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5.0 out of 5 stars Some Of The Greatest Films Of All-Time, 23 Jun 2011
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This review is from: Akira Kurosawa - The Samurai Collection [DVD] (DVD)
Akira Kurosawa - The Samurai Collection is a set of 5 films containing some of the greatest films ever made. The films are in Japanese and have English subtitling. The subtitles are excellent and use some really quite complex and archaic English words when describing different ranks and careers of the feudal era which helps to set the films in time. There are a couple of Extras in the collection but this is a set about the outstanding film content. The picture quality is excellent with barely any flickering.

The first disc contains The Seven Samurai - rightly lauded as among the finest films of all-time. The disc also contains a short academic analysis of the film and a couple of written notes. The film itself is utterly magnificent. A village of farmers are under threat from bandits in feudal Japan. The farmers hatch a plan to hire some of the notorious Samurai caste to protect them from the bandits. The two castes of farmer and of samurai forge an unlikely alliance to eventually fight back against the bandits.

Seven Samurai is categorised as an action film but the reason it is so well received is because it is a character film. The Seven are complex characters, each driven by slightly different motivation and each representing a facet of the Way of the Warrior. Stoic Kambei represents the very best of Bushido - honour, dignity, and tremendous skill. Kambei's character is introduced early on as he seeks to save a child from the clutches of a kidnapper. The symbolic top-knot cutting to help achieve his goal places Kambei instantly as a sympathetic character with a strong moral conviction. This one simple act sets up Kambei in the audience's mind and is filled with rich Japanese cultural/historical reference.

The brilliance of Kursawa's characterisation in this film is truly incredible. Seven Samurai is a long film, clocking in at 190 minutes but that is part of what makes it so great. There is time to build the character depth in a way that so rarely happens. The pacing of Japanese cinema is generally slower than Hollywood fare but there is not a lost moment in Seven Samurai. The first act of the film in which the Seven Samurai characters are introduced is itself a masterpiece.

Following Kambei's recruitment by the villagers, the remaining six eventually come on board. Katsushiro as the young apprentice to Kambei is driven by passion. He wants to join with Kambei because it is Kambei who represents the true code of Bushido. It is not for self or monetary gain that Katsushiro pleads for Kambei's sensei-ship but for the honour of being alongside a true Samurai. That same passion later gets Katsushiro into trouble when he finds love for the first time. Kambei is a character with a past. That past is referenced implicitly rather than explicitly which is genious. Old friend Shichiroji shares jokes and tales with Kambei that build the relationship in the audience's mind and also add further depth to Kambei's realistic manner.

Gorobei as second-in-charge keeps up a nice banter in the early going and is clearly keen on morale as much as anything. His recruitment of Heihachi is good fun with actor Minoru Chiaki showing admirable wood-chopping technique until Gorobei comes round to distract him with a dangerous offer of a job. Heihachi is described as being of a fun nature but this mostly comes into play because he is the first of the Samurai to fall.

Master swordsman Kyozo is an artist. His chosen art-form is swordsmanship. The comment in the Extras that actor Seiji Miyaguchi had never really held a sword before Seven Samurai is incredible. As a martialist, Miyaguchi is magnificent. His body movement is so graceful and light-footed, he has exceptional balance. As a character, Kyozo does not speak much and is admired for his actions rather than for his words.

The most enigmatic of the Samurai is Kikuchiyo played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune. Kikuchiyo does not conform to the Samurai traditions, he is at times brooding and at other times erratic or comedic. Kikuchiyo's place in Japanese society as a farmer who is pretending to be a Samurai gives him an insight into both castes that none of the other characters possess. The scene in which Kikuchiyo both decries the deviousness of the farmers and the viciousness of the Samurai is one of film's greatest monologues for the many layers of meaning it contains.

