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


The Zatoichi Box, Part Five

$150-$200? Really?

$150-$200? Really? That’s fifty bucks an episode.

I’ve been watching the movies contained in the Criterion Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman box for over a month now; it’s odd to consider that I’m nearing the end of them – only seven to go. Then, of course, I have managed to track down five of the six collections of the TV series put out by Tokyo Shock around 2008 – and does anybody have any earthly idea why the second volume of that now commands upward of $150? Also saving my pennies for the out-of-print disc TS put out of Zatoichi: Darkness is His Ally, Shintaro Katsu’s 1989 swan song to the character. So I will continue to be Ichi-fied for some time.

Meanwhile, still moving through the 60s pictures:

Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

62.jpg?w=584For someone who could give Daredevil a run for his money, Ichi really does have some of the worst timing ever. To pay for his hospitality, a disagreeable yakuza Boss sends Ichi along with a party of six thugs to force a ne’er-do-well to cough up the thirty ryo he owes. When the target douses the lantern in his hovel and sends the sighted yakuza bleeding out into the night, Ichi has to step in – after all, darkness makes no difference to him – and though Ichi explains matters to him, the guy still insists on attacking, with the usual fatal result. This occurs just as the man’s sister appears with the money to pay his debt.

That’s bad enough, but then the Boss’ regulars announce they’re also taking the woman prisoner as interest on the debt, which is when Ichi steps in. Turns out the entire thing was an elaborate scheme to press the woman into service to the local corrupt magistrate, so the Boss would get a lucrative concession at a new palace, or something. Ichi tells the Boss that ain’t happening, kills a thug who called him a “blind bastard” once too often, and then takes it upon himself to get the girl, Osode (Yoshiko Mita) safely to her aunt in a nearby town. osodeOsode is, shall we say, conflicted about receiving help from the man who killed her brother, but the Boss’ men are still following her, and there is a troublesome ronin (Makoto Sato, a popular action star in his own right), who has eyes on Osode, and also on a huge bounty on Ichi’s head. Osode keeps sneaking off from Ichi’s care, only to find herself captured once more, and at one point Ichi, desperate to catch up with her, basically steals a horse to cover ground more quickly – then realizes he has absolutely no idea how to stop a horse.

Comic actor Takuya Fujioka, a friend of Katsu’s, plays Shinsuke, another peripatetic yakuza who is something of a bungler, but in whom Ichi still finds a staunch ally. Once more Kenji Misumi directs a splendid action picture, full of gorgeous natural vistas and nicely choreographed sword fights. I’m a bit dismayed at Ichi actually cheating at dice, and at least one instance of questionable physics, but overall Misumi once again delivers a fine Zatoichi movie, and if the traditionally complex plot is absent, at least this time Ichi isn’t bleeding to death as he walks off into the sunset. I worry about him, you know.zatoichi-19-samaritan-zatoichi

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO JPAnd here we are, the first Zatoichi movie I ever watched, some 25 years ago or so. It was fairly available back in the days of the first VHS wave, largely due to the name recognition factor of Toshiro Mifune and Yojimbo. I frequented a video store back then that had an amazing catalog of foreign movies. (Also cheapass straight-to-video horror movies, but that is a story for another time.)

This was a collaboration between Katsu Productions and Toho. The previous movie, Samaritan Zatoichi, had been released almost two years before, a telling gap when previously, Daiei had been releasing three a year for some time. It is also the longest of the Zatoichi movies at nearly two hours, when others had run just short of 90 minutes. All these factors serve to make this a rather novel entry in the series; but the major component setting this movie apart remains the presence of Toshiro Mifune, and the concurrent doubling of star power, for better or worse.

The movie opens with a nightmarish scene, a marsh during a rainstorm, where everybody out in the storm is preying upon everybody else. Ichi breaks his sword dealing with one attacker, and becomes overcome with homesickness. He returns to his home village for the first time in three years; he delights in the familiar sound of a stream, not seeing the dead bodies rotting in its waters. He bypasses a bizarre improvised graveyard unaware of the rough carvings of monks serving as tombstones. zatoichi_meets_yojimboThings have changed in the last three years. The village has been taken over by the rich merchant Eboshiya (Osamu Takizawa), and a rival gang formed by his son, the hyperactive Masagoro (Masakane Yonekura), who relies, both for muscle and for strategy, on his bodyguard, Sassa (Mifune). When Sassa isn’t drunk or making time with local prostitute Umeno (Ayako Wakao), he’s egging Masagoro on about a bar of gold the Boss is certain his father is hiding somewhere. There is some skullduggery afoot regarding gold there, but it’s not what one would suspect.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Ichi in that last paragraph. He is there, but seems almost a guest star in his own movie. The necessity of devoting screen time to Mifune and developing his character is what adds the extra time to the movie. Despite what many people insist, although Mifune is playing a yojimbo, a bodyguard, he is not playing Sanjuro, the subject of two Kurosawa movies. Really, Sanjuro was far too similar to Zatoichi to be used in this story – a rough and tumble traveler who altruistically did the right thing and protected the weak against the worst elements of a corrupt world. The character of Sassa is not quite so complex, but has his secrets – and some of those secrets run counter to Sanjuro’s character.

