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 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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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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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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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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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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Kurosawa's closest colleagues addressed him as "sensei," a respectful and affectionate term meaning "teacher" or "master," and for good reason: He is without question, the master of Japanese cinema and an artist whose film legacy spanned 50 years of moviemaking. He influenced filmmakers such as Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese and countless others. For example, the movie A Fistful of Dollars was really nothing more than Western remake of the Kurosawa film Yojimbo, and The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Seven Samurai. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Kurosawa four times in his career, and Ran has won countless awards, including Best Film from the esteemed National Society of Film Critics. The film was Kurosawa's obsession for more than 10 years and he feared that the movie would never be made. When it finally did get financing, it became Japan's most expensive film ever made at the time.
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Akira Kurosawa had about a decade of work -- nothing you've likely heard of -- under his belt by 1954, when he stormed the world with this masterpiece. 3 1/2 hours long, it's a western with a feudal 1600s Japanese sensibility, a format he'd return to frequently. But here it's at its simple best. Some may claim Seven Samurai is complex, but that's hardly truthful: It's about a village of farmers, who learn of an impending attack by bandits intent to rob them of their barley crop... again. They decide to fight back by recruiting seven samurai to teach them to fight, protect the village, and slay the bandits for good. Some will be heroes, some will perish. But we know all along that our samurai will win the day for the village somehow. And that's the gist.
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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.
Continue reading: Kagemusha Review