Ikiru marks the 3rd film I have seen from acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa (I’ve previously seen Throne of BloodandSeven Samurai) and of the 3, it might be my favorite. In what feels like a Japanese version of Death of a Salesman,Ikiru paints a fascinating portrait of business life in Japan and how one man tries to stand out after learning of his imminent death.
Ikiru is about a middle-aged man named Kanji Watanable. He has worked as a bureaucrat for 30 years and with a dead wife and selfish son/daughter-in-law he doesn’t have much to live for or be excited about. One day he finds out about a proposal to turn a cesspool into a community park and he thinks he might be able to make a difference.
Then he finds out he has stomach cancer and decides to make the building of the park his legacy. Unlike America, Japanese society often values group effort over individual accomplishment. This makes Watanabe’s subordination to get this park an extraordinary effort. His coworkers are shocked by his actions and after he dies they marvel at his boldness.
Watanabe also receives inspiration from a young girl who he has drinks with. He asks her ‘how do you have such love of life?’ and she says she simply loves her job making toys because the toys make children happy; thereby, giving her life the value of making the children of Japan happy (you see more of a group rather than individual accomplishment).
Like Death of a Salesman there is a melancholy to Ikiru because his accomplishment (especially to modern American eyes) is so small; however, I related to the emotions that Watanabe experiences. It reminds me of the great quote from You’ve Got Mail ‘I lead a small life. Valuable but small and I don’t know if I do it because I like or because I haven’t been brave?’ That is the question of Ikiru and to his credit Watanabe decides to be brave.
At the end of the movie his associates enthusiastically determine to follow his example and do bold things; however, upon returning to work they lose their conviction and life continues on as before. It’s sad how often the road more traveled, not less, is the choice of so many.
The cinematography in Ikiru is stunning. The way Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai use the black and white to capture loneliness and melancholy is breathtaking. I loved the way rain and snow looks in contrast to the black sky. Beautiful.
I also thought all of the acting was strong especially from the lead Takashi Shimura. Again, he has a Willy Loman quality to him with his shoulders slumped over at all times except when he is swinging in his park.
As for downsides, the film does lose steam when Watanabe dies and becomes a little repetitive. Also I wasn’t crazy about the music, which seemed a bit too bubbly for the sober story. Other than that, it was a great film! I definitely recommend it!
On Monday I had the chance to go to a screening of the Magnificent Seven. This is a remake of a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. I had been planning to see the previous films before this new film but the opportunity presented itself so I took the unorthodox approach of seeing the newest film first. Now I have seen all 3 films and can let you know what I thought of all things Magnificent Seven. Maybe I could call it the Magnificent 21 and make it a triple feature?
Let’s start with Seven Samurai:
Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa is a truly epic film. At 3 1/2 hours it is intimidating and long but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In Japanese with subtitles it is not for the faint at heart filmgoer who isn’t willing to work for their movie.
It tells the story we will see in all of these films. It’s a village that is being manipulated by bandits who are stealing their harvest The villagers decide to hire samurai to protect the village led by Kambei, a ronin who is bitter at his own servitude in his life. Then there are 6 others- Sichiroji, Katusushiro, Heihachi, Kyuzo, Gorobei, and Kikuchiyo. All 7 have their own story arcs and personalities.
Where the other 2 films treat the bonding with the village as more after-thoughts that is the main story behind Seven Samurai. The villagers don’t trust the Samurai as there is a stiff class divide between the farmers and the samurai. Katsushiro faces particular struggles as he becomes involved with Shino, a farmers daughter.
You have to think of Seven Samurai more like you are binge watching a show on Netflix. It is episodic but in a good way. Nobody could endure any of the pieces for 3 hours whether battles, class struggle, romance or preparation for the bandits; however, together it all works as an amazing film. The acting is first rate and the cinematography is stunning from Kurosawa. There’s about 30 minutes that are completely in the rain, which is amazing to look at. I found myself getting very involved with the people especially in the last hour and half.
Seven Samurai is definitely the best out of the 3 films because of its scope and characters but it is probably the least rewatchable and digestible, so it depends on what you are in the mood for.
Overall Grade A+
Next up Magnificent 7 (1960)
The samurai has been turned into the cowboy, which makes sense given their similar place in American folklore. In this version a Mexican village is raided by bandits who threaten to return and take their harvest. The villagers meet Chris Adams played by Yul Brynner who they hire to protect their town from the bandits. He gets 6 of his buddies to help because he feels sorry for the people.
