The Films of Akira Kurosawa Archives - Page 2 of 6 - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
14Dec/120

Akira Kurosawa: Dersu Uzala (1975)

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It was incredibly difficult for me to sustain interest in Dersu Uzala—not because it's a “bad” movie, but because for nearly the first half it takes the approach of presenting a fairly basic character and regarding him with a sense of wonder that the film never justifies.  Justifies may be the wrong word—effectively conveys? The title character is certainly impressive by any modern standards, having lived (like so many cultures throughout history) off of a respectful, deeply intuitive relationship with the natural world. The fact that people used to live like Dersu out of basic necessity and we now see them in a sort of mythical capacity is interesting sociologically, but the film never digs any deeper than this, relying only on obligatory scenes establishing the character's philosophy and outlook in wholly expected ways. In one scene early on, he points to the sun and moon and tells another character they are “very big fellows” and that if the sun dies one day we will all die. Yes, Dersu, that is correct.

But such observances are so ham-fisted and obvious that rather than creating an interesting and engaging character, he comes off as a quaint version of an archetype we've seen way too many times before. The scene doesn't convey Dersu in a new light, illustrating a deeper understanding of the world or demonstrating a unique philosophy for the characters to consider—it just shows that he has a more traditionally mythic view of the world as an intersection of living things. It's a convention I suppose to take characters that at first seem primitive by contemporary standards and gradually reveal them to have a deep and poignant understanding of the world that our advanced society has overlooked, humbling our pride over our modern ways—it's like a version of Spike Lee's Magical Negro that isn't
always as offensive, but can be.

Here Akira Kurosawa eschews this convention after the basic introduction in favor of a portrait of friendship between the two main character's: the guide/mountain man of the title and a Russian explorer. I wish he'd have gotten to this sooner. At almost 2 ½ hours long, we get a full hour of introduction, with Dersu and the Russian captain getting to know each other primarily through the former's constant small surprises, leading eventually to a pivotal scene where the two are lost in a storm and he saves them through ingenuity and a clear understanding of his surroundings.

I think Kurosawa's presentation of Dersu as a kind of exotic other is done with love and not for a manipulation of the audience like so many contemporary films, but that doesn't make him more interesting. In the second half of the story we get some scenes of legitimate dramatic power, as Dersu realizes he is losing his sight (a horrible thing for one who survives by hunting) and goes to live with the captain in his city. This seems like the focal point of Kurosawa's ideas here, as we start to see how a character who was so peerless and in his element in the forests of the first 2/3 of the movie is reduced to incompetence and confusion by the laws and systems of modern society. There's a tragedy here that Kurosawa is at home with: the crushing and degenerative effects of “advanced” society on what is seen early on as a more pure, natural lifestyle.

I became more invested in the characters here as the film went on, but the developments of the later acts are hampered and delayed by the misguided opening. Dersu can be an interesting, humorous character without being saddled with clichés. I only wish we'd have gotten a closer, more developed look at his relationship with the captain (standing in as a solid metaphor for the relationship between modern society and nature), rather than half a movie that seemed like obligatory setup and half a movie that seemed too rushed.

One last note, and I'm curious what you have to say here: the transfer on the versions we watched is terrible. Here's a movie in which nature and the characters' surroundings play a major role, filled with vast, wide shots of undeveloped Russian frontier, and it all looked mostly terrible on my version. Am I missing something because the impact of these scenes and the cinematography in general was unfairly underwhelming?

7Dec/120

Akira Kurosawa: Dodes’ka-den (1970)

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The first time I watched Dodes’ka-den I had decided to work through Akira Kurosawa’s filmography from end to beginning and it was one of the first films I watched.  I’d previously seen Ikiru, Ran, Seven Samurai, and a few others so I wasn’t quite prepared for something as weird and nauseatingly colorful as Dodes’ka-den.  It quickly became one of my favorite Kurosawa films and has sat lovingly in my memory for the last three years.

Now I’ve got a greater grasp of the scope of Kurosawa’s work and this seems less an aberration and more a depressing retread of some of the ideas he has touched on in the past.  I am a little less in love with the film now as each of the character’s plot threads stretch on a bit too long.  But I appreciate what Kurosawa was trying to do and how elegantly it actually ties into his filmography.

Dodes’ka-den is basically a successful version of The Lower Depths filtered through Kurosawa’s then front-and-center depression and awkward delight at being able to work with color for the first time.  The rough outline of the plot is the same as Depths.  We watch a collection of poor people trying to find a way to live in the slums which, in this film, is a giant garbage pile that has been arranged into a little village.  Kurosawa visits with each one of the occupants through the eyes of a mentally retarded man-child who believes that his mom is the stupid one and that he is both train conductor and train.

As bright as the colors of Dodes’ka-den are this is easily the most depressing story Kurosawa has ever told.  The lives of the occupants of the slum in The Lower Depths have a significant greater grasp of their current situation than the people picking through the trash piles of Dodes’ka-den.  They are the object of derision through their ambassador conductor who symbolizes how they are seen from the outside as a group of kids mock and throw stones at him.  The other villagers are somehow less lucky and more clueless.

