Stiff-Legged Film Festival Series Presents:

The Complete Films of Akira Kurosawa

March 21-23 & 28-30, 2008


The schedule: no-frills list version

Friday, March 21:
7:00 - Sanshiro Sugata
8:45 - Most Beautiful
10:20 - Sanshiro Sugata II
11:50 - They Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail
1:00 a.m. - No Regrets for Our Youth

Saturday, March 22:
10:00 a.m. - One Wonderful Sunday
11:55 a.m. - Drunken Angel
1:40 - The Quiet Duel
3:25 - Stray Dog
5:35 - Scandal
7:30 - Rashomon
9:05 - The Idiot
12:00 a.m. - Ikiru

Sunday, March 23:
12:30 - Seven Samurai
4:10 - I Live in Fear
6:00 - Throne of Blood
7:50 - The Lower Depths
10:00 - The Hidden Fortress

Friday, March 28:
7:00 - The Bad Sleep Well
9:40 - Yojimbo
11:35 - Sanjuro
1:15 a.m. - High & Low

Saturday, March 29:
11:00 a.m. - Red Beard
2:15 - Dodes-Ka'Den
4:45 - Dersu Uzala
7:10 - Kagemusha
10:15 - Ran
12:45 a.m. - Dreams

Sunday, March 30:
10:00 a.m. - Rhapsody In August
11:45 a.m. - Madadayo
Documentaries:
2:05 - Kurosawa & The Censors
2:30 - Seven Samurai: Origins & Influences
3:30 - Drunken Angel (from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create)
4:02 - Stray Dog (from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create)
4:34 - Ikiru (from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create)
5:15 - Seven Samurai (from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create)
6:05 - The Lower Depths (from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create)
6:38 - The Bad Sleep Well (from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create)
7:11 - Yojimbo (from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create)
7:56 - Sanjuro (from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create)
8:30 - Kagemusha (from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create)
9:12 - Ran (from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create)
9:45 - Akira Kurosawa: My Life in Cinema
11:45 - emphemera, bonus tracks, etc.

KUROSAWA BLOG PAGE - LIVE JOURNALING FROM FESTIVAL-GOERS! (Coming Soon)

Akira Kurosawa. One of a small handful of directors who are true titans of cinema - folks who have earned the right to be known by their last names: Hitchcock, Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Ford, Truffault, Tarkovsky, Griffith, Lang, Ray, Herzog. Kurosawa stands tall in that list of giants, easily rising into any top 10 list, and maybe even some top 5s, among folks who find movies to be the most important thing on earth. Considered "the least Japanese" of all Japanese directors, it should come as no surprise that many of his best films were remade in the West, and come from "western" influences. Kurosawa was a fanatic for Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and film-maker John Ford (The Searchers, et al.), who he emulated, even to the point of wearing the same kind of sunglasses! At the same time, he loved Japanese film and culture, and was a huge fan of the largely unpopular art of Noh theater, which appears stylistically in several of his films.

While many of Kurosawa's best films are known to be long, slow meditations on morality, honor, and "the inability of humans to truly let themselves be happy," (his own quote) Kurosawa also believed that, above all, movies should be highly entertaining. For that reason, and due to the "Western" influences mentioned above, he was the first Japanese director to really become a hit in the non-Asian world - Rashomon was an international sensation in 1950, causing a hell of a lot of directors the world over to pay attention and take copious notes.

Thanks to the efforts of the Criterion Collection to preserve nearly all of Kurosawa's films in high-quality editions, the amount of leg-work for this festival wasn't hard (it was, however, a hell of a lot more expensive!), though some early films remain available only through the good graces of the Chinese DVD gray-market. Still, even if you CAN rent a number of these films in your local Blockbuster, chances are you won't, and you sure as hell won't rent 30 of 'em and watch them over two sword-swinging, gun-toting, blood-spurting, A-bomb-fearing, ailing-peasant-tending weekends! Few rarities on hand, but few clinkers either...get ready for awesome!


The details...

ALL START TIMES ARE RIGID!

Unless we're running late (unlikely!), the start time listed is the exact time we start. No whining, no "wait wait, I'm just circling the block looking for a parking space," no excuses. 7-10 minutes is all you're given on average between films; just enough time to queue up for the bathroom. I'm trying some new things with seating, so The Couch is not going to be the most cherished spot any more, but hopefully we'll be able to get more people into an equally-small space (the apartment's bigger, but the TV room's not much bigger than in the basement place). Bear with us as we work through the growing pains (a good problem to have!).

