Our Birthday Bashes put a nice spin on the whole gift-giving ritual. You walk in empty handed and leave with some of the greatest films on earth because, at our party, it's the honoree who's giving out the presents.
Akira Kurosawa isn’t exactly a household name, but in the pantheon of Japanese cinema, he is the one name perhaps someone in your household is likely to know. As a screenwriter and director, Kurosawa’s career spanned fifty years, through the Second World War, a prolific fifteen year period of continuous successes, a complete mental collapse, a suicide attempt and a comeback that included the incredible King Lear adaptation, Ran in 1988.
Outside of film critics, film students and the Japanese, Kurosawa’s body of work remains a mystery. However, most people are familiar with the re-incarnations of Kurosawa’s masterpieces since, time and again, his stories were re-told by Western filmmakers to become our cinema classics. Kurosawa’s influence is profound and far-reaching, inspiring filmmakers like John Sturges, George Lucas and Garry Marshall.
On what would be his 90th birthday (Kurosawa passed two years ago), we salute Kurosawa and his progeny. Domo arigato.
Sugata Sanshiro (1943)
Kurosawa’s first feature film, Sugata Sanshiro is the compelling story of the creation of the martial art judo, centered around the intimately personal and highly spritual relationship between judo master, Shogoro Yano, and his student, Sugata Sanshiro. Although the teacher-student themes in martial arts films (and all films, for that matter) was nothing new, Kurosawa bought an emotional depth and complexity heretofore unseen. Sugata Sanshiro begat a sequel, written and directed by Kurosawa and two remakes in 1955 and 1965, respectively. Sugata Sanshiro’s impact is felt in all martial arts films, from Kung Fu to The Karate Kid.
A brilliant investigation of the meaning of truth and an intense scrutiny of human foibles, Rashomon nonetheless has been distilled in pop culture consciousness to its structural essence. A remarkable structure, indeed, in which the details of a rape and murder are told by the four participants in the event, each tale spun in a completely different direction, each story completely plausible. The structure and style of the film has influenced everyone from the lofty--Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad--to the low-brow--episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Happy Days.
Seven Samurai (1954)
The quintessential Kurosawa film, Shichinin no samurai is the rich tale of Kambei, an Old World samurai who, aided by six other samurai, defends a farming village against marauding bandits without any recompense or even honor. Through John Sturges’ lens, Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven, Yul Brynner taking over the role of Kambei, Americanized as Chris, a gunfighter hired to protect a Mexican farming village. Chris enlists six other soldiers-of-fortune (Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Horst Bucholz, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn and Brad Dexter) in his war against bandito Calvera. Both films are incredible character portraits that focus on the turmoil of shifting mores and values in a changing world.
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Matashichi and Tahei, a pair of outcast soldiers, miraculously escape the clutches of enemy forces after a fateful defeat, running into general Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), who recruits the two misfits in his journey to liberate Princess Uehara. Undeniably, Kakushi Toride No San-Akunin was the principal influence on Star Wars, both films owing a huge debt to John Ford’s revisionist Western, The Searchers.
Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshiro Mifune) is a samurai, near starvation, who agrees to work as Yojimbo (a bodyguard) for a silk merchant, who is in the middle of a bitter, bloody feud with a local sake merchant. Both merchants are essentially rotten to the core, and Kuwabatake plots to doublecross them both just so he can watch them destroy each other. Yojimbo, of course, was the inspiration for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood as a Mexican border town Yojimbo in the first of what became known as The Man with No Name Trilogy.