In Part I, we took you around the world with 5 exciting foreign language movies. This time, we’re lingering on one country, Japan, and the movies of one director, the immortal Akira Kurosawa, one of the most influential moviemakers of all time. Kurosawa movies such as “Seven Samurai,” “Hidden Fortress” and “Yojimbo” even became the model for much of what you’ve seen on American screens. He and his work are revered by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, among others American moviemakers.
I don’t pretend to have seen every Kurosawa. In fact, I’m consciously saving some for later viewing (having a rather optimistic view of my projected longevity) just as I’ve done with some other favorite movie directors (Hitchcock, John Ford, John Huston, David Lean). I also don’t pretend to have enjoyed every Kurosawa movie I’ve seen, especially a couple of the later ones. But if you appreciate well made movies at all, or just riveting and often meaningful stories, then you really, really owe it to yourself to see at least the select 5 below.
If you’ve already heard of Kurosawa, or indeed of Japanese cinema at all, then you’ll be familiar with at least 2 movies (the second and third) on this list. But in case you associate him only with samurai epics, I’ve included a couple of lesser known, but still wonderful Kurosawa crime spellbinders.
Without further ado, 5 Kurosawa classics. Enjoy!
Stray Dog, (1949), starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Isao Kimura, 122 minutes. As is often true with Kurosawa movies, there’s a lot going on in “Stray Dog.” This gripping film noir follows a young police detective through post war Tokyo as he (and later his older partner) hunt for the criminal who has stolen his gun and is using it to commit a series of horrific crimes. His hunt takes us through the fascinating, still shattered streets and milieu of Tokyo just 4 years after the end of World War II, which included the horrific firebombing of that ancient city. Both the primary protagonist (played of course by Mifune, just as vibrant and intense as he would be in his later roles) and his quarry (played by Yusa) are war veterans, and the movie makes much of the parallels in their lives. Unlike some American film noirs, the female characters (especially Awaji as the criminal’s dancer girlfriend) come through as actual people, with no stock “femme fatale.” The convincing relationship between the young cop and his compassionate, practical older partner (played by Shimura) is often credited as the prototype for such young cop/older cop buddy movies as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Lethal Weapon.” Underlying the entire movie is an uneasy charge of rapid, disconcerting change that amps its film noir-ish anxiety up to a vibrating, almost uncomfortable level. You can enjoy this one as much for its window into 1949 Tokyo as for the propulsive story and great characterizations. Available on Amazon Prime.
Rashomon, (1950) starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki. 88 minutes. If you haven’t at least heard of this movie, then I don’t know what to tell you. Okay, maybe I do. This is, quite simply, one of the greatest, most influential stories--not just movies—of the entire 20th Century. In the words of James Berardinelli of ReelViews, “Rashomon has lost none of its fascination or power. It’s still a marvelous piece of cinema that asks unanswerable questions of great import. … In every sense of the word, this is a true classic. It’s hard to find a more rewarding way to spend ninety minutes. The essentials of the story have been told and borrowed so many times that they have a name: “The Rashomon Effect”. But in its barest bones: 4 participants/witnesses (including the spirit of a dead samurai) to a brutal crime (or was it?) tell their stories to a court of law, each describing it from utterly different, self-serving points of view—and through the simple tool of moviemaking itself, Kurosawa lets you experience each “truth.” If you still don’t know the “truth” of the matter when it’s over—well, that’s part of the point, isn’t it?
It just so happens I first saw it after having seen Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” which I thought made brilliant, profound points about violence, and honor and the fine things we tell others and even ourselves to mask our own failings. After seeing “Rashomon,” I realized Eastwood’s movie was, at best, a partial and inadequate homage, because Kurosawa’s classic made the same points and many more in a spare, riveting, disturbing 88 minutes.” If I ran things (Perish Forbid!), no one could become a writer, director, actor, lawyer, detective, politician, behavioral therapist, minister, teacher or even parent before having seen this movie. Available on HBO Max and Amazon Prime.
