Saturday, June 20, 2009

Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood?

For years I've maintained that 1954's Seven Samurai was my favorite movie from one of my 3 favorite directors, Akira Kurosawa. But the more I think back on his MacBeth adaptation, Throne of Blood, the more I liked it. I'd been meaning to do this for a while, so, I finally decided to watch them back-to-back and see which one I preferred. I started with Seven Samurai, one of the most acclaimed movies ever made.
Kurosawa was already one of the most highly acclaimed directors in the world when he made Seven Samurai. His 1950 masterpiece Rashomon is credited with announcing Japanese cinema to the international community. Even if you haven't seen the movie, you probably have seen the story of Seven Samurai before, most likely in its inferior American remake The Magnificent Seven. What Kurosawa created was one of the great epics to ever grace the screen. Many people are turned off by the film's 207 minute runtime, but they shouldn't be. Seven Samurai is remarkable for its economy of storytelling. There's basically nothing in the movie that doesn't add to either plot or character. As such, it moves along at a terrific pace. It's also got some tremendous action sequences, including the famous final showdown in the rain.

The two main stars of the movie are the two actors most associated with Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. Shimura is the oldest samurai, and the leader, Kambei. His performance is full of small subtleties, I particularly like the way he always rubs the back of his head after he shaves off his top knot (one of the signatures of a samurai). His performance is not on the level of his heartbreaking turn in Kurosawa's Ikiru, where he was a man fighting to make a difference in the world before he dies of cancer, but he's quite good. Mifune's performance is somewhat more divisive. Some people feel that he's too over-the-top (a common complaint about Mifune), while others (like myself) find him charming and simply a crass character.

I loved Seven Samurai as much on this watching of it (my 4th, I believe) as I did on my first. I did feel its length, because even with an intermission it's hard not to feel 3 1/2 hours in a chair. But it's such a great movie that I'll never complain.
Kurosawa was a huge fan of Shakespeare, but often found him to be "too wordy". So his adaptations of Shakespeare's work are never directly from the text. His first, and best, is his adaptation of MacBeth, 1957's Throne of Blood. Like Ran, his adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa transplants the action to feudal Japan. It stars Toshiro Mifune in the MacBeth role, hear called Washizu. The movie is dripping with atmosphere, it's almost oppresively foreboding. The 3 witches from the opening of the play are replaced with a single spirit here, and it's much creepier than any interpretation I've ever seen. They somehow altered the actors voice to give it a ghoulish deepness, with an almost metallic tone to it. It's very effective when combined with the eerie score and nightmarish forest setting. Mifune is a good deal more subtle in his performance here, there are some over-the-top outbursts, but mostly he internalizes Washizu's struggle. It's a brilliant performance, although arguably not even one of his two best.

The most famous sequence of the movie is the finale, where instead of dying in a duel, Washizu perishes in a hail of arrows in a scene that might be my favorite from any Kurosawa movie (I'm not giving anything away, it's an adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy, of course the protagonist dies). Washizu is able to dodge many of the arrows, some only inches from his head, but he's not able to dodge them all. Someone once told Toshiro Mifune that his acting in the sequence was terrific, that he actually seemed scared. Mifune replied that he was terrified, that Kurosawa had people shooting real arrows only 2 feet or so from his face. He said he was not really acting at all. Whatever he was doing, it works. And the culmination of the scene is an image burned into the brains of many a film fan.

Strangely, the choice of which movie I prefer was not as difficult today as I thought it would be. I clearly prefer Throne of Blood. The macabre atmosphere, terrific performances, unforgettable finale, and that damn spirit just draw me to this movie in a more magnetic way than Seven Samurai does. But Seven Samurai is not any less of a masterpiece simply because it's now officially my 2nd favorite Kurosawa. It will always hold a special place in my heart as the first Kurosawa movie I saw, and the one that really opened me up to world cinema. But for right now, Throne of Blood is taking its place in my all-time top ten as the Kurosawa representative. Actually, I really want to re-watch my other Kurosawa favorites now, to see if I react any differently to them.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Mifune...yum! Makes a girl love foreign film :)