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page added: 2/8/10
updated: 2/19/10




The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa - Review Index

Akira Kurosawa - Page One

One Wonderful Sunday (AK100)

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One Wonderful Sunday (AK100)
1947 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

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


The name Akira Kurosawa brings to mind many things from samurai to Shakespeare, but romantic comedy-dramas typically are not among them. Not that he was incapable, of course. Yojimbo and Sanjuro in particular show a deft comedic touch. With One Wonderful Sunday, Kurosawa proves that he's just as sensitive at dealing with the hopes and difficulties of a pair of young lovers as he would later be with the solitary, terminally ill protagonist of Ikiru.

Isao Numasaki and Chieko Nakakita star as Yuzo and Masako, a young couple who meet for their weekly date one Sunday morning. But times are hard in post-war Japan, with high unemployment, outrageous inflation and rampant black marketeering.

Between the two of them, they have only thirty-five yen for the day. Masako, cheerful and optimistic, refuses to let that stop them and she struggles to come up with things for them to do for little or no money. Yuzo is far more cynical and pessimistic. Masako wants to tour an open house and dream about the future, but Yuzo doesn't see the point since they can't possibly afford it. An old army buddy of Yuzo has opened a successful new cabaret, so Masako suggests they go visit him. But Yuzo can't get past the manager, who assumes he's a gangster trying to shake the owner down and tries to buy him off. Everything they try seems to end in disaster. But their love for each other is real and genuine. Eventually, Yuzo realizes that as long as they have one another, they aren't beaten just yet.

Kurosawa's touch is evident throughout the film and One Wonderful Sunday is extremely pleasant and often quite moving. Even so, this isn't one of Kurosawa's most essential works. By nature of the story, it's an episodic, meandering film. Some of the characters Yuzo and Masako meet are unforgettable and fascinating, like the bitter, defeated front desk clerk who urges them not to even consider renting a shabby room that he himself was evicted from. Other scenes, such as a trip to the zoo, simply go on too long. The movie does boast one of the oddest moments in any Kurosawa film. Having earlier failed to buy tickets for a concert performance of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, Yuzo takes Masako to an empty outdoor amphitheatre with the intent of conducting an imaginary performance just for them. But he's too discouraged to properly hear the music in his head. So Masako breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, telling us our applause will give Yuzo the strength he needs, Peter Pan-style. It's a curious moment that really only works in an audience of willing participants. (The liner notes included in the Eclipse edition note that the original Japanese audiences simply sat quietly at this point, but the French played along.) Once Yuzo does begin conducting his invisible orchestra, Kurosawa's camerawork is spectacular, gliding through the air in perfect harmony to Schubert's music.

As presented on DVD (1.33:1/B&W), One Wonderful Sunday is in somewhat better condition than No Regrets for Our Youth. The contrast is rich and detailed, especially in scenes such as a shadowy, cloud-covered encounter with a hungry war orphan. The sound (Japanese mono with optional English subs) is also a bit better, with much less of the audible hiss that surfaced throughout No Regrets for Our Youth. Typical of all entries in the AK100 box, there are no extras.

One Wonderful Sunday is certainly well worth seeing, with a number of outstanding individual moments that stay with you. But it's best viewed within the larger context of Kurosawa's career. It's a more playful, experimental Kurosawa than you might be used to, making this a fascinating opportunity to watch him try to discover what works and what does not.

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com



One Wonderful Sunday (Eclipse)

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One Wonderful Sunday (Eclipse)
1947 (2008) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on January 15th, 2008 in the Eclipse Series 7: Post-War Kurosawa set.

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


One Wonderful Sunday was also released on DVD by Criterion in 2008, as part of their five-film Eclipse series Post-War Kurosawa collection. One again, with the exception of different packaging (Thinpaks with an outer slipcover) and menus, the disc is essentially the same as the version included in the new AK100 box set. The transfer is identical, sourced from the very same restored master, and there are no extras included on the disc. (You do, however, get brief liner notes on the film printed on the case's cover art insert.)

