Takashi Shimura

Seven Samurai (1954, Kurosawa Akira)

Seven Samurai is about a farming village, under imminent threat of bandits raiding and stealing their crop–and possibly doing much worse–who decides to hire samurai to defend them. They send four men–Fujiwara Kamatari, Kosugi Yoshio, Tsuchiya Yoshio, and Hidari Bokuzen–to town to hire the samurai. They can’t pay them, but they can feed them. The villagers will subsist on millet, the samurai will get rice. Not a great deal and the men don’t have much luck to start.

However, they soon find Shimura Takashi, an older ronin, who’s able to convince others to take up the cause. There’s young Kimura Isao, who looks up to Shimura and the other samurai, but hasn’t got any real experience yet. Katō Daisuke plays an old war buddy of Shimura’s who happily joins up. Inaba Yoshio is the second-in-command, Chiaki Minoru’s the funny one, Miyaguchi Seiji’s the serious one. Then there’s Mifuno Toshiro as the wild one.

After an hour or so–the film runs just under three and a half–the Seven Samurai head to the village. The first hour has the village setup, then the four farmers quest in the city, then Shimura recruiting the other samurai. There’s an intermission halfway, but the period after the samurai get to the village and before the bandits return, which takes up some of the time after the intermission too, is it’s own phase in the film. Then there’s the battle. A little while before the battle, the villagers–who aren’t just providing room and board for the samurai, but are also being trained to fight alongside them against the bandits–wonder if the bandits have forgotten about them.

And it certainly does seem possible. Seven Samurai’s first few minutes promise this bloody showdown between the villagers and the bandits, which then becomes the samurai and the bandits, but then it’s really just a lot of character study. Sure, they’re all training for the impending battle, but it’s character study. Kurosawa and co-writers Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo subtlely explore the villagers and the samurai, with Mifune and Kimura getting the most emphasis on the latter, Tsuchiya and Fujiwara getting the most emphasis on the former. Turns out even though the village decided to hire samurai, they didn’t really think about what it meant for samurai to be living among them. Their only previous experience with samurai being samurai attacking and pillaging villages.

Mifune’s character development throughout the second portion–he shows up in the beginning, then disappears until the night before they leave for the village (the first hour takes place over about a week)–plays off the other samurai. Even though Shimura and company think they’ve got Mifune figured out, they really don’t. And he’s able to transcend the class divisions built into their interactions with the villagers.

Meanwhile Kimura begins romancing Fujiwara’s daughter, Tsushima Keiko, and it becomes clear he doesn’t really understand what it means to be a samurai either. Not from the perspective of a villager, who’s always a potential victim in one way or another.

There’s a whole lot to Seven Samurai. Kurosawa and his co-writers don’t introduce a lot more in the last hour… wait, never mind. Yes, yes they do. Amid the multi-day battle sequence, they do introduce a lot more. Mifune has a whole other subplot, as Kurosawa reveals he’s actually juxtaposed against Kimura, which never seemed to be a thing but was a thing the whole time. Going back to their first scene together (with Shimura). Only they were subplot to the villagers pursuing Shimura at that point.

But I was really trying to get to the violence thing. In the first hour, whenever Kurosawa shows violence, it doesn’t have any sound. There are the sounds behind it, but the violence itself–the steel of the swords cutting into flesh–has none. It’s uncanny and directs the viewer’s attention. When it comes time, in the third part, for the battle… Kurosawa handles violence differently. His original approach to it, what he emphasizes, is baked into what he does later, but it’s evolved. Kurosawa’s constantly perturbing Seven Samurai’s style. Like his editing. At the beginning, there are some sharp cuts to bring the viewer back in time to sixteenth century. He doesn’t keep them going once he’s got the time period established; he just takes time and gives attention to getting it established.

Especially since he later calls back to those cuts in a seemingly unrelated sequence, which then informs a bunch of other things as far as character development and revelation.

