Blu-ray Review: Akira Kurosawa, Samurai Collection

Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Misa Uehara
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Rating: 9/10

It’s extraordinary to think that this box set represents only part of Akira Kurosawa’s output during the ’50s and early ’60s. What we have here are his period movies in the sword-fighting genre. At the same time as getting these in the can, he was also making important and weighty films with modern-day settings such as Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low, as well as more meditative costume dramas. It was a stream of productivity that few, if any, directors have matched.

Comments about HD transfers and extras follow on from discussions of the individual movies.

The box set opens with Seven Samurai (1954), but as the BFI’s standalone Blu-ray of this hugely celebrated masterpiece has already received wide coverage, we’ll pass straight on to Throne of Blood (1957), Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with Toshiro Mifune in the role of the captain who distinguishes himself in battle and then has his head turned by a supernatural prophecy delivered by an evil spirit. Inevitably, he takes matters into his own hands, egged on by his wife (Isuzu Yamada), who is hardly less scary than the spirit and who argues convincingly that if his superiors get wind of the prophecy he’s dead anyway.

kurosawa-box-set 7Despite the western source material, this is one of the most “Japanese” of Kurosawa’s period dramas. It’s infused with the influence of Noh theatre, from the formal, near-statuesque compositions to the elaborate costumes and mask-like makeup, to the stylized acting which in the case of Mifune requires him to express himself in a series of animalistic growls and yelps (apparently Kurosawa turned down the treble on the male voices in post-production to heighten this effect). It’s an elevated, refined approach to match Shakespeare’s status in western culture, and as a consequence Throne of Blood is not perhaps the most immediately accessible of Kurosawa’s films.

That said, it boasts some outstanding set-pieces, particularly the early encounter with the evil spirit in her glowing white pavilion, with its build-up of flickering lightning and its pans through thickets of grotesquely tangled branches, atmospherically shot in the studio. And it concludes with a great death scene for Mifune that does Shakespeare one better and that ranks among the most memorable moments in the whole of Kurosawa’s oeuvre.

It’s also, if anything, even darker than Shakespeare’s play. Whereas Shakespeare’s kurosawa-box-set 8Macbeth is a character singled out for a tragic fate, Kurosawa makes it clear that Mifune’s power-hungry thug is nothing out of the ordinary – the lord he eventually kills slew his own master and breaks treaties without warning, when it suits him. “Every samurai longs to be master of the castle,” says Miki, the Banquo figure, honestly. The evil spirit lives in a part of the forest that has been used as a dumping ground for human bones, and it seems to be born out of the general destruction. Throne of Blood is about violence feeding on itself and begetting more violence, and it is a cycle that occurs at ever-accelerating speed, with events that span years in the play seeming to happen in a matter of weeks in the film.

Like Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood is presented in 4:3 format. There’s a little grain to the transfer and some persistent but unobtrusive scratching to the print, but the imagery – all that gleaming armour, all those flickering banners, the electrifying moments of the supernatural – punches through strongly, with inky blacks and ghostly whites. It comes with a very lively and knowledgeable audio commentary by Michael Jeck, which examines the film’s debt to Noh drama and the ways in which it differs from Shakespeare’s play.

kurosawa-box-set 5Outwardly at least, The Hidden Fortress (1958) is a complete contrast to Throne of Blood. Whereas the earlier film is formal, buttoned-up, consciously elevated, tightly controlled, this tale of a small, ragtag group stuck behind enemy lines is sprawling, playful, serio-comic, and it seems to exult in all things lowly. Offering a worm’s eye view of events, the plot concerns a pair of farmers turned soldiers who had hoped to make their fortune in war but have ended up on the losing side and are desperately trying to find their way back home. Not entirely willingly, they fall in with General Makabe (Mifune), who is zealously guarding the losing clan’s hoard of gold and its young figurehead, the Princess Yuki Akizuki, and plans to smuggle the girl and the gold out of enemy territory using the peasants as cover.

On the surface it looks like it ought to be one of the most fun and light-hearted of kurosawa-box-set 6Kurosawa’s films, but the tone is soured by the bitterness of the director’s worldview. It’s as though he had expended all of his good vibes on Seven Samurai and had only bile and hatred left. It’s a pitilessness expressed in the visuals, in blank, baleful skies and arid landscapes (much of the movie was shot on the volcanic slopes of Mount Fuji). Sympathetic characters are in short supply. Makabe is a snob who bullies the pair of peasants and treats them like vermin and then acts surprised when they live down to his expectations. But then again, there’s no point in getting too sentimental about them. They’re treacherous and base, dangerously shrewd when they’re not blinded by greed, and it’s a given that if they were left alone with the princess they would rape her.

Luckily, the princess herself is delightful, as played by Misa Uehara – a tomboyish figure in the 16th century Japanese equivalent of a tight blouse, hotpants and knee socks, constantly flexing a cane like a dominatrix. She’s the only one who seems at all enlightened, the only one who speaks out against the cruelty and inhumanity all around her, although even in her case the kind-heartedness is more theoretical than actual and she treats her lowly helpers more or less as non-persons.

kurosawa-box-set 4Yet notwithstanding Kurosawa’s misanthropy, The Hidden Fortress captivates and sparkles. The story sweeps you up headlong, and the set-pieces are among the most big and energetic Kurosawa ever attempted. An early scene, for instance, where our two hapless protagonists have been taken prisoner inside a enemy fortress and then get caught up in a mass escape, is like something from a silent era Cecil B. DeMille spectacular, a churning ant-heap of bodies, all grubby skin and shiny leather. A later sequence, where they stumble comically into an intense, firelit religious festival and do their best to fit in, is one of those Kurosawa originals that has been imitated to death since (most notably in Disney’s The Jungle Book).

