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page added: 2/8/10
updated: 3/19/10




The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa - Review Index

Akira Kurosawa - Page Four

I Live in Fear (AK100)

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I Live in Fear (AK100)
1955 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK 100 set.

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


The atomic anxiety genre (that flourished from roughly the 1950s to the 1980s) casts a wide net, encompassing everything from giant monster movies like Gojira and Them! to political nail-biters like Fail-Safe to post-attack dramas like The Day After. It should come as no surprise that Akira Kurosawa took a much more personal approach to the subject with I Live in Fear, his first film after the worldwide sensation that was Seven Samurai. Instead of speculating on the political machinations that could lead to war or the potential sci-fi mutations that could result from nuclear testing, Kurosawa focused on the story of an ordinary man (a foundry owner played by Toshirô Mifune), whose awareness of the fact that a bomb could drop at any time virtually cripples him with fear.

After sinking millions of yen into a never-completed bomb shelter (he abandoned the project after reading that it would not provide adequate protection), the man seizes upon the idea of moving his entire family to Brazil. In turn, his family attempts to have him declared mentally incompetent to prevent him from squandering their savings and livelihood. But Mifune is determined to leave Japan for safer climes and perseveres in a most rational, calculated manner. Meanwhile, a court mediator on the case (Takashi Shimura) begins to wonder if it isn't everyone else who's crazy because they're not frightened enough.

It's a bit of a shock to see Mifune, so often cast as the strong, confident alpha male in Kurosawa's films, playing someone so petrified by such an abstract notion. Of course, the threat of nuclear annihilation was much less abstract for the Japanese at the time, having seen the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki firsthand just a decade earlier, as well as the fallout from continued nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll in the early 1950s. But the idea consumes Mifune entirely. He mistakes a flash of lightning and roll of thunder for a nuclear blast and dives for cover, shaking like a leaf.

Mifune's performance here is extraordinary, conveying the old man's stubbornness, his cunning and his fear like no other actor could. The family comes off less well. They make no real attempt to understand Mifune, simply assuming he's crazy and scheming to protect their share of his estate. There's a wonderful moment, as the family is awaiting the court's decision, when they notice that Mifune is gone. The oldest son hopes he's wandered home, as that will prove he's suffering from senility. Just as he mentions this, Mifune reappears, having simply gone to buy cold drinks for everyone. He hands them out silently in one of those lovely, understated scenes that Kurosawa accomplished so well.

I Live in Fear could be better. With so much focus on Mifune, the other characters come across a bit thin. The family dynamic has a great deal of potential, with Mifune supporting not just his wife and children but additional children from a variety of mistresses. We get an occasional taste of the interplay between the legitimate and illegitimate children, but not enough to satisfy. Shimura's character is interesting and is the only one even remotely sympathetic to Mifune. But he pops in and out of the story so much that it's hard to get much of a grasp on him.

Once again, Criterion has done fine work presenting this rare film on DVD with a B&W/full frame transfer that is as good as one can reasonably expect. The audio is Japanese mono, with optional English subtitles, and no extras are included.

I Live in Fear tells a compelling story from a unique perspective and if I seem a bit disappointed by it, it's only because it has the potential to be a great film instead of merely a very good one. Despite any shortcomings, Toshirô Mifune's performance alone makes the film memorable and well worth seeing.

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com



I Live in Fear (Eclipse)

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I Live in Fear (Eclipse)
1955 (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


I Live in Fear was also the final film included on DVD in Criterion's five-disc Eclipse series Post-War Kurosawa collection, released in 2008. As with the other titles from that set, with the exception of different packaging and menus, the disc is basically the same one included in the new AK100 box set. The transfer is identical in every way, sourced from the very same restored master, and there are again 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



Throne of Blood (AK100)

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Throne of Blood (AK100)
1957 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK 100 set.

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


Quite possibly one of the greatest adaptations of any of Shakespeare's work, Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood takes the famous Scottish play (Macbeth for those who don't know their Bard) and drops it dead center into 16th Century feudal Japan. Bloody, chilling and super stylized, Throne of Blood ranks among the best and most experimental films of Kurosawa's career.

