The Films of Akira Kurosawa Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Madadayo (1993)

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1AndrewCommentaryBannerWe’re at the end.  Akira Kurosawa directed thirty films in a career that lasted exactly fifty years (Sanshiro Sugata debuted in 1943 and Madadayo in 1993).  My thoughts on Kurosawa’s final film are not as complicated as some of the others, but not as distressingly straightforward as some of the misfires.  I hope we can agree on one thing – that we should be grateful that Kurosawa had one more film in him and did not end on the disaster that was Rhapsody in August.

Madadayo seems like it may be an autobiographical film to put a cap on Kurosawa’s career, but I’m not convinced of that.  Kurosawa looked to the life and writings of Hyakken Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura), a renowned Japanese academic, in making his final film.  The result is one of the most unassuming and straightforward stories of Kurosawa’s career as we watch Uchida and his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) live out their final years after Uchida retires and World War II winds down.  Joining Uchida is a loyal throng of students who love their professor and endeavor to keep him secure and safe as he grows old.

Separated from the rest of Kurosawa’s career, Madadayo is a surprisingly good gateway film to jump into Kurosawa’s body of work.  It harkens back to the simpler melodramas he made at the start while still keeping some of anarchic weather-based imagery that is used in his epics.  Watching the film for the first time years ago, devoid of the context that we’ve given ourselves these last few months, I thought the entire film was pleasant.  I really liked Uchida because he has a sense of humor that will trudge on with endless jokes half-funny and half-groan worthy so the idea of spending all this time with him wasn’t that bad.


Akira Kurosawa: Rhapsody in August (1991)

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1Kyle Commentary BannerUpfront disclaimer: As it progresses, Rhapsody in August proves to be a bit more capable than it at first seems. That's not especially strong praise. Here is a movie that starts off so bad, so shockingly hackneyed and uneven, that I never in a hundred million years would have guessed in the first third or so that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa. The story involves four children staying with their elderly grandmother for the summer, who discovers by letter that one of her older brothers—we learn she had 7 siblings—who moved to Hawaii and applied for dual-citizenship early in his life is dying, and would like to see her one last time. She isn't sure that he is who he says he is, which introduces a small plot diversion while she tries to verify his identity—this is interesting, considering that the letter was sent by one of her own children, who went to Hawaii for, as I gathered, the express purpose of seeing said relative.

No matter—the point of the film's early scenes seem rather to be establishing the four children as insufferably fake inventions of a writer who's only ever encountered kids via educational programing on PBS, all of whom serve to illustrate in broad strokes the gap between and essential connection of older generations to contemporary ones, particularly in relation to how they perceive and are affected by the dropping of the atomic bomb. This is an inherently interesting topic, and Kurosawa does damn near everything he can at first to alienate us from it.

We're off to the races with an early scene where the children openly ridicule their loving grandmother's cooking and then congratulate themselves deliriously afterwards (because somehow this will enable them to go to Hawaii for the summer, or something), which is followed by a sudden visit to Nagasaki—they having learned that their grandfather died in the dropping of the atomic bomb— in a scene so overwrought and forced it feels like a brief documentary made exclusively for use in middle school social studies classes. This is film-making on a Lifetime Movie level—I'd say it at times elevates itself to that of after-school special, but the mournful opera droning on in the background as they tour historical landmarks in the city pushes it toward the former. The children return home and have a conversation that a university professor seems to have written for them about contemporary generations' inability to fully understand the effects of the atomic bombings during WWII, and then grandma scares everybody to bed with a story of a double suicide in the mountains.


Akira Kurosawa: Dreams (1990)

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AndrewCommentaryBannerThis week we're looking at a film very unique for Akira KurosawaDreams is a compilation of short films that seem unconnected, but really just follow the path of common hopes and fears as he travels to each fantasy.  Our usual back and forth isn't going to work as well here so I will give a quick analysis of each short first and Kyle will follow.

Kyle Commentary BannerIt has been 2 days since I watched Dreams, and I literally cannot think of more than 5 stories. I don't know if it's that the tone is so effective in branching between a few segments that I'm combining them in my mind, or if there is that much unevenness at play here. We'll see once I start responding to your thoughts below.

1Sunshine Through The Rain

A child defies his mother and sees a secret gathering of foxes he shouldn't have, and afterward is told he is expected to commit suicide.