There’s not a wasted frame in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s precise. The film never drags, never dawdles. The three and a half hours sail by. Even the subplot introductions–after the film shifts over to Shimura and the samurai–are seamless. The pacing is just another of its master-strokes.

Technically, Samurai’s singular. Kurosawa’s direction–which changes stylistically as the plot progresses–is otherworldly. The way he and cinematographer Nakai Asakazu are able to frame the action horizontally make Samurai feel like an Academy ratio Panavision picture for the first two hours. Nakai’s photography is fantastic. Ditto Hayasaka Fumio’s music and Matsuyama Takashi’s production design. It’s all breathtakingly faultless.

Then there are the performances. Shimura and Mifune get the flashiest roles. Mifune in a loud way, Shimura in a quiet. They’re fantastic. Kimura’s good; he’s sort of the viewer’s point of entry for the samurai, but also the villagers. Though Mifune turns out to have similar avenues of insight. Both Miyaguchi and Katō have some excellent moments. But the villagers. Tsuchiya and Fujiwara are awesome; they get the big arcs running throughout, just under the surface; constant. They’re heartbreaking in different ways.

Hidari eventually becomes a sidekick to Mifune, which gives some of the very necessary comic relief once things get intense. And Tsushima’s good as Kimura’s love interest. She, Shimura, Tsuchiya, and Miyaguchi have the most pensive parts. They have these amazing internal experiences only relayed through expression; Kurosawa’s editing, not to mention his composition, showcases their silent thoughtfulness.

Seven Samurai is a masterpiece. It’s nigh impossible to imagine a way it could be even minutely improved.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo; director of photography, Nakai Asakazu; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Motoki Sôjirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Shimura Takashi (Shimada), Kimura Isao (Katsushirō), Mifune Toshirō (Kikuchiyo), Tsuchiya Yoshio (Rikichi), Tsushima Keiko (Shino), Inaba Yoshio (Gorōbei), Miyaguchi Seiji (Kyūzō), Katō Daisuke (Shichirōji), Fujiwara Kamatari (Manzō), Chiaki Minoru (Heihachi), Hidari Bokuzen (Yohei), Kosugi Yoshio (Mosuke), and Kōdō Kokuten (Gisaku).


Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa Akira)

Where to start with Rashomon? Starting at the beginning means talking about the bookends–three strangers stranded in the rain, two telling the third different versions of the same story, each ostensibly true. The rain pours down around them, drowning out their voices. Rashomon is a film without a protagonist; it eschews the very idea of one. That pounding rain contrasts with the rest of the film, which has two further layers of narrative.

The two men telling stories–Shimura Takashi’s woodcutter and Chiaki Minoru’s priest–just gave testimony in a murder trial. One of Rashomon’s mysteries, I just realized, is the resolution of that trial. It’s immaterial. They’re now telling Ueda Kichijirô about the testimony they gave and the testimony they heard. So the trial is the second layer. It’s very quiet, with director Kurosawa using exquisite, precise framing. I forgot–it also has Shirmura and Chiaki promising Ueda their tale of base humanity is the worst he’ll ever here. Kurosawa sets the viewer’s expectations high.

The third layer is the testimony itself, involving Mifune Toshirô’s bandit attacking a traveling married couple. Mifune confesses. The wife, Kyô Machiko, gives conflicting testimony. The husband, Mori Masayuki–arguably in the film’s most difficult performance–gives another. Rashomon isn’t a courtroom picture set in feudal Japan, Kurosawa’s not interested in the truth. He’s interested in the concept of it, something plaguing poor Chiaki, whose performance as the priest is quietly devastating. A lot of Rashomon is people silently reacting to events around them. When action is necessary, no matter how much action, it’s momentous.

That third layer, set in a forest, is usually the quietest. Kurosawa and co-screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu don’t play narrative tricks; Rashomon is straightforward in how the viewer’s supposed to navigate all the layers. Kurosawa isn’t interested in making the story opaque. He wants the viewer to understand. When Shimura tells his story, he walks the film (and the viewer) into the flashback, into the forest. It’s a visually striking sequence, beautiful photography from Miyagawa Kazuo and Kurosawa’s editing almost appears to be based on the length of breaths. The editing is very important in Rashomon. It practically suffocates the flashbacks, creating tension with the promise of truth and revelation in the silent forest.