Also: raffles! Come out to the festival and put your name in the tumbler. Winners will receive VHS (and a few DVD) copies of Kurosawa's best-known films, as well as script books and, the grand prize of them all, a vintage copy of Donald Richie's The Films of Akira Kurosawa, generally considered the definitive tome about the director and his work. At least two prizes given every night, and you do not have to be present to win!

Special thanks to: Deep Discount, Odd Obsession Video, Reckless Records, Ebay, Laurie's Planet of Sound, and everybody who gamely attempted to help me search for Those Who Make Tomorrow.

Extra special thanks to Phineas X. Jones for suggesting that this be the next festival. If it weren't for him, you'd all be slogging through Bergman right now.


The Schedule

FRIDAY, MARCH 21
CINEMA WITHOUT REGRETS: FROM LIFE DURING WARTIME TO STUDENT REVOLT

Kurosawa got his start in less-than-ideal circumstances, directing his first handful of films in the midst of World War II. Demanding uplifting stories and moral certitude from the young director, Kurosawa had to slip his signature touches under the door when possible. These films, already full of maturity and style, paint a picture of the master director working with one (figurative) arm tied behind his back.

7:00 p.m.
SANSHIRO SUGATA (Judo Story)

Mating his love of physical rigor (martial arts, Noh theater, etc.) with the studio's love of no-controvery period films about the strong Japanese character (again, this is wartime), Kurosawa shot to look like it actually was recording the historical moment - 1863, the birth of Judo in a world dominated by Ju-Jitsu, with a studied, grainy priveval feeling to the whole thing. Spills! Tumbles! Bad subtitling! Because this is a Chinese bootleg! (this will be a recurring motif for a little while, so hang in there, and snicker only if you must)

 

8:45 p.m.
MOST BEAUTIFUL

VERY wartime propaganda. Kurosawa wanted to shoot a fictional movie in the style of a documentary, and used lots of real wartime (female) volunteers in a munitions factory for the parts to give it newsreel realism. As above, the studio wanted a film that displayed to the filmgoing public the righteousness of "the struggle" and a strong Japanese character. Should still be interest, if only for the first major appearance of Kurosawa uber-regular Takashi Shimura (he was in more of Kurosawa's films than even Toshiro Mifune!).

 

10:20 p.m.
SANSHIRO SUGATA II

Then, as now, film studios know how to millk a cash cow. With the sucess of the original Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa was strong-armed into filming a sequel. It contains amusing and broad American stereotypes (not to beat a dead horse, but, yeah - wartime, national character, enemy, blah blah), and a rather memorable fight on a snowy field. Y'know, everybody's going to be here to watch Seven Samurai, but as any Stiff-leg lifer will tell you, watching such non-canonic material is really going to put the later films into a deeper perspective, dont'cha think? Or, maybe it'll be like every other year, and I'll be hanging out all alone until the midget movie or M*A*S*H comes on. Sigh.

 

11:50 p.m.
THEY WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER'S TAIL

One of the few short-ish films on the docket (an hour and seven from tips to tails), this is an adaptation of a story that would be familiar to most Japanese filmgoers, as it combines aspects of a common Kabuki fable (with elements of a less-popular Noh storyline), but with a twist. It's the fable of a warlord who flees from his brother/rival and takes to dressing his party as monks to avoid notice. Soon, the party begins to adopt monkish behavior and beliefs. There's a common theme of a servant that must dress as the master (and vice-versa), but the inclusion of a second servant, played by then-popular comedic actor Enoken, adds bizarre comedy to an otherwise contemplative morality fable. As Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie put it, it would be "like adding Jerry Lewis the cast of Hamlet." Check out that still below...this is going to be high-larrrrrr-ious! Or, at the very least, mercifully short.

