Today is the birth centenary of one of my favourite actors, the Japanese star Toshiro Mifune. Born in Tsingtao (China) to Japanese parents on April 1, 1920, Mifune first appeared in Japanese cinema in 1947. A year later, having met director Akira Kurosawa, Mifune was cast in his first Kurosawa film, Drunken Angel. Over the next eighteen years, Kurosawa and Mifune worked together on sixteen films, including several classics like The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, High and Low, and The Hidden Fortress. Alongside, Mifune continued to work with other directors, both Japanese and foreign (one of the more unusual Mifune films I’ve reviewed is Animas Trujano, a Mexican film). Mifune also starred in several Hollywood productions, and set up his own film production company in Japan.
Trying to decide on a Mifune film to review by way of celebration of his hundredth birthday was a tough task: should I go with an early one, like Drunken Angel or Stray Dog? Or one of the many samurai-period films that became almost synonymous with the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration? Eventually, I settled on this one. Akahige or Red Beard, the last film this great actor and this equally great director made together. Kurosawa and Mifune fell apart during the making of Akahige, and parted ways—but the film itself displays none of that. On the contrary, it’s a well-made, very memorable film about humanity and humaneness.
Literally, Yellow Crow, though this poignant little film is also known in English as Behold Thy Son.
It’s been a long time since I reviewed a non-Indian, non-English language film. I have several bookmarked on Youtube, and after some trial and error (a couple of minutes of this, ten minutes of that) settled on this one. Kiiroi Karasu was directed by Gosho Heinosuke, the man who directed Japan’s first talkie (and who was, for a while, the President of the Directors’ Guild of Japan).
I began watching this film with few expectations. In fact, I didn’t even read a synopsis of the film, so I had no idea what I was getting into, not even what genre.
Kiiroi Karasu begins at a Buddhist shrine. In front of a massive monolithic Buddha sit a bunch of school children, sketching and colouring for all they’re worth.
Although it’s been several years since I first watched Rashōmon, I’ve always avoided reviewing it, for the simple fact that this film, one of the most highly rated works of one of the world’s greatest directors, has been dissected and written about so frequently (and by people so much more capable of doing justice to it than I am), that the idea of reviewing it was always succeeded by the thought: what could I possibly write about Rashōmon that hadn’t been already written?
But after I reviewed The Woman in Question last week, I decided it was probably high time I did review Rashōmon. I have, after all, reviewed several films of this type: not exactly based on the Rashōmon Effect, but close to it, variations on the theme of multiple narratives. To not write about the film that gave this trope its name seemed like a gap that needed filling.
I hadn’t heard of this film till a couple of months back. Around that time, looking at Toshirô Mifune’s filmography on IMDB, I came across The Rickshaw Man, and was intrigued enough to decide I must look out for the DVD. Then, as if destiny too wanted to help me along, I happened to read Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories. The stories—and Akutagawa’s biography at the start of the book—fascinated me. And when I read that one of Akutagawa’s sons grew up to be an actor, I went back to IMDB to see which films he acted in. And The Rickshaw Man was there.
As it turned out, Hiroshi Akutagawa doesn’t have a large role (though it is an important one) in The Rickshaw Man. But it was interesting to see this actor, whose father had written the two stories (Rashōmon and In the Bamboo Grove) on which Kurosawa based one of his best-loved films. And, of course, to see Mifune, who appears here as the epoymous rickshaw man, a poor rickshaw-puller named Matsu.
Known in English as The Hidden Fortress, though the literal translation is The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress. One of Akira Kurosawa’s finest samurai films.
I’ve made it a blog tradition that, every year on my birthday, I review a film featuring someone who shares the same birthdate as me, January 8. So, over the years, I’ve reviewed films starring Nanda, Fearless Nadia, Elvis Presley and José Ferrer, among others. This year, I decided it was time for a change. Two changes, actually. For one, the film I’m reviewing is neither in English nor in Hindi: it’s Japanese. And, the person who shares my birthday in this case—Japanese actor Susumu Fujita—isn’t one of the leads. In fact, he doesn’t even appear in the film till the second half. But he is there in The Hidden Fortress, and he’s a good actor. Plus, even though his role here is fairly small, it’s a critical one. Enough reason.
Or, if you want the complete, expanded name, Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), named for the collection of supernatural stories by 18th century Japanese writer, Ueda Akinari. Two of the stories from this book—Asaji ga Yado (House amid the Thickets) and Jasei no In (Lust of the White Serpent) were adapted, and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi in what was to become one of the most highly acclaimed Japanese films of all time: Ugetsu went on to win the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival; has been listed as one of the best films made in Sound and Sight magazine’s top ten critics poll; and has appeared in countless other ‘best movies’ lists.
Without wasting more time on listing its achievements, though, something about what the story is all about.
We begin with a brief introduction to the time and place. This is 18th century Japan; a civil war is raging; and in a small rural community, the villagers are trying hard to keep body and soul together despite the violence that surrounds them. When we get into the story proper, it’s to find a potter, Genjûrô (Mayasuki Mori), loading a consignment of his pottery onto a cart to take to market.
I was in the mood for watching something different. This film seemed to fit the bill: the first old Japanese film I’ve seen that wasn’t directed by Akira Kurosawa, and the first monster movie I’ve reviewed on this blog.
Godzilla (1998, the Hollywood version) was a film I didn’t watch for many years after its release, despite the fact that some Indian TV channel or the other was always showing it. Then, I happened to go on a monster movie binge, and ended up watching it. (More, later in this post, about what I thought of it). Importantly, Godzilla encouraged me to look out for the original Japanese film.
This blog’s been focussing on Hindi cinema for a while now, so I decided it was time to get back to being a bit more diverse. And this time with a film from one director whose work I admire a lot: Akira Kurosawa. If all you’ve seen of Kurosawa are his samurai films, I’d recommend Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low) as a good way of getting introduced to the films he made in other genres. If you’ve never watched a Kurosawa, this is still one of his best films – and one of the best classic crime films I’ve seen.
Loosely based on King’s Ransom, a novel by American crime writer Ed McBain, Tengoku to Jigoku is about a kidnapping and its repercussions. The result is an unforgettable film that brilliantly combines the personal, the social, the psychological, the dramatic and the mundane, with the sheer sweat-and-drudgery of the police procedural.
I first heard about this film when I was a child—The Magnificent Seven was being shown on TV, and one of my parents said it was based on Seven Samurai. End of story, for then.
I’ve grown up since. I’ve heard about the brilliance of Akira Kurosawa. And I’ve recently read that Shichi-nin No Samurai (Seven Samurai) was supposedly the first film ever to use the concept of a group of unconnected people being brought together for a common cause. It therefore seemed high time to finally see the film for myself.
Having just finished watching it, I’m still stunned. This is a mind-blowing film, colossal and profound, gut-wrenching and brooding and action-packed and funny and romantic and… Well, simply unforgettable.