Weekly Top Five: The best of Akira Kurosawa

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High and Low
  • High and Low
This week, this Music Box hosts a special screening of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, the Japanese director's excellent Macbeth adaptation, to coincide with Chicago Opera Theater's own forthcoming staging of the Shakespeare play. Throne of Blood's recent digital restoration was created in 2K resolution from the original 35mm fine-grain master print, and it's said to be among the better digital prints out there today. This is an exciting opportunity to see the film in a new light while also getting a sneak peak of what COT has in store, as excerpts from its Macbeth are also previewed.

Kurosawa, among the most popular and prolific directors of all time, is something of a gateway filmmaker for cinephiles. For many, myself included, he opened the door to the history of Japanese film, but the further removed one becomes from Kurosawa, the less significant his films appear, particularly in light of work by Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Shohei Imamura (my personal favorite), and Mikio Naruse. The more one learns about Japanese cinema, it's easier to see Kurosawa's personal contempt and disdain for aspects of his own culture. Of course, filmmakers are not exempt from criticizing their homeland, nor should they be. Plenty of Japanese filmmakers, from early stalwarts like Sadao Yamanaka to contemporaries like Sion Sono, question and even condemn the country in their work. But Kurosawa is different: Seven Samurai's elitist attitude is found in reverential images of gallant, noble samurai and the way the peasant community is forced to rely on them for their most basic of needs; the director's early, propagandist wartime films are virtual how-to guides for the "home front" genre. He earned the nickname "Kurosawa TennĊ," translated in English to "Emperor Kurosawa," which Japanese critic Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto says "is used in [the] sense to create an image of Kurosawa as a director who abuses his power solely for the purpose of self-indulgence."

That said, I'm not impervious to his strengths as a filmmaker. Despite the widely held notion that he pandered to Western audiences with distinctly un-Japenese genres and narrative styles, I think he's a great storyteller who pushes against sentimentality but never becomes maudlin. And visually, he's created images of austere beauty, poetic in design and technically advanced in application. You can find my five favorite below.

5. Drunken Angel (1948) The director's first major work is a strange mixture of western genres (noir, melodrama, and even a little neorealism), a sign that Kurosawa preferred to diverge from Japan's filmmaking conscious. This is a particularly effective exercise in style, technically accomplished and entertaining as all hell.

4. Ikiru (1952) A continuation of Drunken Angel's postwar themes, this moral parable, considered by many to be Kurosawa's masterpiece, avoids the director's usual preachiness and elitism, offering instead a humanist story of regret and redemption that ranks among the most sincere and heartbreaking of any film in history.

3. Throne of Blood (1957) Kurosawa aspired to Shakespearean standards, and this take on Macbeth is a fine example of a director rendering the Bard's unique voice in uniquely cinematic terms. Expressionistic and brooding, it features some of the director's most scary and intense images and sequences. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his capsule, this was apparently T.S. Eliot's favorite movie, and when you consider the final sequence, you can see why.

2. Ran (1985) More than Seven Samurai and Kagemusha, this sprawling masterpiece, based on King Lear, is Kurosawa's greatest epic, a towering accomplishment made all the more impressive given the director's old age at the time of production. He made a few more films after this, including the curio Dreams, but this is his swan song.

1. High and Low (1963) A police procedural based on a crime novel by Ed McBain, this noirish potboiler represents Kurosawa at his stylistic heights. The notions of "high" and "low" are represented in both thematic and visual terms as the director employs a bifurcated mise-en-scene to illustrate the characters' inner monologues and contradictory mindsets. In Japanese, the title translates literally to Heaven and Hell, a sensationalistic but no less evocative way of describing the characters' dire circumstances as well as the varied nature of the aesthetics.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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