Tag Archives: Takashi Matsuyama

Seven Samurai (1954, Kurosawa Akira)

Seven Samurai is about a farming village, under imminent threat of bandits raiding and stealing their crop–and possibly doing much worse–who decides to hire samurai to defend them. They send four men–Fujiwara Kamatari, Kosugi Yoshio, Tsuchiya Yoshio, and Hidari Bokuzen–to town to hire the samurai. They can’t pay them, but they can feed them. The villagers will subsist on millet, the samurai will get rice. Not a great deal and the men don’t have much luck to start.

However, they soon find Shimura Takashi, an older ronin, who’s able to convince others to take up the cause. There’s young Kimura Isao, who looks up to Shimura and the other samurai, but hasn’t got any real experience yet. Katō Daisuke plays an old war buddy of Shimura’s who happily joins up. Inaba Yoshio is the second-in-command, Chiaki Minoru’s the funny one, Miyaguchi Seiji’s the serious one. Then there’s Mifuno Toshiro as the wild one.

After an hour or so–the film runs just under three and a half–the Seven Samurai head to the village. The first hour has the village setup, then the four farmers quest in the city, then Shimura recruiting the other samurai. There’s an intermission halfway, but the period after the samurai get to the village and before the bandits return, which takes up some of the time after the intermission too, is it’s own phase in the film. Then there’s the battle. A little while before the battle, the villagers–who aren’t just providing room and board for the samurai, but are also being trained to fight alongside them against the bandits–wonder if the bandits have forgotten about them.

And it certainly does seem possible. Seven Samurai’s first few minutes promise this bloody showdown between the villagers and the bandits, which then becomes the samurai and the bandits, but then it’s really just a lot of character study. Sure, they’re all training for the impending battle, but it’s character study. Kurosawa and co-writers Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo subtlely explore the villagers and the samurai, with Mifune and Kimura getting the most emphasis on the latter, Tsuchiya and Fujiwara getting the most emphasis on the former. Turns out even though the village decided to hire samurai, they didn’t really think about what it meant for samurai to be living among them. Their only previous experience with samurai being samurai attacking and pillaging villages.

Mifune’s character development throughout the second portion–he shows up in the beginning, then disappears until the night before they leave for the village (the first hour takes place over about a week)–plays off the other samurai. Even though Shimura and company think they’ve got Mifune figured out, they really don’t. And he’s able to transcend the class divisions built into their interactions with the villagers.

Meanwhile Kimura begins romancing Fujiwara’s daughter, Tsushima Keiko, and it becomes clear he doesn’t really understand what it means to be a samurai either. Not from the perspective of a villager, who’s always a potential victim in one way or another.

There’s a whole lot to Seven Samurai. Kurosawa and his co-writers don’t introduce a lot more in the last hour… wait, never mind. Yes, yes they do. Amid the multi-day battle sequence, they do introduce a lot more. Mifune has a whole other subplot, as Kurosawa reveals he’s actually juxtaposed against Kimura, which never seemed to be a thing but was a thing the whole time. Going back to their first scene together (with Shimura). Only they were subplot to the villagers pursuing Shimura at that point.

But I was really trying to get to the violence thing. In the first hour, whenever Kurosawa shows violence, it doesn’t have any sound. There are the sounds behind it, but the violence itself–the steel of the swords cutting into flesh–has none. It’s uncanny and directs the viewer’s attention. When it comes time, in the third part, for the battle… Kurosawa handles violence differently. His original approach to it, what he emphasizes, is baked into what he does later, but it’s evolved. Kurosawa’s constantly perturbing Seven Samurai’s style. Like his editing. At the beginning, there are some sharp cuts to bring the viewer back in time to sixteenth century. He doesn’t keep them going once he’s got the time period established; he just takes time and gives attention to getting it established.

Especially since he later calls back to those cuts in a seemingly unrelated sequence, which then informs a bunch of other things as far as character development and revelation.

There’s not a wasted frame in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s precise. The film never drags, never dawdles. The three and a half hours sail by. Even the subplot introductions–after the film shifts over to Shimura and the samurai–are seamless. The pacing is just another of its master-strokes.

