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Throne of Blood – The Criterion Collection #190 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Review)

January 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

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“Throne of Blood” is one of the more visually powerful films from Akira Kurosawa.  Each shot is mesmerizing, may it be a focus on a character, their legs or among a large crowd of people, we are captivated by this story of samurai but also an incorporation of the supernatural.  It’s efficacy of adapting “MacBeth” for a Japanese film, incorporating Noh elements, is mesmerizing but also with a permeating creepy atmosphere.  Another magnificent film in already an outstanding oeuvre from Akira Kurosawa, “Throne of Blood” is highly recommended!

Image courtesy of © 1957 Toho Co., Ltd. 2014 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Throne of Blood – The Criterion Collection #190

RELEASE OF FILM: 1957

DURATION: 109 Minutes

BLU-RAY INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, Colors, 1:37:1 Aspect Ratio, Monaural Japanese, Subtitles: English

COMPANY: Janus Films/Toho/The Criterion Collection

RELEASED: January 7, 2014

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Screenplay by Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa

Based on William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”

Produced by Akira Kurosawa, Sojiro Motoki

Music by Masaru Sato

Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai

Production Design by Yoshiro Muraki

Starring:

Toshiro Mifune as Taketoki Washizu

Isuzu Yamada as Lady Asaji Washizu

Takashi Shimura as Noriyasu Odagura

Akira Kubo as Yoshiteru Miki

Hiroshi Tachikawa as Kunimaru Tsuzuki

Minoru Chiaki as Yoshiaki Miki

Takamaru Sasaki as Kuniharu Tsuzuki

A vivid, visceral Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood, directed by Akira Kurosawa, sets Shakespeare’s definitive tale of ambition and duplicity in a ghostly, fog-enshrouded landscape in feudal Japan. As a hardened warrior who rises savagely to power, Toshiro Mifune gives a remarkable, animalistic performance, as does Isuzu Yamada as his ruthless wife. Throne of Blood fuses classical Western tragedy with formal elements taken from Noh theater to create an unforgettable cinematic experience.

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For Akira Kurosawa, already receiving critical acclaim for his body of work which include “Seven Samurai”, “Ikiru”, “Rashomon”, to name a few, he had wanted to create a film based on William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”.

Having wanted to attempt it back in 1950, Orson Welles had beat him to the punch to make a film based on “Macbeth”, so Kurosawa waited under seven years and “Throne of Blood” (Kumonosu-jo which translates to “Spider Web Castle”) was created.

With the castle shot high on Mt. Fuji in order to capture real fog and landscapes, with the assistance of the U.S. Marine Corps, the crew worked hard to clear the location to shoot the film, while the castle courtyard was shot at a studio in Toho.

Considered as a masterpiece by some Akira Kurosawa fans, while looked at as one of the better if not the best screen adaptation inspired by Shakespeare’s “MacBeth”.

And now, the Blu-ray release of “Throne of Blood” will be released by the Criterion Collection.

“Throne of Blood” revolves around a village that was attacked by a rival army.  Fortunately, the villages were well-defended and General Washizu (portrayed by Toshiro Mifune) and his friend, General Miki (portrayed by Yoshiaki Miki) are sent to the to kill their enemy.

But while riding their horses to the forest, they hear a noise and a strange voice.  Inside the forest, they find the home of a creepy mysterious individual.  When they approach it, it starts telling a prophecy that General Washizu will be master of the North Garrison and that General Miki will master of Fort One.  And as both men laugh at the prophecy, she then tells General Washizu that he will become the Lord of the Spider Web Castle but then surprises them both that Miki’s son will also become the next lord of the castle.

Then all of a sudden, the mysterious individual disappears.

Shocked by what they saw, both men discuss what just transpired and laugh it off and discuss the possibilities of what if.

But as soon as they return back home, both are rewarded for their bravery, General Washizu is made the master of the North Garrison and General Miki the master of Fort One.  Exactly how the mysterious being prophesied.

But back at home, after General Washizu tells his wife Lady Asaji Washizu (portrayed by Isuzu Yamada) of what transpired, she begins to manipulate him by trying to make the second prophecy come true by trying to convince him to kill Lord Kuniharu Tsuzuki (portrayed by Takamaru Sasaki).  She tells him how Lord Tsuzuki became a leader by killing the predecessor but Washizu responds that it was due to an uprising.  What reason should he kill his Lord?

But then Lady Asaji Washizu also tells him that she must kill his friend General Miki which shocks him.  She tells him that only he and General Miki are the only people aware of the prophecy.  If he is to reveal the prophecy to anyone, people can become jealous and spiteful and both he and her will get kicked out of their village or killed.

But General Washizu refuses as General Miki is his good friend and has no reason to kill Lord Tsuzuki, but he knows what his wife is telling him is true and it bothers his conscience.

When Lord Tsuzuki visits the North Garrison, his wife tries to convince him that now he can enact his plan to become the new lord.  But General Washizu who knows it is possible, doesn’t do a thing.

That is until Lady Asaji Washizu acts on her own by drugging the sake for the Lord’s guards which causes them to fall asleep.  She comes back with a spear and puts it into her husbands hands.  Seeing that his wife has went through with the plan for him to become the lord, General Washizu acts upon it and kills the Lord’s Guards.   Meanwhile as the guards are killed by General Washizu, Lady Washizu starts screaming outside “intruder” and in the process, Lord Tsuzuki is eventually killed and the plan of prophecy for General Washizu to become the new Lord of the Spider Web Castle comes true.

And as General Washizu becomes the new Lord, he still believes the prophecy of General Miki’s son to be the new lord to be true because he and Lady Asaji Washizu are unable to have a child.  But Lady Washizu lies and tells him that she is pregnant and tries to convince him once again that he must kill General Miki and his son for him to stay as Lord.

But will General Washizu kill his dear friend?

VIDEO:

“Throne of Blood – The Criterion Collection #190″ is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:37:1 aspect ratio), black and white.

The film looks great in HD, retaining its grain, the film is well-contrast and for the most part, compared to its older DVD, details are much more prominent (especially with backgrounds), clarity in costume or close up details are noticeable (especially close ups on the legs or Lady Washizu’s wicked face).  There are a few scratches but nothing detrimental. I didn’t notice any blurring nor did I notice any artifacts during my viewing of the film.

According to the Criterion Collection, “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a DFT Scanity film scanner from the original 35mm fine-grain master positive; the film’s original negative no longer exists. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, cinch marks, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Throne of Blood – The Criterion Collection #190″ is presented in Japanese LPCM 1.0.  Dialogue and music is clear through the center channel and did not notice any hiss or problems during viewing.

It’s important to note that there are two subtitles provided for this release.  One by Linda Hoaglund (a Japanese film translator) and the other by Donald Richie (Akira Kurosawa scholar).

According to the Criterion Collection, “The original monaural soundtrack was restored at 24-bit from an optical print track.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation”.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Throne of Blood – The Criterion Collection #190″ comes with the following special features:

  • Audio Commentary – Audio Commentary recorded for the Criterion Collection back in 2002 featuring Japanese film expert Michael Jeck.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create – (22:44) A featurette on the making of “Throne of Blood” and how the film included Noh elements.
  • Trailer – (3:45) Featuring the original theatrical trailer for “Throne of Blood”.

EXTRAS:

“Throne of Blood – The Criterion Collection #190″ comes with a 26-page booklet featuring “Shakespeare Transposed” by Stephen Prince, Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie explain their approach to creating the subtitle translation for “Throne of Blood”.  Also, “Throne of Blood” is among the newer Criterion Blu-ray releases that now come with a DVD version of the film.

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Considered as one of the best film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” is mesmerizing and unlike many of the films he has created in his notable oeuvre during that time.

While creating a film adaptation of “Macbeth” has always been a dream and goal for Kurosawa, but before the making of “Throne of Blood”, it was important for him to use modern film-making techniques in making a jidai film.

According to Donald Richie, author of “The Films of Akira Kurosawa”, Akira Kurosawa called “Throne of Blood” an “experiment”.    That the film is “a finished film with no loose ends. The characters have no future.  Cause and effect is the only law.  Freedom does not exist”.

Akira Kurosawa also utilizes Japanese Noh (a musical drama that has been performed in Japan since in the 13th century) and it can be seen in various characters such as the songs of the mysterious forest spirit, the movement of the characters in how they sit and stand, especially the movements of Lady Washizu.  But it was important to showcase his appreciation of the movement of characters in Noh and to utilize it for his film “Throne of Blood”.

But not just with movement, as for those who see a Noh mask showing the face of a demon, the way that Lady Washizu’s face was created to look like a Noh mask and her movements are genuinely creepy.

Also, for Kurosawa’s adaptation of “Macbeth”, there are some distinctions that make this film Japanese.  For Japanese culture, where ghosts are seen as vengeful spirits in Western cinema, in Japanese culture, they are seen as embodiments of nature that are neither good or evil.

But a major distinction is the character of General Washizu, he is not the main motivation to ensure the prophecy becomes true.  He does not want to kill his Lord to usurp the throne, nor does he want to kill his good friend to ensure his family’s future.  His actions are due to his wife’s actions and he acts upon it because she is the catalyst.  He is a man that is compulsive but also a man who is fearful, a man who has a guilty conscience and is consumed by guilt of what he must due to become the lord of the castle.

Another fascinating aspect of “Throne of Blood” is where the film was shot.  The castle exteriors and forest scenes were shot on the popular volcano, Mt. Fuji. High up in the area, aided by the US military in cleaning up the area for the film to be shot, Kurosawa wanted to capture the look of the area due to its volcanic ash, mountainous landscape but most importantly, to get the feeling of dread with real fog being captured on camera.

While the interiors were shot at Toho, but volcanic ash from Mt. Fuji was taken to the studio to resemble the area.

But perhaps the most amazing scene was the arrows action scene which involved real arrows being shot at a character.  Precision shooting (arrows used needles that were a little thicker than needles used for a record player), use of a wire and for the most part, creating one of the most amazing action scenes in a Kurosawa film.

As for the Blu-ray release, having previously owned the Criterion Collection DVD version, it’s important to note that the original Criterion Collection DVD was one of their earliest releases.  So, what the new Blu-ray release brings is much more clarity to picture quality, no blurring, backgrounds are much more visible.  Even closeups of the legs, you can see the material, see the trees and can see the branches clearly.  So, there is major improvement when it comes to picture quality.

But also, another major plus for those who are selective about translations, considering the challenges of this film based on “MacBeth” was the use of two translators, Donald Richie, best known as an Akira Kurosawa scholar has one approach to translating the film for subtitles and Linda Hoaglund, a notable translator who also had a different approach to translating the film.  So, it definitely lends to watching the film again for its different subtitle translations.

The Blu-ray maintains the original “Akira Kurosawa: It’s Wonderful to Create” featurette, this version focused on “Throne of Blood” that is focused on the making of the film but also the incorporation of Noh into the film, from the look and movements of characters.

As a fan of Akira Kurosawa works, these featurettes included with each Blu-ray and original DVD release was possibly the major reason I did not purchase the “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa”, a fantastic box set from the Criterion Collection on DVD with 25 films including the unreleased “Madadayo” film.  But as wonderful the set is,  they also don’t have the “Akira Kurosawa: It’s Wonderful to Create” featurettes which for me, are important.

These featurettes are well-made, so informative and also feature original interviews with cast and crew involved with the film.  I do feel that Akira Kurosawa fans who want the best experience of knowing more about his filmmaking, will learn a lot from these featurettes (which are divided up with each Kurosawa Blu-ray/DVD release).

Overall, “Throne of Blood” is one of the more visually powerful films from Akira Kurosawa.  Each shot is mesmerizing, may it be a focus on a character, their legs or among a large crowd of people, we are captivated by this story of samurai but also an incorporation of the supernatural.  It’s efficacy of adapting “MacBeth” for a Japanese film, incorporating Noh elements, is mesmerizing but also with a permeating creepy atmosphere.

Another magnificent film in already an outstanding oeuvre from Akira Kurosawa, “Throne of Blood” is highly recommended!

High and Low – The Criterion Collection #24 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

July 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Addictive, riveting and a fantastic film that will captivate you from beginning to end!  An Akira Kurosawa classic receives its Blu-ray release in America and if you owned the previous DVD releases from the Criterion Collection, this latest release is highly recommended!

