The Most (Unfairly) Underrated Kurosawa Film(s)?
10 October 2016
11 October 2016
Great idea for a thread….
off the top of my head, two of my favourite Kurosawa films come to mind – One Wonderful Sunday and Scandal. I always think that Kurosawa’s comment that he considered Drunken Angel to be his first ‘real’ film has made some writers unnecessarily dismissive of his immediate post war films. Personally I love them (with the exception of The Quiet Duel). Both One Wonderful Sunday and Scandal have flaws in structure and script, but I still enjoy them every much as his more famous films. For me, One Wonderful Sunday is head and shoulders above the more famous post war films by the likes of Ozu and Mizoguchi because it is so deeply human and empathic. Scandal is I think just a great character study and showcases Kurosawa’s brilliance at blocking and editing superbly.
Another film that comes to mind is High and Low. I think that the focus on his Samurai films through his peak period has led to this film being slightly overlooked as a genre piece. Whenever I see lists of great procedurals or crime movies, it hardly gets a mention next to the most famous US or (occasionally) European films, but to me its the equal of the very best from Hitchcock, etc and I honestly think that many of the great Hollywood films of the 70’s such as The Godfather would not have been the same without Kurosawa’s film as a prototype.
11 October 2016
Ugetsu – I thought about mentioning High and Low but didn’t because it seems quite popular within Kurosawa’s filmography (at least from what I’ve seen and read). This being said, you’re completely right, I don’t recall ever seeing it on any such list, and it is very much deserving of its placement. Although I think Ikiru also receives a similar treatment in that regard, at least in my experience. Perhaps it is the case that non-anime, non-jidai-geki films from Japan are more frequently overlooked?
You make good points regarding those early films (although I’m not sure I can agree that all of them are superior to Ozu and Mizoguchi’s works from that period). I noticed while reading Peter Wild’s book that he would frequently cite something critical Kurosawa had said about a particular film whenever he personally did not like that film. I noticed it in regards to Dodesukaden (another underrated film, although certainly not one of my favourites), where he practically described it as a total failure. Somewhat misleading, as Kurosawa has been critical of most of his films, if I am not mistaken.
12 October 2016
I’ll elaborate a little on why I think Kurosawa’s immediate post war films are underrated. As I mentioned above, I think his own comments on Drunken Angel have been very influential, but I’ve always thought that AK’s comments on his own films should be taken with a huge pinch of salt. I think he was always uncomfortable discussing his work and I strongly suspect that he wasn’t happy discussing the various underlying themes of his films of this period for a whole range of reasons. I honestly don’t see anything special about Drunken Angel relative to his other films of the period, I don’t see why it should be seen as some sort of major breakthrough. It may well of course be that it was the first film in which he didn’t face any serious outside interference, but his favoured themes seem quite consistent before and after Drunken Angel which makes me doubt that any interference was all that significant.
I love the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi of this period – Late Spring in particular might well be my all time favourite. But I do have reservations about them. Both seemed to be making quite personal films which could, being honest, have been made at any period. The contemporary references often seem quite tagged on – quite literally in the case of some of them, with their often jarring endings (such as Ozu ending Record of a Tenement Gentleman with a little lecture on how everyone should take care of war orphans, or Mizoguchi’s The Lady of Musashino ending with what I found to be a rather disturbing scene informing us that everything beautiful about old Japan should be sacrificed for industrial progress.
In contrast, I think Kurosawa (in line with European contemporaries such as Rosselini or De Sica, tackled contemporary Japan head on. A film like One Wonderful Sunday could only have been made in the late 1940’s, and quite deliberately addressed its audience by presenting it with people just like them (not the upper class bourgeoisie favoured by Ozu and Mizoguchi). He was not afraid with showing contemporary reality, even if leavened with a little sentimentality. I think it is this directness which some critics found hard to take, confusing it for didacticism or even just copying directors like Billy Wilder. Scandal is in some respects a ‘minor’ film in that he seemed to be taking on a personal hobbyhorse rather than a wider societal issue, but I think this is one thing that makes it so admirable. He was, at this time, I think very much a guerrilla film maker, making films ‘in the now’, intended to be completely up do date, in contrast to the nostalgia encouraged by Ozu and Mizoguchi. He must have been aware that films like this would not age well, but that wasn’t the point. He was talking directly to his audience, and I think thats one of the most admirable things a film maker can do.