Samurai Washizu (Toshirô Mifune), en route back to home base after a major battle, meets up with a malevolent forest spirit, who lays out his future in a song. As Washizu comes to realize that these prophecies are coming true, he desires more and more. Not helping things, his wife Lady Asaji (played by Isuzu Yamada, wearing some of the most evil make-up ever created) is manipulating his desires, sending him further into a downwards spiral and into the darkest depths of the human soul.

Throne of Blood (a.k.a. Spider Web Castle, as translated literally from the original Japanese title) strikes many of the chords created by Shakespeare in Macbeth, though it excludes the iconic line delivery of the original and drops the antagonist MacDuff ending for one of the most violent screen deaths of any "hero" captured on film. The resulting film works so well, on so many different levels, that it's no surprise that many historians consider it to be the best version of Macbeth ever put to celluloid.

Kurosawa reaches into many different theatrical traditions here, making every moment of this film feel wide open, yet also constrained like a stage play. Most of this comes from Kurosawa's heavy use of Noh traditions, including the classic stage layout, haunting musical styles and the shocking make-up design. The actors all put in exceptional performances, the best of which are Mifune and Yamada. The end result of all this effort is that Throne of Blood is a truly haunting cinematic experience... and the most impressive looking film of his career.

Presented in the original full frame, Throne of Blood looks incredible on DVD. This AK100 edition appears to feature the exact same transfer as the original Criterion release. The B&W photography is vibrant and clean, with excellent contrast and texturing. Print damage is minimal and the overall detail is spot on. Sound is presented in the original Japanese Dolby Digital mono and is very pleasing. The optional subtitles featured on this disc are the Donald Richie translations (more on that in the stand-alone DVD review). There are no extras.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



Throne of Blood (Criterion)

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Throne of Blood (Criterion)
1957 (2003) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on May 27th, 2003 (Spine #190).

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


Previously released by Criterion on DVD in 2003, this stand-alone version is quite good in its own right, starting with cover artwork that screams to be made into a full-sized poster. As fans will know, the packaging graphics for The Collection discs are always quite good, but this art definitely ranks as one of their best.

Image quality on the DVD is second to none for a 1.33:1/B&W films in standard-definition. Blacks are hard and yet nicely detailed, while the whites are clean and without distortion. The textures, from grain to armor to wood, are all stellar. The only thing that could make this better is high-definition. The film's sound is offered in a fine Japanese Dolby Digital mono track.

While the disc's extras are somewhat limited, less is sometimes more for a film like this one. What you do get starts with something that's a rarity on DVD these days - dual English subtitle translations. One is presented by film historian and Japanese linguist Donald Richie, and the is other by translator Linda Hoaglund. Each has its own unique character, but both are great and add little bits of subtly to the film. To go along with this, there's a note from each of the translators in the insert booklet, explaining their motivations and philosophies in creating their track. In addition to this, you also have another fine audio commentary, this time featuring Kurosawa expert Michael Jeck. Jeck discusses the production design, Kurosawa's finicky nature, the fact that real arrows were shot at Mifune for the climax (yikes!) and other gems of information. Finally, you have the film's theatrical trailer and the booklet also includes liner notes by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



The Lower Depths (AK100)

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The Lower Depths (AK100)
1957 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK 100 set.

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


Anyone who knows and loves Kurosawa knows that he was a great fan of all things Russian. He adapted Dostoevsky's The Idiot in 1951,and filmed the epic Dersu Uzala in Siberia with Russian money when his opportunities dried up in Japan in 1975. In-between, he tackled one of Russia's best loved theatrical plays, The Lower Depths. Written by Maxim Gorky as an exercise in complex simplicity, The Lower Depths is more about its characters than a cohesive story. Told in short, compact vignettes, it depicts a collection of underclass peasants living in a rundown tenement building in Imperial Russia. How they interact, who they are as people and how their personal choices affect each other were more important to Gorky that delivering a through-line. The play became a huge hit, making Gorky's career. It became much-loved Jean Renoir film in 1936 (though Renoir would tack on a happier round-up in the end). Kurosawa, also concerned with character over plot, was obviously a fan of both versions.

