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Related Reading: Japanese Film Directors by Audie Bock and Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History edited by Arthur Nolletti Jr. and David Desser.


Ikiru, 1952
[To Live]

ShimuraAkira Kurosawa uses the camera to distance himself from his subject. In Ikiru, the camera serves as the mirror to his soul. Ikiru is the subtly poignant and heartbreaking story of Kanji Watanabi (Takashi Shimura), a middle aged government bureaucrat who has been diagnosed with terminal gastric cancer. Realizing that he has squandered his life foundering on the morass of trivial existence, he is determined to redeem his wasted life. He attempts to communicate with his son, who abruptly interrupts him with his own petty grievances. He befriends a young employee named Toyo (Miki Odagiri) in an attempt to understand her zest for life (Toyo, in turn, only humors the old man in order to get her exit papers signed). He spends an aimless night out on the town, inebriated, only to be sobered into reality by a nostalgic, elegiacal melody: Life is so short, fall in love, dear maiden , while your lips are still red, and before you are cold, for there will be no tomorrow. He spends his final days overseeing the construction of a neighborhood playground. Ikiru is a simply told, profoundly moving film about the brevity of life and the search for meaning.

Kurosawa uses narrative style to recount the story of a terminally ill man. The film is an anachronistic assembly of anecdotes, vignettes, and personal accounts, which, not only illustrates the timelessness of the story, but also Kanji's "rebirth" (a similar technique is used in Krzysztof Kieslowski's White). The deliberate pacing elicits a sense that the story is occurring in real-time. Kanji Watanabe never tells his story: his thoughts, his emotions - his life - unfolds before us peripherally. Nevertheless, we see life, with all its hope and misery, through his languid eyes. Ikiru is the story of humanity, the tragedy of an unremarkable life, the compassionate waking of a world in oblivious slumber.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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Shichinin no samurai, 1954
[Seven Samurai
]

Mifune/ShimuraIn 16th century Japan, protracted feudal wars have created a prevailing sense of lawlessness. Bandits have organized into formidable armies that scavenge the countryside in search of villages to loot. One morning, a band of thieves arrive at the outskirts of a farming community, but is persuaded to delay their attack until the barley has been harvested. A peasant farmer overhears their plan, and summons the villagers for a town meeting. The farmers seek counsel from the village elder (Kuninori Todo) who advises them to hire "hungry samurai" who would protect their village in exchange for meals. But the task of finding formidable samurais who will accept such a meager compensation proves to be a difficult task. One day, the farmers witness a middle-aged ronin (masterless samurai) named Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) single-handedly rescue an abducted child by relying solely on his cunning intelligence and precise technical skill. Kambei has grown weary of fighting, but the plight of the farmers wins his sympathy, and he agrees to take up their seemingly hopeless cause. Kambei's victory also attracts the attention of a young man named Katsushiro Okamoto (Isao Kimura), who asks to become his disciple, and a brash, overconfident drifter (Toshiro Mifune), who is eager to match his skills with the seasoned samurai. Despite the time constraint and lack of reward, Kambei assembles a team of capable, altruistic samurais: a dedicated colleague, Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), willing to face death for his dear friend; an agile, confident samurai, Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), touched by Kambei's sincerity and generosity; a cheerful, but average swordsman, Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), whose experience often involves fleeing from battle; an expert swordsman, Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), seeking to hone his craft. With the crop harvest imminent, the samurais must fortify the farming village, devise a combat strategy to counter the invasion, and train the peasants for battle.

Seven Samurai is an engaging, precisely crafted story of selfless bravery, perseverance, and fraternity. Using medium shots and seamless, slow motion in order to temper the violence of death, Akira Kurosawa succeeds in creating a delicate juxtaposition between the samurais' graceful art of combat and the barbaric reality of war: Kambei's rescue of the abducted child; the fencing challenge in an open field; the arrival of the bandits on horseback for the decisive battle. But the mastery of the film lies beyond the fluid choreography of the battle sequences. Seven Samurai is an equally compelling tale of poverty and despair, redemption and purpose, community and heroism - a sweeping, epic portrait of individual courage and the tenacity of the human soul.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Tengoku to Jigoku, 1963
[Heaven and Hell/High and Low]

Mifune/KagawaHigh and Low never wavers under the assured direction of Akira Kurosawa. It is, all at once: a procedural crime story, a social commentary on the casualties of industrialization, the redemption of a man's soul. A wealthy executive, Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), hosts an informal board meeting in his insular residence atop a hill, overlooking the urban decay of industrial Japan. A corporate subversion is proposed, leading to the polite, but forced retirement of the traditionalist company president. At stake is the direction of National Shoes: quality versus profitability. Gondo disagrees with the ouster, and plans a takeover bid, raising capital by mortgaging his property. On the eve of the transaction, he receives a telephone call demanding ransom for the return of his son. However, the kidnapper has mistakenly taken the chauffeur, Aoki's (Yutaka Sada) son. To pay the exorbitant ransom will financially ruin him. To refuse payment will make him morally bankrupt.

