1.Yojimbo (1961) and Jidaigeki (Period Drama)
Yojimbo is one of my absolute favorite Kurosawa films; I’m just so impressed by its incredible energy and pep. Toshiro Mifune seems to have a tremendous amount of fun as the ronin who marches into town and quickly ends up solving its problems. He is literally the archetype for Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and Yojimbo lends itself well to the Western format. In the space of a few minutes, we are told the stakes of the town, the different factions in it, and Sanjuro chooses to take down both sides of the conflict. The craftiness and trickery that Sanjuro employs is shown with a deft amount of humor by Kurosawa, and the action beats are just as thrilling as well.
I’m very intrigued by Richie’s claim that “Yojimbois comic Kurosawa,” as it supports my claim that the film is essentially a dark comedy (149). When the dog walks by in that infamous early shot holding the severed human hand in its jaws, it at once gives us a sick image that establishes the danger of the town and also provides a comically absurd image. Richie believes that it is his first “full-length comedy,” and I think that’s an interesting perspective; I wouldn’t say it’s totally a comedy, but it combines action and comedy in equal measure much like he did with Mifune in Seven Samurai. Yoshimoto seems to agree with me in this, as while he calls it a “black comedy of excess and the grotesque,” he says that the film’s sequel Sanjuro is the real full comedy (296). For a jidaigeki, it is certainly a film with an unconventional, lighter sensibility, typical of Kurosawa.
2.Throne of Blood (Kumonosujo, 1957) and the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema
The thing I admire most about Throne of Blood is its literary aspirations; being an adaptation of Macbeth, Kurosawa managed to transfer the story to feudal Japan while also making it seem like it always belonged there. The witches become traditional Japanese spirits, Lady Macbeth becomes a demure geisha, and Macbeth’s death by Macduff is turned into a barrage of arrows into Washizu’s body. I think this is fascinating, as it shows the universality of these kinds of themes – betrayal, prophecy, conspiracy, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and so on. Furthermore, Kurosawa’s filmmaking techniques were fantastically stylish, especially in the spirit prophecy scene, scenes with the Lady Macbeth character gliding in and out of their chambers, and the final arrow battle. The glorious looking castle on Mt. Fuji that provides the set is gorgeously filmed, and creates a sense of mythic importance to the characters.
Richie and Yoshimoto expound upon the beauty of Kurosawa’s filmmaking in ways that I find fascinating. Richie notes some interesting links between shot wideness and the intimacy of the characters: “the camera is always furthest away from its characters when they are undergoing the most strain” (121). This explains the scene with Asaji gliding behind him as they are contemplating killing the lord, as the more supernatural and cold elements of the film come through when emotional turmoil is at its highest. Yoshimoto also comments upon its “remarkable beauty and formal precision,” supporting the particular beauty of this Kurosawa film (250). He also notes the similarities in plot and theme between Macbeth and Throne of Blood, including its class conflicts and social stratification, which is something easily transferable to that era of Japan and what makes it adapt so well.
3.The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, 1960) and Film Noir
I really liked The Bad Sleep Well; it reminded me a lot of High and Low, another modern noir that Kurosawa directed. For most of his most well-known movies being samurai pictures, it is certainly refreshing to see him tackle a contemporary subject. This time, Mifune gets to show a lot more vulnerability and pathos, providing the audience with a thoroughly naturalistic performance that was not diminished in intensity. Like Throne of Blood, Kurosawa calls on Shakespeare yet again, giving us a take on Hamlet that is fresh and compelling. I was most impressed by the darkness of the film’s conclusion, and the anticlimactic nature of the ending. The fact that Mifune effectively dies offscreen is a bold move, and one that showcases the futility and emptiness of justice – a perfect example of the darkness of film noir.
Richie and Yoshimoto have plenty to say about the darkness of the film, and how it compares to High and Low in particular. Richie notes that, in the film, “Mifune discovers that you cannot fight evil without you yourself becoming evil” (61). Comparing it to the other film, The Bad Sleep Well makes this point along with High and Low by rewarding good deeds with ruination: “In High and Low Mifune would not have been ruined had he refused to pay the ransom” (61). In these respects, the two films seem to provide a look at the modern world that Kurosawa thinks is somewhat heartless and unforgiving. Yoshimoto counters my idea that the modern film is more realistic than his samurai pictures, calling it “not realism” (275).
4. Dreams (Yume, 1990) and the Decline of the Studio System
This film is probably the most abstract of Kurosawa’s films, as it is an anthology of dreamscapes taken from Kurosawa’s own dreams. I was most impressed by the film’s lyricism; the fact that there is very little dialogue, with most of the story being told through its images, is really fascinating to me. Kurosawa has always had a strong sense of visual language, but to rely on it so much, in moments like the shots of the blizzard in the scene of the same name, the living dolls from “The Peach Orchard,” and more, is to show a whole side of the director I did not recognize before. While I was not entirely sold on the effectiveness of the images, and the dreamlike structure made it harder to follow, I believe that the strength of the images themselves worked quite well. The English segment with Martin Scorsese was particularly interesting, an ode to his American influences and subsequent adoration in America.
Richie and Yoshimoto agree with the painterly nature of the film, involving the audience – “Kurosawa goes one step farther and puts the viewer inside the painting itself” (Richie 222). At the same time, they do criticize the film for being simplistic for the complex issues that they raise, Richie calling them “unconvincing” (223). Yoshimoto acknowledges the personal nature of Dreams and the fact that they were based on Kurosawa’s dreams; he notes that “the implied subject of the dreamis the director himself from the very beginning of the film” (359).
Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1998).Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro. Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema. (Durham, NC: Duke