Culture & Conversation

Samurai Master Gets Big Screen Treatment

Earlier this year, Criterion released a lavish DVD box set including 25 films by celebrated Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to celebrate what would have been his hundredth birthday (he died in 1998). But, as cinephiles know, there’s nothing like seeing these films projected on a big screen. Enter Cinema du Parc, which is hosting a month-long retrospective of the director’s work, providing the rare chance for Kurosawa devotees and neophytes alike to witness almost all of his films in 35mm prints.

If you’ve never ventured beyond Hollywood fare, then Kurosawa is the perfect gateway to the cinema of the East (though if subtitles aren’t your thing, then you simply can’t be helped). Many will be more familiar with the films that have been remade from his work, including A Fistful of Dollars (based on Yojimbo) and The Magnificent Seven (based on Seven Samurai). George Lucas wilfully acknowledges Star Wars‘ debt to The Hidden Fortress: C-3PO and R2-D2 are directly based on Kurosawa’s bumbling thieves. If Shakespeare’s your thing, look no further than Throne of Blood (a jidaigeki, or period drama, based on Macbeth) and Ran (a samurai interpretation of King Lear): these are among the finest Shakespeare adaptations put to film, and both are among Kurosawa’s best.

Kurosawa is best known for his samurai films, especially Rashômon and Seven Samurai (which I will reluctantly admit I’ve never seen: I’ve been waiting for an opportunity such as this to see it on the big screen!). The former film, which shows a terrible crime from the perspective of several witnesses, each of whom offers radically different testimony, is famous for its play with subjectivity and its commentary on the impossibility of truth and history. If you didn’t see it in Film 101, don’t miss the chance at du Parc.

Kurosawa’s bombastic samurai pictures are often opposed to the quiet, domestic dramas of his contemporary Yasujirô Ozu. Many forget that Kurosawa also made his share of gendai-geki (or contemporary dramas) and was a master of the genre in his own right. Cinema du Parc has already screened a 35mm print of Drunken Angel, a beautiful film about a doctor whose concern for the health of his patients is so overwhelming that he can’t help but destroy himself with alcohol. This film is a milestone for the great director: not only is it widely acknowledged as his first great film, but it also marked his first collaboration with actor Toshirô Mifune, who plays a young yakuza dying of tuberculosis under the good doctor’s care.

Other gendai-geki of note in the screening series include Ikiru (also known by its English title, To Live), which paints a damning portrait of Japanese bureaucracy (especially in its hilarious, though depressing, opening scene), and High and Low, a kidnapping plot starring a restrained Mifune. One of Kurosawa’s later films, Dreams, should satisfy anybody who was left cold by the lack of striking dream imagery in Christopher Nolan’s Inception – which also happens to be playing at du Parc and would make for an amazing double-feature!

It should be noted that Kurosawa’s earliest films, which have been scarcely seen in the West until Criterion released them on DVD, are being projected digitally from a DVD source. Having already seen a projection of Scandal, a gendai-geki from 1950, I can assure readers that the quality is perfectly acceptable. Regardless of the format, it’s likely your only chance to see the director’s early work on the big screen. I, for one, can’t wait to see his epic adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot!

Best of all, Cinema du Parc’s retrospective promises to be nearly comprehensive: only a handful of his films are not included in the line-up. Even Chris Marker’s documentary chronicling the making of Ran will be shown. Kurosawa is widely recognized as one of the master directors for a reason. Head over to Cinema du Parc and find out for yourself.

Cinema du Parc’s Kurosawa retrospective runs through September 2. The full schedule is available at their website, which also indicates which films will be shown from 35mm prints.

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