Akira Kurosawa is almost certainly the most famous Japanese director known to non-Japanese audiences. Though he had a long career encompassing both contemporary set films as well as period dramas, what he’s most fondly remembered for is his string of samurai films made in the 1950s and 60s. Working with his frequent leading actor and some might say ‘muse’ Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa was one of the most prominent post-war Japanese directors, who helped to bring Japanese cinema to European and American audiences through prize-winning appearances in major international film festivals. This new Blu-ray set from the BFI brings together some of his most beloved samurai films in HD as one comprehensive collection.
Starting with Seven Samurai (1954), which was released as a limited edition Steelbook earlier this year (and is now also re-released as a standalone DVD and standard edition Blu-ray), the set also includes Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961) and its sequel Sanjuro (1962). Though it obviously does not include the entirety of Kurosawa’s Jidaigeki output, it does give something of an overview of these mid-career films which see Kurosawa moving from the lament for the loss of samurai nobility seen in Seven Samurai to the total subversion of those values in Yojimbo/Sanjuro, with Mifune once again starring as an enormously capable but mercenary ronin who - at least seemingly - values prize money and fun over doing the right thing.
Seven Samurai is the exact same edition that was released earlier this year which we reviewed at the time - the film is, obviously, a masterpiece but we found the transfer a little disappointing compared to other versions available considering the release had been delayed for such a long time.
Throne of Blood is Kurosawa’s first adaptation of a Shakespeare play, in this case Macbeth - later in his career he’d also (albeit loosely) take inspiration from Hamlet (The Bad Sleep Well) and King Lear (Ran) but neither quite as exactly as in Throne of Blood. Just as in Macbeth, it’s a story of a lower, perhaps unambitious, vassal with a pushy wife who ends up having ideas put in his head by mysterious spirits and taking those thoughts to heart. Assuming you know the plot of Macbeth, you’ll already know that prophesies can be tricky and don’t always mean what you think they do, and the same is true here. Drawing heavily on traditional Noh theatre, Throne of Blood strikes an appropriately theatrical tone full of action, intrigue and mystery. Although not as popular as Seven Samurai in its own time, it’s nevertheless become one of Kurosawa’s most widely-seen films outside of Japan. Available in High Definition for the first time in the UK, the disc features a full-length commentary from film scholar Michael Jeck (also available on Criterion’s US Blu-ray) which is both entertaining and informative.
The Hidden Fortress is a slight departure both in the set and in Kurosawa’s career to that date, as it’s the most obviously comic and light-hearted film included here. That doesn't mean it doesn’t also have a few points to make about war, elite classes and the way they treat those below, and indeed the blind loyalty that those followers often offer up to them. Much loved for its comic tone, the film may be most famous in some circles as having had a profound influence on George Lucas, who took the two bumbling peasants of The Hidden Fortress and reframed them as R2D2 and C-3PO as well as swiping Kurosawa’s idiosyncratic horizontal wipes. The two peasants here are caught in war-torn country trying to get to their village after attempting (unsuccessfully) to profit from the war. They eventually stumble on a bunch of gold hidden in sticks which - unbeknownst to them - belongs to the princess of the defeated house who’s currently on the run from her enemies and under the protection of her loyalest general, again played by Mifune. Despite the dark edges of the story, comic episodes abound as we follow the adventures of these two greedy guys who just want to go home with as much gold as they can carry, but by the end of the film they may have learned there are more important things in life. The Hidden Fortress is accompanied by a brief interview with George Lucas, talking about the various ways he was influenced by Kurosawa as a director.
Yojimbo and Sanjuro operate as a film and its sequel, with Mifune starring as the central ronin character with a made-up name (he picks 'Sanjuro' as a first name in both films but it just means thirty years old - comically he adds ‘but I’m nearer forty’ both times) who’s looking for some fun and hopes to get paid for having it. In an unusual move, the villain of both movies is played by another excellent actor and frequent Kurosawa collaborator Tatsuya Nakadai even though he’s playing a completely different character in the second film. Yojimbo, the plot of which was stolen wholesale and remade by Leone as A Fistful of Dollars, sees Mifune wander into a deserted town only to be greeted by a dog running off with a severed hand in its mouth. Informed that no-one dares go out because two groups of warring gangsters have the town so tied up the only guy who’s doing any business is the coffin maker, Mifune decides to have some fun pitting both sides against each other. Sanjuro sees a similar thing happen again, though this time he just happens to overhear some eager young samurai complaining about corruption but completely missing the implications of the evidence they’ve received. Sanjuro proceeds to put them right with a bit of fatherly mentoring... but only for the right price, of course. Like The Hidden Fortress, these two are comedic action films but their sense of humour is darker and more cynical.
The programme notes state Yojimbo is accompanied by a ‘full length audio commentary by film critic Philip Kemp’ but in actual fact this is a selected scene commentary which is only accessible by playing the entire film with commentary track. There are long periods with no commentary at all, no background information or self-introduction is given by the commentator and it seems obvious that he did only intend to comment on a few specific scenes. These might have been presented better as standalone scene commentaries rather than playing for the full-length of the film with so many dead spaces, which make listening to the commentary as a whole quite an unsatisfying experience. Both films are presented on the same disc along with an introduction to Sanjuro from director and film enthusiast Alex Cox (Repo Man) and a second longer interview with Cox on Kurosawa in general.
This mid-period of Kurosawa’s career from the mid fifties to the sixties is generally agreed to have been his best and produced some of his most accomplished films. He’d go on to make another period film straight after this, though this time set in the 19th century which would also mark his last collaboration with Mifune. Following Red Beard, an unsuccessful foray into Hollywood filmmaking (the film Tora! Tora! Tora! from which he was dismissed and later replaced by Kinji Fukasaku and Tokio Masuda), Kurosawa struggled to regain his stature in the industry and found it increasingly difficult to get his films made. He’d return to the samurai genre with Kagemusha and Ran with more success but is still most fondly remembered for his work with Mifune. Available on Blu-ray for the first time, this comprehensive set brings five of these classic films together and helps to give an overview of Kurosawa’s career through the historical films of this period.