Great characters are the best way to create a great film and Seven Samurai achieves that above and beyond pretty much any other film. The characterisation works because it is delivered by some awe-inspiring performances. Takashi Shimura as Kambei is a fantastic cinematic lead. He is strong and determined but has constant touches of humanity about him. It is a strikingly powerful performance and worthy of the lead role in one of the greatest films of all time. The supporting cast are also strong with the emotional outbursts produced by Toshiro Mifune being a particular delight. Mifune is rightly regarded as a truly superb actor. The other Samurai are all very well acted and the villagers are also strong. The remarkable facial features of Kokuten Kado as the patriach Gisaku make him extremely memorable.

The poignant ending of the film with Kambei's last line is grippingly thought-provoking. The final showdown with the bandits is a little deflating but in the main the action is terrific. Seven Samurai is an epic in the finest traditions of great battle movies, the cinematography is utterly magnificent, the music is complementary. The black and white colour probably does make it look better than in full colour. Above all though Seven Samurai is an extroardinary character study that every fan of cinema needs to have seen.

The second film in the collection is Throne Of Blood which is a re-imagining of Macbeth. Throne is one of the better Macbeth reconstructions and in moving away from more historical characters breaks with the distasteful pro-Stuart propaganda of Shakespeare's distorted version. Macbeth himself is played by Toshiro Mifune who puts in a remarkably distinct performance from his role in Seven Samurai. The plot is pretty much exactly the same as Macbeth though the scenes are different. There is not much direct recreation of classic lines and instead it is the characters that are recreated. Lady Macbeth is quite a disturbing visage with make-up and adornments associated with feudal Japan that cause her to look quite unnatural. Her picking away at Macbeth's paranoia is deliciously delivered.

There is a clear Japaneseness of Throne of Blood including the replacement of the Three Witches with a spirit. The message the spirit delivers is exactly the same as Shakespeare's version but her etherealness is much greater.

The scenery of Throne of Blood is great. The dense fog captures the same fear of the wilderness that seems to have existed in Dark Ages Britain. The mansion and castle are nicely designed and create a place and time that shifts the audience's thoughts away from the original setting of the tale. The acting is strong and Mifune in particular puts in a terrific Macbeth. It is a worthwhile addition to this Kurosawa collection.

The third film of the five is The Hidden Fortress and is arguably the most under-rated of the collection. Fortress is a wonderful film of survival and humour. The film opens with two survivors from a losing side in a war. Tahei and Mataschichi are hilariously funny. Their spats with one another are terrific fun, they clearly have known each other for a very long time so appreciate the company but also know each other's faults and weaknesses. They bicker as an old married couple might but with the experiences they have been through, they share a close bond. The comedy between Tahei and Mataschichi works throughout the movie and their characters are on display without deviation. The plot twists that turn around the pair are responded to in a way that seems to genuinely be their nature.

Toshiro Mifune plays a General in Fortress and a very noble one at that. It is again a very different character from those on display in the previous two films in the collection. Mifune is the leader, he is resourceful and brave as well as being impeccably loyal. Having been on the losing side of the war, it is his character who must preserve his side's lineage. Extracting the princess through hostile enemy lines to freedom is the difficult plot quest he and his two new allies must follow.

The Hidden Fortress in question is perhaps a reference that is a little hard to follow. The gold hidden in sticks is a way of preventing looting but the two comedy leads find that gold relatively easily and it stokes their desire. It is this goldlust that drives Tahei and Mataschichi as much as anything except survival. They have a talent for surviving and a desire for wealth. These two basic features come to be understood by General Makabe.

The willful Princess Yuki is a warrior woman from the cinematic days before such became commonplace. Her gait is much more that of a man than of a woman and the character prefers the outdoor life to being kept in the Hidden Fortress for her own safety. It is highly amusing then when Makabe decides the best way to cross enemy lines is with her pretending to be a mute. That Mifune is able to demonstrate an inner delight at this thought with barely any perceptible facial movement is absolutely top class acting. Mifune is cast in the straight man role for the only time in the collection and he pulls it off expertly.

