Akira Kurosawa is one of the few directors that has never disappointed me. I must admit there are still far too many titles from his filmography that I've not seen, but those that I have always manage to hit my sweet spot. So when I heard that the BFI were releasing a collection of five of Kurosawa's most popular films on Blu-Ray I practically jumped for joy. I'd already seen four of the five titles and I actually own the DVD version of the set already, but the chance to see these wonderfully cinematic masterpieces in high definition just couldn't be missed.
Included in the Akira Kurosawa Samurai Collection is Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Here are my thoughts on the films themselves (with links to those I've reviewed previously):
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima
Running Time: 207 min
My review of Seven Samurai can be found here.
Throne of Blood
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Isuzu Yamada
Running Time: 109 min
I first discovered the joys of Akira Kurosawa back when I was a precocious young teen. At around 13 or 14 I was getting interested in 'serious' cinema through top 100 lists and five star reviews in Empire magazine. I'd buy or record from TV all the Hollywood classics like Gone With the Wind and Casablanca whenever I came across them. One of the four TV channels at the time had a mini 'season' of Kurosawa's films, so, hearing great things about the director, I recorded a few of them and these VHS tapes opened my eyes to world cinema, Japanese in particular. I'm not sure I fully appreciated the films as I was only just dipping my toes into watching films with subtitles, but the three I saw, Rashomon, Yojimbo and this, Throne of Blood, all impressed me nonetheless with their tight storytelling and visceral action. Yojimbo is the only film from the three I've revisited (more on that later), so it was with great pleasure that I finally got around to re-watching Throne of Blood, especially in glorious high definition as opposed to the hazy VHS copy I'd taped off the telly.
Where three of the films in this set are famous for heavily and clearly influencing specific classic American films (or Italian in one case), Throne of Blood is interesting in that it is an adaptation of a piece of Western literature, Shakespeare's Macbeth. I had read the infamous play in school recently before that first viewing of Kurosawa's film, so I found it particularly interesting to watch and it has stayed more vivid in my memory for probably that reason. Kurosawa relocates the action to feudal Japan and of course, due to language differences, loses the Bard's prose. However, it is actually a rather faithful adaptation in terms of story.
General Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) is the Macbeth character, who comes across a witch that tells his fortune. She says, amongst other things, that he will become Lord of Cobweb Castle and that the son of his friend and fellow General Miki (Minoru Chiaki) will take over after him. Once elements of her prophecy become reality, Washizu, encouraged by his ambitious wife Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), plots to make sure that his end will be fulfilled but Miki's son's won't.
This is a hugely atmospheric film, shunning realism for eerie horror and symbolism. Indeed, although the story is based on a Shakespeare play, Kurosawa used Noh theatre to inspire the presentation. This gives the film a feel of a Japanese folk tale as much as a faithful adaptation of a piece of classic British theatre.
The atmosphere is drawn through Kurosawa's usual mastery of framing as well as a healthy dose of his love of using the natural elements. Fog, mist and rain are used to great effect to shroud the film in mystery, dread and fear. Because the story is familiar and it opens with a prophecy of doom (the witch says that Washizu's lordship won't last long), the audience knows things aren't likely to end well, so there's a relentless shadow over the film which Kurosawa embraces at every turn amongst the treachery and greed of the lead characters.
Washizu begins to recognise the inevitability of his demise towards the end, which leads to one of the most powerful finales in cinema history. (*Spoiler for the rest of the paragraph – although it's very famous) The character gets his comeuppance with a hail of arrows turning him and the walls around him into a pin cushion. Supposedly most of these (obviously not the one through his neck) were actually real arrows fired at and around Mifune (he had special armour on his body and skilled archers were used). This realism, the powerhouse performance and the way Kurosawa shoots the scene, visually trapping the character in the frame, create a brutal and exhilarating climax which is surely one of the most memorable movie deaths in history.
The only very minor issue I had with the film was that a couple of scenes where characters get lost in the woods or fog are drawn out to an almost comedic length. This is a tiny flaw in an otherwise masterful and tightly woven film though, which is one of, if not, the best Shakespeare adaptation I've ever seen.
