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page added: 2/8/10
updated: 3/5/10




The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa - Review Index

Akira Kurosawa - Page Six

Sanjuro (AK100)

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Sanjuro (AK100)
1962 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK 100 set.

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


Toshirô Mifune and Akira Kurosawa teamed up once again with Sanjuro, a fast and fun companion piece to 1961's Yojimbo. Thanks to the huge box office and international acclaim for Yojimbo, Kurosawa's financial backers wanted to follow it up as quickly as possible. As luck would have it, Kurosawa already had a script prepared - one he'd written previously, based on Shugoro Yamamoto's short story Peaceful Days. With a quick character change here, a bit of humorous commentary there, and the addition of Mifune's Sanjuro character (here calling himself "Tsubaki Sanjuro" or "Thirty Year-Old Camellia Tree," though as he points out he's actually closer to forty now), Kurosawa's sequel was ready to shoot, allowing his audience to laugh and thrill once more at the stylings and skills of film history's best loved samurai.

Sanjuro begins inside a temple, with a group of nine samurai discussing a difficult situation. It seems they have a corrupt leader in their clan, and they're not sure which of their two superintendents to trust. Because of society's predilection to trust something attractive over unattractive, they end up putting their trust in the wrong man and mess up big. Sanjuro, who has been lounging in the back of the temple, overhears the whole conversation. He lets them know how naive they are and scolds them for seeing things only at face value - a theme that runs through this whole film. (It's an apt one, given that Sanjuro himself is a seemingly scruffy brute who doesn't follow any of the traditional rules of the samurai, yet has more honor than most men of his time.) Being a fan of the underdog, Sanjuro decides to protect the samurai from being killed. But the only way he'll be able to walk away cleanly is to end the corruption once and for all, and see the right person put in charge.

Sanjuro is not as awesome a film as Yojimbo, but it's also not made in the same style either. This film is period comedy as only Kurosawa could tell it. There's solid action to be sure, but it's the incredible humor (involving both the film's characters and Kurosawa's thumbing his nose at conventional costume dramas) that really stands out. The film also features very solid acting by everyone involved. So while it's is not as awesome as Yojimbo... Sanjuro remains an incredibly enjoyable film in its own right.

The AK100 DVD edition of Sanjuro is presented in anamorphic widescreen, at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The B&W picture is quite beautiful, with a crisp clean image that appears to be identical to the one found on the 2007 DVD special edition. Sound is presented in Japanese Dolby Digital mono and it supports the film quite well. Sadly, the 3.0 "Perspecta" mix from the 2007 DVD is not included here. As with all the AK100 discs, there are no extras.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



Sanjuro (Criterion)

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Sanjuro (Criterion)
1962 (2007) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on January 23rd, 2007 (Spine #53). Also available in the Two Films By Akira Kurosawa DVD set.

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


Criterion's recent reissue of Sanjuro is so much better that their original non-anamorphic DVD that it's not even worth comparing the two. There's so much more information visible on the screen in this anamorphic widescreen image (aspect ratio 2.35:1). And the print itself is, in a word, splendid. Blacks are black, whites are clean and not overblown, and all the detail in-between pops off the screen. The audio is available in both a straight Japanese Dolby Digital mono track, as well as a 3.0 simulated "Perspecta" sound mix. Both are good, but with the (then) cutting-edge sound effects used in the film, you'll enjoy the more open feel the Perspecta mix provides.