Great acting from Mori, Kyô and Mifune, who all have to play the same parts three to five different ways. Sometimes Kyô is best, sometimes Mifune, but Mori’s gives the essential performance. He’s got to convey the forest’s silence, usually with nothing more than an expression or body language. Not to discount the Kyô and Mifune, of course, they’re amazing. Mifune shows exceptional range in what should be the same part.

Technically, the film’s impeccable. There’s a sword fight near the end, mostly in single takes, and Kurosawa gets phenomenal action performances from his actors. It’s exhausting, but so is Rashomon itself; at less than ninety minutes, Kurosawa runs the characters–and the viewer–through a ringer. Because he doesn’t just want to ask questions about truth, he wants to talk about their answers as well, making Shimura, Chiaki and Ueda just as important to the film as the three leads.

Great music from Hayasaka Fumio.

Rashomon has a cast of ten. The closest it comes to comic relief is Katô Daisuke’s mildly dimwitted policeman who testifies against Mifune, but it’s not funny, Katô’s just sort of funnier than anything else. Its present action is short, regardless of layer–I suppose the runtime could correspond to Shimura, Chiaki and Ueda being stuck in the rain, though the rain is already pouring down as the film starts. It’s not a big picture. There’s nothing Kurosawa could do better, could do different. Rashomon’s perfect, devastating.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Kurosawa Akira; screenplay by Kurosawa and Hashimoto Shinobu, based on a story by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke; director of photography, Miyagawa Kazuo; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Jingo Minoru; released by Daiei Motion Picture Company.

Starring Mifune Toshirô (Bandit), Kyô Machiko (Wife), Mori Masayuki (Husband), Shimura Takashi (Woodcutter), Chiaki Minoru (Priest), Ueda Kichijirô (Commoner), Honma Noriko (Medium) and Katô Daisuke (Policeman).


Godzilla Raids Again (1955, Oda Motoyoshi)

Godzilla Raids Again has all the elements it needs to be a quirky success. It has a low budget and rushed schedule, resulting in a hodgepodge of awkwardly effective sequences amid otherwise inept ones. The script, from Murta Takeo and Hidaka Shigeaki, mixes inert melodrama with giant monsters. But then the script keeps getting distracted–there’s a “should be wacky” subplot with escaped prisoners–except never because it’s interested, certainly never because director Oda’s interested, but because there needs to be filler.

There’s some great filmmaking in the filler. Most of Taira Kazuji’s editing is terrible, but in the first half of the film when they’re desperately trying to pad, it’s amazing. There’s this sequence from the first film–in the story, not just a flashback–they actually paused Raids Again to play back the highlights from the previous film. The way the newsreel works in the narrative, the way it plays without any sound from newsreel or the audience, it’s creepy and it’s really good.

Other good moments include a cobbled together nightclub scene and the film’s opening discovery of the new Godzilla (and his nemesis monster).

Unfortunately, the cast gives fairly weak performances. There’s nothing anyone could do with the script, but they don’t even try. Except lead Koizumi Hiroshi, who always looks like he’s eagerly awaiting some acting direction; he never gets any from Oda.

Endô Seiichi’s photography is all over the place. Until the last third, it’s usually pretty good. In that last third, however, it goes to pot.

Also going to pot in the last third is the script. The editing gets worse–Taira gets a big responsibility with the final sequence and it doesn’t go well. Oda doesn’t have any actual drama, the script doesn’t have any drama; Taira’s editing needs to create the tension, the suspense. It does neither.

Everyone just seems bored with the film–except the effects team, there are some good effects shots and some great miniatures.