From imdb.com reviewer "cheese cake": The movie is seemingly based on an event from Japan's past, but it is really Kurosawa's allegory on Japan's condition at the end of World War Two. A prince, estranged from his brother, and six of his loyal retainers wander through the forest. They all look disheveled and hard up. They must cross a barrier manned by officials who are not exactly friendly to them, before they can move on to improving their life. The prince is disguised as a lowly porter and we rarely see his face. his retainers are warriors but are now forced to don monk's robes and indeed in passing through the barrier manned by the unfriendly forces (read American's) the lead monk must read a treatise in which peace is extolled as the reason for their existence. basically, the monks are Japanese elite, the porter is the Japanese public, the prince is the emperor, the barrier officials are the Americans, whose leader is wise and although he knows the truth allows the monks to live. They are many truths within truths here. Indeed, in the end the adviser to the emperor says, "we must move on (read from the feudal system) if we are to survive". a very fine movie, short yet poignant. one can easily see even in this early feature of his that Kurosawa is a master at symbolic imagery. By the way this movie was made in 1945, but not released in Japan until 1952. After watching it, I can see why it was delayed. It would have been extremely painful as a Japanese citizen to watch this in 1945, with their country in shambles around them. highly recommended.

 

1:00 a.m.
NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH

Kurosawa, notorious as a director of primarily manly characters with manly traits and manly swords (or, in the case of his "kindly country doctor" films, manly stethescopes), here shoots a film with a female protagonist. Guess that makes this his Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore? Maybe. The female lead, Setsuko Hara, plays Yukie, a studen born of upper-class parents who discovers that her father, a professor, is a closet radical, and her lover has been tried as a spy. It was watching a few minutes of my booted copy of this film that caused me to break down and shell out for the Postwar Kurosawa box set, as the subtitles were, how shall we put it, high-larrrrr-ious! And I don't think that this story was supposed to be a surrealist's dream come true or anything. As a result, Criterion got 52 more dollars of my paycheck. (p.s. for those of you checking out the Stiff-Leg shenanigans for the first time, yes, this ends late, and yes, tomorrow's films start early. That's what it's all about. Pretend you're in college again - you used to live on no sleep like this all the time.).

 

SATURDAY, MARCH 22
THE BOMB, DIMITRI - POST-WAR JAPAN AND THE FOUR-SIDED TRUTH

It's 1946...do you know where your ruined cities are? Kurosawa continues to grow in ability and stature within the Japanese studio system, creating terse and engaging film vechicles, many of which offer a sly, sideways glance into a culture completely horrified by the sight of one-button armageddon that has been loosed upon them. From police procedurals to sunny Sundays in the park, many of these films show Japan in a petrified state - rebuilding not just cities, but the national psyche. Kurosawa's stories are varied, but his themes always remain - why can we not be happier in our day-to-day lives, and why must it take the threat of catastrophe to wake some people up to their own lives? Also, we're going to watch friggin' Rashomon, and you know you gotta see that! Also, Ikiru looks like it's going to change lives forever. You know what else? Raffle prizes!!

 

10:00 a.m.
ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY

It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and a young couple decide that they're going to go out for a nice afternoon together with only 35 yen in their pocket (that's barely a handful of pocket-change, no matter what era you were born in). As their plans get increasingly thwarted, he turns to despair, while she sees optimistic moments in all things. Many surprising shots of post-war Japanland in bad decline, there is a lot of sociological undercurrent to be seen here in between shots of Life Is Beautiful-esque hamming (i.e. the "invisible symphony" scene).

 

11:55 a.m.
DRUNKEN ANGEL

TOSHIRO MIFUNE DEBUT IN A KUROSAWA FILM ALERT!! There, that got your attention. A doctor takes in a young hoodlum with TB (Mifune) who subsequently threatens his life. Then there's some altercation with the hoodlum/ganger's mob boss, and it puts the kindly doctor at risk. Generally considered to be Kurosawa's first truly distinct film, i.e. finally freed from wartime constraints and excessive content restrictions. (come back on Sunday the 30th for two documentaries on Drunken Angel, including one on Kurosawa's battles with the censors!)

 

1:40 p.m.
THE QUIET DUEL

This time, the shoe's on the other foot. Mifune plays the earnest young doctor, rather than the tubercular street-tough (hmm...as it turns out, I've been waiting my whole life to use the phrase 'tubercular street-tough.' I feel...strangly satisfied). This time, the doctor becomes infected with syphillis while treating a war-time patient, and comes home unable to be with the woman who has saved herself for him (and vice-versa) all this time. Kind of soapy, but carried off by the weight of Mifune's performance and the engaging personalities of the various patients. Not major, but far from inconsequential.