The extras here are a really good match to those of Criterion's Yojimbo special edition. We're again treated to an audio commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, who is literally bursting with Kurosawa information and fully engages you in this track. There's another documentary entry on the film from Toho's Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Covered here are the various top-tier actors involved, how the property masters got the camellia trees just right, the filming Mifune's unsheathed sword battle at the start of the film, the ground-breaking special effects and making of the genre-defining final battle. These docs are just so good. Criterion did right to include them on the majority of their Kurosawa special editions. Finally, there's the requisite teaser and theatrical trailers, a gallery of stills featuring behind-the-scenes images and a liner notes booklet with an essay by critic Michael Sragow, along with additional comments from Kurosawa and members of his cast and crew. Note that an excellent Blu-ray upgrade of this disc is also available from Criterion.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



Sanjuro (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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Sanjuro (Criterion - Blu-ray Disc)
1962 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 23nd, 2010 (Spine #53). Also available in the Two Films By Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Disc set.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): 17.5/16/A


Like the new Yojimbo Blu-ray, Criterion's Sanjuro BD is essentially a direct upgrade of their most recent DVD special edition of the film. Presented in full 1080p high-definition, mastered from restored elements, the film looks about as good as you can ever imagine seeing it. Contrast is good (if not quite as good as the Yojimbo BD), with solid blacks and excellent image detail. Grain is light but remains to keep the image appropriately film-like, and there's only very minor, age-related print issues. The original Japanese audio is again presented in LPCM 1.0 lossless, as well as DTS-HD MA 3.0 lossless, which recreates the film's vintage "Perspecta" mix. (The latter is definitely the preferred audio choice.)

All of the extras from the 2007 DVD release are carried over here, including the Stephen Prince audio commentary, the It Is Wonderful to Create documentary installment, the film's theatrical trailer and the gallery of stills. (The trailer and stills are now also upgraded to HD.) The DVD's liner notes booklet is also reproduced here essentially word-for-word, though in a size befitting the smaller BD case. If you have the option, the Blu-ray upgrades are definitely the best way to experience these films at home.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Sanjuro (1st Criterion)

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Sanjuro (1st Criterion)
1962 (1999) - Toho (Criterion)
First released on DVD on September 14th, 1999 (Spine #53).

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


As with our review of Criterion's original Yojimbo DVD, this title is covered here as for sake of completeness. Criterion's first attempt at putting Sanjuro on DVD is bad by today's standards, but the company gets tremendous credit for reissuing the title on DVD and Blu-ray in vastly improved quality. Here we get a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer of a flawed print, with lots of image cropping on all sides. Sound is presented in a sturdy Japanese Dolby Digital mono. Extras include a theatrical trailer and a booklet with liner notes by film historian Michael Sragow (both also found on the new editions). Avoid at all costs.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



High and Low (AK100)

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High and Low (AK100)
1963 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK 100 set.

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


Though it might seem somewhat surprising source material for a Japanese film, Kurosawa's 1963 High and Low (the title is also occasionally translated Heaven and Hell) is based in part on writer Ed McBain's 1959 crime novel, King's Ransom. Kurosawa's version once again stars his longtime collaborator Toshirô Mifune, here playing Kingo Gondo, the wealthy factory manager of a leading Japanese shoe company.

As the film opens, we learn that the company's other executives plan to take their business in a new, more profitable direction, choosing to make lower quality shoes that will wear out faster, thus requiring women to buy them more often. As a man of integrity, this doesn't sit well with Gondo, so he's mortgaged his fortune to buy controlling interest in the company's stock.

Just has he's about to close the deal, however, he gets an anonymous phone call saying that his young son has been kidnapped - unless he pays a huge random, the boy will be killed. Paying the random would mean the end of his takeover bid and his family's financial ruin, but Gondo is willing to make this sacrifice to get the boy back... that is, until he learns that it was the young son of his chauffeur, and not his own son, that was taken by mistake. So Gondo wrestles with a moral dilemma: Is he still responsible for getting the boy back? Is he still willing to pay? Can he live with his decision?

