The Seven Samurai (1954)

This post is a part of  The Criterion Blogathon,  a massive assortment of movie blogs writing about another massive assortment, namely the Criterion Collection, and our love for the films they champion. Click the image below to take you to headquarters (or the link above for the schedule), and join me in reading the work of a lot of other folks who love movies:Criterion Banner

1. Opening Shot

Moving from one city to another is never easy for a child, and honestly, I had it better than some. I really only got uprooted three times as my father’s work in the construction trade moved us around the state. The last one really hurt, taking place in my raw adolescence and severing my first love affair in mid-sigh. Things did improve, as they often do; after a year or so we moved into a larger house, where I even got my own room and TV.

While we were at that first house, the PBS station in Houston was showing a series of great silent films, and I watched quite a few of them with my grandfather, who was living with us as he slowly died of cancer. The second TV I would eventually inherit was in his room, and he seemed to enjoy the old stuff with me. This is how I checked off classic horror movies like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Monster movie kid that I was, these were the only ones I deemed important, though I was surprised how much I enjoyed Orphans of the Storm.

PosterThe PBS follow-up in the year we moved to the larger house was Great World Cinema. I admit I intended to tune in only to watch Fritz Lang’s M, but then a funny thing happened. The movie one week was Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and I decided to watch it mainly because samurai were cool, they carried big swords. I vaguely knew this was the basis for The Magnificent Seven, which I had watched on TV in another town years before, but that was about all I knew.

And so I was completely unprepared to have my mind opened that night.

I had some small acquaintance with classic cinema, thanks to my mother, and also thanks to the TV format of my youth, where movies were used as filler, both late at night and in the afternoons, even the mornings on occasion (“Dialing for Dollars”, you are missed). She loved movies, and remarkable among Moms, she liked a good horror movie. So though I had watched some higher-toned fare like Meet John Doe or Here Comes Mr. Jordan, my taste honestly ran to movies with giant insects and men in rubber monster suits.

So I sat in front of that second-hand black-and-white TV for three and a half hours, watching a tale of bravery, deception, fear, love, false identities, social classism, action, camaraderie, sacrifice, joy, victory, defeat, and an overwhelming desire to do what is right.

I knew that movies could be good, but I had no real idea they could be magnificent.

I had been forced to abandon a love affair in South Texas, but that night a new love affair was born, between myself and movies, certainly, but most especially between myself and The Seven Samurai, which that night became My Favorite Movie Ever Made, and has remained so for forty-five years.


2. Shooting Script

If you look at me and ask, “What is The Seven Samurai about?” you will first have to forgive me for taking a moment to try to find your spaceship, because you are obviously an alien. The movie has been remade several times (most famously – and openly – as The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars and A Bug’s Life), has been the basis of an animated series, a (terrible) video game, there are constant talks of a remake… this is a story that should be in the cultural consciousness, and to a degree it is… but a synopsis will only give you an impression of the entire canvas; it will not give you an inkling of the brushstrokes involved, and Seven Samurai is a movie of details.

Nonetheless, I will try, hopefully without doing too much damage.

VillagersDuring the Sengoku, or Warring States period of Japanese history (roughly the entire 16th century), a poor farming village finds out it will once more be raided by a gang of horse-riding bandits after their harvest. Close to panic, they ask their village elder for advice, who recalls a similar village in his youth that was untouched by bandits: they had hired samurai for protection. When it is protested that the village could only offer food as payment, the advice is, “Find hungry samurai.”

A party of four villagers begin searching for these hungry samurai, and after some angry refusals or being fooled by charlatans, they luck onto Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an aging warrior who at first demurs, citing his age, and saying he has survived many battles, but never won a single one. Only when he realizes the sacrifice of the villagers – they are eating millet while feeding him rice – does he accept.

Good group shots are surprisingly hard to find.Kambei – and a young samurai who desperately wants to be his disciple, Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) – begin searching for the seven warriors he estimates will be necessary to protect the village. He finds Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a scholarly soldier who agrees because he is fascinated by Kambei’s character; the good-natured Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), whose swordplay is only mediocre, but “will be a treasure in hard times”; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a deadly swordsman interested only in perfecting his technique; Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô), Kambei’s former right-hand man – both had thought the other killed in their last battle together; and finally – and reluctantly, on the part of the others – Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a boistrous drunkard who has been haunting Kambei’s steps, and will eventually be revealed as a farmer’s son trying to pass himself off as a samurai.

"You're 13 years old?"After a rocky reception in the fearful village – during which Kikuchiyo proves his true worth as a sort of missing link between the samurai and villagers – the seven begin to train the villagers to use bamboo spears, in between their farming duties. The village is fortified as well as possible , and then, one day, the scouts arrive after the harvests, and matters turn serious. Kambei’s master strategy is revealed, allowing the village to pick off one and two bandits at a time, and repel nighttime incursions. Eventually, it comes down to the final battle, all the remaining villagers and samurai against all the remaining bandits – a battle in a driving rainstorm that would set the bar extremely high for action scenes in the following years. Of course, the samurai do not win the campaign unscathed – only three of them will still be standing at the end. And as Kambei states, “The farmers have won. Not us.”

Kyuzo and Kikuchiyo in their elementThose four paragraphs do not begin to do the movie justice. It does not mention the remarkably full characterizations of the villagers. Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), the farmer driven not only by his desire to find the samurai that will defend his village, but also by a dark secret related to the bandit’s last raid that eats at him; Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara), so possessive of his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), that he forces her to cut her luxuriant hair and dress like a boy, inciting the other villagers to panic; and Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), the long-faced, perpetually fearful old man who will become a comic foil for Kikuchiyo. Manzo’s plan to preserve Shino’s virtue will fail, of course, as Katsushiro will accidentally discover her true identity, but keep her secret even as their love blossoms; eventually they do what desperate young people do on the night before the final battle, consummating a relationship that cannot be at this point in history, between samurai and peasant.

These added details still do not give the full picture; Seven Samurai is the work of a master storyteller at the top of his form. There is not a single shot, not a single scene, not a single line that does not serve a purpose in the furthering of the complete story. People complain about its length, and after I calm myself, I ask what they would cut, and the response would always result in a lesser film. This is one of those three hour movies that doesn’t feel like a three hour movie. Toho reportedly cut 50 minutes from it for the American market, thinking the Yanks wouldn’t want to watch the whole thing. Bitterly, I reflect they were probably right, but that is a version I do not wish to see. It was, in fact, nearly impossible to see the movie in its intended form until the early 70s, so luck was definitely on my side for that first viewing.