 

3:245 p.m.
STRAY DOG

Generally thought of as the best of the pre-Rashomon period. A young policeman's pistol is stolen on the hottest day of summer. In a time and place where few people, either cops or civilians, have guns, this is a pretty big deal. Officer Butterfingers tracks the thief into the worst slums of the city for a dose of "how the other half lives." A kindly older detective (Shimura again) gives him some excellent lessons as they make their way through the city's underbelly. A great one to show off Kurosawa's facility for works other than samurai adaptations of Shakespeare plays. Also, one of the best uses of scorching summer heat as a central character in the drama until Do the Right Thing.

 

5:35 p.m.
SCANDAL

A famous young painter (yes, Mifune again) spends a non-lascivious night with an up-and-coming musician, but the scandal rags say they saw something. It's all right there in the title: SCANDAL! Kurosawa's critique of the life-wrecking power of the sensationalists seems precient to this very day (though really, who in this era would be eagerly watching the comings and goings of a painter? For that matter, how many famous painters are there, anyway?!).

 

7:30 p.m.
RASHOMON

I can't IMAGINE that I have to explain this one to you. Even if you haven't seen it, you probably understand the idiomatic phrase associated with the title of this movie (and the book it's based on), just as certainly as you know what a "Catch 22" is even if you haven't read Heller. Rashomon is one story, told from four different perspectives. All of them different. All of them wrong. All of them right.

"Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing." - Akira Kurosawa

 

9:05 p.m.
THE IDIOT

Yes, as in the Dostoyevsky novel. Turns out, one of Kurosawa's favorite authors was Dostoyevsky, and he forever dreamed of bringing this story to the screen. Unfortunately, not wishing to either strictly film it as a Russian tale, nor to thoroughly "Asianize" the themes, he sets the film in the snowy mountain city of Hokkaido, considered the most "Western" of Japanese cities, unable to commit to a unique viewpoint. Apart from the beautiful winterscapes, it's apparently a lot of talking heads back and forth. And, uh, yeah, nearly three hours long. Not one of Kurosawa's finest moments...or is it? You won't know what you missed if you miss it!

 

12:00 a.m.
IKIRU

It'll be worth wading through The Idiot to get to this one, though....THIS, my friends, will be the life changer of the night, if not the whole WEEKEND. A man who lived his life as a know-nothing, say-nothing, bureaucratic paper-pusher finds out that he has abdominal cancer, and less than six months to live. When he looks back on his life, he sees...nothing. When he tries to have fun (wine, women, song, the lot of 'em), he finds that....he doesn't really enjoy fun! But, at the same time, he CAN'T DIE YET. So...what to do? How to leave a mark on life when you've spent your life as a ghost? Likely the best of Takashi Shimura's roles with Kurosawa - check out how he looks so withered and beaten here, but so weathered and RUGGED in Seven Samurai. Talk about range! Roger Ebert said of this film, "I think this is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently." You ready for that?

 

SUNDAY, MARCH 23
THE PEAK

It's hard to look at today's schedule and not think of this as the peak day of the festival. From Seven Samurai to The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa seemed unable to lose, creating one masterpiece after another, and earning the Japanese film industry a ton of money. Many of these films forever altered the way Japanese directors created period dramas, and of course, Seven Samurai pretty much redefined the Western film genre.

12:30 p.m.
SEVEN SAMURAI

This is it, kids. The one you've all been waiting for. The three-and-a-half-hour epic-to-end-all-epics! Inspiration for The Magnificent Seven. Influence to every action filmmaker from here to eternity. Battle sequences for miles, emotional depth, innovation in every aspect of film-making. This is a cinematic MONSTER, one of the films for all times, and yet...not dry! Still THOROUGHLY ENTERTAINING. I've got the totally souped-up Criterion re-re-mastered version, so it'll look stunning too - you've never seen this film looking this good.

 

4:10 p.m.
RECORD OF A LIVING BEING (aka I LIVE IN FEAR)

First in Kurosawa's "Old Man Fears the A-Bomb" film series (see also: Rhapsody in August, Madadayo). An elder business owner, in fear of the threat of nuclear annihilation, tries to move his family to South America. The family, more concerned about how to keep hold of the family riches, try to get the doctors to declare him insane, and therefore forfeit to his own businesses. Oh, but is he really insane? IS HE? Find out and see! (They won't be scoffing when The Day After comes out!)

