"Kagemusha" almost wasn't made. As Akira Kurosawa despaired over his inability to find financing for his medieval samurai film, he painted.
Already famed for his elaborate storyboards, Kurosawa painted dark and bold scenes from his narrative, thinking these canvases might be the only record of the story. "I thought another script of mine would vanish into the void," the aging director recalled years later.
The American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola came to the rescue of their hero, bringing clout and money as executive producers, and "Kagemusha" went into production in 1979.
Some of those glorious paintings now are on display at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences building in Beverly Hills, where the Academy screened a new Fox print of the warlord epic Friday night. Seeing those hand-painted images and that film in one place added up to an amazing experience.
The Fox print, which came from the original transfer negative used for the international version of "Kagemusha," looked quite good, although the grain and deterioration from age were evident. I did miss the smarter subtitles from the DVD restoration. And this was the shorter version, at 163 minutes, rather than the full three-hour Japanese version. Who could complain, though, with those images dancing across that big screen as Kurosawa unfurled his tale of a thief who stands in for a mighty warlord.
The Criterion Collection's "Kagemusha" (two discs, 2005) remains best in market and an outstanding presentation. "Kagemusha" and "Ran" have seen their reputations grow in recent years, thanks to their fine Criterion releases. The films had alienated some Kurosawa purists who basically objected to the master working in color.
Of the two, I slightly prefer "Ran," which the Academy is unspooling Saturday at its Hollywood screening theater as part of the Salute to Kurosawa. (Six of his Oscar-nominated films will screen by the end of the series on Oct. 4.)
The film Academy's Kurosawa exhibition at the Wilshire building is simply remarkable. On the ground floor gallery are a generous collection of his larger paintings, photos and many classic film posters.
On the fourth floor, "Akira Kurosawa: Film Artist" continues with items as important as the original shooting scripts for "Seven Samurai" and "Rashomon," with notes and mini-storyboards penciled in by the master. Costumes, more paintings, props, painting and calligraphy tools, his trademark sunglasses and of all things the Kurosawa house slippers.
Don't miss the Kurosawa exhibition if you're in L.A. -- and if you're a major fan consider flying in.
"Dirty Carnival" (2006), just released here on DVD by Genius Entertainment, tells of a Seoul hoodlum who faces various crises as he turns 30: his family faces eviction; his mother suffers from a terminal disease, he's under the thumb of a miserly midlevel crime boss; and he's sweet on a goodie-goodie bookstore clerk who hates hoods.
The charming antihero, played by Adam Sandler-esque TV actor Jo In-Seong, sucks up to an elegant crime lord in a bid to find the money for his family's needs. It's a devil's bargain: To rise in the organization he has to murder a crooked prosecutor, a shocking crime even to these lowlifes.
Meanwhile, an old pal turned film director turns up, bent on getting the lowdown on gangster life for his next project. The script follows life too closely, with tragic results. The buddy story is a good one, one of several strong B-stories.
"A Dirty Carnival" (Biyeolhan Geori) checks in at something like 2 1/2 hours, but doesn't feel particularly long. Director Yoo Ha, a poet, deftly interweaves and paces his narratives (he's also known here for "Once Upon a Time in High School").
The acting is surprisingly good, with few clunker characters, although the romance flirts with the yucky sentimentality common to Asian gangster films.
The Scorsese comparisons come in reaction to the lowdown action scenes, which bring to mind the brutality of Kinji Fukasaku's seminal "The Yakuza Papers" instead of the bullet-ballets of John Woo. (If I had to desert-island two Asian gangster films, they would be "Yakuza" and "Infernal Affairs."
While star Jo In-Seong spent eight months in martial arts training, there are few high-flying kicks or superhuman moves. Mostly, gangs take to each other with baseball bats until no bones are left unbroken. Some of the fight sequences, such as the muddy river brawl, are truly spectacular in their grubby way.
The Genius DVD includes a breakdown of the fight sequences and eight rough-cut deleted scenes. The fight featurette details the production's real-life injuries brought on by breaking glass and hurling bodies, including a production-halting accident involving the star. Anyone with an interest in action films should get a look at this docu. Unfortunately, a half dozen extra features found on the region 3 DVD aren't included here.
The good-looking film comes in widescreen, with the 16x9 enhancement. The (Korean) 5.1 audio is surprisingly good; don't open the door when someone knocks onscreen.
(Genius has imported quite a few South Korean films.)
Also circling the DVD blog's players this week are the two George Romero zombie films "Diary of the Dead" (2007) and the original "Night of the Living Dead," both from Dimension Extreme. From Criterion comes "The Delirious Fictions of William Klein." MGM swings back to the late '60s with an attractive trio: Blake Edwards' "What Did You Do In The War, Daddy," William Friedkin's "The Night They Raided Minsky's" and the frothy "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium."