In the end, Raids Again disappoints. Again and again.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Oda Motoyoshi; screenplay by Murata Takeo and Hidaka Shigeaki, based on a story by Kayama Shigeru; director of photography, Endô Seiichi; edited by Taira Kazuji; music by Satô Masaru; production designers, Abe Teruaki and Kita Takeo; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Koizumi Hiroshi (Tsukioka Shoichi), Wakayama Setsuko (Yamaji Hidemi), Chiaki Minoru (Kobayashi Kôji), Shimizu Masao (Dr. Tadokoro), Onda Seijirô (Captain Terasawa), Sawamura Sônosuke (Shibeki), Tsuchiya Yoshio (Tajima), Mokushô Mayuri (Inouye), Kasama Yukio (Yamaji) and Shimura Takashi (Yamane).


Drunken Angel (1948, Kurosawa Akira)

Drunken Angel never hides its sentimentality. The film’s protagonist, an alcoholic doctor working in a slum (Shimura Takashi in a glorious performance), is well aware of his sentimentality. He resents it–Shimura has these great yelling and throwing scenes–but it’s what keeps him going. It also allows director Kurosawa to have intensely sentimental sequences without affecting the tone of the film–sometimes it’s in Hayasaka Fumio’s score, sometimes it’s just how Kurosawa and Kôno Akikazu cut a sequence.

The film’s story has Shimura getting a new patient–Mifune Toshirô’s erratic (similarly hard-drinking) Yakuza neighborhood boss. The two fight, often physically, but form a bond–Mifune’s all subtlety, Shimura’s all noise. When their volumes reverse is when Kurosawa and co-writer Uekusa Keinosuke get in some fantastic character work. Of course, the actors are essential to it. Both of them become clearer and clearer as the film progresses. Even though Drunken Angel has an epical arc to it, it’s very much a character study.

It’s also a setting study–Shimura’s practice is on the edge of a garbage swamp in the slum, Mifune’s favorite night club is just blocks away. In a relatively short run time (under 100 minutes), Kurosawa and Uekusa introduce a large supporting cast, establishing them usually in a few seconds, usually without much dialogue.

As the epical arc goes along its track, the film moves over to Mifune, sort of reintroducing him (without Shimura’s judgment). It’s beautifully executed, as is everything else in the film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Uekusa Keinosuke and Kurosawa; director of photography, Itô Takeo; edited by Kôno Akikazu; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Motoki Sôjirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Shimura Takashi (Sanada), Mifune Toshirô (Matsunaga), Yamamoto Reizaburô (Okada), Kogure Michiyo (Nanae), Nakakita Chieko (Miyo), Shindô Eitarô (Takahama), Sengoku Noriko (Gin), Kasagi Shizuko (Singer), Shimizu Masao (Oyabun) and Kuga Yoshiko (Schoolgirl).


Godzilla (1954, Honda Ishirô)

Godzilla is a peculiar picture. It’s intensely serious, with director Honda never letting the viewer get a moment’s relief. This approach is all throughout the film, which opens with a documentary feel. Honda and co-screenwriter Murata Takeo set up their main characters quickly and without a lot of fanfare–Takarada Akira and Kôchi Momoko’s first scene sets up their relationship before sending them away–she actually just disappears for a while, while he becomes a background player during the first act.

Their romance is the best character work in the film, with the possible exception of Suzuki Toyoaki’s grieving orphan. Takarada and Kôchi’s romance is never quite star-crossed but it’s always difficult. They’re both excellent. All of the film’s emotions play out through Kôchi; it’s like the film has greater need of her than to just have a difficult romance.

Honda moves Godzilla through a few phases–mystery, exploration, devastation–always ratcheting the tension a little tighter. The creature’s destruction of Tokyo is exhausting and relentless. The film implies subtext to those scenes–the creature discovering man’s world–but Honda doesn’t explore them. He presents them matter of fact, the documentary style returning.

The last act is where the film stumbles; Hirata Akihiko gives a histrionic performance. Some of it is the writing, most of it is Hirata. The film already has problems with Shimura Takashi, in a similarly poorly written role. There’s way too much strained symbolism in the finish.

The music, photography and editing are all exceptional.

