Tag Archives: akira kurosawa

Rashomon – Review

14 Nov

Akira Kurosawa has become kind of a regular point of interest on this blog, so why not go back to another one of his works and give it the ol’ once over? This time we’re going be looking at what many consider to be one of the greatest movies ever made, but also one of, if not the most, important films of Kurosawa’s entire career. That film is Rashomon. It did a lot for the film world other than making Kurosawa’s and Mifune’s name known to the rest of the world, and even after 64 years of existence, it still holds up very well.

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On a rainy afternoon at the Rashomon City Gate, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Tabi Hōshi), and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) hide from the downpour in a dilapidated temple. The woodcutter and the priest reveal that they came from the courthouse to testify in a case about a murdered samurai (Masayuki Mori) who was killed three days ago. The story of the bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune) raping the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyō) and the possible murder/suicide is told by multiple people in court, each with their own views on what happened. With all of this confusion, it seems next to impossible to discover the truth.

Rashomon is really incredible for a number of reasons. It’s true saying that this isn’t the first movie to tell a story through flashback. Just look at Citizen Kane, made in 1941, and pretty much told all through flashback. This is, however, the first film to utilize multiple different versions of the same flashback and a strong use of unreliable narrators. Knowing this, it’s easy to see Rashomon‘s influence on other films that came after it, like the more modern films The Usual Suspects and Vantage Point. It really is an amazing way to tell a story, and it scared the producer who thought that audiences wouldn’t understand it.

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The story of Rashomon and its influence doesn’t end there, however. At the time this movie was made, western audiences weren’t quite savvy to the powers of the great eastern film makers like Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, and others. More focus was on the European side of things. Luckily for the eastern powerhouses, Kurosawa gave them due recognition was Rashomon. This film wasn’t just a hit in Japan, but also at the Venice Film Festival, and also received an honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, before that category was even established. It’s safe to say that this film is the reason why that category even exists.

Technically speaking, this is a beautiful movie. Kurosawa and his DP, Kazuo Miyagawa, know how to shoot weather and forests very well. The rain looks powerful and ominous while the forest looks like a beautiful place to hide a murder. Kurosawa and Miyagawa are also the first people credited with pointing the camera at the sun for a lens flare, and this is the movie where you see that for the first time. The way the camera dollies through the trees and foliage is surprisingly smooth and everything is lit so well and dramatically, it certainly couldn’t have been easy.

What you should take away from this review is the power that Rashomon and Akira Kurosawa have in film history. It’s true to say that without this movie, things in the film world may have been a lot different. It also shows that to really appreciate some of the great modern movies, it is also essential to look at the past to see where and how film makers of today got their inspiration. Rashomon really is, objectively, one of the greatest films ever made and rightly deserves its place in film history.

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Drunken Angel – Review

29 Apr

Akira Kurosawa may very well be the most well known and respected Japanese film makers to ever work in the industry. Throughout his entire life, all the way to the end, Kurosawa has been responsible for many, many excellent stories with wonderful technical work. The film that Kurosawa said to be his real breakthrough piece was his film from 1948 Drunken Angel. This is also the first time he collaborated with actor Toshiro Mifune and composer Fumio Hayasaka. While Drunken Angel doesn’t quite look as good as Kurosawa’s other films, it is a deeply powerful film that left me thinking about a lot of different things and trying to pick out all of the different messages about post-war Japan and self worth that I could find.

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Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura) is an alcoholic physician working in a post-war Tokyo slum with a festering sump in the center. Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is a small time yakuza gangster with an ego that’s much more inflated than his actual position in the organization. Matsunaga is a cocky, violence prone man who lashes out at Sanada when he is informed that he is suffering from a possibly mortal case of tuberculosis. At first Matsunaga doesn’t believe what the doctor is saying, but soon decides to be responsible and fight the disease. That is, until fellow yakuza member Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto) gets out of prison and makes Matsunaga resume his old way of life which includes women, gambling, and alcohol. When Okada makes his motives truly known and threatens Sanada because of something that happened before he was even in prison, Matsunaga sees everything he has been doing wrong and fights his condition so he can get revenge on Okada and defend the doctor that cares for him so much.

Akira Kurosawa has an astute ability to take a story that may otherwise feel boring or like nothing’s really going on and turn it into a story that’s filled with many different layers, themes, messages, allegories and any other fancy word to describe how excellent this movie really is. It’s a quiet film, to say the least, but the imagery is as haunting as a movie as real as this gets. Kurosawa seems to take influence from the American noir films of this time period, but also from Italian neorealism that was around in the early to mid 20th century. This film does feel very real and very personal, not just to Kurosawa, but to the entire nation of Japan.