13 October 2016
Ugetsu – Thank you for expanding your thoughts! They are very interesting. My understanding of Kurosawa’s comments (about the lack of restriction) re: Drunken Angel are perhaps referring to the script? During the war he had to have everything approved, and then the studio made him make major revisions to No Regrets for Our Youth (which I have a soft spot for out of the early films). Of course, Kurosawa experiencing greater freedom does not necessarily make for a greater film. Nor should his opinion of his work necessarily colour ours. That being said, I do prefer Drunken Angel over everything pre-Rashomon (with the possible exception of Stray Dog) because the narrative of it appeals to me. Specifically the issues of redemption, and authentic living (in a Heideggerean sense), which we see with Mifune’s character. I also quite love Shimura’s doctor. In my opinion it stands as one of his all-time greatest roles. I don’t mean this to slight the other early films (I’m with you in that they’re underrated).
I agree with your comment regarding One Wonderful Sunday, and how it could only have been made in the late ’40s, although I’d level that charge against all of Kurosawa’s gendai-gekis from the 40s and 50s. I don’t think that Ikiru, Drunken Angel, Stray Dog or Record of a Living Being make sense without considering the context they were in, any more than No Regrets or One Wonderful Sunday. Would you disagree with that?
13 October 2016
I don’t think that Ikiru, Drunken Angel, Stray Dog or Record of a Living Being make sense without considering the context they were in, any more than No Regrets or One Wonderful Sunday. Would you disagree with that?
I’d certainly agree with that. I think that a common thread of most of his films for the decade or so after the war is that even when historical, they were always addressing contemporary concerns. Even his use of sets are ‘contemporary’ in that he made such good use of real buildings and streets (even if presumably some were reconstructed in studio). Unlike the sort of abstracted ‘Japan’ Ozu or Mizoguchi’s characters live in, Kurosawa’s characters moved through real streets of poor quality buildings, shabby homes, smoke choked factories and scrubby mountains. He never prettified the environment his characters moved through, which I think was a deliberate decision to talk to his contemporary audience. This is something he had in common with another Japanese director of the period I admire, Naruse.
13 October 2016
Glad to see you are yet active in this forum.
13 October 2016
I am delighted that you appreciate Kagemusha! I always thought it strange that people did not appreciate it. I thought it magnificent. A bit formal, but strong and full of insight.
13 October 2016
yippee – Kagemusha seems to often be viewed as a lesser Ran, which I think hugely undersells both films. I agree that this phenomenon is strange, but it may be because of the high entry level Kagemusha demands. You must know your Sengoku history quite well (or at the very least have a decent overview) in order to appreciate the film fully. I don’t know about its reception in Japan (other than that it made a lot of money), but perhaps it has been appreciated more there? At least relative to Ran. Even Stephen Prince, who couldn’t stop praising Dodesukaden (also hugely underrated), Dersu Uzala or Ran comes across very cold regarding Kagemusha. I know he’s not a huge fan of Nakadai Tatsuya (whom he is completely wrong about, by the way), but I’ve always found that a bit odd. Ritchie is similarly dismissive when he says
the inadequacies: much bad acting from both the stage actors–including Nakadai–and the television actors, and an overly portentous score for which Kurosawa must take full blame
I can’t disagree enough with all of this, and with his complaints about Katsu’s dismissal (Stephen Prince laments the absence of Mifune, which is just as ridiculous).
14 October 2016
Yippie, glad to see you back here too!
I have to confess to never quite ‘getting’ Kagemusha. I enjoyed sections of it, but found other parts a bit of a drag. I suspect thats at least partly through my not getting some of the historical/cultural references, and also watching it on inferior dvd’s. I suspect I’d love it much more if I could see it on the big screen.
17 October 2016
I enjoy Kagemusha and do not consider it to be merely a warm-up for Ran, though there are obvious parallels in the two stories about the dissolution of a clan. However, there are two extended sections in Kagemusha that I find almost unbearably long in every viewing.
The first is the battle at night, which is repetitive to the point where it begins to take me out of the film. Though when the scene ends with the page’s death I feel some of my frustration is rewarded by the catharsis of “Shingen’s” loss. I accept I am meant to also feel lost in the darkness, responding to sounds and threats the way the soldiers move on screen, but sometimes Kurosawa pushes this tension past the point of my patience (the marketplace sequence in Stray Dog and the getting lost sequence early on in Throne of Blood are two memorable examples).
The second sequence is the extended aftermath on the battlefield, a Where’s Waldo-like montage of actors trying to play dead while moving out of the path of dozens of lethargic horses. For one, Kurosawa avoids showing the climactic carnage itself (a move he employs in other films as well, take The Bad Sleep Well as an example), so on its own this sequence feels detached and indulgent instead of brimming with portent.