image31355Eboshiya eventually brings in another bodyguard, Kuzuryu (a properly cadaverous Shin Akida), who turns out to be the sort of villain Sassa pretends to be, while still having a surprising connection to the yojimbo. As with all other Zatoichi flicks, the threads come together in the end, but unlike most of them, the loose ends just sort of flail together in a mass instead of the usual tidy bundle.

Both Katsu and Mifune could be legendary troublemakers on the set, and a legend about the two disagreeing about who would win the final duel persists, but seems wildly unlikely. Would Mifune really think he would be allowed to end a successful series, 20 entries long? I kind of doubt that, but I could also see Katsu and Mifune pranking the world with the idea. Good publicity, too. Zatoichi-Meets-Yojimbo-1965The revisiting of Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo at this remove did give me one insight, into why I never bothered before to seriously look into the series, even when Animeigo released the series domestically back in the early part of the century. Again, it’s due to the presence of Mifune and the necessary focus put on his character. I find I don’t care much for Ichi’s character in this outing, outside of a few outstanding comedic bits, and that is the impression I carried with me for the next twenty-five years or so.

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

zatoichi-goes-to-the-fire-festival (1)This is the first film in the series where star Shintaro Katsu has a co-writing credit, and I wish I were clever enough to ascertain exactly where his contributions lie. I’m tempted to say it’s some of the more outrageous comedy bits, but that’s just guesswork on my part.

Ichi rescues a woman from a “mistress auction” (earlier translations called it a “geisha auction”), who had been “wife to a retainer of the Shogun”. That night, she steals Ichi’s wallet, and runs into a moody samurai who she recognizes – and says not a word as he kills her. Turns out this ronin (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, sixteen times more intense and crazy than his role in Sword of Doom) was the lady’s husband, and he’s determined to kill everybody she ever slept with – and that includes Ichi, although he’s innocent.

ichi_twentyoneBut that, my friends, is mere subplot. Ichi’s real problem is the yakuza Superboss Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori), who has united all the gangs in the region under his control – and is, himself, blind. Yamikubo is aware of what a nuisance this Zatoichi chap can be, and when an ambush in a bathhouse fails (probably nerve-wracking to shoot, even with blunt swords and all that exposed man-flesh), the Superboss reveals why he holds that high position. He rightly feels that throwing more knives at Ichi isn’t going to work, and takes the opposite tack: he sends the daughter of his right hand man, the lovely Okiyo (Reiko Ohara) to get close enough to kill our favorite masseur. z21_3Though Ichi is charmed by the young lady, Okiyo (of course) falls in love with Ichi, his lack of guile and his decency. This will lead up to Yamikubo’s ultimate death trap (of which the title is an ironic clue) and the final showdown between two blind adversaries – not to mention that troublesome and now completely insane ronin, who shows up when Ichi is about to drown in yakuza, announces “No one kills this man but me,” and proceeds to turn into a combination of Lone Wolf and a threshing machine.

Kenji Misumi is back in the director’s chair for this one, and though the movie betrays its 1970 origins with a number of Eurocine snap-zooms and close-ups through telephoto lenses, Misumi’s visual flair and penchant for truly lovely natural vistas to set his scenes against is stronger than ever. z21_1Outstanding in the comedy department is a really odd scene with a man and a woman running a roadside tea stand who bicker more than the Kramdens, but with the added appeal of flying kicks. I wanted to see more of them, but it’s probably best that Katsu obeys the laws of showbiz, and leaves me wanting more. There is another, stranger character in wannabe yakuza and amateur pimp Umeji (played by transgender actor Peter, likely best known to American audiences for his role in Ran), an androgynous youth who looks like an anime character. At one point, he attempts to seduce Ichi and assassinate him. It’s played for laughs, but I’m still trying to parse if my discomfort with that scene is due to my sexual orientation or that it’s played for laughs. I may never figure that out.

So here I am, four movies out – not counting TV series and swan song – and I’m feeling more and more of a need to take a break from Ichi. This may only be a matter of a week or so. Maybe a little longer. But we’ll come back to this glorious box and finish it out, sooner rather than later.