If you haven’t seen it, you need to, just to see what my truncated summary left out. No cheating. Go the Criterion route and experience the whole thing.

Heihachi's flag.True to practically every other classic film I’ve examined here, The Seven Samurai was not immediately hailed as a classic, and in fact very nearly did not happen. Kurosawa repeatedly went over budget and schedule, and production was halted many times, prompting showdowns between the director and Toho Studios (which was also dealing with another expensive monster, a little movie called Godzilla). A major part of that expense was the construction of the village, which is very much a character in the story. Toho already had a peasant village set it thought was perfectly good, but Kurosawa disagreed, preferring authenticity and control over convenience. It was the most expensive Japanese movie ever made, costing around 2 million US dollars, a record it held until 1964’s Kwaidan, which weighed in about a little less than 3 million.

Kurosawa’s main ambition had been to make a realistic samurai movie. There had been chanbara, or samurai action movies before, of course, but those were heavily influenced by kabuki theater, and the action scenes tended to be very stylized and not a little fantastic. The original thought was to make a movie about a day in the life of a samurai, ending with the main character committing ritual suicide over some trivial matter. That idea simply didn’t come together, but Kurosawa and his crew had done a tremendous amount of research, and there was one anecdote that stuck with him, of a village hiring ronin, masterless samurai, This photo is 100% pure protect them. The research also allowed him to easily create the six true samurai of the story, each based on historic personages. The one exception, of course, is Kikuchiyo, a character created in the eleventh hour when the screenwriters realized they had six highfalutin’ characters and no everyman, no comic relief to balance them out. Toshiro Mifune was originally supposed to play the Miyamoto Mushashi character, Kyuzo, but was instead (and brilliantly) recast as Kikuchiyo, to his and cinema’s great enduring luck.

Kikuchiyo and KambeiMifune’s Kikuchiyo and Shimura’s Kambei are literally the heart and soul of The Seven Samurai, but in the logline description I give everyone who asks, “The movie gives you twelve major characters and takes each of them through changes.” Going back over my synopsis, above, I keep thinking, “Oh, I didn’t mention this… and this… or this…” So many good moments. So many favorite little scenes.

I really love this movie.


3. Enter the Criterion Collection

criterion-collection-animated-gifMy first encounter with The Seven Samurai was back in the early 70s, so that was the last I would get to see of my great cinematic love for a while. VCRs would be along eventually that decade, but it wasn’t until the mid-80s that I could afford one; even then, the movie was a two-cassette box set, priced beyond my exceedingly modest means. There was a wonderful two week event where the local repertory movie house, The River Oaks Theater, showed a restored print. I was there almost every night, bringing a different person with me each time; none of them regretted it. Yes, perhaps if I had taken all those movie ticket prices and combined them, I might have been able to afford that pricey VHS package, but the chance to see it on the big screen was, to quote an old commercial, priceless.

Yeah, that's big.I eventually left my warehouse job and wound up at a video production company, at a decent rate of pay. Once essentials were taken care of, I took the plunge and invested in that hot new technology, a laserdisc player, the preferred home format of the discerning cinephile. Those of you who grew up on DVD have no real idea of the tremendous step forward laserdisc presented over VHS – the clarity of the picture, the crispness of the audio, the magic of the subwoofer – not to mention something called a secondary audio track. And the picture? Letterboxed! Correct aspect ratios! Chapter settings, allowing you to skip to specific scenes! Sure, a laserdisc was the size of a long-playing vinyl LP and twice as heavy, but who cared? This was the ultimate, it couldn’t possibly get any better than this!

So having bought this magical device and wired it into my system, there was the next step: software. Luckily (for  me, if not for my bank account) I lived a few blocks away from a branch of the biggest video store in Houston at the time, and they had a large laserdisc selection. And what do I find there, in the foreign film section, but The Seven Samurai, from some outfit called The Criterion Collection. That sounded sufficiently elite, and I made my very first laserdisc purchase.

$_12My mania for Seven Samurai was not all-consuming, I must admit – there were two versions, and I got the cheaper one (hey, I had just bought a laserdisc player, no small investment). The more expensive set was encoded in CAV, which meant a flawless still frame every time you hit pause, not the blue screen you got with the more standard CLV format. This also meant more discs, because while CLV could fit close to an hour on one side of a disc, CAV and its density limited you to 20 minutes or so, if memory serves.

Truthfully, the plea of poverty doesn’t hold all that much truth, either, as the very next day I went back and bought the Criterion laserdisc of Ghostbusters.

Yes, Ghostbusters.

I still have all my laserdiscs – I guess I’m still hoping for a vinyl-like resurgence in popularity, though that seems highly unlikely. DVD and Blu-ray simply does everything laserdisc did, and does it effortlessly, at a fraction of the cost. But pawing through my old collection has dredged up a ton of memories, and a number of Criterion titles I keep hoping will make the leap to their blu-ray line. Some, like The Fisher King and The Devil and Daniel Webster (DVD only, at present), did come to pass. But then I look at my Criterion lasers of Citizen Kane, King Kong, Help! (for which I hold out hope, given their lovely blu-ray of A Hard Day’s Night), Lawrence of Arabia, Confidential Report aka Mr. Arkadin, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dr. Strangelove, Boyz n the Hood, Akira, The Player, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Supercop, and the three lasers I would conquer nations to have on Criterion blu-ray, John Woo’s The Killer and Hard Boiled (both released on DVD, now out of print), and Jason and the Argonauts.

An obsession began there, at the end of a century, and it has continued into this one.

But we were talking about The Seven Samurai, weren’t we? This laserdisc allowed me to once more be evangelical about my favorite movie, this time in the comfort of my own home. The audio commentary track by Michael Jeck helped me tease out stuff I hadn’t noticed before, movie connections that weren’t obvious in my multiple viewings (Then again, I still wasn’t as conversant with film, particularly international film, as I should have been). It also allowed me to begin my practice of watching the movie at least once a year.

Seven Samurai filmWe all know what’s coming, don’t we? Toward the end of the 90s, there was this thing called DVD that started making waves in the video world. I successfully resisted it for a while – not another format! Not something else that will be obsolete in a few years! That’s it! I quit! But, like diets, that sort of thing never lasts. I was writing for StompTokyo  (over here if you like cobweb sites) at the time, and a sister review site – Attack of the 50 Foot DVD -was born, and I received a refurbished player in the mail and a Netflix account. And thus was my doom sealed again.

