Film Review: Rashômon (1950)

Release Date: August 26th, 1950 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa
Based on: In a Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki

Daiei Film, 88 Minutes

Review:

“It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.” – Commoner

Kurosawa is one of the best filmmakers of all-time. I have a deep admiration for a lot of his pictures. However, Rashômon isn’t at the top of my list, even though it really brought him worldwide notoriety and won an Academy Award.

It’s still a really good film but I always gravitated to his action heavy samurai epics like Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo or his crime films like Stray Dog and Drunken Angel. But this film is still very engaging and maybe more intimate than the others, as it has a very small cast and really just focuses on a single event.

The purpose of the film is to tell the story of this event from four different perspectives. Kurosawa did this because he wanted to show how different interpretations can greatly vary. Also, within that, Kurosawa wanted to show how memory or bias can sway factual accuracy.

Initially, Japanese critics weren’t too fond of the film and they were a bit baffled when Western audiences praised it. Ultimately, this film opened the gates for Japanese cinema, as it was now being appreciated by audiences across the world.

The film deals with some heavy subject matter, especially for 1950. The story deals with the rape of a woman and the apparent murder of her husband. I don’t really think that this is a film that could have been made in America, at the time. I also think that its gritty realism is what caught audiences by surprise and captivated them, as Hollywood films were typically so clean and pristine. Even the grittiest of film-noir pictures didn’t get this dark.

Historically, this is one of the most important foreign films of all-time. It paved the way for other directors and new genres that made their way to the States. It allowed Kurosawa to have the respect and freedom to make better films, some of which became the best movies ever made.

I don’t want to take anything away from this. It’s doesn’t necessarily resonate with me like a lot of Kurosawa’s other work but I can’t deny it’s place in history, its influence and the great craftsmanship it took to bring it to life.

Also, the sequence where the dead husband speaks through a medium is legitimately creepy. I did love that part of the film.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other Kurosawa films of the late ’40s and early ’50s.

Film Review: Sanjuro (1962)

Release Date: January 1st, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Based on: Hibi Heian by Shugoro Yamamoto
Music by: Masaru Sato
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi, Yūzō Kayama, Reiko Dan, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, Takako Irie, Masao Shimizu, Yūnosuke Itō

Kurosawa Production, Toho Co. Ltd., 95 Minutes

Review:

“You tired of being stupid yet?” – Sanjuro Tsubaki

Sanjuro is a sequel to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which was such a success for the director and Toho that the script for the novel that this was based on, was rewritten to include the famous Toshiro Mifune character from the previous movie.

Yojimbo would go on to inspire Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” character over his trilogy of films. It would also inspire countless other spaghetti western movies and other samurai films, as well. But this here, is the one and only true sequel to the Yojimbo story.

The best part of this film is that it was a sequel made by the original director, a true auteur, and its original star. Granted, Kurosawa and Mifune were no strangers to one another and worked on several films together.

This isn’t the masterpiece that Yojimbo is but it is still a damn fine motion picture of the highest caliber for its time and for its scant budget when compared to the rest of the motion picture landscape, which was dominated by bigger budget Western films.

In this story, the famous ronin helps a group of young samurai combat a corrupt politician, who is involved with organized crime and who has framed and imprisoned the uncle of one of the samurai. The story has several twists that make it interesting and unpredictable. Most of the time, Sanjuro puts a plan in motion and somehow the young samurai find a way to muck it up. It isn’t until the end, that they follow Sanjuro’s orders and succeed.

While this is a serious drama, it is also comedic at times, which was a great strength in Kurosawa’s storytelling ability. He lets you know that his characters exist in a somewhat harsh world but he keeps things fairly grounded and lighthearted enough to not allow his films to get too dark. I’ve always been a person that has dealt with pain and tragedy by using humor. So, in a way, Kurosawa’s style speaks to that part of me and I think it speaks to others in the same way.

This film’s action and violence come off as mostly PG rated. Then, in the final showdown, there is a moment where it literally feels like the screen goes red with blood, even though it is still presented in black and white. The final blow to the enemy was violent but effective because it eclipsed anything else in the film and is sort of shocking the first time you witness it. But it is an amazing and beautiful sequence, captured by Kurosawa’s magic.

Sanjuro may even feel a bit more polished than Yojimbo. It doesn’t feel as gritty, anyway. Some of that could be due to a lot of the movie taking place at night where I remember Yojimbo being brighter and happening much more during daylight hours. Plus, Yojimbo was dustier and had the look that would become synonymous with all the spaghetti westerns that tried to emulate it’s visual presentation.