Technically, Samurai’s singular. Kurosawa’s direction–which changes stylistically as the plot progresses–is otherworldly. The way he and cinematographer Nakai Asakazu are able to frame the action horizontally make Samurai feel like an Academy ratio Panavision picture for the first two hours. Nakai’s photography is fantastic. Ditto Hayasaka Fumio’s music and Matsuyama Takashi’s production design. It’s all breathtakingly faultless.

Then there are the performances. Shimura and Mifune get the flashiest roles. Mifune in a loud way, Shimura in a quiet. They’re fantastic. Kimura’s good; he’s sort of the viewer’s point of entry for the samurai, but also the villagers. Though Mifune turns out to have similar avenues of insight. Both Miyaguchi and Katō have some excellent moments. But the villagers. Tsuchiya and Fujiwara are awesome; they get the big arcs running throughout, just under the surface; constant. They’re heartbreaking in different ways.

Hidari eventually becomes a sidekick to Mifune, which gives some of the very necessary comic relief once things get intense. And Tsushima’s good as Kimura’s love interest. She, Shimura, Tsuchiya, and Miyaguchi have the most pensive parts. They have these amazing internal experiences only relayed through expression; Kurosawa’s editing, not to mention his composition, showcases their silent thoughtfulness.

Seven Samurai is a masterpiece. It’s nigh impossible to imagine a way it could be even minutely improved.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo; director of photography, Nakai Asakazu; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Motoki Sôjirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Shimura Takashi (Shimada), Kimura Isao (Katsushirō), Mifune Toshirō (Kikuchiyo), Tsuchiya Yoshio (Rikichi), Tsushima Keiko (Shino), Inaba Yoshio (Gorōbei), Miyaguchi Seiji (Kyūzō), Katō Daisuke (Shichirōji), Fujiwara Kamatari (Manzō), Chiaki Minoru (Heihachi), Hidari Bokuzen (Yohei), Kosugi Yoshio (Mosuke), and Kōdō Kokuten (Gisaku).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE "NON-ENGLISH" BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THOUGHTS ALL SORTS.


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Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa Akira)

Where to start with Rashomon? Starting at the beginning means talking about the bookends–three strangers stranded in the rain, two telling the third different versions of the same story, each ostensibly true. The rain pours down around them, drowning out their voices. Rashomon is a film without a protagonist; it eschews the very idea of one. That pounding rain contrasts with the rest of the film, which has two further layers of narrative.

The two men telling stories–Shimura Takashi’s woodcutter and Chiaki Minoru’s priest–just gave testimony in a murder trial. One of Rashomon’s mysteries, I just realized, is the resolution of that trial. It’s immaterial. They’re now telling Ueda Kichijirô about the testimony they gave and the testimony they heard. So the trial is the second layer. It’s very quiet, with director Kurosawa using exquisite, precise framing. I forgot–it also has Shirmura and Chiaki promising Ueda their tale of base humanity is the worst he’ll ever here. Kurosawa sets the viewer’s expectations high.

The third layer is the testimony itself, involving Mifune Toshirô’s bandit attacking a traveling married couple. Mifune confesses. The wife, Kyô Machiko, gives conflicting testimony. The husband, Mori Masayuki–arguably in the film’s most difficult performance–gives another. Rashomon isn’t a courtroom picture set in feudal Japan, Kurosawa’s not interested in the truth. He’s interested in the concept of it, something plaguing poor Chiaki, whose performance as the priest is quietly devastating. A lot of Rashomon is people silently reacting to events around them. When action is necessary, no matter how much action, it’s momentous.

That third layer, set in a forest, is usually the quietest. Kurosawa and co-screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu don’t play narrative tricks; Rashomon is straightforward in how the viewer’s supposed to navigate all the layers. Kurosawa isn’t interested in making the story opaque. He wants the viewer to understand. When Shimura tells his story, he walks the film (and the viewer) into the flashback, into the forest. It’s a visually striking sequence, beautiful photography from Miyagawa Kazuo and Kurosawa’s editing almost appears to be based on the length of breaths. The editing is very important in Rashomon. It practically suffocates the flashbacks, creating tension with the promise of truth and revelation in the silent forest.

