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Posts Tagged ‘Chiaki Minoru’

I seem to recall that at one time there was a school of thought that the reason Akira Kurosawa became the most internationally-feted Japanese film director of his generation (as opposed to, say, Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi) was that he deliberately made films that were accessible to foreign audiences and thus (there was always an implicit sniff at this point) not really authentically Japanese enough. Proof of this is sometimes offered in the fact that Kurosawa was always open to using western stories as the source material for his films (there are his famous adaptations of Macbeth and King Lear to a Japanese milieu) and also that his own original films proved to have enormous potential when it came to English-language remakes. There is a whole lineage of remakes of Seven Samurai, usually as westerns but also as science fiction, horror, and kung fu movies, and the same is also true to a lesser extent when it comes to Yojimbo (two remakes and various sequels).

None of these did quite as well as the English-language remakes of The Hidden Fortress (J-title: Kakushi toride no san akunin), a film Kurosawa made in 1958 (when I was younger I’m sure this film’s title was usually translated without the definite article – hey ho), but then these were rather less faithful and more thematic versions of the story anyway. The first of these was made in 1977 and directed by George Lucas, and was the first (but also the fourth) episode in his stellar conflict franchise. The second was made in 1999 and directed by George Lucas, and was the first (but also the fourth) episode in his stellar conflict franchise. One of them is adored, but the other reviled, which only goes to show – exactly what, I’m not sure, but it must show something.

The film opens with two ragged, miserable peasants named Matashichi and Tahei (Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki) staggering across an inhospitable landscape, endlessly bickering about which one of them smells worse. It turns out that they are former farmers, who made the unwise decision to invest in the most recent civil war and become soldiers, only to lose everything as a result. Angrily, they separate and try to make their own way out of enemy territory – but they are equally useless and pathetic when operating individually, and both get captured very quickly by the enemy.

It seems that their captors are looking for the gold reserves of the recently vanquished House of Akizuki, and the prisoners are put to work digging for it in truly hellish conditions – so hellish, in fact, that the peasants mount a revolt and break free from their captivity – an epic set-piece ensues, with swarms of desperate loincloth-clad prisoners charging down a flight of stone steps towards rows of musket-carrying ashigaru – it feels like it has been influenced by Sergei Eisenstein, while also anticipating the truly spectacular battle scenes in Ran (Ran was supposed to be being revived this spring at the UPP in Cowley: a small casualty of the lockdown, of course, but still one I feel keenly).

Tahei and Matashichi are quite surprised not to die in the fighting, but head for the hills. Here their luck seems to change, as they find gold bars hidden inside hollow sticks – it’s the Akizuki treasure everyone’s been looking for! Unfortunately, they also find a taciturn but imposing stranger (Toshiro Mifune, almost inevitably), who seems to know a bit about the gold himself. He leads the peasants to a – here we are at last – hidden fortress, previously owned by the House of Akizuki, where a few desperate survivors have gathered and are planning to make the dangerous journey to friendlier territory. The stranger turns out to be Makabe, the Akizuki family’s general, while as well as the gold the family’s other great treasure is here: Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), a wilful teenager who doesn’t like being told what to do by the general.

Eventually Makabe decides the circumstances are right, and the motley group set off for the border: Makabe himself, the princess (pretending to be a deaf mute), and the two peasants, all of them loaded down with the gold. Will Makabe and Yuki stop squabbling long enough to notice their companions plotting to steal all the gold and run away? Will any of them make it to safety without being shot?

Truth be told, you could probably watch The Hidden Fortress and never notice the influence it had on either of the stellar conflict movies it supposedly inspired: those aren’t anything like as close to the original, in plot terms, as the American remakes of Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, although I suppose you can see an echo of the relationship between Mifune and Uehara’s characters in that between Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman in the 1999 film. Lucas himself has said that the main inspiration was really one of perspective: for a story which is largely concerned with the fate and deeds of nobles and their retainers, it’s quite unusual that the viewpoint characters are the people of the lowest social standing in the story, but it’s this that he retained in his own script.