The acting is again excellent from much of the rest of the cast especially Tahei and Mataschichi played by Minoru Chiachi and Kamatari Fujiwara respectively. Fujiwara in particular is hilarious. His diminutive frame combines very well with his occasionally spiky, occasionally fearful response to situations. Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki is not especially endearing but her role is primarily to contrast good and bad when Yuki is compared favourably by one later ally against the leader of the rival faction.

The changes in the group composition over time is good fun and well used by General Makabe. Confusion and hiding in plain sight are common themes of success throughout the collection. The dancing scene is quite amusing as Mifune is less at home in the dance than he is in every other facet of his acting. The symbolism and significance of that dance is a little hard to discern especially as there seem to be allusions in the choreography to dances from cultures outside of Japan.

The Hidden Fortress is a slightly overlooked gem of Kurosawa's catalogue. It is the funniest and most upbeat of the Samurai Collection and has particularly endearing characters. While a couple of others might get greater plaudits, Hidden Fortress deserves to be acknowledged as a great film in its own right.

There is an Extra on the Hidden Fortress disc featuring George Lucas eulogising. There are some points where it is absolutley clear that Lucas "paid homage" to Kurosawa such as the lake where the gold is stored looking almost exactly the same as Yoda's swamp. It is nice when a popular director acknowledges where he has copied from a truly great director.

After Seven Samurai, the best known of the features in this collection is surely Yojimbo which received greater exposure when re-made as the Spaghetti Western A Fistful Of Dollars. Toshiro Mifune is by far the main character in Yojimbo and it is much more of an individual effort despite the size of the cast than is the case with the others where groups are often involved. Kurosawa explicitly attemped to make a Western and in doing so he put together a reproduction of the genre that is much better than most Hollywood attempts. Many of the classic features of Westerns such as the pacing of speech, the wind echoing down a barren main street in a town, the taciturn loner anti-hero, the saloon (well almost - the Japanese version is quite different), and the use of one-liners to capture character and plot.

Mifune is terrific as the lead known as The Samurai. He does come up with a name for himself which is clearly false and here the subtitles are very well interpreted in providing just enough context for a non-speaker to recognise that it couldn't be a real name. He is cocky and witty, confident in his exceptional abilities and fully capable of playing both villain groups off against one another. It is Mifune's charisma that drives much of the film as he outwits the villain groups in turn. His is the seminal performance in the character archetype of the roving warrior. Those who followed afterwards copied aspects of Mifune's performance extensively.

The Samurai makes himself plenty of enemies through the film and they all post different threats. From the two gang leaders, the manipulative wife of one of those leaders, the less bright brother of another, a giant, and most deadly of all the gun-loving Unosuke. It is highly amusing when the tavern owner asks The Samurai whether the ongoing action is just a play he has written because he seems in such supreme control. It is Unosuke who threatens that and The Samurai's own good nature that makes him vulnerable. When he was only after Ryo and could continually out-think everyone else everything went well for The Samurai but he has a far harder time of it when Unosuke challenges him.

The setting is excellent. It looks like a Japanese version of the Wild West. The two gangs are hilarious at first when they are not really capable of putting a serious challenge to each other in pitched combat. The progressively darker plot makes the same arraying of a gang much more sinister later on in the action. Yojimbo is a bit more bloody than the other films in the collection, both in terms of the body count and also the gore.

Much of the comic relief is provided by The Samurai as he torments those around him with witty barbs. The tavern keeper and the cooper are just about the only characters not overtly involved in the fighting in some way and they have a healthy rivalry of their own.

Despite the large cast, Yojimbo is about the genious of two people - Mifune and Kurosawa. As absolute masters of their crafts, the result they produce is one that has been copied often but arguably never bettered.

The final film in the collection is Sanjuro which is a companion piece to Yojimbo. It appears to be trying to be a cleverer film than Sanjuro but it is not as good because the characterisation is much less subtle. Sanjuro is by far the most straightforward of the Samurai Collection in terms of the plot and the character development. It is still a solid film, and is only unfortunate to be compared with some of the greatest films ever made. The plot of a local bureaucrat kidnapped by corrupt rivals is fine. The role of that bureaucrat's supporters is at times funny as they try hard but get things wrong whereas The Samurai doesn't seem to try that hard but always knows exactly what he is doing.

