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: Stray Dog (1949)

Also known as: Nora Inu (Japan)
Release Date: October 17th, 1949 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura

Shintoho, Film Art Association, Toho, 122 Minutes

Review:

“Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him. Are you gonna let it destroy you? Depending how you take it, bad luck can be a big break.” – Police Inspector Nakajima

I really liked Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and it inspired me to look at more of his work that wasn’t specifically historical samurai films, also known as jidaigeki. I also picked this one, as it is essentially a Japanese film-noir. Plus, it stars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, two of Kurosawa’s regulars.

In this tale, we are taken to post-WWII Tokyo during a summer heatwave. A rookie homicide detective named Murakami (Mifune) has his Colt pistol stolen while on a trolley ride. Not soon after, police forensics discovers that Murakami’s pistol was used in a crime. He then teams up with a veteran detective, Satō (Shimura), in an effort to track down his Colt and to stop the criminal responsible.

The story is pretty intriguing and it has been borrowed several times since it was first used here. At least, I have never seen an older version of this tale. Hell, an episode of Louis CK’s Louis was based off of this concept, when Louis’ idiot cop buddy (Michael Rappaport) loses his pistol and they have to try and track it down. Not to get sidetracked here, but I know a lot of people have probably seen that episode.

This film is an example of Kurosawa on the cusp of greatness. He already did the near perfect Drunken Angel but he hadn’t quite gotten into the high point of his oeuvre yet.

This is a gritty and real feeling film. It displays an era in Tokyo that most Western audiences haven’t really seen. It’s a genuine look into the blossoming of a modernized Japan. It even gives us a solid glimpse at old school Japanese baseball, which I just wish was featured in a lot more movies because I love the sport and have always loved the country.

What we also get with this film, is Mifune and Shimura kind of giving birth to the buddy cop formula. While it isn’t so much a comedy, it is a solid crime thriller, their camaraderie foreshadows a long lasting trope that would become a norm in police movies and television shows.

Additionally, this is also a precursor to the police procedural film. While this is a formula that started around the same time in film-noir, it didn’t truly become widespread in entertainment until police procedurals made their way onto television sets in the 1950s.

Stray Dog was a film that was just ahead of its time. Furthermore, it is well directed, well acted and has some great cinematography. The big finale is one of the best cop versus criminal showdowns in history. It almost has a western vibe to it, as both these men come face to face.

While this isn’t Kurosawa’s best, it is better than most directors can dream.

Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Also known as: Gojira no gyakushû, lit. Counterattack of Godzilla (Japan), Gigantis the Fire Monster (US – original title)
Release Date: April 24th, 1955 (Japan)
Directed by: Motoyoshi Oda
Written by: Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murata, Shigeaki Hidaka
Music by: Masaru Sato
Cast: Hiroshi Koizumi, Setsuko Wakayama, Minoru Chiaki, Takashi Shimura

Toho, 81 Minutes

Review:

Godzilla Raids Again was a quickly pushed out sequel to the original Gojira. And like its predecessor, the film was shot in black and white, making it the only film in the franchise, apart from the original, that wasn’t released in color.

In the United States, despite the success of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the American re-edit of Gojira, this film didn’t take the Godzilla name and was initially release as Gigantis the Fire Monster. In fact, English dubbed versions of the film still make reference to the monster being called “Gigantis”.

This film introduced the beloved kaiju Anguirus, who fought Godzilla in this picture but would go on to be a top ally for decades. And this is actually the film that gave birth to kaiju battles, as the previous Godzilla picture only featured the title monster.

Compared to the original, which was an exceptional motion picture, this is a very poor sequel to it. While it was successful, maybe Toho wasn’t keen on its quality, as Godzilla was shelved for seven years until he was brought back to battle King Kong in one of the best kaiju epics of all-time.

There are several reasons why this film is lacking compared to the two chapters that sandwich it.

To start, while tokusatsu master Eiji Tsuburaya did handle the special effects, some mistakes were made during the production. The frame rate of the camera was not set correctly and the big kaiju battles are fast paced to the point that the monsters move around at impossible speeds and it almost plays like a slapstick comedy segment every time that Godzilla and Anguirus tie-up. It just looks hokey and doesn’t match up with the action of any other Toho kaiju picture. Plus, it is missing audio effects and the battles just sort of happen to music, looking like a goofy spastic dance.

