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page added: 2/8/10
updated: 3/23/10




The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa - Review Index

Akira Kurosawa - Page Seven

Dodes'ka-den (AK100)

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Dodes'ka-den (AK100)
1970 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK 100 set.

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


Dodes'ka-ken is a fascinating film, equal parts inspiring and depressing. It lacks a strong narrative through line, focusing instead on simply telling a series of curious personal stories, involving the denizens of a Tokyo slum. Each of these people is damaged and suffering in some way - from physical or emotional scars, actual handicaps or just life's tough breaks. The film meanders through their lives, as we learn more about each of them and their circumstances. We see their struggles, see how they chose to cope - some with alcohol, some with companionship, some with daydreams. In fact, the title derives from the sound a trolley car makes as it rolls down the tracks - a sound imitated in sing-song by one of the film's characters, who fantasizes constantly about being a trolley operator.

Making its emotional issues seem all the more vivid, Dodes'ka-den was Kurosawa's first production in color, and he used it to full advantage, painting the entire frame with rich hues, including the sets, the actors and their clothing, even the ground. He used brightly colored theatrical cycs on occasion too - a technique that would re-appear in many of his later films.

Dodes'ka-den clearly reflects the thoughts and mood of its director, who was then at a personal low point in his life, struggling with career difficulties. Kurosawa was no longer able to obtain financing for his films, in part because of a studio perception that he wasted too much money and too often fell behind schedule, and also because (as in Hollywood) the Japanese film industry was losing business to television. Kurosawa had also just been fired as director of the Japanese portions of Tora! Tora! Tora! - a difficult personal blow. He was only able to make Dodes'ka-den by forming a new filmmaking company with three of his friends, prominent Japanese directors in their own right - the Club of the Four Knights. This film was its first production. Unfortunately, given the film's length (140 minutes) and its difficult subject matter, it was a commercial and critical bomb, and the Club never made another. Its failure was yet another hard blow to Kurosawa - one more than he was prepared to take. The common theme in Dodes'ka-den is that no matter how bad things get, everyone finds a way to keep toughing it out - to keep on living, even if only at the lowest level of society. But what makes life worth living? Why keep going? One suspects that Kurosawa was trying to work out these answers for himself. Shortly after the film's release, he attempted to take his own life. Luckily, he failed and rebounded both personally and creatively. Nevertheless, Dodes'ka-den remains a raw, livid portrait of human life on the edge. It's a difficult film to watch, but offers a bittersweet window into the troubled mind of its director.

Criterion's AK100 DVD presents the film in its original full frame/1.33:1 aspect ratio. Colors are rich and accurate. Contrast is solid and overall image detail is good on the whole. The audio is Japanese Dolby Digital mono, but it's clear and clean at all times, with optional English subtitles. There are no extras on this edition.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Dodes'ka-den (Criterion)

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Dodes'ka-den (Criterion)
1970 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on March 17th, 2009.

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


Criterion's special edition of Dodes'ka-den was released on DVD early in 2009, so its transfer and audio mix are identical to those on the AK100 disc.

The main difference here is that this stand-alone release has supplemental materials - not much, but definitely a few things of interest. First, you get another documentary installment of Toho's It Is Wonderful to Create series on the director, featuring interviews with his cast and crew, and vintage clips of the director himself. Given the film's subject matter, and its inseparable connection to the most difficult period of Kurosawa's life, this piece is one of the more interesting in the series.

The film's original theatrical trailer is also included, along with an excellent, 23-page booklet featuring production photos, liner notes by Stephen Prince and an interview with Kurosawa's script supervisor, Teruyo Nogami. The booklet even includes Nogami's own cartoon illustrations of Kurosawa on the set during the making of the film.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Dersu Uzala (Kino)

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Dersu Uzala (Kino)
1975 (2003) - Mosfilm (Kino)
Released on DVD on September 2nd, 2003.

