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Kurosawa's 'perfect' films

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    One of the discussion threads on ‘No Regrets for our Youth‘ went a little astray on the topic of which Kurosawa films are ‘perfect‘. This got me thinking a little about whether any of his films could be described as perfect, or indeed, what a ‘perfect’ film would look like.

    I was thinking this over, and I think there are two ways in which a film can reasonably be described as perfect:

    1. A film with a particular narrow focus, or firmly within a genre, which hits every note perfectly, with an ideal balance of acting, script, technical qualities, etc. Films that come to mind would be the Marx Brothers Duck Soup (perfect comedy), Howard Hawks His Girl Friday (perfect screwball comedy), Blake Edwards Breakfast at Tiffany’s (romance), Hustons The Maltese Falcon, Scorseses Goodfellas (gangster films), Donen’s Singing in the Rain (musical), Kubriks Dr. Strangelove (satire) or, in terms of small scale (but epic in emotion) drama, the better films by such as Ozu, Romer, etc.

    2. Films which are ‘perfect’ not in the sense that they achieve a high point in their genre, or even that they cannot be criticised legitimately for one reason or another, but because they are so grand in their scope, with such ambition and imagination, and with the highest level of technical achievement, that we can only admire the genius behind them and enjoy them as a high point of cinematic art. Films that come to mind would be Godfather I and II, A Matter of Life and Death, Les Enfants du Paradis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, La Dolce Vita and so on.

    So, this got me to thinking, which Kurosawa films are ‘perfect’ in this way? Of course, all his films have been subject to some criticism, some quite stinging. But then again, I doubt if any of the ones I listed above were without the occasional critic, and some (at least when originally released) were actively disliked by some critics and the public.

    So my provisional list of ‘perfect’ Kurosawa films for category 1 would be:

    Category 1:

    Stray Dog: Fantastic gangster film and psychological thriller.

    Yojimbo: A perfect jewel of cinematic violence (even if it doesn’t fit neatly into the existing genres).

    High and Low: Pretty much the finest police procedural ever made.

    Category 2:

    Rashomon: Genuinely groundbreaking and magical film making – with maybe a very small caveat over the ending.

    Ikiru: One of the tiny handful of films made that could change your life. Brilliant in every way.

    Seven Samurai: Simply towers over just about every other film ever made.

    Ran: It made pretty much every other film made in the 1980’s look small and insignificant.

    Why some other of his great films aren’t ‘perfect’ under my definitions:

    Sanshiro Sugata: I’m tempted to add this, but I don’t know enough about other films of the period and genre to know just how good it was in relative terms.

    Drunken Angel: Great film, tempted to add it, I just can’t quite see it as perfect as some of his later gangster films.

    The Idiot: Maybe it is… but without the final cut, I don’t think we’ll ever know.

    Record of a Living Being: One of those films I admire more than I love. I find the central character a little too unconvincing.

    Throne of Blood: Awesome film, a genuinely ‘great’ one, and probably the greatest Shakespearean film, but the Noh elements ensure that we don’t empathize with the characters in the way we maybe should.

    The Hidden Fortress: I think that to be a truly great genre film, you can’t be simultaneously ‘knowing’ and satirical. So the Hidden Fortress falls down in this respect for me.

    Sanjuro: Same as the above.

    Red Beard: Sometimes it just tries too hard, and the ending is a little too comfortable for me personally.

    Dersu Uzala: A touch uneven at times for me, and some scenes just don’t work for me.

    Please discuss.


    Vili Maunula

    An interesting post, Ugetsu. I find it really difficult to rank films, but I’ll play along.

    I think that my “category 1” films for Kurosawa would be:

    Throne of Blood

    Record of a Living Being

    Red Beard


    These are the films that to me seem technically “perfect”, or just about as close as you can get. Stray Dog and High and Low don’t quite make my list mainly because of some pacing “problems”, which of course are not problems as such, but which I nevertheless envision could have been handled better.