A Movie Weekend

The buildup to this is semi-complex, but I don’t want to be too specific. Perhaps you will see my dilemma.

Back during the last Crapfest, pal Dave gave me back a DVD that had been on perma-loan to him, which was The Prestige. He had borrowed it long, long ago, back when he was living in an apartment, in fact. I had dropped in for a visit, and had stopped at a Hollywood Video (to show you approximately how long ago this was) to raid their pre-viewed DVDs. One of them was The Prestige, Dave asked to borrow it, I said sure, why not, knowing full well it would be a long time before I got around to watching it, anyway. This was also back when I was wasting every evening of my life playing City of Heroes, which squandered many a movie watching hour. Don’t regret it, I enjoyed playing it with my friends. But I’ve now walked away from that particular teat.

Anyway, Dave handed me back the DVD, and off-handedly stated, “You know, I never guessed that (EXTREME SPOILER).” There was a brief pause, after which I said, “Well, now I guess I don’t have to watch it.” There was a brief scene after that, but Dave was far more upset than I. There is, as Penny Arcade points out, a statute of limitations on spoilers. That I had managed to successfully avoid that particular spoiler for 6 years is remarkable, but Dave was innocent of wrongdoing. Even so, he felt really badly about the whole thing.

About a week after, I sent him an e-mail suggesting we get together to watch The Prestige, because, after all, he had said he wanted to watch it again, and I wanted to watch it for the first time. Earlier that year, when he found out I still hadn’t seen Inception, he urged me to come over and “watch a good movie for a change.” Well, I spoiled that by watching Inception one lazy Sunday morning. Much as I love my wife, Dave would have been a better movie-watching companion for that particular movie. Lisa enjoyed it, but wasn’t particularly engaged by the multiple layers of the central caper, which is something Dave and I would have chewed over with gusto.

So. We watched The Prestige.

I like Christopher Nolan movies because you have to pay attention. And I like them because he doesn’t make that hard, at all. The Prestige has a very fluid timeline, constantly jumping back and forth through the chronology of the two main characters, but it is never confusing in that respect. The tale of an increasingly destructive rivalry between two stage magicians, there is a lot about setup, artifice, and pay-offs, and when Nicola Tesla is brought into the mix (a nicely strange turn by David Bowie), things take a turn for the downright weird. As Dave rightly pointed out, every scene means something different on a second viewing, and the movie is as meticulously constructed as a stage illusion. The seeds of Dave’s spoiler run throughout the movie, and I flatter myself that I would have spotted them, though as Dave points out, we’ll never know for sure. Ah well.

There are a couple of “oh, come on” moments for me, a couple of minor plot points that don’t affect the story that much, I just get curious. Nolan’s eye for casting remains solid. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are both great choices, and the supporting cast includes Andy Serkis, Scarlett Johannson and Piper Perabo. Michael Caine is Michael Caine, which is pretty much what you pay him for these days. I swear to God Nolan cut-and-pasted at least one Caine speech from this script into one of the Batman scripts.

Good movie. Quite recommended.

Dave had, just that day, received a disc from Netflix: Cowboys and Aliens. Neither of us had seen it, so into the player it went.

There’s your setup right there: amnesiac Daniel Craig has a high-tech super-weapon locked onto his wrist, aliens keep flying overhead and lassooing innocent people. Hardass cattle baron Harrison Ford recruits Craig to attack the alien’s main base and rescue the people, which is okay by Craig because it seems to be tied into his missing past. In short, this is Terminator: Salvation in a Western setting.

It is also 20-30 minutes too long and wastes a lot of good actors in insignificant roles, like Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell. There is quite a bit too much time spent marshaling forces for a final battle that seems scattered and, like the movie, over-extended. Can’t find fault with the visual effects, at all, and the actors are a solid lot. It’s entertaining. but not enough for a whole-hearted recommendation. Netflix, definitely.

Well, that was Friday night. Saturday night, I usually have The Show, but as there were no reservations, that was cancelled. This is usually a cause for moping more than celebrating, because missing out on that small paycheck puts my fragile economic ecology in danger. But, I thought, none of that this week, dammit. Last Christmas, I got my wife her favorite movie in the world, Doctor Zhivago, on Blu-Ray. I had never seen Zhivago, so I figured it was high time.


What a dreadfully cramped trailer for a Panavision film!

Zhivago is, no surprise, the life story of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), Russian poet and doctor, and Lara (Julie Christie), the woman whose life keeps intersecting his. The chronology of this relationship passes through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, more than enough turmoil for a historical romance. On Twitter I opined that this was the longest chick flick ever, which is the sort of thing you say when you are limited to 140 characters.