DVDThe Seven Samurai is spine number 2 in the Criterion DVD Collection, and was actually released before spine number 1,  Grande Illusion (mainly because new film elements cropped up for Renoir’s film). It’s practically a clone of the laserdisc, right down to the Michael Jeck commentary, with the added benefit of not having to walk across the room to flip or change discs (I had bought the fancy laserdisc player that eliminated having to flip the disc, at least). I could now freeze frame whenever I wanted. I hated to admit it, but it seemed to look and sound better than my precious laser.

And I know you’ve been waiting for this. Yes, as I groused and prophesied earlier, HD CAME ALONG. I resisted this trend even longer than I did DVD, and my recalcitrance actually paid off this time (honestly, it usually does with new technology, if only from a cost standpoint). This time, it was our old friend, the Format Wars, in a shiny new battlefield. HD-DVD vs Blu-ray in a fight to the death, and by the time I broke down and bought an HDTV and a Blu-ray player, HD-DVD was only a curiosity, crammed to the side in resale shops, next to VHS and cassette tapes.

Blu-rayAbout a decade after the DVD, Criterion released a newly restored blu of The Seven Samurai. I think we know what one of my first purchases was fated to be. The blu-ray is amazing; there is some sort of digital voodoo involved, resulting in a picture that is sharper and clearer than any print I have ever seen; I doubt the movie looked this good the first time it was run through a projector. There’s an enhanced stereo track and  a mono track for traditionalists. Our old friend Michael Jeck is represented, and even yet another commentary track by David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie. Each of whom take on about 40 minutes of the running time individually, which was a relief to me, as I find audio commentaries with more than two people usually irritating and pointlessly confusing. This is going to be the preferred version across all media, until holographic crystals, or whatever new wizardry is going to be used to pick my pocket next.

The supplements, always a strong point with me, are likewise amazing. A two-hour (!) conversation between Kurosawa and fellow filmmaker Nagisa Oshima; a fifty minute making-of from the Toho Masterworks series, another featurette on samurai history and historical influences, the usual gallery of trailers and posters. And a thick little booklet – another standard feature of the Criterion Collection – with essays by Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Stuart Galbraith, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Lumet. And, oh yeah, an interview with Toshiro Mifune.

masthead_art_seven_samuraiThere are also New and Improved English subtitles supervised by Linda Hoaglund, which represent possibly my only complaint about the package (this is how you know I’m a fanboy – I finally found something to whine about). It is foolish and a bit churlish of me to grumble about these subtitles. They are superb, and reportedly do a better job of translating Japanese idiom into English. If there is anything technically wrong with them, it’s that at one point it subverts one of my favorite moments by erring on the side of readability, truly one of the best reasons to do so.

(It’s one of those small moments that nonetheless speaks volumes about the characters. Kambei, almost immediately after his reunion with Schichiroji, tells him “We’re about to engage in a tough battle, and not for money or rank. Will you join us?” And Schichiroji answers, without a picosecond’s hesitation, “Yes.”)

Where the hell have you been hiding these girls?It is the usual fanboy’s bete noir, misplaced nostalgia, at the base of this. I simply miss my old Janus Films print’s subtitles. In the exchange above on the blu-ray, the subtitles for Kambei’s question and Schichiroji’s reply are shown on the same screen, when the camera is focused on Kambei. In the original version, the subtitles were split up, with the subtitles for each character in his own shot, preserving the rhythm of the scene and the impact of that moment. I’ve always been a fast reader, though, and had no problem following that; someone slower would miss something. But on those magical River Oaks Theater nights, I always enjoyed the admiring laughter that exchange provoked.

The other line I mourn from the old days belongs to Kikuchiyo, in the scene leading up to the final battle, as he sticks one sword after another into the mound at the village’s center. Schichiroji asks him, “What are you up to?” and Kikychiyo now replies, “Can’t kill five with just one sword!” In the old days, Kikuchiyo, who spent the night before mourning the death of a villager he had caused, said, “Today I must kill many.” Yeah, that’s a little too stilted for Kikuchiyo, but it is the last thing we will ever get to hear him say, and it was a fine battlefield elegy.

These are so terribly minor, though. My old friend has changed a little, but is still my old friend. I forgave this old friend all those years for having the subtitles mis-timed during an important sequence, giving lines that made no sense to a character and thus imposing visual silence until the movie caught up; that bobble is forever gone, and good riddance. It’s like my grumbling about a couple of good lines from Peter Beagle’s screenplay adaptation of The Lord of the Rings not making it into Peter Jackson’s version – I should just shut up and stop talking just to hear my head rattle.

So no offense, Ms. Hoaglund, your work is splendid. I just had to say something critical about something, to keep this from being four thousand words of gushing and sweetness and light. That might damage my credibility, doncha know.

The end. SPOILER ALERTBecause as you know by now (though I haven’t mentioned it in a thousand or so words), this is my favorite movie of all time. Akira Kurosawa took a reified social class that was trained for war and sacrifice in the name of a titled lord, and instead showed that class using these tools to protect and aid the weak and suffering, even if it caused their own demise, both immediately and eventually. In that respect, it is a timeless tale of a world the way it should be, and yet so rarely is. In that way, it also represents movies the way they should be – and frequently, incredibly – are.

Buy The Seven Samurai on Amazon, because you really should.


The Questionable Joys of 1963

Something that’s kind of odd, but not even that surprising: Usually WordPress intercepts 30-40 spambot comments on this blog in any given day. In the days since I published my piece on the death of my beloved pug-dog Mavis, that has dropped to three or less a day. Even the bots realize there’s little return in inserting your online casino ads under a sad story. I didn’t know they paid that much attention.

But now I’m imagining a bunch of sad spambots sitting around morosely, playing mumbledy-peg or solitaire to fill in their idle hours. I guess I really should give them something to try to post under.

NattvardsgästernaAfter the hell of that week, when I finally elected to watch a movie, I was of two minds: escapist fare, or something that had been on my Watchlist forever, and was one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light,  which is the exact opposite of “light escapist fare”. Also, by “forever” I mean “since I watched The Seventh Seal last year and decided to fall in love with Gunnar Björnstrand, who played the squire, Jöns.

Björnstrand here plays Tomas Ericsson, the pastor of a Lutheran church in a small fishing town. As the movie opens, Ericsson is presiding over a service for a congregation of eight, including a deacon, the hunchbacked sexton, and Ericsson’s former mistress, who is an atheist. Only five of the eight take communion.