 

6:00 p.m.
THRONE OF BLOOD

This was my first introduction to Kurosawa....I saw this at the Valley Film Society in Saginaw, MI back around 1993. It blew me away then, and I can't wait to revisit it within the canon! Kurosawa's MacBeth, with Mifune again playing the lead role to the hilt. Note the pic below...all the arrows about to pierce Mifune's fragile armor. Lest you wonder how this effect was done so effectively, I can tell you that those arrows were ACTUALLY BEING SHOT AT MIFUNE, and the ones that pierce his armor actually hit him (he had wooden blocks attached underneath for protection, but still!). Kurosawa hired a legion of marksmen to FIRE ARROWS AT HIS LEAD ACTOR. When Mifune was later asked how he was able to portray such vivid terror during this scene, he replied, "It was not hard...THEY WERE FIRING REAL ARROWS AT ME. THAT WAS REAL TERROR YOU WERE SEEING." Anyway, yeah, it's MacBeth, done all Noh-style, with a ghoulish Lady MacBeth and a landscape full of misty, steaming woodlands causing panic around the mysterious Spiderweb Castle.

 

7:50 p.m.
THE LOWER DEPTHS

More fun in the Western world. Kurosawa adapts a play by Maxim Gorky from the 1800s into a film. Thing is, this very play was made into a movie by Jean Renoir back in the 1930s! The Criterion DVD has both versions (viewings of the Renoir film are available by appointment...call ahead for reservations), but we're just watching the Kurosawa one. The story concerns the trials and tribulations of the lowest classes - the slum dwellers. Renoir's version was played for laughs (considering the time period in wihcih it was filmed, that was the only way it could get made), while Kurosawa pulls out all the stops and lays down a vivid depiction of squalor that really works the grit into the corners of the room. It's a bit soapy and maudlin, but well worth your time.

 

10:00 p.m.
THE HIDDEN FORTRESS

Blah blah, inspiration for Star Wars, blah blah. It's much more than that, though. Along with Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Ikiru, this is yet another of Kurosawa's all-time classic films (you picked a good day to come, dude!). A princess, pursued by assassins, travels across enemy lines to get to safety, along with her general, and two wise-cracking peasants (supposedly the inspirations for R2D2 and C-3PO). In doing so, she must dress like a lower-class person and, yes, see how the other half lives. Another film in which Kurosawa's pure love of cinematic exploration is on vivid display. All the "Young Lions" of '70s American cinema watched films like this and Yojimbo and Seven Samurai to death, trying to replicate the new cinematic landscape on the other side of the culture wall. See it here first. And then, go home and get up for work tomorrow. If possible, try to get some rest this week, because it all continues on Friday!!


FRIDAY, MARCH 28
THE AWESOME SLEEP EVEN BETTER

Four rock-solid films in a row - the legendary pair of films starring Toshiro Mifune in possibly his most iconic role - the inventive, wandering ronin named Sanjuro - bookended by two of Kurosawa's very best police procedurals, also starring Mifune, and bolstered by the words and ideas of two monsters of Western lit - Shakespeare and Ed McBain. Four films, many swords, a few pistols (one in a film you wouldn't expect), humor, gore, women's footwear, and corporate scandal!

7:00 p.m.
THE BAD SLEEP WELL

Another police procedural, this one based loosely after Hamlet, with Mifune playing a young man entering the corrupt worlds of big business to investigate the suicide of his father. Full of moral ambiguities, mind-blowing revelations, and ferocious, uh, well not action, but ferocious FOLLOWING PEOPLE AROUND. Pretty damn good, you should come out for this one, and stay the night!

 

9:40 p.m.
YOJIMBO

One of those ones that you've probably see if you've seen any Kurosawa. This film was later remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars (and again by Jack Hill as Last Man Standing), though they all take their original cues from Dashiell Hammett's legendary detective novel Red Harvest (also the inspiration for the Coens' Miller's Crossing!). This one is set in the end of the feudal period of Japan. Its protagonist (Mifune in one of his most iconic roles) is a scruffy, opportunistic ronin (masterless samurai) with no name (the name he gives literally means "Mulberry Bush" i.e. it's made-up). Like Eastwood's Man With No Name, Sanjuro plays two warring criminal gangs against each other, pretending to ally with one, and then the other, all the while getting paid by both. As the picture above indicates, the appearance of a pistol on the landscape (in an era formerly dominated by the rule "the best swordsman wins") indicates that change is coming. Weird humor, gallons of gore, and a jazzy soundtrack are unexpected touches as well. This film became an overnight box-office smash, and established a precedent for ultra-violent cagey-samurai films for decades to come.