The film is thoughtful, intricate and affecting.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Honda Ishirô; screenplay by Murata Takeo and Honda, based on a story by Kayama Shigeru; director of photography, Tamai Masao; edited by Taira Kazuji; music by Ifukube Akira; production designers, Chûko Satoru and Kita Takeo; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Takarada Akira (Ogata), Kôchi Momoko (Emiko), Hirata Akihiko (Dr. Serizawa), Shimura Takashi (Dr. Yamane), Suzuki Toyoaki (Shinkichi), Murakami Fuyuki (Professor Tanabe) and Sakai Sachio (Newspaper Reporter Hagiwara).


Gigantis, The Fire Monster (1959, Oda Motoyoshi and Hugo Grimaldi)

There’s something rather amusing about Gigantis, The Fire Monster and not just its idiocy. It’s the American version of the second Godsilla picture and it has some amazingly bad pseudo-science–the monsters are “fire monsters,” which may or may not have been dinosaurs. They lived on Earth before the planet cooled and like it hot. They breathe fire and so on, though only Gigantis (the renamed Godzilla) does so here. The other monster doesn’t get the chance.

Unfortunately, there’s no credit for who wrote the American dialogue. It’s confusing, dumb, entertaining. There’s sadly no credit for Keye Luke either, who narrates the whole picture as one of the main characters.

The source film, Godzilla Raids Again, has a lot of problems of its own and some of them do carry over to Gigantis. First and foremost are the bad fight scenes. Japanese version director Oda Motoyoshi speeds up the action artificially; he speeds up the film. The fight scenes, with the lame inserted music–and screams from people in fires–are a real problem.

But somehow Luke isn’t a problem. Oh, the narration is stupid and all, but Luke does an excellent job delivering it. When his narration disappears for the film’s second half, he’s sorely missed. There are whole subplots in the narration and, better yet, the cast occasionally interacts with how the narration is playing out. Not often enough, but occasionally.

There’s still no reason to see this film, skip this one. Narration alone doesn’t carry it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Oda Motoyoshi and Hugo Grimaldi; screenplay by Murata Takeo and Hidaka Shigeaki, based on a novel by Kayama Shigeru; director of photography, Endo Seiichi; edited by Taira Kazuji and Grimaldi; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki and Paul Schreibman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Koizumi Hiroshi (Tsukioka), Wakayama Setsuko (Hidemi), Chiaki Minoru (Kobayashi), Shimura Takashi (Dr. Yamane), Shimizu Masao (Dr. Tadokoro), Onda Seijirô (Commander), Sawamura Sonosuke (Shibeki), Tsuchiya Yoshio (Tajima), Mokushô Mayuri (Radio Operator), Kasama Yukio (Father) and Oikawa Takeo (Police Chief).


Godzilla, King of Monsters! (1956, Terry O. Morse and Honda Ishirô)

Morse didn’t just direct the added American scenes for Godzilla, King of Monsters! but also did the hatchet job editing it.

The concept–adding in footage of a reporter reporting on what would be an international news event–isn’t bad. But Morse (aided, undoubtedly, by Al C. Ward’s awful scripting) contrives a way to shoehorn Raymond Burr’s American reporter into all of the original Godzilla story. Even though Burr doesn’t have a single scene with Hirata Akihiko’s scientist, Monsters makes them old college chums and Burr inexplicably talks to Hirata’s stand-in on the phone.

I suppose Morse and Ward thought it was necessary to tie plots together, but at most it added two and a half minutes of runtime. Morse could have just recycled the “stairs to the hospital” shot a fourth time.

As for Burr, he’s not very good. The cheapness of his scenes–particularly the one where he’s in a helicopter but sitting in an office–probably hurt the performance. For example, when he’s actual in a torrential downpour, he’s convincing. However, Morse could have spent that money better making sure Burr had a real presence in the third act instead of standing in the background.

The voiceover cast is uniformly terrible, ruining the performances of the original actors. The other American cast is fifty-fifty–Frank Iwanaga is great as Burr’s sidekick (Monsters‘s should’ve been focused on them), but Mikel Conrad’s atrocious as his boss.

