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page added: 2/8/10
updated: 9/30/10




The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa - Review Index

Akira Kurosawa - Page Three

The Idiot (AK100)

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The Idiot (AK100)
1951 (2009) - Shochiku/Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

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


Following his international breakthrough with Rashomon, Kurosawa attempted his most ambitious project to date: an epic adaptation of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot updated to postwar Japan. The production did not go smoothly. Kurosawa's original cut ran well over four hours and the executives in charge at Shochiku ordered him to shorten it. When he refused, the studio did it for him, cutting the picture down to 166 minutes. The film was not particularly well-received and it quickly became one of Kurosawa's least-seen pictures. And while it would be nice to say that The Idiot is a neglected masterpiece, the truth is that the film is a bit of a failure, despite some compelling moments.

Masayuki Mori plays Kameda, a slow, simple man traumatized by the war, who has recently been released from the hospital. He's going to live with relatives and, on the train, is befriended by Akama (Toshirô Mifune). Akama is going home to propose to Taeko (Setsuko Hara), the longtime mistress of a wealthy man who is attempting to sell her off. Kameda loves her at first sight and is willing to accept her just as she is, penniless and scandalized. But Taeko won't consider it, fearing she'll ruin him, and takes up with Akama. Kameda still pursues her, while another woman, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga) falls in love with him and tries to convince Kameda that Taeko will be his downfall.

Admittedly, it's difficult to truly appraise The Idiot. Kurosawa's original version is lost and the studio's truncated cut does the film no favors. The story doesn't flow so much as lurch from scene to scene, making it difficult to keep track of the relationships between characters, and how much time has passed. Even with that in mind, the film never quite connects. Dostoevsky's characters can be difficult to grasp on the page, much less on film, and there's a distance here that prevents us from truly understanding these people. Mori and Hara are very good, especially in a lengthy birthday party scene that has Hara standing up for herself and Mori for the first time. But Mifune occasionally seems a bit lost, as though he can't quite get a handle on his character. Yoshiko Kuga perhaps fares worst among the cast, and it seems as though key scenes that would help define her character have been cut. Also, unlike Kurosawa's later, more successful adaptations of Western literature, The Idiot never feels fully integrated into Japanese culture. It feels as though we're simply watching Japanese actors performing a Russian text, rather than seeing a Russian text reshaped into a Japanese context. In the end, you're left with a handful of good scenes and several beautiful images (well represented by Criterion's transfer), but it's a struggle to decipher what it all is meant to signify or, more importantly, why you should care.

There's no question that The Idiot is a significant film in Kurosawa's development as a filmmaker. His love of Dostoevsky's novel is evident throughout and the lessons learned on this film almost certainly paved the way for later adaptations like Gorky's The Lower Depths and the Shakespearean Throne of Blood and Ran. But it's a film more of interest than entertainment. Kurosawa scholars and hardcore fans will consider it mandatory viewing and will find much in The Idiot to debate and speculate over. But the more casual viewer will likely see this as difficult going. If many of Kurosawa's films are considered requirements for any true movie fan, you can look at The Idiot as extra credit.

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com



The Idiot (Eclipse)

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The Idiot (Eclipse)
1951 (2008) - Shochiku/Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on January 15th, 2008 in the Eclipse Series 7: Post-War Kurosawa set.

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


As with several of Kurosawa other early films, The Idiot was also released on DVD by Criterion in 2008, as part of their five-film Eclipse series Post-War Kurosawa collection. Other than different packaging and menus, the disc is essentially the same as the version included in the new AK100 box set. The transfer is identical (B&W/full frame, with Japanese mono audio and English subs), sourced from the very same restored master. 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


Ikiru (AK100)

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Ikiru (AK100)
1952 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

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


True emotion in film is a very hard thing to pull off. Modern day filmgoers are generally too savvy to be manipulated into crying, screaming or cheering just because a filmmaker simply wants them to. But when that emotion does happen, it's easy for the viewer to forgive the film for any faults it may have, and simply fall in love with it. Such is the case with Ikiru - an all-time classic and one of Kurosawa's best films, sans samurai.

Ikiru follows the short adventure of Kanji Watanabe (played masterfully by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura). Watanabe is a civil service bureaucrat, who learns that he has inoperable stomach cancer and only has about six months to live.

The shame of all of this is contained in what we learn about Watanabe's lackluster life. Entering retirement age, Watanabe has grown into a supervisory position for the City. He lives with his disaffected son and daughter-in-law. (His wife died when his son was very young and he, atypically for the Japanese, chose not to re-marry.) Like so many of the classic Japanese "salary men," Watanabe has lived his life through his job, choosing to focus on work instead of family. In so doing, he's sacrificed himself, neglecting his own needs as well as those of his son. Now, all he has to show for his life is a citation on his wall, awarded for a job well done.