This film is where the idea of each dream representing a common growth of hopes and fears as we age is founded.  The child's encounter with the foxes, born entirely from the all too common impulse to defy our parents when we're young, is represented more as a child experiences danger.  It's a vague notion to one so young and one that still easily ends in hope.  Two things I absolutely love about the start: the methodical dance of the foxes, and the stunning rainbow that ends the film.
Andrew: Like

The bizarre procession of foxes and/or crazed animal-mask people from the original Wicker Man is both creepy and somehow very charming. This whole segment reminds me of the best fairy tales I remember hearing when I was a kid, which while whimsical and often moralistic, always seemed to have something very wrong going on underneath the surface. I also think it's fitting that somehow, in true Kurosawa form, he pulls off a surreal, hopeful ending immediately following a scene where a mother effectively says “you went out to play without my permission — here's a knife, go kill yourself” to what appears to be an 8 year old.
Kyle: Like


Akira Kurosawa: Ran (1985)

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1Kyle Commentary BannerI didn't remember as much of Ran as I thought I did. Specifically, I did not remember that it was roughly 50% killing that takes place inside a 3-hour nightmare. The plot is based on King Lear, which I've never read, but judging by the Shakespeare I have encountered the plot here is probably fairly close to the original.

The strengths of the movie for me are when Akira Kurosawa stands back from the drama itself—which he wisely establishes with clear-cut archetypes and decisive conflicts of the type we're already used to—and lets the camera revel in the consequences. The foggy, color-coded scenes of battle intercut with Lord Ichimonji's (Tatsuya Nakadai) realization that his faith in his sons has been tragically misplaced pretty well act as a microcosm of the whole movie for me—we're seeing what is established as a noble, respected empire at the beginning turn into a chaos pit of vanity, revenge, and war for war's sake.

What works so well for me, however, is the way all of this is presented in such a surreal manner. The soldiers in battle seem less like organized armies with a purpose and more like marauding demons hell-bent on destruction. The bold colors used to distinguish one army from another here serve a different purpose than in Kagemusha—whereas that film used this technique to illustrate each army's distinct but equal role in battle and tie the loyalty of the men to one central character, it serves here to emphasize an amorphous, depersonalized mass. The army is nothing more than an extension of each son's treacherous intentions, extended out in a horribly realized form in Ichimonji's continuous nightmare.

The makeup work that transforms Lord Ichimonji from a wise and confident figurehead to a walking zombie contributes to the effect even further. Each time we see him he looks less like a person and more like a terrified spirit forced to wander through his own life. I'm focusing almost entirely on the feel and atmosphere of the movie here because for me it perfectly embodies the emotional and dramatic struggles in a way words probably can't—it makes me wonder what a movie like I Live in Fear could have turned out like if Kurosawa had managed the same strength of vision and devotion to extremes on display here.


Akira Kurosawa: Kagemusha (1980)

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1AndrewCommentaryBannerI'm not sure I actually watched Kagemusha the first time I had it on.  Sure, it was playing, the images moved, I'm sure I heard sound every so often, but putting the film in again convinced me that I had a moment of ignorance and wasn't paying enough attention.  After the film was over I felt ashamed.  For someone who has spent almost three years cataloging my film opinions for consumption, here was a film I watched with all the same attentiveness I give to my hand when I'm passing a debit card over after a purchase.

Kagemusha was almost revelatory for me this time around.  I know some of it has to do with context.  After a long and brutal primary where seemingly different people fought each other for the right to wage an even more brutal campaign against our President I was a lot more receptive to the idea that no man means more than the ideal.  But as one after another lost the fallen participants fall in-line, praising their new would-be leader, and continue on.  The face is irrelevant so long as the mass has their prop to hold up and ascribe some kind of meaning to.

No, our Presidential election this year does not have as pat paralells to the Sengoku period of Kagemusha, but I've gotten a bit complacent in terms of how the context of each viewing morphs my perception of it.  I was gripped from the opening scene, a hallucinatory and standard-setting moment where two nearly identical brothers talk about how a pathetic thief could serve as a double at a moment's notice.  Akira Kurosawa had different actors playing the lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his brother (Tsutomu Yamazaki), but the same actor as the lord is also the thief.