Image courtesy of ©1963 Toho Co., Ltd 2008 Toho Co., Ltd. © 2011 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: High and Low – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #24 (Tengoku to Jigoku)

YEAR OF FILM: 1963

DURATION: 143 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: Black and White/Color, 4.0 Surround in Japanese with English Subtitles, 2:35:1 Aspect Ratio

COMPANY: Janus Films/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: July 26, 2011

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Based on the novel by Kingu no Minoshirokin (King’s Ransom) by Ed McBain

Screenplay by Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, Eijiro Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa

Produced by Ryuzo Kikushima, Tomoyuki Tanaka

Associate Producer: Akira Kurosawa

Music by Masaru Sato

Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Tako Saito

Production Design by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito

Production Design by Miyuki Suzuki

Starring:

Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo

Tatsuya Nakadai as Chief Detective Tokura

Kyoko Kagawa as Reiko Gondo

Tatsuya Mihashi as Kawanishi – Gondo’s Secretary

Isao Kimura as Detective Arai

Kenjiro Ishiyama as Chief Detective “Bos’n’ Taguchi

Takeshi Kato as Detective Nakao

Takashi Shimura as Chief of Investigation Section

Jun Tazaki as Kamiya, National Shoes Publicity Director

Nobuo Nakamura as Ishimaru, National Shoes Design Department

Yunosuke Ito as Baba – National Shoes Executive

Tsutomu Yamazaki as Ginjiro Takeuchi, Medical Intern

Toshiro Mifune is unforgettable as Kingo Gondo, a wealthy industrialist whose family becomes the target of a cold-blooded kidnapper in High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku), the highly influential domestic drama and police procedural from director Akira Kurosawa. Adapting Ed McBain’s detective novel King’s Ransom, Kurosawa moves effortlessly from compelling race-against-time thriller to exacting social commentary, creating a diabolical treatise on contemporary Japanese society.

Another fantastic film from legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and a wonderful performance by Toshiro Mifune!  A film that will truly have you at the edge of your seat!

“Tengoku to Jigoku” (which translates to “Heaven and Hell” but is known internationally as “High and Low”) is a 1963 film that features another collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune and is a film adaptation of Ed McBain’s novel “Kings Ransom” that would focus on how one can become blackmailed despite not having direct involvement with a kidnapping.

The film also is a statement from Kurosawa as children in Japan during the early ’60s were being kidnapped and murdered and showing his distaste towards the Japanese law in which criminals would only get a few years of incarceration.

With the film having been released in the late ’90s on DVD by the Criterion Collection, the film was re-released with more special features and a better transfer in 2008.  So, here we are in 2011 and “High and Low” receives its Blu-ray release courtesy of the Criterion Collection, the first HD release of the title in America.

“High and Low” begins with an executive named Kingo Gondo (played by Toshiro Mifune).   He is visited by the head executives of National Shoes, the company he works for and oversees quality control.

But the executives are concerned about their profits and want Gondo to release cheap, low-quality shoes in order to have more women buy more shoes.  Meanwhile, the president and owner of the company wants to focus on quality but continue to release shoes that no longer fashionable.

So, the executives come up with a plan to use their clout and join forces because the own shares of the company and oust the president of National Shoes.

But Gondo believes that in order for National Shoes to survive, quality control must be kept but also to incorporate modern fashion sense.  But the executives disagree.  They try to entice him with being second-in-command of National Shoes if he joins them and oust the President but for Gondo, he is unwilling to let the company release low-quality shoes.  He has pride in the company and its shoes and only wants what is best for the consumer, something that his fellow executives don’t believe in.

After an angry exchange, Gondo’s wife Reiko (played by Kyoko Kagawa) wants to know why he was arguing with his co-workers.  But Gondo smirks and tells her and his secretary Kawanishi (played by Tatsuya Mihashi) that he has a plan just in case the executives try to oust him.

But while he tries to explain, his son Jun (dressed like a cowboy) and his friend Shinichi (who happens to be Gondo’s chauffer’s son) begin playing with each other and are told to play outside.  Before Jun and Shinichi go out, June lets Shinichi wear his cowboy outfit.

As Gondo explains to his wife and Kawanishi, he tells them that the reason why he is confident that he would win against the executives is because he has been buying shares of the company for the last three years.  And he has literally took out a significant loan to purchase shares from others and using his home as collateral in order to become the largest shareholder of the company.

All that needs to be done is for Kawanishi to go and deposit the check for 500 million yen and National Shoes will be his company.

But before Gondo can celebrate, he receives a phone call from a kidnapper who tells him that he has his son and if he wants his son to be alive, he would have to pay 30 million yen.  Worried that his son is kidnapped, Gondo knows the money is important for him to get control of National Shoes or else, he will be the executive ousted.  The kidnapper gives him time to think about the arrangement which must be done quite soon.

As both Gondo and his wife worry about Jun, Jun shows up in the house.  So, Gondo wonders if the call he received was a prank call.  Meanwhile, Shinichi’s father has come to pick him up but to find out that he is gone.

Both Gondo and his wife realize that Jun and Shinichi have switched outfits and that the kidnapper actually took his chauffeur’s son.

Gondo calls the police and because the police expect that the kidnapper may be monitoring them, they pretend to be working for a delivery company.

What the police needs is to tape the kidnapper talking but for Gondo to talk to the kidnapper long enough in order to trace the call.  But when the kidnapper calls, the kidnapper realizes that he took the wrong child but still, the kidnapper has leverage over him and he needs to know if Gondo will be bringing the 30 million yen and if Gondo refuses, the kidnapper warns him that if he doesn’t comply, the child is dead.

And this leads to a struggle for Gondo as he had worked hard all these years at National Shoes but now he is within moments of buying and taking control of the company thus ensuring their livelihood.

But Gondo’s wife can’t bare the guilt if Shinichi dies,  because she feels that the only reason Shinichi was kidnapped was because they were going after their son Jun.  So, she wants him to save Shinichi because a human life is more important than money and prestige.

Even Shinichi’s father begs Gondo to please save his child.  But Gondo is torn because he sacrificed a lot and is taking a risky chance of losing everything.

Everyone knows that Gondo is in a difficult predicament and no one is sure what he will do.  As for the police, they learn quickly that the kidnapper is not only bright but he must live nearby because knows something is going on inside the house.

The lead investigator understand Gondo’s predicament but probably the best way to capture this kidnapper is for Gondo to pay the ransom and just buy them time by telling the kidnapper that he will pay.

Put in a tight position, what will Gondo do?  Will he stick with his original plan of using his money to buy the shares of National Shoes and takeover the company and have a child die or will he help the child buy paying the ransom money and losing everything?

The phone rings and the kidnapper wants to know his answer.  What will Gondo do next?

The second half of the film features the police going after the kidnapper.  Determined to catch the criminal, we watch as the police force in action, from collecting evidence and doing all they can to make sure that he is caught.  Meanwhile, the kidnapper has now ventured into homicide and because he is quite bright, the investigator’s know they must be careful in catching this criminal.  Especially due to Japan’s law towards kidnappers (kidnappers only serve five years in prison), the police will do whatever it takes to make sure he serves the time for the crimes he committed.

VIDEO:

“High and Low” is presented  in 1080p High Definition (2:35:1 aspect ratio).  As one would expect from a Blu-ray compared to a DVD version, you get more detail, better clarity and solid contrast.

But for those who upgraded or purchased the 2008 re-release, the 2008 DVD was a pretty big difference as the Criterion Collection had improved their digital remastering and also with newer technology, were able to do a much better job in cleaning the video and audio.  For the 2011 Blu-ray release, you literally see details much clearly.

Yes, the black levels continue to be nice and inky black, the grays and the white contrast levels look impeccable and also less blur and more detail in the faces of the characters.  We know that the characters are feeling hot and sweaty during the humid weather but we now see it clearly with the bead of sweat on the faces of the detectives.   The textures of the clothing or even the fabric on Gondo’s walls, you can sense it.  You can see sheen off of Gondo’s hair, you can see the detail of the wood on his bathroom door.

And the picture quality, it looked much cleaner and yes, while it uses the same 2008 source, the fact that its HD makes a big difference in the film’s overall PQ.

For those wondering why the film shows B&W and color, it’s because the primary film is black and white but there is one scene where color is utilized.

According to the Criterion Collection, this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive and for the color sequence, a 35 mm interpositive.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“High and Low” is presented with a lossless LPCM 4.0 surround soundtrack.  The dialogue is incredibly clear and it’s great to have a DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 soundtrack which gives us a solid balance of crystal clear dialogue, clear music and more clearer ambiance than the previous DVD release.

According to the Criterion Collection, “High and Low” was remastered at 24-bit from the original 4-track stems.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“High and Low – The Criterion Collection #24″ on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

  • Audio commentary – Featuring an audio commentary by Akira Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create – (37:02) A thirty-seven minute documentary on the making of “High and Low”, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create”.
  • Toshiro Mifune – (30:31) A rare video interview with actor Toshiro Mifune from 1981′s TV Asahi show “Tetsuko no Heya” (Tetsuko’s Room) as he is interviewed by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi about his international roles that were coming a the time, how the military photographer became an actor and more.
  • Tsutomu Yamazaki – (19:03) A Criterion Collection exclusive video interview with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki (who plays the kidnapper) about how he got cast, working with Kurosawa and his role in the film.
  • Trailers – Japanese Trailer – (3:38), Japanese teaser (1:54) and US Trailer (1:43)

EXTRAS:

“High and Low – The Criterion Collection #24″ comes with a 38-page booklet which includes the following essays “Between Heaven and Hell” by Geoffrey O’Brien and “On the Set of High and Low” by Donald Richie.

“High and Low” is an addictive, riveting and a fantastic film that will captivate you from beginning to end!

For those who are only familiar with Kurosawa samurai films, I have no doubt in my mind that they will enjoy “High and Low” and be captivated by the the cinematography (Kurosawa utilizes the spacing in the film wonderfully) and also performances by Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai and Kyoko Nakagawa.

The film’s original title is “Tengoku to Jigoku” which literally means “Heaven and Hell”.  The storyline of “High and Low” is presented in two connected storylines as “Tengoku” (Heaven/High) is depicted on the Gondo’s home on top of the hill.  Right outside of the home, lurking below is where the poor live and characterized by others as “Jigoku” (hell/low).

The first part of the film takes place in what the poor may think is “Jigoku”, being rich and in heaven.  While the first half of the storyline focuses primarily inside the house of Gondo, everything is shot in the house, from Gondo’s meeting with the executives, where the police are camping out in hopes to trace the call from the kidnapper and where discussion and arguments of what Gondo should do take place in the living room of the home.

The second half of the film focuses on the detectives doing all they can to capture the kidnapper and we are given a glimpse of the world of the kidnapper.

But the prevailing theme is very Kurosawa.  There is always a sense of a character who is admirable and determined and undeterred.  Gondo is an everyman who works for the people, he may be an executive but he prides himself on the quality of his shoes and will not let any other executive exploit the company for their own selfish reasons.  Throughout the first half of the film, we witness his struggle because he literally sacrificed everything, including his home in order to take control of the company, which he is doing it not just for his family but to ensure that the company makes quality shoes for the women who wear them.  But he knows the risks that sacrificing a child to move up in the corporate ladder can also mean his doom.

But we know that losing all the money to pay off the ransom will not only save the child but it will definitely lead the family and Gondo to financial ruin and because the amount is so high, it would lead his family to eternal debt.

And that is the intriguing factor that Kurosawa felt about Ed McBain’s novel “King’s Ransom”.  The fact that the protagonist is being blackmailed by a kidnapper who kidnap a child that is not even his but yet affects his life greatly, rendering this powerful man to now becoming powerless.  Whichever decision he makes, it appears to be a double-edge sword.

But by the second half of the film, we see the hard work that goes into helping Gondo by finding the kidnapper.  The kidnapper vs. the police storyline becomes the main focus of the second half.

And for those not familiar with Japanese pop culture and entertainment, the images of a large police force working together for the same cause continues in television and film today as seen in the popular drama and film series”Odoru Daisousassen” (Tokyo Bay Shakedown).  Whereas in a western film, we can see two or a handful of officers wanting to help the victim, in Japanese cinema, its the camaraderie of all officers (including from different precincts) willing to work together.