Whatever else you might call it, High and Low is a master class in the use of staging, deep focus, multi-camera production, sound mixing (Kurosawa's first use of true stereo) and careful editing to maximize tension. The first half of the film takes place almost entirely in the living room of Gondo's hilltop home, shot in a series of very long takes. Filmed in 2.35:1 aspect ratio Tohoscope, every portion of the widescreen frame is used to maximum advantage by the director and actors, ratcheting up the drama as first the family itself, and eventually the police detectives, anguish and plan in an effort to gain some advantage over the kidnappers. Kurosawa's extraordinary attention to detail is in full evidence here: A real house location was used for daytime scenes requiring an expansive view of the city of Yokohama through the living room windows. But for nighttime scenes, the living room was recreated as a set on a soundstage, complete with a model city (featuring moving, lighted toy trains) in the background. The film's second half (bridged by a thrilling sequence set on a speeding commuter train) then details the extensive police investigation, as a small army of detectives follow the available clues to track the kidnappers through the streets, back alleys and heroin dens of Yokohama, determined to uncover the reasons for the plot and bring those responsible to justice. The investigation is so thorough, in fact, that real Japanese police departments used this film to teach proper procedure for many years. High and Low is simply riveting, and features one of Kurosawa's all-time best conclusions - a cinematic finale of incredible tension and style (of special note is Kurosawa's use of the actor's reflections on glass) - posing yet another moral question that the viewer is left to grapple with for themselves. This is, without question, a work of Kurosawa in his prime.

Criterion's AK100 DVD version of High and Low features excellent B&W, anamorphic widescreen video quality, with deep blacks and very good contrast and abundant detail. In fact, it's among the better A/V presentations in the AK100 set. The film elements are in generally very good shape, showing few age-related defects. The audio is presented in the original Japanese in 4.0 stereo surround, with optional English subs. There are no extras.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



High and Low (Criterion)

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High and Low (Criterion)
1963 (2008) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on July 22nd, 2008 (Spine #24).

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


Like many of the films in this set, Criterion has also recently released a 2-disc special edition version of High and Low on DVD. The video on this version is also anamorphic widescreen and appears to be mastered from the same restored print. Quality differences with the AK100 DVD are relatively minor, and include slightly less deep blacks, a bit more visible compression artifacting and perhaps just a touch more added edge enhancement. The image is still quite good overall, however, and you should be more than happy with viewing either version. The audio appears to be the same Japanese Dolby Digital 4.0 surround mix found on the AK100 disc, with the same optional English subs.

As you'd expect, the main difference between these versions is in the special features. This 2-disc set begins with another great audio commentary track featuring Kurosawa historian Stephen Prince, who guides you though the film, highlights its many noteworthy aspects and puts things in context. The set's second disc adds another 37-minute documentary on the making of the film from Toho's It Is Wonderful to Create series. You also get a lengthy interview Mifune did in 1981 with the Japanese TV series Tetsuko no heya, along with a recent interview with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki, who played the kidnapper. Finally, U.S. and Japanese theatrical trailers for the film are included, along with a 35-page booklet featuring rare production photographs and liner notes by Japanese cinema historian Donald Richie and author and film critic Geoffrey O'Brian. This DVD is yet another excellent addition to the Criterion Collection.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



High and Low (1st Criterion)

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High and Low (1st Criterion)
1963 (1998) - Toho (Criterion)
First released on DVD on October 14th, 1998 (Spine #24).

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


Criterion's very first release of High and Low back in 1998 was a single-disc DVD, and we include it here for sake of completeness. The disc's letterboxed transfer was good for its day, but unfortunately wasn't presented in true anamorphic widescreen, thus reducing both image resolution and overall quality. The disc also included only 2.0 monophonic sound and was movie-only, featuring no extras. The bottom line is that whether you just love this film in particular, are a fan of Kurosawa's work in general or simply enjoy collecting Criterion's DVDs, their newer DVD special edition of High and Low is far superior and is well worth the upgrade price.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Red Beard (AK100)

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Red Beard (AK100)
1965 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK 100 set.

