Sunday, February 24, 2013

Movie recommendation: The Essential Akira Kurosawa movies - Volume I

First an introduction to the Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa, one of the pioneers of cinematic excellence. His movies are not your average cinema. This is the compelling kind of cinema - the kind you go back to, again and again. So when Hulu opened up their criterion collection for free viewing on President's Day weekend, I lapped it up. One after another. Like an hungry audience ready to feast. What heaven!

Seven Samurai was my first introduction as a kid to Kurosawa's prolific cinema and storytelling. My dad grunts in disgust whenever Sholay is aired on television and for a good reason - Sholay was inspired from the Magnificent Seven which was in turn a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. So like all conosseiurs of original cinema, he could never really get around liking Sholay. Of course, there is no comparison with Seven Samurai - it is one of the most legit samurai epics every made.

Finding Kurosawa's early works from 1950's and 60's was tough then. But not any more, thanks to criterion and modern day video streaming! I relished four of the best Kurosawa creations and many more to go. There is really no dearth of reviews on his movies; undoubtedly classics and the stuff of the legends. So this is just a teeny overview of the massive impression his movies have had on me.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Genre: Action, Adventure, War

Seven Samurai is an adventure-warrior movie set in a village of peasants who hire seven samurai to defend their village from bandits. This movie was the lethal combination of groundbreaking camera work (much ahead of its time) and an intense storytelling (frame after frame) that resulted in a 3.5 hour epic cinema. This movie has all elements going for it - incredible story, technique, characters, well executed battle scenes, story of honor, trust and adversity and at the top of it all, a movie with a soul. You can find influences of this movie in so many Western movies (too many to list). If you want to ever buy a DVD for your life, this should be it. This is required viewing. This is cinematic gold.

Yojimbo (1961)

Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama

So if you haven't had enough of samurai dose (how can you anyway?), another classic is Yojimbo (Japanese for bodyguard). A samurai comes to a town in strife and ripped apart by two resident gangs who fight each other. He plays them against each other to get rid of them and free the town of bad elements.  Yojimbo is entertaining from the word go! A lot of elements and style in the Western movies - like a long lens shot of a cowboy, taut and skillful action scenes and visuals seem to be picked up from this movie. It is entertaining to watch as the story unfolds, as the samurai crafts his devious plans unknown to both gangs and how he methodically takes down each of them. Some amusing scenes and humor are thrown in as well. The movie is such a clever masterpiece and still looks fresh for a 1961 movie. A stroke of genius.

Ikiru (1952)

Genre: Drama

Ok, I had had enough of samurai flicks. I wanted a good drama and I got more than I wanted from Ikiru. Ikiru was on my "to watch" list for a long long time now. It is the story of a bureaucrat who discovers he has stomach cancer and only 6 months to live. He tries to search for purpose in the time left. Yeah, I know, we have seen maybe a dozen movies on this theme by now. But who knew, this movie would be the most "real" of them all. My tiff with other movies in this genre is they never show a terminal patient battling with finding a purpose. All the focus is on his emotions, past, memories etc. Of course, we have all of them here too, but this movie sucks you in because it makes you think beyond your sympathies for a dying man. This movie is relevant even if you are not battling a life-ending disease. It's sole focus is how we do "busy work" and not really anything credible or purposeful. It is also a satire on human behavior. The last 40 minutes just threw me off - it was a fantastic satire on how average humans are influenced by good things but for short time, they are mostly "all talk and no purpose" and do not have the courage to change things.

The opening lines puts everything in perspective

"Ah, here is our protagonist now 

(Protagonist is seated on a desk, buried behind stacks of paper in a bureaucratic department).

But it would be tiresome to meet him right now. After all he's simply passing time without actually living his life. He might as well be a corpse."

Rashomon (1950)

IMDB entry:
Genre: Crime, Drama

Rashomon is an experimental movie - four witnesses to a crime tell their own version of what actually took place. Each version differs from the other and is left to the audience to believe which is true. The witnesses testify in a courthouse but the interrogator is never revealed - the camera is always facing the witness. It is as though the witnesses are talking to us, the audience, explaining the series of events that led to the murder of a samurai. The woman who plays the samurai's wife is brilliant. The scene where the dead samurai himself testifies (wtf, i know right!) using the woman's body as the medium, is creepy. Very well enacted by the actress. Other notable features of this movie was the clever camerawork. While each witness's story is played out, the camera is positioned differently to show how a different perspective or angle changes our own perception of the crime. The story takes place entirely in woods and the visuals are so well shot for a 1950 movie.

Apart from the interesting storyline, it was really the underlying theme that interested me more -  Why do humans lie? Do we need to be selfish to survive? Like Ikiru, it questions our weaknesses as a human and our faith in humanity.

PS: If you really have to pick your first Kurosawa movie, I would highly recommend to go with Seven Samurai. Can't go wrong with it! While I can't wait to see four other movies of his I picked for my next viewing.


Vamsee said...

If you liked Ikiru, check out Ozu's movies. Late spring is my fav.

Manju said...

Awesome. Just looked it up:) Goes on my watch list.