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Sanjuro Review


Very Good
One of the biggest hits in Akira Kurosawa's film career was 1961's Yojimbo, the genre smasher with Toshiro Mifune's instantly legendary performance as Sanjuro, that shambling and bedraggled ronin who roams the countryside looking for food, shelter, and cash for anyone who will pay him to kill. So successful was Yojimbo that Kurosawa's studio prevailed upon him to rework a script he had been working on, turning it into a Mifune vehicle with Mifune reprising his role as Sanjuro. And within a few months it was written, shot, and in the theaters. The result of this rush job by Kurosawa was Sanjuro -- a quieter, gentler Yojimbo.

The tale involves nine straight-laced, by-the-book, narrow-mined, and lunkheaded young samurai, who want to barrel in and rescue the chamberlain of their clan, being held prisoner by the clan superintendent Kukui (Masao Shimizu). Meeting at a temple to discuss their plans, the samurai are interrupted by loud yawns from the back room. Emerging from his slumber is Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune), and he greets the group scratching and yawning. Admonishing the group, he grumpily tells the innocents, "People aren't what they seem. Be careful. You'll never suspect who the worst are. Be careful." As if on cue, Kukui's army sneaks up on the temple, commanded by canny samurai mercenary Hanbei Muroto (Tetsuya Nakadei). Hiding the nine samurai in the temple floorboards, Sanjuro beats back Moroto's men and grumpily offers to help the boys: "I can't stand by and watch you blunder your way to your deaths." The rest of the film consists of Sanjuro maneuvering Muroto away from his armies so that Sanjuro can wipe out the bad guys in dazzling displays of swordplay, but Moroto returns to the scene.

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Dodes'ka-Den Review


Very Good
Dodes'ka-den, Akira Kurosawa's first color film, premiered in New York in the summer of 1971 to mixed reviews and, even for foreign fare, lousy box office. A major argument held that the filmmaker simply didn't know how to use color. The film didn't hit Chicago theaters until 1975 and his next color feature, the vibrant Dersu Uzala, wouldn't hit American shores until 1977. Perhaps out of respect, Dodes'ka-den was nominated for an Oscar, which it lost, rightly, to Vittorio De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Dodes'ka-den certainly isn't like any Kurosawa film I've ever witnessed. A junkyard shanty-town of misfits, perverts, gossips, and criminals is its setting... and yet we begin on a note of gleeful innocence. Adrift in a dream life that casts him as a streetcar operator, a young mentally-retarded man (Yoshitaka Zuxhi) prepares his make-believe trolley for its short journey through the slums, all the while repeating the word "dodes'ka-den" which translates, literally, to "clickety-clack." The young man seems to be the central figure and audience proxy for the five or six stories that litter Kurosawa's dire landscape and, fittingly, as the film progresses we see less and less of him.

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The Hidden Fortress Review


Extraordinary
Long ago and far, far away, in a worn-torn feudal Japan, two graspingly venal peasant stooges, Tahei (Minoru Chaiki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara), have escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and are trying to get back home when they run into General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune). He appeals to their greed for gold to enlist them into helping to bring Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) through enemy territory and across the border to safety so she can reclaim her throne.

If Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress sounds a bit familiar, it should: It's the basic story line of not only George Lucas's Star Wars and The Phantom Menace but also Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke and countless other space operas and anime features in which a ragtag group has to bring a wayward princess through hostile territory to the safety of her throne.

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High And Low Review


Excellent
"Don't get too close, but don't take your eyes off him!" exhorts Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) to one of his assistants in Akira Kurosawa's intense crime drama High and Low. Tokura could just as well be directing the camera operator doing the distant setups in Kurosawa's distinctive telephoto lens manner. Kurosawa's style serves to optically mash all the actors together onto one confining plane as they uncomfortably breathe down each other's neck. The images populate the widescreen frame like a pressure cooker that is ready to blow up. And in High and Low, blow up they do.

Based upon Ed McBain's 87th Precinct crime novel, King's Ransom, Kurosawa transforms this pulp source into a morality play of good and evil with the stakes a man's redemption of his soul in a heartless world. High and Low is the English translation of the Japanese Tengoku to jigoku, but a more accurate translation would be "Heaven and Hell," and that is what the film conveys -- Heaven being the high-rise luxury home of National Shoe executive Kingo Gondo (Toshir? Mifune), high on a mountain overlooking the squalid Hell of juke joints, prostitutes, dope alleys, and poverty below.