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


Red Beard marked a turning point in the life and career of Akira Kurosawa. It was the last black and white film he was to ever make, and the last time he would direct the legendary Toshirô Mifune. It also, essentially, ended his most prolific period as a filmmaker. For many, Red Beard is the last Kurosawa film that embodies all of the elements that make his films great. Certainly, he would go on to make seven more remarkable films after it, but none - not even Ran - had the impact of the twenty-three films he made between 1943 and 1965.

But while Red Beard is very representative of classic Kurosawa, at the same time it's also unlike the films most fans remember him for.

Despite its over three-hour running time, Red Beard remains one of Kurosawa's most completely engrossing films. Yet, many American fans and critics haven't come to appreciate it, as there are no samurai, no trick shots or raging battles set in the rain and mud. But if you take a closer look at Red Beard, an argument can be made that - in terms of its technical/production quality and influence on other works (and much like Orson Welles' Citizen Kane) - this film is among Kurosawa's best.

It's the tail end of the Tokugawa period. A young doctor named Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), a graduate of the Dutch medical school at Nagasaki, is visiting a ratty clinic as instructed by his father. In his own mind, this is just a temporary situation, but Yasumoto's about to find himself the clinic's newest, disgruntled intern. The clinic is under the command of the gruff Doctor Kyojio Niide (Mifune), also known as "Red Beard." Yasumoto immediately finds himself at odds with Red Beard, whose first demand is to see Yasumoto's notes on Western medicine. Refusing to show them, Yasumoto begins a campaign to piss Red Beard off and get kicked out of the clinic. But his sake drinking, lounging in the medicinal garden and refusing to wear his uniform grate more on the nerves on the clinic's other workers instead, who tell Yasumoto that there's much to learn under Dr. Niide's stern instruction. Still, Yasumoto's a stubborn man, and his mind is made up.

Then things begin to change. Locked away in a small hut at the back of the clinic's garden, is a young woman who seduced and murdered several store clerks. In Niide's thinking, mind and body are both operable, so this woman isn't crazy - she's just sick. One night, while Yasumoto lounges half drunk on sake in his room, the woman (creepily, and expertly, played by Kyoko Kagawa) enters and begins to spin her story... and her web. Yasumoto narrowly escapes his own murder at her hands. When he recovers, humbled by the experience, he decides to put on his medical uniform and lend a hand at the clinic, becoming a surrogate for the audience as he (and we) learns about life, service and humanity.

The AK100 DVD offers the exact same A/V presentation found in the earlier Criterion edition, with a lush, B&W/anamorphic transfer in the original 2.35:1 ratio. With fine contrast and detail, and few age-related issues, the film has never looked better. The sound is also quite good, with a bold Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track. There's some interesting play in the mix, and the beautifully lyrical score fits the images perfectly. There are no extras.

Fans of Kurosawa will know that his earlier Ikiru is all about living through death. Red Beard is very much in that vein, except here the story is about living life despite the forgone conclusion of death. It's a film with much to offer. Rather than being purely an entertainment, this is a rewarding and personal journey of introspection. Red Beard is sweeping, epic and human... very Kurosawa indeed.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



Red Beard (Criterion)

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Red Beard (Criterion)
1965 (2002) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on July 16th, 2002 (Spine #159).

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


Criterion's 2002 stand-alone DVD edition is another disc worth gushing over. The film's stunning black and white photography and lush sound and music design are delivered beautifully here. The anamorphic widescreen video (in his trademark use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio) looks simply wonderful. Audio is presented in Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 (with optional English subs) and sounds great.

Typical of Criterion's best special editions, you'd expect an extensive liner note booklet by a Kurosawa expert here, as well as commentary by another film scholar. And that's exactly what you get.

Donald Richie provides the liner notes, which have a nice, light touch. But it's Stephen Prince's well-spoken and thoughtful commentary that really does the trick here. This is a very well rounded and informative track - one that's easy to listen to despite the film's extended running time. Also included on the disc is the film's original Japanese theatrical trailer.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com


Akira Kurosawa - Page Eight
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