Another reason why the film suffers is that Godzilla mastermind Ishirō Honda was not behind the camera. Additionally, the script was written by people that weren’t mainstays in the franchise in the same way that Shinichi Sekizawa and Takeshi Kimura were.

The film is still enjoyable for Godzilla fans and it does have its positives.

Toho regulars Hiroshi Koizumi and Takashi Shimura star in the picture and give good performances.

Also, the overall visual look of the film is fairly solid. The scene where Godzilla comes to shore and the military fills the sky with flares looks really cool and holds up well. Also, the scene where Godzilla is walking through the snow covered valley, surrounded by icy mountains, is a beautiful sight where the contrast between the monster and his environment is enhanced by the black and white presentation.

In the long history of Godzilla films, this one is mostly forgettable other than the debut of Anguirus and the kaiju versus kaiju concept that would become the standard in just about every kaiju movie made after this one.

Film Review: Drunken Angel (1948)

Release Date: April 27th, 1948 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Keinosuke Uegusa
Music by: Ryoichi Hattori, Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Reisaburo Yamamoto, Noriko Sengoku

Toho Co. Ltd., 98 Minutes

Review:

“He tormented you, made you sick, and then deserted you like a puppy. And you still wag your tail and follow him.” – Dr. Sanada

Drunken Angel is just the seventh film directed by Akira Kurosawa. While that would be a lengthy career for any director, this was really the beginning of his long and storied journey of cinematic creation. He had 23 more films after this and many of them are considered the best ever made.

Probably the most notable thing about this picture is that it was the first of sixteen collaborations between Kurosawa and his favorite lead actor, Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa and Mifune would go on to make Seven SamuraiYojmboRashomonThrone of BloodThe Hidden FortressRed BeardSanjuro and several other films considered to be true classics. In fact, their director-actor relationship was one of the longest running and greatest in motion picture history.

This picture also teams up Kurosawa with another one of his favorite actors, Takashi Shimura. In this film, Shimura plays a cranky drunk doctor while Mifune plays a young Yakuza gangster that the doctor treats for a bullet wound. The doctor then diagnoses the young man with tuberculosis and insists that he quit his drinking and wild lifestyle, to which the youngster refuses. The two develop a shaky but strong bond and as the story progresses, their worlds collide in unforeseen ways. Mainly, the doctor’s assistant has ties to an evil and strong Yakuza boss that is moving into the area to take it back from Mifune’s character.

The film is considered to be Kurosawa’s breakout film and for good reason. It uses a lot of the themes that became synonymous with Kurosawa’s work and it utilized them better than anything before it. This was his most fine tuned picture when it came out and really opened up doors for him on an international stage. Without this picture, we might not have gotten his masterpieces.

Drunken Angel is the first post-World War II Yakuza picture but it doesn’t reflect a lot of the common tropes that would come to define that genre of Japanese film. In fact, Drunken Angel, in style and tone, is much more in tune with the American film noir pictures of its era. It also shows an American influence on the Japanese culture after the war, especially in regards to the youth culture through their hair styles, style of dress and the blazing jazz performance in the middle of the movie.

Akira Kurosawa made a damn fine picture for 1948. His work also helped to put Toho on the map before they really started hitting it big with the Godzilla pictures that would start the following decade. For a film that is nearly seventy years-old, it is still effective and hits the right notes.

Film Review: Gorath (1962)

Also known as: Yōsei Gorasu, lit. Rogue Star Gorath (Japan)
Release Date: March 21st, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Jojiro Okami, Takeshi Kimura
Music by: Kan Ishii
Cast: Ryo Ikebe, Yumi Shirakawa, Takashi Shimura, Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Ken Uehara, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 89 Minutes

Review:

“If we could come together and cooperate to overcome the danger that threatened us, can’t we take this opportunity to work together for all eternity?” – News Anchor

Gorath is an old school Toho sci-fi epic from 1962. I’m a huge fan of Toho but this is a film that has eluded me until now. I had heard of it and seen stills of its sole kaiju, the giant walrus Maguma, but it isn’t an easy film to track down. I ended up having to get a bootleg version of it on DVD with Japanese dialog and English subtitles. Luckily, it was in glorious HD and I was able to truly enjoy this picture for the first time.