That said, I think you would struggle to find much sign of Lucas’ famous droid double act in the scumbag peasants here, for they are much more morally dubious and often unsympathetic characters: at one point they find themselves left alone with the sleeping princess, and promptly start drawing straws for who will have the pleasure (it is strongly implied) of raping her (another character appears and intervenes before this goes anywhere). This is an extreme moment, and perhaps a rare misjudgement from Kurosawa, for in many ways what the film is about is the difference in perspective between the two duos (Makabe and Yuki, and Tahei and Matashichi) and their outlooks on life: the peasants live life on the most basic level, concerned with simple survival and grubbing for money, while on the level of the general and the princess it is honour and nobility which is most important (it is the honourability of Makabe which ultimately leads to the film’s happy ending). But the film is also about what the two sides learn from each other: the princess comes to appreciate the privileges she enjoys, and what it is to live like one of her subjects, while the peasants learn about the value of trust and friendship before the film is over (but only just).

It all sounds like Kurosawa in the classic style, and there is indeed much to enjoy here: Mifune is at his most formidably dynamic, Chiaki shows off some of the comic timing he displayed as the joker amongst the seven samurai (a third member of that immortal septet also shows up, as Takashi Shimura gets a brief cameo as another Akizuki advisor), and there are some epic set pieces and compositions. The problem is that, to a modern audience at least, the film seems rather slow and self-indulgent – it doesn’t have anything like the simplicity of premise or economy of script that Seven Samurai had: you know that bit near the start of the ’77 stellar conflict movie where the droids have a row, split up, but get captured and stuck back together, and the whole thing has no bearing on the plot? That’s a very Hidden Fortress-y bit of meandering plot. Of course, some of the various tangents and diversions eventually set up key plot developments, but some of them don’t. For this reason, I have to say that Hidden Fortress seems to me to be mid-table Kurosawa at best: interesting, and with some really good individual bits, but lacking in the sustained quality of his true masterpieces. As the film which inspired the film which changed the course of cinema history, it doesn’t quite live up to its own publicity.

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You know that thing, when you meet a person and initially don’t get on, but after spending some time together and getting to know them, you actually become really close friends? That’s really what Motoyoshi Oda’s 1955 film Godzilla Raids Again (also known as Godzilla’s Counter-attack and Gigantis the Fire Monster) is about – well, it illustrates the first part of the process, anyway. (I make no apologies for reviewing two Godzilla movies in a row, by the way.)

I was discussing this topic (Godzilla movies, not the process of making a friend) with Anglo-Iranian Affairs the other day. We are talking about possibly going to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters (again, in my case), and he expressed the hope that it was better than the last Godzilla movie we saw together, which was Shin Gojira (aka Godzilla: Resurgence), a couple of summers ago. I have to say that the response to this movie from my colleagues was neither kind nor especially positive, with the googly-eyed incarnation of Godzilla from the start of the film and the long scenes of dysfunctional committee meetings drawing particular stick. My response was to make the point that Godzilla movies are kind of like a lens, through which you can look at different things and get different responses: Shin Gojira is obviously a seriously-intentioned film with things to say about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in an oblique way, very much in the tradition of the very first Godzilla, while King of the Monsters, though not entirely bereft of subtext, is much more of a fun monster mash.

So what kind of a movie is Godzilla Raids Again? Well, it was made relatively quickly following the massive success of the first film, and you can almost detect the producers wondering just exactly what they’re going to do to avoid a simple retread. The idea they eventually hit upon is one that has sustained the series for over sixty years since it was made, so the film has that in its favour – on the other hand, as is wont to happen in these cases, the idea as implemented here clearly still has a few wrinkles to be worked out.

The film opens with the introduction of its two protagonists, Kobayashi (Chiaki Minoru, guaranteed immortality as one of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) and Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi), who are both pilots working for a tuna canning company in Osaka. It’s business as usual for the lads until Kobayashi’s plane has engine trouble and he is forced to land near a desolate volcanic island. Tsukioka goes to rescue him, and both pilots are shocked by the appearance of Godzilla, locked in battle with another giant creature. (The film is very clear about the fact that this is a different Godzilla to that in the first film, the original being dead at the bottom of Tokyo bay.)

The pilots report this discovery, rather to the dismay of the authorities. Nobody worries too much about where the monsters have come from (‘atomic testing’ is the handwave used), the big issue is how to stop them. The second monster is identified as Angilas (or possibly Anguirus, depending on which version you’re watching), a mutated ankylosaurus, although judging from his contribution, the chap doing the identification appears to be one of those escaped lunatics you often find pretending to be paleontogists in this sort of film.

