Akira Kurosawa

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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

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

"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

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

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

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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Stray Dog Review

The tone of Akira Kurosawa's blistering 1949 film noir Stray Dog is set in its opening shot: Over Fumio Hayasaka's sake-drunk, Elmer Bernstein-derived score, a dog pants, tongue lolling to the side in tight close-up, while a narrator intones, "It was an unbearably hot day." It is indeed hot - the film is set amid heat as palpably as Rashomon was the forest - and for young rookie detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), it's going to get hotter still. His problem is that his gun has been stolen, pick-pocketed from him by a lady thief on a packed bus; in a country where competence is famously bound to honor, Murakami loses not just his gun on that sweltering bus, but his pride as well.

Murakami's superior refuses the resignation he proffers, and the hunt is on. In this Murakami is assisted by the older, wiser detective Sato (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura), a cop with a less impetuous style. (Any Danny Glover/Mel Gibson correlation you might wish to make here would only cheapen Stray Dog while elevating an undeserving Lethal Weapon series.) The plot is thickened when Murakami's gun (the "stray dog" of the title) is used in brutal assaults on an ever-growing number of innocent female victims.

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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's Dreams Review

At the risk of sounding disrespectful to one of filmmaking's masters, Akira Kurosawa couldn't dream his way out of a paper bag.

Based on Akira Kurosawa's Dreams -- a film consisting of, you guessed it, a bunch of his dreams put on film and strung together one after another -- Kurosawa didn't have dreams any more interesting than you or me. George Bush's dreams -- that I'd like to see. Saddam Hussein's dreams -- that'd be a hoot! But a creative filmmaker naturally has kooky, inspirational dreams. And of course they're complete nonsense.

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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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