The other topic which Kurosawa was also trying to drive home was his feelings of Japan’s leniency in their laws for kidnappers.  In the ’60s, children in Japan were kidnapped and murdered.  Today, many still have issues with Japanese law towards kidnapping, stalking and people not paying the price for the severity of the crime.

This is emphasized in how the police will catch the kidnapper in “High and Low” and it is really clever writing and expose it to a mass audience in hopes to have changes in Japanese law.  Today, Japan is a believer in “rehabilitation” and in some cases, keeping these criminals incarcerated for a short time rather than keeping one behind-bars and serving a long sentence.

In “High and Low”, we get to see police and press work together in capturing the criminal.  But times have changed in Japan to the point that times have changed in Japan as seen in the Japanese 2000 TV Asahi drama series “Tsugumi e” in which a kidnapper kills the child of a couple and the family is literally victimized by the police and press.

But there is no denying the efficacy of Kurosawa’s “High and Low”, especially with its powerful final scene which I rather not spoil for everyone.   Ever since I watched this film many years ago, the confrontation between Gondo and the kidnapper was brilliant and despite Kurosawa shooting various endings for the film, his decision to stay with both men, one-on-one was correct.

So, now we come down to the question for those who purchase the 2008 DVD re-releae of “High and Low” and whether or not its worth it to upgrade to Blu-ray.

For some people, there must be something additional added to a release in order for one to upgrade and for “High and Low”, in terms of special features, there is nothing new that has been added.  But it comes down to one’s appreciation of watching a wonderful film from a legendary filmmaker in HD.  Do you want the definitive version of “High and Low”?  Then you definitely want to upgrade to Blu-ray because it looks spectacular on Blu-ray and the audio quality is crystal clear.

Overall, It’s great to have more Akira Kurosawa on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection and for those who were only exposed to Kurosawa’s samurai films will no doubt find a reason to be curious about “High and Low” as the first Criterion Collection Kurosawa release that is not a samurai film.

But if you are a cineaste who enjoys great cinema, especially a film that grabs your attention from beginning to end, then this Blu-ray is simply a no-brainer and is a definite must-buy.

“High and Low – The Criterion Collection #24″ on Blu-ray is highly recommended!

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #2 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

October 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

“Seven Samurai” is Akira Kurosawa’s ultimate masterpiece that has been one of the highlights of the Criterion Collection for more than a decade.  This Blu-ray release of “Seven Samurai” looks fantastic and is the definitive version to watch and to own.  Overall, with the film, commentary and lengthy special features, “Seven Samurai” on Blu-ray is a 5-star release!  Highly recommended!

Image courtesy of © 1954. 2006 Toho Co. Ltd./2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai)

YEAR OF FILM: 1954

DURATION: 207 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 Aspect Ratio), Black and White, Monaural Japanese with English Subtitles

COMPANY: Janus Films/Toho/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: October 19, 2010

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni

Produced by Sojiro Motoki

Music by Fumio Hayasaka

Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai

Edited by Akira Kurosawa

Production Design by Takashi Matsuyama

Costume Design by Kohei Ezaki, Mieko Yamaguchi

Starring:

Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo

Takashi Shimura as Kanbe Shimada

Keiko Tsushima as Shino

Yukiko Shimazaki as Rikichi’s Wife

Kamatari Fujiwara as Manzo – Father of Shino

Daisuke Kato as Shichiroji

Isao Kimura as Katsushiro Okamoto

Minoru Chiaki as Heihachi Hayashida

Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyuzo

Yoshio Kosugi as Mosuke

Bokuzen Hidari as Yohei

Yoshio Inaba as Gorobe Katayama

Yoshio Tsuchiya as Rikichi

Kokuten Kodo as Gisaku, the Old Man

One of the most thrilling movie epics of all time, Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) tells the story of a sixteenth-century village whose desperate inhabitants hire the eponymous warriors to protect them from invading bandits. This three-hour ride from Akira Kurosawa—featuring legendary actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura—seamlessly weaves philosophy and entertainment, delicate human emotions and relentless action, into a rich, evocative, and unforgettable tale of courage and hope.

If there is one title in which many fans of the Criterion Collection have always considered as must-have, must-own, it would be Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film “Seven Samurai”.

The second film of The Criterion Collection, originally released back in 1999 and then re-released in 2006, the third time is indeed a charm as Kurosawa’s masterpiece will now be released on Blu-ray.  And the “Seven Samurai” is a wonderful highlight in the oeuvre of Kurosawa, as it was a film in which the filmmaker wanted to make a real jidai-geki (period film).

Having success with his last film “Ikiru” and previous films such as “Rashomon”, “Stray Dog”, “Drunken Angel” to name a few, “Seven Samurai”stands out amongst his films because not only is it a samurai film, but it’s a film which captures the period of ronin who have no master and are trying to survive, some who have become bandits and pray on the weak villages and for all its 207-minutes of thrilling and compelling cinema, this is a film in which Kurosawa is deeply focused and a film in which he expected nothing less from his crew and his talent, this film demanded pure dedication, talent and staff working in frigid, cold conditions and wanting to make viewers feel that it was just a rainy day and it’s as simple as that.

But this film was anything but simple.  This is a film that demanded one’s respect, one’s dedication in watching this film in its entirety and just be in awe of how thorough, how multi-layered and most of all, how awesome this film would be no matter which generation you came from.  This film is truly a masterpiece.

“Seven Samurai” takes place after the civil wars, a time when samurai who have lost their master are now roaming from village to village just to find a job or ways to survive, meanwhile bandits (former samurai) have went from village to village to kill, cheat and steal young women from the village as their sexual objects.

For one farming village, one of the villagers who is hiding and listening to the bandits hear that they were going to return to the village that they just pillaged, after their crops have grown and are to be harvested.  The village farmers and their families survive off their rice crops and it’s so bad that they hardly have anything left as it is.

The villagers know they are at a breaking point and things are getting worse.  Some want to fight back, but others feel they don’t have what it takes to fight back.  They are scared, they are weak and they don’t know what else they can do.  That is until the village elder recommends them to find and hire samurai’s who would fight for them.  Something the elder has seen once before a long time ago.  Samurai who will come because they are hungry and at the village, they can definitely provide the rice that is needed.

So, the first story arc features the farmers going to a larger village in search of samurai but the problem is, not one of them is interested until they meet Kanbei (played by Takashi Shimura), a strong and respectable samurai who is willing to help.  Alongside with him is a young ronin named Katsushiro (played by Ko Kimura) who wants to learn from Kanbei.  And from there, Kanbei is joined by an old friend, Shichiroji (played by Daisuke Kato) who finds another samurai named Gorobei (played by Yoshio Inaba) and Gorobei ends up finding Heihachi (played by Minoru Chiaki).

With five samurai, we then see Kanbei trying to recruit a master swordsman named Kyuzo (played by Seiji Miyaguchi) and all they need is one and that one is the unusual, wannabe samurai which the group has named Kikuchiyo (played by Toshio Mifune).

The second arc deals with Kanbei and fellow samurai  as they plan out their strategy of defense against the bandits and also training the farmers on how to protect their land and the final third arc which deals with the bandits who now have arrived near the farming village to make their attack and pillage and the samurai and farmers ready to defend their home.

VIDEO:

“Seven Samurai” is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:331.  According to the Criterion Collection”, the original negative of the film is no longer available, so a duplicate negative was created from the original fine-grain master positive using wetgate processing.  This high-definition digital transfer was then created in 2K resolution on a Spirit Datacine from the dupe negative.  For the extensive restoration of “Seven Samurai”, several different digital hardware and software solutions were utilized to address flicker, instability, dirty, scratches and grain management.  Including da Vinci’s Revival, Discreet’s Fire, Digital vision’s ASCII Advanced Scratch and Dirty Concealer, MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean.

I’ve done quite a bit of comparing between this blu-ray version and the previous two Criterion Collection DVD releases and all I can say is that the “Seven Samurai” on Blu-ray is simply fantastic.  This is a remarkable restoration of the original film.  I was noticing detail, for example, the flag that Kikuchiyo hung up on top of the house, you can see the threading quite clearly.  You can see detail and patterns on the clothing much more clearly as well as detail of the surrounding area (the farming village) from the buildings to the fields as well as the closeups of the character’s faces.  You can actually see the strands of hair instead of just one big black and gray mesh, you can see strands of hair which was not as visible on the DVD version.

Blacks are nice and deep, whites and gray contrasts are just right.  I didn’t see any artifacting, massive flickering or even edge enhancement.  You do spot some scratches but nothing major.  There is also a good amount of grain present in the picture. This is clearly the best looking version of “Seven Samurai” right now and fans of the film will be in awe of how beautiful this film looks!  Fantastic!

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

According to the Criterion Collection, the surround mix was created from original optical track recordings, original stereo music masters, and original production sound effects masters.  The original monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from an optical soundtrack print.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated audio workstation.

Audio is presented in Japanese LPCM 1.0 (mono) and Japanese LPCM 2.0.  The package does mention a Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio track but this was mistake on the packaging.  But for the most part, audio is quite clear and if there is one thing that fans will notice is the clarity of Fumio Hayasaka’s score.

Donald Richie, author of “The Films of Akira Kurosawa” wrote in his book about the differentiation of the music which I noticed much more in this soundtrack.  Drums are associated with the bandits, folk-music, flute and percussion with the farmers and a male chorus (low humming) with the samurai.  Audio was excellent and I detected no audio problems, hissing or dropouts whatsoever.

Optional English subtitles are included.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Seven Samurai – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #2″ on Blu-ray comes with the following special features presented in HD (1080i):

Disc 1:

  • Roundtable Audio Commentary - The following audio commentary is by  film scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns and Donald Richie.  Originally included on the “Seven Samurai” 2006 DVD re-release, the audio commentary features a different scholar taking on about a half hour or more segment of the film and giving their commentary for the film.
  • Audio Commentary – Featuring the original audio commentary from the 1999 Criterion Collection DVD release by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck.

DISC 2:

  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create - (49:10) The making of “Seven Samurai” as part of the Toho Masterworks series “Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create” featuring interviews with Kurosawa’s key collaborators, writer Shinobu Hashimoto, set decorator Koichi Hamamura, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, actors Seiji Miyaguchi and Yoshio Tsuchiya and more.  This is a wonderful documentary for anyone who wants to know how this masterpiece was made.  This feature was originally included in the 2006 DVD release but is now presented in 1080i.
  • My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa – (1:55:59) Filmed for the Directors Guild of Japan in 1993, this featurette showcases director Akira Kurosawa talking with filmmaker Nagisa Oshima.  Two two talk about Kurosawa’s life and career.  This conversation between the two is very cool, especially if you have followed the careers for both filmmakers!  This feature was originally included in the 2006 DVD release but is now presented in 1080i.
  • Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences - (55:12) A documentary exclusive for the Criterion Collection, this documentary takes a close look at the history of samurai in Japanese life and art and the influence of the samurai figure in film leading up to Kurosawa’s masterpiece.  Another awesome documentary featuring Tony Rayns, Donald Richie and David Desser discussing samurai in Japanese films.  This feature was originally included in the 2006 DVD release but is now presented in 1080i.
  • Trailers and Teaser – Featuring three trailers (3-5 minutes each) and a teaser (:42).
  • Galleries - Using your remote, you can view galleries via behind-the-scenes and the film’s movie posters.

EXTRAS:

“Seven Samurai” comes with a slipcase and a 60-page booklet. The booklet features essays by Kenneth Turan (The Hours and Times), Peter Cowie (Seven Rode Together), Philip Kemp (A Time of Honor), Peggy Chiao (Kurosawa’s Early Influences), Alain Silver (The Rains Came), Stuart Galbraith (A Magnificent Year), A Tribute from Arthur Penn, A Tribute from Sidney Lumet and an interview with Toshiro Mifune (In His Own Words).

Also, the “Seven Samurai” is presented in a digipack case in which both the case and the booklet fits into a slipcase.

Like many fans of the Criterion Collection, I purchased the original “Seven Samurai” when it was released, followed by the DVD re-release and then here I am once again reviewing another magnificent release of the film but this time on Blu-ray.

“Seven Samurai” on Blu-ray has much more detail and clarity than any previous release of the film and for those who are passionate about the film, this is the definitive version to own.