30Nov/120

Akira Kurosawa: Red Beard (1965)

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If the movie Red Beard were a person, it would be a spirited kid pursuing a career as an engineer even though he's terrible at math, simply because some well-meaning kindergarten teacher told him he could be anything he wanted when he grew up. This is a film that really, really wants to be a quiet personal epic, and it seems to think all it needs in order to do so is the will. Character transformation from one spectrum of values to the other? Check. Lengthy running time covering a multitude of experiences from a wide range of characters? Check. Grand, generalized emotional struggles? Super check.

I don't dislike this movie, but Red Beard needs to make a choice between two extremes: either a long-form epic that takes place across many different, smaller stories building to a grand mosaic effect, or a tighter, more quickly paced film that covers the fairly standard territory it does here. As it is, it offers glimpses of a meandering, sweeping experience, but doesn't arrive much of anywhere at the end of it.

The basic plot concerns Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), a young, arrogant doctor returning from his studies in Nagasaki with an entitled attitude toward his arranged position serving the Shogun. Much to his surprise and whiny, 3-year-old-level dissatisfaction, he finds himself routed instead to a public clinic run by Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), an older doctor who gets his name from his distinctive facial hair and also, as he explains, the fact that it is very difficult to pronounce his name. It's literally the most easily pronounced name in the whole movie, but one can imagine Akira Kurosawa sitting over the typewriter trying to find ways to lift the character to mythical status before he even appears on screen, scratching a 5 o'clock shadow, and having an “aha” moment.

The film's structure offers multiple episodic occasions for Yasumoto to learn the error of his ways and come to appreciate not only his position at the clinic and the good he can do there, but also the deeper philosophy of Red Beard, which essentially consists of “be a good person except when you have to do bad things to bad people... but then have the decency to feel bad about it.” The older doctor views his profession less as one in which he must “cure” people, and more as occupying a unique position to marshal patients between life and death. He is a guardian angel figure for the weak and poor in the community, easing their pain when possible and taking advantage of the corrupt elite when he needs additional funds.

23Nov/120

Akira Kurosawa: High and Low (1963)

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Eight plus years of Law and Order viewing have ripped away whatever real interest I could have in High and LowAkira Kurosawa’s ultimate police procedural plays to all of the strengths of his most notable previous,  the intermittently interesting Stray Dog, while abandoning any intriguing anchor or character of any sort less than halfway through the film.  Prior to then I am at least somewhat on-board with the shenanigans of Kingo Gondo, as symbolic a name I’ve heard in Kurosawa’s films.

Kingo, played with notable restraint by Toshiro Mifune, is a shoe executive sparring with his business partners on the best way to provide footwear to the future.  He wants an old-fashioned sturdy, but highly stylish model, they want a cheap brand they can change on the fly to suit the whims of the fashion community.  The intermingling of old and new with the clashes that come are not exactly new ideas for Kurosawa.  Then Kingo receives a call from a kidnapper saying that they have his son, but after a tense few seconds after the phone call ends he discovers it is no Kingo’s son the criminals have, but the son of his chauffer.  The ransom is the same either way, and after a long-discussed decision on whether to pay or not he lets the funds go and the rest of the film involves the police force’s attempt to find those responsible.

Kyle, High and Low bores me in a way few Kurosawa films do.  It’s not that the style isn’t there, but it feels like for the first half of the film he’s repeating the same shot of stern men standing around and then the second half a different array of now indistinguishable men fanning themselves.  At least during the “High” part of the film we have the always reliable Mifune to provide some sense of moral conflict.  Unfortunately to get there we have to go through almost twenty minutes of shoe negotiations that thrilled me as much as the opening scenes of The Bad Sleep Well did for you.

16Nov/120

Akira Kurosawa: Sanjuro (1962)

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Sanjuro is a model sequel in that it takes the character and some general ideas from the first film and creates an entirely new experience using them as inspiration. You could go into a viewing of this movie knowing nothing at all about Yojimbo and not miss out on a single thing; those who have seen the first film will enjoy how this one builds on the character in a new environment. Unlike the first time around, Sanjuro has a wider array of characters with varying levels of intelligence, motivation, and morality. Here we get to see Toshiro Mifune's iconic ronin interacting with more than just homogenous scum.

The film's premise is a fairly classic one: nine samurai have made it their mission to root out corruption in their clan, and through their efforts, the chamberlain—uncle to the group's leader—has been taken and framed for said corruption by the superintendent and his men. All of this isn't entirely clear at first, as the samurai sit in a hut discussing their predicament and the key players, and Sanjuro quietly emerges from the background pointing out holes in their story. In an opening scene that assumes viewers have some knowledge of the character but doesn't require it, Sanjuro insinuates himself into their lives and conflict like a good-natured uncle trying to casually, inconspicuously provide guidance. One of the samurai later explains to the chamberlain’s wife, “a strange series of events has made him our ally.”

One of the things that's so surprising to me about Sanjuro is how it fits in seamlessly with the attitude and aesthetic of Yojimbo while telling a substantially softer and more moralistic story. Gone is the brutal cynicism and nihilistic humor of the earlier film — much of the humor here revolves around a more good-natured display of how much smarter and craftier Sanjuro is than the samurai he's helping, putting together pieces of their enemies' strategy and plan as if it should be common knowledge while the rest of the men rush to more rash conclusions.