Both movies work so well together and they also compliment each other. Sanjuro gives a little more depth and character to the famous Mifune ronin. If anything, this just enriches the world that Kurosawa gave us in his previous film.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: Yojimbo (the film before it), as well as any Kurosawa jidaigeki picture.

Film Review: The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

Release Date: April 12th, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Kenji Misumi
Written by: Minoru Inuzuka
Based on: The Tale of Zatoichi by Kan Shimozawa
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Masayo Banri, Ryuzo Shimada, Hajime Mitamura, Shigeru Amachi

Daiei Motion Picture Company, 95 Minutes

Review:

“Then why don’t you live a decent life?” – Tane, “It’s like being stuck in a bog; it’s not easy to pull yourself out once you’ve fallen in.” – Zatoichi

The Zatoichi films are movies I have heard about for a really long time thanks to having friends that are big fans of jidaigeki pictures. Unfortunately, I have never seen any of them until now. It is a pretty big injustice that I have to rectify and absolve myself of. But since I have the Criterion Channel, I now have access to twenty-five of these pictures. So why not start with the first?

This film introduces audiences to the character of Zatoichi, a blind masseur and master swordsman. He is hired by a yakuza boss named Sukegoro, who thinks that his skills will come in handy due to an oncoming war with a rival gang led by Shigezo. Shigezo responds by hiring a legendary ronin, Miki Hirate.

The film shows that Zatoichi is very humble and because of this and his low social stature, he is often times underestimated by the men around him. Zatoichi also shows that he uses his handicap to his advantage, as he turns the tables on those trying to take advantage of his blindness.

It is revealed that Zatoichi’s rival Hirate is ill with tuberculosis. This makes Hirate eager to fight Zatoichi because he feels that death at the hands of a great warrior is a better fate than dying of his illness. All the while, Hirate and Zatoichi develop a strong bond and friendship, leading up to their confrontation.

The film’s story plays out really well and it is actually quite stellar and builds up to something great, as you reach the climax. This is of course enhanced by the talent of the main actors and the quality of the film from a technical standpoint.

For 1962, this is one of the best Daiei films I have seen, up to this point. Hell, it is one of the best Daiei films, period. It is also cool seeing that Daiei had this jidaigeki franchise alongside their more famous kaiju pictures, just as their rival studio Toho had Kurosawa’s jidaigeki epics alongside their Godzilla franchise.

I’m not sure how well the quality maintains over the course of this long film series but it was off to a good start with this picture. I can assume it will go the route of James Bond or Godzilla, where quality tends to taper off but you still get an occasional high point, here and there.

Film Review: Shogun Assassin (1980)

Also known as: Kozure Ōkami (Japan)
Release Date: November 11th, 1980 (United States)
Directed by: Robert Houston
Written by: Robert Houston, David Weisman
Based on: Lone Wolf and Cub film series
Music by: W. Michael Lewis, Mark Lindsay
Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Kayo Mautso, Akiji Kobayashi

New World Pictures, 90 Minutes

Review:

“They will pay… with rivers of blood!” – Ogami Itto

For fans of Wu-Tang Clan, especially of the Genius/Gza’s Liquid Swords album, will recognize a lot of the dialogue and narration from this film. Also, it appeared in Kill Bill vol. 2 and quite obviously had an influence on the Kill Bill films, as the sword cuts causing geysers of blood to burst out of people was borrowed by Quentin Tarantino in those movies.

Shogun Assassin is actually a re-edit of two of the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films from Japan. This film uses twelve minutes from the first film and then is fleshed out with the majority of the scenes from the second picture. With both those films coming out in 1972, this film does look visually dated for 1980, when it was released.

This film was directed by Robert Houston with creative input from his partner David Weisman. Weisman was the director of 1972’s Ciao! Manhattan and was a protege of Andy Warhol.

Additionally, the film’s star Tomisaburo Wakayama is the brother of Shintaro Katsu, who was known for playing the famous cinematic samurai Zatoichi over the course of twenty-six films.

Needless to say, this film had some interesting origins and connections.

