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page added: 2/8/10
updated: 2/19/10




The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa - Review Index

Akira Kurosawa - Page Two

Stray Dog (AK100)

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Stray Dog (AK100)
1949 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/None Available


It's a brutally hot summer day when rookie detective Murakami (Toshirô Mifune) has his police-issue Colt pistol lifted from his jacket pocket on a crowded trolley. Racked with shame (keep in mind that the Japanese have strict prohibitions on guns, even to this day), he reports the theft to his superiors, who simply dock him half pay for the next three months and send him on his way. Not one to stand idly by, Murakami sends himself undercover to try and locate the pistol, walking amid the dregs of post-war Tokyo in a movie-halting (yet oddly captivating) 9-minute montage sequence filmed in and around actual Japanese slums. It's not until he gets paired up with veteran detective Sato (Kurosawa company player Takashi Shimura) that he starts to zone in on his target.

But then something happens - something that sends shivers down Murakami's spine: Someone is using his gun to perpetrate crimes and people are getting hurt. There are seven bullets in his Colt. That means seven potential victims, and Murakami is willing to do everything he can to ensure that those remaining bullets never get fired.

Stray Dog is equal parts film noir (with its very Western use of language and procedure) and social commentary (mainly focused on disenfranchised youth coming home from the war to a world struggling to pull itself back together around them), it and excels on both fronts. The film noir conventions take great influence from the work of both American ex-pat director Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City and Thieves Highway) and French pulp writer Georges Simenon, with Sato owing more than a passing nod to Simenon's greatest creation, Jules Maigret. But the film's true power comes from its commentary. Both Murakami and the villain of the tale (Yusa, played by Isao Kimura, who would join Mifune, Shimura and Kurosawa again five years later as Seven Samurai member Katsushiro) share very similar pasts. Both are in their late 20s, both are back from the war and both arrived home to Tokyo and quickly had their duffle bags (containing their whole lives up until that point) stolen from them. But whereas Yusa chose a life of petty crime, Murakami chose to try and stop it. Kurosawa alludes to this "doppelganger" concept several times over the course of the film, and would later play it up on a bigger chessboard in High and Low, using a "have and have not" theme.

This AK100 disc offers a very good video presentation, though the 1.33:1/B&W transfer has a little bit darker contrast than the original 2004 Criterion release. It's possible this is a new transfer (even of a different print) than the one used before. Regardless, Stray Dog looks as good as you can expect a film of this age and region to look. The sound is a solid Japanese mono (with optional English subs) and there are no extras.

Stray Dog was Kurosawa's best to this point work since Drunken Angel, and certainly many fans know this film better. It blends the world of post-war Japan perfectly with the Western influences Kurosawa was critical of (and yet adopted, at least in part) in his films. And though he would go on to consider it a disappointment, Stray Dog was by no means a failure and stands tall with any other classic film noir from the 1940s.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



Stray Dog (Criterion)

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Stray Dog (Criterion)
1949 (2004) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on May 25th, 2004 (Spine #233).

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B


The transfer on Criterion's previous 2004 DVD release is very similar to the more recent AK100 disc, but offers a slightly lighter contrast that you may find more preferable viewing. The sound is an essentially identical Japanese mono track (with optional English subtitles) that does its job well.

Unlike the AK100 disc, this Criterion release features some good extras, including another sublime commentary by Kurosawa historian Stephen Prince and a short 30-minute documentary about the film (from Toho's Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create series) that, truth be told, isn't as good as some of the other series entries. Still, even a lesser Kurosawa documentary remains engaging.

Finally, the packaging contains another a Criterion staple: A booklet with liner notes. This one features text from Kurosawa himself (excerpted from his autobiography), and film critic Terrence Rafferty. All told, Criterion's Stray Dog is not a bad addition to any Kurosawa library... not bad by a long shot.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



Scandal (AK100)

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Scandal (AK100)
1950 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/None Available


While most of Kurosawa's work in the years immediately following World War II offers a very specific look at Japanese life within its historical context, Scandal remains as timely today as it did in 1950. An indictment of media corruption and a culture growing increasingly obsessed with celebrity, it's an often fascinating reminder that the more things change, the more they stay exactly the same.

