Tag Archives: Akira Kurosawa

50 Years in Times Square: Kurosawa and his Western Remakes

8 Apr

On April 8, 1971, 50 years ago today, I made my first trip to see a Japanese movie on the big screen. It was Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and it may have been the first time the full three-and-a-half-hour cut of the film was shown on the big screen in New York. It was also the first fully foreign-language film with English subtitles that I would see in a theater. The theater was the tiny Bijou Cinema on West 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Times Square in Manhattan.  Interestingly, just over two months earlier, on January 28, 1971, I’d seen John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), a western remake of SEVEN SAMURAI, for the first time at a theater around the corner from the Bijou, the Victoria on Broadway and 46th Street. On May 20 of that year, I would see Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), the first in the Italian director’s “Man with No Name” western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, at the Astor Theater, adjacent to the Victoria on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was an Italian western remake of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), which I would then see on July 17, 1971, at the Bijou Cinema around the corner. So I saw Kurosawa’s two greatest samurai films and their western remakes in a six-month time period on one strip of real estate in Times Square, all while I was still in high school. Where else and at what time period could that have happened? I was so lucky to be coming of age as a film buff at just that time.31337908446_1655225bc8 Continue reading

Setsuko Hara Centennial

17 Jun

The great Japanese actress, Setsuko Hara, would have turned 100 today, June 17, 2020. She died five years ago at the age of 95. She’s most famous for her films for director Yasujiro Ozu, including LATE SPRING, EARLY SUMMER, TOKYO STORY, LATE AUTUMN and THE END OF SUMMER. She starred in NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), Akira Kurosawa’s first postwar film, and again for Kurosawa in THE IDIOT. She made four films for Mikio Naruse, including REPAST, SUDDEN RAIN, THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN and DAUGHTER, WIVES, MOTHER. Her last film was Toho’s all-star saga of the 47 Ronin, CHUSHINGURA (1962), and she played the wife of the protagonist, Oishi, a chamberlain secretly plotting over the course of a year to rally the ronin and avenge the death of their disgraced lord. Continue reading

Toshiro Mifune Centennial, Part 3: Fifty Years a Fan

31 Mar

April 1, 2020, marks the centennial of the birth of Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s greatest film actor and, arguably, the greatest film actor who ever lived. I first became aware of Mifune when his films played New York arthouse theaters in the 1960s and were advertised widely in the newspapers and sometimes reviewed in the local press. A number of older Mifune films got released for the first time in the U.S. during this period as the arthouse crowd became enamored of Japanese films and those of Akira Kurosawa and Mifune in particular.

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Filming Across Cultures: Cowboys, Samurai and Kung Fu Champs in the 1970s

17 May

In the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood theater functioned as a Cinematheque of global genre films, offering Italian westerns, French crime thrillers, English horror, Soviet fantasy, Japanese samurai films and Hong Kong kung fu films, among other genres. I still marvel at the recollection of seeing such international movie icons as John Wayne, Jean Gabin and Toshiro Mifune in new movies at local theaters when I was still a teenager. I once wrote about this particular movie culture in a chapter for a proposed book on 42nd Street theaters. I’d like to share an excerpt from the chapter, after a few paragraphs of introduction.

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Mifune: The Last Samurai – New Documentary on Japan’s Greatest Actor

2 Dec

“Mifune: The Last Samurai” is a documentary on Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune that recently played at the IFC Center in New York. To fans of Japanese film, Mifune needs no introduction. He is easily the best Japanese film actor of all time and, to many of us, arguably the greatest film actor in history. He is best known, of course, for his starring roles in films by Akira Kurosawa (THE SEVEN SAMURAI, YOJIMBO), arguably the greatest Japanese director of all time, but he also made numerous films for other noted Japanese directors, including Hiroshi Inagaki (The SAMURAI trilogy), Masaki Kobayashi (SAMURAI REBELLION), Kihachi Okamoto (SAMURAI ASSASSIN), and Kinji Fukasaku (THE SHOGUN’S SAMURAI), among others. He also made films in Hollywood and Europe, including GRAND PRIX, HELL IN THE PACIFIC, RED SUN and MIDWAY. I’ve written about one of his films here, JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY. He’s got 182 acting credits on IMDB—both film and television–and they extend from 1947 to 1995, two years before he died.

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Japan Journal, Part 6: Toei Kyoto Studio Park

15 May

One of the absolute highlights of my trip to Japan was the visit to Toei Kyoto Studio Park, in Kyoto, on Wed. March 30, 2016. This is a combination theme park, museum, and studio run by the Toei Company, one of the leading film, TV and animation studios in Japan. Since 1950, Toei has been turning out a steady array of Japanese pop culture staples, including samurai and yakuza movies, martial arts films, superhero TV shows, animated sci-fi and all sorts of other time-honored Japanese genres. The Toei Kyoto Studio Park offers a samurai village backlot that visitors can explore to their heart’s desire, as well as a visitors center filled with galleries devoted to Toei’s 60-year animation output, live-action tokusatsu and sentai TV series, Japanese film history in general, and the singer Hibari Misora. The backlot is in active use as a set for Toei TV shows, plenty of which I’ve seen, and I will share images from shows that were filmed there. It was an immersion in Japanese pop culture history like I’ve never experienced anywhere else.