The Hidden Fortress
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki
Running Time: 139 min
This is the only film in the set I hadn't seen before, so I was particularly excited about watching it. The big draw of this to me and to many others I imagine, is that it's cited as being a big influence on the first Star Wars film (A New Hope if you want to get pedantic). The BFI even went as far as to get George Lucas himself to provide an interview on their release of the film. However, as he points out, Star Wars isn't a remake of The Hidden Fortress like A Fistful of Dollars or The Magnificent Seven are to Yojimbo or Seven Samurai. It's more a case of Lucas borrowing a few ideas from the film.
Both Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress are about a hero trying to get a princess out of enemy territory and back home to restore balance, in a loose sense, but that's about where the similarities in actual story end. The biggest similarity is actually in the viewpoint used to tell it. Like all of the Star Wars films (well, just the original trilogy really), the audience in The Hidden Fortress is guided through the narrative from the perspective of the lowliest characters. In Star Wars it's the two droids, R2D2 and C3PO, whereas in Kurosawa's film, it's the two greedy peasants, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki).
These two bickering fools escape from slavery and forage in a mountain stream for a lost treasure. It's here where they run into Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune), a General (unbeknownst to them) who knows where the fortune lies and swindles them into helping him get Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) out of the region and back to her homeland. The peasants try their best to make off with the gold along the way, but always get roped back by the much more cunning and powerful General. A Prince and the Pauper style message is built throughout too as the Princess' story progresses and this provides the base for the final scenes.
Casting aside the Star Wars similarities, which, as mentioned, aren't as prevalent as I was originally led to believe, this is more stellar work from Kurosawa. It's a fun adventure with plenty of comedy, largely from the two peasants, as well as some more brutal moments. The opening 15 minutes or so and the final quarter in particular have a fair amount of violence and some rather nasty treatment of the lower classes. The action scenes are directed in a range of styles, with some fast-paced, kinetic sequences and also a stunningly tense, drawn out spear duel between Makabe and General Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita). Reminiscent of Sergio Leone's stand-offs in his spaghetti westerns, this was the most impressive scene in the film for me.
It's visually stunning of course, like all of the films in this set and most of Kurosawa's films in general. The old school Japanese filmmakers certainly knew their craft and Kurosawa was very good at taking the measured framing of his country's masters and mixing elements of Hollywood's sense of movement and excitement.
As my score out of five will attest, I didn't find The Hidden Fortress quite as strong as the other films in the set though. It didn't feel as tightly constructed. The film's opening and closing quarters are very strong, but I found the mid-section meandered a little. The action takes a back seat to the comedy in this section, which hasn't aged brilliantly. There are some effective dramatic sequences around the middle of the film though, such as the Princess witnessing the cruel treatment of some of the women from her province and the fire festival scene is superb.
That mid-section sag isn't enough to fully detract from what is another masterfully made piece of grand entertainment though. The exciting finale alone is enough to make you forget any slower moments and on a whole it's so finely produced you don't mind the pace slowing a little.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Ryûzô Kikushima
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Eijirô Tôno, Tatsuya Nakadai
Running Time: 110 min
Yojimbo is the only film in the collection that I've seen quite a few times, although it's been a few years, and it's probably my favourite. I think another watch of Seven Samurai would likely knock it off the top spot though as that really blew me away. Ranking aside, this will always remain a favourite of mine as I enjoy every minute of it.
Plot-wise, if you've seen A Fistful of Dollars you'll know the story of Yojimbo too. Where Star Wars borrowed a few ideas and stylistic flourishes from The Hidden Fortress, Sergio Leone's seminal spaghetti western is a full on remake of Yojimbo, although it wasn't credited as such at the time, leading to a successful lawsuit from Toho studios.
If you haven't seen either film, Yojimbo is about an unnamed wandering ronin (a masterless samurai, played by, you guessed it, Toshirô Mifune) who arrives at a town which is caught in the stranglehold of two rival criminal gangs. The leaders, Seibei (Seizaburô Kawazu) and Ushi-Tora (Kyû Sazanka) are constantly fighting in the streets and the townsfolk have all either left or hide in their houses for fear of their lives. Seeing the feud as a way to make some money as well as figuring a way of solving the town's problems, the ronin, dubbed Sanjuro Kuwabatake (translated as Mulberry-field Thirty – a name he makes up on the spot) sets to work. As he puts it brilliantly, “Listen, I get paid for killing. It would be better if all these men were dead. Think it over.”
