Sunday 20 May 2018

Film: Kurosawa's original truly Magnificent

Fluid piece of cinema: Akira Kurosawa's 1950s cult film Seven Samurai
Fluid piece of cinema: Akira Kurosawa's 1950s cult film Seven Samurai
Master director: Akira Kurosawa

Paul Whitington

Sooner or later, it seems, everything gets remade, and next week a new film opens that's based on one of the best-loved Hollywood westerns. Antoine Fuqua's Magnificent Seven stars Denzel Washington as the leader of a band of gunfighters hired by midwestern villagers to rescue them from the clutches of an evil mine owner.

There are attempts to give the story a contemporary flourish: Denzel's band includes a Comanche warrior, a Chinese assassin and a Mexican outlaw; their multicultural make-up is a source of humour. Chris Pratt is good value for money in a role played by Steve McQueen, and Washington is of course excellent, but some American critics have compared the film unfavourably to John Sturges' 1960 version.

The Sturges film, they argue, was packed with star power (Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, James Coburn, McQueen), and had the easy swagger of a classic western, whereas Fuqua's remake is stagey, and dull. And while the new Seven has been accused of rambling too slowly towards its inevitable climax, the original, we are told, rattled along with the urgency of a thriller. Which is all very well, except for the fact that it wasn't the original at all.

When I was a child, The Magnificent Seven was shown all the time on television, and had an undeniable charm. But it pales in comparison to the movie on which it was very closely based, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Made in Japan in the early 1950s, Seven Samurai had the same basic story of villagers who hire warriors to protect them from marauding bandits, but was fleshed out with all sorts of social and emotional undercurrents, and told in a truly innovative fashion.

Kurosawa used multiple cameras and points of view to create a riveting new way of photographing action sequences, and made a film so good it was acclaimed all over the world.

But The Seven Samurai was a troubled shoot: Kurosawa's studio kept closing down production in protest at the rising budget, and when the film was eventually finished, they hacked an hour off it. Despite this butchery, the film's quality was evident to all who saw it, and the restored director's cut has regularly appeared on lists of the greatest movies ever made. It's been hugely influential, and everyone from Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg has cited Seven Samurai as an inspiration.

Akira Kurosawa was 33 when he made it, a jobbing studio director who'd recently embarked on an extraordinary purple patch. Seven Samurai was his first samurai film, a genre with which he'd become synonymous, but Kurosawa's great action films were inspired as much by American westerns as traditional Japanese cinema.

Born in Tokyo in 1910, Kurosawa was descended from samurai himself, and studied Kendo swordsmanship as keenly as he did art. It was his elder brother Heigo who introduced him to cinema, and encouraged Akira's evident talent for drawing and painting. In the late 1920s, Heigo worked as a benshi, a narrator who sat beside movie screens explaining what was going on, which meant that Akira got to see hundreds of American and European films for free. But in 1933 Heigo committed suicide, leaving his younger brother devastated and confused.

He abandoned painting, and in 1935 responded to a film studio newspaper ad. PCL, who'd later become the all-conquering Toho Studios, were looking for assistant editors, and encouraged applicants to discuss the failings of Japanese cinema. Kurosawa's essay went too far, but a director called Kajiro Yamamoto saw great potential in Kurosawa, and persuaded reluctant studio bosses to take him on.

He earned his stripes working under Yamamoto in genre pictures and war films, and his directorial debut was Sanshiro Sugata (1943), a well-received biopic of a judo pioneer. But it was his 1950 film Rashomon which first introduced foreign audiences to his talent. The daring drama, which offered four different and equally persuasive accounts of a rape and murder in a forest, won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. Suddenly, Arika Kurosawa was on the international map.

This meant that Toho's executives would have to give him what he wanted, and in the autumn of 1952 Kurosawa decided to have a pop at making a samurai film. He'd originally intended dramatising a day in the life of a 16th-century samurai that would end with his ritual suicide, but during a six-week-long brainstorming session at a secluded inn with screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, a better idea emerged.

