The Baron Watches the Films of Akira Kurosawa (Spoilery, With a 100% Chance of Rain)

Thanks to the much-appreciated efforts of a good friend of mine ("They call him...Tim."), I have finally been able to obtain copies of the four Kurosawa films that I had never seen, and so I am now in a position to do something I've always wanted to do - watch all of Kurosawa's pictures in the order in which they were released. And you, you lucky people, get to hear my thoughts about them, and maybe will even be inspired to watch some of them yourself.



"(Spoilery, With a 100% Chance of Rain)"

Or should that read, "With a 100% Chance of Ran"? ;)

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First up is the 1943 film Sugata Sanshiro, a.k.a. Sanshiro Sugata and Judo Saga.

Set in 1882, this is the story of a young man named Sugata Sanshiro, who is earnest and eager and slightly dimwitted, who travels to the city to learn jujitsu, but instead encounters the judo master Yano, and falls in with him, thus getting caught up in a conflict between rival schools of martial arts.

Sanshiro is very hotheaded and stubborn, and much of the film is devoted to him learning self-control, which he does by diving into a pond, and standing there all night, before gaining enlightenment by staring at a flower.

Sanshiro also acquires an antagonist, the oily, serpentine Higata Gennosuke, who you know is evil because he wears western clothing, instead of going around in kimono and geta the way decent people do. Actually, Higata isn't all that evil - he doesn't cheat, or hurt any innocents, and he is actually quite tough and skillful. He does challenge our Sanshiro to a duel to the death, but that seems to be de rigueur for these folks, and thus not particularly evil.

Anyhow, Sanshiro proves himself by defeating the old, formerly alcholic Murai in the police department's martial arts tournament - there's a whole subplot about how whichever school wins will get the contract for teaching martial arts to the police. Murai's daughter Sayo falls for Sanshiro, who doesn't quite seem to know about girls - too busy studying judo, I guess.

Anyway, Higata challenges our Sanshiro to a climactic duel which, while very tense, is actually surprisingly brief, unlike say, the climactic duels in Dragon Ball, which go on for fifty pages. There are no special moves - nobody breaks out the kame-hame-ha or the Double Reverse Travolta, or whatever. Instead, our hero draws on his memory of staring at a flower. This fight scene is said to be one of the most influential in Japanese film history, and certainly, I've seen many fight scenes that follow this pattern, although usually much more elaborate.

After the fight, he goes on a journey to find himself, or something, leaving town on a train straight out of the Edaville Rail Road.

It's interesting stuff - this story was re-made five times, apparently. It's interesting watching this old stuff, because you learn how much of the later stuff you've seen draws on it, Heck, I've even seen episodes of Pokémon that I now realize were riffing on this film.

There's very little music in this picture - though there are gangs of singing children that serve as a sort of "Greek chorus".

We see our first Kurosawa wipe cut, and that from the very beginning Kurosawa used weather to reflect the character's mood. Note that Kurosawa's first use of rain occurs about 12 minutes and 45 seconds into this picture.

All in all, an enjoyable film.
TCM just showed a ton of Kurosawa movies in March, for his 100th birthday. I caught a couple of them -- The Lower Depths and I Live in Fear -- and still have Yojimbo and Ran on the Tivo. (Stray Dog deleted itself, grumblegrumblegrumble...)
I've seen this one. I found SBS's print hard to follow. The bit with the flower has stuck in my memory, and the shot of the hero standing victorious over his defeated foe after fighting him outside in the rain, but that might be from the second film. SBS ran the second film, too, but much of it was missing.
Luke Blanchard said:
I've seen this one. I found SBS's print hard to follow. The bit with the flower has stuck in my memory, and the shot of the hero standing victorious over his defeated foe after fighting him outside in the rain, but that might be from the second film. SBS ran the second film, too, but much of it was missing.


From what I've heard, the sequel is pretty much a re-hash of the original. I've read that the Imperial censors cut about 15-20 minutes of footage out of the first picture, and it was never recovered. I'll be watching The Most Beautiful next, then the sequel after.
Rob Staeger said:
TCM just showed a ton of Kurosawa movies in March, for his 100th birthday. I caught a couple of them -- The Lower Depths and I Live in Fear -- and still have Yojimbo and Ran on the Tivo. (Stray Dog deleted itself, grumblegrumblegrumble...)

Shame - Stray Dog is a good picture. It exists on video - I don't know if it's available through Netflix or not.
The Baron said:
Rob Staeger said:
TCM just showed a ton of Kurosawa movies in March, for his 100th birthday. I caught a couple of them -- The Lower Depths and I Live in Fear -- and still have Yojimbo and Ran on the Tivo. (Stray Dog deleted itself, grumblegrumblegrumble...)

Shame - Stray Dog is a good picture. It exists on video - I don't know if it's available through Netflix or not.

I have a copy of Stray Dog I burned to DVD off my DVR recording of the TCM showing.
I have all of them on store-bought disks, except for the four that the Mighty Tim copied for me.
The Baron said:
I have all of them on store-bought disks, except for the four that the Mighty Tim copied for me.

Come all without, come all within
You'll not see nothing like the Mighty Tim!
Photobucket
I watched the 1944 film Ichiban utsukushiku, a.k.a. the Most Beautiful. This was basically a propaganda film, that was effectively "assigned" to Kurosawa. Before the film starts, there is an on-screen exhortation to "Attack and Destroy the Enemy!" Then we are informed that this is "An Information Bureau 'Movie of the People'."

