Drunken Angel (1948)
The youngest of eight children, Akira Kurosawa grew up in Tokyo where, at the age of 26, he began an apprenticeship at PCL studios. His first features as director, made in wartime, had nationalistic strains but No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and Drunken Angel, about an alcoholic Tokyo doctor trying to get a stagnant pool drained, established a critical engagement with contemporary Japan.The set for Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948) consisted of a filthy sump surrounded by ruined buildings, shabby wooden houses, and the facade of a sleazy nightclub. It was a setting that could have been found almost anywhere in Tokyo in 1948, or any other bombed-out Japanese city where postwar life revolved around the teeming black markets. One of the wonders of the early postwar Japanese cinema was the public appetite for realism, and the pestilential sump, filled with toxic garbage, stood as a symbol for all that was rotten about life in the wake of a catastrophic wartime defeat. The cheap hookers lurking in the shadows, the young thugs fighting over territory, loot, and “face.” To have “face” in a particular district meant that you had the run of the place, taking what you needed for nothing and making huge profits off the backs of Japanese citizens who struggled to survive. Many of these petty (and not so petty) gangsters had been soldiers in a holy war to expand the glory of the Japanese Empire. Kamikaze pilots whose sacred suicide missions were aborted when surrender intervened became criminals exploiting the people for whose honor they had just months before sworn to sacrifice their lives. But some, in a perverse way, transformed their military code of honor into a gangland code that was just as deadly.
Drunken Angel: The Spoils of War >>>
Stray Dog (1949)

Stray Dog, the ninth film directed by Akira Kurosawa, is a detective story that’s also meant to function as a commentary on the desperate social conditions of postwar Japan: a kind of neorealist cop movie. The filmmaker wrote his screenplay first in the form of a novel, because his model was the French mystery novelist Georges Simenon—creator of the worldly, humane Inspector Jules Maigret, whose ability to crack tough cases depended more on social and psychological acumen than on any Holmesian puzzle-solving genius. (The Maigret figure in Stray Dog is a wise, middle-aged police detective named Sato, played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura). In the sixties, Kurosawa told Donald Richie: “I wanted to make a film in the manner of Simenon, but I failed. Everybody likes the picture, but I don’t.”

Kurosawa was right, in a way, about his failure to imitate Simenon. Stray Dog isn’t as tidy or compact as a Maigret novel, but for the best possible reason: it’s the work of a more generous and more complex artist. Kurosawa’s film has a richness—an abundant and almost unruly curiosity about the extremes of human behavior—that the French writer’s slender, shapely books never demonstrated. It’s obvious in the movie that at this point in Kurosawa’s career (just a year before his international breakthrough, Rashomon) he was outgrowing his influences, and that, whether he knew it or not, he was destined to become more than a reliable genre craftsman, a petit maître like Simenon. Stray Dog isn’t an ideally efficient detective thriller; the excitement it provides is deeper and more satisfying than simple suspense.

Stray Dog: Kurosawa Comes of Age >>>

Rashômon (1950)

Recognised at Venice and the Oscars, Rashomon was not just Kurosawa's international breakthrough but the standard-bearer for new Japanese cinema. Recounting a bandit's (Mifune) ambush of a couple in a forest from several contradictory perspectives, its radical challenge to conventional narrative was complemented by beautiful, often stylised photography.

Shortly before filming was to begin on "Rashomon," Akira Kurosawa's three assistant directors came to see him. They were unhappy. They didn't understand the story. "If you read it diligently," he told them, "you should be able to understand it, because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible." They would not leave: "We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don't understand it at all."

Recalling this day in Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explains the movie to them. The explanation is reprinted in the booklet that comes with the new Criterion DVD of "Rashomon." Two of the assistants are satisfied with his explanation, but the third leaves looking puzzled. What he doesn't understand is that while there is an explanation of the film's four eyewitness accounts of a murder, there is not a solution.