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com



Drunken Angel (AK100)

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Drunken Angel (AK100)
1948 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

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


Kurosawa's remarkable talents as a director and storyteller are fully on display (in many ways, for the very first time in his career) in his noir-ish, 1948 film, Drunken Angel. It features Kurosawa's first teaming with the legendary actor Toshirô Mifune, here playing a stubborn young Yakuza named Matsunaga, who is suffering from the early symptoms of tuberculosis. Takashi Shimura co-stars as an alcoholic and equally stubborn physician, Dr. Sanda, who strikes up an unlikely friendship of sorts with Matsunaga, and struggles to treat his disease. But just as Sanda finally convinces his reluctant patient to take the TB seriously and change his high-living ways, Matsunaga's old gangster boss returns from prison to lead him back into dangerous habits.

Having previously explored his feelings about the recent war itself (in No Regrets for Our Youth) and its immediate aftermath on Japanese daily life (in One Wonderful Sunday), Kurosawa almost seemed by this time to have been freed of a burden. Certainly he felt more sure of himself and his talents by the time he made Drunken Angel. Whatever the reasons for his new-found confidence, Kurosawa was able to explore his ideas more fully and his characters more deeply in this film. His direction here is deft and decisive, lending the film a strong sense of style both visually and thematically. Everything from his choices of camera angle and movement to his use of specific pieces of music in unexpected moments are carefully calculated to move the story forward, and enhance its emotional impact. The TB itself, along with many visual elements in the film (including a stinking sewage pond near the doctor's home), are symbolic stand-ins for the larger social issues of corruption and hopelessness that plagued post-war Japanese society at the time - not just obvious gangsterism, as one might expect, but also a clever criticism of the corruption by Western influences resulting from the American occupation at the time. And the film's dramatic conclusion - a fumbling knife fight between desperate gangsters - is staged with surprising and devastating effectiveness. Any way you slice it, Drunken Angel is Kurosawa's first truly great film... though it would certainly not be his last.

The B&W/1.33:1 image presented on this disc is nicely detailed, with excellent contrast, deep black levels and refined texturing. Age-related print artifacts (scratches, etc) are visible but are quite minimal and are never distracting. Drunken Angel is definitely among the better looking of Kurosawa's early films on DVD. Audio is the original Japanese mono, clean and clear throughout, with optional English subtitles. There are no extras.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Drunken Angel (Criterion)

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Drunken Angel (Criterion)
1948 (2007) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on November 27th, 2007 (Catalog #413).

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


Criterion previously released Drunken Angel as a stand-alone special edition in 2007. This earlier DVD includes a generally very good transfer of the film, though the black levels aren't quite as deep here as those on the new AK100 disc. Slightly less fine texture and detail is also visible in the image, though it's not something you'd notice outside of direct comparison between the discs. The Japanese mono audio is again clean and clear, with optional English subs.

As is invariably the case with these more elaborate stand-alone DVD editions (of films included as movie-only discs in the AK100 set), the special features Criterion has assembled here are more than worthy of the time and money of serious Kurosawa fans.

This earlier edition begins with an interesting and informative audio commentary by Japanese film historian Donald Richie, who discuses the film's themes, Kurosawa's direction and photographic style, and other relevant issues. Richie's voice has a very welcoming, professorial tone, and few people know the film better, making the track a fascinating listen for those wanting to delve more deeply into the film. (Richie served in the Navy and eventually wrote movie reviews for Stars and Stripes in Japan after the war - a by product of this was that he befriended a number of Japanese filmmakers of the time, including Yasujiro Ozu and Kurosawa.) The disc also includes a pair of good documentary featurettes. The first is a 31-minute piece created as part of the Toho Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. It offers interview excepts with Kurosawa and many of his collaborators as they relate behind-the-scenes stories on the making of the film. Particularly interesting is Kurosawa's tale of his discovery of the then-unknown Toshirô Mifune, who originally sought work at Toho as a cameraman but instead found himself in an acting audition. Talented though he was, Mifune was unconventional and a little hot-headed in his audition, and so almost failed to pass the selection committee until Kurosawa intervened. Mifune's son Shiro also appears in the piece. The second featurette is Kurosawa and the Censors, a 25-minute piece on Kurosawa's struggles to ensure that his ideas fully survived the rigorous post-war censorship process (formerly imposed by the Japanese imperial government, and now by the occupying Americans), from official approval of the film's shooting script to its final cut. Suffice it to say that the process was not an easy one. Also included in the packaging is an insert booklet containing an essay on the film's cultural context and themes by historian Ian Buruma, as well as a relevant excerpt from Kurosawa's 1983 biography. This version of Drunken Angel is a excellent addition to the Criterion Collection as a whole, and a rewarding special edition of a classic film in its own right.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



