Stray Dog

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Once again Toshiro Mifune is teamed with Takashi Shimura, only this time both men are on the side of the law. Or are they? Kurosawa’s first police thriller follows the hunt for a killer through the seedy underbelly of a sweat-drenched Tokyo where violence seems to simmer in the sweltering air, always ready to explode. As so often with Kurosawa, the climate almost becomes a character in its own right; he’s the great director of weather. Mifune play a young cop whose gun is stolen and who obsessively tracks down the thief-turned-killer; Shimura is his older, wiser colleague, counselling caution and restraint. But it’s the younger man who starts recognising elements of himself in the criminal he’s trying to catch, realising how easily he too could have gone to the bad. (As with many of the director’s films of this period, the war casts a long shadow.) Kurosawa builds the tension remorselessly, leading to a final climax that brings with it a desolate sense of lives distorted and wasted.
Japan, 1949. English subtitles. Black and white. 124 mins.

August 30 (2.30, 6.10)

A prize-winner at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, this was the film that opened the world’s eyes to the hitherto unknown riches of Japanese cinema, and proved hugely influentialoas much for its cinematic bravura as for the moral conundrum at the heart of the story. A nobleman and his wife, travelling through a wood, are set upon by a bandit who kills the man and rapes the womanoor so it seems. The story becomes less clear-cut as we’re shown the incident from four anglesoone version from each of the participants (the murdered man through the voice of a medium), plus the account of a woodcutter who witnessed the events. Who can be believedoif anyone? This meditation on the relative nature of truth has long captivated audiences. But the film’s dominated by Toshiro Mifune as the bandit, giving a performance of such boundless, gleefully savage energy that he makes every other action star of the silver screen seem flatfooted by comparison.
Japan, 1950. English subtitles. Black and white. 87 mins.

Ikiru (To Live)
September 10 (6.00)

Kurosawa’s gentlest and most contemplative film, a world away from the tension and excitement of his samurai dramas, Ikiru means ‘to live’, and this warmly compassionate film raises the question of what it means to liveoand to die. Takashi Shimuraofor once with no Mifune as rival for the audience’s attentionoplays an elderly civil servant who learns he has terminal cancer. In his last few months he sets out to find something that will give meaning to his life. Kurosawa undercuts the potential sentimentality of his subject with touches of satirical humour and sharp social observation. His view of office cultureoof the typical ‘salaryman’ with his subservient, unquestioning attitudeois especially mordant. This quiet, unremarkable bureaucrat, it’s clear, stands as representative of a whole generation who abandoned their youthful idealism and settled for the easy option of inertia and undemanding routine. Even so, in its moving final moments the film fights through to a tough, hard-won optimism.
Japan, 1952. English subtitles. Black and white. 142 mins.

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai)
September 7, 8 (2.10)

Surely the most famous samurai film ever madeoand with good reason. With its epic scopeoit runs over three hours, and earns every second of itoits masterfully staged action scenes, its deft characterisation, its humour and its compassion, Seven Samurai set the template for every samurai movie that followed. A small farming village beset by rapacious bandits decides they must buy protectionothey will hire ronin, masterless samurai who will work for no more than their food. They manage to persuade seven warriors, led by the wise and experienced Kambei (Takashi Shimura) to come to their defence. Six of the group are real samurai; the seventh, the noisiest and most ferocious of all, is a would-be samurai, a farmer’s son determined to become a warrior (Toshiro Mifune). Kurosawa paces his narrative superbly. Episodes of violent combat give way to quiet passages where the uneasy relations between the samurai and their peasant hosts (who regard them as only marginally better than bandits) are played out. The final, climactic battle, fought out in mud and torrential rain, is one of cinema’s all-time great action sequences. Kurosawa’s love of westerns is evident throughout the film; Hollywood repaid the compliment by remaking it as The Magnificent Seven.
Japan, 1954. English subtitles. Black and white. 206 mins.

I Live in Fear (Ikimono no kiroku)
September 9 (6.40)

Made in the mid-50s, with the Cold War at its height and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still raw and recent memories, I Live in Fear reflects the Japanese national mood of helpless terror in the face of what seemed like imminent nuclear combat. Kurosawa’s protagonist, a 70-year-old industrialist, is resolved to take action, however misguided, and to drag his whole family along with him. As the headstrong patriarch, Mifune gives an extraordinary, ultra-stylised performanceoa 35-year-old playing a man twice his age. The film is set in a Tokyo gripped by a merciless heatwave, and images of intolerable heat pervade the film as if reflecting the overheated emotions that torment Mifune’s character. But Kurosawa also turns his film into a critique of the patriarchal despotism that has so long distorted Japanese society. When the old man’s family and his workforce prove to have minds of their own and dare to question his authority, it threatens to overturn his sanity. I Live in Fear is one of Kurosawa’s most personal and deeply-felt films.
Japan, 1955. English subtitles. Black and white. 103 mins.

