High and Low (Kurosawa, 1963)

Kurosawa’s social elevator to the gallows, descending between two very different perspectives to reveal the outrage behind blue-collar frustration. It’s the art of verbalized swordsmanship . Review.

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Red Beard (Kurosawa, 1965)

Another gem from the Kurosawa/Mifune dream factory, this time in the form of a wonderfully compassionate story about three diligent doctors attempting to find meaning and honor while running a Shogun era Hospital. Ironically, while being one of Akira Kurosawa’s most restrained and subtle films, Red Beard still displays a truly amazing and brutal fight scene, pitting Mifune’s titular grizzly bear against a rabid gang of pimps. Pure gold. 

Kagemusha (Kurosawa, 1980)

An odd and frustrating samurai epic, mainly because of its lack of bloodshed and violence, especially considering the story remains completely obsessed with war throughout. Kagemusha can be best described as a combination of lavish late Kurosawa color schemes and heightened melodrama, a story concerned with loss of identity and loyalty within warring Samurai clans in the late 16th century. The opening scene, a stunning long take of three samurai sitting in a dark room, one the lord of the clan, the second his brother, and the third a slave spared of death, all seemingly idenitcal in appearance, talking discreetly about how the slave will act as the Lord’s double if ever needed. Of course, later the lord is killed and the slave is made to act as the head of the clan to warn off rivals who smell a cover up. I couldn’t stop thinking of Rob Reiner’s Dave. Kagemusha, made between Dersu Uzala (1975) and Ran (1985), and that’s a tough place to fall in the Kurosawa filmography because both of those films are masterpieces. Well, Kagemusha falters mainly due to it’s lack of immediate tension, the characters dwelling on long and hard about tidbits of politics and strategy that enver gain momentum within the hear tof the story. The double, who leanrs to love his position and the appearance of power it brings, ends up caring more about his people than the adivsors that gave him the job. However, the tragedy doesn’t ring true, because we never see the scope of the carnage brought on by the ill-prepared leaders and decision-makers. I’m not sure if this was a budget thing or not, but we are left with a sometimes tedious, always beautiful surface level experience within an oeuvre of hypnotic and deeply mesmerizing ones. While never boring, the film falls into a familar cause and effect rhythm, not producing the haunting cinematic response of other Kurosawa films.

Ran (Kurosawa, 1985)

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Some personal comeuppance. It’s true, I initially underestimated Kurosawa’s importance in film history. Yes, he was a great filmmaker, I just didn’t know how good. Looking down my own personal list of his masterpieces, most of which I have just seen recently; 1. Ikiru, 2. Stray Dog, 3. High and Low, 4. Seven Samurai, 5. Dodesu-ke-dan, and now 6. Ran, I feel that besides Kubrick, he’s the best. No other director has blown me away more with visuals, story, sound, music, and theme.

My latest discovery Ran seems obsessed with the struggle between personal validation and mass chaos. The stunning opening shots of Samurai on horseback overlooking the deep, lush green, valley cuts almost immediately to a fast paced boar hunt. This is a foreshadowing of the upheaval to come, contemplation transitioning quickly to hysteria. Immediately Kurosawa has initiated a shift in tone, and the film always keeps this structure in mind.

A reworking of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran deals with the sudden shift in power of a legendary and brutal Samurai clan, Father/mentor passing down the reigns to his eldest son of three. This simple transition, one of the calmest scenes in the film, leads almost immediately into upheaval, with youngest son being banished for insubordination. Worse than that, this family turmoil is witnessed by two other factions who can smell the scent of weakness at first sight.

From here Kurosawa spreads his wings as a storyteller and unloads multiple story-lines following each participant, Father, sons, people they have wronged in the past, servants, soldiers, advisors, etc. Loyalties are tested, shape-shifters present themselves, and destiny’s are written in blood, all action marching towards complete annihilation of the clan structure in place. Ran is a gigantic picture, using location, color, camera movement, all within the mise-en-scene to display an epic and immediate importance.

While watching one cannot help but be drawn in by the frame and everything the filmmakers use to perfectly fill the space. But, as will all the Kurosawa’s I mentioned above, the trajectory of the story dictates the style. Ran remains first and foremost a tragedy of guilt, doubt, and inaction. But the film is so much more. As Sydney Lumet says in his commentary for the new Criterion release, the film sounds like a symphony, a Beethoven one no less. Very high praise.

Personally, it astonished me how Ran can have such confidence in it’s characters, allowing them to be human even while residing in a world where murder, sex, manipulation, and greed surround and engulf. The past never stays hidden for long, and everyone in Ran pays a heavy price for not only their own decisions, but those of their leaders whom have been entrusted with the loyalty and devotion of the people. One gets the sense that these men of power, these giants of strength and fortitude, never truly understand that their personal decisions affect not only their direct situation, but each layer of the surrounding population (Kurosawa never shows the common folk). There’s a gap in seeing outside the box, both on a personal and international level. Definitely a thematic approach that still rings true today.

Dersu Uzala (Kurosawa, 1975)

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Sometimes you watch a film and you can’t imagine being without it. Dersu Uzala is about as beautiful and moving as the Cinema can be. Ironically, having been ignorant of Kurosawa’s brilliance for so long, I am now being spoiled/rewarded with not one but two Kurosawa masterworks in the span of a week.

Both Ran and Dersu Uzala play out on an epic stage, yet reveal the humanity and tragedy within the personal human experience. But Dersu might even be a grander accomplishment since it lacks the overt style or melodrama of Ran. Instead, Dersu Uzala uses lyrical and lush cinematography to achieve a silent affection for the landscape/terrain that is so crucial to the film’s themes of friendship and devotion.

The film follows a Captain in the Russian military and his friendship with a hunter named Dersu. In the middle of a surveying mission in the Siberian winderness, Dersu happens upon the Captain and his unit, shows them the ways of the wild, and helps them survive the gureling environment in which they are completely unprepapred to encounter, both mentally and physically. The two men are forever linked when, stranded on the frozen tundra in the middle of the snow storm, Dersu saves the Captain’s life in the most stunning scene in the film, by cutting down the tall reeds of the plain in order to make a shelter for the night. Dersu’s skill and dexterity are put on display, the Captain and all of his men impressed beyond words.

Dersu Uzala is one of Kurosawa’s most mature film, residing somewhere between the subtle beauty of Ikiru and the harsh brutality of Ran. He doesn’t fill the frame with contrived camera techniques or flashing wipes, because the locale and characters have more than enough drama by themselves.