Horst Bucholz, Brad Dexter, Charlese Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Steve McQueen make up the rest of the Magnificent 7 and they begin to help the town be ready for the bandits to return. Each of the 7 have different insecurities and weaknesses but they do their best to train the people. In one nice moment the men realize they are eating all the food in the village so they decide to share it with the town. There is a real sense of bonding with the Mexican people and getting to know them.
Horst Bucholz’s Chico has a larger role than I was expecting- falling in love with local Petra and acting as a spy in the bandits camp. Chico find out they are nearly as desperate for food as the villagers. The two groups fight it out and it works because you have gotten to know the men like Chico and Steve McQueen’s Vin Tanner.
All of the performers are top notch in this film, which is part of the reason it works. There is nobody like Yul Brynner as far as I’m concerned and he is great here like always. You completely buy him being the leader for both the people and the 6 other men.
Some of the Mexicans can be caricatures that made me a little uncomfortable but over all an entertaining film with engaging action and performances.
Overall Grade- B
In our latest version we have director Antoine Fuqua taking a crack at the Magnificent 7 story. This version follows the 1960 film pretty closely but it amps up the violence at every turn. This new take won’t be for everyone but I found there was entertainment to be had.
Instead of a group of bandits this time we get an evil capitalist named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Unlike the 1960 version where the bandit’s men were starving, Bogue just wants power and more land. It’s the classic big bad greedy man. He was a real snooze fest in the movie to be honest.
But to open the film Bogue burns the church to the ground and murders Haley Bennett’s husband for standing up to him. She finds Denzel Washington’s Sam Chisolm and hires him to fight against Bogue and his army. Chisolm then gathers together his crew of 6 and they begin to train the town to defend themselves.
I really liked this cast. Denzel Washington is a movie star and he shines with swagger and charisma. Chris Pratt is great. Ethan Hawke is grizzled and weary. Vincent D’Onofrio is fantastic. I loved how diverse the cast was with Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeir all playing unique roles with a lot of heart to them.
The thing that separates this film from the other two is the violence. I can’t believe it is a PG-13. There are probably 200+ men that are killed in various ways throughout the movie. We see stabbings, shootings, arrow kills, explosions, the list goes on and on. The last act of the movie is as kinetic and crazy a fight scene as anything I’ve ever seen.
I guess you either think stuff like that is fun or you don’t. I kind of did believe it or not. Plus, the stars sell it 100%. The stuff with Bogue is pretty lame and it does drag in the middle and the characters are more rote than in the other 2 versions. They are pretty much excuses for the violent action so it depends on whether you like that kind of thing or not.
Also nice to hear a lovely last score from the late James Horner.
Overall Grade- B-
Also, A Bug’s Life is definitely based on this mythology, which evidently everyone already knows but me! Learn something new every day!
Have you seen any of these films and what do you think?
This week for the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series I got to click a big hole off of my movie-watching bucket list. Up until this time I had never seen a Akira Kurosawa film. I had certainly heard of him but had never gotten around to seeing one of his movies. Well, this week for Best Shot we were assigned Throne of Blood. This is perhaps the perfect introduction for me to Kurosawa because it is his telling of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth- a play I love.
I do think going into watching Throne of Blood it helped me greatly to know the basic story of Macbeth. Otherwise with the subtitles flying by the screen I might have been a little bit confused. Plus, some of the actors look similar and are similarly dressed so it got a little bit confusing.
Luckily I know my Macbeth and so it all basically made sense to me. It is of course the story of the Lord (this case General) who is given a prophecy that he will be King. With the encouragement of his power hungry wife he then orchestrates events to make sure that prophecy comes true. He murders the king and then proceeds to reign in a kind of mania of worry that his crimes will be found out.
It’s all basically here in Throne of Blood. There is a little bit more of the mechanics of battle than you typically see in Macbeth but the basic framework is here. It was a creative technique having Miki’s ghost haunt him at the banquet before he knows that Miki is dead.
I also thought the scenes with Washizu and his wife Asaji were very strong. Washizu must declare an heir and is planning on naming Miku’s son but then becomes convinced to not do so when Asaji says she is pregnant. The baby is stillborn and so he is without an heir and Miku is dead. Miku’s son, however, escapes and later confronts Washizu and the great final scenes occur.
My best shot this week is from the scene where Washizu finds his wife Asaji washing her hands from the blood of her sins. It is my favorite scene in Macbeth and they do it very well here. Most of this movie we are kept at a distance from the characters and emotion is portrayed through loud voices and expressions. However, here we can see their faces and I even think the subtitle says a lot.