BergmWintlight1This is going to be a rough day for Ericsson. He is coming down with a cold – his fever is increasing, and he still has to fill in for communion at another church later that afternoon. His mistress is pressuring him to get married, and two of the people at the sparse service, the Perssons, a fisherman (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife (Gunnel Lindblom) visit him afterwards. Persson has been consumed of late with fear after reading about the Red Chinese developing nuclear capabilities. The sensationalist article he read stated that the Chinese are raised from infancy to know nothing but hate, and he is crushed by knowledge of sure, ultimate doom.

The former mistress, Marta (Ingrid Thulin) flits in and out of the morning, fussing over Ericsson’s health. While waiting for Persson to return for a private conversation, Ericsson reads a letter Marta wrote him, and here we have but one of many reasons Bergman was considered a master: the letter is not delivered to us as a voiceover, but a single close-up, nearly six minutes long, of Thulin speaking the contents of the letter directly to the camera. Like Ericsson, we are trapped in the room with it, and Thulin’s delivery (and needless to say, Bergman’s writing) is so good our minds never wander, as Marta details what went wrong with their relationship, their mutual complicity in its dissolution, and why they should get married and take care of each other. Drained, Ericsson falls into a fitful sleep at his desk until Persson arrives.

3150738673_bb1767d8fcEricsson gets right down to matters. “How long have you thought about killing yourself?” But as the conferences goes on, the pastor finds his own spiritual gas tank long exhausted, and he can find no comfort to offer the fisherman, only his own misgivings about the very existence of God, a disjoint that began when he was unable to reconcile things he saw during the Spanish Civil War with his concept of the Almighty. Persson, discomforted by this outburst from a clergyman, excuses himself and leaves.

Marta is still waiting for him in the sanctuary. “Now I’m free,” he tells her, but Marta’s relief that he finally agrees with her views on God is cut short by another member of that wan congregation arriving to tell Ericsson that Persson has blown his brains out down by the river.

winter-lightThe day is far from finished with Ericsson. He will sit with Persson’s body until the morgue arrives to claim it. He will deliver the sad news to Persson’s pregnant widow and three children. He will, once and for all, tell Marta how he feels about their relationship, the bookend to her earlier letter, but delivered face-to-face; and he will preside over that evening communion, a service for the only person in the church- Marta the atheist, praying for the ability to understand and somehow get through to Ericsson.

So yeah, Winter Light can be used as Exhibit A in the cultural cliché that “Swedish movies are depressing”.

The film’s title in its native Swedish, Nattvardgästerna, translates to “The Communicants”, a clever title of double meanings; not only are our main characters involved in one of the loneliest sacraments ever performed, but each has their own problems with communication, a very common thread in Bergman films, alongside another: a protagonist so obsessed with finding proof of his own personal version of God, he is blind to every other possibility of God’s nature and existence.

3150738027_0757f99d03The English title, Winter Light, is also brilliantly multi-faceted. The lush detail of Bergman’s earlier movies is here stripped away, and Sven Nykvist, behind the camera of what I think is only his third Bergman film, emphasizes the isolation and bleakness of life under the gray winter skies. There is one literally radiant moment, after Persson takes his leave of the distraught pastor, and in the window behind Ericsson, the sun very briefly breaks through the clouds as the clergyman has a moment of clarity about his relationship to a God that may not even be there. This leads to the “I’m free” moment, but the clouds close again, the news of Persson’s suicide is delivered, and uncertainty again takes hold.

If there is any shred of optimism to be found in Winter Light, it is in the person of the sexton, Algot, played by Allan Edwall. As Ericsson ponders whether or not to hold the Communion service in a nearly-deserted church, Algot asks him about his reading of the Gospels, and how he feels the emphasis on Jesus’ physical suffering is misguided, as he himself has suffered physical pain all his life and is no saint. Algot feels that Christ’s keener suffering must have been the fear that his teachings were misunderstood, that he was truly forsaken. “He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.”

image.aspThese are words that must touch Ericsson, and touch him deeply. He makes the decision to hold the service, because no matter what, there must be Communion. There must be duty.

So I say watch the movie, but be prepared for what it is: a stark portrait that may serve as a mirror when you least expect it.

Buy Winter Light at Amazon

So after such an effervescent, frothy confection, you’d think I’d go for a comedy or a movie where things go boom, but no, I still had a commitment to quality in May (oh, I had such plans for the month!), so my next stop was Akira Kurosawa’s  High and Low.

220px-HIGH_AND_LOW_JP_I’ve seen all of Kurosawa’s samurai flicks – hell, The Seven Samurai was the movie that drew me into my love for film, at 13 or 14 years of age. But those are such a small part of the man’s output, I’m doing him a great disservice. Perhaps I started at the top with Ikiru, but I still have a long trail to walk. There are worse problems.

Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is a successful executive who, on the verge of a risky corporate takeover, is plunged into a dilemma: a kidnapper, attempting to abduct his son, has instead gotten his chauffeur’s child. The kidnapper doesn’t care, he still demands thirty million yen for the boy’s release. The dilemma is that Gondo is mortgaged to the hilt for the takeover, and if he uses that money for the ransom, instead of the controlling stock of the shoe company where he works, he will be ruined financially.

That is the moral quandry that drives the first act of High and Low, and the phrase “first act” has never been more appropriate. Shot almost entirely in Gondo’s spacious living room, with a hilltop vista of Yokohama, Kurosawa rather famously rehearsed and blocked this segment like a stage play, and shot it in long takes. It’s fascinating to watch how this allows Kurosawa to manipulate the negative space around the embattled businessman as he steadfastly refuses to be destroyed for a child that is not even his own. His bubble of isolation expands and contracts, it is violated by his wife and the poor, bereft chauffeur. Eventually, he decides to do the right thing and pay the ransom, and the bubble collapses.

highandlowThe second act lets us out into the world, as Gondo performs a complicated drop of two briefcases stuffed with money, and the police do what they can to identify the people involved. Settle in for the third act, which is a very good police procedural – the cops trying to recover the money before Gondo defaults on his loans, and falls from the grace of his hilltop house.

High and Low is based one of the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain, aka the prolific Evan Hunter, King’s Ransom. I enjoy those novels, and the source material shows through in the characterization of the cops. Tatsuya Nakadai makes for a cracking Steve Carella analog as the leader of the task force trying to help Gondo. The police are thoroughly professional and prepared; they arrive dressed as delivery men in case Gondo’s house is being watched, and it is. In fact, when the kidnapper calls to ask why Gondo’s curtains are closed, the cop immediately dive to the floor and behind furniture so the curtains can be opened.

high-and-lowSo yeah, I like watching Dragnet re-runs, I like the 87th Precinct novels, and the closest I get to binge watching are the Investigate Discovery murder investigation shows on Netflix. Some folks find this part of High and Low boring; I find it compelling.

