The Balboa starts its Samurai series today. That’s as good an excuse as any to talk about my all-time favorite filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa. No one else combined as full a technical and artistic mastery of the medium with such a deep and sympathetic understanding of the human condition. At least no one else did so consistently while making such entertaining movies.
When I say “consistent,” I don’t mean that he made nothing but masterpieces; he had his share of turkeys. But from 1952 through 1965, he made eleven films in a row– Ikiru, Seven Samurai, I Live in Fear, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, and Red Beard–that can all reasonably be described as masterpieces. No other filmmaker had anywhere near that string of artistic success. And those eleven weren’t his only masterpieces, either; he made Rashomon before them and Ran decades later.
His best works include film noir, serious drama, epic adventure, Shakespeare and Gorky adaptations, and comedy both dark and light. Many, but not all of them, are what we westerners call “samurai films.” Set in the past or present, they examine every aspect of human existence, although they don’t seem much concerned with sex and romance. That’s an important subject to ignore, but plenty of other filmmakers have covered it extensively.
For all their genre differences, most Kurosawa films share a visual style (he loved long lenses) and a world view. The Kurosawa universe is a cruel and indifferent place, but individual acts of kindness and charity go a long way in making it bearable and meaningful–even if they don’t result in Frank Capra endings.
Americans think of Kurosawa as an art house director. Of course they do; in America, if it has subtitles, it must be art. But he was a commercial filmmaker, not the Scorsese or Sayles of mid-century Japan but its Spielberg–the maker of hits. But he was a Spielberg who turned out nothing below the quality of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Schindler’s List.
After Red Beard, Kurosawa’s luck changed. Or more precisely, the Japanese film industry changed and he no longer fit. For the rest of his career, Kurosawa would spend more time scrambling for money than making films; producing only seven of them in the remaining 29 years of his career. Only two of those seven, Dersu Uzala and Ran, approached the previous eleven in quality. And not surprisingly, they’re considerably more bitter. Kindness and charity mean nothing in the tortured world of Ran.
But cheer up. There are always some movies worth seeing.
Recommended: Harakiri, Balboa, Friday through Tuesday. Absolutely the best samurai film not made by Akira Kurosawa. A samurai (Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to a fort and asks permission to kill himself, then tells a harrowing tale of poverty made unbearable by the strict samurai code. Director Masaki Kobayashi had no love for feudal Japan’s social structure, which he shows as cruel, arrogant, and hypocritical. The opening film in the Balboa’s Samurai series.
Noteworthy: Earth, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 2:30. This last great Soviet silent classic has a reputation for beauty and lyricism, without the heavy-handed propaganda of Potemkin. I’ve never seen Earth, but I’d like to. This presentation will be introduced by PFA’s new Senior Curator, Susan Oxtoby, and accompanied on the piano by Gabriel Thibaudeau.
Recommended: Throne of Blood, Balboa, Wednesday and Thursday. Kurosawa stands Shakespeare on his head with this haunting, noh- and kabuki-inspired loose adaptation of Macbeth. Toshiro Mifune gives an over-the-top but still effective performance as the military officer tempted by his wife (Isuzu Yamada) into murdering his lord. The finale–which is far more democratic than anything Shakespeare ever dared–is one of the great action sequences ever. As part of its Samurai series, the Balboa is presenting Throne of Blood on a double bill with New Tale of Zatoichi.
Recommended: The Grapes of Wrath, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. When we think of classic, studio-era Hollywood, serious social criticism doesn’t come to mind. But this Darryl Zanuck/Nunnally Johnson/John Ford production of John Steinbeck’s flip side of the California dream doesn’t pull any punches (well, not many of them, anyway). The ending may be considerably less downbeat than Steinbeck’s original, but as the desperately-poor Joad family moves from Oklahoma to California in their rickety truck, only to find bigotry and more poverty, you can cut the sense of desperation with a knife. Presented by Assemblyman Mark Leno as part of the Rafael’s Reel Politics series.