There is no doubt that the Criterion Collection is passionate about Akira Kurosawa and his work.  From the various Criterion Collection releases to the eclipse series releases and the AK100 set released earlier this year, Akira Kurosawa is a filmmaker that many people all over the world respect and with the announcement of the Blu-ray release of “Seven Samurai”, needless to say, many fans have been waiting patiently and it was definitely worth the wait.

The film exemplifies the magnificence of Kurosawa and here we are with a beautiful release of this film, with the intermissions and not hacked and cut like when it first was released in the US.  In Japan, it was uncut.  In the US, in 1954,  this 207 minute film was reduced to 160 minutes and further cuts were made.    And I can’t even fathom this film being shortened, as nearly every minutes, every hour of this 207-minute film was important to the story.

But there is so much to love about “Seven Samurai”, it’s storytelling is well-paced, the characters especially the samurai were well-planned and their scenes were well written, the discussion of strategy was well-thought and planned and the action is well-executed.

Both actors that have worked with Akira Kurosawa in his previous movies, Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune were fantastic!  Shimura as Kanbei, the disciplined leader who is aware, always thinking and is very astute when it comes to the samurai way and always practicing caution with his knowledge of strategy and how the farmers can use their surroundings to their advantage.    It’s one thing for Shimura to shine two-years earlier as Kanji Watanabe in the 1952 film “Ikiru” but in “Seven Samurai”, Shimura fit the part as a samurai leader.  Convincing and a leader onscreen that wins your respect and you want this man to truly succeed.

Actor Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo is phenomenal.  A popular actor in Kurosawa films such as “Drunken Angel”, “Stray Dog”, “Rashomon”, in “Seven Samurai”, Mifune masterfully plays the wannabe samurai Kikuchiyo who tries to convince everyone he is a samurai but his public display, awkward, weird, unusual, abrasive and crude at times, shows that he is a man with a kind heart and a man who wants to be with men like Kanbei and earn his respect as one of them.  But no matter how unusual Kikuchiyo is….whether he is impulsive, talks a lot, laughs a lot and downright mouthy, this is a character who rises to the occasion.  He is a man who does all he can to defend the farmers from the bandits, he is also a man that will earn the respect of his comrades.

Awesome performances by both men but also everyone in this film.  The main characters to the supporting characters are well thought of, are well-utilized…and each talent and even the crew braved through cold weather, cold water and gave the best performance onscreen as Kurosawa demanded and expected the best and got the best performance out of them.

As mentioned, the film is 207 minutes long but by no means does the film make you want to look at the clock.  I’ve seen long films before but with “Seven Samurai”, I was glued to my seat.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film,  “Akira Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954) is not only a great film in its own right but the source of a genre that flowed through the rest of the century.” (from Roger Ebert, “The Great Movies”, pg. 400)

“Seven Samurai” is a wonderful triumph in cinema.  Kurosawa’s wanting to create a jidaigeki samurai film but wanting to make it real, making it entertaining for the viewer that no matter how long the film is, the viewer is captivated.  We know this war with the bandits is not going to go perfectly, some will live and some will die.  We watch to see how well the plans of Kanbei are executed, how well prepared the farmers are in defending their home and we see how ruthless and cunning the bandits are and how they also have other weapons such as muskets and bows and arrows to their disposal.

Film critic Pauline Kael wrote about “Seven Samurai” (in her , “It is the Western form carried to apotheosis – a vast celebration of the joys and torments of fighting, seen in a new depth and scale, a brutal imaginative ballet on the nature of strength and weakness.” (from Pauline Kael, “For Keeps”, pg. 61)

“Seven Samurai” is a battle of underdogs vs. a large group of samurai-turned-bandits and we find ourselves supporting the seven samurai and the farmers in hoping they can become victorious?  But with victory comes a price.   But it’s not about just the battle, it’s about the relationships of each characters.  The samurai who follow the Bushido way, the farmers who hire the samurai for protection but at the same time, have their own set secrets of what they have done to samurai in the past.  The farmer who lives with revenge for the wife that was taken from him, the man who wants to be a samurai but sympathizes with the farmers for a reason.  There is so many layers within this film, masterfully pieced together, amazing shots that Kurosawa is known for and like a maestro, manages to make the 207 minutes an incredible cinema experience.  The word “masterpiece” can be a bit misused and even overused but there is no doubt, “Seven Samurai” is a Kurosawa masterpiece and a truly a magnificent film.

As for this Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of “Seven Samurai”, there will be some who may want to know if it’s worth it, especially after purchasing the magnificent 2006 DVD release.  While not having any newer special features, you do get the best presentation of the film (and special features) in HD, as well as the two audio commentaries, the three lengthy special features that with special re-release and the booklet as well.  This is truly the definitive version of “Seven Samurai”, a wonderful HD version of the film and if that matters to you, then “Seven Samurai” on Blu-ray is absolutely worth it.

“Seven Samurai” is Akira Kurosawa’s ultimate masterpiece that has been one of the highlight release for the Criterion Collection for more than a decade.  It’s a film that many cinema fans have in their collection and if you are a cineaste is practically essential to have in your film collection.  This Blu-ray release of “Seven Samurai” looks fantastic and is the definitive version to watch and own.  Overall, with the film, commentary and lengthy special features, “Seven Samurai” on Blu-ray is a 5-star release and it receives our highest recommendation!

VIZ CINEMA CELEBRATES AKIRA KUROSAWA SAMURAI CLASSICS IN SPECIAL AUGUST FILM SERIES

August 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Bay Area Theatre Presents A Rare Opportunity To Screen 6 Of The Visionary Director’s Most Iconic Films

San Francisco, CA, August 11, 2010 – VIZ Cinema and NEW PEOPLE are proud to present Kurosawa On Sword Battles – Samurai Saga Volume 2, a new film series opening on August 20th marking the centennial birth of Japan’s most beloved film director – Akira Kurosawa – and celebrating nearly half a century of big screen samurai action and drama. General Admission Tickets: $10:00; No discounts apply.

Screening times and more details are available at: www.vizcinema.com.

Seven Samurai, August 20th – 22nd

(Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1954, 207min, 35mm, Japanese with English Subtitles)

One of the most beloved films of all time, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai tells the story of a sixteenth-century village whose desperate inhabitants hire the eponymous warriors to protect them from invading bandits. This three-hour ride, featuring legendary actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, seamlessly weaves philosophy, entertainment, delicate human emotions and relentless action into a rich, evocative, and unforgettable tale of courage and hope.

Rashamon, August 21st – 25th

(Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1950, 88min, 35mm, Japanese with English Subtitles)

Brimming with action while incisively examining the nature of truth, Rashomon is perhaps the finest film ever to explore the philosophy of justice. Through an ingenious use of camera and flashbacks, Kurosawa reveals the complexities of human nature as four people recount different versions of the story of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife. Toshiro Mifune gives another commanding performance in the eloquent masterwork that revolutionized film language and introduced Japanese cinema to the world.

Yojimbo, August 23rd – August 28th and also August 31st

(Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1961, 110min, 35mm, Japanese with English Subtitles)

The incomparable Toshiro Mifune stars in Kurosawa’s visually stunning and darkly comic Yojimbo. To rid a terror-stricken village of corruption, wily masterless samurai Sanjuro turns a range war between two evil clans to his own advantage. Remade twice, by Sergio Leone and Walter Hill, this exhilarating genre-twister remains one of the most influential and entertaining films of all time.

Sanjuro, August 25th – August 30th

(Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1962, 96min, 35mm, Japanese with English Subtitles)

Toshiro Mifune again swaggers and snarls to brilliant comic effect in Kurosawa’s tightly paced, beautifully composed drama. In this companion piece to Yojimbo, jaded samurai Sanjuro helps an idealistic group of young warriors weed out their clan’s betrayer, and in the process turns their image of a “proper” samurai on its ear. Less brazen in tone than its predecessor but equally entertaining, this classic character’s return is a masterpiece in its own right.

Throne of Blood, August 28h – September 2nd

(Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1957, 109min, 35mm, Japanese with English Subtitles)

One of the most celebrated screen adaptations of Shakespeare into film, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood reimagines Macbeth in feudal Japan. Starring the director’s longtime collaborator Toshiro Mifune and the legendary Isuzu Yamada as his ruthless wife, the film tells of a valiant warrior’s savage rise to power and his ignominious fall. With Throne of Blood, Kurosawa fused one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies with the formal elements of Japanese Noh theater to make a Macbeth that is all his own – a classic tale of ambition and duplicity set against a ghostly landscape of fog and inescapable doom.

The Hidden Fortress, August 28h – September 2nd

(Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1958, 139min, 35mm, Japanese with English Subtitles)

A general and a princess must dodge enemy clans while smuggling the royal treasure out of hostile territory with two bumbling, conniving peasants at their sides; it’s a spirited adventure that only Akira Kurosawa could create. Acknowledged as a primary influence on George Lucas’sStar Wars, The Hidden Fortress delivers Kurosawa’s inimitably deft blend of wry humor, breathtaking action and humanist compassion on an epic scale. The Criterion Collection is proud to present this landmark motion picture in a stunning, newly restored Tohoscope edition.

VIZ Cinema is the nation’s only movie theatre devoted to Japanese film and anime. The 143-seat subterranean theatre is located in the basement of the NEW PEOPLE building and features plush seating, digital as well as 35mm projection, and a THX®-certified sound system.

NEW PEOPLE offers the latest films, art, fashion and retail brands from Japan and is the creative vision of the J-Pop Center Project and VIZ Pictures, a distributor and producer of Japanese live action film. Located at 1746 Post Street, the 20,000 square foot structure features a striking 3-floor transparent glass façade that frames a fun and exotic new environment to engage the imagination into the 21st Century. A dedicated web site is also now available at: www.NewPeopleWorld.com.

Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

July 24, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” is a wonderful collection of Kurosawa’s earlier work and if you are a Criterion Collection collector who is missing his earlier work in your collection (and have no intention of purchasing the awesome “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa” set), then this latest Eclipse series Kurosawa DVD set is literally a must-have and is definitely recommended!

Image courtesy of © 2009 Toho Co., Ltd. © 2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa

DURATION: Sanshiro Sugata (79 minutes), The Most Beautiful (85 minutes), Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (82 minutes) and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (59 minutes)

DVD INFORMATION: Black and White, 1:33:1 Aspect Ratio, Monaural, Japanese with English subtitles

COMPANY: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection

RELEASED: August 3, 2010

Years before Akira Kurosawa changed the face of cinema with such iconic works as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, he made his start in the Japanese film industry with four popular and exceptional works, created as World War II raged. All gripping dramas, those rare first films—Sanshiro Sugata; The Most Beautiful; Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two; and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail—are collected here and include a two-part martial arts saga, a portrait of female volunteers helping the war effort, and a kabuki-derived tale of deception. These captivating films are a glorious introduction to a peerless career.

Akira Kurosawa, one of the most highly revered filmmakers of all time.

A career which began in the 1930′s up to his final directorial work in 1993, The Criterion Collection is known for celebrating Kurosawa’s oeuvre through multiple DVD releases including the most recent collection titled “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa”. But if there was one collection that many have clamored for many years, it was his earlier films.

And now the Criterion Collection has presented us with another Kurosawa Eclipse Series set titled “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” which includes his first four films: “Sanshiro Sugata” (1943), “The Most Beautiful” (1944), “Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two” (1945) and “The Men Who Tread On the Tiger’s Tail” (1945).

All four films were previously featured in the “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa” DVD set but for those who have been collecting the Akira Kurosawa DVD’s via the Criterion Collection individually and those who previously purchased the “Postwar Kurosawa” Eclipse Series #7 set, this latest DVD Eclipse Series set is a welcomed addition to the Eclipse Series and a must-have for your Akira Kurosawa Criterion collection.

Here are our reviews for each of the films included in this DVD set:

Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshiro)

The Most Beautiful (Ichiban Utsukushiku)

Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (Zoku Sugata Sanshiro)

The Men Who Tread On the Tiger’s Tail (Tora no o wo Fumu Otokotachi)

For any Akira Kurosawa fan, the Criterion Collection has provided us fans with quality DVD and Blu-ray releases for many years now.  And for many Kurosawa fans, once you start watching one film, buy one DVD or Blu-ray, more than likely you will want to watch more and more and if you are a hardcore fan, you will more than likely want to purchase everything Kurosawa.

With that being said, I will say that the “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” is most definitely worth it.  For one, Kurosawa’s earliest films are not as easy to find and the fact that you can get his first four films that he directed in one set is fantastic!