High and Low definitely lives up to its title, starting at Gondo’s spacious house and descending slowly into the slums of Yokohama and finally a hellish venue the cops only call “Drug Alley”. It also charts the similar fall of Gondo, who loses his house and worldly possessions, yes, but also begins to rise again. The kidnapper, a medical student living in a slum, whose window has a direct line-of-sight to the Gondo house, seems to have no motivation outside humiliating Gondo – which ultimately fails, because the court of public opinion has found great sympathy for the executive, leaving the young nihilist with nothing but a scream of rage and fear as he is taken away to be executed.

jszptgI can sure pick the uplifting movies, can’t I?

Buy High and Low at Amazon


A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part seven

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community spent May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

mulholland-drive-poster-_2David Lynch has been called a lot of things, but probably the most succinct is challenging. Here, though, We have a movie that is adapted from a failed TV pilot, so the viewer feels secure that at least it’s going to be as comprehensible as Twin Peaks, right?

That’s if the viewer has forgotten how weird Twin Peaks could get.

Naive small town girl Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in LA to spend a few weeks at her aunt’s apartment, hoping to break into show biz (the aunt is out-of-town on a movie shoot). What she finds in the apartment is an amnesiac who calls herself Rita (Laura Herring), pulling the name off a Rita Hayworth movie poster. We know that Rita was on a limousine on the titular street and she was apparently the victim of some set-up robbery when the limo was smashed into by drag-racing teens – Rita, however, doesn’t even remember that. When the girls search her purse for ID, they find many thousands of dollars and an odd key that fits a triangular lock – and so the Scooby-Doo sleuthing begins, with the girls not totally unaware that there are men searching for Rita, not the least of which is the most inept hit man in the history of the universe (Mark Pellegrino).

mulholland_drive_snap_2In the course of the first part of the movie, most of the Strange with a capital “S” is provided by movie director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who suddenly finds a shadowy organization demands the star of his next movie be a certain actress – “This is the girl” – and when he refuses, his entire world – personal, financial and artistic – is jerked out from under him. The organization is apparently run by familiar face Michael J. Anderson (Twin Peaks’ Man From Another Place), but Kesher meets with a fellow apparently above even him, known only as The Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), who wears a ten-gallon hat and no eyebrows.

Keep in mind I’m telling you the normal stuff. I haven’t gone into the spirit of death and horror who lives behind a Denny’s, or the eerily recurring red lampshade, or other Lynchian touches. At the two hour mark in a two-and-a-half hour movie, the girls go to a club in the middle of the night – Club Silencio (“No hay banda! There is no band! All this is… a tape recording!”) at which point we go full-on Lynch, and just when we think the plot has gone circular, it has turned into a damned Spirograph.

mulholland-drive-2001-to-2-gThe major portion of Mulholland Dr was supposed to form part of the third season of Twin Peaks, featuring Audrey Horne miraculously surviving the explosion in the Season Two finale and getting shuttled off to Los Angeles to find… well, you know by now. Knowing this doesn’t really help, since it leaves you wondering what would have been the outcome in that case, and then you start wondering if Season Three would have ever revealed why Josie Packard’s soul was trapped in the knob of that bedside table. Which doesn’t really aid any analysis of Mulholland Dr, but watching Lynch movies opens up some really odd brain connections.

I think we can conclude that the Audrey Horne version of the story would omit the R-rated lesbian sex scenes between Watts and Harring, not to mention the denouement of the last half-hour, which would fuel a fair number of discussions at movie nights. What I like about these accessible dreamscapes by Lynch is that on some level, you absolutely cannot intellectualize what is going on, you can only intuit it, engage with it on a primal level. This is a hypnotic, mesmerizing movie, genuinely suspenseful, often hilarious, ultimately puzzling. So yeah, I enjoyed it.

I am also fascinated by Lynch’s ability to wring existential terror out of a Roy Orbison song – this is twice that I know of. That, and if Lynch ever decided to do a serious full-on horror movie, we would all be screwed.

Dark City (1998)

darkcity1If there is a general upside to this determination I seem to have to watch movies on MY terms, not other peoples’, it’s that I missed out on Dark City the first time around.

I thought Dark City would make a good follow-up to Mullholland Dr., and I was right, as the movie begins with John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakening with amnesia, in an apartment with a murdered woman. A phone call tells him “they” are coming for him and he must run. “They” are indeed after him, a trio of cadaverous men in black overcoats and fedoras, and who can seemingly make people sleep at will. Murdoch, of course, tries to piece together who he is, and what’s going on, but that last one is a tall order: at midnight, everybody in the city goes to sleep, and the men in black – and there are a lot more than three – change the world, making buildings grow like plants, changing people’s personalities.

dc08There is one non-blackclad doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) who seems to be collaborating with these mystery people, but is also fearfully trying to get in touch with Murdoch. A police inspector (William Hurt) is pursuing Murdoch for serial murder – the previous investigating officer has apparently gone mad and left the force.  The Inspector is working with Murdoch’s wife (Jennifer Connelly). And one of the Men In Black (Richard O’Brien) is injected with Murdoch’s memories in a desperate attempt to track him down – desperate because Murdoch is showing signs of possessing the same world-changing powers as they.

First, we’re going to agree this is a hell of a good cast. Second, we are going to stand dumbfounded that this is actual thoughtful science-fiction, not some other genre script gussied up with sci-fi exteriors. Third, we’re going to find out that the studio did their best to kill it.

Well, not kill it, but damage it. This is where my stubborn refusal to drink from the trough at the same time as many comes in handy. “Thoughtful” movies being poison, and people stupid, uncomprehending animals, director Alex Proyas was convinced to tack a voiceover onto the movie’s beginning, which spelled out the movie’s plot. The plot I spent an enjoyable 111 minutes watching unspool.

Good God, I would have been pissed. There is nothing that turns me against a movie faster than having it treat me like an idiot. Fortunately, I only know of this voiceover through Ebert’s review; the Director’s Cut does away with it entirely. That’s the only version that exists in my universe because that is a good movie.

Cat People (1942)

CatPeopleHS-BAnother busy day, time to call in the 73 minute Cat People.

A chance meeting at the zoo between engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and immigrant artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) leads to romance and marriage. There is one snag: Irena’s Serbian hometown is supposedly home to people that turn into great cats when their passions are inflamed. Though these weird people were supposedly eliminated in the Middle Ages, Irena believes in them strongly enough that she will not even allow her new husband to kiss her. The frustrated Oliver slowly awakes to the fact that his longtime pal at the office, Alice (Jane Randolph) carries a torch for him, and is not so adverse to the kissing stuff. The major problem there: jealousy is also a passion, and Irena begins stalking the two.

