Opening 2018 with another Akira Kurosawa classic seems like a good way to get started, so here’s Rashomon (1950). An inventive story that retells the same event from the point of view of multiple unreliable narrators, Akutagawa’s storytelling and Kurosawa’s interpretation echo through pop culture – with my personal favourite being the King of the Hill Episode, “A Fire Fighting We Will Go”. The film presents multiple layers of narratives within narratives as a wandering traveller happens upon two other men seeking shelter from the rain in the huge, cyclopean ruin of the titular Rashomon gate.
Two felons break out of an Alaskan maximum security prison in the middle of winter. When they find come across a train leaving a depot it seems like their ticket to freedom and escape from the snow and the cold – but a freak accident traps them aboard as the unmanned train picks up speed, out of control and unable to be stopped. This is Runaway Train (1985). Starring Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Heat) and Eric Roberts (The Pope of Greenwich Village, The Dark Knight) as the escapees and directed by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, Runaway Train is an unexpectedly brilliant thriller – but why is it on Kino 893?
Because it was based on an undeveloped screenplay than none other than Akira Kurosawa.
The synopsis for Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) simply reads, “During a sweltering summer, a rookie homicide detective tries to track down his stolen Colt pistol.” That could seem like a reductive description, but Stray Dog might be the sweatiest film ever made. Set in a broiling Tokyo summer in 1949, Kurosawa drenches the film in atmosphere. No scene is complete without cops mopping sweat from their face and necks, people fanning themselves, or characters just slumped lethargically in the heat, unwilling to move. Toshiro Mifune, in one of his very early Kurosawa collaborations, stars as newly-minted detective Murakami. In the opening moments of the film a pickpocket lifts his service weapon from his jacket pocket and kicks off a hunt that stretches all across the post-war city.
Akira Kurosawa is surely one of the most well-known Japanese filmmakers, and it was exploring some of his classic samurai films that prompted me to create this blog. I wanted to explore more of his work and that led me to Kagemusha (1980). While I hope to watch some of his films from other genres soon, Kagemusha is nevertheless interesting even though it’s another samurai epic. It marks the first Kurosawa film I’ve seen in colour – only his third overall, following Dodeskaden and the Soviet-Japanese production Dersu Uzala. Even though colour film seemed to arrive late in Japan, Kurosawa continued working in black and white well into the 1960s. Kagemusha is also striking to me for the absence of Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s longtime collaborator. The 1965 film Red Beard was their last work, but instead Kagemusha features Tastuya Nakadai as the lead – unrecognisable from his earlier appearances as villains in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
To the best of my knowledge, Kurosawa only made two sequels in his career. The first was a sequel to his debut movie Sanshiro Sugata. The second was Sanjuro (1962), a follow-up to Yojimbo. It wasn’t originally meant to be that way – Sanjuro was intended to be a straight adaptation of an existing novel, but the success of Yojimbo led to it being reworked, with lead character Sanjuro returning. It’s not unlike the many Die Hard sequels, each an existing treatment, reimagined with John McClane as the lead character (ironically, all except for the dismal Die Hard 5, the only movie actually written and intended to be a Die Hard movie from the beginning).
It’s back to Kurosawa for Yojimbo (1961). I was a little apprehensive after The Hidden Fortress, but any worries were misplaced: this is a samurai gangster action comedy masterpiece.
While recording our most recent podcast, I got into an argument with my co-host about Kurosawa’s films. He said they’re unwatchable, I said they were great. The Hidden Fortress (1958) is not great. Hidden Fortress really is almost unwatchable; a disjointed, overlong piece that seems far more old-fashioned than either the hyper-stylised Throne of Blood or the very modern Seven Samurai – I’m surprised it has high critical praise, but I’m not surprised it’s being compared to even older adventure movies like Gunga Din (1939) and Thief of Baghdad (1924).
The second movie in the BFI’s Kurosawa box set, Throne of Blood (1957) was a total mystery to me. I hadn’t seen Seven Samurai, but I at least knew the rough plot outline. All I knew about Throne of Blood was what I could figure out from the cover, which was that some liberties had been taken with the original Japanese, ‘Spiderweb Castle’. Or as the subtitles put it more fustily, ‘Cobweb Castle’. About ten minutes in though, it became clear this was Kurosawa doing Macbeth, and knocking it out of the park.
I am, as an old friend is often wont to point out, a massive weeaboo (I prefer ‘Japanophile’, though that makes it sound like I should be arrested for it). It’s probably no surprise then that I’m a fan of Japanese cinema: if nothing else, even if the movie is bad, it’s a window into a culture I’m interested in and a location I miss living in. The weird part is that until fairly recently I hadn’t seen many Japanese films I could say were good without having to qualify it. When I was younger, Japanese movie imports seemed to entirely consist of Ring-style horror and Takashi Miike’s trashier films.
When I was studying in Japan I even picked a class on Japanese film, but the teacher literally slept through it – I mean head on desk, slept through it – and the entire semester consisted of two projects: shooting an amateur movie and doing a short presentation on an actual Japanese film. Neither of which the teacher had any input in or critique of, so everyone ended up covering rubbish. Of course, I knew there were important films out there; I knew that I was supposed to like Kurosawa, and that before making Battle Royale (which I loved as a teenager) Kinji Fukasaku made well-regarded gangster movies. I just didn’t know which movies I was supposed to watch, or how to get hold of them.
Fast forward a few years (or ten years. I feel old) and I’ve finally seen The Yakuza Papers / Battles Without Honour and Humanity, which sit atop my heap of favourite Japanese movies. Now I’m getting around to watching older stuff, starting with the box of Kurosawa Blu-rays that’ve been sitting on my shelf for two years.
Seven Samurai (1954) is tied with the oldest movie I’ve actually sat down to watch of my own volition (the original Godzilla, naturally). It’s black and white, and three and a half hours long, which seems insane; it even has a twenty minute intermission built into the running time. Putting aside the Peter Jackson-like length I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. Other than Clerks I don’t have much time for B&W pictures and unless I’m playing Shogun: Total War I’m surprisingly uninterested in jidaigeki – give me post-war crime and politics, not samurai.