I blame most of the failure of these sequences to captivate on the score, far and away my least favorite of every Kurosawa film. In Stray Dog, though the sequence in the marketplace is long, the fantastic mixture of sounds and songs in the sound design make the scene work for me as something aesthetically enjoyable when my own impatience takes me out of the movie. Kagemusha’s score sounds comically medieval European to the point where it sometimes evokes association with Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
That being said, I really enjoy the final scene and quite enjoy Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance throughout. I think with a better score (and to my taste a few minutes edited out) it would easily be regarded alongside Ran as one of his indisputable masterworks.
25 October 2016
A fascinating question, and great responses from everyone. I definitely agree with the sentiment that the immediate post-war films tend to be a little underrated. Perhaps partly because in terms of technique Kurosawa was still learning, but I think primarily because, as Ugetsu mentioned, the core stories are so specific to the contemporary reality in which the films were released that they speak less to later, and western, viewers. I have written in some length about One Wonderful Sunday and Rashomon in this light, perhaps also others that I forget.
It is interesting that no one here has yet made a case for Kurosawa’s final films, particularly Rhapsody in August and Madadayo. Rhapsody in particular is I think both hugely underrated as well as misinterpreted. There is depth to it that is rarely acknowledged. I find it fascinating and exciting how Kurosawa chooses to explore a new method of filmmaking so late in his career.
I have a more personal answer to this question as well: Seven Samurai. Obviously by no stretch underrated by most viewers, it has nevertheless never really been among my favourite Kurosawa films. Not that I have ever disliked it, but I have tended to see it as rather shallow in comparison to many of Kurosawa’s other films, and none of the critical approaches that I have encountered have really satisfied me. However, in the last few years I have noticed that my approach to the film is changing and I am starting to find meaning in it, re-evaluating its merits. I think it was Ugetsu’s essay on the film that initiated this process.
11 December 2016
Vili – Have you read Christopher Heathcote’s article “Japanese War Guilt and Kurosawa’s Rashomon“? It offers some brief and interesting commentary on how Kurosawa’s films (including Seven Samurai) reflect various social problems and issues in then-contemporary Japanese society.
13 December 2016
Yingzhe: off the top of my head, I can’t remember if I have read it. I’m travelling at the moment, so I have no access to my personal library. But I will definitely check it out!
14 December 2016
If you don’t have it and can’t get access let me know and I will email a PDF copy to you.
27 February 2017
Hello fellow Kurosawa fans! I joined this website just so I could respond to this thread, though I do also look forward to exploring the rest of it, being a huge AK fan.
I would like to concur with Vili Maunala above who suggests that Rhapsody in August should perhaps be considered Kurosawa’s most unfairly underrated film.
In fact I would argue that Rhapsody in August represents an extraordinary achievement that deserves recognition not just as a unique and brilliant film in its own right but also for its ambitious, transgressive and highly unusual (for AK) themes, unprecedented in AK’s entire oeuvre and serving as a sort of spectacularly innovative breakthrough at the age of 81, thereby achieving something that only the rarest of artists have ever managed.
Among the innovations (for AK) of Rhapsody in August:
– a film primarily about the experience of children (and given the gap in years, culture and values between AK’s youth and those of the kids in his movie, whose experiences are portrayed with deep sympathy and insight, this is all the more remarkable)
– a cathartic film about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, a topic rarely broached in Japanese cinema
– a film featuring an American character speaking extensively in English (and addressing cross-cultural dynamics in a way that I don’t believe any other AK film did)
The climax of Rhapsody in August – when the grandmother’s umbrella blows open in the storm and the music comes crashing in – is in my opinion one of the most powerful moments in AK’s entire body of work.
I have never understood how this film could have been so misunderstood and negatively reviewed by so many alleged film critics. It knocked me out when i saw it back in 1991 and it has never ceased to do the same when I have rewatched it. I would certainly say that both on its own merits and for what it represents as a final masterpiece that accurately explores a contemporary world so profoundly different from that which AK had known before, makes it stand out to me as the winning candidate in this contest.
my 2 cents.
of course, given that I am of the opinion that AK was the greatest filmmaker ever and is far from being recognized as such I would probably be happy to endorse any of his films as underrated!
I must admit, I’m curious! I rewatched Kagemusha this past weekend, and I have to say that I really love it. Seems that many people pass over it in favour of Ran (and the comparison is frequently made), which I think is a great shame. Personally, Kagemusha is a pretty close second, and one I suspect will overtake Ran sometime in the future (although the latter is still a phenomenal film). It should be noted that Kagemusha is significantly less accessible, however (in that there is a much higher threshold of Japanese history knowledge required).
Feel free to also list what you think are the most unfairly overrated Kurosawa films, if you’d like.