The plot is pretty simple. The main character Ogami Ittō is the Shogunate Decapitator. He fears nothing, not even the shogun. The shogun fears him however and sends ninjas to kill him. The ninjas kill his wife and Ittō cuts them down. He then travels Japan on foot pushing his toddler son around in a carriage. Almost every five minutes they are ambushed by ninjas. Throughout the movie, anyone they encounter could be a ninja in disguise waiting to strike. There is a constant tension throughout the film and it is primarily made up of battles and action sequences.

Shogun Assassin is violent and bad ass. However, I may be in the minority here, as it doesn’t have much of a long lasting effect and after a few encounters, the over the top violence runs its course and isn’t as effective. Blood geysers and limbs flying everywhere is pretty much guaranteed every time our hero crosses another human being in his path.

I like Shogun Assassin but it has never been a film I’ve been in love with. I would, however, like to see the Lone Wolf and Cub movies in their original context in order to compare them to this.

Film Review: Yojimbo (1961)

Release Date: April 25th, 1961 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Music by: Masaru Sato
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Eijirō Tōno, Kamatari Fujiwara, Takashi Shimura

Kurosawa Production, Toho Co. Ltd., 110 Minutes

Review:

Akira Kurosawa is one of the five directors in my Holy Quintinity of Auteur Filmmakers. He is absolutely one of the greatest directors to ever live. While it has been awhile since I worked my way through his entire oeuvre, it is Yojimbo that I have always had the fondest memories of.

I am working through Kurosawa’s films in an effort to review them but we will see where this ranks once I release my list of Kurosawa films, ranked from greatest to still damn good – because he is incapable of creating bad pictures.

Yojimbo is also one of the most influential films ever made. That might even be an understatement. To start, Sergio Leone’s near masterpiece A Fistful of Dollars is a loose remake of Yojimbo. That film spawned a trilogy starring Clint Eastwood in his most iconic role. The other two films were For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which is arguably, the best film ever made. That trilogy, The Dollars Trilogy, went on to spawn a bunch of ripoffs in the spaghetti western genre throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Those films were eventually ripped off by Quentin Tarantino and a bunch of other modern directors. Ultimately, Yojimbo, a Japanese film that was released 56 years ago, still influences the film industry today on a global scale. Its effects will always be felt. Not a lot of movies can achieve something like this. It is important to know the history of these things and to give credit where credit is due. Yojimbo was a total game changer in 1961.

All that being said, it was great revisiting this film, as it has been some time since I’ve seen it. I lent my Kurosawa collection to a friend several years back. That asshole fell off the face of the Earth and ended up moving to Denmark. I’m sure my DVDs went with him. I will track you down, Svend!

If you have seen A Fistful of Dollars, the plot here is basically the same. A stranger strolls into town and discovers that it is overrun by human vermin. He takes it upon himself to rid the town of the human vermin and save its people from tyranny. To do this, our hero joins one gang and then switches to the other and vice versa. He displays his bad assery by besting the best thugs these gangs have to offer. He also uses his influence and skill to play both gangs against one another. The plot is very layered but well-written and executed. Eventually, his scheme is figured out and he is overwhelmed and beaten nearly to death. He recovers, hides out in a nearby shack and returns, killing all the bad men and returning the town to the nice people. Then our hero walks off into the sunset to probably find another town to save from evil.

Yojimbo is a manly man’s movie but it can be enjoyed by anyone that has a love for justice and for pieces of crap getting wiped off of the Earth’s crust. It is perfectly paced, immaculately shot and well acted. Toshiro Mifune has a certain amount of gravitas and this is probably the most gravitas he’s every freely waved around, as he cuts through vermin and becomes a one man army against not just one but two large gangs of violent evil scum. It is like Death Wish 3 set in feudal Japan but with a lot more talent behind and in front of the camera. I personally feel that Death Wish 3‘s last twenty or so minutes are the greatest action finale ever ingrained on celluloid. Apart from that, it doesn’t hold a candle to Yojimbo, just to be clear.

By the time this film was made, Akira Kurosawa was already a master. He had already made Seven SamuraiThe Hidden FortressRashomon and a slew of other classics. Yojimbo is excellence in execution. It was a perfect collage of all the techniques Kurosawa had mastered on those other masterpieces. To be honest, there really isn’t a negative thing I can say about the film. Seriously, I tried to pick things apart while watching it and I mulled it over for hours. Yojimbo is a perfect film or at least, as perfect as a film can get.

There was a direct sequel made a year later, which is just a bit of a step down but it is still pretty amazing too. It’s called Sanjuro and I plan to rewatch that one again soon in an effort to review it.