Tag Archives: Akira Kurosawa

Challenge Week 1: Stray Dog

I mentioned on my post about Babette’s Feast that I wasn’t inherently that excited about seeing it, though I ended up very glad I had. I was very excited about Stray Dog, and I wasn’t let down a bit. I typically have some trouble connecting with Japanese film, even Kurosawa, who’s generally considered to be among the most Western-accessible Japanese filmmakers. Though someday I’m going to have to stop saying that, as I’m getting more and more acclimated to Japanese filmmaking – the real test will be Tokyo Story, which is coming up later in the challenge.

Anyway, I was hoping Stray Dog would work well for me because it’s basically a noir, and noir is one of my favorite genres. And now I totally understand the thing about Kurosawa being more influenced by Western film than many other Japanese directors. It shows through much more clearly in this modern day detective drama than it does in, say, his samurai films, right down to the chorus girls that would fit in any 1940s American nightclub. Yet it still shares stylistic and thematic concerns found in other Kurosawa films, especially High and Low, also a modern-day crime film that I enjoyed quite a bit.

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In Stray Dog, Toshiro Mifune is rookie policeman Murakami who gets his gun pickpocketed on the bus. Desperate to get it back, he infiltrates the underworld and gets some leads, but soon finds that it was used in a robbery and homicide. Wracked with guilt, he and veteran cop Sato (Takashi Shimura) team up to find the suspect. The detective work itself is a lot of fun to watch, but the whole thing has a depth due to Murakami’s guilt first over just losing his gun, then having it be used to kill.

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Letterboxd Season Challenge: High and Low (1963)

Film 3 for the Letterboxd Season Challenge. The other films I plan to watch for the challenge are here.

Week 3, Sept 20-26: Master of the East
Challenge: Watch an unseen film directed by Akira Kurosawa
Film I Chose: High and Low (1963)

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I’ve been keeping up watching the films for the Letterboxd challenge; less so writing them up, and even less so posting my thoughts over here! So expect an onslaught of posts ever the next few days as I catch up. Japanese film is troublesome for me, and I often have trouble with even the most well-known and accessible films, like those from Kurosawa. That said, more exposure is definitely helping, and I’ve really been looking forward to High and Low, which was my first non-samurai Kurosawa film.

Maybe this is the direction I need to go, because I loved this. I knew the basics of the premise, that Toshiro Mifune played a businessman who has his son kidnapped and held for ransom, but then discovers that the kidnapper made a mistake and kidnapped his chauffeur’s son instead – will he still jeopardize his long-planned company takeover and risk losing everything in order to pay the ransom on the boy?

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Blindspot: Sanjuro (1962)

My difficulty getting into Japanese film is no big secret, but I’m chipping away at it, film by film. I enjoyed Yojimbo a couple of years ago (even though I was in a too-tired frame of mind and really need to rewatch it), so I had hopes that Sanjuro would follow in its footsteps.

I won’t deny that the opening had me fearful – it drops us right into the middle of a somewhat heated discussion, with one man telling a bunch of other men that his uncle wouldn’t agree to help them take down some corruption, which is seen as a great betrayal, but that the superintendent would. It’s all a bit abrupt and you’re left wondering exactly who the uncle is, how this government is formed, what place a “superintendent” has in it, what the power relationship between the uncle and superintendent is, who exactly the men think is corrupt and why, how that corruption is affecting them, who they owe their allegiance to, what their status is (are they samurai, or just regular guys who happen to carry swords around – other reviewers are calling them noblemen, which makes sense), etc. Most of this is never really answered, so either it’s just a total McGuffin, or it’s assumed that the viewer has a knowledge of Japanese social and government structure that I lack. You do learn that the uncle is a chamberlain, which is presumably a higher position than superintendent, but with the chamberlain and the superintendent the only officials really mentioned, it’s unclear where the noblemen originally thought the corruption was coming from.

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The good news is, Sanjuro (an apparently assumed name, played to perfection by Toshiro Mifune) pops out of the next room pretty quickly and takes the situation in hand. He’s a ronin, which I DO know what is – a Samurai who has lost his master, so he’s roaming around without clear allegiance. It’s not really an honorable position to be in, but it does leave Sanjuro free to do whatever the hell he wants, which, thankfully for our hapless noblemen, is help them out of their predicament. He immediately clues into the fact that it’s probably the superintendent that’s corrupt rather than the chamberlain, and he carries out a series of plans (most of which are screwed up by the impatient and highly unstrategic noblemen) to catch out the superintendent and rescue the uncle, whom the superintendent has had arrested and framed for corruption.

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Film on TV: March 29-April 4

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The Passion of Joan of Arc, playing late Sunday/early Monday on TCM.