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Drunken Angel is more than a story about the relationship between an alcoholic doctor and a violent yakuza gangster. It’s very clear throughout the movie that this has a lot to do with the mood and ideals of post-war Japan. The sump in the middle of the slum is a perfect image of what was left of the landscape and the Japanese spirit after the was and the devastating effects of the the nuclear bombs. The characters, being constantly intoxicated and violent, seem to bring to life the weakness and horror of the Japanese mind and body. But this movie isn’t just about the effects of war. On a much smaller level, there are themes of masculinity, weakness, and self worth. These, in my opinion, are the strongest elements of the movie. If someone was to ask me what Drunken Angel was about, I would simply reply with one word. Weakness.

Interestingly enough, Kurosawa originally planned for the story of this movie to focus mainly on Dr. Sanada with the character of Matsunaga being a minor side character. After seeing how well Toshiro Mifune acted in the role, Kurosawa then made Mifune’s character much more important. These two characters now work together as the main protagonists throughout the film. Takashi Shimura, who became a regular in Kurosawa’s movies just like Mifune, is excellent as Dr. Sanada and plays his complicated role to perfection. We want to hate him for being so irresponsible and weak, but he is so good hearted we can’t help but love the guy. Mifune is still the scene stealer here. His transformation from swaggering gangster to a man overcome by his disease is tragic to watch. Tragic only begins to describe his character, and Mifune focuses all his energy into making him more than he was ever supposed to be.

Drunken Angel is the movie that put Kurosawa on the map so that he could go on to do other classics like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo amongst others. This is a much more quiet film than those others, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less significant. This film succeeds at digging into real problems for Japan at the time, but also digging into the darkest corners of people to expose the weaknesses that threaten to bring them down. There are many reasons that make this movie so great, and even if it doesn’t quite fit your style, do yourself the honor of watching this film made by one of the greatest film makers to ever live.

Ran – Review

5 Aug

Akira Kurosawa is a cinema god. I say that without any hesitation. Seven SamuraiYojimbo, and Drunken Angel are just a few of his outstanding films that make up his filmography. Many consider his last masterpiece to be his last historic epic, Ran. Set during the 1600s and based partially on William Shakespeare’s King Lear and legends of the daimyō Mori Motonari, Ran is a spectacle to look at and also stands strong as a powerful and deep family drama.

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Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is an old, powerful warlord who used excessive violence and brutality to achieve his position. At age 70, he decides to step down and give all of his power and castles to his three sons: Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû). Saburo declines the offer and warns his father of the mistake he is making, but is banished by Hidetora. Saburo’s prediction come true, however, and the two remaining sons betray Hidetora and fight for power over the entire kingdom which drives Hidetora to insanity. While all of this is happening, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), whose family was slaughtered by Hidetora, is quietly pulling strings to ensure the collapse of the Ichimonji clan.

As you can see from this summary, the story and characters are very reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy. There is much family turmoil and violence, which results in a much larger scale of bloodshed. That’s really what this movie is about, in my opinion: the personal and the chaotic. This family is so powerful, and their warriors so loyal, that they will march into battle and kill who they have to in order for the person they serve under can achieve whatever selfish gain they desire. This begs the question: How far should loyalty really go? This is answered by some characters in this movie who let their moral compass really guide them in the right direction.

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Color is a very important part of Ran, and definitely gives the film the look of some sort of moving Expressionist painting. Interestingly enough, Kurowsawa spent two years storyboarding exactly how he wanted scenes to look. By storyboarding, I mean that he painted scenes, complete with vibrant colors, just so he could get the look of the film exactly right. Amongst other huge problems that he faced during the shooting of the movie, one being the death of his wife, he was also losing his eye sight and had to have people frame the shots based exactly on what he had painted. Anything to get the film done the way he needed it to be done.

The acting in this movie is just as interesting as the visuals. Tatsuya Nakadai is brilliant as Hidetora. Absolutely brilliant. His facial expressions and exceptional physical acting really sells the decline of his mental health over the course of the film. The other actor who really stands out to me is Meiko Harada and her performance as Lady Kaede. While you can’t call her a “villain”, per se, she does act as the main antagonist to the Ichimonji clan. She is beautiful, yet the lack of eye brows makes her look odd. Underneath this odd beauty is a thunderstorm of restless determination that really breaks through in certain scenes. She is a blast to watch.

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Ran is an iconic masterpiece of Kurosawa’s that has proved that he is a master, especially at the age he made the film (well into his 70s). Death of loved ones and poor eyesight were not going to stop him from getting his vision made, and thank your lucky stars it did. This is not only visually beautiful, but soulfully, even though it shows the heinous side of humanity, their thrust for power, and the chaos that comes with it. To anyone who doesn’t mind a lengthy movie, owe it to yourself not to miss Ran.