With the original version readily available, Monsters should be avoided.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Terry O. Morse and Honda Ishirô; screenplay by Murata Takeo, Honda and Al C. Ward, based on a story by Kayama Shigeru; directors of photography, Tamai Masao and Guy Roe; edited by Morse; music by Ifukube Akira; production designer, Chûko Satoru; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki, Edward B. Barison, Richard Kay and Harry Rybnick; released by Embassy Pictures.

Starring Raymond Burr (Steve Martin), Shimura Takashi (Dr. Yamane), Kôchi Momoko (Emiko), Hirata Akihiko (Dr. Serizawa), Takarada Akira (Ogata), Frank Iwanaga (Tomo Iwanaga), Sakai Sachio (Hagiwara), Murakami Fuyuki (Dr. Tabata), Yamamoto Ren (Seiji), Suzuki Toyoaki (Shinkichi), Okabe Tadashi (Dr. Tabata’s Assistant), Ogawa Toranosuke (President of Company) and Mikel Conrad (George Lawrence).



This post is part of the Sum Up | Godzilla, Part One: Showa.

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964, Honda Ishirô)

Maybe half of Ghidorah is interesting. Or has the potential to be interesting. After the giant monster-heavy opening credits (stills of Godzilla and Rodan in battle), that aspect disappears for a while. Instead, Ghidorah is a strange mix of reporter and political intrigue movies. Hoshi Yuriko is a reporter for a news program covering strange occurrences and brother Natsuki Yosuke is a police officer charged with protecting a foreign princess in trouble (Wakabayashi Akiko). Eventually–inevitably–the two story lines do cross, but it takes a lot longer than I would have assumed and really highlights the problem with Ghidorah. The giant monsters.

The first half hour is filled with doomsday predications and public interest in it. Wakabayashi goes amnesiac and ends up proclaiming the end of the world to whoever will listen. Sekizawa Shinichi’s script handles this part–maybe not the lead-in to it–beautifully. Watching Ghidorah, I kept wishing they’d played it straight, because the handling of her character and her effect on modern society, it works.

The movie’s hit with Natsuki’s underwhelming performance as the bodyguard, however. He’s at his best in the comedic scenes, which are good and too few. His problems in the action scenes might stem more from Honda’s direction. Honda has one or two shots for action scenes and he repeats them throughout.

Hoshi is a far more engaging protagonist, so it’s too bad she loses her story after the movie gets going. The little fairies from Mothra show up and assume her screen time. Those two actresses, Ito Emi and Ito Yûmi look so incredibly disinterested, I’m wondering if they just can’t act or what… It’s unfortunate, because Hoshi’s maybe slash maybe not romance with Koizumi Hiroshi was amusing and is forgotten. Koizumi doesn’t have a big part, but he can keep a straight face and is affable.

So Ghidorah isn’t exactly brimming with potential–it can’t overcome Honda’s poor interior direction and his action scenes and the acting–but it isn’t uninteresting. It’s a definite attempt at something and not a dumb one. Then Godzilla and Rodan show up and I started wondering how a ninety minute movie could be so long. The giant monsters are the big problem with the movie. After forty-five minutes of proclamations about Ghidorah destroying the world, it turns out it all gets resolved after a lengthy wrestling match with Ghidorah fighting the other monsters. They don’t even destroy him. He just runs away. He could have flown to China and destroyed it. That resolution makes no sense.

But then, neither do the other two endings (the one for the police officer and the princess and then the good giant monster ending).

I haven’t seen the immediate series predecessor in fifteen plus years (Mothra vs. Godzilla) so I can’t say for sure if this film is the one where they start playing the giant monsters for laughs. The opening scene with Godzilla, when he destroys a ship, doesn’t even address the hundreds of lives lost. It’s just a guy in a costume destroying a model ship–because thinking about it in the movie’s context would just make Honda glib. The giant monster fights have a lot of humor in them (who knew Godzilla had a butt?) and it’s all for kids. It’s probably not terrible for kids, but then why delay the giant monsters for half the movie and fill it with thoughtful–if poorly executed–narrative.