 

11:35 p.m.
SANJURO

As is the case with most box-office smashes, the studio immediately wanted a sequel, and as he did with Sanshiro Sugata II, Kurosawa again complied, though this time with much better results. Playing the slouchy, rumpled Sanjuro more for laughs this time, he assists a group of nine wannabe warriors who hire him to help them learn the Way of the Samurai. Again, there's a lot of violence, though the gore is less played up than in the previous installment. The nine students are especially amusing, mimicing each other's mannerisms and movements to an absurd degree. As they follow in a row behind Sanjuro, he finally snaps, "We can't keep walking around like a caterpillar!"

 

1:15 a.m.
HIGH & LOW

Originally known as Heaven & Hell, this is widely regarded as one of Kurosawa's most overlooked masterpieces. Loosely based on an Ed McBain novel, it's the story of a women's shoe magnate, a kidnapping, ransom, double-cross, and deep moral ambiguity, as an essentially good man must make very difficult decisions that will affect the rest of his life. Also co-stars stars Tatsuya Nakadai, an actor who will become crucial the films in the later part of Kurosawa's life, just as Shimura and Mifune were to his formative years.

 

SATURDAY, MARCH 29
SLOUCHING IN THE SEVENTIES, AND ONE LAST REBIRTH

After two decades of essentially only winning, Kurosawa's output suddenly came to a violent halt. Today, we look at his last film in black & white, and then jump over the wall to view his meagre and seldom-seen '70s output, culminating with his two last major epics, and closing with some beautiful dreams.

11:00 a.m.
RED BEARD

Red Beard is a truly pivotal film in the canon. Most importantly, it's the last film in which Kurosawa worked with Toshiro Mifune, the actor with whom he is most inextricably tied. Second, it's his last film shot in black & white. Third, it's the last time he was able to still work semi-comfortably within the studio system - after the cost overruns and absurdly long shooting/creation time (over two years of constant work), Kurosawa became the long-suffering pariah of the Japanese film industry. Furthermore, the film - yet another "kindly country doctor" piece with Mifune this time in the role of the older, fatherly imparter-of-wisdom, is not really one of his best. It's far from the worst, don't get me wrong - the film's 3+ hour running time allows the small, daily events in the life of a country hospital to unfold naturally, immersing you in the day-to-day culture, the troubles of its patients, and the slow, unforced transformation of a cocky young intern into a caring man of medicine. But it's no top-5er. Still, a story to lose yourself in.

 

2:15 p.m.
DODES KA'DEN

Fast-forward six whole years: after years of putting out at least a movie a year, Kurosawa was now suffering the Kubrick Syndrome. From here on out, each major film will each take about five years to create/fund/release, with financial backing coming from all manner of unlikely sources. Abandoned by the studios and a failed suicide attempt behind him, he co-founded The Committee of the Four Knights, a sort of coalition of four major Japanese directors, in 1971. It was an attempt to wake up the film industry to the value of pure cinema, with this film serving as its flagship. Unfortunately for the Four Knights, the film, a rather slight meditation upon the lives of slum-dwellers living in a city almost totally made from garbage, tanked at the box office. It doesn't take any topic head-on, nor does it purely devolve into pure entertainment (though it tries the latter more than the former). Lingering somewhere in the middle, this episodic affair isn't what most people would cite as the best Kurosawa offering to start with, but it's interesting to see it as a recovering-after-the-fall effort, kind of like Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip.

 

4:45 p.m.
DERSU UZALA

Still more foundering on the sharp rocks. Released in 1975, this film was funded, produced, and shot in Russia, and is entirely in the Russian language, further proof of Kurosawa's pariah status in his own country. Not that exile is necessarily a sign of creative bankruptcy...consider the later films of Dusan Makavejev and/or Andrei Tarkovsky to find films by directors spurned by their respective homelands, yet still able to make amazing films. This film, however, tracking the long relationship between a Russian soldier and a grizzled Asiatic outdoorsman, does not compare with Gorilla Bathes at Noon or The Sacrifice. It is, however, beautifully shot, epically conceived, and another admirable lunge forward, clawing out opportunities for more masterpieces to come.