The authorities hold a big meeting to decide what to do to resolve this new Godzilla crisis, which is honoured by the appearance of another of the Seven Samurai – Takeshi Shimura, reprising his role from the first film and making his sole contribution to this one. After showing some clips from the original film, he basically gives a big shrug and says that with the Oxygen Destroyer no longer available, Godzilla is essentially unstoppable and Japan is completely screwed. All he can offer is the idea that Godzilla is especially annoyed by bright lights and can be lured away from populated areas by dropping a ‘light bomb’ (basically, flares).

Well, it’s better than nothing, and when Godzilla resurfaces heading for Osaka, the authorities go for it, ordering a blackout and the use of flares. One of the real weaknesses of this film is that Ishiro Honda and Akira Ifukube don’t return as director and composer, but the following sequence does have an impressively eerie quality to it, the lights descending around Godzilla as he wades across the bay. Unfortunately, a group of convicts take advantage of the chaos to break out of custody, and end up crashing their stolen van into a gas refinery (as inevitably happens in these situations). The resulting fireball far outshines the flares and soon Godzilla is stomping into Osaka, looking intent on breaking things – and the news gets worse, as Angilas is not far behind, looking for a fight…

Yes, the main reason to see Godzilla Raids Again is the city-flattening tussle between Godzilla and Angilas which ensues. By the time the series entered the 1970s, Angilas was quite well-established as one of Godzilla’s key allies, even a friend, but there is little to suggest that here: the fight takes a surprisingly grisly turn, as Godzilla tears out his opponent’s throat with his teeth before setting fire to the corpse with his nuclear breath. The main reason to watch it may be, but it’s still not necessarily a very good one – in subsequent films, the film-makers had figured out that to make suitamation fights more convincing, they had to overcrank the camera so the creatures appeared to be moving more slowly and ponderously. Here, they hadn’t worked that out yet, with the distracting result that the monsters appear to be moving much too quickly and jerkily.

I’m not going to say that the discerning viewer may as well switch off at this point, but I do think that the main problem with Godzilla Raids Again is that all the interesting stuff is in the first half. The film is weirdly structured and badly-paced, with the monster fight that should really be the climax occurring round about the mid-point of the film. Following this there is a long and far from scintillating digression into the lives of the tuna canning factory owner, his family and employees. The first film’s subtext is clearly about the experiences of Japan during the Second World War; if this one has a subtext, it’s that the emergence of giant atomic monsters really complicates the business of running a tuna canning company. Godzilla burns down the factory! They have to think about relocating the company to Hokkaido, where there are at least fewer monsters (heh, just wait until King Kong and Legion turn up). There is a school reunion and a fairly well-mannered stag party, of sorts.

From here we go into a climax which just about deserves the name, as it is extremely protracted and not exactly gripping stuff: Godzilla is tracked down to another remote island, which is repeatedly bombed until he is buried under ice cubes. It is notably short on tension, though sadly not on sentimentality – once again, a heroic self-sacrifice is required to put a stop to the marauding monster.

That’s really the main problem with Godzilla Raids Again: too often, it just feels like a limp retread of the original, surprisingly formulaic even though this is only the second film in the series (the scene where the armed forces turn up and shoot at the monsters a lot, to no effect, already has a formal, almost ritualistic feel to it). Nor does it have the same kind of intensity or fire in its belly – the monster rampage in the first film is shocking for the horrendous casualties it causes amongst the civilian population, but here it just seems to be spectacle – pow, there goes Osaka Castle! – with no-one worth worrying about dying.

The monster suits are good, and there are some genuinely impressive special effects shots at various points in the film, but it really does suffer from the poor structure of the script and the lack of a strong final act. Although this film was a financial success, you can almost understand why it was six years before they made a third Godzilla film. Monster wrestling was to prove the future of the franchise (that, and regular appearances by aliens from Planet X), but the main problem with this film is that it’s treated as filler for the story, rather than the main attraction. It was not a mistake the series ever made again; this is obviously an important film in the franchise, but you would struggle to call it a great or even a particularly good one.

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As threatened, the first of a series of Kurosawa reviews – and if we’re going to do this, why not start with an obscure one? Plenty of time for Yojimbo and Throne of Blood later in the year.

Akira Kurosawa’s international reputation, certainly today, rests on his costume dramas – or, as they’re probably more widely known, his samurai movies. These are the films which have travelled, lasted, inspired: you could argue that several of the major trends in Western mainstream cinema over the last fifty years all owe their existence to American and European directors aping Kurosawa’s stories and style.

