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Kurosawa films to watch

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    kennyg

    Okay, I am new here but am really looking for advice. I want to do a marathon for myself of Kurosawa films, but am not sure where to start. So, I’ll talk about what I have seen.

    The first Kurosawa I saw was Seven Samurai about 15 years ago. I was blown away, but was just really starting to get into film. Then I saw Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Red Beard all about 10 years ago. I really loved them all, but it has been a long time now. I saw Throne of Blood in a film class I took 7 ears ago. I feel I really need to rewatch it. I didn’t like it much, but feel a repeat viewing would be good. Then about 5 years ago I saw Rashomon, it was very impressive. Then in the last year I have watched The Hidden Fortress, High and Low and Dersu Uzala. All were pretty good.

    So, that is it, that is all I have seen. But recently I got my hands on the AK100 boxed set and want to know where to start. I also have access through friends or streaming to most of his other movies. I am thinking of doing a marathon, because it seems like a lot to watch everything I haven’t seen. I want to eventually, but I want to start by watching 6 or 8. So, where should I start? Some of these films it has been so long that I want to rewatch them, but there are so many I haven’t seen at all. So, any advice of where to start would be great.

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    Vili Maunula

    Hi kennyg and welcome to the website!

    You seem to have seen most of the big films. The ones that you are missing from the typical “best Kurosawa films” lists are Ikiru, Ran, Kagemusha, Stray Dog and Drunken Angel. So that could be one set of films for you to consider. But there is of course more to explore.

    In fact, there is one important era which you haven’t really tackled, namely the immediate post-war Kurosawa which is arguably also the most defining part of Kurosawa’s career. So, if you want to do a thematic Kurosawa marathon which is a little less consistent when it comes to quality, I would suggest the following 7 films:

    – No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
    – One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
    – Drunken Angel (1948)
    – The Quiet Duel (1949)
    – Stray Dog (1949)
    – Scandal (1950)
    – Ikiru (1952)

    It skips the films that you have already seen, as well as a couple of others. If you proceed chronologically, you can more or less see a progress with Kurosawa’s skills, with each film building on the ones before, although The Quiet Duel and Scandal are typically considered slight misfires. One Wonderful Sunday is by many also considered a very minor film, but many fans (myself included) seem to have an especially soft spot for it. Drunken Angel and Stray Dog are what you could call Kurosawa’s first major films, and Ikiru has by many been called his best.

    All of these films share a theme, namely the rebuilding of Japanese society and identity after the devastation of the Second World War. It is a topic that Kurosawa wrestled with throughout his career, and one could argue that a proper familiarity with these films will also greatly help you to understand and enjoy his later works.

    Whatever you watch, I hope you’ll find yourself having a good time!

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    Ugetsu

    Hi kennyg,

    I’d agree with Vili. The logical thing is to look at them chronologically, as it is very interesting to see how AK honed his craft, changed his ideas, and how Japan itself changed in the post-war years. I would start with Sanshiro Sugata, simply because its his first film, and its a great film. I think the opening shot must be one of the great ‘first’ shots of any film makers career. Of the films he made between the end of the war and the late 1950’s, I think ‘No Regrets for our Youth‘ is the most atypical, probably because it wasn’t really his film – but it is still a very good film. Of the films Vili lists, to me ‘The Quiet Duel‘ is the only real dud (or to be more precise, it has dated very badly). Of the ‘minor’ films, I’m a fan of One Wonderful Sunday and I really like Scandal. All the other films are terrific, very entertaining and fascinating. If you go on watching, then I don’t see any reason not to continue chronologically. Even the weaker films (such as The Bad Sleep Well have their interest as you can see how he learned from his mistakes to make a masterpiece like High and Low. If you want to skip films, I’d suggest focusing on his thrillers and samurai films – I think his dramas are not quite so important or interesting.

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    kennyg

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post and respond. I am definitely interested in his earlier/post war films and will start there. It was kind of what I was leaning towards anyhow, but it is nice to hear peoples opinions on the matter. I think the only movie I don’t really have access to is The Quiet Duel, so I will have to skip that for now. So I think my plan is this:

    – Sanshiro Sugata (1943)
    – No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
    – One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
    – Drunken Angel (1948)
    – Stray Dog (1949)
    – Scandal (1950)
    – Ikiru (1952)

    I wanted to watch Sanshiro Sugata first just because it seems right to watch his first film first. So with that, I’m going to go watch it right now!

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    Vili Maunula

    Glad to be of help. Let us know how it goes!

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    kennyg

    I watched Sanshiro Sugata and it was really pretty good.

    This was probably really a four out of five star film, but losing 17 minutes has made it sort of choppy. The beginning is especially poorly paced. But you can’t blame Kurosawa necessarily, cuts were made and the film was never recovered, so it’s hard to say what the original was like.