 

7:10 p.m.
KAGEMUSHA

After much struggling throughout the '70s to produce...well, anything, Kurosawa got a much-needed shot in the arm in 1980 from two of his biggest devotees. With Japanese funding/interest at an all-time low, he funded his next big-budget costume epic, 1980s Kagemusha, with the assistance of longtime fans and friends George Lucas (THX-1138, American Graffiti) and Francis Ford Coppola (Peggy Sue Got Married, Dementia 13), who served as executive producers (Lucas, in particular, was able to shovel bucketloads of money into Kurosawa's lap, having just done a few favors for his studio with this little sci-fi space-opera thing he had recently filmed...you don't really need to see it, it's an awful lot like The Hidden Fortress!). After Dersu Uzala's intentionally-muted color palette (Kurosawa said he wanted it to appear as much like a black & white movie as possible, with only the humans providing color amidst the stark tundra), this lugubrious costume epic revels in the dynamic interplay between the color wheel's most spurned colors - check out that film still below! It's about a warlord in medieval Japan who dies in battle, a death which is unseen by his forces. The warlord's major generals, believing that without a leader, the morale of their troops will dissipate, go on a desparate search for a stand-in, and find one, a common ruffian who looks exactly like the warlord (and who is, of course, played by the same actor). As bloody war is waged on the field, the generals nervously try out the new "emperor" in front of his wife (who is also unaware of her husband's death), his troops, and his horse (which, of course, led to the famous aphorism, "if you ain't foolin' the horse, you ain't foolin' nobody..."). Kurosawa later admitted that Kagemusha was little more than a "dry run" for an even bigger epic that he really wanted to film. Even still, as dry runs go, this is pretty lucious, and absolutely a masterpiece all its own. After nearly a decade and a half, the curse was lifted.

 

10:15 p.m.
RAN

A creaking, howling beast of an epic, and surely the last tumultuous cinematic howl from Kurosawa's dark place before his death - the final three films read like the dénouement for a consistently-escalating 60 years of filmmaking. It's an enormous, colorful, blood-soaked, two-fisted retelling of King Lear, with Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai as an elder warlord who, tired of fighting his entire life, decided to peacefully abdicate his throne and divide his considerable kingdom up among his three beloved sons. One of the sons, feeling that this will lead to more war and strife, rebels against the notion, and is expelled from the family. As he predicted, though, the other two sons wage fearful war on each other for control of the rest of the kingdom, and dear old dad is sent packing into the desolate wilderness, with only a jester (madman) and aide as his companion. It should sound familiar if you've read Shakespeare, but Shakespeare lacked the budget to send two enormous casts of soldiers, decked in red and yellow, down into a huge valley to hack each other to bits in order to emphasize the failures of a lifetime warrior's final decision. Shakespeare: 0; Kurosawa: 1! One of at least ten true highlights of the festival, this will be one not to miss.

 

12:45 a.m.
DREAMS

Kind of late to be starting this one, I know, but since it's eight short mini-movies, each dealing with different sorts of dreams (one stars Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh!), it's probably the perfect film for the faithful few to drift off to. Which is fine...drift and dream away, but don't for a second think that I'm not going to kick you out when it's over, cuz baby, you don't have to stay home, but you can't stay here (unless you brought a sleeping bag, and can handle a wood floor)!

 

 

SUNDAY, MARCH 30
NOT YET! KUROSAWA'S PARTING THOUGHTS, AND A DAY OF DOCS AS YET UNMATCHED IN STIFF-LEG HISTORY

The final two films in Kurosawa's oeuvre are hardly must-sees, but I'd still keep 'em in mind if I were you. Also, we've got so many documentaries to shove down your gullet, you'll friggin' puke! (use the bucket, please)

10:00 a.m.
RHAPSODY IN AUGUST

Uh, yeah. Richard Gere's in this - he's supposed to be a half-Japanese cousin of a family that survived the atomic bomb. Uh huh. Go ahead and get your rest - I'll see you in a few hours.

 

11:45 a.m.
MADADAYO

The final peaceful sigh from a director who clocked over SIXTY YEARS of film-making, this is an appropriately low-key finale to a life of strife and struggle. Set in the '40s, it concerns a retired college professor, who left the city after an air raid to live in a hut in the woods and write. His still-adoring students celebrate with him on all of his subsequent birthdays, each event climaxing with him holding a mug of beer, his student asking "Is it time yet?" (i.e. time to die), to which he replies, "Madadayo!" ("Not yet!") before chug-a-lugging. It's a slow, careful, melancholy film celebrating the end of life, the quiet moments before the departure to the other side - a fitting coda to a man who, after fighting with the studios tooth and nail to tell the stories he wanted to, was finally preparing for a good, long rest - he died the year of its release five years later [I don't know where I got that mistaken info].

