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Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Kuninori Kôdô
Length: 660 min
Rating: BBFC: 12
Label: The BFI
Release Date: Sep 1, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 / 2.35:1
Audio: Japanese: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Subtitles: English (optional)
- Original theatrical trailers
- The Art of Akira Kurosawa (2013, 49 mins): Asian-cinema expert Tony Rayns discusses Kurosawa’s career and influence
- Interview with filmmaker George Lucas (2001, 8 mins)
- Interview with filmmaker Alex Cox (2003, 9 mins)
- Introduction to Sanjuro by Alex Cox (2003, 5 mins)
- Full-length audio commentary for Throne of Blood by Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck
- Full-length audio commentary for Yojimbo by film critic Philip Kemp
- Fully illustrated booklet with essays by Philip Kemp and Nigel Andrews, contemporary reviews and full film credits
In 2009 the Criterion Collection released a 25 Film box set containing nearly every movie he made (some prints had been lost to time). However definitive the collection was deemed by critics and film scholars alike, it was inarguably intended more for those already familiar with Kurosawa’s artistry. For those who are interested in learning about what makes the director such a discussed name in film circles, look no further than the British Film Institute’s 4-disc Blu-ray box set of Akira Kurosawa’s five seminal Samurai films: Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro. Although some may criticize the scope of this release being limited to his samurai films, this collection creates a much needed starting point for those unfamiliar with his style and influence on film history. This collection is an introduction to one of the greatest filmmakers the world has ever seen’s impact on a genre he helped to elevate.
After just a few short years in the film industry working as an assistant director, Kurosawa eventually struck mainstream success in Japan during WWII with the directorial debut of an action movie called Sanshiro Sugata. This was followed by two films that would cement his influence internationally, the yakuza film Drunken Angel and the period drama Rashomon which won him a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. These two films catapulted the young director into European and American theaters. When tasked with delivering something new to these audience, Kurosawa did not disappoint. In fact, he not only refined and injected artistry into a genre, but also innovated film practices that continue to influence filmmakers across the globe.
Often said to be his best film, it is fabled that in December of 1952 he mandated that two of his writers stay at an inn with him for forty-five days to hammer out the script. The story was simple and was to be Kurosawa’s first samurai film. In a poor, rural village in feudal Japan, one town hires seven samurai to defend the people against the looming threat of traveling bandits. With a enormous cast, carefully choreographed action sequences, and an over three hour runtime, this epic has retained its reputation as one of the best Japanese films ever made. And, for good reason, as the action sequences are as intense and as captivating as the story that connects them.
THRONE OF BLOOD
Originally intended to be an elaborate remake of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Kurosawa’s follow up to Seven Samurai was even more epic in proportions. The film’s castle exteriors were built atop Mount Fuji and the crew even had a U.S. Marine Corps MP battalion help out, as their base was near the production. Actor Toshiro Mifune (who would go on to act in numerous Kurosawa films) makes his first appearance here as the samurai faced with the decision of betraying his master in exchange for power. While the acting was done in the stylized Noh theater style, Kurosawa is able to keep this demonstrative acting style from feeling too hokey. Within the film, this style is actually engaging and creates a kind of whimsy that makes the film’s final battle scene feel remarkably raw and brutal. Beautifully crafted.
THE HIDDEN FORTRESS
Kurosawa had struggled to connect with audiences after the success of Seven Samurai due to what many critics deemed was the pessimistic and dark tone of much of his work from this period. As a response, Kurosawa directed the action-adventure-comedy starring Mifune as the warrior who must protect a princess on their quest back to their homeland with their precious fortune. Director George Lucas credits the film as a huge influence on the tone of Star Wars. This is no stretch, as both films feel very connected in terms of their comic sensibility and lighthearted feel, as well as, their epic plot construct.
By 1959, Kurosawa had struck a deal with Toho, whereby he would start his own production company to cover the huge costs of his film’s budgets. This way the studio could be the majority shareholder and reduce their potential losses. This agreement spawned the Kurosawa Production company and afforded Kurosawa way more creative freedom. The result of this arrangement: Yojimbo. The film centers around a traveling samurai mercenary whose bad luck has put him at the wrong end of two warring armies. He must strategize to vanquish both treats in order for him to survive. The film’s strong western genre sensibility led to Sergio Leone’s spagetti western A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood, argued by many film critics to be a near shot for shot remake.
After the success of Yojimbo, Kurosawa was being pressured to create a sequel. He took a script he had written before Yojimbo and reworked it to include the main character. Sanjuro is way more low key and lighter in tone than its predecessor. It feels more like a period piece than a samurai film, though its story still follows the struggle of samurai clan and one man’s fight against local authorities. While the film was a huge commercial success, Sanjuro contains real moments of parody of the samurai genre, something many critics believe was a sign of Kurosawa’s own fatigue with the genre of films that had made his name. In any event, Sanjuro merits a spot in this list as another charming addition to Kurosawa’s less brutal work.
The actual film restorations in BFI’s Kurosawa Samurai Collection are not quite as rigorous as Criterion’s versions of these timeless films, but they are eminently “filmic,” with natural film grain visible throughout. Print damage has been nicely cleaned up, for the most part, but some small specs, scratches, and occasional dirt still remain, reminding us that this is vintage celluloid running through a projector. Detail looks fine, but contrast is a little weak–with shadows never really reaching deep black. That also means that image depth isn’t quite as striking as it could be. On the plus side, there is no sign of banding or microblocking, even in very foggy shots (of which there are plenty in Throne of Blood), with near-whiteout conditions. With no sign of DNR, or edge sharpening, the word that most comes to mind when surveying these BFI restorations is “natural.” Indeed, these transfers have the look of real celluloid, and some may prefer that.
Similarly, the original Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks receive a “less is more” restoration, which sounds very natural to the source material. Everything sounds very clear, and there are no obvious hiss or pops.
As far as special features go, the BFI does a pretty adequate job considering this release’s intended audience. A documentary entitled The Art of Akira Kurosawa (49 mins) recounts the director’s illustrious career and impact on cinema as discussed by Asian film historian Tony Rayns. Adding to his sentiments, two interviews are also included, one with filmmaker George Lucas who discusses how the director influenced him while making Star Wars, and one with Alex Cox who also provides an introduction contextualizing Sanjuro for the viewer.
Each film is accompanied by their original trailers. In addition, two Full-length audio commentaries appear, one for Throne of Blood by Japanese film scholar Michael Jeck, and the other for Yojimbo by Philip Kemp. To top it off, a fully illustrated booklet with essays provided by Kemp and fellow film critic Nigel Andrews dutifully complements the largely introductory feel to the overall collection.
Whereas film aficionados and other ill-mannered snobs may recommend you to see this film or that film, the great thing about this box set is that it feels very complete and it does so in a way that isn’t so overwhelming. The collection of films is manageable and isn’t burdensome for the consumer, think of it like a ‘greatest hits,’ or better yet, a ‘best of’ music compilation. People will always disagree with which movie is indeed the best, however, the BFI’s selection of strictly Kurosawa’s samurai films is a necessary evil despite how reductive it may seem. As a marketing tool, this set should be heralded as a welcomed addition out of respect for the next generation of young cinephiles. While I can very woefully recall the horrible tracking on my brother’s beat up VHS copy of Seven Samurai, it warms my heart to know that this next generation will get to enjoy beautiful high definition copies of some of the best contributions ever made to the history of cinema.