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.
I was drawn to Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, starting with Musashi Miyamoto (1954), for the simple fact that it’s shot in colour. Kurosawa’s masterful Seven Samurai came out in the same year but is, of course, in black and white – it wasn’t until 1970 that he would begin shooting in colour with the commercially disastrous Dodes’ka-den. Surprisingly, the first Japanese colour film only came out in 1951, with the first Japanese colour film to be released in the West, Gate of Hell, not made until 1953. I’m fascinated by that early use of colour. Carmen Comes Home used Fujicolor, but Gate of Hell and Musashi Miyamoto were made with Eastmancolor, a US technique. It’s extraordinary seeing the way colour changes the way the films are shot, and so much of what makes Musashi Miyamoto worth watching is the vivid colourscape – lush green scenery, vibrant clothes, colourful blossoms.
Watching the first Lady Snowblood, I found it a fun, throwback exploitation movie with a satisfying take on the rampage of revenge trope. It was also my introduction to Meiko Kaji, an ice cold chanbara beauty, categorically not playing a damsel in distress or love interest; in other words, playing a role quite unlike most Japanese women on film. There was something indirectly subversive about a woman slicing through the gang who’d wronged her family, and in Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), I was looking forward to seeing that subversive streak taken a step further.
I’ve said it repeatedly already, but it’s still relevant: beyond just wanting to widen my horizons on Japanese cinema, one of the main reasons I want to watch films from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s is their outsized influence on later filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino is outspoken on the influence Japanese cinema has had on his pictures, with Kill Bill in particular owing much to Lady Snowblood (1973).
Months before I started this film blog, I recorded a podcast on Sweet Home (1989). It’s a relatively obscure Japanese horror movie from director Kiyoshi Kurosawa with one particular claim to fame: there’s a Famicom game (that’s the Japanese version of the NES, Nintendo’s first console) also titled Sweet Home based on the film. That game essentially kicks off the “survival horror” genre, with developer Capcom going on to create the far more famous Resident Evil / Biohazard series; the first Resident Evil, set in a dilapidated mansion, takes a lot of inspiration from Sweet Home.
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.