That may not sound like an uplifting tale, but Ikiru isn't about the mistakes Watanabe's made. Rather, it's about what he does to repair his life in the short amount of time he has left. When faced with the end of his life, Watanabe realizes that he's made some big mistakes that no one, not even he, can rectify. What is broken will remain broken, and that's that. But without looking, Watanabe finds something that he can actually make right for himself and others. He takes this opportunity and runs with it, leading to a final act that unfolds as a Citizen Kane-style mystery, until this surprise - and its impact on the people around him (including his son and daughter-in-law) - is finally revealed.

Ikiru isn't like most other movies, in that Kurosawa puts the viewer in a very voyeuristic position, keeping Watanabe at arm's length emotionally. He even goes so far as to incorporate an unsympathetic narrator who reveals, right off the bat, that Watanable is going to die. This works surprisingly well however because, in the end, the viewer gets to know (and becomes reinvested in) his character by learning about him just as the other characters in the film do. The audience benefits from his life lessons too. Ikiru is just a remarkable film, full of hope, reality and some wonderful performances.

Before watching Ikiru for the first time, there are a few cultural things to keep in mind that will make the film easier to fully appreciate. First, medical professionals in Japan, even as late as the early 1990s, simply did not discuss probability of death with a patient. It was believed to add undue stress on the situation and was considered rude. Patients usually knew the truth because of certain code words doctors used, but the frankness on such subjects found in the West simply didn't exist in Japan during the time of this film. Second, stomach cancer, even today, is as common in Japan as heart disease is in America. High rates of stress among the Japanese lead to stomach acid, untreated ulcers and worse. Third, expensive or flashy hats for a Japanese businessman are unheard of. It would be like a 50-year-old American businessman buying a leather biker's jacket and wearing it everywhere. It drew raised eyebrows and questions. (So "the hat" mentioned in the film is a very uncommon item for someone to purchase out of the blue.) Finally, Japanese business code in the 1950s was strict professionalism. A good worker should arrive at work on time, never take leave (whether for illness or holiday), and should always do exactly what is expected and nothing more - never stand out or show-up a co-worker. Following these rules was the key to life-long employment for a salary man. These things are important in Ikiru, which is nothing if not a snapshot of life in post-war Japan, as evidenced by the Western influence of the young (seen in Watanabe's son), the bureaucratic system, the rising "salary man" life-style and the notion that one man can make a difference... though not everyone will follow his example.

In terms of disc quality, this is the same transfer as the original stand-alone special edition released in 2004. The B&W/1.33:1 presentation is bold, clean and crisp, with some expected (but relatively minor) print damage. The image offers a very cinematic experience. Sound is a solid Japanese mono with optional English subs, and there are no extras in keeping with the other discs in the AK100 set.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



Ikiru (Criterion)

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Ikiru (Criterion)
1952 (2004) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on January 6th, 2004 (Spine #221).

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


Criterion's 2004 stand-alone special edition of Ikiru features the same video transfer and master included on the AK100 disc. However, this 2-disc set is substantially better than the newer release due to the sheer quality of its extras.

Disc One includes the film with an optional audio commentary by historian Stephen Prince, who is always a good listen, offering abundant and interesting detail on the film and its production. This disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer, and the usual color bars often found on Criterion DVDs for use in calibrating your display.
Disc Two only has two bonus features, but they're substantial and most welcome. The first is the 81-minute documentary, A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies, produced in 2000 with the assistance of Kurosawa's family. Essentially, it examines the way the director worked, from his thoughts on adapting stories, to his storyboard process (each was hand drawn with artistic flourish), to his method of working with actors and crew. Incorporating behind-the-scene footage from Madadayo and Rhapsody in August, it's a wonderful look into Kurosawa's world. The other feature is a 41-minute installment on the making of Ikiru from Toho's Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create documentary series, highlighted by clips from the film combined with interviews from surviving cast and crew members. It also includes a short biographical look at actor Takashi Shimura. Together, these two features alone make this set a must-have for Kurosawa fans. Finally, the packaging includes a fold-out insert booklet offering liner notes on the film by Donald Richie.

Once again, Criterion's special edition treatment of this classic is second to none. Kurosawa's Ikiru is, simply put, a great film, and this 2-disc set is by far the best way to experience it on DVD.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



The Seven Samurai (AK100)

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Seven Samurai (AK100)
1954 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

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


Right up front, and to get it out of the way: If The Bits staff had to name a selection for the best film of all time... Seven Samurai would absolutely be our choice. It is quite possibly the most watchable 207 minutes of film ever made. Where else are you going to find such depth of character development and so much action, matched with this level of human comedy and tragedy, without having to live it yourself? Seven Samurai has all of these things, along with some of the best character actors who have ever graced the silver screen, Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura high among them. All of this was put together by a man who was, quite simply, born to make films. Seven Samurai stands as director Akira Kurosawa's greatest effort, and it's certainly also his most accessible.