But if you are a person who does not own any Kurosawa films or very few of the Criterion Collection releases, the set that you want is Criterion’s “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa”.  For 25 films, you get your bang for your buck but it’s also important to note that this set does not included the special features for the films that were released on the individual Criterion Collection DVD’s.

But this set is primarily for those looking for Kurosawa’s earliest films, the hardcore Kurosawa and Criterion fans (who must own everything), especially for those who have purchased the Criterion Collection DVD’s and the “Eclipse Series #7: Postwar Kurosawa” set and just need this remaining set to complete their collection.

As for the “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa”, you get Kurosawa’s directorial debut and his first four films.  “Sanshiro Sugata” were enjoyable films, “The Most Beautiful” gave us a glimpse of female factory workers during World War II and “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” gave us an early preview of what would come in the future for Kurosawa’s Jidaigeki films.

Although I do not feel that these four films are his best films, these four films included in this set are important but also entertaining. But also you got to see how Kurosawa handled a variety of situations that was asked of him during wartime, you got to see how he set up his shots and how thorough he was not only as a director but also as a writer.

It’s important to emphasize that this set is Kurosawa’s earlier work.   The first two films were created as propaganda films during World War II (and “Sanshiro Sugata” had 18-minutes cut from the original film), the third film was a sequel which he reluctantly did at the request of the studio and his fourth film was created because there was not enough resources during wartime to commit to a major film.  Also, the fourth film “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” was banned by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) General Douglas MacArthur because the film promoted traditional Japanese values and would not be released until after 1952 when the Treaty of San Francisco was signed (the treaty officially marked the end of World War II and the end of Japan’s position as an imperial power).

Also, it is important to note that because these films are part of an Eclipse Series release, you’re not going to get the Criterion Collection high-level remastering and restoration.  In fact, a few of these films do sport quite a bit of dust, scratches, film warping and some have problems with darkening issues.  But by no means are these films unwatchable nor should the condition of the film impede one’s enjoyment of these four films.  For films that are over 60-years-old, these films are watchable, quality differs depending on the film but I am quite grateful that we are getting these older films released on DVD.

These films are easily accessible, enjoyable and entertaining but when compared to Kurosawa’s later work, it’s like comparing apples and oranges.  But at the same time, as a fan, one can see the potential in Kurosawa’s earlier work and how it would lead him to the path of making incredible and fantastic cinema.

Overall, the “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” is a wonderful collection of Kurosawa’s earlier work and if you are a Criterion Collection collector who is missing his earlier work in your collection (and have no intention of purchasing the awesome “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa” set), then this latest Eclipse series Kurosawa DVD set is literally a must-have and is definitely recommended!

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (as part of the Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa) (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

July 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Before Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, it all began with “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail”.  Although more comedy-driven, the film gives us a glimpse of the potential the filmmaker had earlier in his career and a small taste of what he would later bring to the big screen years later.

Image courtesy of © 1945 Toho Co., Ltd. © 2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Men Who Tread on The Tiger’s Tail (as part of the Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa)

DURATION: 59 Minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Black and White, 1:33:1 Aspect Ratio, Monaural, Japanese with English subtitles

COMPANY: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection

RELEASED: August 3, 2010

Based on the plays “Kanjincho” and “Ataka”

Written and Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Produced by Motohiko Ito

Music by Tadashi Hattori

Cinematography by Takeo Ito

Production Design by Kazuo Kubo

Starring:

Denjiro Okochi as Benkei

Susumu Fujita as Togashi

Kenichi Enomoto as Porter

Masayuki Mori as Kamei

Takashi Shimura as Kataoka

Akitaka Kono as Ise

Yoshio Kosugi as Suruga

Hanshiro Iwai as Yoshitsune

Dekao Yoko as Hidachibo

Years before Akira Kurosawa changed the face of cinema with such iconic works as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, he made his start in the Japanese film industry with four popular and exceptional works, created as World War II raged. All gripping dramas, those rare first films—Sanshiro Sugata; The Most Beautiful; Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two; and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail—are collected here and include a two-part martial arts saga, a portrait of female volunteers helping the war effort, and a kabuki-derived tale of deception. These captivating films are a glorious introduction to a peerless career.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail – The fourth film from Akira Kurosawa is based on a legendary twelfth-century incident in which the lord Yoshitsune and a group of samurai retainers dressed as monks in order to pass through a dangerous enemy checkpoint. The story was dramatized for centuries in Noh and kabuki theater, and here it becomes one of the director’s most riveting early films.

Akira Kurosawa, one of the most highly revered filmmakers of all time.

A career which began in the 1930′s up to his final directorial work in 1993, The Criterion Collection is known for celebrating Kurosawa’s oeuvre through multiple DVD releases including the most recent collection titled “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa”. But if there was one collection that many have clamored for many years, it was his earlier films.

And now the Criterion Collection has presented us with another Kurosawa Eclipse Series set titled “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” which includes his first four films: “Sanshiro Sugata” (1943), “The Most Beautiful” (1944), “Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two” (1945) and “The Men Who Tread On the Tiger’s Tail” (1945).

All four films were previously featured in the “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa” DVD set but for those who have been collecting the Akira Kurosawa DVD’s via the Criterion Collection individually and those who previously purchased the “Postwar Kurosawa” Eclipse Series #7 set, this latest DVD Eclipse Series set is a welcomed addition to the Eclipse Series and a must-have for your Akira Kurosawa Criterion collection.

If there is one thing that Akira Kurosawa is known for in his films, it’s his samurai films and in 1945, Kurosawa began his work on his first medieval warriors in the film “Tora no o wo fumu otokatachi” (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail/虎の尾を踏む男達), a film that was created during a time when Japan was losing the war and the Japanese suffered extreme privation that various resources were not available.

So, instead of working on an elaborate project, in one night, Kurosawa came up with the story “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” which was loosely based on the kabuki play “Kanjincho” and the Noh play “Ataka” and also promising the studio that he can create the film using only one set.

The film would follow the life of Yoshitsune Minamoto (Minamoto no Yoshitsune), a general of the Minamoto clan of Japan known for defeating the Taira clan.  The story as featured in various books have shown the Minamoto brothers and cousins to have some problems (mainly trust issues) and for Yoshitsune, he and his brother, the shogun Yoritomo had been at odds.  Despite Yoshitsune having done well in defeating the Taira, Yoritomo who was ambitious and suspicious of his brother ordered his brother Yoshitsune to be killed.

Having learned that he was targeted to be killed by his brother, Yoshitsune and his six retainers disguised themselves as monks and needed travel through enemy territory and try to escape from deaths grip courtesy of the Minamoto clan.

In the film “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail”, the film focuses on the seven as they travel through enemy territory alongside with their porter (played by popular comedian Kenichi Enomoto).

For those who have watched many Kurosawa films, traditional Jidaigeki films of his have tend to be lighthearted to serious in nature but with this “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail”, the film in many ways tends to be more comedy-driven courtesy of the involvement of Kenichi Enomoto.  Similar to Japan with now with ninety-nine comedian Takashi Okamura playing crazy roles and using weird body language and facial expressions, in the 1930′s and 40′s, Kenichi Enomoto entertained audiences with his comedy and in this film, using hilarious facial expressions and body language.

In addition to Enomoto, “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” featured a good number of stars such as Denjiro Ookouchi (“Sanshiro Sugata”, “The Tale of Genji”) as Benkei, Masayuki Mori (“Rashomon”, “The Idiot”), Takashi Shimura (“Sanshiro Sugata”, “The Most Beautiful”, “Rashomon”, “The Idiot”, “Drunken Angel”) but also stars such as Susumu Fujita (who played Sanshiro Sugata, in both self-titled films included in this Eclipse Series set) as Togashi, the commander of the border guards.

As the obnoxious and loud (and not so bright) porter, he along with the monks would travel and unaware that the men he is escorting is Yoshitsune, his bodyguard Benkei and his other retainers disguised as monks.

Of course, when the porter finds out, he is now fearing for his life and accompanies the men who try to evade their enemies and try to get away from enemy territory but must confront the samurai border guards and convince them to let them pass.

Because the film was released during America’s occupation of Japan following World War II, the film was banned by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) General Douglas MacArthur because the film promoted traditional Japanese values and would not be released until after 1952 when the Treaty of San Francisco was signed (the treaty officially marked the end of World War II and the end of Japan’s position as an imperial power).

VIDEO:

Among the four films included in the “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” DVD set, “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” is the title that fared the best in terms of picture quality.  The film is presented in 1:33:1 black and white and unlike the other three did not sport any major negative damage, scratches, dust or warping.   For a 65-year-old film, “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” features good contrasts, no major blurring or combing at all.

Considering the small resources that Akira Kurosawa had for the filming of “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail”, there are really good shots captured by the cinematographer and overall direction and capturing Kenichi Enomoto’s facial and body expressions were well done.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” is presented in Japanese monaural with English subtitles. Dialogue and music is quite clear through the center channels.  I detected no major hiss or pops while watching this film.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

Eclipse Series releases do not come with special features but included in the cover insert is information about the making of the film and some history in regards to the release of the film.

Every director has their start and for Kurosawa, many of us are familiar with his jidaigeki films and the beauty and well-written storyline for many of his samurai films.  The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” was rather interesting because as the story is about Yoshitsune and his men trying to flee from enemy territory, you are greeted by this character who is not all that smart but it shows you how accomplished of an actor that comedian Kenichi Enomoto was.

I brought up the name Takashi Okamura earlier in my review because over 60-years-later since Enomoto’s comedy work, I have seen Okamura as probably the best comedian out there who comes close to what Enomoto was able to do, while utilizing his facial expressions and body language to get the audience laughing.  And as a fan of Japanese cinema, Enomoto may seem a bit inept (some may find him annoying) but in Japanese culture, these type of characters are quite popular with the audience and since Enomoto’s performance as the porter on “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail”, you will definitely see these type of characters in Japanese cinema and also animation.

Although the film is based on Yoshitsune and his men’s escape from enemy territory, the film is more or less about a porter who thinks he’s escorting an innocent group of monks but later finding out that he is stuck with men that may get him killed and sure enough, Kurosawa utilizes the actor for laughs and definitely breaking the monotony of a group of men walking through a forest or resting.

Also, the film does a good job in incorporating Noh flute and drum music throughout the story and to keep that traditional style throughout the film and to balance it with comedy.

Overall, “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” is more or less a film that showcases what Kurosawa was able to do earlier in his ouevre but a precursor of what he would later bring to the big screen with films such as “Seven Samurai”, “The Hidden Fortress”, “Kagemusha” and “Ran” to name a few.

Before many of Kurosawa’s jidaigeki films, it all started with this film.  Sure, the film may be a bit more comedy-driven but overall, any Kurosawa fan will be able to appreciate these earlier works.  They are not perfect by any means but it shows you of his potential at the beginning of his film career.

“The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” is another welcomed addition to this Eclipse Series 23 DVD set!

Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (as part of the Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa) (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

July 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Akira Kurosawa is not known for creating sequels but he did created a sequel to his first film “Sanshiro Sugata”.  Sanshiro returns with a new nemesis but also learning first-hand of how his fights have affected others, not in a good way.  A more action-driven film and grateful this 65-year-old film was included in this Eclipse Series DVD set.

Image courtesy of © 1945 Toho Co., Ltd. © 2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (as part of the Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa)

DURATION: 82 Minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Black and White, 1:33:1 Aspect Ratio, Monaural, Japanese with English subtitles

COMPANY: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection

RELEASED: August 3, 2010

Based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita

Written and Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Produced by Seiichi Suzuki

Cinematography by Takeo Ito

Edited by Akira Kurosawa

Production Design by Kazuo Kubo

Starring:

Denjiro Okochi as Shogoro Yano

Susumu Fujita as Sanshiro Sugata

Yukiko Todoroki as Sayo Murai

Ryunosuke Tsukigata as Gennosuke Higaki

Akitake Kono as Genzaburo Higaki

Shoji Kiyokawa as Yujiro Toda

Masayuki Mori as Yoshima Dan

Seiji Miyaguchi as Kohei Tsuzaki

Ko Ishida as Daisuburo Hidarimonji

Kazu Hikari as Kihei Sekine

Kokuten Kodo as Buddhist Priest Saiduchi

Ichiro Sugai as Yoshizo Fubiki

Osman Yusuf as American Sailor

Roy James as William Lister

Years before Akira Kurosawa changed the face of cinema with such iconic works as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, he made his start in the Japanese film industry with four popular and exceptional works, created as World War II raged. All gripping dramas, those rare first films—Sanshiro Sugata; The Most Beautiful; Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two; and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail—are collected here and include a two-part martial arts saga, a portrait of female volunteers helping the war effort, and a kabuki-derived tale of deception. These captivating films are a glorious introduction to a peerless career.

Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two – Kurosawa’s first film was such a success that the studio leaned on the director to make a sequel. The result is a hugely entertaining adventure, reuniting most of the major players from the original and featuring a two-part narrative in which Sanshiro first fights a pair of Americans and then finds himself the target of a revenge mission undertaken by the brothers of the original film’s villain.

Akira Kurosawa, one of the most highly revered filmmakers of all time.

A career which began in the 1930′s up to his final directorial work in 1993, The Criterion Collection is known for celebrating Kurosawa’s oeuvre through multiple DVD releases including the most recent collection titled “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa”. But if there was one collection that many have clamored for many years, it was his earlier films.

And now the Criterion Collection has presented us with another Kurosawa Eclipse Series set titled “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” which includes his first four films: “Sanshiro Sugata” (1943), “The Most Beautiful” (1944), “Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two” (1945) and “The Men Who Tread On the Tiger’s Tail” (1945).

All four films were previously featured in the “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa” DVD set but for those who have been collecting the Akira Kurosawa DVD’s via the Criterion Collection individually and those who previously purchased the “Postwar Kurosawa” Eclipse Series #7 set, this latest DVD Eclipse Series set is a welcomed addition to the Eclipse Series and a must-have for your Akira Kurosawa Criterion collection.

With the success of “Sanshiro Sugata” in 1943, the movie company wanted a sequel.  But for Kurosawa, creating sequels had never been part of his equation as a filmmaker and creating new and different films was what he wanted to do.  According to Donald Richie’s book “The Films of Akira Kurosawa”, Kurosawa said, “This film did not interest me in the slightest.  I had already done it once.  This was just warmed-over.”

But he reluctantly accepted to create a sequel and all principal cast members returned in 1945 for the sequel “Zoku Sugata Sanshiro” (續姿三四郎).

Unfortunately, the sequel would not do as well as the first.  Primarily because the majority of the theaters in Japan were bombed and only a few theaters were able to show the film.

The story continues two years later as Sanshiro Sugata (played by Susumu Fujita) continues his travels throughout Japan in 1887.  He continues to learn more about life around him but also learn about himself. His name has spread throughout Japan as the man who learned the martial art of Judo defeating those who have practiced Jujitsu.

And while traveling, he discovers many Westerners in Japan.  Some who are drunken, some who are rude and beat on Japanese.  While traveling to one city, he sees an American sailor beating on a Rickshaw runner and in order to protect him, Sanshiro comes to the rescue and easily defeats the sailor.  When a Japanese boxing promoter finds out that Sanshiro is in the area, he offers him a chance to be part of a match to take on a champion American boxer named William Lister.

Sanshiro can’t see why the Americans get so excited of people pounding away at each other and also how loud they are when these men compete.  As he has enough of what he had seen at a boxing match, he finds out that a Japanese will be taking on the boxer.  Sanshiro is shocked and when he tries to stop the Japanese from participating (because it’s not the Japanese way), the competitor tells him that he must fight for the money because of what Sanshiro Sugata did to jujitsu.  With him beating the Jujitsu martial artists, it has put them out of a job.

Sanshiro is crushed by this.  He never expected that people would hate him for winning in competitions, nor did he think he would crush people’s dreams, let alone seeing them going hungry and having to resort to such activities for money.

So, Sanshiro Sugata returns back home to his dojo and wanting to renounce judo.  But his teacher Shogoro Yano (played by Denjiro Okochi) explains to him that their path is not to be fight, nor is it to make sure judo is the best martial art, it’s about continuing and promoting Japanese martial arts and respecting it.

Sanshiro is comforted by this and his return back to the dojo has brought him some sense of peace, that is until the brothers of Gennosuke Higaki (the antagonist of the first film) come to Tokyo and challenge Sanshiro in a duel to the death.

The brothers Tesshin and Genzaburo are people who have no respect for Japanese martial arts but their own Higaki style of karate and are driven by revenge for their brother Gennosuke who is sick and ill and blame Sanshiro for humiliating him.  In fact, these brothers are quite insane and crazy, especially Genzaburo who appears to suffer from seizures and afterward can go insanely made.

His teacher tells Sanshiro that he will not fight, nor will anyone from the dojo.  But the Higaki brothers are sure to remind Sugata that they will be coming back after him.

As Sanshiro listens to the rules of his teacher of not to fight without his permission or to take part in any competitions that would humiliate Japanese martial arts, Sanshiro becomes deeply burdened as many students from the dojo are attacked and beaten severely by Tesshin and Genzaburo Higaki.

Sanshiro’s heart tells him that he must fight them but he knows that his teacher has set up strict rules that prevent him from doing so and the last thing that Sanshiro wants to do is go against the teachings of his teacher.

Will Sanshiro fight the Higaki brothers and renounce his martial arts school or will he follow his teacher’s strict rules and uphold the tradition of Japanese martial arts?

VIDEO:

“Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two” is presented in black and white (1:33:1 Aspect Ratio) and where the first film had some issues of darkening and of course, was trimmed down by Japanese censors, the second film doesn’t suffer from any censoring but does have quite a bit of print damage compared to the first film.

I also did notice a editing error in which a Rickshaw runner is talking with Sanshiro and the dialogue is repeated twice.  Not sure if that was an original splicing error or an oversight.

Similar to the first film where the picture gets dark at the beginning of Yano’s fight, there is a crucial battle in which the fighters look like they are silhouettes fighting in white.  It is known that during World War II, resources by the film industry in Japan were a bit scarce and filmmakers had to work with less resources around that time.  But I’m not sure if the darkening is due to the film’s degradation or because of the lack of resources during wartime.

Unfortunately, within the last 60 years, there has not been a better print and so what viewers have seen is a film that has a lot of scratches, dust, warping and unfortunately, some major darkening issues.  Granted, this is not throughout the whole film.  The film is definitely watchable but where the first film, the darkening happens fairly early, this time around it happens at the final battle.

But considering that this is the only print of the film, this is probably the only way we can enjoy “Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two”.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two” is presented in Japanese monaural with English subtitles. Although, dialogue is clear and understandable for the majority of the film, there is sign of dropdown in dialogue and hissing in the background.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

Eclipse Series releases do not come with special features but included in the cover insert is information about the making of the film.

I found the first “Sanshiro Sugata” to be quite enjoyable and despite the film created for the purpose of Japanese propaganda, it was created in a manner that didn’t seem like it.  It was primarily a battle between dueling Japanese martial arts but also a story about Sanshiro trying to find himself.  Sure, there was symbolism in the first film with the antagonist Gennosuke Higaki sporting Western clothes and being the man who would challenge the hero Sanshiro Sugata.  But for the sequel, things are much more different this time around.

It is clear from past interviews that Akira Kurosawa did not like making sequels and for “Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two”, it was a sequel he did not want to do.  But as a director just starting out, he reluctantly became the director once again.

When watching “Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two”, you watch a film that has elements of a hero who defends the weak and who does what he can to promote Japanese culture and tradition, most of all, following his teacher in promoting Japanese martial arts.  Of course, this time around, things are not as subtle as we see an American sailor bossing around a Japanese rickshaw runner, a boy who can’t even defend himself.  But coming to the rescue of the boy is Sanshiro Sugata, a man who has created his own legend, many stories told and of course, like the first film of the children signing a song of “stay away from Sanshiro Sugata”.

Of course, these stories and songs are exaggerations that were created during Sugata’s first battle (seen from the first film) as he underestimated his power and in defense threw his opponent who’s head ended up slamming on the boards and died.  But the fact is that people believed those stories and the fact that Sanshiro has come to their village and to see this mysterious Japanese hero beat this rude, mouthy American sailor should have been inspiring to the Japanese viewer at the time.  If anything, for us non-Japanese, what an exciting beginning in seeing Sanshiro defeating a mouthy jerk.

As we see Sanshiro disgusted by the loudness and barbarism of American boxing, and as the boxer beating on the Jujitsu challenger.  One can expect Sanshiro to come to the rescue once more, but that would be too easy if Kurosawa followed a cliche path. Kurosawa is not that type of director.  If anything, he takes the torment that Sanshiro has seen for himself.  Defeating opponents but the outcome was not as expected.  If anything, he may have popularized judo but for his opponents, they have lost their jobs and now have to take part in such barbarism to put food on the table for their families.  Shameful as it may be to the Japanese martial arts, he saw something that his fellow students probably will never see or experience and he is tormented by it.

Since the first film, Sanshiro Sugata has always been a down-to-earth man who has searched in his heart and those around him of the purpose of life.  We know he is quick to anger and wants to fight but his teacher has taught him well to know the value of life.  The appreciation of Japanese martial arts.

But then we see the broken Gennosuke Higaki.  The Japanese martial artist donned in Western garb who was the antagonist from the first film but now as a man who has found the right path once again, who knew he should have furthered Japanese martial arts but instead wanted to exploit it and in the process, lost his match and the disgrace has left him sick and weak.  So, now his brothers want revenge.

But these brothers are nothing like Gennosuke.  They are unrefined, they are loud and they definitely have no respect for Japanese martial arts.  No bowing, no acknowledging the elders, they just want to fight and beat Sanshiro.   The main antagonist is Tesshin, who is mad but at least is able to communicate his desire to fight Sanshiro.  While the insane younger brother Genzaburo looks as a possessed spirit ala a Noh drama (or modern Japanese horror films) with the long black hair and menacing face. A man who grows mad after a seizure (which we know that seizure to be epilepsy but no medication of course at the time to prevent it) and also is driven by revenge.

These two look much more menacing than Gennosuke ever was in the first film but nevertheless, characters who have done so much wrong and has brought violence against the students of Sanshiro’s school that he is a man who wants to fight but is bound by the rules of his teacher and the school.  Can he continue to fight for the sake of Japanese spirituality?  For the sake of Japanese martial arts or will his desire for fighting consume him?

“Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two” is a much more different film as the first.  With the first, although created as a propaganda film, the tones of the film were there but quite subtle.  This time around, its a little more in your face.  Also, while all characters made their return for the sequel, their part in the film is much smaller than before with the exception of the teacher and the priest.  Sayo does make an appearance but is limited to a few scenes of a woman who installs her faith in Sanshiro (which does ended up saving his life).

Also, the film also has its share of foreigners playing Americans but during World War II, it’s important to note that these foreigners were not American but legal foreign residents of Japan playing American.  Nevertheless, the inclusions of many non-Japanese actors in a Japanese film at during wartime was quite interesting to see in an earlier Kurosawa work.

I would imagine that “Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two” was definitely more commercially driven as the company saw how well the first one did, they wanted to repeat its financial success.  Unfortunately, due to a few theaters that were able to play the film, the sequel would never achieve the success of the first.

Overall, “Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two” is an enjoyable and entertaining film.  Definitely not a great sequel to the first but because of its share of action,  it is easily accessible and if anything, it was great to see the talent from the first film back together once again and to the see characters in another film would definitely make fans of the first film excited.  I was definitely excited to see the sequel but admit, like many sequels, this one was not as good as the first film.

As mentioned in my video and audio review of this film, the film does have darkening issues, print damage and some audio issues but considering this is probably the only way to watch this 65-year-old film, similar to silent films or early talkies, you just have to be grateful of what we do have in for these older films and be grateful that we are seeing it at all.  The film is still enjoyable despite having some issues with the video but not bad enough to hamper the enjoyment of the film.

Another awesome inclusion to the “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” DVD set.

The Most Beautiful (as part of the Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa) (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

July 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Akira Kurosawa’s wartime propaganda film for Imperial Japan to boost morale and productivity for female Japanese factory workers and his second film that introduced him to his wife.  Kurosawa has said this film is most dearest to him and now, this obscure film is available on the “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa”.