Great acting from Mori, Kyô and Mifune, who all have to play the same parts three to five different ways. Sometimes Kyô is best, sometimes Mifune, but Mori’s gives the essential performance. He’s got to convey the forest’s silence, usually with nothing more than an expression or body language. Not to discount the Kyô and Mifune, of course, they’re amazing. Mifune shows exceptional range in what should be the same part.

Technically, the film’s impeccable. There’s a sword fight near the end, mostly in single takes, and Kurosawa gets phenomenal action performances from his actors. It’s exhausting, but so is Rashomon itself; at less than ninety minutes, Kurosawa runs the characters–and the viewer–through a ringer. Because he doesn’t just want to ask questions about truth, he wants to talk about their answers as well, making Shimura, Chiaki and Ueda just as important to the film as the three leads.

Great music from Hayasaka Fumio.

Rashomon has a cast of ten. The closest it comes to comic relief is Katô Daisuke’s mildly dimwitted policeman who testifies against Mifune, but it’s not funny, Katô’s just sort of funnier than anything else. Its present action is short, regardless of layer–I suppose the runtime could correspond to Shimura, Chiaki and Ueda being stuck in the rain, though the rain is already pouring down as the film starts. It’s not a big picture. There’s nothing Kurosawa could do better, could do different. Rashomon’s perfect, devastating.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Kurosawa Akira; screenplay by Kurosawa and Hashimoto Shinobu, based on a story by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke; director of photography, Miyagawa Kazuo; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Jingo Minoru; released by Daiei Motion Picture Company.

Starring Mifune Toshirô (Bandit), Kyô Machiko (Wife), Mori Masayuki (Husband), Shimura Takashi (Woodcutter), Chiaki Minoru (Priest), Ueda Kichijirô (Commoner), Honma Noriko (Medium) and Katô Daisuke (Policeman).


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Drunken Angel (1948, Kurosawa Akira)

Drunken Angel never hides its sentimentality. The film’s protagonist, an alcoholic doctor working in a slum (Shimura Takashi in a glorious performance), is well aware of his sentimentality. He resents it–Shimura has these great yelling and throwing scenes–but it’s what keeps him going. It also allows director Kurosawa to have intensely sentimental sequences without affecting the tone of the film–sometimes it’s in Hayasaka Fumio’s score, sometimes it’s just how Kurosawa and Kôno Akikazu cut a sequence.

The film’s story has Shimura getting a new patient–Mifune Toshirô’s erratic (similarly hard-drinking) Yakuza neighborhood boss. The two fight, often physically, but form a bond–Mifune’s all subtlety, Shimura’s all noise. When their volumes reverse is when Kurosawa and co-writer Uekusa Keinosuke get in some fantastic character work. Of course, the actors are essential to it. Both of them become clearer and clearer as the film progresses. Even though Drunken Angel has an epical arc to it, it’s very much a character study.

It’s also a setting study–Shimura’s practice is on the edge of a garbage swamp in the slum, Mifune’s favorite night club is just blocks away. In a relatively short run time (under 100 minutes), Kurosawa and Uekusa introduce a large supporting cast, establishing them usually in a few seconds, usually without much dialogue.

As the epical arc goes along its track, the film moves over to Mifune, sort of reintroducing him (without Shimura’s judgment). It’s beautifully executed, as is everything else in the film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Uekusa Keinosuke and Kurosawa; director of photography, Itô Takeo; edited by Kôno Akikazu; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Motoki Sôjirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Shimura Takashi (Sanada), Mifune Toshirô (Matsunaga), Yamamoto Reizaburô (Okada), Kogure Michiyo (Nanae), Nakakita Chieko (Miyo), Shindô Eitarô (Takahama), Sengoku Noriko (Gin), Kasagi Shizuko (Singer), Shimizu Masao (Oyabun) and Kuga Yoshiko (Schoolgirl).


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