Kurosawa's favorite leading man Toshirô Mifune stars as motorcycle-riding rebel painter Ichiro Aoe. On an expedition into the mountains, he chances to meet Miyako Saigo (Yoshiko Yamaguchi), a famous but publicity-shy singer. He gives her a lift to a nearby inn, where a paparazzo for gossip rag Amour magazine snaps a photo of the two of them.

Amour runs the picture, along with a completely fabricated story averring that the famous couple is having a torrid love affair. Aoe decides to sue, hiring a sad-sack lawyer (Takashi Shimura) to represent him. But the lawyer is on the take, having been bribed by the publisher to ensure that the case is lost.

Most Kurosawa films are instantly recognizable, with a look, feel and philosophy that could not have come from any other filmmaker. But Scandal feels remarkably like a Sam Fuller movie from the same era, although Fuller most likely would have beefed up the role of the guilt-ridden journalist, who writes the story given to him by his publisher. Fuller certainly would have identified with and appreciated Kurosawa's distaste for the sleazy yellow journalism at Amour magazine.

Interestingly, at a certain point Kurosawa almost seems to lose interest in Mifune and Yamaguchi's characters, switching his focus to Shimura's corrupt, weak-willed lawyer. Shimura is excellent in the role, creating a sad, sympathetic character who yearns to be a better man but doesn't possess the strength to resist temptation. Ultimately, Scandal reveals itself to be primarily about this tragic character. The film's weakest link is that the characters played by Mifune and particularly Yamaguchi remain sketchy and poorly defined. Mifune comes off slightly better, but Yamaguchi is something of a cipher throughout. Still, Scandal has more than enough to recommend it even with these minor flaws.

Considering its age and relative obscurity, Scandal is in fairly decent condition as presented on this DVD (in the original 1.33:1/B&W), with print wear and damage only becoming a real issue during scene transitions. Otherwise, it's an excellent transfer and the monaural sound (Japanese mono with optional English subs) is clear and hiss-free. No extras are included on the disc.

Scandal is an intriguing addition to the Kurosawa canon. Its themes are more relevant than ever and the fact that the movie isn't a complete success makes it a prime candidate for a modern remake. But the heartbreaking performance of Takashi Shimura ensures there will always be a place for Kurosawa's original.

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com



Scandal (Eclipse)

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Scandal (Eclipse)
1950 (2008) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on January 15th, 2008 in the Eclipse Series 7: Post-War Kurosawa set.

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/None Available


Scandal was also released on DVD by Criterion in 2008, as part of their five-film Eclipse series Post-War Kurosawa collection. One again, with the exception of different packaging (Thinpaks with an outer slipcover) and menus, the disc is essentially the same as the version included in the new AK100 box set. The transfer is identical, sourced from the very same restored master, and there are no extras included on the disc. (You do, however, get brief liner notes on the film printed on the case's cover art insert.)

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


Rashomon (AK100)

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Rashomon (AK100)
1951 (2009) - Daiei Studios (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/None Available


Of all the literature, poetry and cinema dealing with the subject of "truth," virtually all fall short when held against Akira Kurosawa's breakthrough Rashomon. Winner of the 1952 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Rashomon opens with the only bit of absolute truth shown in the entire film: Three men standing around, stranded, at Japan's dilapidated Rashomon gate during a torrential rain storm. These men are: A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), one of the central characters in the story; a priest (Minoru Chiaki), who at this moment seems to have lost his faith in Man; and an unsuspecting vagabond (Kichijiro Ueda). The woodcutter and the priest are emotionally trampled, having witnessed a murder in which the very questions "What is truth?" and "What do we perceive as being truth?" are shaken down to their foundation.

The woodcutter proceeds to tell the vagabond the awful story. Deep in the forest, the woodcutter says he found a woman's hat, a dagger sheath and the body of a samurai, so he ran to the local constables to alert them of a murder. The woodcutter then tells of the trial, which involved the notorious bandit Tajomuru (Toshir˘ Mifune). Tajomuru was asked why he was caught with the murdered samurai's horse and bow, and he immediately confessed, saying it was won in an honorable duel. He then spilled the details of how the duel originated: He was laying in the shade of the trees, when the samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Ky˘) walked by. It could have been the way the sunlight hit her, or the fact that he was lonely and looking for some company; either way, Tajomuru knew he had to steal the woman from her husband. So he quickly hatched a plan to lure the samurai away, tie him up and rape the man's wife. When he was done, Tajomuru challenged the samurai to a duel, and the woman was awarded to him as the winner. However, as we find out back at Rashomon gate, Tajomuru's story may not be the whole truth... or even part of it.

