Toshiro Mifune

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Sanjuro Review


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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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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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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Seven Samurai Review


Essential
There's probably no point heaping more praise on Seven Samurai after 52 years worth of critics have already done so, but what the hell, here's a little more love for the film.

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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Grand Prix Review


Excellent
Sorry, NASCAR fans. Grand Prix isn't your usual chips-hot-dogs-beer-and-babes trip to the speedway.

John Frankenheimer crafts a surprisingly rich and interesting movie that's set during the rise of auto racing. Not only does it capture the spectacle of these tiny little open-air cars hurtling around European village streets (no ovals here), it also builds an interesting story of rivalries, friendly and otherwise.

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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?

Continue reading: Throne of Blood Review

Stray Dog Review


Excellent
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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Winter Kills Review


Excellent
A real cult classic, this reimagining of the Kennedy assassination asks what might have gone down in an alternate and very similar universe. Based on the book by Manchurian Candidate author Richard Condon, the story gives us Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), the half-brother of a president assassinated 19 years earlier. Suddenly, evidence reveals there was more than one shooter that day (sound familiar?), sending him into a wild -- and often wildly funny -- hunt for his brother's actual killers. Dryly comedic, William Richert takes his directorial debut into impressive places -- and wow, check out that cast! Too bad it gets a little kooky in the end, but that doesn't detract much from a very fun movie.

Rashomon Review


Essential
Not many films have earned the mandate of comparison any time a similarly-structured movie follows it, but any time a modern film is told from multiple perspectives, Rashomon is referenced. It has to be.

Akira Kurosawa masterfully combines the testimony of four witnesses/participants in a rape/muder occuring in the woods in the era of feudal Japan. It all sounds straightforward at the start, but by the end, we're left to wonder exactly who's telling the truth, or even if the participants know what the truth is. The exploration of subjectivity has never been so thrilling, and Kurosawa is at his pinnacle as a filmmaker, framing testimony shots in earnest close-up and staging the flashbacks with inimitable grace. But of course it's not just a beautfully constructed movie, it's also a biting commentary on deceit, gender roles, and due process (not to mention Japanese culture). And every viewer is given the opportunity to draw his own conclusions.

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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. Most notably remade as the far-inferior spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone, as well as Bruce Willis's Last Man Standing.

Red Beard Review


Terrible
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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Sword of Doom Review


Good
"Evil mind, evil sword." This is the mantra of Sword of Doom, Kihachi Okamoto's great 1965 samurai bloodletting. Tatsuya Nakadai's sword is a nihilistic bearer of death, responsible throughout the film for dozens of pointless murders, including an excruciating massacre that serves as the climax. This sequence, coming at the end of the countless deaths we have already seen, seems to take the violence into a higher plane of frenzy, almost as if the blade is injuring the very concepts of right and wrong. Thus is the sword of doom, and thus is Nakadai.

Trying to parse Nakadai's motives out of the gore is a difficult task. Some of the murders result from somewhat legitimate showdowns, especially later in the film when he is used as a killer for a Shogunate organization in decline. Yet other murders seem to come with the brutally simple justification of "practice," including the slaying of an elderly man (which will come back upon Nakadai later). Nakadai becomes an anti-hero in a true sense of the word. He becomes a figure of total nihilism as the film unfolds along its three-year plotline. His presence becomes like a specter of death, a mythological harbinger of the gravest misfortunate. Yet, he has no moral agenda, and little justification for actions, as if his conscience, the only thing that could make him human, was carefully excised from his mind. What results is a towering figure, deadly and frightening in his capriciousness.

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The Lower Depths (1957) Review


Weak
"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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