Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More Kurosawa: Dodes'ka-den, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress

Dodes'ka-den and The Lower Depths are kind of a tough double-feature, as they are both somewhat long, more than a bit of a downer as far as subject matter is concerned, and similar: Both are focused on one poor neighborhood or rooming-house (although rooming-room seems more correct, as there's no privacy!), staged very much like filmed plays. They're very good, and Dodes'ka-den in particular offers a chance to be impressed by Kurosawa-sensei's technique, but five hours of that (including the intermission between films) is a lot of downbeat material.

The Hidden Fortress, of course, was the opposite experience - uplifting and exciting, exactly what I needed after realizing that I had wasted a beautiful day seeing a pair of cruddy genre movies in some of Fresh Pond's lesser screens. I'm not sure I had ever seen it before, and I certainly don't remember it being quite so funny. As I mentioned before, after seeing Kagemusha, Kurosawa was an entertainer as well as an artist, even late in his career. Many of his film's are must-see, and if you call yourself a fan of Star Wars without having seen this, you should definitely rectify that and familiarize yourself with Artoo, Threepio, and Leia's direct ancestors.

And, for the next week, Criterion is running a pretty good deal on these movies. Until 22 April 2010, their boxed set of 25 of Kurosawa's films, including most (if not all) of his collaborations with Toshiro Mifune, will only run you $299.25 if you use the code "AKBRAT". That sounds like a lot, but it works out to $11.97 per film, with $25 of the purchase price donated to Cambridge's Brattle Theatre, the very definition of a worthy cause if you like movies. I just did, and I must say that I am looking forward to working my way through it this year.

Or you can get some of these individually by clicking on the usual links, but I know nobody does that (and yet, I keep getting emails from people who want to advertise on my site). Still, I'm going for the big one. A shelf full of Kurosawa movies impresses people, and there's a lot of classics in that box.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (The Warrior's Camera: Akira Kurosawa Centennial)

"Do-des-ka-den" is the sound trolleys make as they roll through the streets of Tokyo. Or at least, that's how they sound in the head of Roku-chan, a mentally retarded young man living in one of the city's outer slums; he repeats it to himself as he makes his daily circuit around the area. As such, it makes a fitting title for Akira Kurosawa's examination of one of those neighborhoods - a constant, unchanging dirge that nevertheless might as well be imaginary for those who hear it.

Roku-chan (Yoshitaka Zushi) and his long-suffering mother (Kin Sugai) are not the only eyes through which we see the area. There's Misao Sawagami (Yuko Kusunoki), pregnant for the sixth time, although the housewives who spend all day gossiping by the communal fire doubt that any of them come from her husband Ryotaro (Shinsuke Minami). Best friends Hatsutaro Kawaguchi (Kunie Tanaka) and Masuo Masuda (Hisashi Igawa) work and drink together; it's so hard to see where one ends and the other begins that it tkes a moment to realize that their wives Yoshi (Jitsuko Yoshimura) and Tatsu (Hideko Okiyama) have switched partners. Foster father Kyota Watanabe (Tatsuo Matsumura) works his niece Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki) almost to death and drinks away what little her piecework brings in. A homeless man (Moboru Mitani) passes the time by describing his dream house to his son (Hiroyuki Kawase).

And there's more. Kurosawa and his two co-writers (working from a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto) juggle roughly a dozen storylines, intersecting very little, other than in how a number of characters confide in elderly Mr. Tanba (Atsushi Watanabe) or how the housewives have comments to make on just about everything going on, although they don't involve themselves directly. Kurosawa and company avoid a set structure - some vignettes are entirely atomic, over and done with in one scene, while others recur, or build from start to finish. It is, perhaps, a little too sprawling - though none of the segments Kurosawa rotates through are exactly narrative dead zones, none become the film's spine. Dodes'ka-den tells many small, intimate stories in its nearly two and a half hours, but doesn't spend much time with any one of them.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Donzoko (The Lower Depths)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (The Warrior's Camera: Akira Kurosawa Centennial)

I am not sure which exact time period The Lower Depths takes place in, and I am not certain that it matters. It is a 1957 Japanese movie based upon a play by a Russian, first performed in 1892. The exact origins are unimportant, though - the lot of the jobless and hopeless seldom seems to change.

Nearly a dozen of them are sharing a crowded barn, or bunkhouse of some sort. Tonosama (Minoru Chiaki) tells us he was a samurai once. Tomekichi (Eijiro Tono) is a tinker, but caring for his dying wife Asa (Eiko Miyoshi) has bankrupted him. An elderly actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) claims he can't do his part of cleaning because a life of drinking and jokes with Yoshisaburo (Koji Mitsui), a gambler; both of them look down upon prostitute Osen (Akemi Negishi). The only one with anything resembling a private room is thief Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune), presumably because he's sleeping with Osugi (Isuzu Yamada), the landlord - although it's her sweet sister Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa) that he really likes. She's just brought in a new resident, Kahei (Bokuzen Hidari), an elderly pilgrim looking for shelter during the cold months.

The Lower Depths is based on a play and feels like it; most of the action takes place in a single room and consists of the characters talking back and forth. There's not necessarily a great deal of wisdom to be gleaned from it, but it's good talk; we quickly get a sense of who these characters are and what sort of past and present they are carrying around. A plot eventually forms around the quadrangle made up of Sutekichi, Osugi, Okayo, and Osugi's husband (Ganjiro Nakamura), but slowly, in such a way as to make it clearly secondary to everything else going on.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (The Warrior's Camera: Akira Kurosawa Centennial)

Let's get right down to it: Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress is one of the greatest adventure movies of all time. It's got a chiseled hero, a strong-willed tomboy of a princess, and a pair of disreputable sidekicks; there are are swordfights and secret passages; thrills and laughs. It's not the first to do all these things, but it distilled the formula to perfection, and anyone who shies away from it because it's a fifty-year-old black-and-white Japanese period piece doesn't deserve the films it influenced.

It doesn't start with the hero, though, but a pair of peasants, tall Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and diminutive Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara); they left their homes to seek fortunes in war, but by the time they got there, the Yamana clan had already routed the Akisukis; only one princess is rumored to survive, although the royal treasury is still missing. Tahei and Matakishi stumble upon a piece of that, and are soon enlisted by General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) to help recover the rest, carrying it and the spirited Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) into exile. Of course, the entire Yamana army is after them, and the peasants are only as loyal as their greed.

There have been dozens of adventure movies along these lines; what makes The Hidden Fortress somewhat unique is not so much the flawless execution as the point of view. Most movies would start with the samurai, or the princess; this one spends the first twenty minutes or so following Tahei and Matakishi as they stumble from one misadventure to another, bickering and generally showing themselves to be no heroes, though charismatic underdogs in their own way. When they finally do stumble across Makabe, he comes across less as the hero of the piece but as a bigger, stronger version of them, and even as Kurosawa gives him more scenes with Yuki that establish him as a noble, righteous samurai, we can't help but see him as the guy who's kind of a jerk to Tahei and Matakishi.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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