Tuesday, 8 June 2010

My top five Kurosawa films (you may not have seen)...

This year is Kurosawa's centenary (he posthumously turned 100 back in March). Sight and Sound magazine have celebrated with a really great series of Kurosawa features in their July issue. Really great is the fact that they have re-printed interviews with the man himself, which are amazing to read (at least if your a bit obsessive about his life and work as I am).

I have decided to follow their lead and post clips for a "Top Five Kurosawa Films You Haven't Seen". I was tempted just to do my own "top five" list, but that would be a bit boring as it would include films everyone knows about. The likes of 'Yojimbo', 'Seven Samurai', 'The Hidden Fortress', 'Rashomon', 'Ran' and 'Ikiru' have been excluded from my thinking for this list. Instead, here are five of his films that everyone should seek out if they have the time and the interest:

'High & Low' (1963)
Based on an Ed McBain crime novel, 'High & Low' stars Toshiro Mifune in one of his greatest performances. Here is a really crazy American trailer which tries to sell this slow and talky movie as if it's a piece of Hitchcock:

'Drunken Angel' (1948)
A really overlooked gem. Two years before 'Rashomon' made everyone take notice in Europe, Kurosawa made this amazing film which also marked Kurosawa's first collaboration with Mifune (who steals the show from the equally brilliant Takashi Shimura). A really good, grimy look at post-war Japan and as political as Kurosawa ever got. The final scenes are among the most intense I have ever seen.

'Red Beard' (1965)
This slow, three hour 19th century medical epic was Kurosawa's final film with Mifune. Never a more humanistic movie did Kurosawa make.

'I Live in Fear' (1955)
Again, stars Toshiro Mifune. This time playing a man twice his actual age. The story is great: it concerns a man who dreams of moving his family to Brazil to escape the impending atomic holocaust he fears is coming to Japan. The paranoia and the exasperation of Mifune's old man are priceless. The film also marks the last score by Fumio Hayasaka, as he died of tuberculosis shortly after completing the score. It also has some great alternative titles in the west: 'Record of a Living Being' and 'What the Birds Knew'. Kurosawa would return to this atom bomb paranoia with a short section in 1990's 'Dreams'. I can't find a video clip so here is that mournful score, stained with tragedy:

'Dreams' (1990)
Curiously the only Kurosawa film to be available to stream from X-Box Live, 'Dreams' was part produced by Steven Speilberg (in a similar manner to how Coppola and Lucas helped finance 'Kagemusha' in 1980) and has visual effects from ILM. The film is a series of shorts which represent Kurosawa's own dreams. I'm not going to lie: some of them are a bit rubbish and much of the dialogue is terrible. But the whole film is visually splendid. Below is the entire "Crows" chapter, which stars Martin Scorcese as Vincent Van Gogh. The way Kurosawa turns Van Gogh's paintings into live action is breathtaking.

Also, if you want to get into Kurosawa (or if you are a bit of a fan already) you could do worse than to read his own book Something Like an Autobiography (which tells Kurosawa's life story up to the making of 'Rashomon' in 1950) or Donald Richie's brilliant The Films of Akira Kurosawa. The Richie book is an essential: detailed academic essays on every single one of his films. What a great book!

Finally, if you're hungry for even more Kurosawa then check out a short post I did, back in May, on his films being remade. Also, look out (or listen out) for the next Splendor podcast, which will take the form of a Kurosawa love-in.

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