Tag Archives: toshiro mifune

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.