The high spots of Sanjuro are the scenes in which Toshiro Mifune comes up against a rival with a real presence in the form of Muroto played by Tatsuya Nakadai. The two have a real chemistry and there is a real sense that each is a genuine threat to the other. As other lesser characters scrabble for power, these two seem to have locked onto one another in an understanding that they are the real dangers.

The female characters are funny in their being annoying. The role of women as delicate and deserving of worship is played up to the full. The women see themselves as being a moderating force against violent excess even in the cause of their own survival. When they refuse to climb up the wall to escape, Mifune's facial expression is priceless. The disdain Mifune displays for many of the other characters through the film is well pitched. When his rivals come up with a plan slightly before The Samurai comes up with the same one to win the hearts of the populace, the reaction of respect rather than annoyance is solid characterisation.

Sanjuro is described on the cover as being a comedy of manners. It is comic at times and the comedy of manners element does exist occasionally but it isn't really an example of that sub-genre. It is a film with a nice plot and some good moments.

The Collection as a whole is a set of some of the very best films ever seen. There is a distinct lack of Extras which is a bit disappointing. The greatness of Toshiro Mifune is on display in each of the films and Kurosawa himself is at the absolute peak of his prodigous powers. Fans of film need to own the films in this collection.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 Jul 2011 18:11:17 BDT
socratescafe says:
Excellent analysis. Kudos to you.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Jul 2011 07:20:35 BDT
MLA says:
Thank you socrates, that is the first time in my 115 reviews someone has commented positively.

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Dec 2011 17:20:13 GMT
Mellow Kirby says:
great review!!

Posted on 12 Jan 2012 17:19:45 GMT
Whilst I appreciate your considerable knowledge and enthusiasm for this master director, a more thorough assessment of the production values would be of more value. I would imagine that anyone looking up Kurosawa on Amazon already knows how great he is (how many Rocky fans will have read your review?) I may well have missed something, but I do believe you offer no information on any cuts (there may be none), sound quality or format - at least one other reviewer does in reference to the latter - and in a critical manner. The two valuable comments you make on production values refer to picture quality which you say is good and to the lack of extras.
You must be one of those fortunate fellows who gets so immersed in the director's artistry that the factors that concern me are less intrusive to you, but even you should be concerned about any cuts that have been made. I trust you will take this comment in the spirit it was intended which was not to carp about your thorough review.

And whilst I'm at it, it would be valuable if Amazon could make the effort to attach production value reviews to the relevant edition - when a film has been issued many times, one has no idea, usually, to which edition the criticisms are being levelled unless the reviewer has named it.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 May 2013 11:46:08 BDT
Bea says:
I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Day. Amazon has now become the platform for wannabe film critics. Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm MLA but this shouldn't exclude a review on the DVD itself. Comments on the format, the cuts, the quality of audio and video are much more relevant to the prospective buyer. Chances are if we are reading your review, we are familiar with the Master's work; chances are we are still considering purchasing these DVDs and this is were your opinion really matters. You have seen this edition, we haven't. Should we buy the BFI or go treasure hunting for the Criterion edition? (Based on other reviewers information, it seems quite clear that Criterion is the way to go; what film buff doesn't own a multizone DVD player anyway?)
I also agree with Charles Day that Amazon's policy to publish a review regardless of the edition being reviewed are very close to being fraudulent. And how they get away with selling products with hardly any product information (especially on DVD and bluray) is a mystery. If they can't be asked to transfer the information on their website, a readable copy of the back cover of the CD/DVD/bluray should be published on the product webpage. I more and more frequently end up buying at play.com who usually provide basic information and are fairly often cheaper anyway.
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MLA
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Location: Leyton, London

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