While the movie does have a kaiju, he only appears for roughly six minutes towards the end of the film. He also just mostly roars and presents a sort of roadblock for the heroes trying to save Earth from a rogue star that is soon to collide with it.

The kaiju suit is passable but nothing really spectacular. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director, reused the Maguma suit for a kaiju named Todola in his Ultra Q television series (the show that started the Ultraman franchise that is still going strong today).

In general, Tsuburaya’s special effects are spectacular. His miniature work is great, the killer star Gorath looked pretty sinister and the the rocket ship sequences, while very dated now, look better than what was the norm for the time.

The highlight of the film for me is the opening fifteen minutes or so where we see the first rocketship confronting Gorath. It is a mission doomed for failure but the crew are able to get vital information back to Earth, giving the world’s leaders time to prepare for what could very well be the planet’s destruction.

The rocketship interiors are beautifully designed and have a certain quality that puts Gorath out in front of other Toho sci-fi extravaganzas. I wish there were more sequences that utilized the rocketship set.

Even though the highlight for me was the beginning, the rest of the film plays out really well. We get a lot of debate between the smartest men in the United Nations in a series of scenes that play out similarly to 2016’s Shin Godzilla, where politicians and scientists try to find ways to stop the threat destined to destroy their world.

The film also stars several of Toho’s regular actors: Yumi Shirakawa (Rodan, The MysteriansThe H-Man), Takashi Shimura (Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, The Mysterians, Mothra, Ghidroah, the Three Headed Monster, Frankenstein Conquers the World), Akira Kubo (Matango, Invasion of Astro-Monster, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, Space Amoeba), Kumi Mizuno (The Three Treasures, Matango, Invasion of Astro-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers the World, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, The War of the Gargantuas, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, Godzilla: Final Wars) and Ken Uehara (Mothra, Atragon).

Originally, there was no plan for a kaiju monster in this film but since Toho had more success with giant monsters in their movies, Maguma was added in at the last minute. Additionally, Maguma’s scenes were removed from the American version of the film and scenes with American actors were sprinkled in, similar to the US version of Gojira known in the States as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

Gorath is a great special effects spectacle. It re-teamed Toho’s star director Ishirō Honda and special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya and is one of their greatest films that isn’t associated with the Godzilla series that they kick started and worked on for years.

Finally seeing this picture, I was really impressed with it. In fact, it made me wish that Toho spent a lot more time making straight up sci-fi films. Of course, not at the expense of kaiju pictures but Toho just had great skill in creating science fiction. Gorath is exciting and just a really cool motion picture to look at and soak in.

Film Review: Mothra (1961)

Also known as: Mosura (Japan)
Release Date: June 30th, 1961 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Shinichi Sekizawa
Based on: a story in Asahi Shimbun by Shinichiro Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga, Yoshie Hotta
Music by: Yuji Koseki
Cast: Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyoko Kagawa, The Peanuts, Ken Uehara, Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 101 Minutes

Review:

Mothra is the most famous Toho kaiju after Godzilla. Even though he started out in this film, his very own movie, it was probably a nobrainer to bring him into the larger Godzilla mythos. But before all that, there was Mothra and frankly, it was great revisiting this monster in his debut solo flick.

In a change of pace, Mothra’s introduction is due to people messing with his island. He doesn’t come to Japan because he’s just some rampaging beast. A bunch of jerks stole the Shobijin, who are two miniature female twins from Infant Island. Mothra crashes Japan to find the Shobijin and to return them to their home.

The special effects are amazingly handled by Eiji Tsuburaya. The miniatures were great and the heat ray trucks were a prototype for the maser weapon trucks that would be used throughout Godzilla films forever after this movie.

Mothra, as a creature, was the most beautiful and ornate kaiju of his day. Tsuburaya pulled off the creature effects superbly and the art department did a fine job in decorating the monster.

It is more fun to see Mothra rough it up with other monsters but even though he is the only creature in this film, it still plays well. It is similar to Rodan in that it didn’t need to rely on other kaiju to be a success and to leave a mark on the genre.

To this day, Mothra is still incredibly popular. A version of the creature also had its own trilogy in the late 1990s, after popping up in that era’s Godzilla movies.

Mothra will probably just always be around. In fact, Mothra’s first American incarnation is coming in Legendary Pictures’ upcoming Godzilla 2.

As for Mothra, the movie, if you are a kaiju fan, this is a must-see.