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Archive for the ‘Directed by Akira Kurosawa’ Category

Yojimbo

23 Jul

Yojimbo – directed by Akira Kurosawa. Samurai Action. 110 minutes Black And White 1961.
★★★★★
The Story: A yojimbo, or strong-arm for-hire, exploits his employers in a small town at war with itself.
~
It is the perfect war movie: at the end, no one is left standing. The town is turned into debris and cadavers. The only ones alive are two old guys, the coffin maker and the barkeep. And the God of War, who movies on to the next battlefield.

Greed, lust, envy fuel the feud that drives the townsfolk to take sides. Commercial control starts it all. When it’s over, the only artist in town, a drummer, emerges beating his drum blindly and murders the last survivor, an act from which he reappears covered with blood and drumless. For, you see, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, the wife of Mars, does not survive war propaganda.

Toshiro Mifune plays the God of War, as a disreputable samurai of no renown who wanders into the embattled village. Once there, he sees his job as a strategy that everyone in town shall destroy everyone else, without his having to do the fighting. From the Olympian distance of a high tower or through the crack in a wall, he observes the mayhem he causes.

But he betrays his method by coming to Earth and saving the life of a young woman, her young husband, and their little boy. For this error he is beaten almost to death.

Finding recuperation in a temple, as a God should, he returns to the village and wreaks death all about, and leaves.

It is a film whose story is organized with a minimum of exposition and a maximum of movement. Mifune has scarcely a line to speak. But he is the focus of the mystery of what the outcome will be and how it will be. We wait. Suspense is our treat.

Mifune plays the character as an individual with a sense of humor unusual for a Mars figure. He does not present his warrior as a Gary Cooper character, but as a rapscallion who will lie, cheat, and steal to forward his plot and to assess its players. Resolute without being an absolutist, we never know what to expect as his fate, any more than we know what trick he will come up with to salt the wound of the next surprise. Clint Eastwood would take this story and this character and invest it throughout his career with gutter ethics. Mifune does not have to reach for that. His sense of humor is his six shooter.

Mifune and Kurosawa made 16 films. Is this the best? From the first twitch of his itchy shoulders to the last, Mifune is captured by the great camera of Kazuo Miyagawa and by Kurosawa’s ruthless sense of effects. The actors astonish. The guts of art have been equaled but never been surpassed.

 

Kagemusha — The Shadow Warrior

16 Mar

Kagemusha – directed by Akira Kurosawa. 16th Century Japanese Warlords find themselves deceived by the greatest of them being replaced by a hobo impostor. 180 minutes Color 1980.

★★★★★

Of course it could be said that it is too long, for the same reason that any film is too long, because the last part of it is full of detail which by now we, as the audience, telling the tale as we go, alongside Kurosawa, take as understood.

And, it could be said that the film was never meant to be viewed on a home screen but on a huge wide movie theatre screen, where I first saw it. What this means is that the power of the great troop and battle scenes is lost because they were designed as spectacle.

Of course that is not to say that the rest of the film is not spectacle. For it is. The interiors are all staged as spectacle, even when there is only one person present, even those scenes close-to, although Kirosawa here is not involved in close-ups, but in groups, or in a single player playing out his role full body. The staging of every scene is highly theatrical, perfectly organized, with nothing left to chance for our mistrust to fix upon.

And then there is the playing, which is Japanese in its style, not Noh, of which we are given a stunning sample, but cinema-Noh, which means a minimum of movement combined with the greatest intensity of content. The Noh actor, virtually static on stage, uses his voice for this; his craft is the craft of intonation. But in a movie, the actors must do most of it with their bodies and in such a way as that each movement will tell the tale required to be told, and no more. Unlike stage Noh, where the words themselves have a studied constant operatic force, in the film the actor speaks more physically than verbally. So, the movie is told as a feat of physical narration. An actor executes the necessary telling movement and immediately shuts down, and the story is told.

This is good for a fairy tale, which is what this is.

Once upon a time, there was a family, a great warrior grandfather and his devoted twin brother, the two sons of the warrior, and his four year old grandson. The most feared warrior in all Japan is this warrior, and his purpose is to protect his clan.

He is ruthless and valuable, and to protect his own life, his twin brother has played his double. However, the brother finds this role vexatious to his spirit and one day shows his brother a bum who looks like them both. An impostor is needed to give the head-brother the mysterious power of ubiquity, but this man is a wandering thief, a low-life, a vulgar ne’er do well. The two brothers train this thief to become the second impostor, a shadow warrior, which is what the title means. Or does it?

Does it not perhaps mean, when he dies, the warrior whom the peasant impersonates? Is he not the ghost warrior? Is not the person imitated the ghost?

As I sit here writing this, I do not know whether all three parts are played by the same actor. It would seem impossible, since the cantankerous and flaky thief and the warrior are so different in temperament, for the warrior brother is a mountain of immovable resolve, cunning, and wisdom. Nonetheless, this what the thief eventually becomes. How is it possible?

Everyone who reads this blog regularly knows that sometimes I like the history of movies and actors, but that I am not interested in theoretical or hypothetical or philosophical or sociological matters as regards movies and the entertainment of acting. But if I were, I might say that this film would be Kurosawa’s tribute, on the grandest possible scale, to the genius of acting and its craft.

For here we have an histrionic and cinematic masterwork about creating an histrionic and cinematic masterwork. It is the backstage story of all time.

Everything about the movie is stupendous. The costumes are stupendous, the battle arrays are stupendous, the volume of extras is stupendous. This is in order to stupefy us. And if we are in our right minds, we will be so, for the long, tense layout of each scene is of a pace important to impress. We must be silent, we must be respectful, we must bow down before this narrative style or the story will not register in us. We must wait out the tension in the room. That is our job. That is our story-telling. Around a campfire, the counselor begins a ghost story. We  allow ourselves to be riveted. There is no human alternative.

What is the moral of this story?

The moral arises in us as we watch, for it is the same that arises in the bum learning to becoming a shadow warrior – devotion to the master’s mastery, one-and-the-same thing, the master and the mastery – devotion to the warrior-master, which the shadow-warrior learns, and by an inevitable osmosis becomes; devotion to the mastery of the master, and devotion to being told the telling itself. All: one and the same thing.

One-and-the-same thing.

One-and-the-same thing.

 

Roshamon

25 Oct

Roshamon –– directed by Akira Kurosawa –– murder mystery in which four versions of the event are related by those who were there, none of those versions agreeing. 88 minutes black and white 1960.

* * * * *

You will never forget it. And you will wonder what you really saw once it is over, for it never is over. When it was first shown, it entered into the consciousness of the world like scripture. I remember when it first appeared. The acting style was Japanese in one sense of the word in that it was intense, gutsy, highly emotional, contained, melodramatic, stylized; one had never seen humans like this before in a picture and never had one seen anyone oriental as the focus of a serious film. It opened up Asian film to the West. Toshiro Mifune was first seen by U.S. audiences in this picture, playing with bold, sudden, unaccountable strokes. The woodland scenes are completely free, the scenes on the two sets completely imprisoned. This time round all these 50 years later, I watch the commentary, and I recommend it highly; the critic is a master of his craft; he knows the picture in its 450 scenes, by heart. See it with your friends. If ever a film was a community experience, it is this one.

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