    But you can sense two things throughout. That there is mastery here, and that this is his first film. Some parts almost seem like someone experimenting, but there are portions that are just fantastic. This is by no means a masterpiece, but you can sense the potential.

    The acting is not really that great, but the story is strong enough to keep you engaged. I was never really bored at all, but the characters were overall pretty flat.

    The fight scenes were largely uninteresting as they mostly involved two people grabbing each other and running around. I am not familiar at all with different fighting styles, and maybe this is accurate to the type of fighting, but it seemed a bit silly. People were either grabbing onto each other or flying through the air. Luckily the outcome of the fights and the way the characters changed was far more interesting than the actual fighting.

    There was some truly beautiful camera work though. The first shot was impressive and that last battle was just so cool. There were some lighting issues though and some scenes felt off just because of cutting between different lighting scenarios.

    Overall, a good beginning for an iconic director.

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    Ugetsu

    Kenny, those were more or less my thoughts on watching it. It is a film crying out for a really good restoration though.

    ‘No Regrets for our Youth’ is a very different film, but quite fascinating in its own way, I guess thats next on your list.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for your views, Kenny! I’m quite curious to hear what your response to No Regrets for Our Youth will be.

    I was actually watching the Sanshiro Sugata remake from 1965 the other day as its 30th anniversary is coming up, and it’s interesting how much better the original is. Even when the remake has a cast that includes Mifune, Shimura, Yamazaki, Kayama and others, and the story is almost exactly the same!

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    kennyg

    I watched No Regrets For Our Youth over the weekend and was very impressed. It was interesting seeing this after Sanshiro Sugata just to see the jump in quality. I know there are films in between, but this definitely feels like a master is at work.

    I am fairly ignorant to the actual history this is based on, but it was a very moving film. I was completely blown away by Setsuko Hara who I have seen before in Tokyo Story where she is also amazing. I guess she is in many Ozu films, but unfortunately that is the only one I have seen. I would definitely like to see more of her films at some point. I personally think she is better in Tokyo Story, but she is very powerful here.

    I felt like there were some directing choices that maybe called to much attention to themselves. Yukie’s scene where she went through all the emotions after retreating to her room. I like the technique, but it felt misplaced here. There were a couple other parts I felt the same way though I can’t recall specifically right now. I’m not saying these types of shots should not be employed in film-making, but I felt like it stuck out from the rest of the film to me.

    I really did like this film overall. I think the cinematography was great and really the whole production was just fantastic. I’m excited to continue on.

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    Vili Maunula

    A great avatar picture, Kenny! 🙂

    It’s also great to hear that you enjoyed No Regrets. Setsuko Hara is definitely something. She actually worked with Kurosawa again in The Idiot (1951), which you could add to your post-war Kurosawa journey if you are interested in seeing her again. However, the film is generally considered one of Kurosawa’s least successful works and suffers from having been cut by the studio, with 100 minutes (almost half) of the footage lost because of it and never recovered.

    Hara is also wonderful in Ozu’s Late Spring and Early Summer, two films which together with Tokyo Story create the so-called “Noriko trilogy”. She gave great performances also for Mikio Naruse: Repast and Sound of the Mountain are both lovely.

    So, I suppose next up in your Kurosawa journey would be One Wonderful Sunday. That’s an interesting one. Despite being considered a really minor film by most critics, it is very much loved by many fans of Kurosawa’s films.

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    kennyg

    This was amazing. One Wonderful Sunday really blew me away. I really can’t believe that critics consider this minor Kurosawa. I know he is known for much more grand and challenging productions, but this film was fantastic. I felt like this was one for the dreamers.

    I have to just say that this was a film that from start to finish, I just had a huge grin on my face the whole time. The end made me tear up a little, but I was still grinning. The characters were so positive even when everything around them was trying to bring them down, it was just inspiring.

    I loved the framing in this movie. Every shot was just perfect. Breaking the 4th wall near the end was an interesting choice, but I think it was employed very well. I loved that in the climactic scene, it didn’t play the music for the longest time. The male main character kept having doubts and there was no music. So when it finally kicked in after the imploring of Masako, directly to the audience of the film, it seemed like you earned it.

    Overall, great film. It made me realize that Kurosawa could have chosen many different cinematic paths for his career, and none of them would have been wrong.

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    Vili Maunula

    Great to hear you liked it!

    Originally, the screenwriter whom Kurosawa worked with (Keinosuke Uekusa) wanted to handle the open air theatre scene differently, with the soundtrack including clapping and the film then showing couples similar to Masako and Yuzo who have been sitting in the darkness, watching them. But Kurosawa wanted to go all in. The experiment was reportedly a total failure in Japan (no one clapped), but at least according to Kurosawa, the reaction was better in Europe where the desired result of audience participation was attained, and Kurosawa felt somewhat vindicated.