Samurai follows the trials of a 16th century Japanese village that's plagued by bandits. Knowing that the bandits plan to strike when their next crop is harvested, the villagers "hire" a group masterless samurai to protect them from the upcoming attack. At first, they seem to have little chance of finding warriors willing to take on the task, or good enough to handle it. Then they bump into Shimura's Kambei, in a brilliant scene that raises many different cultural issues. Kambei agrees to help the villagers, and it's through him that the rest of the samurai are assembled.

After Kambei recruits his team, and they head for the village, we begin to learn more about each of these men, particularly Kikuchiyo, played by Mifune. Kikuchiyo's past allows the samurai to eventually identify with the farmers, and gain their trust. He soon becomes the heart and soul of both the samurai and the film itself. Mifune is wonderful here, and it's the one role he played in his long career that best summed up his own personality. Wild, angry, funny, caring... he was all these things and more. The character is also a surrogate for Kurosawa himself - having compassion for the farmers, but also disdain. Wanting the respect and fellowship of his peers, yet always striving to be an individual; Kurosawa's career shows these aspects of his own personality.

Kurosawa is widely regarded as the cinema's most eloquent speaker, and his prowess and artistry are on full display here. The way that he chooses to move his camera, the way he sets up and frames his action, his heavy use of deep focus technique and his selection of camera position... all of it is just beautiful and says far more about the story, and the man himself, than scripted dialogue could ever accomplish.

Using the same high-resolution transfer (minus the slight windowboxing) as Criterion's terrific 2006 special edition DVD release, this AK100 edition of Seven Samurai simply shines. The entire film is presented on one disc, but don't let that fool you: The image is bold and nicely detailed, range of contrast is excellent, and blacks are solid and deep. This is one of the best transfers of any of the Kurosawa discs in the AK100 set. The sound is the same Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track from the 2006 DVD and is quite good as well. There are no extras.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



The Seven Samurai (Criterion)

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Seven Samurai (Criterion)
1954 (2006) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on September 5th, 2006 (Spine #2).

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


For this recent special edition release, the film was re-transferred in 2K high-definition from a new dupe negative, created from the original fine-grain master positive. It's presented in the correct full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and has been windowboxed slightly to allow the maximum visible image to be seen on a wide variety of displays. The film has also been split over the first two discs (of this 3-DVD set) to allow for high video data rates. The result is simply stunning... a clean, crystal clear image with great depth, wonderful detail even in the darker scenes, and delightfully subtle shadings and degrees of contrast. Film grain is visible but is never harsh, giving the image the atmosphere and character that you'd expect from a film of this age, without detracting from the drama.

The original Japanese mono soundtrack has also been remastered to reduce unwanted noise and age-related defects. It's presented here in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and a new 2.0 surround mix (with optional subtitles), both of which support the imagery well.

Beyond the film itself, let's start with the packaging. In a word, it's gorgeous! The set comes in a high-quality paper slipcase featuring the banner of the seven samurai on the front. Inside this, you'll find the three discs contained in a fold-out Digipack of similar quality, featuring stunning black and white photographs from the film. Also included in the case is a lovely 28-page booklet, featuring more rare photography and liner notes by several film critics, historians, filmmakers and even a reminiscence by Mifune on his experiences on the film. And all this is before you ever pop a disc into your player!

Discs One and Two include audio commentary by Michael Jeck (the same track featured on Criterion's original DVD release), along with a "film scholars roundtable" commentary with David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns and Donal Richie. Three theatrical trailers and a teaser trailer for the film are also included on Disc One, as are galleries of production photography and the film's poster artwork from around the world. Disc Two adds to this a 50-minute episode of the Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create documentary series on the making of this film (full frame video, with Japanese audio and English subtitles). The piece features insights and revelations, interviews with many of Kurosawa's collaborators, glimpses of original scripts and much more. The documentary even has its own chapter index, which is an appreciated touch. Disc Three then contributes two more video supplements. The first, My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa, is a 1993 interview with Kurosawa done for the Director's Guild of Japan, in which Kurosawa reminisces about his life and his career (also full frame with Japanese audio and English subtitles). The second, Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences, is a brand new 3-part documentary created by Criterion to examine the history of the samurai in Japanese life, and its influence on the making of this film (anamorphic widescreen video with audio in English). Both are chapter-indexed for viewing convenience. Each of these extras is superlative, and together they serve only to enhance and deepen your appreciation for both Kurosawa and his film. Finally, the disc-based material is tied together with elegant animated menus that feature atmospheric film audio cues - wind, rain, etc.