Kurosawa is correct that the screenplay is comprehensible as exactly what it is: Four testimonies that do not match. It is human nature to listen to witnesses and decide who is telling the truth, but the first words of the screenplay, spoken by the woodcutter, are "I just don't understand." His problem is that he has heard the same events described by all three participants in three different ways--and all three claim to be the killer.

Roger Ebert Great Films :Rashomon

The Idiot (1951)
Slashed - to Kurosawa's enduring indignation - from its original length
of more than four hours, The Idiot was an early example of the director's adaptation of European literary sources to a Japanese context. Dostoyevsky's novel is relocated to Hokkaido, with Masayuki Mori as a recently released war criminal and Mifune his temperamental friend.

No other work has been a better companion to Dostoyevsky’s unrelenting view of humanity than Akira Kurosawa’s much-maligned 1951 film Hakuchi. The original cut stood at 265 minutes, trimmed to 166 minutes by studio executives at Shochiku against the director’s wishes. “In that case, better to have it cut lengthwise,” he is said to have responded. Nobody knows what was left on the cutting room floor as Kurosawa was unable to locate the lost footage, leaving it impossible for audiences to follow the narrative of the film. Hakuchi was critically derided upon its initial release, finding only a handful of fans in Russia – among them Andrei Tarkovsky.

Hakuchi must have been a very special project to Kurosawa. It is one of his most important early works, and he refused to stray from a wholly faithful adaptation to the book unlike later on with his liberal interpretations of Shakespeare in Throne of Blood and Ran. And despite its obvious failings in narrative flow, no other Kurosawa film tells us more about Japan at the time or conveys as much intense emotional power as Hakuchi. His decision to transport the novel’s events from the glittering St Petersburg to wintry Sapporo on the northernmost island in Japan, is not a purely aesthetic one.

In praise of Akira Kurosawa’s forgotten masterpiece >>>

Ikiru (1952)
Centred on the final phase of a middle-aged salaryman's life, Ikiru show Kurosawa in full-blooded humanist mode. Takashi Shimura is the bureaucrat whose diagnosis of terminal cancer initially sends him into alienated despair before he finds a kind of redemption in a project the hero of Drunken Angel might have appreciated.

The old man knows he is dying of cancer. In a bar, he tells a stranger he has money to spend on a “really good time,” but doesn't know how to spend it.

The stranger takes him out on the town, to gambling parlors, dance halls and the red light district, and finally to a bar where the piano player calls for requests and the old man, still wearing his overcoat and hat, asks for "Life Is Short--Fall in Love, Dear Maiden."

"Oh, yeah, one of those old '20s songs," the piano man says, but he plays it, and then the old man starts to sing. His voice is soft and he scarcely moves his lips, but the bar falls silent, the party girls and the drunken salary men drawn for a moment into a reverie about the shortness of their own lives.
Roger Ebert Great Films : Ikiru >>>

Seven Samurai (1954)
Seven Samurai, about a band of masterless samurai defending a village from bandits, arguably remains Kurosawa's towering cultural achievement. The biggest movie Japan had seen at the time, in terms of budget, production and box-office takings, it was also an enormous influence on Western cinema, as well as enormously influenced by it.
Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (1954) is not only a great film in its own right, but the source of a genre that would flow through the rest of the century. The critic Michael Jeck suggests that this was the first film in which a team is assembled to carry out a mission--an idea which gave birth to its direct Hollywood remake, "The Magnificent Seven," as well as "The Guns of Navarone," "The Dirty Dozen" and countless later war, heist and caper movies. 

Since Kurosawa's samurai adventure "Yojimbo" (1960) was remade as "A Fistful of Dollars" and essentially created the spaghetti Western, and since this movie and Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" inspired George Lucas' "Star Wars" series, it could be argued that this greatest of filmmakers gave employment to action heroes for the next 50 years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose.

Roger Ebert Great Films :
Seven Samurai >>>

Throne of Blood (1957)
Transferring Macbeth to medieval Japan reaps dividends: this is one of the most impressive of all screen adaptations of Shakespeare, streamlining the narrative and expressing it through a series of bravura visual coups. Mifune is the ambitious samurai at the centre of a stark world laced with violence, beauty and irony.