Check out a little Marx Brothers marathon on TCM Monday night, from early work like Monkey Business at 8pm to the best of the best starting with Duck Soup at 10:45pm. And the last night of the Kurosawa celebration hits on Tuesday, with some of his later work. A few newly featured ones on TCM, but other than Dreyer’s silent The Passion of Joan of Arc next Sunday, which I’m actually looking forward to seeing for the first time, I’ll let you find those below on your own. Beyond that, there’s numerous worthwhile repeats (including some contemporary greats like Before Sunrise and The Station Agent on IFC) to make sure you haven’t missed on all channels.

Monday, March 29

9:45am – IFC – Before Sunrise
Before Sunrise may be little more than an extended conversation between two people (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who meet on a train in Europe and decide to spend all night talking and walking the streets of Vienna, I fell in love with it at first sight. Linklater has a way of making movies where nothing happens seem vibrant and fascinating, and call me a romantic if you wish, but this is my favorite of everything he’s done.
1995 USA. Director: Richard Linklater. Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy.
Must See
(repeats at 3:30pm)

11:30am – IFC – Crimes and Misdemeanors
When Martin Landau’s long-time mistress threatens to expose their affair unless he marries her, he’s faced with the decision to let her ruin his life and career or have her murdered. In a tangentially and thematically-related story, Woody Allen is a documentary filmmaker forced into making a profile of a successful TV producer rather than the socially-conscious films he wants to make. One of Allen’s most thoughtful and philosophically astute films – there are few answers here, but the questions will stay in your mind forever.
1989 USA. Director: Woody Allen. Starring: Woody Allen, Alan Alda, Martin Landau, Anjelica Huston, Claire Bloom, Joanna Gleason.
Must See
(repeats at 5:15pm)

9:30pm – TCM – Horse Feathers
Most film comedians do a college-set film at some point, and this is the Marx Brothers entry into higher education. This is a relatively early film for them, and it’s not quite as great as the Duck SoupA Night at the OperaA Day at the Races trifecta, but it’s still really solid, one of my favorites of their pre-1933 films.
1932 USA. Director: Norman Z. McLeod. Starring: The Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd, David Landau.
Newly Featured!

10:45pm – TCM – Duck Soup
Leo McCarey directs the Marx Brothers in what many think is their best and zaniest film. This is the one with Groucho becoming the dictator of Freedonia and declaring war on nearby Sylvania. Frequent Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont is on board as the wealthy woman who causes the rivalry that leads to the war. Personally, I prefer A Night at the Opera to Duck Soup, but this may be your best bet if the idea of musical interludes from Allan Jones (of which Opera has several) turns you off.
1933 USA. Director: Leo McCarey. Starring: The Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, Leonid Kinskey.
Must See

12:00M – TCM – A Night at the Opera
One of the best of the Marx Brothers’ zany comedies finds them running awry through the world of opera. This is the one that contains the famous “how much stuff can we stuff into a stateroom” scene. And a subplot with Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle, but that’s best ignored as much as possible.
1935 USA. Director: Sam Wood. Starring: The Marx Brothers, Allan Jones, Kitty Carlisle, Margaret Dumont.
Must See

12:00M – IFC – The Cooler
William H. Macy plays a loser whose bad luck gets him a job as a “cooler” at a casino – his luck spreads and cools off any hot winning streaks that might be going on. But when he starts a relationship with Maria Bello, his new-found love and acceptance turns his luck. This film reinforced my knowledge of Bill Macy’s talent, made me take notice of Maria Bello, and gave Alec Baldwin pretty much his best role until 30 Rock.
2003 USA. Director: Wayne Cramer. Starring: William H. Macy, Mario Bello, Alec Baldwin.

2:00am (30th) – TCM – A Day at the Races
The Marx Brothers take over the racetrack in what is probably the last of their really great comedies. As with A Night at the Opera you do have to put up with the silly romantic subplot, but it’s not too big a strain.
1937 USA. Director: Sam Wood. Starring: The Marx Brothers, Allan Jones, Maureen O’Sullivan, Margaret Dumont.
Must See

Tuesday, March 30

9:15am – IFC – The Station Agent
One of the most pleasant surprises (for me, anyway) of 2003. Peter Dinklage moves into a train depot to indulge his love for trains and stay away from people, only to find himself befriended by a loquacious Cuban hot-dog stand keeper and an emotionally delicate Patricia Clarkson. A quiet but richly rewarding film.
2003 USA. Director: Thomas McCarthy. Starring: Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale.
(repeats at 2:30pm)

4:00pm – TCM – The Blue Gardenia
This may be a lesser Fritz Lang noir, but a Lang noir is still a Lang noir. Anne Baxter is a mousy telephone operator who has an uncharacteristic night out drinking with a near-stranger; the next day she wakens with little memory of the night, but the stranger is dead. That setup leads to police investigation, and her own questioning whether or not she is a murderer. Baxter’s an underrated talent, I think, and even though this film has its flaws, it’s still quite enjoyable in its way.
1953 USA. Director: Fritz Lang. Starring: Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Anne Sothern, Raymond Burr.
Newly Featured!

