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.