Considerably less influential, and indeed not even released outside Japan until the decade after it was produced, is Ikimono no kiroku, made in 1955. The American title is the slightly lurid I Live in Fear, which is representative up to a point, but apparently closer to the original (and certainly more appropriate) is the British title, Record of a Living Being – so that’s the one I’ll be using.

iliveinfear

The movie opens with everyday scenes of Tokyo life from the mid-1950s, after which we are introduced to mild-mannered dentist Harada (Takashi Shimura). Harada has taken on a second job as a mediator at a family court, and it’s this which leads us into the heart of the film.

Harada is summoned to work on the case of a bitter family rift. The elderly patriarch of the Nakajima family (Toshiro Mifune), painfully aware of the risks presented by the global proliferation of atom and hydrogen bombs, wants to sell his profitable business and uproot his entire family to rural Brazil, which he believes is the only safe part of the world. The family think he has gone mad, and want him declared unfit to manage his own affairs.

Nakajima’s insistence on pursuing his scheme seems to suggest they are right – but are the family motivated more by the reluctance to swap their affluent urban lifestyle for the lives of farmers in South America? And, Harada finds himself wondering, who is more unhinged – the person unable to ignore the constant threat of nuclear obliteration, or the one who carries on their life, completely ignoring it?

Kurosawa was apparently very proud of this film, for all that its subject and style are quite far removed from that of most of his movies. It’s very much a social drama, almost a potboiler, rather than a sweeping adventure or black comedy. That said, of course, it features a number of familiar faces from better-known movies.

Chief amongst these is of course Toshiro Mifune, playing the old man. It’s initially a little baffling that Kurosawa chose Mifune, in his mid-30s, to play a character at least twice his age, while casting the somewhat older Shimura as Harada (Minoru Chiaki, who plays a contemporary of Mifune’s in a couple of other films, is one of his younger children here). It seems to me that this decision was at least partly motivated by the actors’ natural range – in Kurosawa movies, at least, Shimura is often the thoughtful, calm one, while Mifune represents surly energy and passion. Shimura is certainly right as Harada, but I’m not sure about Mifune: vanishing behind the props of the┬ápart (glasses, dyed hair, a walking stick), he is never quite able to bring his full power to bear in a difficult role.

Never afraid to look far afield for material, late in his career Kurosawa tackled King Lear in epic fashion – but it seems to me that the play has a distinct influence upon Record of a Living Being, too: the self-centred, ogre-ish old man, insisting on exerting his authority over his children and their spouses, the bitter squabbling over inheritances, the eventual descent into madness. The final scenes show Nakajima abandoned and ignored by all of his legitimate family, with the only person showing any concern for him being his youngest mistress, the mother of a child he has refused to acknowledge. It is a bleak but moving moment.

A rather better-known Japanese film from around this time was, of course, the original Godzilla (Shimura appears in both) – the social drama and the monster movie seem to have very little in common, but they are surely both instances of Japanese culture processing the fact that the country had been atom-bombed only ten years earlier. Godzilla handles this via a large and iconic metaphor (hurry up with the new one, Gareth Edwards), but Record of a Living Being is more direct about it.

The central question of the film is – is it crazy to want to protect yourself from nuclear weapons as fully as possible? And the rational answer is no, of course not. The crazy approach is surely the head-in-the-sand one adopted by the younger members of the Nakajima clan, and indeed everyone else in the movie, choosing to ignore the danger. Implicitly, the audience also goes along with the consensus. But we are encouraged to question this, as Harada – our point of access to the story – begins to question who exactly is talking most sense.

The focus on family squabbles and the examination of Japanese patriarchy go some way to making this film less obviously preachy or earnest, and it’s true that it also explicitly criticises Nakajima’s solution to the problem (running off to San Paulo). He can only do so by exchanging properties with a Japanese emigre wanting to return home – does he not care that this man is now in danger? By breaking up his business, he will make his loyal workers unemployed – is that the act of a decent man? Is he not in fact just being selfish in thinking of his own survival? Left unsaid is the suggestion that the only truly moral course is for society as a whole to remove the threat to itself. But that was unthinkable in 1955 and it still seems to be the case 58 years later. We may be living under less immediate threat of nuclear war than our parents or grandparents, but the bombs are still there, at least in part because we want them to be. As long as this state continues, Record of a Living Being, a little clunky and dated though it is, will continue to have the power to make us question ourselves.

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