Image courtesy of © 1944 Toho Co., Ltd. © 2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Most Beautiful (as part of the Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa)

DURATION: 85 Minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Black and White, 1:33:1 Aspect Ratio, Monaural, Japanese with English subtitles

COMPANY: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection

RELEASED: August 3, 2010

Written and Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Produced by Motohiko Ito, Jin Usami

Music by Seiichi Suzuki

Cinematography by Joji Ohara

Production Design by Teruaki Abe

Starring:

Takashi Shimura as Chief Goro Ishida

Shoji Kiyokawa as Soichi Yoshikawa, Chief of General Affairs Section

Ichiro Sugai as Ken Shinda, Chief of Labor Section

Takako Irie as Noriko Mizushima, Dorm Mother

Yoko Yaguchi as Tsuru Watanabe, President of Women Workers

Sayuri Tanima as Yuriko Tanimura, Vice President of the Women Workers

Sachiko Ozaki as Sachiko Yamazaki

Shizuko Nishigaki as Fusae Nishioka

Asako Suzuki as Asako Suzumura

Haruko Toyama as Masako Koyama

Aiko Masu as Tokiko Hiroda

Kazuko Hitomi as Kazuko Futomi

Shizuko Yamada as Hisae Yamaguchi

Itoko Kono as Sue Okabe

Toshiko Hattori as Toshiko Hattori

Emiko Rei as Chie Shima

Haruko Mii as Haruko Kawai

Minori Toyohara as Minori Yoyota

Eiko Hirayama as Yoshiko Shirayama

Harue Yamashita as Kiyo Mishima

Mineko Mashiro as Mineko Bando

Isuzu Miyakawa as Shizue Miyazaki

Michiko Oikawa as Michiko Ayukawa

Teruko Kato as Teruko Sato

Years before Akira Kurosawa changed the face of cinema with such iconic works as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, he made his start in the Japanese film industry with four popular and exceptional works, created as World War II raged. All gripping dramas, those rare first films—Sanshiro Sugata; The Most Beautiful; Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two; and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail—are collected here and include a two-part martial arts saga, a portrait of female volunteers helping the war effort, and a kabuki-derived tale of deception. These captivating films are a glorious introduction to a peerless career.

The Most Beautiful - This portrait of female volunteer workers at an optics plant during World War II, shot on location at the Nippon Kogaku factory, was created with a patriotic agenda. Yet thanks to Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking semi-documentary approach, The Most Beautiful is a revealing look at Japanese women of the era and anticipates the aesthetics of Japanese cinema’s postwar social realism.

Akira Kurosawa, one of the most highly revered filmmakers of all time.

A career which began in the 1930′s up to his final directorial work in 1993, The Criterion Collection is known for celebrating Kurosawa’s oeuvre through multiple DVD releases including the most recent collection titled “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa”. But if there was one collection that many have clamored for many years, it was his earlier films.

And now the Criterion Collection has presented us with another Kurosawa Eclipse Series set titled “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” which includes his first four films: “Sanshiro Sugata” (1943), “The Most Beautiful” (1944), “Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two” (1945) and “The Men Who Tread On the Tiger’s Tail” (1945).

All four films were previously featured in the “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa” DVD set but for those who have been collecting the Akira Kurosawa DVD’s via the Criterion Collection individually and those who previously purchased the “Postwar Kurosawa” Eclipse Series #7 set, this latest DVD Eclipse Series set is a welcomed addition to the Eclipse Series and a must-have for your Akira Kurosawa Criterion collection.

Following his film “Sanshiro Sugata”, in 1944, Akira Kurosawa would begin work on his 1944 war propaganda film “Ichiban utsukushiku” (The Most Beautiful/一番美しく).  And like many Japanese filmmakers of that era, many joined the ideological effort to help boost productivity and morale in the country.

As the United States had Rosie the Riveter as a cultural icon representing the American women who worked the factories during World War II, Kurosawa’s “The Most Beautiful” is a semi-documentary which deals with the ideology of “Kokutai” and the women who worked for the sacrifice for their country.  In this case, women who worked at a factory creating optics that are to be used in fighter planes, tanks, ships and vehicles used in the war.

We watch as the women are not inspired at first while working at the factory but with the government and military depending on the women for their work, a young woman named Tsuru Watanabe (played by Yoko Yaguchi) becomes the president of the women workers and fights for their rights.  But most of all, making them feel a purpose of their job.

From assembling like a military unit with their instruments and singing their song about Mongolian conquerors who couldn’t defeat Japan and these women literally dedicating their all, by working hard at the factory in making sure that the men will not have any faulty optics but growing together like a family and taking care of each other, especially if one of the girl’s are sick.

“The Most Beautiful” gives us Japanese insight on World War II propaganda and what kind of films were used to boost morale among Japanese female factory workers.

VIDEO:

“The Most Beautiful” is presented in black and white (1:33:1 Aspect Ratio) and for a film that is nearly 70-years old, the film does have a good amount of scratches and dust but by no means is the film difficult to watch.  If anything, a film that is typically shot in a factory or a dorm room can easily be boring visually to the viewer but Kurosawa knows that due to the surroundings, what you can do is focus on the emotions of the young women.  To focus on how the women work together and also have fun together as seen in an enjoyable volleyball match (something that is rare to see in Japanese cinema).

But for the most part, it’s a film that would eventually focus on Tsuru (played by Yoko Yaguchi) and would showcase her as an actress dealing with a variety of emotions and capturing the happiness, the sadness and heartbreaking pain.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“The Most Beautiful” is presented in Japanese monaural with English subtitles. Dialogue is clear and heard no significant clicks, pops or humming through the entire film.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

Eclipse Series releases do not come with special features but included in the insert is a background on Kurosawa and the information about the film.

“The Most Beautiful” is a film that many people who are familiar with Kurosawa’s work, would be intrigued because of how different it is from his latest work but also to see how Kurosawa created his film during World War II.  His role as a filmmaker and how he would contribute to inspiring Japanese during the war.

But it’s important to note that Kurosawa was a man who believed in nonconformity and “The Most Beautiful” is a film that he did not embrace.  In fact, according to the insert, he chastised himself for “doing very little to resist the nation’s descent into militarism”.  But yet the film was the most dearest to him because the lead actress Yoko Yaguchi would become his wife.

I’ve had a chance to see look on various forums on a non-Japanese perspective and view towards this film and some who arrive at conclusions dialectically to those who use the film to polemicize the Japanese military and its treatment towards other countries.

For me, “The Most Beautiful” is a film that represents an era and a country who wanted to boost morale for the many women who had to work at the factory.  In America, we had “Rosie the Riveter” and I’m sure other countries who took part in a World War, had their own set ways of boosting morale in their country.

But I suppose if one watched this film, its all subjective to the viewer of how all the women come to support their president and to be astonished by her dedication to her country and those fighting the war.  And in the final scene, Kurosawa manages to include a contradictory scene involving the main protagonist which in my opinion is a wonderful scene because it shows that no matter how strong she may be and dedicated to her country, she’s also human.

“The Most Beautiful” will probably not be a film that many people will feel is Kurosawa’s best film but for those who want to to step aside from his more well-known films and want to see a much earlier film by Kurosawa during World War II, then definitely gives this film a try.

I enjoyed how he created a film that is like a semi-documentary (it helps that he shot the film in a factory and the women had to partake in the work of the factory in order to make the film more realistic) but also trying to incorporate enough story and scenes to keep the film fun and entertaining.  It’s not as deep as his later films nor does it have a lot of layers of complexity.  It’s pretty much a straightforward film.

And again, there is no doubt that “The Most Beautiful” is a propaganda wartime film for Imperial Japan and whether or not it did help boost productivity and morale for female factory workers, who knows… but Kurosawa was able to capture that sense of unity and the love for the country and the men who are fighting for that country.  He may not have wanted to make this kind of film (originally, he was supposed to direct an action film about Zero fighter planes) but he manages to include a coming-of-age story that helps to define several characters primarily the main protagonist and if anything, he managed to meet the woman he would eventually marry.  So, I can see how this film is most dearest to him.

Overall, it’s great for Criterion to include this obscure film from Kurosawa’s oeuvre in  the “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” DVD set and for fans of Kurosawa who have never seen his earlier work, will definitely want to check out this DVD set!

October releases from the Criterion Collection – Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Bergman, and Japanese cult hit HOUSE!!! Plus SEVEN SAMURAI on Blu-ray for the first time!!!

July 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

THE DARJEELING LIMITED – DVD & BD
In The Darjeeling Limited, from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox), three estranged American brothers reunite for a meticulously planned, soul-searching train voyage across India, one year after the death of their father. For reasons involving over-the-counter painkillers, Indian cough syrup, and pepper spray, the brothers eventually find themselves stranded alone in the middle of the desert—where a new, unplanned chapter of their journey begins. Featuring a sensational cast, including Owen Wilson (Armageddon, Wedding Crashers), Adrien Brody (The Thin Red Line, The Pianist), Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore, HBO’s Bored to Death), and Anjelica Huston (Prizzi’s Honor, The Grifters), The Darjeeling Limited is a visually dazzling and hilarious film that takes Anderson’s work to richer, deeper places than ever before.

2007 • 91 minutes • Color • Surround • 2.40:1 aspect ratio

DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
• New high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Wes Anderson, with DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray edition
• Anderson’s short film Hotel Chevalier (part one of The Darjeeling Limited), starring Natalie Portman, with commentary by Anderson
• Audio commentary featuring Anderson and cowriters Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola
• Behind-the-scenes documentary by Barry Braverman
• Anderson and filmmaker James Ivory discussing the film’s music
• Anderson’s American Express commercial
• On-set footage shot by Coppola and actor Waris Ahluwalia
• Audition footage, deleted and alternate scenes, and stills galleries
• Original theatrical trailer
• PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Richard Brody and original illustrations by Eric Anderson

TITLE: The Darjeeling Limited (BLU-RAY EDITION)
CAT. NO: CC1935BD
UPC: 7-15515-06331-9
ISBN: 978-1-60465-333-5
SRP: $39.95
PREBOOK: 9/14/10
STREET: 10/12/10

TITLE: The Darjeeling Limited (2-DISC DVD EDITION)
CAT. NO: CC1936D
UPC: 7-15515-06341-8
ISBN: 978-1-60465-334-2
SRP: $29.95
PREBOOK: 9/14/10
STREET: 10/12/10

THE MAGICIAN – DVD & BD
The Magician (Ansiktet), directed by Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, Fanny and Alexander), is an engaging, brilliantly conceived tale of deceit from one of cinema’s premier illusionists. Max von Sydow (The Virgin Spring, The Exorcist) stars as Dr. Vogler, a mid-nineteenth-century traveling mesmerist and peddler of potions whose magic is put to the test by a small town’s cruel, eminently rational minister of health, Dr. Vergerus (Wild Strawberries’ Gunnar Bjornstrand). The result is a diabolically clever battle of wits that’s both frightening and funny, shot in rich, gorgeously gothic black and white.

1958 • 101 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • In Swedish with English subtitles • 1.33:1 aspect ratio

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
• New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
• New visual essay by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie
• Brief 1967 video interview with director Ingmar Bergman about the film
• New and improved English subtitle translation
• PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoff Andrew, a reprinted essay by Assayas, and an excerpt from Bergman’s autobiography Images: My Life in Film

TITLE: The Magician (BLU-RAY EDITION)
CAT. NO: CC1941BD
UPC: 7-15515-06391-3
ISBN: 978-1-60465-339-7
SRP: $39.95
PREBOOK: 9/14/10
STREET: 10/12/10

TITLE: The Magician (DVD EDITION)
CAT. NO: CC1940D
UPC: 7-15515-06381-4
ISBN: 978-1-60465-338-0
SRP: $29.95
PREBOOK: 9/14/10
STREET: 10/12/10

SEVEN SAMURAI – BD
One of the most thrilling movie epics of all time, Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) tells the story of a sixteenth-century village whose desperate inhabitants hire the eponymous warriors to protect them from invading bandits. This three-hour ride from Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, Yojimbo, Ran)—featuring legendary actors Toshiro Mifune (Stray Dog, Yojimbo) and Takashi Shimura (Ikiru, The Hidden Fortress)—seamlessly weaves philosophy and entertainment, delicate human emotions and relentless action, into a rich, evocative, and unforgettable tale of courage and hope

1954 • 207 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • In Japanese with English subtitles • 1.33:1 aspect ratio

TWO-DISC BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
• Restored, high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
• Two audio commentaries: one by film scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie and the other by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck
• Fifty-minute documentary on the making of Seven Samurai
My Life in Cinema, a two-hour video conversation between directors Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima
• “Seven Samurai”: Origins and Influences, a documentary that looks at the samurai traditions and films that helped shape Kurosawa’s masterpiece
• Theatrical trailers and teaser
• Gallery of rare posters and behind-the-scenes and production stills
• PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Stuart Galbraith, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Lumet, and an interview with Toshiro Mifune from 1993

TITLE: Seven Samurai (BLU-RAY EDITION)
CAT. NO: CC1877BD
UPC: 7-15515-05491-1
ISBN: 978-1-60465-247-5
SRP: $49.95
PREBOOK: 9/21/10
STREET: 10/19/10

PATHS OF GLORY – DVD & BD
A pivotal work by Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange), Paths of Glory is among the most powerful antiwar films ever made. A fiery Kirk Douglas (Ace in the Hole, Spartacus) stars as a French colonel serving in World War I who goes head-to-head with the army’s ruthless top brass when his men are accused of cowardice after being unable to carry out an impossible mission. This haunting, exquisitely photographed dissection of the military machine in all its absurdity and capacity for dehumanization (a theme Kubrick would continue to explore throughout his career) is assembled with its legendary director’s customary precision, from its tense trench warfare sequences to its gripping courtroom climax to its ravaging final scene.

