Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa

A small farming village in feudal Japan is facing starvation as their crops are being taken by bandits. They set out to look for samurai who they can hire to protect them. The first Kanbei (Takashi Shimura), recruits five more, and they are later joined by the unusual Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a commoner who claims to be a samurai. Together they return to the village to defend it from the bandits.

The film is epic in scope with many characters and situations to explore. The plot is relatively straight-forward, but beautifully executed and, despite a long running time, it holds the viewer’s interest throughout. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is instrumental in creating a sense of momentum and the expert composition of shots would inspire filmmakers for generations to come. The music by Fumio Hayasaka is tense and dramatic and used sparingly. There are many scenes where the painting-like shots are left to be appreciated in silence. The cast all do a superb job, Toshiro Mifune again proves to be Kurosawa’s muse, having many hilarious moments in the comic role of Kikuchiyo. Takashi Shimura as the leader of the group, who must gather together this gang of seven to defend the village, also manages to carry the sense of stoic leadership and martial prowess.

Essentially an action film, “Seven Samurai” takes its time in building up the characters and the set-pieces are far from gratuitous, being carried out with real emotion. Through the film run undercurrents of philosophical and moral concepts, with the samurai code of conduct scrutinized and the struggles and fortitude of the common man praised. A film worthy of the accolades and recognition it has received.

Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa

Escaping from a downpour, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) takes shelter at Rashomon gate, where he meets a wood-cutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) who are discussing a recent trial they have witnessed. The wood-cutter tells the man that as he was walking through the forest a few days before, he came across a dead samurai. The priest had earlier seen the samurai (Masayuki Mori) leading his wife (Machiko Kyo) on a horse in that direction. Later a thief Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was caught with the weapons from the samurai. Tajomaru is taken to trial and tells his version of events, claiming that he did kill the samurai. They also hear the story of the wife of the samurai, which is different in points to that of Tajomaru. We also get two different version of events, with no hints as to which is correct, and all seeming to take the blame for the death of the samurai.

Based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film has an interesting structure, one that would later influence many other works. Instead of being a straightforward narrative, we are instead presented, through flashbacks, with several versions of the same event, and asked to choose which one we believe or trust. This makes the film engaging, especially when you reach the third and fourth versions, as you attempt to puzzle out why they would be lying about certain things, whether you can trust the witnesses, and what the true circumstances of the murder were. Unlike other historical films, this is focussed heavily on the telling of stories, and dialogue between the major players, rather than action sequences. All the actors do a great job, particularly the three involved in the crime, as they act out the various interpretations of the scenes. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is fantastic, with the use of static cameras during the trial scenes putting you in the role of an unbiased judge as each story is told, and use of framing and movement in the flashback sequences showing you exactly what you need to see. Both the story and direction work together to create a compelling narrative, that keeps you wanting to learn more about what really happened.

The film asks some difficult questions about the nature of truth and reality, and also includes some very dark themes of murder and rape, although never graphic, and nasty characters. At the beginning of the film we see the crumbling Rashomon gate amidst a rainstorm, which acts as a perfect visual metaphor for the chaotic reality of life, and the forces of nature that act to destroy what civilisation attempts to construct. The lack of order symbolised by the gates destruction is explained as the characters tear firewood from the building, further emphasizing the necessary selfishness of humanity). A deserved classic, this film is a must watch for fans of cinema, as it inspired the way many future stories were told.

Madadayo (1993) by Akira Kurosawa

A professor of German at an all-boys school in Tokyo is taking his final lesson. He explains to the class that he is now able to make enough money from his books and has decided to give up teaching to pursue a writing career. He is self-deprecating, funny, and clearly  beloved of the class who hang on his every word. One of the students tells him that he is respected even by students who have left the school, still according him the title “teacher”. Following his retirement from the school, some students continue to call on him at home where they are welcomed in and treated to the professor’s humorous anecdotes and philosophizing. They decide to honour his birthday each year with a celebration that they call “Maadakai”, a play on words that sounds like the question “Not yet?” in reference to his longevity, to which the professor jokingly replies that he will respond “Madadayo” (not yet!).

Akira Kurosawa’s final film is a beautifully crafted portrait of aging, touching on themes of nostalgia, time, and loss, among other things. The film begins in the latter years of the second world war, when Japan was subjected to bombing raids, catching up with his story at intervals over the following decades. The film uses light and colour to great effect in emphasising particular moments, such as red sunlight indicating an auspicious moment. The professor mentions that he never sleeps with the lights off as he is afraid of the dark. He believes that those who are not afraid lack imagination and as such have a defect as a human. At the end of the film the camera moves upwards to a sky that shifts through several colours. Kurosawa was known to paint out his own storyboards and as such colour has a deep significance in his work. One of the standout moments of the film comes when we see the professor and his wife in their small home, following the destruction of their own, as the seasons are changing. It is a wonderful moment, without any dialogue, as we see the slow passage of time with this couple.

