Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Asian Audient: Kurosawa weekend

This is the second in my 2017 series Asian Audient, in which I watch movies created by Asians and set in Asia. I believe they are also speaking "Asian." (That's a Cable Guy reference.)  

Only one of the two Kurosawa movies I watched this weekend is the official entrant in this series, that being the poster you see to the right here, High and Low. But I'm calling the post "Kurosawa weekend" because I did indeed watch two movies by Akira Kurosawa in the space of about 28 hours, leaving only 22 hours left over to do other things.

The one I revisited, on Saturday night, was the one where it all began: Seven Samurai. I saw Seven Samurai twice before the age of 19 ... and then not again since then. The reason is fairly obvious. The movie runs for a whopping three hours and 27 minutes, and almost never can I find a block of time like that. Or if I do find that block of time, Seven Samurai is not necessarily how I want to fill it, great as it may be.

But when you consistently rank a film among your top 50 of all time (according to Flickchart), you do need to revisit it at least once every 25 years. Especially if it's the movie that has driven you to watch as many of the other films by its director as possible, slowly but surely, to the point that I am now almost in double digits.

The opportunity for a rewatch of Kurosawa's masterpiece arose because of the two following factors: 1) My wife was going away to stay at a hotel Saturday night for her birthday, and 2) It's streaming on Stan. So I decided to screw up my courage and put one of the longest movies I've ever seen on my Saturday night schedule.

But first, the "appetizer" on Friday night, when my wife was also out.

High and Low had been on my list of "next Kurosawa films" for a while, alongside titles like The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood and Stray Dog (any of which we may see later in this series). But I didn't know much about it. It's the story of a wealthy man vying to take a controlling stake in a shoe manufacturing company, who is approached by other controlling interests who want to overthrow the current president, who holds the highest share. Right as he's about to execute his power play his son is kidnapped for a 30 million yen ransom. Only it's not actually his son -- it's his son's playmate, the son of the man's limo driver, who was mistaken for the rich man's son. The need to pay the ransom is then shifted from a matter of certainty, based on blood relation, to a moral obligation, based on doing the only decent thing. Whether the man will do that decent thing or continue to try his hostile takeover -- for which he is mortgaged to within an inch of his life already -- consumes the first half of the narrative. The second is a police procedural in search of the kidnapper.

When I watched The Bad Sleep Well a few years ago, and had a bit of a "ho hum" reaction to it, I concluded that the Kurosawa that works best for me is that set in feudal Japan. I like my Kurosawa with swords and samurai, and fortunately, there's a lot of that in his filmography for me to choose from, including other classics like Rashoman and Yojimbo. I hadn't gotten the chance to test this theory again until now.

Fortunately, High and Low worked a lot better for me than The Bad Sleep Well, without reaching the heights of his feudal Japan work. It is very strangely two different movies married together, though. For its first half it really is primarily interested in a rich man who holds his own interests in high regard being faced with the impossible choice of his personal fortune or the life of his employee's son. It does not address those issues with a huge amount of delicacy, as it's mostly right there in the dialogue and not much is left up to nuance. But it's an interesting dilemma that I saw repeated in a strange place, cinematically: the Luke Wilson vehicle Middle Men, about the beginning years of online porn (which I actually liked quite a bit). Were it his own son kidnapped, there's no dilemma. But someone else's ... it introduces all kinds of complications that get expertly teased out. Not only the guilt of the man considering not paying the ransom, but the guilt of the father of the boy, forced to ask his employer to go into financial ruin in order to save the life of his son. This plot culminates in a brilliantly staged sequence in the middle of the movie that I won't spoil here.

The second half, as I said, is almost purely police procedural, and I think this might be the more interesting half -- though I'm still not sure. Kurosawa really gets into the details of how police crack a case, and the fact that they're all working in the high heat of summer, fanning themselves however they can manage, just makes it more visceral and compelling. There are some sequences in this second half that go on a bit longer than they need to, and I missed the man who was the center of the first half (Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune) being absent from the second half (I won't tell you why he was absent, though -- don't assume he died or anything). But I love Kurosawa's close reading of a police force using all means at their disposal to find a suspect.

The film's duality is certainly represented in the dialectic established by its title, with highs and lows being extremes. Numerous instances of high and low proliferate the plot, from the employer and employee, to the physical location of the man's house high above the "low" below that has targeted him. I ended up feeling quite strongly about the film without being able to enshrine it as a Kurosawa classic. At least not after only one viewing, anyway.

Speaking of second viewings, Seven Samurai didn't disappoint, though I can't say that I loved it quite to the extent as my first two viewings. My first two viewings would have been very different, but both were equally satisfying in their own ways. The first time was in my high school class Art of the Film, in which we split the film's running time over what I would guess was more than a week of classes. You could argue that that's not a great way to watch a film, but it sure made me love Seven Samurai. The second time was in my freshman year in college, when I watched it all in one sitting on a weekend night in a classroom that was functioning as a movie theater for this event. I didn't get tired then like I do now, so I don't recall even struggling with it. This viewing more resembled my second viewing in that I watched it over the course of only about 4.5 hours, just an hour longer than its running time. I started at 8 and finished around 12:30. But the ability to pause, and the couple short naps I took, did wear me down and ultimately contributed to me loving the movie a little less, I think. I chose to have a sushi dinner with it, but I should not have chosen that Sapporo, as it left me struggling.

One takeaway from my second viewing was something I had forgotten: that the village that "hires" the samurai (i.e. agrees to give them meals for their services) is not actually as destitute as they make themselves out to be. Even though it would seem like they have pushed their resources to their limits in order to buy a defense of their village from bandits, and come across as a true charity case worthy of a noble samurai's generosity, as the story goes on it's revealed that they have access to sake and other luxuries that belie the circumstances they are presenting to the outer world. The movie, then, is really about the way that the code of honor samurais live their lives by is really disappearing from the landscape, and only lives on as an antiquated affectation in them. The ending line about the village winning and the samurai losing -- as they always do -- brings that idea home. They are a dying breed, exemplified also by the gun that factors into the finale and takes the lives of two of them. One of those is the "fool," Kikuchiyo (again Mifune), who despite his ravings and drunkenness was also the only one to realize that the villagers had resources they weren't letting on about, and essentially have been playing the samurai for fools.

One final thought about Seven Samurai: Only on this viewing did I finally acknowledge that the title does not have a "The" in it. I've been referring to it as The Seven Samurai most of my life, but it was finally time to admit the lack of a definite article and update all my various lists accordingly.

Okay, on to March. I've got a few ideas of where I might go, geographically, or I might also stay put in Japan and check in with Kurosawa's countryman Yasujiro Ozu. But since I haven't actually sourced my next film yet, I will just leave you in suspense for now.

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