In The Hidden Fortress (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD), Akira Kurosawa melds western fairy tale adventure with Japanese history for a pre-Samurai era classic of a young princess and a determined General (the gruff ruthless, and often comically exasperated Toshiro Mifune) trying to escape from behind enemy lines with a fortune in royal gold. Long recognized as one of George Lucas’ primary inspiration for Star Wars (among other things, the bickering peasants who wander into the odyssey inspired R2D2 and C-3PO), it’s Kurosawa’s his first go at the widescreen format and he proves to be a master at it, dynamically spreading his compositions out to an epic scope and boldly setting his cascade of sharp action scenes against a magnificent landscape. It’s a grand adventure of flashing swords, thundering horses, giant battles and intimate duels, Kurosawa’s most purely entertaining film and one of his biggest hits.
Mastered from a 2K digital restoration with mono soundtrack and an alternate 3.0 surround soundtrack preserving the original 1958 “Perspecta Stereophonic” soundtrack and presented in DTS-HD on Blu-ray. New to this release is commentary by film historian and Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince and the documentary about the making of the film created for the 2003 series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Carried over from the earlier DVD release is a brief interview with George Lucas, who talks of his love of the film and the work of Kurosawa. The accompanying booklet features an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.
Samson and Delilah (Paramount, Blu-ray) was something of a warm-up by Cecil B. DeMille, classic Hollywood’s defining big screen showman, for his ultimate Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. This bible story was on a decidedly smaller scale but it had all the elements that DeMille had perfected back in thirties: treat the patrons to a spectacle of sin and flesh, then punish the bad behavior with a smiting of (dare I say it?) Biblical proportions. The script is dopey and the stars unconvincing, but DeMille puts on quite a pageant.
Victor Mature plays the brawny strongman Samson, who kills a lion with his bare hands in the first act. Half of the shots reveal that he’s tussling with a moth-eaten ruin but it’s still manly enough to rouse the passion of Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah. Samson heaves enormous building stones at enemy soldiers, all but takes apart a royal house in a wild brawl and for finale pulls down a temple around him with nothing but the strength of his massive arms. Never mind that DeMille’s special effects often lack the weight of conviction, it’s all in the showmanship and De Mille is as gaudy as they come. This has all lavish sets, slinky outfits, wicked Philistines, sexy maidens, and holy retribution in glorious Technicolor. Mature walks a plodding balance between grinning arrogance and righteous vengeance as God’s strong arm on Earth while Lamarr purrs through her turn as the Bible’s bad girl, a temptress with a wicked sense of vengeance. George Sanders contributes his brand of silky villainy as the Saran of Gaza and DeMille brings out the ham in him.
It’s been remastered in HD but the Blu-ray features no supplements except for the trailer.
The Samurai Trilogy (Criterion), Hiroshi Inagake’s three-film adaptation of Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic novel, debuted the same year as Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and was one of the most popular cinematic exports of its era. Musashi Miyamoto was a real life swordsman elevated to the stature of almost mythic historical hero and this series embraces the mythic dimensions with a removed, distant style that elevates the character to tragic hero.
Toshiro Mifune enters Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) as a brash and ambitious peasant who desires fame and power as a swordsman. His dreams of glory in war sour when his army is routed and he becomes hunted by the authorities, but with the “tough love” attentions of a kindly but severe monk helps him develop from a hot-tempered outlaw to thoughtful swordsman. Inagake’s somber color epic is very different from the energetic action of Kurosawa’s films. The sword fights and battles are more theatrical, staged in long takes that emphasize form and movement over action, and Mifune brings a sad, almost tragic quality to the samurai warrior Miyamoto, whose dedication proscribes him to a lonely life on the road.
While Samurai I can stand on its own, it is more properly the first act of an epic story and it takes on greater stature in in light of the rest of Inagaki’s stately, contemplative epic.
Akira Kurosawa’s early police drama Stray Dog (1949), a kind of urban noir starring Toshiro Mifune as a young police detective who loses his gun in the volatile years of post-war Tokyo and Takashi Shimura as the veteran detective who tries to mentor the rookie as he tracks the stolen handgun, plays in Turner Classic Movies’ month-long tribute to Kurosawa.
The young Mifune projects a marvelous dichotomy as Murakami, his restless energy checked by a veneer of surface calm: the composed social face masking fierce turmoil underneath. Shimura is a complete contrast as his older, wiser mentor: warm and patient, he calms down the anxious, emotionally impulsive rookie cop and channels his efforts to methodically follow the leads.
Kurosawa sets it in the sweltering heat wave of a Tokyo summer and the atmosphere pervades the entire film. The faces on screen are constantly beaded with sweat, the cops mopping their brows and the streets crowded with listless pedestrians brought to a shuffling crawl by the oppressive temperatures. Kurosawa matches the atmosphere to the rising tension and the heat wave breaks in dramatic fashion with the climactic action. The atmosphere only exacerbates Murakami’s anxiety and impulsiveness. He’s driven by a mixture of shame and duty, afraid he’ll be fired and feeling responsible for every crime committed with the gun. (“Was it my gun?” is his first response to every shooting report.) But the gun is also part of his identity as a detective and Murakami, conversely, starts to identify with the criminal he’s tracking, who like himself, is a former soldier, driven to desperate measures. Both are, in effect, stray dogs, and as Sato warns Murakami, a stray dog can become a mad dog out of desperation. “There is even a saying about them,” Sato muses. “Mad dogs can only see what they are after.” Murakami’s single-minded pursuit of his gun is in danger of overwhelming his judgment.
The final collaboration between director Akira Kurosawa and Japanese icon Toshiro Mifune is one of Kurosawa’s most ambitious, personal, and heartfelt films. Set in 17th century Edo, Red Beard (1965) features Mifune as Dr. Kyojo Niide, known as Red Beard to the interns and nurses at the public clinic and hospital he runs in the slums of the city. The three hour film follows the education of the spoiled, insolent young doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama, Mifune’s co-star in 1962’s Sanjuro and Toho’s hottest young star at the time). He has been educated in the state-of-the-art Dutch medical schools in Nagasaki and has every expectation of an appointment to the court medical staff, thanks to his family’s position and connections to the court. Sent by his father to visit the clinic, he’s appalled at the primitive conditions and the pathetic state of the patients and dumbfounded when he’s assigned to intern under the charge of Niide. Gentle beneath his gruff exterior and bearded face, but fierce in the face of greed and selfishness and cruelty and, worst of all, indifference, Mifune’s Niide is the fighting angel of the slums who has dedicated his life to tending the poor; he fights not just disease and abuse, but poverty and ignorance. “He has the body of a man in his forties, but his wisdom is like that of someone in their sixties or seventies,” explained Mifune of the character. “Nobody really knows how old he is. He’s ageless.” But Niide is also a practical man well aware of the real world in which he lives and works. When beset by a dozen young thugs who arrive to retrieve a patient, Niide fights them off with a mixture of martial arts and medical insight, wrenching limbs and breaking bones until they all are left writhing in pain on the floor. Being a doctor, he’s careful not to cause any permanent damage.
Read the complete feature here. Plays on Turner Classic Movies on June 11. Also available on DVD from Criterion.