Their film would tell the stories of six Sengoku-era ronin (or masterless samurai) who are hired to defend the homes of a community of rice farmers who've been targeted incessantly by a band of marauding brigands. Kurosawa's great acting collaborator Toshiro Mifune was originally supposed to play the role of Kyozu, a brilliant but taciturn swordsman, but before shooting began Kurosawa and his writers decided a story about six stiff and sober samurai would risk being a bore. And as Mifune later recalled, they decided "they needed a character that was more off-the-wall".

That would be Kikuchiyo, a loud and volatile man who poses as a wandering samurai but is really the son of peasants, a brave but troubled soul who's disgusted by the deference of the villagers and yearns to prove his worth in battle. Mifune was given licence to improvise, and his swaggering comedy helped make Kurosawa's film feel like something new, an antidote to the po-faced pomposity of most samurai films.

The film itself took a year to shoot - four times longer than the time-frame that had been agreed with Toho. In addition, Kurosawa was unhappy with the studio-bound feeling of early scenes, and insisted on shooting all the sequences set in the peasant village at a large set constructed on a mountainous peninsula west of Tokyo. All of this pushed a tight budget up to almost half a million dollars - not much in Hollywood terms at the time, but a fortune in a country still recovering from the traumas of defeat and occupation.

It was all too much for his Toho bosses, who were juggling Kurosawa's demands with those of his friend and colleague Ishiro Honda, who was making his monster epic Godzilla at the same time. Several times they shut Seven Samurai down, but the unflappable Kurosawa responded by going fishing, sure that the studio would sooner or later cave in.

They did, and Kurosawa was given all he needed to shoot his magnificent climactic battle sequence, during which the samurai and a ragtag army of villagers repel repeated bandit attacks. He used telephoto lenses and three cameras to intensify the action: one camera was stationary, a second used for quick shots and a third roved about the set, catching unexpected close-ups and details.

Remarkably, he edited all this as he went, and the result was mesmerising, a breathtakingly fluid piece of cinema in which Kurosawa's camera seemed to roam god-like hither and thither through the rising conflict.

The finished film was a thing of beauty, and was a big hit both at home and abroad. In Japan, it represented a reassertion of indigenous culture and creativity, while abroad eyes were opened to the emergence of a new wave of remarkably talented and original Japanese film-makers.

Kurosawa was not without his critics: at home he was accused of pandering to the west and being too influenced by American directors like John Ford, while in France, the nouvelle vague commentators decided he was insufficiently Japanese.

Both, however, entirely missed the point - Akira Kurosawa was an artist who blended both national and international influences into a fresh and vital new perspective that seemed to chime perfectly with the changed realities of post-war Japan. And over the next decade or so, he and Toshiro Mifune collaborated on a series of masterpieces inspired by everything from traditional Japanese stories to Shakespeare.

Films like Hidden Fortress and Throne of Blood cemented Kurosawa's reputation as one of the most important voices in 20th-century cinema, and he continued to influence other directors.

When Sergio Leone saw Kurosawa's 1961 one film Yojimbo, he decided to remake it as a western - and A Fistful of Dollars was born.

If you watch one film

Irish films are a bit like buses: you wait ages for a decent one, then three or four come along at once. In the last month we've had the excellent Viva, the outstanding A Date for Mad Mary, and now comes Young Offenders, a salty but warm-hearted comedy from writer and director Peter Foott. Chris Walley and Alex Murphy play Jock and Conor, two Cork city friends who embark on a thoroughly ill-advised criminal endeavour. Jock, who has a screw loose and comes from a bad home, tells Conor about a recent drug seizure off the west Cork coast in which a large amount of cocaine was lost.

Jock's plan is to cycle down from the city, search the sea for this treasure trove and live high on the proceeds. Though pursued by an obsessive policeman who's attached a tracking device to their stolen bicycles, the boys do manage to find themselves a hefty bag of cocaine, but getting it home proves problematic. Young Offenders' charm lies in the winning cross-talk act between Messrs Murphy and Walley, two hugely talented actors who make their characters shine. Hilary Rose is excellent as Conor's exasperated and perennially grumpy mother, and Foott's film is genuinely hilarious at times.

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