8:00pm – TCM – Kurosawa Centennial Marathon
TCM is rounding out its month celebrating Akira Kurosawa with three of his later films – all three of which Row Three contributors reviewed as part of the Row Three Kurosawa celebration. So check out the films and check out our reviews, if you haven’t already.
8:00pm – Dersu Uzala (Kurt’s review)
10:30pm – Kagemusha (Matt Brown’s review)
1:45am (31st) – Ran (Bob’s review)

12:00M – IFC – Evil Dead 2
The sequel/remake to Sam Raimi’s wonderfully over-the-top demon book film, set in the same creepy wood-bound cabin, with even more copious amounts of blood and a lot more intentional humor. I’m still not sure which I like best, but either one will do when you need some good schlock. (I still haven’t seen Army of Darkness, I’m shamed to admit.
1987 USA. Director: Sam Raimi. Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks.

Wednesday, March 31

11:30pm – TCM – The Major and the Minor
A rather slight and sometimes shrill comedy that still has its moments, notable for being Billy Wilder’s first Hollywood film as a director (he also wrote it, of course, with Charles Brackett). Ginger Rogers plays a young woman who pretends to be a twelve-year-old child to get half-fare on a train; in so doing, she catches the attention of a soldier who takes her under his wing, thinking she’s actually twelve. Events snowball from there. I have a soft spot for this film, personally, and especially for Diana Lynn as the sarcastic and much-wiser-than-her-years kid who becomes Rogers’ confidant.
1942 USA. Director: Billy Wilder. Starring: Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Rita Johnson, Robert Benchley, Diana Lynn.
Newly Featured!

Thursday, April 1

8:00pm – TCM – Adam’s Rib
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn take on the battle of the sexes as married lawyers on opposite sides of an assault case involving gender politics. It’s a great movie in dialogue and acting, and still interesting for the 1949 view of women struggling for even basic equality. Some of its approach to gender may be a bit strange today, but…that’s why it’s interesting.
1949 USA. Director: George Cukor. Starring: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, Jean Hagen, Gig Young

10:00pm – TCM – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Frank Capra puts on his idealist hat to tell the story of Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), an inexperienced young man appointed as a junior senator because the corrupt senior senator thinks he’ll be easy to control. But Smith doesn’t toe the party line, instead launching a filibuster for what he believes in. Wonderful comedienne Jean Arthur is the journalist who initially encourages Smith so she can get a great story from his seemingly inevitable downfall, but soon joins his cause.
1939 USA. Director: Frank Capra. Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Eugene Pallette, Thomas Mitchell.
Must See

12:15am (2nd) – TCM – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Audrey Hepburn’s signature role in a career full of memorable films, as party girl Holly Golightly, trying to make her way in mod New York City. Breakfast at Tiffany’s for me encapsulates 1960s style probably more than any other film, and with a grace and warmth that never grows old.
1961 USA. Director: Blake Edwards. Starring: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Mickey Rooney.
Must See

2:15am (2nd) – TCM – To Have and Have Not
It’s said that this film came about because Howard Hawks bet Earnest Hemingway that he (Hawks) could make a good film out of Hemingway’s worst book. Of course, to do that, Hawks ended up basically changing the story entirely, but hey. It’s the thought that counts. Mostly notable for being Lauren Bacall’s first film, the one where she met Humphrey Bogart, and the one that spawned the immortal “you know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve” bit of dialogue. That one scene? Worth the whole film.
1944 USA. Director: Howard Hawks. Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Walter Brennan.

Friday, April 2

6:00am – TCM – Broadway Melody of 1936
MGM made four films under the Broadway Melody title (in 1929, 1935, 1936 and 1940), and this is easily the best – a polished, sparkling show biz tale with the production detail you expect from 1930s MGM. Eleanor Powell can dance up a storm no matter what film she’s in, and this is one of the few she did, honestly, that has any interest outside of her tap numbers.
1935 USA. Director: Roy Del Ruth. Starring: Jack Benny, Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor, Una Merkel.
Newly Featured!