    Coming up with “category 2” titles feels far more difficult. I could of course throw almost all of Kurosawa’s films in there (apart from a handful, maybe), but if I raise the bar to a point where only the films that are absolute masterpieces can qualify, then my “category 2” films would (right now) be:

    Red Beard


    High and Low

    If l lower the bar even a little bit, almost all of the post-war films from Drunken Angel to Record of a Living Being would also be included. Maybe also Madadayo

    As you can see, I quite like Red Beard and don’t find it either too comfortable or trying too hard. As for the films that made your list and not mine, I like Rashomon‘s ending quite a bit (even if I don’t really know what it means), but it doesn’t make my very strict category 2 list because it seems a little bit too clever and feels a little bit too soulless. In the case of Ikiru, as much as I love and adore it, I like the first half quite a bit more than the second one. And as for Seven Samurai… well, I’m sure you all know the story already. 🙂

    But I also have category 3 perfection: “films that I really love even if they aren’t technically the most brilliant, the most challenging or thought-provoking in terms of their content, or necessarily even very good”. From Kurosawa, One Wonderful Sunday is definitely in that category. (But it is actually a good film, unlike some other films that I cherish similarly: try for instance the 1990 film Graffiti Bridge…)



    I tried to think about Kurosawa’s output in relation to Ugetsu’s two categories (which is a great idea) and found I kept putting the same films in both! For me, Kurosawa’s perfection ratio is high, but being more strict, keeping it to five, say:

    High & Low

    Hidden Fortress


    Throne of Blood

    Seven Samurai

    And it hurts to leave out Stray Dog, Rashomon, Yojimbo, Red Beard and Ran.

    As a lover of adventure films, I have to include Hidden Fortress – I think the story is spot-on, in the same way as John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King or Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

    And I’ll end with some good and bad news – the bad news is I put my back out quite badly last week; the good news is that it gave me time to sit in a comfortable chair and watch Throne of Blood … I’d seen this twice before and while I admired it, it didn’t quite click with me – my impression was lots of fog and a bit dull. After this last time, however, I can’t understand how I ever thought that – I was riveted, by both the story and photography. It was … perfect!



    Hey Garen, hope your back is getting better – or at least, better enough that its not painful, sometimes its quite nice to have a medical excuse to just sit and watch dvd’s all day 😉



    Thank you, Ugetsu – yes, I’ve gone past the really painful ‘muscle spasm’ stage and am now at the ‘occasional ouch’ stage. As you say, the upside is being free of all responsibility where work is concerned and being allowed to escape into film – it’s been lovely. But back to work tomorrow!


    Vili Maunula

    Sorry to hear about your back, Garen!



    Keeping in mind that I’ve seen fewer of Kurosawa’s films than many of you, here’s my list:

    Category 1:

    Throne of Blood (psychological horror, I guess, would be the genre, or something like that)

    The Lower Depths (assuming philosophical slice of life is a genre, though I realize the movie starts out slowly, and to my mind, Mifune’s performance is probably the weakest element of this film)

    Yojimbo (I think the genre of this is self-evident, although this may be the movie that invented the genre — the violent, action-packed anti-heroic movie). Oddly enough, this is the only Kurosawa movie to have an adaptation that is its equal — in a few places, I even prefer A Fistful of Dollars to Yojimbo. Then again, this and The Magnificent Seven are the only adaptions I’ve actually seen. 🙄

    Category 2:

    Seven Samurai, but only because it doesn’t fit neatly in any one genre. Unlike some of my compatriots here, I do consider this as close to perfection as a movie can get!

    Ran – I don’t like this nearly as much as Seven Samurai, in part because it’s bleak and brutal, but just from the point of view of cinematography and blocking, it’s a great movie.

    Drunken Angel, which I prefer to Stray Dog, just misses category 1 for me, and Ikiru just misses category 2.

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