The film is set at the East Asian Optics, Ltd. Hiratsuka Factory" and centers around a group of girls who work at the factory - freeing up men to go get killed in China and the South Pacific. The main character are young Watanabe Tsuru, the girls' team leader (stalwart and earnest, she refuses to go home when her mother falls ill); Mrs. Mizushima, their dorm mother; the janitor, whom, I am arbitrarily naming "Groundskeeper Wiri" :) ; Yamaguchi Shizuko, the "frail" girl who insists on working through her illness; and the band teacher.

As the film opens, the girls have just been informed that their production quota for the next four months has been raised by 50% they are outraged by this, and insist that it be raised by two-thirds, instead. The rest of the film consists of them struggling to meet their increased quota, through injury, illness, and inability to play volleyball well. There are many evocations of patriotic spirit, and the girls are constantly marching and singing, and so forth. The are countless banners of the "Remember our boys on the Malabar front" variety, such as:

"May 10,000 cherry blossoms scatter" (Give the Japanese credit, no one can beat them for poetic invocations of pointless mass death.)

"Follow the example fo the war dead" (And die in a pointless war we can't win!)

"Follow the example of Admiral Yamamoto" ( And get killed by the Americans because they've broken our codes and know where to find us!)

"Follow the example of the Yamazaki Unit" (No clue on that one)

In the climax of the film, Watanabe accidentally passes through a lens that wasn't calibrated properly and insists on staying at the factory all night to find it, despite the manager's reassurances that this is entirely unnecessary and indeed, somewhat counterproductive, but it does show that she has the right spirit. The other fifty girls all gather together and pray for her, instead of, oh, I don't know, helping her look for the damned thing maybe?

We end with Watanabe being informed that her mother has died, and refusing to go home, because there's work to be done, and there's a war on, you know, and we don't want the goddamn Americans coming in here and taking over, do we?

All, in all, despite being propaganda, this is a pretty good film. It certainly is an interesting portrait of the kind of person the Imperialists were trying to teach people to be. Of course, it's strange watching it, knowing how the war turned out - all the effort the characters were putitng into what we know was a losing cause.

There's a strong theme in this picture, that the Japanese knew on some level that they were fighting people who outnumbered them and who were outproducing them, but that if they could only build strong characters and maintain firm fighting spirits, they could win the war. I honestly think that on some level they knew they were going to lose, but couldn't translate that into ending the war while they still had something to preserve.
Next was the 1945 film Sugata Sanshiro zoku, a.k.a. Sanshiro Sugata Part II and Judo Saga II. Set in 1887, it's largely a re-hash of the previous picture. Two are major plot elements in this - in one, Sanshiro beats up an American sailor who was beating a rickshaw boy, this leads a Japanese interpreter for the US embassy to try to arrange a fight between Sanshiro and the American boxing champ, William "The Killer" Lister. In the other, Sanshiro is challenged to a duel by two karate masters, Tesshin and Genzaburo Higata, who are the kid brothers of Gennosuke Higata, the guy who Sanshiro beat in the last picture. Tesshin is evil - you can tell because he doesn't comb his hair. Genzaburo is insane - you can tell because he doesn't comb his hair and he carries a tree branch around, the traditional sign in Noh drama that someone is a crazy person. Master Yano forbids both fights, but of course Sanshiro fights in the end. He beats the American easily, and then beats Tesshin in the mountains in the snow. Interestingly, he doesn't fight Genzaburo - I guess beating up a crazy person isn't "heroic".

I've using The films of Akira Kurosawa, by Donald Richie as a reference here - it's quite useful for giving these films a context. According to Richie, Kurosawa's heart wasn't really in this picture, he didn't like going back over previously-trodden ground. That siad, it's an OK, if not particularlyinspiring, flick.
Next up was Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi, a.k.a. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, which was completed in 1945, just as the war was ending, but wasn't released until 1945 because SCAP* felt that it glorified "feudal" values.

The film is based on a well-known that has formed the basis for Noh and Kabuki plays over the years. Lord Yoshitsune has been falsely accued on sedition, is on on the run from his brother, the Shogun Yoritomo. Trying to reach safety in the north, they must pass a checkpoint manned by Togashi Saemon (played by Fujita Susumu, the same actor who played Sanshiro - he was actually considered a bit young for the role. The warrior priest Benkei decides to try to fake their way past Togashi by having Yoshitsune dress up as a porter. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game between Benkei and Togashi, which culminates when an official recognizes Yoshitsune. Thinking quickly, Benkei begins berating and beating Yoshitsune for some imagined offense. Togashi lets them pass, reasoning that a vassal would never mistreat his lord that way, no matter what the circumstances. He even sends some sake after them, as an "apology" for troubling them.

Probably the most "memorable" character in the film is Enoken - a real porter who sees through Yoshitsune's disguise early in the picture, but agrees to help. This guy is one of those insanely over-the-top characters that Japanese drama seems to abound in. Really, this guy makes Gilligan seem subtle and cautious.

Apparently, there has traditionally been a controversy over one element of this story - whether to play it that Benkei has succeeded in fooling Togashi or as though Togashi has seen through their ruse but lets them go out of admiration for their determination and cleverness. I guess in some people's minds, if you play it the latter way, it diminishes Benkei, as his play no longer succeeds because of his cleverness, but because Togashi is a nice guy. Kurosawa definitely seems to play it that Togashi knows, however.

This pictures is just under an hour long, so it moves along pretty well - all in all, I enjoyed it. The character of the porter gets a bit grating, is all.

*Stands for "Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers", i.e., Douglas MacArthur and/or the people who worked for him.

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