What stood out for me watching all of these films in close succession was how different in tone they actually are. It may be the 'Samurai Collection', but these aren't all generic solemn period action movies copying each other to emulate previous successes. Seven Samurai is a rousingly epic action film, Throne of Blood is a period horror with shades of Noh theatre, The Hidden Fortress is more of a lighthearted adventure, Yojimbo is a lean, fairly brutal, yet darkly comic pseudo-western and Sanjuro is pretty much a comedy with some splashes of violence here and there. Kurosawa was a master of fusing genres and rejuvenating Japanese styles and techniques by taking unlikely inspiration from Western literature and American cinema (which often landed him criticism in his own country). Yojimbo is a very interesting example of his skill as it is clearly influenced by American westerns of the 40's and 50's, yet managed to hugely influence the wave of westerns to come from Italy and the US again in the 60's and 70's.
The film is as über-cool as the best of Clint Eastwood too. As he approaches a crowd of villains without showing any fear, he calls to the local carpenter, “cooper. Order two more coffins. Maybe three.” Again this line was taken for Dollars and Leone kind of re-appropriated it in an altered form for his masterpiece (and my all time favourite film) “Once Upon a Time in the West” when Charles Bronson claims the three riders sent to kill him have brought two too many horses rather than forgotten one for him.
Yojimbo is nicely violent too. As with a lot of samurai films, the action is short and sharp, but when it comes we get severed limbs (one shot of which is exactly mirrored in Star Wars) and lashings of blood as well as quite a brutal beating. It's a dark film in general with a vicious massacre of people escaping a burning building near the end proving particularly grim. Mifune's devious rogue provides plenty of humour though alongside a couple of not-so-bright thugs and lowlifes. In fact, with this third or fourth viewing, the film proved funnier than I remembered. The final third becomes more serious though as Sanjuro's sole selfless and honourable act, aiding the escape of a young family, results in his capture and suffering at the hands of the criminals.
Without wanting to sound like a broken record, Kurosawa's use of the frame, here particularly wide, is stunning and once again he makes great use of the elements. Pretty much all of them make an appearance here – wind, rain, fire, smoke and dust. He uses these to forge a desolate and hostile environment which descends to hell by its climax.
I could go on about the technical proficiency and drum-tight editing and construction of the narrative, but ultimately all I need to say is that I love this film and if you haven't seen it, go and buy this set now, because it's brilliant, as are the four films which accompany it.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi
Running Time: 96 min
My review of Sanjuro can be found here.
The Akira Kurosawa Samurai Collection box set is out on September 1st on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by the BFI. A DVD version has already been available for a while. The new HD remastered transfers look very good for the most part, with a wide dynamic range of contrasts, which is important for black and white pictures like these. Throne of Blood looks a little more damaged than the rest, probably due to all the fog and mist, but it still looks decent. Yojimbo is the stand out though and looks pretty spotless. The audio on them all is reasonable enough considering the age of the films, there are certainly no noticeable issues anyway.
The special features are largely the same as they were on the DVD's I believe, other than the interview with Tony Rayns on Seven Samurai which appeared on the recently released steelbook Blu-Ray of the film and a well researched commentary with Japanese film expert Michael Jeck on Throne of Blood. The features brought over from before include a commentary with critic Philip Kemp on Yojimbo, a short but nicely clear and honest interview with George Lucas on The Hidden Fortress, an introduction and interview with Alex Cox on Sanjuro and the customary booklet with essays, reviews and full credits for the films.
Although most of the features won't be new to those that already own the DVD's, I couldn't recommend the box set enough. For sheer consistent quality of filmmaking you'd be hard pressed to find a better collection and Kurosawa's films demand to be seen on a big screen at the utmost quality, so the Blu-Ray upgrade is a no-brainer.