This was the first of the low-budget horror movies produced by Val Lewton at RKO, directed by Jacques Tourneur; these movies are rightly considered classics, but the modern horror fan is not going to have much patience with Cat People, at the very least. Tourneur is playing a game of ambiguity here. Is Irena truly a supernatural being, or just a very neurotic young woman on the verge of a violent breakdown? It was that approach that got Tourneur replaced barely four days into shooting , and Lewton went all the way to the studio head to get him reinstated. The Supervisor that fired Tourneur, though, is responsible for an actual panther showing up in one scene, removing all ambiguity and novelty. Those suspense scenes that remain untampered with are justly considered classic and Paul Schrader had no problem lifting them for his far more explicit 1982 version.

Cat-People-1942-SimonIt would have been nice to see Cat People as originally conceived (and The Wolf Man, and a host of others), but it’s worthwhile to watch any of the Lewton films and consider that here are people who worked on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons now working on horror movies.  The budgets may have shrunk, but the talent had not.

Speaking of which, definitely check out William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) for the same reasons: good movie, lots of Kane  alumni, and Simone Simon as the living personification of sex. Oh, and Walter Huston as a particularly fine devil.

Rashomon (1950)

rashomon_sp2Coming into the home stretch on the Challenge, it gets a little wearying, so I opted for some comfort food. Besides it had been… well, I was about to say 30 years since I had last seen Rashomon, but that is too damn depressing.

Three men take shelter from the pouring rain in a burnt-out city  gate: a monk (Minoru Chiaki), a wood chopper (Takashi Shimura) and a Commoner (Kichijiro Ueda). The first two men are very disturbed, having testified at an inquest earlier that day, and they relate to the Commoner what transpired.

The Woodcutter had found the dead body of a samurai in the woods. The notorious bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune)  had been captured with the dead man’s horse and some of his effects. He confesses to tricking the samurai (Masyuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyo) into the woods, overpowering the man, raping the woman, and eventually killing the samurai in a duel at the woman’s insistence.

All well and good, except the wife, found hiding in a temple, tells an entirely different story. When the dead man tells his story, via a medium, it is different from the other two. There is yet another version of the story, lurking about, but it is best you discover it for yourself.

rashomon-sliceKurosawa makes some intriguing stylistic choices (making the viewer the judge in the inquest scenes) and pulls some camera moves that would be appropriated throughout the ages in his forest scenes. This is a movie so ingrained in our cultural purview that The Simpsons can make reference to it with impunity. It also marked Kurosawa’s full-blown introduction to the international cinema scene, and my God, the movies that were to come.

The oddest hangover for this is a desire to once more see the 1964 Western version of this, The Outrage, which I have seen only once during a seemingly accidental showing on TCM years ago.  Based on Fay and Michael Kanin’s play version, it stars Paul Newman as the Bandit, Laurence Harvey as the Husband, and Claire Bloom as the wife. The three guys in what is now a train station? Howard deSilva as a Prospector, William Shatner as the Priest, and Edward G. Robinson as “The Con Man”.  I recall it having some entertaining differences from the Kurosawa version, and besides: I collect Kurosawa rip-offs.

(Turn on Closed Captioning for English subtitles)

The ABCs of March, Part Three

You know the score by now. Letterboxd dot com, March Movie Madness, a movie a day, A for Day One, B for Day Two. To continue:

Intercessor: Another Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare (2005)

movie_254625People kept waving me off from this, which is like waving a red tablecloth at a bull (sorry, Mythbusters). This is, as the title implies, a sequel to the 1987 Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare, which is kind of a reluctant favorite of mine; it starts out as a rock band version of The Evil, veers into Ghoulies territory, then has a gonzo twist at the finale which is actually endearing in its desire to reach awesomeness, if lacking the resources to get there.

Which is about the best way to describe Intercessor. It’s shot on video, has a comic book plot with comic book dialogue that uses fannish comic book art to advance the story – and that last bit is quite literal. The bad guys are Zompira and Mephisto, and there is some sort of plot involving a spindly emo geek and his would-be girlfriend who, never mind, get killed off about a half hour into the story because never mind, the story we really want to tell is Mephisto trying to corrupt a little girl’s pure soul by attacking her in her dreams, and finally, in an empty factory. He is aided in this by four witches representing the four elements, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Rather Fey Pestilence, Whiney Famine, Mardi Gras Death, and Bad Acting. Luckily the spindly geek managed to discover the power of METAL and bring back Jon Mikl Thor before being written out of the story.

pantsfish~Intercessor_skeletorSo Intercessor is Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare writ large, with that last ten minutes or so expanded to an entire movie. As in the end of that movie, there is absolutely no way the production has the resources to effectively tell the story they want. Somebody’s pretty damned good with Adobe After Effects, and there are occasionally some nice visuals, but the seams are really, really visible; the chaotic story, the villains who need to go to Evil Laugh School (the good guys and the four witches are fair to pretty good, though), and those fights that really want to be Highlander class stuff, but generally consist of a couple of moves and the witches getting defeated by Thor throwing his cape over them. Incidentally, I was rather surprised to find out that Pestilence and Famine can be killed by zombies. Who knew?

My suspicion is that each and every member of the cast and crew owned a van with Frazetta’s Death Dealer airbrushed on the side. Intercessor has heart, there is no doubt. What it didn’t have was the budget and actors to pull off its grandiose ambitions.

Hm. No trailer, but here’s the first 60 seconds:

John Carter (2012)

john-carter-movie-poster-7_8fe99ead…is the polar opposite. Disney’s multi-kabillion dollar film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series has the moolah to make the story work, and in astounding, visually impressive ways. Good God, the fact that I never doubted the reality of the four-armed, green Tharks is a testament to the FX department (although I expected them to be more muscular, influenced by the Frank Frazetta covers to versions I read while a teen. Just to drag ol’ Frank into the discussion again).

There were changes made to make the story more palatable to modern audiences, or so the focus groups decreed. Since we no longer cotton to the concept of gentleman swashbucklers, Carter has become a Civil War vet with a dead family to mourn, stopping just short of Josey Wales in Space. Dejah Thoris , the Princess of Mars (hey, he said the name of the book!) has been updated fairly nicely, and the Therns are upgraded to all-purpose, powerful villains who are apparently not even Martian, but an older alien race who are beginning to set their sights on Earth. Past that, John Carter successfully carries on the one-damned-thing-after-another structure of the novels, all on a convincing alien world.