The Quiet Duel

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The Quiet Duel (BCI)
1949 (2006) - Daiei Studios (BCI/Ronan Entertainment)
Released on DVD on September 19th, 2006.

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


In The Quiet Duel, Toshirô Mifune makes the second appearance of his 16 collaborations with Kurosawa. He plays an army surgeon named Kyoji Fujisaka, who contracts syphilis during the war years when he accidentally cuts himself while operating on a patient. After the war, he returns to civilian life and works at a small hospital with his obstetrician father Konosuke (Takashi Shimura). Deeply ashamed of his syphilitic condition, he treats it himself and attempts to keep it quiet from everyone. Knowing how long it will take the treatment to be effective, he even breaks off his long-time engagement with Masao (Miki Sanjo), not wanting to infect her. Complicating his life further is a chance meeting with the man from whom he contracted the disease and the constant interaction with his father as well as a pregnant nurse at the clinic (Noriko Sengoku), whose man has left her.

The film is hardly high in Kurosawa's oeuvre, but it is a worthwhile companion piece to his other postwar efforts such as Drunken Angel (Mifune's first appearance with Kurosawa) and Stray Dog. One does not get quite the same feel for the slowly re-emerging Japan that those films offer, and this is a much more self-contained experience, reflecting its stage origins (from an acclaimed play by Kazuo Kikuta). That's not entirely a bad thing, for it creates a sense of intimacy or community that heightens Kyoji's dilemma. One might say it heightens it too much, but one must understand the very real stigma that syphilis conveyed in that era. It's not a stretch to draw the comparison with AIDS in more modern times.

The acting is the film's strongest suit. Mifune is still developing his craft here, but he successfully channels the inner turmoil of his situation for the most part. One does get a sense of martyrdom from him at times that is a bit much to take though. Shimura is quietly effective as the father, and the scenes between him and Mifune convey the warmth and affection of a real father/son relationship. Noriku Sengoku's nurse is perhaps the best piece of acting in the film, however. She has that capability of not seeming to act that delivers a totally natural and realistic performance.

The Quiet Duel has been one of the most difficult of Kurosawa's films to see and, according to the DVD's liner notes, was not shown in America until 1979, three decades after it was made. Its appearance on DVD (thanks to BCI) is certainly welcome in the circumstances. The film is presented full frame (1.33:1/B&W) as originally produced and looks reasonably presentable. The image is fairly sharp, with decent black levels and contrast. Scratches and speckles are quite evident, but they don't detract from the overall experience significantly. The original Japanese audio reflects varying degrees of hiss, but the English subtitles are quite well done.

The disc supplements are highlighted by a 45-minute featurette containing three interviews with cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi, actress Miki Sanjo, and composer Akira Ifukube. With English subtitles, these interviews are very informative about the principals themselves, as well as their interaction with Kurosawa. Also included are the original trailer, a photo gallery, a newsreel from the set of the film, and informative liner notes by Stuart Galbraith IV, author of a excellent (but unfortunately now out-of-print) book on the Kurosawa/Mifune collaboration, The Emperor and the Wolf. Recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


Akira Kurosawa - Page Three
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