Seven Samurai, (1954), starring Toshiro Mifune (of course!), Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Kato, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, and many more. Japanese. 207 minutes. Also generally considered one of the greatest movies ever made, in any language, an opinion heartily endorsed here. Like many great stories, it’s at heart simple: 7 diverse warriors are hired to defend a poor farm village from marauding bandits. But wrapped around the simple story and its vivid action are characters as complex as they are heroic, and social friction that leaps across cultures. Most Americans probably know of this movie as the template for the worthy American remake, “The Magnificent Seven.” But the original is bigger, deeper, far more textured, and much more influential than its American offspring. For example, Toshiro Mifune’s tortured former peasant and would-be samurai Kikuchiyo is a more compelling and even disturbing character than his lower-key Magnificent counterpart (played well by Charles Bronson). Once you start this one, it’s hard to stop, even at 207 minutes of run time! If that seems long, then just think of it as an alternative to such modern day television epics as Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or Mad Men and watch it in 3 or 4 segments—though you may find it hard to turn away. Available on HBO Max, Hulu and Amazon Prime.
High and Low, (1963) (more accurately translated as “Heaven and Hell”), starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyoko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Yutaka Sada, Kenjiko Ishiyama, Tsutomu Yamazaki; 143 minutes. This riveting movie is considered an influential police procedural, but it’s much more than that. It’s also a sometimes cringingly effective reflection on class divisions (a recurring theme in Kurosawa movies) and a master class in stagecraft. And at its heart is a dilemma that has driven great stories from Eve and the Apple, to The Merchant of Venice and Do the Right Thing: the difficult, consequential moral choice and its consequences.
This movie has 3 parts. During the first half hour or so, wealthy business executive KIngo Gondo (Mifune) receives a demand to pay a ransom for his just kidnapped young son. The executive, having just hocked his entire holdings to fund a corporate power play, nonetheless immediately agrees to pay. But it quickly develops that the kidnapper took the wrong son—that of the executive’s chauffeur (Sada). Within the confines of his big “house on the hill,” Gondo struggles with whether to ruin himself financially for another man’s son, even as his wife (Kagawa) and the boy’s father beg him to do just that. Without giving that away, we’ll tell you that the second part moves through the riveting process of the police investigation (led by the clever, charming and compassionate Inspector Tokura, played by Nakadai) and the hunt for the kidnapper, himself a child of the slums (played by Yamazaki). The remarkable finale is a visual feast, as undercover cops pursue their quarry through pulsing, crowded nighttime city streets, into a lively bar packed with celebratory westerners and Japanese, and back out into a grimy world of drug addicts and prostitutes. This is one of those movies you both want to end (catch him, dammit!) and to keep right on going. Available on the Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime.
Throne of Blood, (1957) (more accurately translated as “Spider-Web Castle”, which I wish they’d gone with) starring Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Akira Kubo, Takashi Shimura, Horishi Tachikawa) 110 minutes. What happens when a master Japanese story-teller takes on Macbeth, the tragic masterpiece of a great English story-teller? You get a tale of ambition, greed, jealousy and betrayal, featuring samurai warriors, an oracle and at least one ghost, that feels like watching a slow-motion train wreck. While Mifune is again great as the male lead, Yamada more than matches him, wringing every bit of villainy out of the prime mover Lady Macbeth role (Lady Washizu in this film). You see, her husband (played by Mifune), the warrior general Washizu Taketoki and his comrade, general Miki (Kubo), encountered a spirit oracle in a misty forest who foretold that Washizu would become lord of the Spider Web Castle--then ruled over by their master Lord Tsuzaki—but that Kubo’s son would later assume control. Lady Washizu persuades her husband to fulfill his destiny by first murdering Lord Tsuzaki, then later persuades him he must also kill his old friend Kubo and Kubo’s son to avoid fulfillment of the oracle’s prophecy. Does he do it? Who wins, who loses, who dies? If you know your Macbeth, you know how this turns out--the gods will have their way. But the nerve-wracking journey will leave you unsure of your own loyalties. And asking such questions as: how does an entire forest move, and how many arrows does it take to kill a man? Available on Amazon Prime.
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