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


Dersu Uzala came together at a critical time in the life of director Akira Kurosawa. In Japan, attitudes towards his work were beginning to shift, such that many Japanese critics and studio executives began to believe that Kurosawa was too "Western" in his filmmaking. This was an absurd and erroneous notion, but the practical result was that Japanese financing for Kurosawa productions simply dried up. Ironically, the West would eventually come to his rescue, with American studios (including Fox, MGM and Warner Bros.) and filmmakers (George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, among others) helping to fund his last few films. But in the early 1970s, Kurosawa simply couldn't get a film produced no matter how hard he struggled.

Complicating matters was the fact that Kurosawa had recently been hired by 20th Century Fox to direct the Japanese portions of Tora! Tora! Tora!, but was eventually fired by the studio for lack of progress. (The conflict resulted from a clash in Kurosawa's usual production style over the Hollywood norm at the time.) As a result of these difficulties, the director lapsed into an extreme depression and attempted suicide. Kurosawa fortunately survived and, in 1972, was offered the chance to direct a film with Russian financing, as a co-production with Mosfilm.

Kurosawa chose for the project to adapt a book by the former Russian Army Captain and explorer Vladimir Arseniev (one that Kurosawa had read many years before), about the unlikely bond the Captain once developed with a wise yet humble Siberian hunter named Dersu Uzala. Back in 1902, Arseniev had been tasked by his superiors to map the Ussuri region of eastern Siberia. On his first expedition to the area, he and his men encountered Dersu in the wilderness. As they shared a meal over the campfire one evening, Dersu quickly revealed his extensive knowledge of the land and spoke of losing his family to smallpox. Knowing that a local guide could prove invaluable to his work, Arseniev asked Dersu to join their expedition. Dersu consented, and through many months of difficult exploring over multiple trips, formed a strong and lifelong friendship with the Captain and his men. Shot entirely in Siberia, Kurosawa's film version of Dersu Uzala tells the powerful story of this journey and friendship. Beautifully acted and photographed, the film reveals Kurosawa's own humanism and his appreciation for Man's need to live in better harmony with nature.

Sadly, Dersu Uzala presents a bit of a frustration to Kurosawa fans, as only two DVD versions are currently available and neither is particularly good. The edition most widely found in the U.S. comes to us from Kino. Released in 2000, the film is sadly presented in letterboxed widescreen only (2.35:1 aspect ratio) and is not enhanced for anamorphic displays. Color and contrast are actually fairly good, and the image is surprisingly tight in terms of detail, but the lack of resolution an anamorphic tramsfer would have provided really hurts the overall quality. There's also substantial compression artifacting visible (giving the image an overly "digital" apperance), and there's an abundance of dust, dirt and nicks on the print. The film's audio is included in Russian 2.0 mono only, with optional English subs.

The only extra found on the disc is the film's U.S. release trailer, also presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. Kino still owns the U.S. video release rights to Dersu, but their disc badly needs to be revisited with a new edition - one featurng a carefully restored, anamorphic widscreen transfer and credible special edition materials. And if you're going to go to that kind of effort, why not release a Blu-ray version as well? As fans of Kurosawa, we can only cross our fingers and hope for the best. (We attempted to contact Kino to inquire about the possiblity of a new version, but the company didn't respond.) In the meantime, if you're really eager to own this film on disc and you just can't wait for a re-issue, we recommend you check out the slightly better DVD available from RUSCICO.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Dersu Uzala (Ruscico)

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Dersu Uzala (RUSCICO)
1975 (2001) - Mosfilm (RUSCICO)
Released on DVD in 2001.

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


The other DVD version of Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala is available from the Russian Cinema Council (RUSCICO). It can occasionally be found for sale on Amazon from third-party retailers, but the most reliable way to purchase it is directly from RUSCICO on their website. The disc is available in PAL or NTSC versions, with cover art and inserts available in Russian, English or French (U.S. customers will obviously want to specify NTSC with English covers.) The bad news is that it will run you about $40 a copy in U.S. dollars, plus shipping. The good news, is that it's a little better, in terms of overall quality and extras, than the Kino DVD. We have a copy ourselves, and for our money it's the best available version.