Tatsuo Matsumura plays the professor perfectly. He is kind and charismatic, funny and intelligent. It is clear that he was born to be a teacher, as he is able to completely captivate his students with whatever he is saying. They look up to him as an ideal, while also gently ribbing him about his unusual way of thinking. The supporting cast are all great. Kyoko Kagawa plays the professors wife with understated compassion, clearly devoted to her husband. The main group of students are also interesting characters, clearly all having taken different paths in life, but with the same respect and admiration for their former professor.

The professor’s final decades coincide with Kurosawa’s early years as a film-maker and it is clear to see that there is a sense of nostalgia running through everything. The professor loves old songs and sayings and his peculiar sense of humour is something his students take particular delight in (such as his unique burglar protection system). We see this relationship between the younger and older generations as something positive, with them looking up in admiration. Perhaps this is Kurosawa’s way of paying homage to those who have gone before and according them the respect they deserve. Kurosawa shows his mastery of direction in the framing of each scene, in particular the many large group or crowd sequences when there is a turmoil of action and laughter. In working with these large groups he succeeds in multiplying the emotional impact of each moment as the students work almost as a singular entity either laughing or honouring their professor as a collective. The clearest example of this is when they come together, moving backwards and forwards as the waves of the sea to ask him “Maadakai?” during the first birthday celebration.

An elegant depiction of a man who is well-loved and respected, giving everyone something to aspire to. The film’s tender portrayal of the love that his former students still have for him is heart-warming to watch. The ideals of kindness, selflessness, and good humour are shown to be reciprocated by the students, and the film carries this uplifting message through to the end. A worthwhile watch that is packed with some very funny moments, a touching message about kinship and community, and bittersweet ruminations on growing old.

Red Beard (1965)

Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) arrives at a rural clinic run by Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), a doctor whose patients include impoverished individuals without the money for an expensive physician. Yasumoto is insistent that he is only there on an errand and not to work; he tells the staff that he intends to work for the Shogun and leave as soon as possible. After a prickly reception from Red Beard, Yasumoto decides to sabotage his placement, acting in a lazy  and insolent manner in hopes that he will be dismissed. However, he soon comes to respect Red Beard as not only a skilled doctor but a great man. The film also follows the story of a particular patient’s retelling of his ill-fated marriage, and a young girl who is brought to the clinic from a brothel suffering a fever.

“Red Beard” is directed by Akira Kurosawa from a screenplay by Kurosawa and long term collaborators Masato ide, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, based on a short story by Shugoro Yamamoto. As with most ofKurosawa’s films this is a period drama, though set a little later than the samurai epics for which he is most well-known. The film is set in the late 19th century and the world is carefully recreated, not only through the sets and costumes, but in Kurosawa’s use of extras. Scenes are often crowded with characters, such as the group of women working at the hospital, the patients,or denizens of this small town. The use of people filling out the backgrounds give a life and vibrancy to every scene. The cast is led by Yuzo Kayama as the arrogant young Doctor Noboru Yasumoto whose arrival chimes with that of the audience into this world. While he is initially rude and unwilling to take on his duties, he is never unlikeable. And as he develops he grows to be a protagonist whom the audience is fully sympathetic too. Toshiro Mifune, known for his starring roles in several Kurosawa films (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), plays Dr. Kyojo Niide, also known as “Red Beard”. Although he is the titular character,he is used somewhat sparingly and to brilliant effect. We see a number of sides to Niide, though never get close enough to fully understand him. Despite his care for his patients, he is also shown to have negative traits, and himself admits that he may be a terrible person. “Red Beard” has a huge and impressive cast, bolstered by the aforementioned supporting roles. Miyuki Kuwano as Onaka and Tsutomu Yamazaki as Sahachi give great performances in an almost stand-alone romantic tragedy. Terumi Niki also gives a heartbreaking performance as Otoyo, the young woman rescued from the brothel. 

The cinematography by Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito creates some powerfully emotional sequences. There is incredible use of shadow in the film. One example of this is the sequence with Otoyo and Yasumoto, when only her eyes are illuminated in a strip of light through the dense shadows. Expert camera movement also provides for creative yet never distracting sequences. The sequence of a young thief sneaking in to steal rice sees the camera effortlessly integrating itself into the film to the extent that you can get areal sense of the environment.

“Red Beard” is a film that wears its politics proudly. It shows the societal scourge of poverty and its effects on the population. Early in the film there are discussions regarding the possibility of improving the health of many of the clinic’s patients by redistributing wealth from those with an abundance of money. This point is driven home by the inclusion of a lord whose rich diet has led to him having the precise opposite problem to many of his poor subjects. His obesity caused by over-indulgence is starkly contrasted to the young boy reduced to stealing food for his family. The film also deals with the issue of prostitution, and the treatment by society of women and the elderly. The film’s strength is in contrasting these everyday problems with more universal concerns of life and death. The film carefully plays out the final moments of particular characters in a quietly emotional way that brings home the finality of death. The end, when it comes, is final, but further highlights the greatness of those in the film who dedicate themselves to saving lives. It is a simple call for kindness over self interest that hits home thanks to the brilliance of the performances and direction.