1957 • 88 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • 1.66:1 aspect ratio

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
• New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
• New audio commentary by critic Gary Giddins
• Television interview from 1979 with star Kirk Douglas
• New video interviews with Kubrick’s longtime executive producer Jan Harlan, Paths of Glory producer James B. Harris, and actress Christiane Kubrick
• Excerpt from a French television program about real-life World War I executions similar to the events dramatized in Paths of Glory
• Theatrical trailer
• PLUS: An essay by Kubrick scholar James Naremore

TITLE: Paths of Glory (BLU-RAY EDITION)
CAT. NO: CC1943BD
UPC: 7-15515-06411-8
ISBN: 978-1-60465-341-0
SRP: $39.95
PREBOOK: 9/28/10
STREET: 10/26/10

TITLE: Paths of Glory (DVD EDITION)
CAT. NO: CC1942D
UPC: 7-15515-06401-9
ISBN: 978-1-60465-340-3
SRP: $29.95
PREBOOK: 9/28/10
STREET: 10/26/10

HOUSE- DVD & BD
How to describe Nobuhiko Obayashi’s indescribable 1977 movie House (Hausu)? As a psychedelic ghost tale? A stream-of-consciousness bedtime story? An episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava? Any of the above will do for this hallucinatory head trip about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt’s creaky country home and comes face-to-face with evil spirits, a demonic house cat, a bloodthirsty piano, and other ghoulish visions, all realized by Obayashi via a series of mattes, animation, and collage effects. Equal parts absurd and nightmarish, House might have been beamed to Earth from some other planet. Never before available on home video in the United States, it’s one of the most exciting cult discoveries in years.

1977 • 88 minutes • Color • Monaural • In Japanese with English subtitles • 1.33:1 aspect ratio

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
• New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
• Constructing a House, a new video piece featuring interviews with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, story scenarist and daughter of the director Chigumi Obayashi, and screenwriter Chiho Katsura
Emotion, a 1966 experimental film by Obayashi
• New video appreciation by director Ti West (House of the Devil)
• Theatrical trailer
• New and improved English subtitle translation
• PLUS: An essay by Chuck Stephens

TITLE: House (BLU-RAY EDITION)
CAT. NO: CC1931BD
UPC: 7-15515-06211-4
ISBN: 978-1-60465-317-5
SRP: $39.95
PREBOOK: 9/28/10
STREET: 10/26/10

TITLE: House (DVD EDITION)
CAT. NO: CC1930D
UPC: 7-15515-06221-3
ISBN: 978-1-60465-318-2
SRP: $29.95
PREBOOK: 9/28/10
STREET: 10/26/10

Attention Canada: THE MAGICIAN is available in English Speaking Canada only. All other October titles are available in all Canada.

Sanshiro Sugata (as part of the Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa) (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

July 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Akira Kurosawa’s first film showcasing the filmmaker’s emerging style (that would be prevalent in his later films) and a wonderful inclusion to the “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa”.

Image courtesy of © 1943 Toho Co., Ltd.  © 2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Sanshiro Sugata (as part of the Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa)

DURATION: 79 Minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Black and White, 1:33:1 Aspect Ratio, Monaural, Japanese with English subtitles

COMPANY: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection

RELEASED: August 3, 2010

Based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita

Written and Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Produced by Keiji Matsuzaki

Music by Seiichi Suzuki

Cinematography by Akira Mimura

Edited by Toshio Goto, Akira Kurosawa

Art Direction: Masao Tozuka

Starring:

Denjiro Okochi as Shogoro Yano

Susumu Fujita as Sanshiro Sugata

Yukiko Todoroki as Sayo Murai

Ryunosuke Tsukigata as Gennosuke Higaki

Takashi Shimura as Hansuke Mirai, Sayo’s Father

Ranko Hanai as Osumi Kodana

Sugisaku Aoyama as Tsunetami Iimura

Years before Akira Kurosawa changed the face of cinema with such iconic works as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, he made his start in the Japanese film industry with four popular and exceptional works, created as World War II raged. All gripping dramas, those rare first films—Sanshiro Sugata; The Most Beautiful; Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two; and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail—are collected here and include a two-part martial arts saga, a portrait of female volunteers helping the war effort, and a kabuki-derived tale of deception. These captivating films are a glorious introduction to a peerless career.

Sanshiro Sugata – Kurosawa’s effortless debut is a thrilling martial arts action tale, but it’s also a moving story of moral education that’s quintessential Kurosawa.

Akira Kurosawa, one of the most highly revered filmmakers of all time.

A career which began in the 1930′s up to his final directorial work in 1993, The Criterion Collection is known for celebrating Kurosawa’s oeuvre through multiple DVD releases including the most recent collection titled “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa”. But if there was one collection that many have clamored for many years, it was his earlier films.

And now the Criterion Collection has presented us with another Kurosawa Eclipse Series set titled “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa” which includes his first four films: “Sanshiro Sugata” (1943), “The Most Beautiful” (1944), “Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two” (1945) and “The Men Who Tread On the Tiger’s Tail” (1945).

All four films were previously featured in the “AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa” DVD set but for those who have been collecting the Akira Kurosawa DVD’s via the Criterion Collection individually and those who previously purchased the “Postwar Kurosawa” Eclipse Series #7 set, this latest DVD Eclipse Series set is a welcomed addition to the Eclipse Series and a must-have for your Akira Kurosawa Criterion collection.

Akira Kurosawa’s filmmaking debut begins with the martial arts film “Sanshiro Sugata” (Judo Saga).  A film that was released in Japan by Toho films back in March 1943 but because it was during wartime, the Japanese government removed 17 minutes from the film and that cut footage has never been found since.  In fact, for the 1955 release of the film, the following was shown at the beginning of the film:

“This film has been modified from the original version of Akira Kurosawa’s debut film, which opened in 1943, without consulting the director or the production staff. 1,845 feet of footage was cut in 1944 to comply with the government’s wartime entertainment policies.”

Nevertheless, the film without those 17 minutes still manages to be an enjoyable film and giving us a glimpse of Kurosawa’s filmmaking and also his selection of shots especially of the sky and the countryside which would become prevalent in his later and most revered films.

“Sanshiro Sugata” (姿三四郎) is a film that was adapted from a novel by Tomita Tsuneo and focuses on a stubborn young man named Sanshiro.  One day, Sanshiro joins a group of men who practice Jujitsu (a martial art that evolved from the samurai of feudal Japan to defeat armed or unarmed opponents without weapons).  Wanting to learn, instead he hears that the men are upset with a martial arts teacher named Shogoro Yano.  Mainly because he has been teaching a martial art called Judo (a Japanese martial art in which one can use defense to throw an opponent to the ground or immobilize them through grappling maneuvers).

The group of men are not too thrilled that this teacher is practicing judo which they feel is a disgrace to Jujitsu and thus they want to get their revenge by beating him with Jujitsu.

So, as the men begin their attack on Yano, Sanshiro watches and is amazed that the Judo teacher has easily beaten all the Jujitsu members.  Immediately, Sanshiro Sugata begs Yano to take him in as a student and Yano allows him to join his school.

But the problem is that Sanshiro is a wild child who follows the beat of his own drum and this may cause problems with his relationship with his own teacher.  Can Sanshiro be a changed man and prove to his teacher that he is a worthy student?  And what happens when the mysterious Gennosuke Higaki comes to the school and challenges him to a duel?

VIDEO:

“Sanshiro Sugata” is presented in black and white (1:33:1 Aspect Ratio) and despite having gone through cuts by the censor, the film quality differs in different scenes.  Mostly at the beginning where  the Jujitsu students take on Yano.  The scenes are supposed to take place in the evening and it shows as the scene is quite black.  You barely can make out any faces but dark figures fighting.  But this happens only during this instance. Not sure if it was intentional, if there were budget constraints or what but that is the only scene where it is a little hard to see because of the darkness.    It is known that during World War II, resources by the film industry in Japan were a bit scarce and filmmakers had to work with less resources around that time.  But throughout the film, there is adequate lighting indoors and during the daytime.

But there are beautiful shots courtesy of Akira Mimura.  From changes in camera speed, the use of wipes and the use of weather (especially during the final battle) and various cuts of nature were evident in Kurosawa’s first film and would become a major focus in his later films.

But considering the film is nearly 70-years-old, the film doesn’t sport hardly any negative damage and the scratches and dust were not at all distracting.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Sanshiro Sugata” is presented in Japanese monaural with English subtitles. Dialogue is clear and heard no significant clicks, pops or humming through the entire film.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

Eclipse Series releases do not come with special features but included in the insert is a background on Kurosawa and the information about the film and why Japanese censors trimmed 17 minutes from the film.

For any Kurosawa fan, just the opportunity to watch his earlier work is an amazing treat.  And even though his debut film “Sanshiro Sugata” was unfortunately cut by the censors during wartime (as it was deemed as British/American in sensibility), the film still manages to be entertaining and enjoyable in its own right.

The film would spotlight on the unruly Sanshiro Sugata played by Susumu Fujita and Fujita does a tremendous job of playing a man that is conflicted in his emotions of wanting to fight but also knowing his responsibility to obey his elders.   The expressions on his face, may it be during a match against a Jujitsu student to his battle with Hansuke Murai speaks volumes.  This is a man who loves to fight but at the same time, he values life but ends up in predicaments where he must fight a battle to the death.

In today’s modern world, we have seen plenty of Asian cinema that showcase various martial art styles colliding.  Especially in Hong Kong and Chinese films but it is really a treat to see the battle between Judo vs. Jujitsu coming into play throughout the film and to see how the tournaments are executed.

Kurosawa’s vision in conjunction with Akira Mimura’s cinematography work in tandem and both are able to create a sense of intrigue and suspense but also managing to capture beauty.  May it be the lotus blooming in the water or the storm clouds rolling in and seeing Sanshiro battle his rival Gennosuke Higaki (played by Ryunosuke Tsukigata) is well-done.  It is quite interesting as everyone in the film are in Japanese traditional clothing while the opponent and Sugata’s rival Higaki is dressed in Western/English style of clothing.

In many ways, this is a story of an underdog with a good heart.  If trained well, Sanshiro Sugata can accomplish big things but because of his brash personality (albeit having a big heart), realistically Sanshiro Sugata is like a child who had no direction growing up and thus, his special relation to his teacher Yano who has shown him guidance.

Yano knows that Sanshiro can be a difficult student but he knows that he needs to give his new student some tough love in order to have him learn why he is learning  judo and that he has a purpose in life.

I hope that one of these days, especially within my lifetime, as many silent film footage is being discovered, Kurosawa’s “Sanshiro Sugata” and its missing 17-minutes of film will somehow be found.  Those 17 minutes almost similar to “Metropolis” in which missing footage has to be told by intertitles but you feel those cut scenes could have added more depth towards the film.

Overall, “Sanshiro Sugata” is an enjoyable film and a wonderful inclusion in the “Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa”.   A wonderful film that gives us insight to Akira Kuroswa and what he would later bring to his future endeavors.  I definitely look forward to watching the sequel and the remaining two films also included in this DVD set.

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