Kurosawa's take on The Lower Depths brings the tenement into a rundown village in Edo era Japan. It's there that we find our hosts: An old man and his angry wife, mad at the world for her low status. Together they rent out rooms to anyone with the means to pay just to stave off homelessness, treating all their tenants with the type of condescension usually reserved for insects. Those people include a delusional prostitute, an old drunken actor, a jaded gambler, a former samurai, a tinker and a gruff macho thief. The thief is played by Toshirô Mifune and, although he isn't truly the focus of the film, his side story (including the fact that he's having an affair with the landlord's wife but is really in love with her sister), plays out quite prominently in the end. The driving force that eventually brings everyone's stories together comes out of Mifune's character, Sutekuchi, who it turns out is being seduced by the landlady for one specific reason: She wants Sutekuchi to murder her husband. And though Sutekuchi refuses, in a twisted set of circumstances, her plan almost works... almost.

Though The Lower Depths sounds like (and in many ways IS) a thoroughly depressing tale of human woe and fallibility, Kurosawa manages to inject it with even amounts of humor and humanity, through the many interactions between the assorted tenants. Played by some of the best Japanese comedians and theater performers ever assembled (no mean feat for Kurosawa, considering the "go to" actors he gathered over the years), much of their dialogue is hilarious and very insightful. In the end, Kurosawa's The Lower Depths is a very close adaptation of the original Gorky play, regardless of the shift in locale. It reminds us that we sometimes have to face our situations and avoid the burden of "the duality of man." Building romanticized versions of ourselves doesn't always help us survive. And yes... sometimes running away is the best option.

Criterion offers this AK100 edition with a very nice video presentation at the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (as it happens, Kurosawa's last use of full frame). The print has been nicely restored, with a lot of the major age-related damage cleaned up, and features a remarkably clear black and white image. Audio is a pleasing Japanese Dolby Digital mono with some slight hiss detected. There are no extras.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



The Seven Samurai (Criterion)

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The Lower Depths (Criterion)
1957 (2004) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on June 22nd, 2004 (Spine #239).

Film Ratings (Kurosawa/Renoir): B/B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/A+


Criterion's 2004 release of The Lower Depths is a tricky DVD to comment on. (Hopefully, we won't offend any Renoir fans out there in doing so.) But despite the fact that the disc includes both film versions of the Gorky play, for our money it's really Kurosawa's set. The Renoir version is included almost like as supplemental piece. Now... that's not to say that Renoir's version of The Lower Depths is of lesser quality, because it's not. Both films are incredible works of art, created by filmmakers with great vision at two different periods of time and in two different parts of the world.

There are major differences between the two. Kurosawa honored the original theatrical roots of the play by keeping most of the character types intact. He adapted specific lines of dialogue and held true to the downer ending.

Renoir took a more cinematic stance, making the story bigger by creating a more open canvas and offering more "action." Renoir's The Lower Depths is basically the same idea - a love triangle between a thief, a landlady and her sister (along with a wizened old man "helping" a young man better himself) - but the tone is not as comic as Kurosawa's. Nor is it as dark. Looking at the two side by side, the Kurosawa version is the better film, though having the Renoir version here as well gives you an added appreciation for both.

This collector's edition showcases both of these gems beautifully, audio and video-wise. Sound is the original mono track for both (French for Renoir's version, obviously, and Japanese for Kurosawa's) and works fine for each film. Video is remastered at the original ratio of 1.33:1 for both films and also works well. Renoir's version fares slightly better than Kurosawa's, as the source for the 1957 version isn't as well kept as the 1936. Still, both films present very well, with bold blacks, crisp whites and minimal print damage.

The French version of The Lower Depths is contained on Disc One, which also includes an archived introduction to the film by Renoir himself. An essay on this version, by film scholar Alexander Sesonske (author of Jean Renoir: The French Films 1924-1939), is also included in the set's insert booklet. Disc Two holds Kurosawa's version, which also features another bright and bold commentary by Bits favorite commentator Donald Richie, as well as another entry in the Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create series. This one offers a history lesson on the Edo period, information about Kurosawa's brother and how his life figured into the production design. It also highlights a special meeting between Kurosawa and Renoir in Paris. You also get text-based biographies of the cast of Kurosawa's version, written by Stephen Prince. (Text-based features a rare treat on a Criterion release but they're well worth the read.) Finally, there's a theatrical trailer for Kurosawa's version, and the booklet features an essay by Keiko McDonald (author of From Book to Screen: Modern Japanese Literature in Films). With its two different creative takes on the same source material, this DVD is of interest not just to Kurosawa fans, but film fans in general.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com


Akira Kurosawa - Page Six
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