As the title suggests, elevation provides a visual leitmotif to the narrative development of High and Low. Gondo's estate, the landmark recognition of Mount Fuji, and the smoke stack from a garbage-burning plant (note the only infusion of color into the film), all provide pivotal clues to the identity of the kidnapper. The second telephone call provides a subtle statural shift between Gondo, the police (who are forced to lie prone on the floor to avoid detection), and Aoki (overcome with emotion), symbolizing Gondo's moral redemption. The low lying squatter hovels, addict-infested Dope Alley, and red light district basement bar provide an incongruous foil to the prosperity and seeming order of modern Japan. In the end, Gondo's wealth is the price of one man's salvation, and another's destruction.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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Dersu Uzala, 1974

MunzukGiven the expanse of the Siberian wilderness as his cinematic canvas, Akira Kurosawa responds with the visually hypnotic, deeply affecting portrait of nature, friendship, and survival in Dersu Uzala. Based on the journals of Russian explorer Vladimir Arseniev, the film opens to a forest that is being cleared for development, and Arseniev searching for an unmarked grave. Transported back in time, a topographic expedition troop, led by Captain Arseniev (Yuri Solomin), encounters a nomadic, aboriginal (Goldi) tribesman named Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munzuk) who agrees to guide them through the harsh frontier. Initially viewed as an uneducated, eccentric old man, Dersu earns the respect of the soldiers through his great intelligence, accurate instincts, keen powers of observation, and deep compassion. He repairs an abandoned hut and leaves provisions in a birch container so that a future traveler would survive in the wilderness. He deduces the identities and situations of people by analyzing tracks and articles left behind. During a violent winter windstorm, he saves Arseniev's life by arranging their equipment into a makeshift frame, in order to secure the straw and provide thermal insulation for the fatally cold evening. At the end of the expedition, he leaves the soldiers by the railroad tracks and returns to wilderness, only to encounter Arseniev again, years later, on another surveying expedition. However, time has begun to take its toll on the independent hunter. In an act of self-preservation, he shoots a tiger - an act which he is convinced would exact nature's retribution - and precipitates his physical decline. Unable to hunt for survival and plagued with guilt over the senseless slaughter of an animal, he accepts Arseniev's offer to live with his family in the city, and gradually fades... staring at the burning fireplace, lost in his memories, crushed in spirit.

Akira Kurosawa transcends the confines of traditional cinema with the startling imagery and camerawork of Dersu Uzala: the barren trees glowing red from the embers of the campfire; the ethereal blue smoke rising as Dersu points out his family's burial site to Arseniev; the long, static shot of the two men looking at the horizon, juxtaposed between the rising moon and setting sun; the seamless tracking of the soldiers aboard a raft, drifting down the river; the frenetic panning sequence as Dersu and Arseniev struggle to reap grass during the windstorm. To define Dersu Uzala as a story about an aboriginal tribesman is to describe humanity through a two-dimensional photograph. Dersu Uzala is an allegory for the environmental toll of civilization, a testament to a profound, enduring friendship, and a heartbreaking portrait of aging and obsolescence.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Ran, 1985
[Chaos]

NezuHidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) has lived a long and prosperous life of a feudal warlord, his reign marked by devastating territorial battles, humiliation of the vanquished, and brutal punishment of those who flout his authority. One day, in the presence of neighboring feudal lords and attendants, he announces his decision to step down from power and cede the authority of daily government (while retaining the ostensible title of Great Lord) to his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) in the hopes that after fifty years of strife, he can live out his remaining years in peace. He transfers ownership of the two regional castles to his younger sons, Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), and demands their support and respect for Taro. He illustrates the strength of solidarity by handing each son an arrow, which individually, can easily broken in two. However, when banded together, the arrows will not bend so easily. The youngest son, Saburo, criticizes the folly of Hidetora's plan, exposing the false allegiance of his older brothers towards a unified Ichimonji empire, and warns Hidetora that his actions will result in chaos and civil war. Hidetora is insulted by Saburo's unflattering candor, and in a fit of anger, impulsively disowns Saburo and sends him into exile. However, as Hidetora attempts to settle into the tranquility of retirement, he realizes that he cannot relinquish power and influence so easily. In repeatedly overstepping the authority of Taro, Hidetora becomes unwelcome at the castle. Hidetora then decides to take up residence with Jiro, only to find that Taro has dispatched a message to his brother, who, in turn, has decided to shut out Hidetora's entourage behind the castle gates. Unwelcomed at either house and estranged from Saburo, he settles into the third castle, only to find the palace under siege by both Taro and Hidetora's armies, as the brothers engage in a bloody civil war for control of the empire.

Adapted from the William Shakespeare play King Lear and Japanese folklore, Ran is an epic story of ambition, hubris, and aging. In contrast to the muted battle scenes of Seven Samurai, Ran is a graphic, sensoral depiction of the violence innate in the human soul. Through the use of suffusive colors to delineate opposing armies, Akira Kurosawa figuratively taints the serene landscape with the artificial, surreal hues of human tragedy and senseless destruction. As the conflict intensifies, the sweeping images fuse into a mesmerizing, heartbreaking chronicle of Hidetora's personal revelation and fall from grace. In the end, cast away by his family and humiliated by the consequences of his misguided actions, Hidetora returns to a state of nascent innocence and wanders the land - away from the madness of violence - and in the process, finds his own fleeting inner peace.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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