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BAMcinématek: Kurosawa’s Samurai, Part 1. (Oct. 29th—Nov. 5th).

BAMcinématek: Kurosawa’s Samurai, Part 1. (Oct. 29th—Nov. 5th).

Certainly more creative retrospectives could be assembled from the 30 films Akira Kurosawa made as director, but we suppose even gripping noir like “High and Low” and “Drunken Angel” don’t quite carry the iconic stamp this filmmaker’s “Samurai Films” do. And so for their latest program, Brooklyn’s BAMcinematek offers up all eight of ’em, providing you an opportunity to see these classics of Japanese cinema on the big screen, perhaps for the first time. The retrospective runs from Oct. 29th to Nov. 21st, and we’re taking a two-part look at the films that will be featured there (coincidentally enough, news about the existence of new Kurosawa-penned scripts broke this afternoon). In this entry, we look at those showing in the retro’s first leg—Oct. 29th to Nov. 5th—including Kurosawa’s most recognizable title, “Seven Samurai” (which will show at BAM twice on Halloween, at 3 and 7). Check back next week when we look at the latter half of the retrospective, which features: the “Kuwabatake Sanjuro” diptych “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro“; late-period triumph “Ran“; and “Star Wars” inspiration “The Hidden Fortress.”

(1950) For this writer, “Rashomon” is immensely frustrating. Kurosawa’s multi-perspective morality play is the most thematically intriguing, structurally rigorous film he ever made, but there’s a division between its stunning first half and problematic second. Starting with the good: As Robert Altman and numerous others have noted, this is a beautifully made film; the expressive dichotomy of shadow and sun-dappled light filtered through a forest canopy compliment Kurosawa’s inquiry into the interplay between truth and lies. Likewise, “Rashomon’s” narrative is masterly; one of the earliest examples of the “Unreliable Narrator Film,” Kurosawa operates on three storytelling planes, linked together like the different dream levels of “Inception.” On what we’ll call Level 1, three peasants take cover from a violent rainstorm, discussing the events of a peculiar trial that took place earlier that day. Level 2 is the trial, where two of the three peasants held court, witnessing testimonies concerning a series of events which led to the death of a samurai and the rape of his wife. Level 3 is the Unreliable level, with the one peasant not present for the trial, hearing all testimonies secondhand; it’s at a particularly pronounced distance from the truth. It’s this level where whatever happened between the samurai (Masayuki Mori), his wife (Machiko Kyo) and the bandit (Toshiro Mifune) is reinterpreted and refracted through varying perspectives, and it’s this level where much of the film takes place. But where “Rashomon” ultimately flags is back on Level 1—each of the three peasants represent a varying moral platitude, and their dialogue is increasingly on-the-nose, leading to a third act respite from cynicism that registers as a cheat, especially as it’s enacted by a trio of mouthpieces. This, compounded by a general slackening in “Rashomon’s” second half, feels like Kurosawa’s failure to pull-off everything he’s trying without succumbing to didactic moralizing. But perhaps rightfully, “Rashomon” is revered today for all the many things it does do right. It’s certainly one of the most interesting and frequently stunning films in Kurosawa’s filmography. [B+]
Fri, Oct 29 at 2, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm

Seven Samurai” (1954)
Though it itself was likely influenced by early American westerns, Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” can be viewed today as one of the most influential films in the history of cinema. You can find its basic plot elements and dynamic set-pieces echoed in, of course, John Sturges‘ western remake “The Magnificent Seven,” but also in Clint Eastwood‘s “Pale Rider” and, more recently, in the works of modern Japanese luminaries Takeshi Kitano (“Zatoichi“) and Takashi Miike (“13 Assassins,” which basically turns “Seven Samurai’s” climactic battle sequence upside down). Today, “Seven Samurai” is revered for a few flagship reasons. It gathers together many of the greatest Japanese actors of the day, including Takashi Shimura (fresh off his devastating lead in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru“) and Toshiro Mifune, the latter turning in arguably his most memorable screen performance as a wildcard mercenary playing opposite a collection of more austere and ennobled samurai. It has probably the most enduring reputation of any Japanese film, especially among Western audiences, and it was the first in Kurosawa’s long line of samurai pictures (his formalist marvel “Rashomon,” while featuring a samurai, isn’t really considered “of that genre”). But more than any of these, “Seven Samurai” is beloved for its masterful, inimitable craft. Kurosawa would make many ambitious samurai pictures, but this one remains his very best—a marvel of taut storytelling (its brisk and entertaining three-and-a-half hours just whizz by) and legendary action sequences. It may not have any deep or meaningful subtext, but it is a profoundly humanistic work—the plights of the impoverished farmers and the masterless ronin called upon to protect them are equally represented and explored, the film’s meaty runtime allowing for intricate development of each of its many characters. Above all, “Seven Samurai” stands as Kurosawa’s most dynamic samurai picture—”Ran” may be more visually opulent and “Throne of Blood” more traditionally dramatic, but neither can match “Seven Samurai’s” uniquely epic scope. [A]
Sun, Oct 31 at 3, 7pm