Usually Godzilla movies leave me mildly amused or better. This one did not.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Honda Ishirô; written by Sekizawa Shinichi; director of photography, Koizumi Hajime; edited by Fujii Ryohei; music by Ifukube Akira; production designer, Kita Takeo; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Natsuki Yosuke (Detective Shindo), Hoshi Yuriko (Naoko), Koizumi Hiroshi (Professor Miura), Wakabayashi Akiko (Mas Selina Salno, Princess of Sergina), Ito Emi and Ito Yûmi (The Twin Fairies), Shimura Takashi (Dr. Tsukamoto), Hirata Akihiko (Chief Detective Okita) and Ito Hisaya (Malmess, Chief Assassin).


Mothra (1961, Honda Ishirô)

Mothra is a strange mix of Japanese monster movie, 1950s Hollywood sci-fi and Disney. The last ingredient only becomes clear at the end of the movie, though it’s probably present throughout (as Mothra returns home with the two fairies, it’s clear Mothra would have made a fine animated feature). But the strangest element of Mothra isn’t a genre one, as Christian movies weren’t big in that era. Mothra interacts with religion–specifically Catholicism–in a way I’ve never seen in a Japanese movie, much less a giant monster movie, before. At the end of the movie, it’s revealed Mothra herself is some kind of agent of God. It’s a discrete revelation (the movie doesn’t deal with the implications at all), but it’s definitely there. Had Mothra dealt with those implications, like the origin of church bells and the cross as a Christian symbol being on a Polynesian Island since long before Christ… well, it would have been a far more interesting film.

Moving on, Mothra also features a very global community. Instead of containing the action to Japan, the movie ends in Rolisica–which is as close as Russia (and features a large Russian farming community, as well as Eastern Orthodox churches), but looks like America and everyone speaks English. Initially, the country’s only a stand-in for the USSR, so when its propping up a crazy capitalist, it’s real funny. But the unreality of the country, in terms of its national character and closeness to Japan, lends to that Disney feel (as does everyone waving goodbye to Mothra, who’s just gotten done destroying a bunch of cities and killing untold hundreds).

But the story, which is clearly influenced by King Kong–an expedition produces some good showbiz results with disastrous consequences–is all right. It follows a reporter (Frankie Sakai) and a scientist (Koizumi Hiroshi) to the expedition and back, establishing them as important and so on. There’s the reporter’s cute photographer and the scientist’s little brother who tag along for their adventures. It’s all very genial (and somewhat damning at the end, when Mothra ends on a dumb, “women are so silly” joke).

The likable cast–well, Jerry Ito is terrible as the villain, but moving on–only needs to get the movie to the special effects sequences and they do. Once Mothra’s attacking the city, the excellent miniature effects take over. There’s a lot of city work, with moving vehicles and detailed buildings and it all looks fantastic. Only when the camera holds too long on the miniature figures are there any problems (most of the editing during the destruction sequences is perfect though). And then there’s the issue of Mothra herself. The caterpillar, even with its lifeless eyes, is good. The giant moth… not so good. Luckily, Honda doesn’t pause the camera on it, instead going to the street scenes and those are fantastic. When Mothra hits the New York City stand in and blows the blocks of cars all around… great stuff.

Mothra‘s strangely ambitious–especially at the end with the Eastern Western setting and the Christian overtones–and a lot of it works real well. Great effects throughout, some good music and Honda’s got some excellent shots in the movie, sometimes just in conversation. But the end, kneecapped already with the ludicrous fond farewell to the monster, and then ending on the dumb joke, really brings Mothra down. As the movie gets more interesting from a scholarly standpoint, its quality lessens.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Honda Ishirô; screenplay by Sekizawa Shinichi, based on a story by Hotta Yoshie and Nakamura Shinichirô and a novel by Fukunaga Takehiko; director of photography, Koizumi Hajime; edited by Taira Kazuji; music by Koseki Yuji; production designers, Abe Teruaki and Kita Taeko; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Frankie Sakai (Bulldog), Koizumi Hiroshi (Dr. Chûjô), Kagawa Kyôko (Michi), Uehara Ken (Dr. Harada), Ito Emi and Ito Yûmi (The Twin Fairies), Jerry Ito (Clark Nelson), Tayama Akihiro (Shinji) and Shimura Takashi (the news editor).