It is generally easier to decide which directors to include in any top 100 than which film would best represent them. Akira Kurosawa, who died last year, looks likely to remain by far the best-known Japanese director, while others as great or even greater, such as Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, are known only to cineastes.

But which film should one choose to typify his art? Most would say either The Seven Samurai, the epic that inspired John Sturges's popular but lesser The Magnificent Seven; Rashomon, the film that so amazed the West at the Venice Festival of 1951 with its versions of a murder as described by different witnesses; or Living, the elegiac story of a civil servant dying of cancer, who tries to find a meaning to his life by building a children's playground in a slum area.

Each of these is a masterwork, and there are others. But my choice remains 1957's Throne Of Blood, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth that turned 'the Scottish play' into a ravishingly visual exploration of the warrior traditions of Japanese myth. It was, for what it's worth, TS Eliot's favourite film. The drama is presented with stark economy, its words subservient to the slow exposition of its plot, and the characterisation admittedly less subtle than Shakespeare's. But I doubt the Bard would have turned in his grave. Kurosawa's parallel eloquence matches Shakespeare's so completely that it even outshines that of Verdi's musical version.

The Hidden Fortress: Three Good Men and a Princess >>>

The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Another period samurai adventure starring Mifune, The Hidden Fortress was another Kurosawa masterclass in the conflation of Japanese and
Hollywood tropes. The filmmaker's first widescreen effort, its story of a ragtag band trying to transport a princess to safety and eventually help her free her land is the acknowledged source for George Lucas's Star Wars.

The Hidden Fortress was Akira Kurosawa’s first hit after 1954’s Seven Samurai, four years and four films earlier. It won even bigger at the box office and scooped up a handful of Japanese and international awards, proving that its director was not merely an art-house auteur but could fill theaters as well. The film’s popularity in Japan was instrumental in securing financial guarantees for Kurosawa’s own production company, which supported all his subsequent films up to 1970. The pacing and characters of The Hidden Fortress, its landscapes and epic feel, make it a great action film, and as Kurosawa’s first use of widescreen, it is one of his most stylish movies. With this film, the director’s artistry and humanist ideology spectacularly fused with the entertainment values of adventure films and comedies. Still, although it shares a great deal, thematically and stylistically, with his previous films, including Seven Samurai and its nation-building enthusiasm, many critics in Japan and the U.S. originally dismissed The Hidden Fortress as “frivolous entertainment,” not up to the art-house standards of such works as Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), and Throne of Blood (1957). The film was rescued from critical oblivion when it was recognized as an important influence on Star Wars, and it is now widely viewed as a key film in the history of action-adventure cinema, encapsulating the American-Asian roots of the genre as it has evolved since the 1970s.

As a genre film, The Hidden Fortress is difficult to categorize: it is at once a samurai film and a road movie, with a significant nod to the American western. The Japanese title translates literally as “Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress,” which may underscore Kurosawa’s debt to John Ford (who made a film called Three Bad Men in 1926) but tends to obscure the important role of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), one of the first woman characters in a Japanese period film who is neither a suffering beauty nor a femme fatale. The “three bad men,” moreover, are actually not that bad, although two of them, the comic duo at the center of the film, are mercenary outlaws (a.k.a. starving peasants). The third man, General Rokurota Makabe, is one in a long line of Toshiro Mifune’s tough, charming, highly skilled samurai. These three come together to escort the princess, heir to a besieged empire, to safety through treacherous enemy territory.

The Hidden Fortress: Three Good Men and a Princess >>>

The film Star Wars stole from  >>>

Yojimbo (1961)
Similarly, Yojimbo drew on film noir and classical Westerns only to
prove massively influential itself, with Sergio Leone taking inspiration from its tale of an effectively nameless lone warrior playing one side of criminals off against another. A funnier, more grotesque sequel, Sanjuro, followed the next year.

