(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) A band of men get together to protect a village from bandits: If Seven Samurai feels familiar, it’s because it’s been very, very influential since its release. You can trace successors both direct (The Magnificent Seven, original and remake versions) and indirect (the entire ensemble-cast of heroes action movie genre) to what it solidified. Akira Kurosawa left behind two templates (in between this and Yojinbo) for the action movie and other filmmakers haven’t been shy in reusing it. The draw here is as much the story as the performances of the actors, especially Toshiro Mifune as the wild card of the group, skilled but not sane. Seven Samurai is long, but there are a lot of rewards along the way, and a very immersive sense of being in a feudal-Japan-era village as the action unfolds. This may be an older black-and-white film, but it’s certainly not boring.
(Kanopy streaming, October 2018) If you really want to know where Clint Eastwood’s screen persona comes from, then have a look at Akira Kurosawa’s Yôjinbô, the classic “man comes to town” western story … except for being set in medieval Japan. And being adapted from a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler novel. As the film begins, a Ronin played by none other than Toshiro Mifune strolls into town, asking for nothing more than a place to stay for the night. But the small town he just walked into is divided between two warring gangs. Many would like to see the gangs gone except … who will take them on? If that feels like an overly familiar premise, keep in mind that it was done here first, with many of the traditional action movie tropes (such as the introduction of the protagonist through some unrelated heroic business) being codified here for the first time. The link between Yôjinbô and Sergio Leone’s films is well documented, but it’s also blindingly obvious from even a casual watch, as you nearly don’t even need the subtitles to tell where we are in a familiar story. Mifune is nothing short of amazing here, a force of nature transcending cultural and temporal borders. While the film definitely feels too long, it also definitely feels like a western despite not being at all in the same time or place. Action movie fans should enjoy a look at this, the progenitor of an entire subgenre.
(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) As a third-generation public servant, I know all the clichés, heard all the jokes, can predict all the editorials about bureaucrats—and fiction is rarely any kinder. Few creators understand the trade-offs and constraints of a public service job, nor the satisfaction of doing good in the role: In the rare occasions where a bureaucrat shows up in a story, it’s usually to provide one more obstacle for the hero. All of this may explain my instant admiration of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a quiet and deceptive film as far removed from his Seven Samurai and Yojimbo as it’s possible to be, but far more relevant to my specific circumstances. All of the film revolves around a mid-career municipal bureaucrat who, at the beginning of the film, seems satisfied living out his career until retirement. But he won’t get there: before long, he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a few months to live. After a short period of debauchery (easily the least satisfying part of the film), our protagonist decides to use his last remaining months to do some good. But as we’re anticipating the payoff … the film skips to his funeral, and transforms itself in a very unusual story: A eulogy suspense, in which the remaining characters spend his wake poking and prodding at the dead man’s life while we, the audience, wait to hear whether they will understand his achievements. It all comes together in a strong finale, in which the value of the dead hero is finally revealed. It’s quite the movie, although I suspect I’m most susceptible than most in reading a lot of meaning in the final result. It’s uncanny how a story set in reconstruction Japan can feel as relevant sixty-five years and a continent away, but as far as I’m concerned Ikiru instantly deserves inclusion in the select list of essential works for any public servant. (Office Space; any version of “The Emperor with No Clothes”; any of the stories in Keith Laumer’s Retief series; Yes [Prime] Minister, In the Thick of It and Out of the Loop)
(On DVD, October 2018) This is not going to make me any friends, but I found director Akira Kurosawa’s much acclaimed Ran a slog to get through. My attention frequently wandered (which is particularly problematic for a subtitled film) as the film made me impatient to get to something else. With a duration of more than three hours and a story set in feudal Japan, Ran does ask a lot of casual viewers. The rewards are there if you’re willing to grab them: The colours of the film are magnificent, which is a revelation given that many of Kurosawa’s most acclaimed work are from the black-and-white era. The story is an interesting retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, bridging western and eastern culture in a unique blend. Still, I’m an impatient viewer and I did not remain connected to Ran for much of its duration. I won’t blame the film for my own failing, but I won’t try to pretend that I loved it. Maybe I’ll have another look later.
(In French, On TV, June 2017) I tried. I really tried. I’m not a Cahiers du Cinema subscriber, but that doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to take a look at classics and see what they’re about. But Kagemusha has defeated me. It shouldn’t be a struggle to watch the film: it’s got intrigue, historical detail, colourful costumes and the legendary director Akira Kurosawa at the helm. And yet, despite everything, I was bored stiff by the movie, and it happened from the very first moments, which features a five-minute static shot of three characters speaking. My interest in the movie kept wandering despite my best attempts at staying focused. No success: I bounced hard off the historical context, found the direction uninspiring compared to what it tries to portray, and the pacing to be worse than glacial. I know I dozed off at some point, but I can’t say for how long. It may have been forever, because the rest of the film certainly felt like forever. Ending on a downer note doesn’t really help either. It’s a good thing I’m not a member of any serious movie critic’s organization, because I’m pretty such I’d have to resign if ever it became known that I couldn’t stay interested in a Kurosawa film.