Scandal (1950, Kurosawa Akira)

Scandal presents an incredibly humane side of Kurosawa, one his historical pictures don’t convey. He shows the desperate sadness of people and offers little visible hope throughout. There’s one scene, when the protagonist (played by Mifune Toshirô) and the main character (Shimura Takashi) come across a pond reflecting the stars and Mifune comments about the frequent beauty one finds in daily life. Scandal isn’t so much about those aesthetic moments, rather the type of person who can fully appreciate them. Mifune’s character, a painter, has it a little easier than Shimura, the alcoholic, gambling lawyer, but that scene equalizes them and allows them to communicate.

Mifune kept reminding me of Gregory Peck in this film–maybe because of the pipe (though I don’t think Peck had the pipe until later than 1950). He’s handsome and kind and he’s definitely the protagonist–but he’s not the main character. Or maybe he’s the main character and Shimura is the protagonist. I can’t remember… The Oxford says the main character and the protagonist used to the same, but in the modern sense, there’s room for a main character and a protagonist. In a Kurosawa film of this era, there’s definite room. He’s not as loose as usual with his character emphasis, but again, until forty minutes into the film, I didn’t know who the story was going to track. Shimura is in lots of Kurosawa films (in addition, of course, to Godzilla), but Scandal is his finest work. His role is the fallen character Renoir never could work out and Kurosawa does it instinctively. Instead of using the character sparsely–as the viewer painfully watches him repeatedly fail everyone he cares about–Kurosawa keeps it going, keeps bringing him back, keeps the viewer in as much pain as the character is in… and he or she is just as able to change the character’s behavior as the character is able to do.

Scandal is really early, so Kurosawa hadn’t gone over to scope yet and watching the film, one can see him pushing the frame. I’ve never seen Kurosawa projected and I realized almost immediately, these squarer images were just as breathtaking as his other framings. I suppose it’s one of the drawbacks of letterboxing–you realize what you’re missing by not seeing it in the theater. Since Scandal is so early, since the story is so traditional (a magazine slanders a romantically innocent pair of celebrities), and since Mifune is such a traditional leading man, it’s shocking when Kurosawa breaks the film out of the traditional form. There’s a wonderful scene at the end: on the right side of the frame are the two heroes and their amiable sidekick and on the left is Shimura. Kurosawa keeps it all in focus–Scandal has no relieving close-ups either–and the scene just goes on for a little while. Something about the positioning of the actors while surveying the desperation… in that shot, it is immediately clear how important a storyteller Kurosawa already was and was going to be.

Scandal is, of course, not readily available in the United States. I watched the UK Masters of Cinema DVD release, which–just like the last Masters of Cinema release I watched–had video problems, this time with interlacing. The film was available on VHS in the States, from Criterion’s parent company’s VHS arm, so maybe there’s a nice region 1 edition in the works.

The most pleasant part about Scandal is it gets better as it goes along, constantly building toward its final achievement.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Kurosawa and Kikushima Ryuzo; director of photography, Ubukata Toshio; music by Hayasaka Fumio; produced by Koide Takashi; released by Shochiku Company.

Starring Mifune Toshirô (Aoye Ichirô), Shirley Yamaguchi (Saijo Miyako), Katsuragi Yôko (Hiruta Masako), Sengoku Noriko (Sumie), Ozawa Eitarô (Hori), Shimura Takashi (Attorney Hiruta), Himori Shinichi (Editor Asai) and Shimizu Ichirô (Arai).


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