JOHN CARTERTaylor Kitsch won me over as Carter, and Lynn Collins is fantastic as Dejah Thoris. A friend of mine contends that Hollywood should stop screwing around and cast Collins as Wonder Woman, and he’s right. Everybody I know who’s seen John Carter enjoyed it, if not outright loved it. So why did this movie die at the box office? Why aren’t we already talking about the sequel? For some reason, Disney seemed to pretty much abandon it; the striking of the words of Mars from the title for purely superstitious reasons (“No movie with Mars in the title has ever been successful!”) is pretty emblematic of the corporate lack of trust in the product.

It’s saddening, really. John Carter is pulp entertainment on the same high satisfaction level as The Avengers, but it was just never given a chance.

(And I kind of wonder how much it cost Disney to license “Kashmir”…)

Kagemusha (1980)

kagemusha-1980Akira Kurosawa begins the twilight portion of his director’s career. He almost didn’t get there; Red Beard put an end to his relationship with Toshiro Mifune, and left the director with a reputation for difficulty and wastefulness. The failure of Dodes’ka-den in 1970 seemed to put an end to that career. Mosfilm had the good sense to hire him to direct Dersu Uzala in ’75, and that movie receiving an Oscar for Best Foreign Film bolstered him a bit, but Toho was on the financial ropes and no one seemed especially anxious to finance Kurosawa’s next project, a return to the medieval samurai film. Enter a couple of Kurosawa fans named Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who convinced Fox to put up the money in return for distribution rights.

Kurosawa spent a lot of that downtime painting, and it is those paintings that form the most beautiful storyboards ever employed. There are times that the lighting in Kagemusha is so lush,so colorful, it is impossible to deny that Kurosawa had successfully transferred his painted image to film.

041_kagemusha_theredlistKagemusha, literally, “shadow warrior” is supposedly based on a true story of the Warring Nations period preceding the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Japan was constantly in a state of  battle between various ambitious warlords, roughly the end of the 16th century. When one of the most powerful of them, Lord Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai) is wounded fatally by a sniper’s bullet, a common thief with an uncanny resemblance to him must take his place to maintain the clan’s position of strength. The thief excels at the deception, his overconfidence eventually, albeit accidentally, revealing the ruse, and the thief watches in horror as Shingen’s ambitious, unfortunately impetuous son wastes his entire army on one ill-conceived attack.

img1akira3The story was at first fairly small, concentrating on the thief, his change of heart and demeanor  and the growing relationship between him and Shingen’s grandson, a six year-old who is delighted that his grandfather’s “long illness” has rendered him “no longer scary”. But the scope of the story spun out from there, with the various competing lords trying to figure out what exactly is going on so they can plot their next move with assurance. The deliberate unfolding of the plot and the seeming lack of focus on the title character can wear a viewer down, but that’s also part of the genius of Kurosawa; the thief so thoroughly vanishes into Shingen, we never truly know him, and as Shingen’s brother, who had so often played the role of Shingen’s brother, says, “The shadow of a man can never desert that man. I was my brother’s shadow. Now that I have lost him, it is as though I am nothing.” Indeed, once the thief can no longer wield the power of Shingen’s phantom, the entire clan becomes nothing.

Kagemusha is good – it’s really very hard to go wrong with Kurosawa – but so much of it also seems a dress rehearsal for Ran, it can be easy to put it on another shelf, with less respected works from a master.

The Lost Skeleton Returns Again (2009)

LostSkeletonReturnsAgainSo we bookend this entry with shot-on-video sequels. The major difference between Intercessor and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again is, although they likely had similar budgets, Larry Blamire got what he wanted out of his.

This is the sequel to Blamire’s 2001 The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, a canny parody of low-budget late 50’s sci-fi programmers. It was the best post-Airplane parody movie, because it didn’t lampoon a specific movie – Lost Skeleton is very much its own movie, using every bad movie trope Blamire had ever seen. The Ed Wood-style mangled speech patterns, flying saucers (and skeletons) on wires, a monster wearing workboots under its carpet-remnant costume… it was a project that came from love, and it was damned near perfect. I couldn’t wait to see what Blamire would do next.

LSaliensI’m actually still waiting. His immediate follow-up, Meet the Mobsters (2005), I literally only found  out about five minutes ago. Trail of the Screaming Forehead (2007) ran into that old bugaboo, troubles with the producer, who at one point reportedly took the film away from Blamire, recut it and shot more special effects scenes. That version has shown up on cable channels, and Blamire’s version remains available only on Region 2 PAL DVD.

The same year as Returns Again, Blamire also released Dark and Stormy Night, his “old dark house” parody, replete with wisecracking reporters, ominous, hooded killers and more secret panels than are likely safe for structural integrity. I love Dark and Stormy Night.

"Rowr" indeed.

“Rowr” indeed.

Returns Again is very much the spiritual brother of Dark and Stormy Night; Blamire still employs some twisted Wood grammar but relies a lot more on twisted wordplay and rapid-fire delivery of non-sequiturs for his humor. In this outing, the surviving cast from Lost Skeleton all converge on the Amazon, journeying to the Valley of Monsters, ruled over by the Cantaloupe People – both of them. Tagging along are the twin brother of two characters that died in the first movie (how handy!) and Blamire, bless him, found a way to bring back Animala, the best character from Lost Skeleton, the woman made of four animals combined by alien technology. Then again, he sort of had to, as she is played by Jennifer Blaire, his wife.

Like 98% of all movie sequels, Returns Again isn’t as good as its predecessor, but the fun far outweighs the blah. It’s still an eminently quotable movie, and hell, that’s a goodly portion of what movie geeks care about when they gather together. In my circle, we still pull out the “Have i the message? Have you the message?” bit from Dark and Stormy Night, amusing ourselves and puzzling others.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Ikiru (1952)

ikiru-479517lThe Criterion Collection website has its social element. Not a site forum that I can find, but you can set up your own account there, comment on the various Collection posts (I skip the comments, as is my habit. When I don’t, I am saddened that they usually run to the banal, like “Me wanty!” or posts about Dr. Dre’s Beats that haven’t been purged yet) and you can curate a thing called “My Criterion“. Now, while I don’t like making lists, I do love cataloging, so I had another place to post my discs besides the one on Letterboxd. You can also put together a Wish List, and the only failing there is Criterion didn’t provide a button for “Everything Not Already Owned”.