The film is presented in two parts and each part is included here on its own DVD disc. You'd think this would result in greater overall quality, but in reality this was necessary because the MPEG-2 encoder used by RUSCICO (back in 2001) to compress the film for DVD release was woefully inefficient. That's not to say the encoding is bad, it's just that RUSCICO simply couldn't squeeze the whole film onto one DVD disc. Still, the RUSCICO version has something going for it: The film is at least presented in anamorphic widescreen video, with the film framed at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, either the condition of the actual negative is terribly poor, or RUSCICO's mastering equipment is just awful. (Probably, it's a little of both.) Either way, the image is VERY soft looking at all times, and so is almost as lacking in detail as Kino's non-anamorphic transfer. The print is nicely clean and dirt free, but it's also a bit faded, so the color saturation is a little washed out and seems to vary from scene to scene. These issues are distracting at first, but you do quickly adjust to them, thus enabling you to enjoy the film itself. When choosing between the Kino and RUSCICO DVDs video-wise, you've got a classic case of six of one and a half-dozen of the other.

Fortunately, the audio tips the scales in RUSCICO's favor. When you insert the disc in your player, you're immediately asked to select between Russian, English and French menus. The disc then gives you the option to listen to the original Russian soundtrack, or dubbed audio in English and French. All three audio tracks are presented in full Dolby Digital 5.1. They're certainly not the greatest 5.1 mixes you've ever heard, but they're good and definitely better than stereo only. Subtitles are available in a whole range of languages, including Russian, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese.

The extras also help tip the scales ultimately toward the RUSCICO DVD, as the set includes a vintage, 5-minute Russian newsreel (featuring a glimpse behind-the-scenes at the film's production and footage of Kurosawa at the 1975 Moscow Film Festival, where Dersu took the Golden Prize). You also get a good video interview with actor Yuri Solomin (who played the Captain), a small photo gallery, a biography of novelist Vladimir Arsenyev, and cast and crew filmographies. It's not a lot, but it's better than the Kino disc.

In the end, if Kino doesn't produce a better DVD or Blu-ray, one can always hope that RUSCICO will revisit the film in high-definition at some point. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that they've begun to release anything on Blu-ray yet. While we're waiting, their 2-disc DVD version remains (if only marginally) the preferred way to experience Dersu Uzala on disc.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Kagemusha (AK100)

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Kagemusha (AK100)
1980 (2009) - Toho/20th Century Fox (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


Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha was five years in the making after Dersu Uzala appeared in 1975. The latter had had only modest success and Kurosawa's home studio, Toho, being in financial decline at the time, had reservations about committing the large resources needed for the epic film that he envisioned in Kagemusha. Only through the support of American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola who arranged for 20th Century Fox's backing was filming finally possible. In the meantime, Kurosawa had busied himself preparing numerous sketches and paintings of the images he wished to commit to film as part of the Kagemusha project. Thus when filming could finally go ahead in 1979, Kurosawa had virtually the entire project mapped out in his head and this sense of both the overall picture and its details probably allowed the project to get completed despite numerous filming delays and difficulties involving both cast and crew.

Inspired by the history of 16th century Japan in which a powerful warlord used a double to confuse his opponents, the film tells the story of peasant thief Kagemusha who is called upon to impersonate the warlord Shingen who has secretly been killed. The thief is reluctant at first, but he warms to the task as he realizes its importance. His personal ambition grows, but at the same time he becomes haunted by the warlord's spirit. It's a balance that becomes increasingly difficult for Kagemusha to maintain, especially when the actions of opposing factions seem likely to lead him into war.