By any standard of reckoning, Seven Samurai is a masterpiece of filmmaking that remains as enjoyable today as it was when first released back in 1954... perhaps even more so, given the luxury of perspective afforded by the passage of time. Kurosawa is at his most brilliant here, and that's saying quite a lot. With its classic story, archetypal characters, abundant action and powerful human drama, this is the one film that every reader of The Digital Bits owes it to himself or herself to see. Criterion's new 3-disc DVD release is not only welcome re-issue; it should be considered the centerpiece of any respectable film library on disc. It deserves, and receives, our highest recommendation.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



The Seven Samurai (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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Seven Samurai (Criterion)
1954 (2010) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on October 19th, 2010 (Spine #2).

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): 19.5/16/A


Criterion's new Blu-ray edition of Seven Samurai takes advantage of the same 2K scan and master created for the previous 3-disc special edition, sourced from a new dupe negative created from the original fine-grain master positive. Our enthusiasm for its appearance on DVD was high (see review above), but its arrival on Blu-ray is cause for even greater elation. Simply stated, this presentation is gorgeous - delicately refined, wonderfully nuanced and highly-dimensional. As with the DVD, the film is offered in its proper 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and has been windowboxed slightly to allow the maximum visible image to be seen on a wide variety of displays.

Whereas the DVD was a 3-disc set, with the film split over the first two discs, this Blu-ray consolidates the same content on 2 discs, and the film takes up the entirety of Disc One (a BD-50) all by itself, giving picture and sound plenty of room to breathe. As you'd expect, the result is even more spectacular than it was on DVD. The 1080p image exhibits breathtaking depth, abundant natural detail in faces, fabric and backgrounds (even in the darkest scenes) and delightfully subtle shadings and degrees of contrast, from deep blacks to a vast array of varying grays. Light film grain is visible throughout, giving the image just the texture and character that you'd expect from a film of this age, without detracting from the drama. This Blu-ray image is every bit as good as we could have hoped it would be. Short of its earliest theatrical screenings, Seven Samurai has likely never looked so good as this.

The original Japanese mono soundtrack has also been remastered to reduce unwanted noise and age-related defects. One thing to note: The Blu-ray packaging indicates that the audio is LPCM uncompressed mono, with "an optional DTS-HD soundtrack". The main audio IS Japanese LPCM mono, but the optional Japanese 2.0 surround mix is LPCM as well - not DTS-HD. We don't have a problem with that - uncompressed audio is uncompressed audio. You should just be aware of the deviation from the specs indicated on the packaging. Regardless, both tracks are clean and clear, and support the imagery every bit as well as they should. Obviously, optional subtitles in English are also included.

Beyond the film itself, the set is essentially a 2-disc Blu-ray reproduction of the previous 3-disc special edition. The packaging is nearly identical to the DVD's gorgeous case, just in a slightly smaller version. The set comes in a high-quality paper slipcase featuring the banner of the seven samurai on the front. Inside this, you'll find the 2 Blu-rays contained in a fold-out Digipack of similar quality, as well as a reproduction of the same booklet included with the DVD, featuring rare photography and liner notes by several film critics, historians and filmmakers, as well as a reminiscence by Toshirô Mifune.

The audio commentaries included on Disc One with the film feature Michael Jeck (the same track as on Criterion's original DVD release), as well as a "film scholars roundtable" commentary with David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns and Donal Richie. All of the remaining content is found on Disc Two, and the good news is that everything from the 3-disc DVD has carried over. You get the theatrical and teaser trailers, galleries of production photography and poster artwork from around the world, the 50-minute episode of the Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create documentary series on the making of this film, the full 1993 My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa interview with the director, and the 3-part Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences documentary created by Criterion (for the 2006 release) to examine the history of the samurai in Japanese life, and its influence on the making of this film.

Seven Samurai continues to be one of the great film experiences in cinema history. Criterion's previous 3-disc DVD was already a triumph for Kurosawa fans and admirers, but this Blu-ray enhances it further by way of the film's best A/V presentation to date. Criterion's high-def upgrade is an absolute gem - a must for any serious film enthusiasts' video collection. We sincerely hope that more of Kurosawa's films follow on Blu-ray from Criterion soon. In the meantime, this release is simply not to be missed.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Seven Samurai (1st Criterion)

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Seven Samurai (1st Criterion)
1954 (1999) - Toho (Criterion)
First released on DVD on March 16th, 1999 (Spine #2).

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


This was Criterion's original DVD release - one of their first DVDs ever. It featured a full frame transfer of then-satisfactory quality, but it's lacking by today's standards. Clarity and contrast are solid, but there's a good deal of compression artifacting, giving the image a very harsh, digital quality. Sound is a solid Dolby Digital mono. Limited extras include an audio commentary by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck and the original U.S. theatrical trailer. The initial release (still available on the secondary market) also included a restoration demonstration, which was removed from later copies at the request of Toho. There are no other differences between the two.


Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com


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