I bring this up because you also create a profile there, and one of the things displayed on your profile is, no surprise, Favorite Director. I’ve waffled a bit on that over time, but I started out with Akira Kurosawa, and after a while and some flirting with other directors, I’m right back at Akira Kurosawa.

It is, quite simply, hard to go wrong with Kurosawa. I can trace my current love of cinema, I think, to a series on PBS back in my youth, circa 1973 0r 74, that showed classic world cinema. One of the movies they showed was Seven Samurai, and my fate was sealed. The fact that they later showed Yojimbo was just to make sure I had stopped twitching. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Seven Samurai; it’s the movie I trot out at least once a year for viewing, and I find something new to admire every time.

Kurosawa is so influential, that he birthed a cottage industry, and a secondary hobby of mine. I collect Kurosawa rip-offs, remakes, or homages if the budget is big enough. Seven Samurai and Yojimbo must be the most-remade movies ever, in various genres and locales.

600full-ikiru-posterBut the point I am making, in a typically meandering and tail-chasing way, is that if your only experience with Kurosawa is his samurai movies, then you must see Ikiru. Frankly, I could have left it at “You must see Ikiru.”

Ikiru translates as “To Live” or simply “Living”. It stars the versatile Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe, an aging bureaucrat who has spent the last thirty years advancing to the head of his department in city government by doing nothing. His life is incredibly nondescript, sitting at his desk, stamping papers, and overseeing his underlings continually shuttling complaints off to other departments.

Until his stomach pains become so great he has to take his first day off in 30 years to see a doctor, only to discover that he has terminal stomach cancer. In just one more layer of an astonishingly-crafted film, Watanabe is not told of his impending death by the medical bureaucracy at the hospital, that instead falls to a loquacious hypochondriac in the waiting room, who lists off all the symptoms of terminal cancer and the lies doctors tell to terminal patients. It’s a stark reminder that at the time it was common practice to not tell terminal patients of their plight, to avoid filling their remaining days with dread.

ikiru_2Watanabe finds himself falling into an emotional whirlpool. He finds he cannot bring himself to tell his adult son or his daughter-in-law about his illness, as his concentration on being un-extraordinary has also subjected his personal life to the same drab non-existence of his office. He withdraws a large sum of money from his bank, intending to blow it on debauchery, only to find to his dismay that he has no idea where to start. A chance encounter with a hard-drinking writer sets them onto a long night exploring the entertainment quarter – and you had no earthly idea the night life in Tokyo was so varied and so intense.  Even that, though, fails to pierce Watanabe’s melancholy, and even the Writer finds himself sobered by the man’s fate, all his efforts to render life and death poetic crushed by the simple fact of Watanabe stopping their taxi ride to vomit his ailing guts out in an alley.

Watanabe is then smitten by Toyo (Miki Odagiri) the sole woman in his department, a young girl who is leaving because she finds the work “boring” and unsatisfying. The older man isn’t in love or even in lust with her – he is drawn to the fact that she is so alive, that she makes him laugh. Shimura is, in fact, capable of making the saddest, most hang-dog expression possible, and seeing that face transform when he laughs is magical indeed.

ikiru-bunnyWatanabe’s son is certain that his father’s odd behavior is due to Toyo, and when the man tries to tell his son, finally, about his cancer, the son jumps the gun and completely chews his father out about hanging with a young girl. Toyo is also getting creeped out by Watanabe’s attention, and when she attempts to  cut off all contact with him, he tells her of his plight and tries, one last time, to find out what it is about her life that makes it so vital, so attractive. Toyo feels it is because she is currently working in a toy factory, and she makes things. She puts one of the toy bunnies on the table. “I feel like I’m playing with every baby in Japan.”  In his moment of greatest despair, Watanabe sobs he can’t make anything, not in his job… and as a party in another part of the restaurant breaks into “Happy Birthday to You”, he realizes he can, and charges out.

The narrator informs us that six months later Watanabe has died, and the rest of the movie takes place at his wake.

2aSince the movie is starting to play around with time, I’ll do the same and return to the beginning, where, in a darkly comic sequence, we are shown a group of housewives complaining about a cesspool in their neighborhood, asking to have it paved over and hopefully turned into a park for their children. They start at Watanabe’s department, then are shuffled from department to department to the deputy mayor and finally, back to Watanabe’s department. That, and the stacks of paper everywhere, reaching to the ceiling (Kurosawa’s art department apparently appropriated the studio’s paperwork for the past 40 years for these documentary vistas) artfully delineate Watanabe’s world.

As the attendees at his funeral talk, we begin to discover the particulars of the last six months of Watanabe’s life; how he used that time to successfully railroad through the creation of that park, and how he was found dead in that park the day after it opened. Through these stories, his co-workers and fellow bureaucrats – and his son and daughter-in-law – come to realize that Watanabe knew he was going to die, and utilized his final days for all they were worth. The increasingly intoxicated bureaucrats swear they will do the same, they will, like Watanabe, become firebrands of change. Of course, the next day, they all go back to their gray, do-nothing lives, leaving the one worker who attempts to follow their grandiose, drunken promises to ponder Watanabe’s park sadly as the sun sets. The change, when it comes, will not come as a sweeping wave, but as the work of individuals, like Watanabe, and like, hopefully, this one serious, concerned worker.

Ikiru is a surprising film, one that just when you think you have it scoped out, changes on you. We identify so strongly with Watanabe and his blind flailing to find something, anything to make his wasted life worthwhile, that it comes as a bit of a shock to find out he’s dead just when things finally seem to hitting a positive note. But that storytelling is incredibly canny because due to our identification with the character, we then get to attend our own funeral, and it is every bit as satisfying as we could hope. Not mawkish at all, but with heartfelt feeling.

ikiru-bfi-00m-ek4Earlier in the movie, when the Writer is showing Watanabe through the underworld, there is a scene in a piano bar where the player asks what he wants to hear, and Watanabe requests “The Gondola Song”, which dates back to 1915, a song asking women to find love before they are too old. Some drunken couples get up to dance, but slowly stop and sit down, listening to Watanabe’s sorrowful singing. In the final portion of the movie, we are privy to Watanabe’s final moments, sitting in one of the swings in the new park, joyfully crooning “The Gondola Song” in the snowy night. I have tears in my eyes just writing about that moment. Hopefully the spellcheck will catch the typos.

So yes, Ikiru is a movie to be seen. It is emotional without stooping to manipulation, heartfelt without cheap sentiment. Akira Kurosawa was a humanist, and rarely was that humanism so moving and so affecting.