Tuesday, April 15, 2008

If I made films, they'd have a samurai

I recently finished up a 'films of Akira Kurosawa' class at the BYZOO and you know what? He's just as great a director as I'd always heard he was. Week after week I thoroughly had my mind blown, and I thought all of you blog readers would enjoy a few, if not all, of his films.

I've been thinking about this for awhile, and I've finally come up with my personal top five Kurosawian films. Hope you have a chance to see them, or if you've seen them, let me know what you think.

Here they are in reverse order:

5. Rashomon.

Rashomon surprises you. After a fairly laborious beginning it moves swiftly through a fairly twisty plot. The same story of a murder is recounted four times from different points of view (including one story from the murdered guy through a medium.) The story points out how difficult it is to truly know 'the truth' of anything when people's self interest is involved. Just when you think that things can't get anymore pessimistic, and that there truly isn't any order or justice in the world something truly amazing happens in the story that returns everything to its balance, and restores the audiences faith in humanity. One of the best endings of a film I can remember, and it's just over 80 minutes it doesn't take too much time to watch.

4. Seven Samurai

Most would argue that this is Kurosawa's best film, and it's hard to argue. A small village of farmers hire the seven samurai to protect their village from the thieves who ravage their farms every year.

The dude with the sword over his shoulder is Toshiro Mifune, and if he looks familiar he's the same guy in the picture above (he'll probably be pictured below too). Mifune stared in a whopping 16 films for Kurosawa, and with his charisma and talent it's easy to see why, not to mention he looks about 15 feet tall in some of these movies.

But Seven Samurai is the real deal. The most exciting artsy fartsy film you'll ever see. It has all the tricks (great editing, fancy cinematography, great dialogue) and even though it's a little over a week long (I'm only sightly exaggerating here, it clocks in at 207 minutes I think) it never gets boring. If you watch it in segments you have something to watch all week.

How can this possibly be #4? Believe it or not, there are three films I liked even more.

3. Yojimbo

Yojimbo's a samurai western. And it's a blast. A drifting samurai wanders into a town where two rival gangs are at war, so he decides it would be fun to turn them against each other and watch them both burn. You learn later that he's actually a 'good guy' but being good and doing the right thing gets him into trouble, a theme that is repeated in many Kurosawa films. Our heroes do what's right, but pay dearly for it. Mifune is at his scratchiest in this film, and his characters easily the badist mamma jamma Japan ever saw (I think he slays about 11 guys in .04 seconds at one point.)

And the jazz score is a scream whenever Mifune does something cool you get a DA-DA-DA in the score.

2. Throne of Blood

This is easily my favorite version of Macbeth and is Kurosawa at his most visually stunning (at least in my opinion.) Again, Mifune is the lead and is surprising not itching and picking his teeth every two minutes.

It's Macbeth told through visual rather than lyrical poetry. And all the recognizable scenes from the play are there, Banquo's ghost, the out damn spot scene, the witches, etc.) Really satisfying to see such a great adaptation, and it zips by at 111 minutes.

1. Ikiru

The Citizen Kane of the east. Ikiru is both completely edifying and heartbreaking at the same time.

Takashi Shimura portrays Kanji Watanabe, a government official who hasn't missed a day of work in 30 years. When he learns he has stomach cancer he embarks him on a soul searching journey to find meaning and matter in his life. He learns that pleasures and social company can only do so much, and that real satisfaction comes through losing yourself in the service of others.

Probably Kirosawa's most compassionate film, Ikiru leaves you pondering for days after. For anyone who thinks that film can bring about transcendence from everyday life into something meaningful and beautiful this is defiantly a film you need to see.

Honorable Mention: Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, High And Low, Kagemusha, Ran, Dreams.


  1. Sounds like I need to see a few movies. What's the clean flicks rating on these films? Anything I should be aware of--profanity, gratuitous violence, nudity, etc.--before I watch? Hmmm, if they were shown in a BYU class they're probably clean, right?

  2. I've been reading the blog for a few months now, and although there have been some great subject matters (graduate literature, the greatness of Padeken, Jed's gayness), but nothing has rung my bell enough to comment until I could brag that I too have seen and loved Seven Samurai. That's probably not that big of a claim, since it's his most famous film, but still. I would recommend it to all--it's clean, violence is minimal and not graphic at all.

  3. Since it was shown in Darl Larsen's class (am I right?), it's not necessarily clean, but these films would all be rated PG, I'd think. I've shown all of them at one time or another in my film history classes at the high school. There is a lot of killing, but very little blood, which I turns out to actually be frustrating to some people. When I showed "Sanjuro" (the sequel to "Yojimbo") to my film history class, the students complained about how even though he was killing all these guys with his sword, there wasn't any blood. The bell rang when there was two minutes left, so I paused it and told the class they could leave if they wanted or they could stay and watch the film. I hadn't seen the film before, so I didn't know what would happen, but right after I unpaused it Mifune spun around and slashed the other dude with his sword and he sprayed blood like blood has never been sprayed before. The stalwart students found this very satisfying.

  4. Tone, did you see High and Low? That's another of my favorites, in addition to the ones you mentioned. One of the few that take place in the present day. It's fun seeing Mifune act normal.

  5. Yeah, High and Low was a toughie to leave off of the list. That whole sequence with the dude in the dark glasses walking around town while about 1,000 plain clothes policemen follow him around was pretty great.

    To Holmes, most of the films are from the 50's so they are VERY PG. Other than the blood sprut Brandie mentioned and a main character getting an arrow in the throat in Throne of Blood (which is sort of silly looking) they're all rather bloodless.

    There's also some interesting Japanese costumes where you see some male behind (Mifune's actually in 7 samurai) but no female nudity.

    Some of the subtitles were funny, very rarely you'd have an F-bomb show up in them, which was jarring because it seemed to be added by the translators rather than from the original texts. (I think it happened once or twice in the whole semester, and might have been in Stray Dog and Drunken Angel.)

    Anyway, all of them are pretty watchable, I think your kids would be bored to tears, but you and Mrs. would probably like them.