It seems that the samurai's wife was found hiding in a temple during the trial. When she was brought to the court to tell her version of things, she contradicted Tajomuru's story. Yes, the husband was lured away and tied up. Yes, she was raped. But afterwards, she claimed Tajomuru left the scene, having gotten what he wanted. The wife then found her husband, who stared at her as if the darkest dirt known to man had muddied her virtue. Unable to stand the look in his eyes, she said she asked her husband to kill her to restore her honor, even offering a dagger for him to do the job. But then she claimed she must have blacked out and killed him instead in her shame. That must be the truth.

But the woodcutter's re-telling of the trial continues: A medium was then brought to the court to spiritually connect to the dead samurai, who offered yet another version of the events. So which one is the real truth? Who was lying and why? And is the woodcutter himself telling the stories truthfully? Like any real world jury, the audience is left to sort the fact from the fiction. But as a director, Kurosawa himself isn't interested in the real truth, or the lies or anything of the sort. He's interested in reality... and the reality of human truth is that no one will ever really know it.

Rashomon is an incredible film, filled with beautiful cinematography and pitch-perfect acting. Without doubt, Mifune proves himself here to be one of the greatest actors in film history. This is considered by many to be Kurosawa's masterpiece and it's easy to see why: As both a piece of social commentary and pure cinematic art, few films are its equal.

As included in Criterion's AK100 box set, this version of Rashomon on DVD looks very similar to the original 2002 release. The video image appears very slightly clearer here compared to the original DVD, perhaps benefiting from improvements in compression and mastering. Also improved are the optional English subtitles, now much bolder and crisper looking. As with the original DVD, there are still age-related print artifacts visible, but the blacks are deep and nice texture throughout showcases this B&W/1.33:1 film well. The sound is a solid mono in the original Japanese, and there are no extras.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



Rashomon (Criterion)

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Rashomon (Criterion)
1951 (2002) - Daiei Studios (Criterion)
Released on DVD on March 26th, 2002 (Spine #138).

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A


Like the AK100 edition, the image quality of Criterion's 2002 stand-alone edition is very, very good for a film of this age and country of origin. There are some visible moments of wear but, for the most part, the film hasn't looked this good since its early 1950s theatrical debut. The sound is mono, with a bit of hiss and pop associated with the film's age, but dialogue is clear and the overall quality of the track is solid.

The special edition material on the disc is among Criterion's best. To start with, there's an incredible audio commentary track by Japanese film historian Donald Richie, who walks us through the entire film and seems to answer every question you might have before it even enters your mind. Richie knows this material well, never sounding scripted or as if he's reading from notes.

There's a short video introduction to the film by the late Robert Altman, who talks about Rashomon's influence on his own work (and that of other filmmakers), as well as the importance of the film as a work of art. Also available on the disc is the film's original trailer, along with an excerpt from a documentary on the life and career of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who still owned the original Rashomon sign from the film when the documentary was shot. (He's since passed away.) The excerpt includes an interview with Kurosawa himself, conducted before his death. Both he and Miyagawa describe how some of the more elaborate shots were created with shadow cheats, complicated dolly moves and even a stolen wardrobe mirror. (One wishes the entire documentary was available here.) Perhaps the best extra included here isn't even on the disc - it's in the 28-page insert booklet tucked into the case. Along with liner notes by film historian Stephen Prince and an excerpt from Kurosawa's own autobiography, the two original Japanese stories upon which this film is based are reprinted in their entirety. That's a great and rare gift indeed, as it's often difficult to track down such source material... especially when it originates in another land.

In the end, there's really no comparison between this disc and one included in the AK100 set. This has been, and will continue to be, a shining jewel in Criterion's crown. The newer version is perfect for your first experience of Rashomon, but if you want to dig deeper, this 2002 edition remains the best way to do it. If only all of Kurosawa's films were treated as thoroughly on DVD.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com


Akira Kurosawa - Page Four
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