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Criterion Blogathon: Akira Kurosawa’s Judo Epic: SANSHIRO SUGATA, Parts One and Two

19 Nov

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This entry is part of the Criterion Blogathon sponsored by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943) and SANSHIRO SUGATA, PART TWO (1945) are the first and fourth films directed by Akira Kurosawa, a man I consider to be one of the five greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. In watching these two films for this blogathon, with PART TWO a first-time viewing, I found myself watching them not as Kurosawa films, but as early examples of the Asian martial arts genre, probably the earliest films I’ve seen with significant attention to an Asian martial art—in the case of the first film, judo and jujitsu, and in the second film, judo and karate. (There are occasional bursts of judo in Hollywood films of the war years, most notably the James Cagney movie, BLOOD ON THE SUN, 1945.) As such, I didn’t connect them to later Kurosawa films (although there’s an echo of them in RED BEARD’s judo sequence, 1965), but to later martial arts films, particularly a whole host of Hong Kong kung fu films in which young Chinese heroes spend years training and competing and developing their skills and often preparing for fights with Japanese practitioners of karate and other arts. (Think THE CHINESE BOXER, FIST OF FURY, HEROES OF THE EAST, LEGEND OF A FIGHTER, FIST OF LEGEND, etc.) While the fights in the two SUGATA films are probably a lot more realistic than most such fights in films of this genre, I have to confess that I simply don’t find judo quite as cinematic a fighting art as karate and kung fu, not to mention swordfighting, or kendo. The combatants in judo and jujitsu spend an inordinate amount of time grabbing each other and grappling around the mat until they can find an opportunity to flip or throw their opponent. The grappling is often like a dance. Once the action starts, however, fights tend to end rather quickly, unlike Hong Kong kung fu films, where the fights can last ten-to-twenty minutes. Still, the two SUGATA films are rare examples of the art of judo depicted in detail on film and with great artistry.

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JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY (1967) – Epic drama of Japan’s surrender in 1945

16 Aug

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Yesterday, August 15, was the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. It was on that date in 1945 that a recorded speech by Emperor Hirohito was broadcast to the Japanese people to formally declare surrender and end all activities related to the war effort. (My father, then stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, was one of the marines assigned to the invasion fleet being prepared to embark for Japan.) I used the occasion yesterday to finally watch a lengthy film (157 minutes) entitled JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY (1967), which dramatizes the events of August 14-15, 1945, and the decision to agree to surrender terms and formally end the war. Available on DVD from AnimEigo, it was produced in black-and-white by Toho Pictures and directed by Kihachi Okamoto (SWORD OF DOOM), with an all-star cast of Toho stars, including Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Chishu Ryu, So Yamamura, Yuzo Kayama, Susumu Fujita, and practically every actor we know from every kaiju movie: Akihiko Hirata, Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki, Hiroshi Koizumi, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Yoshifumi Tajima, with only Akira Takarada and Franky Sakai notable by their absence. Tatsuya Nakadai does the narration. There’s an extraordinarily large number of speaking parts, most of them military officers, and at a certain point, it becomes very difficult to keep track of who’s who and what their roles are in certain events. There’s only one woman with a speaking role in the entire film, a household servant in the home of Prime Minister Suzuki, and she’s seen briefly when a group of rebellious soldiers tear through the place looking to kill Suzuki. (The IMDB cast list identifies the character as Yuriko Hara, played by Michiyo Aratama, although the woman is never identified in the film.)

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1947 Blogathon: Postwar Hope and Despair: ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY and VIOLENCE

14 Jul

This entry is part of the 1947 Blogathon sponsored by Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy. I chose two films from 1947 to write about and my original plan was to do separate entries on them, but after watching them back-to-back, I realized that the contrasts between them were so interesting that I thought it best to do a comparison piece. The first is ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY, Akira Kurosawa’s incisive portrait of postwar lovers in Tokyo caught up in a cycle of poverty, and I chose it because it was a Kurosawa film that I’d never seen before and this would be a good opportunity to finally see it.

The second is VIOLENCE, a low-budget melodrama from Monogram Pictures about an organization exploiting war veterans for power and profit, and I chose it because it was the closest thing I could find to a conspiracy thriller from 1947, a year filled with events in the U.S. that fueled so many conspiracy theories for years to come.

One film was made in a country recovering slowly from defeat and the ravages of war, while the other was made in a country flush with the glory of victory and newly emergent on the global stage as the dominant world power, yet the stories they tell offer a reversal of sorts.

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Kurosawa’s War Propaganda: THE MOST BEAUTIFUL (1944)

17 Sep

Akira Kurosawa’s wartime film, THE MOST BEAUTIFUL (1944) is a propaganda drama that was designed to glorify the efforts of teenage girls recruited to work on the production of implements for Japan’s combat with Allied forces. Here they work in a factory making lenses for bomb sights and all live together in a dormitory. They are shown embracing their work and plunging into it with wholehearted patriotic fervor. The film plays like Soviet propaganda of an earlier era or Chinese Communist propaganda of a later era, but with characteristic Kurosawa touches, including a succession of great closeups and a focus on the human element even in the midst of celebrating the collective spirit.

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