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Yojimbo Review


Excellent
Kurosawa's "Japanese Western" features the oft-retold tale of a sword-toting samurai in 1600s feudal Japan who finds himself without a master. He then sells his services to both sides of warring village, with rather disastrous results. Great beginning and ending, but drags a bit in the middle as Toshirô Mifune switches sides back and forth amid mutliple skirmishes. If you're looking for one of the original heroes who lives in a world not of black and white but of gray, you've found him in Mifune's swordsman. The film's effect has been palpable: Yojimbo remains a major Hollywood touchstone, having been notably remade as the far-inferior spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone, as well as Bruce Willis's Last Man Standing.

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Throne Of Blood Review


Excellent
Akira Kurosawa's Throne on Blood is primarily known for one great scene at the very end that involves the famous actor Toshiro Mifune and about one hundred arrows. Up to that point, though, it is an excellently acted, well directed, and gorgeously shot Japanese reworking of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

In an early scene two opportunist samurais are introduced and both of them are wearing flags that identify who they are and what clan they come from. Mifune, who plays Taektoki Wahsizu, has a caterpillar on his flag and his samurai partner Miki (played by Minoru Chiaki) has a rabbit. These symbols seem innocuous enough, but if you had a choice, who would you trust: a creepy crawly caterpillar or a soft bunny rabbit?

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The Sea Is Watching Review


OK
The art film world is watching... to see if this movie made from a screenplay by Japan's most eminent auteur, Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood), will bear the stamp of the master. Unfortunately, we get a vivid demonstration of the difference between a screenplay and a movie. The script is only the blueprint, and director Ken Kumai is not Kurosawa.

Kurosawa adapted his script from two short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto about a brothel in a seaside village during the Edo period (Tokyo before 1868). The Sumida River runs through Okabasho, separating the red light district from the gentry and allowing men certain freedoms from social restraint. Into this island of ill repute, and into our brothel, comes Fusanosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) a rather puny looking Samurai, fleeing from an altercation in which he wounded a senior Samurai. Besides having that Samurai's colleagues and local police on his tail, he's been ostracized from his father and family for the affront.

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Red Beard Review


Bad
I'd never heard of Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard before the Criterion DVD showed up in the mail, but judging from the cover and the talent appearing in it, I expected a swashbuckling samurai flick -- maybe something about a red bearded pirate?

Would that I had done my research. Red Beard is a major miss in Kurosawa's distinguished career, a three-hour opus that can be best described as a protracted retelling of General Hospital in 19th century Japan.

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The Lower Depths (1957) Review


OK
"If work made life easy, I'd do it." So says one of the residents of the flophouse that serves as the setting for Akira Kurosawa's 1957 adaptation of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths. In fact, some of the residents here do work - there's a tinker who toils away fruitlessly and who ends up selling his tools to buy sake, for instance - but like all the others present, it seems there's little hope of an easy life for him. These others include a fallen samurai, the tinker's dying wife, an alcoholic actor, a prostitute, and, for the first long night of the film's action, a mysterious pilgrim who brings a humanist sensibility to these lower depths before departing the very next day.

Gorky's play was set in tsarist Russia a few years before the revolution, and Kurosawa finds a parallel for this desperate time in mid-19th century Edo (later renamed Tokyo), an era known to be one of great prosperity. This general prosperity is a cruel joke for his characters, remaining as out of reach as the temples that rise up on the rim of the crater-like valley in which the flophouse, piled against the valley wall, quietly goes about its business of deteriorating while the lives inside do the same. Is there hope of a better life? Another character has an answer for this: "People never do anything but repeat themselves."

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Kagemusha Review


Very Good
Before the epic rancor of Ran, Akira Kurosawa told a more intimate, but no less tragic story with Kagemusha. Also set in feudal Japan, but based on real events, the film tells the tale of a thief set in place to impersonate a dead warlord to prevent the warlord's enemies from gaining control. It's kind of like Dave, but much slower and in Japanese.

The film opens in 16th century Japan. Two warlords, Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui) and Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryu), take on a third, Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), for control of the country. So far, Shingen has them on the run. But a lucky sniper gets off a round that may or may not have killed the warlord. While his enemies wonder, a wounded Shingen demands that should he die, his passing be kept a secret for three years, lest his rivals be emboldened. When Shingen finally gives up the ghost, it's up to his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) to come up with a plan to carry out those wishes.

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Akira Kurosawa Movies

The Sea Is Watching Movie Review

The Sea Is Watching Movie Review

The art film world is watching... to see if this movie made from a screenplay...

Seven Samurai Movie Review

Seven Samurai Movie Review

There's probably no point heaping more praise on Seven Samurai after 52 years worth of...

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