Kagemusha is a dark epic - colorful in execution but dark in tone - that shows Kurosawa's mastery of both large-scale battle sequences and more intimate expository passages. In the latter, Kurosawa shows great restraint in developing scenes slowly and methodically, which allows the audience to appreciate more fully the weight of the uncertainties and pressures on the Kagemusha character and eventual mental demons that torment him. The battle sequences are impressively mounted, but as effective for what we don't see as what we do. Showing the reaction of onlookers instead of the actual event is nothing especially new, but it is much more effective and even more horrific than viewing an orgy of blood-letting that typically just numbs the senses.

The Kagemusha character is played with considerable sensitivity by Tatsuya Nakadai, a reliable Japanese star. He was not Kurosawa's first choice - that being Shintarô Katsu who was well-known for his playing of Zatoichi, the blind samurai warrior - but Katsu and Kurosawa had a disagreement that led to Katsu's dismissal before shooting had hardly begun. It has been speculated that Katsu might have leant a lighter tone to the central character giving the film a different feel overall. I suspect the difference in practice would have been slight given how detailed an image of what he wanted to accomplish Kurosawa had in his mind, after the many years of preparation.

When released in 1980, Kagemusha shared the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival with All That Jazz. It received two Oscar nominations including Best Foreign Language Film, but did not win.

Criterion's AK100 DVD features the film in anamorphic widescreen, presented at the correct 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Colour, contrast and detail are all good. Moderate print grain is visible throughout, with occasional scenes and shots exhibiting slightly more grain than others, along with light compression artifacting. The original Japanese audio is offered in Dolby Digital 4.0 surround, and optional English subtitles are included. There are no extras on this edition.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com



Kagemusha (Criterion)

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Kagemusha (Criterion)
1980 (2005) - Toho/20th Century Fox (Criterion)
Released on DVD on March 29th, 2005.

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


Criterion's 2-disc special edition version of Kagemusha, released in 2005, appears to include the exact same video master as the AK100 disc. The anamorphic widescreen image quality is good, featuring solid colour, contrast and detail, with moderate grain and light compression artifacting. The audio is also identical, with solid Japanese Dolby Digital 4.0 surround, and optional English subtitles.

The bonus content clearly sets this edition apart from the AK100 DVD. The disc supplements included here are very comprehensive.

Most impressive is Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince's audio commentary, that is both richly informative and a pleasure to listen to. The film's production is also thoroughly covered in two featurettes (a 41-minute making-of documentary from Toho's Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create series, and a 19-minute interview piece with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola). Also included are a 44-minute video that reconstructs the film through Kurosawa's paintings and sketches; a gallery of Kurosawa's own storyboards and their actual recreation on the screen; five Suntory Whisky commercial spots made on the set; three trailers; and a 48-page booklet containing an essay by scholar Peter Grilli, biographical sketches by historian Donald Richie and a Kurosawa interview by critic Tony Rayns. Highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com



Kagemusha (Criterion - Blu-ray Disc)

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Kagemusha (Criterion - Blu-ray Disc)
1980 (2009) - Toho/20th Century Fox (Criterion)
Released on DVD on August 18th, 2009.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): 18/17/A


Criterion's 1.85:1 Blu-ray release delivers the same 180-minute international release version as the previous 2005 special edition DVD. It is a considerable improvement over the DVD, however, offering vivid colour and a sharp, well-detailed image. Blacks are very deep and contrast is impressive. Some of the night-time scenes seem a little murky in comparison to the rest, but the overall impact is very positive. Moderate grain is evident and there's no sign of untoward digital manipulation.

The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio is a 4.0 mix that sounds quite robust, with some decent use of the surrounds. The Japanese dialogue sounds clear, and hiss and crackle is virtually absent. The optional English subtitles are effective without being intrusive.

The disc supplements included here are a direct port of those on the 2005 DVD, and remain very comprehensive. The only essential differences are that the trailers are now presented in HD, the gallery comparison of gallery of Kurosawa's storyboards to the final film have also been upgraded to HD (and benefit greatly from the added resolution) and the insert booklet is smaller and slightly edited, omitting the Richie biographical sketches. Like the 2005 DVD, the Blu-ray is highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


Akira Kurosawa - Page Nine
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