Saturday, April 3

9:00am – IFC – Hero
Jet Li is the titular hero in this Zhang Yimou film, arguably the best of Yimou’s period action-on-wires films (though I’m partial to House of Flying Daggers myself). The story unfolds in flashback as Li explains to a warlord how he eliminated three would-be assassins (who happen to be three of Hong Kong cinema’s biggest stars, incidentally) – but all may not be precisely how it seems.
2002 China. Director: Zhang Yimou. Starring: Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung.
(repeats at 3:30pm)

9:00am – TCM – Red Dust
You want some pre-Code action? We got your pre-Code action right here! Clark Gable and Jean Harlow made several films together, and Red Dust is one of the most entertaining, in no small part because its story of a love triangle on a South Seas rubber plantation gives them plenty of opportunity to push the sensuality envelope. It was remade as Mogambo in 1953 with Gable and Ava Gardner, but that version isn’t nearly as, um, interesting as this one.
1932 USA. Director: Victor Fleming. Starring: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Gene Raymond, Mary Astor, Donald Crisp.
Newly Featured!

8:00pm – TCM – Bonnie & Clyde
This is a perfect film. If you have not seen it, see it. If you have seen it, see it again. In either case, rather than write again how much I love it, I will just refer you here.
1967 USA. Director: Arthur Penn. Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons.
Must See

Sunday, April 4

10:00am – TCM – Easter Parade
Fred Astaire actually retired in 1946, and managed to stay off the screen for two years – until Gene Kelly broke his leg playing football and Fred was asked to take over his role in Easter Parade. Of course, then Fred kept making movies nearly every year for another 15 or 20 years. Easter Parade remains an enjoyable entry into his and Judy Garland’s respective filmographies, due to solid Irving Berlin tunes and the winning combination of Astaire’s dancing and Garland’s singing (and comedic abilities). Oh, this was also tap star Ann Miller’s first of many MGM films.
1948 USA. Director: Charles Walters. Starring: Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Peter Lawford, Ann Miller.
Newly Featured!

1:45am (5th) – The Passion of Joan of Arc
It pains me to reveal this. I have not yet seen Dreyer’s classic silent version of Joan of Arc with Maria Falconetti’s legendary performance as Joan. The time will come. I believe pretty much every other Row Three-er has seen it, so they can talk it up in the comments should they so desire. From everything I’ve heard, it’s not to be missed given the opportunity to see it, and here is the opportunity.
1928 Denmark. Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer. Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley.
Newly Featured!

Happy 100th Birthday, Akira Kurosawa!

Today would’ve been legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday, were he still with us. I’m the first to admit that I’m not the biggest Kurosawa fan, and this day probably would’ve passed by me unnoticed had it not been for the writers at Row Three putting together a site-wide review retrospective devoted to Kurosawa films, which has taken up most of the posts over the past week. Reading those reviews has gotten me all enthused to revisit Kurosawa more myself, and the film I reviewed for the series definitely proved to me that I had been missing something the first time around and it’s now time to move more in-depth into both Kurosawa and Japanese film in general.

Check out all the Kurosawa posts from all the writers here; and here’s an excerpt of my review of Ikiru:


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Having only seen three Kurosawa films prior to this tribute series (and not “getting” those as much as I would have liked), I embarked on my part of the series with as much a goal of discovery as of celebration. Because the films I’d already seen were all samurai films, I opted to watch and review one of Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films. Review contains some spoilers, but it’s a film that depends far more on mood and character than plot twists, so I don’t think it’ll matter too much.

“The best way to protect your place in the world is to do nothing at all. Is that all life is really about?”

The word “ikiru” translates as “to live,” and Ikiru examines what it means to really live, while also acknowledging the difficulty of actually making any difference with your life. Watanabe-san is a civil servant, the section chief for a bureaucratic city government who spends his days in a mountain of paperwork, always busy without ever accomplishing anything. The narration suggests that he’s been dead for nearly 20 years, because he just floats along without really living – he has no passion or ambition; he’s “worn down by the minutia of the bureaucratic machine.” However, when Watanabe finds out that he’s dying from stomach cancer, he has an existential crisis, experiencing flashbacks of his wasted life and punishing himself with sake (poisonous to him with his medical condition).

Two chance meetings offer him differing possibilities for how to really live in the time he’s got left. A man in a bar takes him out gambling, drinking, and into the red light district. The next day, he meets a young clerk from his office who is resigning her job because it’s so soul-deadening; her joy in life is infectious, and he quickly covets spending time with her – a desire that quickly spreads lascivious rumors though his intentions seem quite benign. When she tells him of the happiness she finds in her new job, he decides to throw himself into his work and really take responsibility for it – to do one really good thing with the position he’s got before he runs out of time.

Read the rest at Row Three, and read all the other Kurosawa entries here (most of them far more knowledgeable and authoritative on Kurosawa than I am, which is not at all).