And now...you've seen all the films. It's time for....


DAY OF THE DOCUMENTARIES!

Yesirree, folks...for the rest of the day, the Stiff-Legged Film Festival turns its attention to the stories behind the creation of all these fine films. Since the Criterion Collection has been so generous with its bonus material on the Kurosawa re-releases, we have a bounty of great material to sift through - so much so, in fact, that only a portion of it will be shown (after all, we all have work on Monday morning!).

 

 

2:05 p.m.
KUROSAWA AND THE CENSORS (Documentary)

Specifically dealing with material related to Drunken Angel, this is a fine half-hour about the post-war regulations Kurosawa had to wend his way through in order to tell his stories the way he wanted to, and all the places along the way where necessary concessions had to be made to tell any worthwhile story at all.

2:30 p.m.
SEVEN SAMURAI: ORIGINS AND INFLUENCES (Documentary)

A sixty-minute crash course in the history of Japanese cinema, and Kurosawa's place in it, narrated by all manner of film-crit talking heads, including Steven Prince (author of one of the best books on Kurosawa's films, The Warrior's Camera). It's easy to think that Kurosawa's costume epics and Samuri period-films were authentic and traditional, but the truth is, they were quite radical - most Japanese film-makers set their samuri epics during the time when the feudal system was in full swing, and samurai were dedicated servants of their respective masters, fighting for the side of right and good in a rather dull, Superman/Captain America kind of way. Kurosawa, choosing instead to set his films after the decline of the samuri class and the downfall of the feudal system, allows his wandering ronin the opportunity to carve out their own morality in a rapidly-changing world. Stuff like that is what this documentary is about.

3:30 p.m.- 9:45 p.m.
AKIRA KUROSAWA: IT IS WONDERFUL TO CREATE (Documentary Series)

3:30 p.m. - DRUNKEN ANGEL
4:02 p.m. - STRAY DOG
4:34 p.m. - IKIRU
5:15 p.m. - THE SEVEN SAMURAI
6:05 p.m. - THE LOWER DEPTHS
6:38 p.m. - THE BAD SLEEP WELL
7:11 p.m. - YOJIMBO
7:56 p.m. - SANJURO
8:30 p.m. - KAGEMUSHA
9:12 p.m. - RAN

These little in-depth looks at some of Kurosawa's most famous films were originally shown as a series of TV specials in Japan, created by Toho Studios to honor the director. Criterion included a number of them on their re-releases of his films. I'm showing these with rapid-fire start times - no breaks between - so the time shown is going to be accurate, give or take a few seconds, so don't dilly-dally if you have a pet film which you'd like to scope out.

9:45 p.m.
AKIRA KUROSAWA: MY LIFE IN CINEMA (Documentary)

A nice, slow medidation on film-making and the history of 20th century film. Kurosawa in a two-hour conversation with film-maker Nagasa Oshima, looking back on his life and his films. So yeah, it's two hours of old Japanese guys talking about movie-making. Sounds to me like it might be time to get up, stretch the legs, and crack open a warm sake! Unless you've got a big day at work on Monday, now's the time when most people start popping the top on their favorite alcoholic beverages and clinking a toast to me and my awesomeness for hosting an epic-ass festival like this one. So get to it!

11:45 p.m.
EPHEMERA:
Whiskey, Newsreels, and the Adoration of Western Film-Makers

A clutch of "bonus tracks" to round things off. Suntory Whiskey filmed several commercials with Kurosawa (some claim the whiskey commericals in Lost in Translation were influenced by these), drinking and talking through details on Kagemusha with Francis Coppola. Also, a two-minute newsreel filmed during the time of The Quiet Duel, and maybe some ridin'-of-the-jock from folks like Robert Altman (who gushes in his curmudgeonly way about the awesomeness of Rashomon), Francis Coppola, and George Lucas (ditto The Hidden Fortress). We'll probably whip out the trailer reel I cobbled together and let that run too as warm sake floods our senses.

Congratulations!
You made it!

Now go home!