Kurosawa. Kurosawa has two films that many cinephiles triumph as the best, or one of the 5 or so best, of all-time. He has a consistent narrative worldview, is a dynamic editor- specifically in action sequences, and boasts a filmography of great depth. From Scorsese: “The term ‘giant’ is used too often to describe artists. But in the case of Akira Kurosawa, we have one of the rare instances where the term fits.”

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a brilliant display of depth of field in Rashomon

Best film:  Seven Samurai. This is actually fairly close with Rashomon. They are both magnificent films- one a tightly-wound narrative atom-bomb—the other a powerful epic saga. Both are clearly very influential which I’ll get to more in stylistic traits.

there are a number of these from Seven Samurai- Kurosawa positioning the figures so beautifully in the frame

total archiveable films:  16

top 100 films: 2 (Seven Samurai, Rashomon)

top 500 films: 6 (Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ran, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, Ikiru)

top 100 films of the decade: 7 (Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ran, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, Ikiru, High and Low)

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a stunner from High and Low- perfect composition

most overrated:  Ikiru is the choice. It’s #112 on TSPDT and that’s #3 for Kurosawa. I have it at #453 of all-time and #6 when ranked amongst his oeuvre.  I love the film (simply overrated because of the lofty consensus ranking) but I find the unending wailing by the bureaucracy in the last 30 minutes or so tough to get through. I just wish it wasn’t there or it wasn’t emphasized so much.

breathtaking image from Ikiru

most underrated :  Yojimbo. TSPDT has it as #399 and I have it at #273.  I have no idea how to explain how TSPDT underrates this film and its remake (Leone’s Fistful of Dollars) so much. It’s probably Kurosawa’s most accessible and enjoyable film and it’s still packed with directorial flair and one of Mifune’s best performances. The sequel, Sanjuro, isn’t nearly as good, but is still entertaining (simple Recommend/archiveable for me). A runner up for underrated here is Hidden Fortress probably best remembered now as the film that launched or most heavily influenced Star Wars. It isn’t in the TSPDT top 1000 or Kurosawa top 12 and that’s wrong.

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two here from the greatest sequence in Yojimbo- great foreground/background mise-en-scene work here
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setting up an image that would inspire a thousand westerns

gem I want to spotlight:  Ran. The compositional visual beauty of the long shots and mise-en-scene detail are masterpiece worthy—Kurosawa makes great use of every extra, color flourish in the frame, and set piece (whether it’s the mountains in the final climax battle, the valley in the opening, or the castle on fire (picture above) in the film’s best scene/segment. Second to the pictorial composition I have to praise the formal elements Kurosawa goes back to again and again with the shot of the clouds and meditating on dreams and fate. Based on Shakespeare’s King Lear but set in Feudal Japan. Gorgeous bright primary colors—a reminder of the work when Kurosawa first went to color along with some of the early color experimentations like Godard with contempt, Antonioni with Red Desert and Fellini with Juliet of the Spirits. There are really only two types of shots here in the film—there is the long shot (battle sequences mainly and establishing/landscape shots) and the medium shots where most of the dialogue is delivered. The long shots are stunning and I frankly wish it was more of running time— Kurosawa stages the battles so beautifully—and he uses the frame almost like a Tati film—the dialogue-laden (though always sharp, engaging and a fantastic narrative) does get a little visually monotonous. Costume design best Oscar win. The continual self-interest in every character as an ongoing theme is nothing new to Kurosawa- he’s been doing it brilliantly since Rashomon. The entire cast is superb but Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora Ichimonji is amongst the best performance of 1985 as is Mieko Harada as Lady Kaede as the Machiavellian wife of Lord Hidetora’s eldest son. The battles sequences with no audio except the non-diegetic music score is sublime—color guards. It’s almost ballet like. I may be reaching here but I think the long shot battle sequences with the extras is also a bit of a statement on the sheep-like or ant-like order-taking sacrifice for essentially nothing. It’s not as apparent a criticism as say Chaplin with the sheep in the factor cutaway in modern times but still. The film has gravitas like the godfather. The shot of Nakadai’s character leaving the burning castle, down the stairs with the red and yellow color guards on both sides is a jaw-dropper. “it’s a mad world. Only the mad are sane”—dog-eat-dog nihilism as per always with Kurosawa. Meditation on the downfall of pride as well. End is a fitting long shot.

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set-piece bravado in Ran
stunning long-shot landscape work in Ran

stylistic innovations/traits: It’s impossible to talk about action sequence direction without talking about Kurosawa. The use of slow-motion photography, crisp editing, combined with his dog eat dog worldview and cynicism (which is a great match for the adaptations of the bard as we’ve seen) are all traits of the great master. You can see it readily in Sam Peckinpah for sure. While Kurosawa was influenced by John Ford (his Samurai film is the Western) he influenced many more in the West in turn. We have George Lucas of course, Leone and then back to the east with John Woo. Kurosawa is one of the great editors taking Eisenstein’s montage model for energy and the rush of the action scene but intermixing longer shot for compositional beauty and formal structure. Kurosawa’s nihilism fits the Shakespeare adaptations (and Peckinpah again). I have to confirm this but I believe the shot from the ground up to the heavens or sun through trees is actually from Kurosawa and I think I’ve been attributing it to Malick all these years. Lastly, since I didn’t get a chance to mention it above Rashomon and its manipulation of the narrative structure—going to non-linear– is something I mention all the time—whether it’s Jarmusch’s Mystery Train or the work of Tarantino—genius and influential.

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magnificent screen composition in Rashomon

top 10

  1. Seven Samurai
  2. Rashomon
  3. Ran
  4. Yojimbo
  5. Throne of Blood
  6. Ikiru
  7. High and Low
  8. Hidden Fortress
  9. Kagemusha
  10. The Lower Depths
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Throne of Blood‘s greatest shot

By year and grades

1948- Drunken Angel R
1949- Stray Dog R
1950- Rashomon MP
1952- Ikiru MS
1954- Seven Samurai MP
1957- The Lower Depths R
1957- Throne of Blood MS
1958- Hidden Fortress
1961- Yojimbo MS/MP
1962- Sanjuro R
1963- High and Low
1965- Red Beard R
1974- Dersu Uzula
1980- Kagemusha
1985- Ran MS/MP
1990- Dreams

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives