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After Tea, Some Action
I'm going back to see every Teshigahara I can. I've loved him for a long time, but only recently revisited "Rikyu" (1989) and "Gô-hime" (1992), his last film. And, truth be told, I don't think cinema can get much better than this.
I think it really helps if you love Japanese green tea, and if you're into preparing it yourself. There's a sense of fragile timelessness as one measures the correct volume of water in the right temperature, preheats the teapot and other utensils, and applies the right amount of tea leaves. There's a wonderful, relaxing effect in preparing gyokuro in a shiboridashi, or fukamushi in a kyusu, seeing the leaves unfold. Let alone preparing and drinking matcha out of a chawan.
All of this, in my mind, is present in these two films. The sense of taking one's time, using only a few words instead of many, applying only little color instead of abundance. This is not easy to do, and I think Teshigahara's reputation as an avant-gardist does him wrong. He was, and through his cinema remains, a Rikyu of our time, not only in ikebana but also in cinema.
Not that these two films are the same. This follows "Rikyu" immediately, but it takes some time to adjust to its more energetic and immediate characters, and the change in Toyotomi, since in this film he's played not by Yamazaki but by Oida Katsuhiro. It's the most difficult difference to adjust to, not because of any flaw in Oida but due to Yamazaki's sheer perfection. Oida's Katsuhiro ascends from the heights of a Lear to a perceivably less frightening a majesty. I can't help but miss Yamazaki every time Toyotomi's on screen, although he disappears form the movie very early on.
But there's Nakadai Tatsuya, in his beauty unrivaled, save for the occasional Alain Delons of the world, and in his eloquence of characterization second to none in the realm of world cinema. Here he doesn't have that much to do which could be surmised from the title of the film. The rest of the players are the pillars that carry the princess's throne.
A Terrifying Darkness
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing. ("Macbeth" 5.5.23–27)
"Macbeth" is a beautiful, unforgettable and disturbing phantasmagoria, so I think we're blessed that three master directors (Kurosawa, Polanski, Welles) have tackled perhaps not the subject, per se, but rather the mood of the thing.
It might the old age catching up on me, but I've become increasingly lax concerning adaptations. That might be one reason why I rarely get that much from big productions, because they can't afford (ironic, isn't it?) to deviate or boldly reimagine. Of course there are exceptions, but as a rule of thumb it's so generally elusive that it might take us someplace. Shakespeare, then, is a very fine place for intuitive and explorative filmmaking, mainly because "doing Shakespeare" has become rather synonymous with the idea of "doing Shakespeare differently from anybody else." Which is fine by me: some works I'll like, others don't, and be it either way, none comes out crying.
What I'm looking for in a Macbeth adaptation is, as I've already stated it, the possibilities with which one may play with the mood and atmosphere of the film.
The film looks very good considering the circumstances, and what ruggedness there is only enhances the unpolished, deformed terror the film exudes, and what unevenness there is in terms of picture or sound quality gives the film a kind of Vampyresque dream layer, and it's not likely to be bested before either Guy Maddin or the Brothers Quay tackle the subject. And keeping in mind that many scholars consider Macbeth to be a heavily edited text that has survived to us, it all accommodates this illusion of a hellish story, surviving us in fragments as if through the furnace from generation to generation.
This is indeed a dark, despairing film, and as such phenomenally successful. The beginning is a mélange worthy of "The Hearts of Age" (1934) and the best editing he's done in "F for Fake" (1973), All this power in that little transitory moment where the witches' dark magick takes over. And while I really love "The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice" (1952), but I think this is equally as perfect. Some favourite moments: the witches and their Golem-like voodoo creature in antithesis with the cross-bearing, power-lusty priests; and the way Macbeth's prancing about like Ivan in Eisenstein's epic when he's lost it, just before that having seen himself as in a glass darkly, distorted. Perhaps that would be the one visual motif from the film and for the film, the moment he sees himself contorted and strikes the mirror, and himself. And, in the end, when things fall apart, what a fall.
The darkness overpowers. There seems to be no existence for things outside the frame, or rather outside that which is seen. Claustrophobia. And it works so well. Polanski, in his "Macbeth" (1972), does everything so differently. Instead of claustrophobic darkness, he shoots with grand Welsh and Scottish vistas of natural fog on stone that immediately transports us to an age of violence. I wonder whether the production team of "Game of Thrones" ever took notice of this, or rather, how much. The effect is, in contrast to Welles' method, imposing and equally phobic: there are many immense moments of claustrophobia, but primarily it's agoraphobia, if we can use it in this context to describe the lack of control one has in such wide, open spaces, hostile beyond description. Murderous, satanic.
I find it interesting that Kurosawa's bleakest film wasn't his Macbeth, which we made rather early in his career, but his King Lear, which is the film that in bleakness matches this and Polanski's version.
Rengoku eroica (1970)
A Beautiful, Different Take On Seeing the World
"Heroic Purgatory" (1970) was my first Yoshida, and I'll certainly try to see more than the three films released by Arrow in the "Love + Anarchism" set.
It's definitely avant-garde in the classic sense of the term, marching in the vanguard of utilizing fluid experimental dream language. I know I'll eventually revisit Godard and the French New Wave in the future, whose work at this writing I'd consider dull and uninteresting, but this is the exact opposite of dull: not only is it visually masterful, the story, no matter how evasive and at times elliptical like an afterthought, is actually interesting.
I definitely see, based on this one film, how Yoshida might have influenced Wong, or even Malick's "modern style" from "The Tree of Life" (2011) onwards. And if not, having seen this one really does add to the aforementioned directors' films.
I'm not sure whether the experience would lend itself for a repeat viewing anytime soon, since because of the elliptical nature of the film, despite the complete mastery of the visuals, and Yoshida is clearly a master at work, the film is purposefully obscure. But if one approaches it like a dream, it's a wonderful audiovisual journey through some very unusual ways to see the world.
It's fun to know really nothing at all about Yoshida, other than him starting out under Kinoshita's tutelage. It strongly resembles the Ozu-Imamura relationship, where the "old", strict formalism (or what would certainly seem as such by the new generation of filmmakers) in its part has influenced the radical swerves of the apprentices. I'd really like to know what he thought of Teshigahara.
My Cup of Tea
Teshigahara is one of the many unsung heroes of cinema, his most famous work, "Women in the Dunes" (1964), a landmark of not only Japanese but world cinema, followed by other existentially and metaphysically audacious works.
"Rikyu" (1989), his second to last film, exists in a different world altogether. Gone is the hectic energy of the sixties, replaced by a meditative immersion in the small. As such, it's very much to my liking. What certainly helps is that I love matcha, that I know Teshigahara and have some knowledge of ikebana and the way of tea.
At IMDb, it's only received 427 votes as of 31 December 2015, albeit with a rather high 7.4 average. Despite this I've not found much love for Rikyu elsewhere. It's often dismissed as late Teshigahara, where "late" signifies similar insubstantiality as in "late Welles". (The opinion according to which Welles made one great film and others only of some worth seems to be the prevalent opinion in the mainstream.) But I love it dearly. It's unassuming, exactly the kind of film that embodies Rikyu's first of seven rules of chanoyu, the ritual we know as the tea ceremony: "arrange the flowers as they grow in the fields." Teshigahara's eye for such radical simplicity is pointed out in the film by the Portuguese missionary, who marvels at the Japanese way of leaving blank space in their paintings. When there's space, there's also remarkable focus but such that doesn't suffocate.
A few words should be said about the acting. I've been an avid admirer of Mikuni Rentarô ever since he and I crossed paths in Imamura's seminal works "Profound Desires of the Gods" (1968) and "Vengeance is Mine" (1979). His Rikyu is exquisite: introverted, priestly and ritualistically deliberate, yet all the same a deeply passionate and feeling individual. This powerful dualism between introverted and extroverted is emphasized by the lord's exuberance, but also in the moments Of Rikyu's agitation.
And then there's Yamazaki Tsutomu. His Toyotomi is a force of nature, a delight one moment, a terrifying blast of thunder the next. He's a towering, tragic figure. His expression as the plan of poisoning is introduced to Rikyu in the meeting is the iconic moment for me, an image so strong I'm bound never forget, a moment of multiform emotions, a roll of waves.
The rest of the cast shines, too, without exception. Not only are they superb artists, but much of this owes to a masterful director. Takemitsu, an artist in his craft equal to Teshigahara and Rikyu, makes the air tingle with his music.
When this is available in HD in an English-friendly edition, let me know. I'll be forever grateful.
Ningen no jôken (1959)
"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and "Profound Desires of the Gods" (1968) are epic, immense films in size and scope. So is Gance's "Napoléon" (1927). And still, Kobayashi's "The Human Condition", released in three parts from 1959 to 1961, tends to stand out. Three films, each three hours or longer, and still a singular journey, "one of the most monumental acts of personal expiation in all cinematic history." The quote is from Philip Kemp, and it is good to know a few things about Kobayashi the director. Critical of the war and shipped to Manchuria, living as a POW under the Americans, he's not that unlike to Kaji the protagonist. This is a film made by someone who had seen war, and knew firsthand what its criticism meant. I believe this to be an important point to remember as one discusses Kaji's character, and his perceived flaws.
It's easy enough to brush the first film aside as a mere introduction to a story that unfolds and ripens in its due course. This interpretation is enhanced by Kaji's character, whose personality and actions are seen as naive and altogether misinformed and stubborn. When one sees the trilogy as a kind of developing progression of his philosophy and ethics, it is easy to overlook the virtues of this film and disregard it as elementary.
Yet this is no lesser work. In visual terms, the deserted space of the mining complex, inhabited by so small people against such an infinite backdrop, anticipates the visually contrapuntal existential alienation of the sixties Teshigahara and Antonioni.
Kaji, played to perfection by Nakadai Tatsyua, is no saint. I think it would be too easy to attribute to him only naive and pure intentions, as he's actually a rather ruthless individual from the beginning. He's an idealist, sure; often naive, certainly; but far from blameless, and what often seems like his naiveté might actually betray stubbornness rooted in self-righteousness. In the very first scene where he discusses marriage and sex with Michiko he certainly seems to me as holier-than-thou and standing on a pedestal in how he proves a point by playing a trick on her.
Indeed, while it might be eloquent to describe the three films as his downward spiral, his fall from grace, I think this is amiss. What is irritating about Kaji is not that he's always in the right but that he persistently thinks he's in the right. He's so devoted to his cause that nothing else matters. This is his strength and weakness, something which some viewers too easily tend to attribute to be the film's weakness. Much of the film's greatest drama comes from his stubbornness, bordering on and often transcending the inane and annoying, especially his utter lack of subtlety.
Yet he needs to be this way. Not only so that what follows will hit harder, but his figure is not tragic simply because he's a man of ideals and stands up for them, it's because in some ways he's just as ruthless as those he criticizes.
A key to this interpretation is found in his marriage and relationship with Michio. For me it's the central tragedy in the film, not only because of what Kaji and Michiko end up losing because of Kaji's plight but also because of Kaji himself. He's a man who feels deeply, yet is so blinded by his mission that he helps to destroy his marriage, and Michiko to an extent, even before the end of the first film. The title of the first film, "No Greater Love," not only refers to Jn 15:13 ("Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends") and in a way to Kaji's mission to help others, but also to the love Michiko has for Kaji, a love that he will find unparalleled and lost to him.
 Philip Kemp, "The Human Condition: The Prisoner," retrieved 26 August 2015 from the Criterion Collection website.
Tôkyô nagaremono (1966)
Wherever the place be whence the zaniest Imamura, Ôbayashi or Greenaway might stem, Suzuki's films come from there as well. Not that "Tokyo Drifter" (1966) would exactly share a room with "Hausu" (1977), though. In fact, I find it to be closer to the early Wong Kar-Wai up until 1995, or even the contemporaries beside Imamura, certainly not excluding Kurosawa, whose "Yojimbo" (1961) could the quintessential film in the genre.
Yet still I find the most pervasive companion to Tokyo Drifter from the multitude of Zatôichi films. There the kind of James Bond pop-art of a larger-than-life quest to defeat gravity (here to break free from the yakuza world) ends in the predestined pull back toward Earth. Tetsu is the one to recognize this when he's unable to escape trouble amid the snow.
This was my first Suzuki, and "Tokyo Drifter" is a gorgeously synchronized film. By "synchronized" I mean the utter control Suzuki and his crew have over the movie: the story utilized effectively through the use of every cinematic means possible to not only forget about the story but to emphasize it. This means the film doesn't forget what it's supposed to do (to carry the story), yet carrying the story is the least of its concerns. What do I mean by this? One could argue that the story is weak. The reason for this is the fact that the story is so simple. It's simple, yet deceptively so: by furnishing us with all the possible known material in the genre, Suzuki doesn't go the usual way as modern action directors might as to forget about the story and concentrate on whatever skill it is some might wish to show off. Instead, he has a deceptively simple story made into a strong film because he plays the story out. And the way he does this is still not exactly what the modern cinema has been doing from the sixties onward — by looking at itself, pointing at its possibly perceived flaws and laughing at them, modern self-aware cinema makes us aware that it's our twisted notions about film that are to be laughed at. In other words, I really find much of the New Wave basically trying to educate us by showing our mistakes as filmgoers.
Suzuki, however, doesn't do this. This film acts out like a guilty pleasure, which it is to some extent, yet without the washed out feeling in the end that we're somehow worse off because of it. He doesn't hoodwink us into believing what we're seeing is something it's not, and instead he carefully makes the ironies even stronger. Sure, the story is generic, yet what he does with it is unapologetically cinematic and unapologetically true to not only itself and its great sense of rhythm and humour, but also to us, since it doesn't punish us by trying to teach us a lesson about what film should be like.
Instead, this is a film that's just as jazzy as its back cover descriptions make it out to be. So much of its humour is visually oriented that it's a marvellous joyride for people like me who find from Chaplin and Keaton the elixir for a rainy day. The brawl toward the end is so masterfully executed, the timing of each movement and the fun of it all, that it's one of the highlights of the film.
And one last thing. Another reason why it works so well is that the actors are taking it seriously. They're not acting hip by knowing it's an act, they're actually invested in the stereotype they might be playing. This way it's Suzuki who can channel that atmosphere back to us. If this still makes sense in the morning, I'll eat my hat, although first I have to buy one.
Koroshi no rakuin (1967)
Film criticism, as I see it, is not so much to do with coming to understand the films' shortcomings but instead the viewer's own failure to connect with them, and the reasons for rejection. So it is, then, that "Branded to Kill" (1967), while equally as exuberant and berserk in many similarly positive ways as Suzuki's other widely regarded yakuza film, "Tokyo Drifter" (1966), misses the mark with this particular film enthusiast.
While Suzuki's adventurous visual widescreen composition and impressionistic editing remain the most rewarding aspects also ins particular film, I'm left wondering why "Tokyo Drifter" worked for me and this one didn't. Perhaps the former was easier to place in contradistinction to the genres and "film mentality" it's toying with. Perhaps it was an "easier" film, more "conventional" and thus "conventional" enough to be more readily appreciated. Or perhaps we've come so far in self-reference and parody both in the art-house and mainstream that the latter film simply hasn't aged as gracefully. I just thought it stretched too far, never inviting me in. I've felt the same about the most disconnected Greenaway, too.
The Criterion Collection has other Suzukis on offer, and I think I'll somehow come back here when I've experienced them. Perhaps by then I'll understand more of Suzuki, and/or myself.
Kohayagawa-ke no aki (1961)
"With so many captains, this ship will end up in the mountains."
Perfection perfection perfection! This is the penultimate film by the one filmmaker that somehow always continues to amaze me and reassert the power cinema has. It's like reading a haiku by Bashô, or a poem by Merwin. Something made in a different time and place, yet still so strongly present in the here and now.
Regardless of the pervasive and thoroughly Ozuesque marriage dealings, this film is really about death. Its imminence, immutability. Its invisibility. The comedy, of which there's plenty, is balanced and ultimately cancelled out by what unfolds, and the final funeral procession is worthy of Welles' "Othello" (1952) in its bleak finality, and that smoke from the crematorium is among the darkest and most beautiful metaphors in all of Ozu — our life vanishes with our body either into the ground, or as is appropriate in the Japanese culture, into thin air. It vanishes. For a moment a kind of an emblem of it lingers in the air, and then even that token is gone.
And as only Ozu can, there's always the comic undersong, no matter how dark the waters we're treading. (This works both ways, mind!) The past is on its way out, the present is colliding with the future. It's the old paterfamilias who's growing into a child again, rekindling an old flame, failing to act his age at the gate of death, and it's the daughter who tells him off (the brother all tight-lipped and spooked about mentioning it, failing to step up. As is often the case, the females are perfectly capable of coping not their own, thank you very much.
I think Ozu's impact is the strongest when I'm away from him for a while. Then I get used to other ways of seeing things, yet when I go back to him the effect is stupendous: how he frames a shot of a doorway, a train station, of what seems to be the most "insignificant" transitory shot between scenes is beyond words. But it's always in that which many of us find "insignificant" where he finds a whole new universe waiting to be explored, and cherished. The beauty of his cinema is why I love film. It's the great friendship that lasts.
Seeing as the BFI are either incapable or unwilling to complete their Ozu project and might not actually have the rights to this film anyway, and now that Criterion have pushed from the mainline into the Eclipse, I wonder when we might see a decent Blu-ray of this wonderful film.
Akasen chitai (1956)
"There's no way out now"
Visiting any of the great masters (Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi) always galvanizes me into action. I watched "The End of Summer" (1961) and was hooked. I had to see this, a late Mizoguchi, before seeing another Ozu. You know, for the rhythm. And while they are completely different in so many ways, both create such poetry that usually it takes forever for me to watch their films, since I repeatedly have to pause the film to be soaked in the images.
"Street of Shame" (1956), Mizoguchi's last film, is no different in this respect, although it does carry that ominous "last film" aura over its head, which always bodes for some sinister stuff in my personal brooding, regardless of whether the film is comic or not.
The music is provoking. It sounded so much like something out of an Imamura film that I had to wonder whether I had accidentally put in "The Insect Woman" (1963), a film I had been watching recently as well. Constantly it makes you feel that everything's slipping into a chasm, whence there's no return. And things, how do they go wrong.
The film has, overall, a very modern feel to it. Not only in the subject matter, which is in stark contrast with the jidai-geki Mizoguchi is most famed for. It's also the spirit of the film, the aesthetics, the technique. It certainly hasn't got the slightest sense of a "last film" to it. On the contrary, this is a testament in the other sense of the word: evidence of his artistic vitality and boldness in choosing the unsafe way, embracing the risk. Pretty much aligned with what the film is about.
Speaking of Imamura, the film would work well alongside Imamura's masterly explorations of the seedy Japanese subcultures, or "Bakumatsu taiyôden" (1957), Kawashima's comic masterwork. Mizoguchi, with his usual ruthlessness, shows us a world that doesn't work the way we'd like, and in which the only way to survive is to fight, and in which fighting more often than not isn't enough. "Deceive, or be deceived", and still perish.
The hidden center of the film is Shizuko, the young girl who becomes a prostitute by the very end. It's all building up for that moment, where we realize with her that, as what in the context of philosophy and Oriental religion is understood as the circle of life is, in the pragmatism of the film, reduced into a horrifying prophecy of the same things happening all over again. A life lived, yet not for oneself. It's all lies, Shizuko realizes, and excuses, and sad theatre. Sad most of all because there's no way out.
 And why should it? Mizoguchi was working hard on another film, documented well in the documentary "Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director" (1975) by Kaneto Shindô. Some storyboards exist, and seeing them are among the saddest moments in film I can think of. How much I'd love to have seen whatever he had in mind.
The Great Dictator (1940)
The Joker and The Madman
Chaplin's films are like the ocean. The surface seems calm and unaltered, yet a great shift is stirring up underneath, the surface changing only when the powerful undercurrent is in full swing.
So it is that "The Great Dictator" (1940) is a part of this sea-change that finds Chaplin on a path to the apotheosis I'd place in "Limelight" (1952). No longer similarly spirited like Chaplin's earlier comedies, or the middle period of the late 1920s and 1930s, Chaplin is persistently moving toward a new kind of cinema already emerging in "Modern Times" (1935).
His transition to sound unquestionably had much to do with it. He had to let the Tramp go. Thus The Great Dictator marks a watershed in a filmography already brimming with turning points. I'd say this is where "late Chaplin" truly begins, Modern Times being a kind of transitory film. And as I've stated, this is not only a superficial transformation but a deeper development also in what he perceives as cinematic, funny and tragic. Surely Chaplin's films have always had that sinuously sad and dark undersong, commingled with the more apparently comical, as he was himself quick to point out, yet it finds its maturity in this later period.
Seeing The Great Dictator after World War II and its aftermath is like reading James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) after almost a hundred years of literary criticism and analysis. It's so pregnant with cultural meaning(s) assigned to it that it's quite impossible to watch it not through the prism of history. But I think it's important to remember that this was filmed in the late 1930s, and as Chaplin would famously muse, he had no idea of the full extent of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime against the jews and others.
The film, then, stands in the anteroom to either history or fiction. Yet I can't help but see it as at its core as a kind of Chaplinesque fantasy, where the battle of good and evil is personified in the two doppelgängers. The evil was not hard to find at all, yet neither was the good: it was the Tramp, of course, who, thanks to the advent of sound, is morphed into the Jewish barber.
As such, The Great Dictator is a superb achievement. Its place in not only film history but world history actually works in its favor, accentuating the comedy with the tragic and the tragic with the comic. It's a work of precision, intelligence and, characteristic of Chaplin's genius, deep wisdom. Has there ever been a filmmaker who has understood us better than him? I think it's immensely useful to approach The Great Dictator as a dyadic exploration. On story level, there's the good versus evil contradistinction; technically there's the constant discourse between the silent and sound eras, which presents itself not only visually or in sounds, but also in how sound and what is seen become an integral element of the story, a kind of continuation of City Lights. Chaplin has such extensive fun on Hitler's expense in the public monologues that I wonder whether, in Michael Wood's words, "he may in part be using speech to remind us of the beauties of silence." In the story there's some drastic and some very subtle use of undercranking, as befits 1910s, the silent era, the film starts with. We're extremely lucky, by the way, to have the Criterion Collection putting these out on Blu-ray. Everything they've released so far from Chaplin has been immaculate.
 "The Gold Rush" (1925), for example, was inspired by the Donner party tragedy, as recounted by Chaplin in "Mr. Chaplin Answers His Critics," from The New York Times, 27 October, 1940. On page 18 in the booklet for the Criterion Collection Blu-ray.
 "Just think," Chaplin would say, "he's the madman, I'm the comic. But it could have been the other way around." In "My Father, Charlie Chaplin" by Charles Chaplin, Jr.
 Michael Wood, "The Joker and the Madman," on page 8 of the booklet for the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.
 As pointed out by Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran in the audio commentary for the Criterion Collection edition.
The Freshman (1925)
I tried really hard to get into this film, yet perhaps my greatest impediment was that I tried a bit too hard.
Having thoroughly enjoyed "Safety Last!" (1923), I was struggling to move past mere admiration for "The Freshman" (1925). I did admire the technical astuteness of it, the timing of the gags, and Lloyd's impeccable expertise. Yet that's admiration, whereas I'm looking forward to be swept off my feet and to fall in love. (This reaction is not too dissimilar to my feelings about Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" ; there's another movie of technical and comic brilliance that I'm more inclined to admire but not love like I did "The Grand Budapest Hotel" , in fact every single minute of it.)
But the final climax, the football game, is perfect and without any doubt the gem of the film. That's where everything seems to transcend that which has come before, and every single gag take a completely new meaning on a whole different kind of level of existence. I was enthralled, laughed out loud, and was holding my breath. What else can one wish for when seeing a film? That final sequence alone makes "The Freshman" a worthwhile experience for me, and perhaps one day I'll be able to appreciate it more as a whole than I do now. But, for the time being, I'll cherish that last run.
Welt am Draht (1973)
I have seen "The Thirteenth Floor" (1999), but it's 16 years ago, so luckily I remembered next to nothing about the story, which in this instance, although I'm barely one to be put off by knowing what's going to happen, is certainly a plus. (They're based on the same novel, in case you're wondering what I'm talking about.) Fassbinder's adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye's novel "Simulacron–3" is certainly massive. Made for TV in 1973, it's in two parts that total a runtime of 205 minutes. But it is far from overlong, which says something since, when all's said and done, not that much happens. But what makes the film so entertaining is Fassbinder's total command of his craft, and that insatiable, sinuous sense for cinematic adventure that not only reflects but largely defines the narrative itself. The camera lurks behind objects, it's sometimes inescapably lost, reflections are used a lot. Fassbinder's repertoire is so varied it's amazing. The narrative pushes forward with relentless gusto and with appropriate predetermined sense of discovery.
In a wonderfully exuberant filmography "World on a Wire" not only shines, it's actually one of the best sci-fis out there, a worthy companion to "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), Solaris (1972) and "Stalker" (1979). More modern fare that has explored nested realities in the mainstream, namely "The Matrix" (1999) and "Inception" (2010), will be a great deal more interesting because of this film.
Ugetsu monogatari (1953)
I'd like to think of the hobby of watching films as a journey through a forest. The films are the trees, and the path takes us down and around all sorts of vistas. Some are worth our time, some not, and some we mark down on a map so we could find them later and return to marvel at them.
Film, for me, is just like the realities depicted in this film, where we wonder from one ghost world to another. We deceive ourselves; let ourselves be deceived. And what a marvellous poem is Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu monogatari" (1953), a film about twofold ambition: fame and money, and creating art. Art is always about risking everything, and continuing even if we might lose everything. As such, the film is a treasure trove of creativity, passion and genius.
Ugetsu is also one of the most lucid meditations on the "what if". It seems like the film were made of short segments, each then plunging into the "what if" in an alternate dimension, and deeper we go so that by the time we escape the illusion of the manor, we arrive fresh at the illusion of a happy family, until the reality kicks in.
The ghost story is central, too, but perhaps not so extensively as the reputation of the film might suggest. I'd consider it more as the matter through which Mizoguchi channels his meditations on art, death and lust, and I believe it actually benefits the first viewings of the film if it's not too strictly tied in the ghost story tradition, or at least keeping in mind that this is actually a mélange of three short stories, two from Ueda Akinari and one from Guy de Maupassant. Not that this isn't a powerful predecessor to "Onibaba" (1964), "Kaidan" (1964) and "Yabu no naka no kuroneko" (1968), it's always advisable to avoid generic categorization so as not to be led astray to see a film that doesn't really exist. As for the ghost story aspect, the Criterion DVD prints the stories it's based on, but I'd direct you to a wonderful collection of Chinese ghost stories similar in spirit, Pu Songling's "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio," available through Penguin Classics. These stories unwrap the depth of the narrative at play in Ugetsu, too, and how the supernatural is like Lake Biwa through which the group travels in the spectral mist. I've written about this before, but I'd really love to know whether Mizoguchi knew Dreyer's "Vampyr" (1932), since that iconic Lake Biwa scene is so similar in atmosphere to a certain scene in Dreyer's phantasmagoria.
But the real ghost is in the visuals. Cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo stated in 1992, as recorded by Phillip Lopate*, that they used a crane about 70 percent of the time. The camera, then, is the ghost, who sees everything and moves anyway it wants, joining the worlds together seamlessly as it hovers through the air in so many shots, so beautifully one wonders what superhuman skill it must have taken to make those things work. In Lopate's eloquent expression, "it is the movie's supreme balancing act to be able to move seamlessly between the realistic and the otherworldly."** The final homecoming, one of the most heart-rending of them all, is where all the worlds intertwine and become transparent planes atop each other.
It's staggeringly past belief how much quality cinema was created in Japan during the fifties, even the few years from 1950 to 1955. Kurosawa was deservedly taking the world by storm, but in the quiet corner Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi were making the films of their lives, "Ugetsu" is rightfully grouped in that class of unique films.
When Criterion released this on DVD in 2005, it was a one of a kind film event for me. It was the first Mizoguchi in the collection, and I already owned "Saikaku ichidai onna" (1952) on DVD, courtesy of Artificial Eye, and "Sanshô dayû" (1954) on videotape, courtesy of BFI. Having Mizoguchi on DVD was, at the time, almost as radical a thought as wishing now that one might find some Naruse on Blu-ray someday. But fans of Mizoguchi's art are well- catered to: not only do we have several DVDs, a large body of work is actually available on Blu-ray, as well: Criterion and Masters of Cinema have released "Sansho," the latter have also released Ugetsu and — let's count together — six (!) other Mizoguchi's on Blu (although it was a limited edition and somebody's getting rich by selling them nowadays), and Artificial Eye have released four earlier masterworks.
* Phillip Lopate, "From the Other Shore," 12. Printed in the DVD booklet of the Criterion Collection edition of Ugetsu Monogatari, released in 2005.
** ibid., 10.
Histoire immortelle (1968)
Bathe in the Light
Obscure even in Welles' obscure filmography and hardly available anywhere, "The Immortal Story" (1968) is his shortest feature film and would be followed only by "F for Fake" (1974) and "Filming 'Othello'" (1978).
Even Borgesian in its treatment of life and fiction, mirrors become important metaphors right away: the looking glasses brought from France, the mirrors as witnesses to the long- vanished happiness of the Ducrot family, Clay having a mirror in his dining room, him sitting face to face with his portrait; and then, the film becomes a kind of a mirror, which then takes a life of its own when he devices the brilliant fiction in his own life. Quite soon the film and its life become a game of cards, a grand trick of the cosmos. The scene where they bathe in the light is pure magic.
Satie's piano pieces are powerful. Also, I wonder how and whether at all this would have anticipated something in "The Other Side of the Wind"?
La grande bellezza (2013)
Let's get the most obvious and pressing statement and introductory bluff out of the way: I had procrastinated for some reason to see this film, pushed it aside, until very recently I saw Kiarostami's two new films, the other set in Italy and the other in Japan. Then, for some reason, I found myself in the evidently suitable mood for it. And, truly, "La grande bellezza" (2013) is indeed a marvelous achievement in modern cinema.
The first reel is such a full-blown hyperactive explosion of fireworks and of all cinematic devices possible that it's a long time I've seen quite anything like it. It's like "Moulin Rouge!" (2001), the difference being that Luhrmann takes himself way too seriously in comparison. If one is looking for a definition of fun, in filmic terms, then this might be it: not only are the people having fun, we're having fun because the presentation is so over the top? No, I don't buy it. This isn't over the top where either the immaturity or naiveté of the filmmaker takes full control. This is ironic, yes, full of humanity, but I'd rather call it enthusiastic, not only because it's an appropriate word but because of its etymology: it comes from the Greek ἐνθουσιασμός, "enthousiasmós", meaning "possessed by a god".
Perhaps part of why it works so well is that the visual side of the film has all going for an Antonioni film, but again, the film takes a powerful, visually ironic swerve from the Antonioni's apparent bleak existentialism. This is powerful stuff. Another film right up its alley is Malick's "The Tree of Life" (2011), since Sorrentino too finds the past in present tragedy, the doors unlocked by the one door one only walks through once. And whereas Malick too is a serious artist, and among the most seriously ingenious we have, Sorrentino's film has in abundance the life-affirming love for life that not only depicts life but sustains it. It's closer to Fellini, and "La Dolce Vita" (1960) pops up in any conversation about it.
We laugh at them and with them, and only them are we able to cry with them. This is the great swerve of the film, a tragicomical crescendo from the comical to the infinitely tragic: the vacuity not of life, of conversation, of society, but of self. Seeing it happening all around, as much within as without.
And then let's talk about the colours. To say they are lush is to understate. They're somewhere high up where Visconti's "Il gattopardo" soars, or Wong's masterful examinations of colour, or Miyazaki's "Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi" (2001) and "Hauru no ugoku shiro" (2004), or Kurosawa's "Ran" (1985), where colour takes on a character beyond the function of indicating ambiance or mood, rather channeling the direction of the narrative.
And then there's Rome. Having lived in Italy (farther to the North, in Bologna) and having visited Rome and roamed its streets, the film's impeccable presentation of the city in a modern city symphony framework was like a trip down the memory lane: the water, the river, the streets, the luminous sky on a clear evening, the monuments.
And then the music. Kubrick and Malick have used music not to annotate but to become part of the film's soul, and so has Sorrentino. The songs he uses are varied, beautifully in- place, integral pieces without which one couldn't imagine the film to be the same. I guess there can be no higher compliment on my part, singularly since this is music that wasn't composed for the film.
"My Complication Had a Little Complication"
It's never a reader-friendly opening sentence that states that the writer doesn't generally enjoy the films of the director in question, in this instance, of Terry Gilliam's. "Twelve Monkeys" (1995) I like, but have found most others impenetrable despite the obvious craftsmanship.
Although this impenetrability does in part apply to "Brazil" (1985), as well, it is so many great things at once it's quite impossible not to be swept away but it: "Brazil" is sardonic, retro-futuristic, dystopian in its black and dead-pan humour, Kafkaesque even, a world that by its design describes its narrative as in "Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" (1920), here a mishmash of objects and trash in a society apparently governed by many laws that in their complexity are supposed to make the world a series of lucidly automated operations — and last but not least Jonathan Price in one of the most iconic roles of the eighties.
For me the closest point of comparison is not Monty Python but Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982), both arising from the bleak prophecy of not future but present societies governed by endless corporate bureaucratic machineries. The main difference, however, is in how the universe is constructed: while in "Blade Runner" the universe is nihilistically silent, letting the world destroy itself on its own, here the universe winks behind our back. It is, like much of Gilliam's filmography, a journey into time and space, governed by the rules of paranoia and not exactly knowing one's footing in the universe that seems to be constantly shifting an changing.
Another point of reference is in the release history of the film, which could be from the film's askew universe itself. Deemed too bleak and confusing by the distributor, Universal, it was cut down drastically to 90 minutes, yet Gilliam fought so that the film was shown in secret and without Universal's blessing, and its reputation skyrocketed when the Los Angeles Critics Association awarded it with best picture and best director among others, even at a time when the film had not been seen by the public.
Copie conforme (2010)
We Lose Our Place
I admit having not seen enough Kiarostami, but having seen enough to say that each his films are unique pleasures for a fan of cinema. No matter what the subject matter, he's always able, either explicitly or implicitly, to teach us something profound about art and filmmaking, which in my vocabulary is very close to "life" as a noun and "to live" as a verb.
A truly international film, a French-Italian-Belgian production, Kiarostami's "Copie conforme" (2010) is his first dramatic film to be shot outside Iran. And the film is a delight. The first ten minutes are spellbinding, and foreground the film perfectly, offering not only really substantial intellectual stimulation (intellectual here, unfortunately, as an expression, seems to undermine all the other words) but hints at what's going to happen later on. The copy as important as the original.
Some scenes are framed as paintings before closeups. The sense that everything is not as it seems soon settles in. And when the shift occurs, what an amazing moment! We lose our place, we swerve, the film becomes a different entity, a stranger that has been masquerading as a friend or a friend who's masquerading as a stranger.
And Juliette Binoche! She's like Gong Li, Madhabi Mukherjee, Monica Vitti and Hara Setsuko, all genuine jewels in the art of acting, breathing humanity, able to carry the weight of the narrative and dress it up in an emotional context. Hint at that which is not seen, make meaningful that which is. William Shimell is great, as well, and it's amazing to think it's his first role. Kiarostami's style is effortless, smooth and rhythmic, the images dance with each other. And this film is a dance I wouldn't want to miss.
A Lot of Fun
I'm having a bit of fun watching some fantastical cinema, starting with "Brazil" (1985), continuing with some early Guillermo del Toro and probably advancing to some early Cronenberg and Lynch. Who wouldn't like that?
I didn't have any specific expectations for "Cronos" (1993) other than perhaps something along the lines of Polanski's brilliantly mysterious "The Ninth Gate" (1999), and in terms of atmosphere, the two are definitely not unlike each other, and this is most certainly a compliment on my part.
Although Polanski's is the more interesting and accomplished film, "Cronos" is a lot of fun, especially during the first part, where the mystery is set out and the the device found and its meaning worked on. I didn't care too much for the initial resolution, which shifted the film from its ancient mystery and stamina into something more conventional, but that first part is very nice filmmaking indeed.
And you know Ana from "El espíritu de la colmena" (1973)? This could be one of her dreams, a bit on the nightmare side, that's true, but so full of vivacious humour that it's impossible not to laugh at times.
While I'm not exactly impressed with the film as a whole, I'm impressed with the director and his ideas. If you have the opportunity, I'd listen to the commentary track by Del Toro to the Masters of Cinema release of Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Vampyr" (1932), which not necessarily explains a lot of this but enriches the ideas behind the film.
Filming 'Othello' (1978)
I think this film is among the most fascinating there is. See, I think Orson Welles is among the greatest artists ever, in any field or time. He's a genius of light and shadow, of creating images and rhythms that not only captivate but shape the way films are made and how they're seen.
If you have been bewitched by him, as I have been, in "F for Fake" (1974), then this film is a drug, really. It's amazing to see him talk, since he's such a charismatic narrator. Indeed, I think he could talk about anything and it'd be there to listen; considering that he discusses what I think is again among the greatest achievements in art, his 1952 film "The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice" (1952). His insight into his art, and his insight into art and storytelling, also as a storyteller in the ongoing conversation, are actually something I'd recommend to be studied, because they're not only first-rate, they're inspiring.
His anecdote of him finding out "Othello" had won at Cannes is priceless, as well as that of the Turkish bath. Also Welles' remark that "one real life Iago is enough for any life", and his definition of a film director as " the man who presides over accidents, but doesn't make them."
Of course this is best served with "Othello", but I would really see "F for Fake" too. They make for a great experience, and Welles' "Macbeth" (1948) and "Chimes of Midnight" (1965), as well.
At this writing the film is available on YouTube. I suppose, as is the case with most Welles films, the rights issue is a tangle, since I haven't seen it on any DVDs.
F for Fake (1973)
A Behemoth of Self-Reference
I've seen almost everything there is to see from the man, and if I'm convinced of something it's of the fact that Orson Welles was a genius. Not only a man with promising skill, who made a few great films and wandered the desert for the rest of his life; no, he made utter masterworks to the very end, actual innovation, reinvention and rethinking what cinema is, and I don't think we give him enough credit for what he has done if we speak of him only in relation to "Citizen Kane" (1941) or speak of him as a tragic figure who could have made a difference.
The last of his feature films, only followed by "Filming 'Othello'" (1978) five years later, "F for Fake" (1973) is such a remarkable tour-de-force trip through the secret passageways of the possibilities of cinema I think it'll take one lifetime to really get over it: hyper-sensory to the extreme, "Fake" shows that bodacious cinema is accomplished not through expensive digital effects (not that there's anything wrong with expensive digital effects per se, note!) but through rhythm and expectation in editing. Promises, not explanations. Hesitation and release. The narrative is a profoundly multidimensional behemoth of self-reference it's near- impossible to delineate them all in relation to each other, an attribute that reiteratively underlines the impossible cognitive capacities Welles had to guide the film material into the film it now is, all this both premeditatedly before and during shooting but especially in the editing room.
Imamura's "Ningen jôhatsu" (1967) and Kiarostami's "Nema-ye Nazdik" (1990) join this film in enriching our lives and making them a little bit less fake?
It's become a running joke that this film, too, was badly received at the time. But you know, "The public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius." Wild words, Oscar, but I agree.
Kaze tachinu (2013)
A Flight of Imagination
I'm going to pull out all the stops as I'm trying to verbalize how mightily impressed I am with "Kaze tachinu" (2013), or "The Wind Rises". Miyazaki has now been at the top of his game for well over thirty years, and his latest and apparently last film is remarkable in all the usual modi operandi – luxuriant use and understanding of colour, extraordinary level of detail in even the most mundane-seeming particulars that make the scenes come to life, fantastical sense of the relationship between dreams and imagination and reality, and how the story stems from the images and extends to the world of the creator, and ours.
The film tells the story of Horikoshi Jiro, a genius whose enthusing search for perfection makes him descend the dream-path laid down in his youth. A story of determination, the film is also a profound meditation on the forces of nature: Tokyo destroyed in the earthquake and by fire, the aircraft in shreds and pieces. The influence and inspiration given to Jiro by what only he seems to be able to see around him makes him the visionary that he is.
Airplanes, trains, ships, radiators. The path to advance technology, first by exposure, then by imagination and invention. To be either Achilles, twenty years behind, or the tortoise.
Filmmaking is very much the same: seeing the unseen, imagining that which has not been imagined. This is not compromise or pampering to the lowest common denominator, but art that goes all the way beyond our wildest dreams and is still able to describe the indescribable so lucidly we become enraptured and immediately converted.
All the Miyazakis I've seen have some incredulously indelible moments without compare. Here there are several, including the utterly beautiful dreams, especially the wind, the opening five minutes in full, the remarkable sound design during the dreams and the earthquake, the water, the rain, and the flight.
And speak of the wind! It has personality, it's brilliant and as powerful as in "Ran" (1985), "Zerkalo" (1975) or "The Wind" (1928), in some ways even more so because it's animated in ways impossible to achieve in live action.
And the love that uncharacteristically seems to evade and elude, as it does in Wong Kar-Wai's "Fa yeung nin wa" (2000). She paints, and the picturesque mise en scène and the atmosphere is comparable to "Van Gogh" (1991) and its languorous lushness. Then there's Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain" used by Castorp as an allegory for forgetting, yet the novel becomes real through Nahoko's illness and not as a token of forgetting but instead of never forgetting.
And then there's the war. "It flies like a dream", the pilot says, thanking Jiro during the apparent climax of the film, and Miyazaki cuts to a scene of utter destruction, a cemetery of people, ideals, ideas and technology, a disaster not unlike the earthquake in the beginning, yet so tragically unlike.
The name of the film comes from a quotation from Paul Valéry, but refers to Ghibli: the name of the studio but also the engine of the aircraft in "Porco Rosso" (1992). It's a real engine used in an Italian aircraft during World War II, designed by the Caproni seen in the film. In a way, then, this is as natural a conclusion to Miyazaki's career as one could imagine: a flight of imagination, carried by the most powerful wind, and a shared dream of great minds that we are lucky to be invited in.
Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (1960)
Everything Is Not As It Seems
Ingeniously incorporating some Hamlet into the core of the film, the first Kurosawa made in the sixties returns to the urban surroundings he had not only done so expertly previously but would film with verve especially in "Tengoku to jigoku" ('High and Low', 1963), perhaps my favourite Kurosawa.
While his previous film, "Kumonosu-jô" (1958), was a period piece, "The Bad Sleep Well" incorporates the Shakespearen elements revenge, familial honor and defilement into a modern, contemporary setting. As much as I love his samurai epics, I've found his films set in contemporary Japan to be invigorating and hectic, bursting with the same creative energy and gusto as Imamura's explorations of the lower tiers of Japanese society. Some of this, I suppose, is an unconscious attempt to break away from the stereotypical perception of Kurosawa, who is, in the mainstream, seen as the "director of samurai epics". But these are great films, mind!
And so is this — and it has one of the most provocative, sublime and exhilarating opening scenes ever. What makes it even more fun is how he plays with "Hamlet", it's deliciously foggy as to who on earth Mifune is playing, since he's the one getting married! But that's a by-product, the most amazing thing in the way it all unfurls: we enter a wedding ceremony with a group of journalists, and watch them watch the action unfold, and watch them making conclusions for us, commenting on the action that takes place in the banquet. They obviously know something's not right, and we learn it quickly, too. And doesn't the name of the film, "The Bad Sleep Well", also tell us that everything is not as it seems?
And Kurosawa makes it all look so easy: cutting between the reception area and the ceremony, sometimes moving the camera from one impeccable mise en scène to reveal another. The whole film is like this, fireworks, utter entertainment visually that's not mere eye candy but serious art that's so effortless it's impossible to figure out how he was able to conceive gems like this. And considering he did it year in, year out, is remarkable.
Of course, the whole film is a revelation of interwoven scenes of highest mastery. It's 150 minutes of a tight pace and atmosphere, plotting, even retaliation and bits of comedy. And these urban films have something else going for them: they show the subtler Mifune, an actor capable of more than the extravagant animalism.
A wonderful film from a wonderful filmmaker, nay, a master filmmaker.
Zatôichi kenka-tabi (1963)
Crescendo of Provocation
This was the fifth Zatôichi film in just two years. It's been a while since I saw the last one in the series, but they're great fun. Simpler than the previous films, and also far more conventional as an action-adventure, "Zatôichi kenka-tabi" ('Zatôichi on the Road', 1963) stays true to its name, although it could've been called 'The Road To Edo' as well: a road movie of chasing and hiding, of fighting and fleeing to fight again; hide and seek, and pretense. The film greatly picks up in between the fights during the scene at the inn, which is well-made. And it is this sense of, well, it's not predictability because that sounds negative... let's say 'familiarity', that makes it so easy for the viewer to jump right into it – we know where it comes from and where it goes.
It's become a running joke by now to have Zatôichi evade fighting, only to be eluded to a situation where he has to fight. He think he's only on a trip to Edo, while he's taken there to help out at a clan fight. The film is a crescendo of provocation until Zatôichi finally unsheathes his sword. This, of course, makes the films work in the long run: we need a sympathetic character, and having a character who would run around killing people for pleasure doesn't really cut it here. Yet there is a genuinely tragic undersong here: he doesn't search for trouble yet the trouble finds him, and still he is looking for trouble, as he says in the film, by having learnt to fight with the sword.
My favourite moment is the one with the white sunshades on the slope, and Zatôichi running with the children in imitation of the ending of "Det sjunde inseglet" (1957), the other one is the Kurosawan climax.
I do wonder when we're going to have a decent villain, though.
Gake no ue no Ponyo (2008)
The world of Miyazaki Hayao is a magical world. Full of extraordinary colours, narrative dreaming and astonishing detail, I've had more than a brilliant time revisiting almost all of his films in the past two months. Sandwiched between the lavish "Hauru no ugoki shiro" (2004) and the incomparable masterwork that "Kaze tachinu" (2013) is, I was initially underwhelmed by "Gake no ue no Ponyo" (2008), and I've been saving it for last in this retrospective of mine.
The film unfolds surprisingly slowly in almost symphonic languor without much dialogue, merely introducing in Ponyo a fascinated dreamer-observer paired with another fascinated-dreamer observer in Sôsuke. This beginning meets its counterpart toward the climax of the film, which enters the similar symphonic dreamscape, where reality, manipulated reality and utter fantasy commingle.
The environment and concerns for its well-being have always been a part of Miyazaki's stories, and here the topic is brought to the fore perhaps not as subtly as he has done previously, or would in 'The Wind Rises', which in many ways is among the most precious meditations on the effect humans have not only in their lives nor in the lives of others, but in the grand entirety of our planet.
I remember I first saw this at a retrospective of Miyazaki's work that anticipated its theatrical release, and remember having difficulty entering it afresh from Miyazaki's work such as 'Howl's Moving Castle'. I've had an inadvertently similar retrospective on my own now, five years later, and again it's difficult to enter either from 'Howl' or 'The Wind Rises' — they exist on a different plane altogether, have different logic of narrative, I think, and even think of animation as having different means to an end, not to speak of the ends. Perhaps, then, I'd come to this not even from "Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi" (2001) but from "Tonari no Totoro" (1988), which shares the most with "Ponyo". The difference, however, is that 'Ponyo' seems to lack the wit and ambiguity of Miyazaki's humour that make "Kurenai no buta" (1992) and his other films so easygoing. 'Ponyo' is a serious work, but fantastical in a juvenile universe. This, I think, makes it rather hard to follow until the very end, also diminishing the drama.
While it is thus certainly a great strength of the artist's to move within the medium in unexpected ways that only pertains to the style but even the thinking behind the style, 'Ponyo', for all the great things, isn't up to the task, dramaturgically speaking. The tempest is a blast, full of real danger, but somehow towards the end I found myself wandering and not where the film was trying to lead. Perhaps it's because the film is devoid of Miyazaki's witty humour that's the soul of his films.
Miyazaki seriously considered retiring from filmmaking after "Mononoke-hime" (1997), and has announced his retirement from filmmaking after 'The Wind Rises' (2013). Considering we were gifted four amazing works of art, of which 'Ponyo' most certainly is one, it's reason enough to be thankful for.
Literature and visual arts are two different things, and they don't have to act slavishly in relation to each other, meaning that film has to be, to use Greenaway's excellent phrase, "an illustrated book". They're interpretations as much as our reading, merely in a different medium.
I really like Kurosawa as an interpreter of Shakespeare: he removes the language by which we know the works by heart, and sets them in eras and surroundings unfamiliar to us Westerners. What remains is the essence, the forceful dramatic pull of the stories.
And what force there is. 'Macbeth' is seductively aggressive, full of ever-crescendoing, foreboding, atmospheric horror. The problem at heart is not whether to follow one's fate and not even whether this fate is influenced by good or evil, which should be rather apparent from early on. The problem is whether Macbeth can outwit the wheel that keeps turning, or seems to be turning. The tragedy unfurls from the predestined consequence that he cannot, and never could.
Many consider the "Late Kurosawa" period, starting with "Dodes'ka-den" (1970) and perhaps reaching its apex in "Kagemusha" (1980) and "Ran" (1985) to be nihilistically cold and detached even to the point of sadism where the so-called heroism of his earlier works, especially of the fifties, is utterly annihilated and the world has fallen into chaos, and the sorry lives fall apart.
Consider this film, then! It's made when Kurosawa and Mifune were, in terms of popularity, at the peak of their powers and fame. I think it's 'not' as bleak as his later works, but it is remarkably close. Knowing 'Macbeth' of course adds to the narrative of pain.
There are many great scenes, and the banquet where Miki "appears" is among the most lucid: the way he builds up towards the climax is masterful, let alone the great sweeping long take that reveals and hides the ghost. The forest, of course, is a highlight, a place as unfathomable as the evil spirit that appeared there.
It's fascinating the film appears here in Kurosawa's filmography, and I think it's a recommendable experience to advance from here not to the adventures of the sixties but straight to the two epics of the eighties that go as far as Kurosawa ever did in exploring the theme of cosmic pandemonium within the human soul that makes the whole world collapse.
Only the wind prevails.