic couldnt have kept this film down. Venice was just the starting point, it would even receive Academy nominations in 1952, for best Art Direction. Critics, although some picking at the flaws, still regard it quite highly. It was selected by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the 100 Essential films, along with Seven Samurai (1954).
What are those flaws that everyone complains about? Well the usual one mentioned is the acting. Everyone is large and grand, almost to an irritating extent. Then there is the usual boredom found in sitting through the same essential story four times in a row. The picture is short and after awhile it gets a little redundant. It seems as though Kurosawa was stretching to get the length up. One of his added scenes proved to be perhaps the most effective. This comes at the end when the woodcutter picks up a crying, abandoned baby, after the commoner took its clothes. He decides to take it as one of his own, figuring another mouth wouldnt make or break him. This act restores the priests, and therefore our faith in mankind. The saving grace of an entire species coming with just this gesture. Proof that Kurosawa wasnt all pessimistic.

Re: Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

Postby trevor826 » Tue Apr 04, 2006 1:18 pm

Way to go wpqx, yes these may seem a touch naive compared to your current work but they are full of background information and bursting with enthusiasm, excellent.

Hope you still enjoy Ohayo as much as you obviously did when you originally wrote your review.

Cheers Trev.

Re: Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

Postby hengcs » Tue Apr 04, 2006 5:48 pm


did I tell you there is a remake of rashomon?
i have watched it many years ago ...

Re: Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

Postby trevor826 » Tue Apr 04, 2006 11:17 pm

hengcs, do you mean The Outrage (1964) with Paul Newman and William Shatner among others? I have seen it but can't say I was too impressed, certainly not when compared with the original.

Cheers Trev.

Re: Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

Postby arsaib4 » Tue Apr 04, 2006 11:55 pm

Yes, these are wonderful reviews, wpqx. Keep 'em coming, though preferably one at a time.

Re: Japanese Journals - The Classics. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa

Postby hengcs » Wed Apr 05, 2006 12:04 am


nope ... i was referring to a Japanese remake ...

* drum roll *

Movie: Misty (1998)
Director: Kenki Saegusa
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Yuki Amami, Etsushi Toyokawa



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