Almost the first thing the samurai sees when he arrives is a dog trotting down the main street with a human hand in its mouth. The town seems deserted until a nervous little busybody darts out and offers to act as an employment service: He'll get the samurai a job as a yojimbo -- a bodyguard. The samurai, a large, dusty man with indifference bordering on insolence, listens and does not commit. He wants sake and something to eat.

So opens "Yojimbo" (1961), Akira Kurosawa's most popular film in Japan. He was deliberately combining the samurai story with the Western, so that the wind-swept main street could be in any frontier town, the samurai (Toshiro Mifune) could be a gunslinger, and the local characters could have been lifted from John Ford's gallery of supporting actors.

A fistful of samurai >>>

Ran (1985)
The final decades of Kurosawa's life saw his greatest struggles for artistic freedom, prompting him to look beyond Japan for funding. Shot in colour and influenced by King Lear, Ran, his final grand-scale project, was not without professional and personal cost but confirmed his abilities remained intact.

Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" is inspired by "King Lear," but may be as much about Kurosawa's life as Shakespeare's play. Seeing it again in a fine new 35mm print, I realized the action doesn't center on the old man, but has a fearful energy of its own, through which he wanders. Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil. There are parallels not only with kings but also with filmmakers, who like royalty must enforce their vision in a world seething with jealousy, finance, intrigue, vanity and greed.

Roger Ebert Great Films :Ran >>>


Teaching and Interpreting the Works of Kurosawa Akira


Akira Kurosawa - Composing Movement

Celebrating the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration

The director Akira Kurosawa and the actor Toshiro Mifune worked together on some of the most remarkable films ever made, films that have passed into legend, like "The Seven Samurai" and "Rashomon." If you do not know their work, I envy you, because you have some of your most sublime moviegoing experiences ahead of you.

The Emperor and the Wolf, Kurosawa and Mifune are called in Stuart Galbraith IV's new book about their long collaboration and eventual falling-out. From today through Nov 14, the Music Box will show new 35mm prints of 12 films directed by the emperor and starring the wolf.

The opening weekend's programs feature "Throne of Blood" (1957), Kurosawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, with Mifune as Macbeth, ending with his body struck through with arrows, and Isuzu Yamada as Lady Macbeth. I wish I could remember who observed that Mifune's Macbeth actually benefits by being freed of Shakespeare's language: It evokes the dread and horror of the tragedy like a series of great moving illustrations for the play. Note in particular the long night when Lady Macbeth directs her husband in committing his foul deeds; all sounds drop from the track, except for the sinister swish of her silk trouser-legs as she relentlessly proceeds. "Throne of Blood" plays Friday evening and Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening.

On Saturday and Sunday at 11:30 a.m., the Music Box presents "Drunken Angel" (1948), the gangster film which was the first time Kurosawa and Mifune worked together, and the first film Kurosawa claimed as all his own.

On Monday evening, "Stray Dog" (1949) plays--another crime drama set in postwar Tokyo, On Tuesday, the theater presents the great "Rashomon," which has given its title to the English language, referring to a situation in which witnesses all give conflicting accounts.

On Wednesday, "Yojimbo" (1961) plays. This movie and "Sanjuro," both samurai films, are often upstaged by the great "Seven Samurai," but note how fluid Kurosawa's camera is---how the samurai seem to flow through the action like fish in a stream, all moving as if sharing the same spine. The movie is a great visual evocation, liberated from the conventions of the samurai form and becoming somehow a marriage of movement and ambition. Thursdays' film "The Hidden Fortress" (1958), is famous for having inspired the "Star Wars" series, and particularly the characters R2D2 and C3PO. The princess and the general, who team up to save treasure, will ring a bell.

Coming up in the following week are "I Live in Fear," "The Bad Sleep Well," "Sanjuro," "High and Low" and "Red Beard." Then Nov 8-14 the theater will present an extended engagement of "The Seven Samurai," which joined "Rashomon" as one of the 10 best films ever made, in the recent Sight & Sound poll of the world's film directors. For complete showtimes and dates, visit www.musicboxtheatre.com.

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