Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.The Film Forum
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This is Kurosawa's 16th film, the start of the Second Half of the ak oeuvre (30 films) ... more a completely new and unique filmic re-imagining than any sort of mere adaptation, the source material is a play written a few centuries ago by a guy named Bill Shakespeare -- Macbeth ... Kurosawa is in his top masterful form here, coming off a critical flop -- Ikimono no kiroku (I Live in Fear/Record of a Living Being)  (playing at the Film Forum on January 21st), which was preceded by his greatest success, Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai)  (playing on January 29th and 30th).
Minoru Chiaki (the "woodcutting samurai" in Seven Samurai) finally gets his own starring role opposite Mifune! (He would get just one more -- 1958's Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress), playing on January 16th) ...
This is a dark film, and Asakazu Nakai's B&W photography is stunning ... Only wipes and cuts are used in this film -- no fades or dissolves; nothing soft!
Sadly, Stuart Galbraith IV's masterpiece, The Emperor and the Wolf is now out of print.
"Washizu (Mifune) and fellow warrior Miki (Chiaki, who appeared in a total of 10 AK films), having won a fierce battle, are on their way back to their lord's castle when they encounter a witch (Chieko Naniwa), who predicts that Washizu will assume control of the castle but that Miki's son (Akira Kubo) will subsequently rule. When they return to the castle, another of the witch's predictions comes true. Washizu tells his wife, Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) about the predictions, and she goads him into killing the lord (Takamaru Sasaki) when he visits Washizu's mansion. When Lady Asaji becomes pregnant, Washizu sends an assassin after Miki and his son, but the latter survives. Washizu is haunted by Miki's ghost. When Asaji's baby is still born, she goes mad. Washizu visits the witch again; she tells him he will never lose a battle until the Cobweb Forest (Birnam Wood) comes to the castle. The prophecy is fulfilled when forces loyal to the murdered lord advance on the castle, hidden behind cut tree branches and shrubbery. Washizu's own troops, by now aware that their master engineered the lord's murder, turn on him and shoot him full of arrows." [p. 232]
A few things to think about:
- The entire story is told in flashback! Although not technically a dissolve, observe how Kurosawa uses the fog as it covers the stake which marks the spot where the castle once stood ... a kind of cinematic dissolve which consumes the marker and transports us back to medieval Japan!
- The castle set was built on the slopes of Mt. Fuji.
- The shoot itself sounds like it must have been a grueling experience: location work began on June 29, 1956 and took up the entire summer and early fall. A month or two of post-production (if you think that's fast, just imagine: Yojimbo  [playing on February 3rd] had only four days of pp before the film's premiere!), and the film opened on January 15, 1957.
- Takeshi Katô, who appeared in mostly miniscule roles in six AK films, is here required to get stabbed by Mifune with a sword and then die. Here's Katô-san, quoted in Galbraith: "It was summertime at the open set, I was hot, the lighting was hot, and bugs were swarming all over me, but I couldn't move until I was killed. I worked for about a week. I kept hoping Mr. Mifune would kill me as soon as possible ... Three cameras shot Mifune coming at me with the sword. I put a piece of wood up my sleeve for safety when he stabbed me. However, he was so quick and powerful that he broke right through the wood and really stabbed me! It was so painful. I was not acting in that scene and I still have a scar under my arm." [p. 234]
- Mifune also complained about Kurosawa's abuse of his actors: "Those were real arrows and that's real fear in my eyes. I'm not really acting at all. And until I stopped him, Kurosawa wanted to use a bunch of amateur archers ... just extras ... to shoot the arrows!" [p. 235]
- See if you can spot the almost constant use of telephoto lens at this point in Kurosawa's output -- particularly in the scenes where they are riding around in the fog!
- Washizu's breakdown at dinner when Miki doesn't show up is splendid. Kurosawa breaks up the scene with a series of axial cuts and bizarre camera angles.
- Be prepared to concentrate on the subtitles when the warriors are discussing "First Castle [or fort]," "Second Castle," and "Third Castle" -- it can get confusing!
- The Criterion DVD is fantastic, with -- count 'em -- TWO separate sets of subtitles; one by Richie and one by Hoagland. This is very cool with a jidai-geki like this, because the language would be like Shakespeare to contemporary ears. Excellent! (I'm curious which one is used in this particular print.)
- Check out the swishing sound made by Lady Asaji's robes...
- And finally: there are 19 wipes in this film, all horizontal (nine to the left and 10 to the right).