The Tohoscope (Japanese widescreen) film stock has a rawness unlike the slickness of Kurosawa’s later ‘scope movies, rough-textured, scratchy-looking, with blotchy blacks and glaring whites, but it’s ideal for the earthy subject matter, and it comes up very sharply on this HD transfer, with no grain or dirt, a high contrast, and plenty of detail in the moiling crowd scenes. Throughout, there are moments that stick in your mind for their beauty, as when the group set off on their trek to the freedom, then turn and see, in the distance, that their mountain hideaway is being burnt to the ground and that they have escaped just in time. The film is accompanied by an 8-minute interview with George Lucas (who borrowed the two lowly characters and the princess for Star Wars); he talks enthusiastically about Kurosawa’s visual storytelling and use of long lenses.

Yojimbo (1961) is tied with Seven Samurai as the most influential film Kurosawa ever kurosawa-box-set 2made. It’s the granddaddy not only of the spaghetti western, but also of the Mad Max films and their progeny. It brought a new tone to the Japanese adventure story: violent, mocking, cynical. The opening is arresting: a lone samurai (Mifune again) wanders into a small town and as he strolls down the deserted, windswept main street he sees a dog trotting along with a severed hand. The plot – the hero playing two rival gangs off against each other to ensure their mutual destruction – is famous, largely because Sergio Leone stole it for A Fistful of Dollars, but don’t feel too bad for Kurosawa, because he lifted it from the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest.

kurosawa-box-set 1Even if you come to the movie already knowing what is going to happen, Kurosawa’s parade of genre-defining moments will still leave you in awe: the weaselly representative of law and order, eager to have his palm greased; the tireless coffin-maker; the clueless but vicious thugs (including a troll-like giant with a big mallet – how many times has that trope been borrowed by now?). And then there’s Mifune’s nameless samurai – outwardly callous and irreverent, with no respect for anything and operating according to his own unintelligible code. It’s not that he’s bad, it’s just that this is a man who knows it’s uncool to seem to care about anything.

It’s probably the one Kurosawa film with a theme tune that you go away humming – a jazzy, cocksure melody that perfectly captures this liberating nonchalance. Throughout, both the script and the direction have a sheer panache which is exceptional even for such a clever filmmaker, with every beat, every sight gag, falling neatly into place, and it features some of Kurosawa’s most inventive camerawork – as in the moment when Mifune appears at the bottom of the street, while a pair of feet dangle in the foreground (they belong to a curmudgeonly sake-seller who has been punished for helping him).

Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and even to some extend The Hidden Fortress feel like grand artistic statements. Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro don’t; they present themselves as nothing more than entertainments, smart, slick, rather heartless. But even so they are packed full of a sly critique of Japanese society. As Philip Kemp points out in his accompanying audio commentary, Yojimbo can be read as an attack on the rise of the yakuza and their sinister involvement with big business, and it also offers a total debunking of the notion of bushido, the way of the warrior (Mifune’s character breaks all the rules by being dirty, by taking payment for his services and at one point by disgracefully losing his sword, although then again you can argue that he’s not so much anti-heroic as a new kind of hero who reckons nought to these things).

Sanjuro (1962) is, among other things, a humorous portrayal of the dangers of conformity and the habit of judging people on outward appearances. Both vices are exhibited to a comical degree by a group of hopelessly blundering young samurai who get themselves in hot water when they try to mount a crusade against the political corruption they see all around them. Fortunately for them, Mifune’s scruffy but worldly-wise samurai is there help them out, and together they attempt to rescue an honest chamberlain who has been taken prisoner by the crooks and their private army.

This is the closest Kurosawa ever came to making a Howard Hawks movie. It’s an kurosawa-box-set 3altogether gentler affair than Yojimbo, and a modern audience will be wise to its twists and turns. But Mifune is in his element, and Kurosawa has endless fun using the samurai – who follow Mifune around like ducklings – to create various groupings and compositions. There’s much creeping around at night, spying and infiltration of the enemy HQ, daring rescues and escapes, plots and counter-plots, but all played out in a relaxed, good-natured way, and there’s even time for some comedy of manners when they spring the chancellor’s elderly, over-refined wife and try to get her to scramble over a garden wall. Kurosawa isn’t really known for his verbal wit, but the script is particularly elegant, littered with sharp and pithy remarks.

Both Yojimbo and Sanjuro were shot in gorgeously smooth widesceen which, bar a handful of tiny scratches, comes up beautifully on HD. Sanjuro is especially crisp – you can see the shiny worn patches on Mifune’s kimono, and a scene where a row of ostentatious decoy palanquins goes filing into the woods looks particularly picturesque. By way of extras, Alex Cox provides a pithy, 9-minute potted survey of Kurosawa’s life and career, plus a 5-minute intro in which he reveals that the arterial spurt in the film’s final quick-draw showdown was created with three gallons of chocolate syrup.

This box set also features a 49-minute discussion of Kurosawa’s achievement and influence by Tony Rayns, and an illustrated booklet with essays by Philip Kemp. Watching these films in sequence only enhances your appreciation of all the things that make a Kurosawa movie different from any other – the director’s signature sweeping pans, his bravura set-pieces, his boldness in shaping narrative, the stock company of actors who reappear in different roles and become familiar faces, and even such trademarks as the typical Kurosawa weather – either withering heat, drenching rain or howling wind. His take on the world may at times be depressingly bleak, but Kurosawa’s films continue to exhilarate with the brilliance of their ideas and execution.


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