Throne of Blood (Kumonosu jo)
August 30 (2.30, 6.10)

Is it possible to make a great Shakespeare film without using a word of the original text? Throne of Blood proves that it is. Kurosawa’s powerful, haunting adaptation of Macbeth sets the action in a mythic, fog-bound landscape, harsh with the cries of carrion birds, where samurai warlord Washizu murders his way to power urge on by his coldly manipulative wife. Kurosawa always held the Noh theatre tradition in high regard, and here he draws strongly on Noh conventions of acting and staging to lend his story an eerie mood of ritual that accentuates its violence and sense of ineluctable doom. As Wazhizu, Toshiro Mifune shows us a man desperately trying to surmount his own fate, enmeshing himself deeper the more he struggles, and the scene of his protracted death agony has become a classic cinematic icon. But he’s matched by Isuzu Yamada as his wife. Hers is a chilling performance of controlled, calculating malevolenceocloser to Iago than to the conventional view of Lady Macbethomaking her one of Kurosawa’s very few female villains.
Japan, 1957. English subtitles. Black and white. 110 mins.

The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin)
September 6, 11, 12 (6.00)

This is the most light-hearted of all Kurosawa’s period moviesoa romantic comedy-action adventure full of spectacle and swashbuckling set-pieces, heart-stopping single-combat and split-second escapes. A feisty teenage princessoclad, for most of the film, in a very fetching pair of shortsois on the run from her enemies, protected only by her faithful general (played by the indispensable Mifune). But most of the action is reflected not through these heroic figures but through a pair of squabbling, greedy and cowardly peasants, who find themselves unwillingly dragooned into helping the fugitives. The Hidden Fortress was Kurosawa’s first film in Scope, the wide-screen ratio that he adopted for almost all his subsequent movies: he uses it with instinctive mastery, and his delight in its possibilities is palpable. The film proved to be one of the director’s greatest box-office hits, and its influence spread far beyond Japan. Twenty years later, George Lucas borrowed the plot for the first of his Star Wars series.
Japan, 1958. English subtitles. Black and white. Anamorphic. 138 mins.

The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu yoku nemuru)
September 5 (6.00)

This is the most oblique of Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptationsoHamlet relocated to a modern big-business setting. Toshiro Mifune plays the secretary and son-in-law of the president of a giant government housing corporation, a seemingly loyal functionary. But behind his mask of quiet subservience the secretary is out to avenge the death of his father, a former employee, and has devised an insidious plan to bring down the corporation. This was the first release from Kurosawa’s own independent production company, and he seized the opportunity to attack what he saw as the culture of corruption poisoning modern Japan. At the same time he shows how revenge, however justified, turns against the revenger and compromises his cause. This film can be seen as a realisticoand therefore pessimisticocounterpart of Yojimbo: in the modern world there’s no place for the invincible samurai hero, and the bad will continue to enjoy their untroubled sleep.
Japan, 1960. English subtitles. Black and white. Anamorphic. 150 mins.

September 1 (2.20, 6.00)

We’re in the mid-nineteenth century, and the regime of Japan’s feudal shogunate is in terminal meltdown. Into a small provincial town strolls a scruffy, itching, down-at-heel samurai, who finds the place split between two feuding gangs. Rapidly concluding that both sides are equally loathsome, he sets out to trick them into destroying each other. Making stunning use of wide-screen images, Kurosawa’s pitch-black comedy is sheer delightomuch aided by Masaru Sato’s jaunty score, a cast of unforgettable grotesques, and a performance of sardonic relish from Toshiro Mifune as the lone swordsman. Kurosawa always loved westerns: in Yojimbo he borrows the conventions of the genre and, with great stylishness and gusto, turns them to his own ends. The compliment was returned when Sergio Leone stole the plot wholesale and turned it into the seminal spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, launching Clint Eastwood to stardom.
Japan, 1961. English subtitles. Black and white. Anamorphic. 110 mins.

September 2 (6.20)

An unofficial sequel to Yojimbo, Sanjuro takes Toshiro Mifune’s scruffy, flea-bitten samurai from the previous film and places him in an earlier era and a slightly less bloodthirsty story. This time his unkempt lone warrior finds himself having to save a group of naive, clean-cut young samurai and a pair of court ladies from the machinations of a villainous official. The comedy in the reactions of the boy-scoutish youngsters and the absurdly overbred ladies to Mifune’s unconventional ways is deliciously sustained. But while taking every opportunity to satirise the blind conformism of Japanese society, Kurosawa never downplays the tension; the social interplay is constantly diverting, but the dangers are very real. The film includes several rousing action sequencesoimpeccably choreographed as alwaysoand culminates in what must be the briefest and most breathtaking sword fight in the history of the movies.
Japan, 1962. English subtitles. Black and white. Anamorphic. 95 mins.

Red Beard (Akahige)
September 7, 8 (5.20)

The final film in the long partnership between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard is set in a public hospital at the end of the nineteenth century. Mifune plays the title character, the red-bearded head of the hospital, a brilliant, perceptive but highly unconventional doctor. We see him through the eyes of an ambitious young intern who at first resents the older man’s gruff manner and disregard for the accepted pieties of medical orthodoxy and the norms of polite behaviour. But gradually he comes to recognise the compassion and humanity behind Red Beard’s tough realism. What could easily have been a trite, soap opera-ish story is transmuted by the honesty of Mifune’s performance, and by the intensity with which Kurosawa invests the central master-pupil relationship, a frequently recurring theme in his work. Scrupulous as ever in his attention to detail, Kurosawa enriches the film with a vivid recreation of the late Edo period when Japan, newly opened to the West, was undergoing far-reaching changes.
Japan, 1965. English subtitles. Black and white. Anamorphic. 179 mins.

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