Throne of Blood” (1957)
Even more compelling to this writer than Kurosawa’s re-imagining of Williams Shakespeare‘s greed and duplicity tragedy “Macbeth” as a Noh Theater piece in Feudal Japan is the haunted atmosphere of foreboding into which he casts his characters. In Shakespeare’s play, thunder and lightning greet a pair of men as a sign of their ill fate (albeit a heavy-handed one). Kurosawa gives weather an even greater role, pouring layers of thick white fog around his protagonists, rendered in the starkest of b&w cinematography. He opens “Throne of Blood” with a stunning passage set amidst a torrential downpour; it’s the aftermath of a vicious battle and two generals find themselves adrift among the wispy, gnarled branches of Spider’s Web Forest. Instead of the three witches of “Macbeth,” a single specter manifests itself in Kurosawa’s film, offering both the brash Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and his comrade Miki (Minoru Chiaki) visions of a prosperous future. This plants the seed of greed in one of these men, while sealing the deathly fate of both. If Kurosawa maintained this tension throughout “Throne of Blood” it could’ve shared rank with his best, and obviously many believe it does. But so much of the film confines itself to the claustrophobic quarters of Washizu and his inexplicably evil wife Asaji (a wickedly iconic Isuzu Yamada), ultimately playing into Kurosawa’s weakness, especially in his pre-’60s work. Drama too often becomes flatly bombastic in his films, particularly when Mifune is given the direction to act as crazy as he wants to. While a magnetic screen presence, Mifune doesn’t provide quite the emotional gravity of, say, Takashi Shimura, and since so much of “Throne of Blood” relies on our investment in Washizu’s downfall, this presents a problem. Still, “Throne of Blood” recovers for a striking conclusion, probably Kurosawa’s most liberal amendment of Shakespeare’s text, as well as one of the most memorable death scenes in a canon marked by innumerable, gloriously operatic demises. [B]
Wed, Nov 3 at 4:30 & 9:30pm / Thu, Nov 4 at 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm

Kagemusha” (1980) Kurosawa’s most underrated film is also one of his best. The epic “Kagemusha,” like “Ran” but arguably better, is an autumnal work that finds the Japanese master less interested in action than mechanism, the hierarchies of power and interconnectedness of a regime. Here, that’s the Takedas, a superpower of the Warring States era ruled by Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai), who at the outset leads his armies to victory. Tragedy strikes when an assassination attempt leaves Shingen mortally wounded; knowing his death will break morale and embolden the offense of his enemies, he orders that a ‘double’ pose as him. As it happens, Shingen’s brother (Tsutomu Yamazaki) has found the perfect candidate: a felon who bears a remarkable resemblance (also Nakadai). What Kurosawa aims to explore over the epic three-hour length of “Kagemusha” (a title which translates to “Shadow Warrior“) is the idea of a subordinate existence. Countless sequences of soldiers marching over hills and through valleys, set against blood red skies and shimmering crystal lakes, both provide a workout for Kurosawa’s new visual pallet—this was his first film in color (correction: 1970’s “Dodes’ka-den” is his first in color)—and put emphasis on facelessness, identities erased by the greater power they shadow. It’s a theme that applies not just to the paeans but to the central politicos of “Kagemusha”—Shingen’s son feels his dead father’s shadow looming over him, while Shingen’s double struggles with the notion of shadowing such an important figure, simultaneously losing himself. The idea is that when you become a shadow, separating yourself from that role means death, and “Kagemusha’s” mournful finale follows that concept to its bitter, moving end. It’s ultimately more cerebral and pragmatic, less entertaining and brisk than its sister film “Ran,” but its themes of mortality are just as rich, and it’s every bit as lavishly mounted. It doesn’t have the same glowing reputation in the States as it does in Europe—it won the Palme d’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival — but hopefully retrospectives like this will allow it the critical reevaluation it deserves. [A-]
Fri, Nov 5 at 3, 7pm — Sam Mac

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