    It is a sweet film, but I think that it also has tremendous bite. We discussed this a couple of years ago here, if you are interested in taking a look. It’s also worth checking out our other discussion on the film.

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    kennyg

    Wow, thanks for the link to the past discussion. It was very enlightening. Your analysis of the film brought up a lot of things that I missed. I love film, but cannot always fully articulate what I like and why. I know a little bit about the process of making movies, but have no formal education in the matter, aside from a couple of classes I took as part of my art degree. I am just someone who really likes movies and am educating myself by watching as many as I can. I’ve found that I definitely learn the most when I have a discussion or read someone’s thoughts after I have formed my own opinions to compare. Thanks again.

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    kennyg

    It is fun seeing these early films from Kurosawa to see the progression into a master. I see you said this is considered one of his first major films and I can see why. Is it coincidence that this is his first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune? Maybe. I think Mifune is great in this film. I feel like later on Mifune performances perhaps outshine Takashi Shimura’s but here they seem evenly matched. They work as perfect counterpoints as do their characters.

    I really liked this movie a lot. Discovering these films is just making me sort of giddy. I am so excited to continue on and see more great movies!

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    Vili Maunula

    I think most of us here are just like you in that we have no formal background in film, we just love watching them and writing about how they affect us and what insights they give us. I too love reading about others’ views on films that I have seen. The funny thing is that some of those thoughts that you think are mundane and irrelevant may turn out to be pure nuggets of gold for someone else (and vice versa).

    I take it from your latest post that you have progressed to Drunken Angel. It’s quite a film, isn’t it! It’s perhaps a coincidence that Mifune happened to be in the first film that Kurosawa felt he had full artistic control over (not that the script wasn’t censored), but I don’t think that it is a coincidence that his first film with Kurosawa turned out so well. Mifune really steals the show, and although Shimura’s doctor is meant to be the sole main character you really can’t think about Drunken Angel without thinking about Mifune. Kurosawa realised this while shooting the film and decided that there was no point trying to hold Mifune back.

    So, next up: Stray Dog? Some more Shimura-Mifune dynamics!

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    kennyg

    It’s hard to keep coming up with new ways of saying the same thing, but Kurosawa is really great. Stray Dog was a lot of fun. It seems to have been influenced by western films (that is films from the western world, not the genre “Westerns”) more than anything I have seen so far. Maybe I’m just so used to seeing the American cop movies, but it seemed right at home with a lot of 40’s American movies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it stands on its own as a great movie regardless of the influence.

    It is really fun seeing such a young Mifune. It is strange, because Seven Samurai is only 5 years later I believe, and he looks so much older from that point on in his filmography. Not in a bad way, I guess it has just been jarring how young he really looks and it is not so many years removed from the films I am familiar with him in. Anyhow, he is really great in this film. Such a presence. He is one of those actors who just has a charisma that bleeds off the screen and is infectious. As soon as I see him in any film, I just automatically smile.

    Shimura again gives a really great performance too. So different than his Drunken Angel. While he maybe doesn’t have the same allure as Mifune, he is still a joy to watch. You can see him thinking and it is interesting to watch. He can convey a lot without saying a word.

    Overall, I liked Drunken Angel better. It seems like a more unique vision to me. But, either way, I can definitely agree with classifying these two films as masterpieces.

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    Ugetsu

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. Stray Dog has a special place in my heart because it was the film that turned me into a Kurosawa obsessive. I enjoyed the film a lot, but it was the ending that did it to me – I played it over and over again and I just kept thinking ‘this is genius’. I could not, and still can’t think of a genre film with a more perfect ending.

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    kennyg

    Yeah, I absolutely cannot deny that the ending of Stray Dog was really amazing. It is definitely when it went from being a really good film into something monumental for me. It’s funny that you say you played it back over and over. I actually went back and watched the last 20 or so minutes of Stray Dog right after I finished it. I was tired and really needed to go to sleep, but I had to watch the whole last part again. It was so good.

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    Ugetsu

    Its one thing that really annoys me about so many films – when you are enjoying the story and then there is an ending that makes you think ‘oh, the film makers really had no idea where they were going’. So many otherwise good films seem to have ‘meh’ endings. When I see an ending like in Stray Dog, you know everyone involved really knew what they were trying to say, where they were going with it, its much more satisfying. And all the more so when (as with Stray Dog), it is so beautiful and rich, mysterious yet still satisfying. Its a very rare thing – but at this stage, nearly all AK films were like this – Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo – all have brilliant, memorable endings.

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