To be sure, it’s still shorter than that other over-long chick flick, Gone With the Wind, and it covers two vast conflicts instead of GWTW‘s single Civil War – and that is the larger story I took away from my viewing. My wife prefers to think of Zhivago as a great love story; I think of it as the tale of a man buffeted along by events much larger than he. Make no mistake, this is a gorgeous movie – director David Lean, cinematographer Freddy Young, and Omar Sharif’s dreamy countenance provide a very compelling look at how poets view the world. GWTW is very obviously compacting a whole lot of novel into its last half-hour, and I never got that impression with Zhivago – Lean doesn’t make short movies, but those movies are very full without obvious compression.

I’ve long been a fan of the Arthurian legends, probably dating from the first movie I can recall seeing in a theater: The Sword In The Stone. A good friend through college constantly took me to task on this: “How can you possibly like it? It’s a love story based on betrayal.” (Likely because I didn’t focus on the love story, I was more taken with the idea of armored knights as a force for good, rather than medieval stormtroopers, but that’s neither here nor there) Zhivago‘s love story is also one of betrayal, as Yuri falls in love with Lara during their time in a makeshift hospital at the end of WWI. It is to the credit of the characters that nothing comes of it, Lara telling Yuri, “I don’t want you to lie to your wife because of me.”

Yet, after fleeing the wretched conditions of Moscow after the worker’s revolution, Yuri seeks out Lara, and the inevitable betrayal occurs; though both are married, Lara’s husband has been given up for dead (He has in fact reinvented himself as the terrorist insurgent Strelnikov), but Yuri’s wife, mere miles away, is pregnant with their second child. Zhivago is taken from this personal turmoil to another turmoil, as he is press-ganged into a Red Brigade bringing justice (and a whole lot of death) to White Russian forces. During his servitude, his family escapes to Paris, allowing him to live in sin with Lara and her daughter for a time, until the World steps in again.

As is the case with Gone With The Wind, this is not my cup of tea. I can appreciate the craft that has gone into this, the efforts at authenticity, the sheer awesomeness of the cast – but I still honestly cannot connect with what my wife considers to be a great love story. She loves it, I accept that. I shrug and continue on.

That was also the weekend my landline cratered, and because I have DSL, I was incommunicado through everything but my smartphone. So Sunday morning, while my wife was out at the movies with her friends – I had seen everything at the cinemas I had wanted to see; her friends went to Cabin in the Woods and she went to The Lucky One, that pretty much tells the tale – I finally watched Chushingura.

Chushingura, it seems, is the general term for fictional re-tellings of the tale of The 47 Loyal Ronin, which looms large in the landscape of Japanese culture. In the early 18th century, a corrupt Master of Etiquette is dissatisfied with the bribes offered by one of the younger lords, and goads that lord into attacking him in the Shogun’s palace, a breach so serious the young lord is sentenced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, and his clan dissolved. His retainers, now all ronin – masterless samurais – bide their time, as retribution against the offended Master is forbidden. Finally, after two years of pretending to be workmen, monks, and in the case of the Chamberlain, a dissolute, drunken womanizer, forgetful of his duty to his dead master – on the second anniversary of the ritual suicide, the remaining 47 gather and attack the household, finally avenging the death of their master.

This is the 1962 version of the story, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, and I strenuously wished I had been more familiar with the story of the 47 Ronin before I had seen the movie. There are a lot of characters in play throughout, and I’m not just talking about the 47 ronin – wives, hangers-on, courtesans, brothel entertainers, not to mention the crew around the spectacularly corrupt Lord Kira, who feels an existence based entirely on lust and greed will grant him a long life, and that other samurai are fools for their predisposition to die at the slightest provocation. It gets dizzying after a while. Familiar faces like Takashi Shimura helped anchor me, but I still found myself confused as relationships proliferated as the fateful evening approached. Toshiro Mifune, featured prominently on all the advertising materials – especially the ones destined for Western eyes – has only a supporting role, as the lancer Genba Tawaraboshi, who is the hard-drinking badass we always love to see Mifune play.

So curse my blind ignorance, I am unable to make an objective judgment of Chushingura. It is well-made, acted and directed, and on those points alone I rank it highly; though how effective it is as a re-telling of a major legend, I must leave to those more knowledgeable. What it is, I can tell you, is a damned fine snapshot of the layered society in Japan at that time, the grinding rituals of proper etiquette, deference, and station; and the sometimes incredible insanity of the bushido code.

Then that evening, I watched Lolita. The next time I have a weekend like this, I really must find shorter movies.