New and notable:
Company (Image Entertainment)
Diary of the Dead (Dimension Extreme)
Night of the Living Dead (Weinstein Co./Genius Products)
A Dirty Carnival (Genius Products)
The Delirious Fictions of William Klein (The Criterion Collection)
Exes & Ohs (Paramount)
The Flock (Weinstein/Genius)
Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C, season 4 (Paramount)
If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (MGM)
The Night They Raided Minsky's (MGM)
What Did You Do In The War, Daddy (MGM)
Jeff Corwin Experience, season 2 (Animal Planet/Genius Products)
The Muppet Show, season 3 (Disney)
National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (Disney)
Penn and Teller Bullshit, season 5 (Paramount)
Robot Chicken: Star Wars (Warner)
Strange Wilderness (Paramount)
Tom Selleck Western Collection (Warner)
24 Season One Special Edition (Fox)
Ichikawa was best known here for two works from the 1950s that were released to DVD about a year ago by the Criterion Collection: "The Burmese Harp" (1956) and "Fires on the Plain" (1959). Critics felt that Ichikawa failed to keep up with the evolution of cinema in following decades. In any case, after these masterful films the man had nothing left to prove.
"The Burmese Harp" is an elegaic WWII movie about a Japanese soldier who goes native while on duty in Burma. It has a fine hypnotic quality that props up its simple yet well-told story. It begins as an oddball service musical and ends in mystical territory, somehow making the transition look easy. Many of Japan's antiwar films from the 1950s feel forced or amateurish -- here is a pleasing and intriguing work of art.
Ichikawa discusses the film in the extras, which run about a half hour.
"Fires on the Plain" is Ichikawa’s hard-core look at the war, this time set in the horrific final days of the Philippines conflicts. It has a documentary feel and is regarded as one of the great Japanese war films.
Ichikawa again is interviewed in the extras. The Japanese film expert Donald Richie does a video introduction.
Can't go wrong with either of these first-rate Criterion titles.
Pick of the week: Waitress
Dog of the week: I Know Who Killed Me
Call me weird, but I liked the underdog comedy release "Mr. Bean's Holiday." ("Mr. Hulot's Holiday" bores the hell out of me, go figure.) The Bean story has heart, lots of laughs and serves up one of the best restaurant gross-out scenes on film. (You know what they say about the first man to eat an oyster?)
Bean wins a freebie vacation, deplanes in Paris and makes his way to Cannes, on the Riviera. Along the way he teams up with a cool kid and a sweet French actress. The bad guy, a hack film director played by a crazed Willem Defoe, meets his match at the film festival as Bean (Rowan Atkinson) proves an unlikely auteur. Not much in the way of extras on this Universal DVD, probably for the best. Hey, we all have our guilty pleasures.
The Criterion Collection makes it two sweet weeks in a row with the release of "Drunken Angel," Akira Kurosawa's first film with Toshiro Mifune.
The 1948 movie, about a doctor and a gangster, is more of a historical marker than a classic, but it's fascinating to see the roots of such an epic collaboration. Extras include another episode of the Toho series "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create" and a piece on Kurosawa vs. the occupation's censors. Kurosawa expert Donald Richie does the commentary.
Circling the DVD blog's players are Sony's anime adventure "Paprika" and Fox's indie dramadie "Waitress." (Readers of this blog probably know the backstory on Adrienne Shelly's movie about pie baking. If you don't, see the movie before learning about that talented writer-director-actress.)
New and notable:
Drunken Angel (The Criterion Collection)
First Snow (Sony)
Futurama: Bender's Big Score (Fox)
Happy Days: The Third Season (Paramount)
Hot Rod (Paramount, also HD DVD)
I Know Who Killed Me (Sony, also Blu-ray)
Laverne & Shirley: The Third Season (Paramount)
Mr. Bean's Holiday (Universal, also HD DVD)
Mork & Mindy: The Third Season (Paramount)
The Namesake (Fox)
Paprika (Sony, also BR)
Peter Pan in Return to Never Land (Disney)
Spice World (Sony)
The recent round of deep reflections on master film directors brought memories as well of Akira Kurosawa, for me the greatest of them all. It's both curious and gratifying that the highest-trafficked review in this DVD blog's short history is of Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" and "Ran."
"Kagemusha" (1980), sometimes subtitled "The Shadow Warrior," came roughly at the same time as "Ran," and in a similar mature colorful style. Kurosawa had despaired of making this film after Japan's film establishment refused funding in the years following his suicide attempt. American fans George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola eagerly came to the master's aid, bringing clout and money as executive producers.
The film covers the chaotic years of 1573-75, in which clans battled for control of Japan. The samurai who once fought with swords picked up rifles, a sudden advance in the art of war that led to the infamous slaughter at Nagashima and eventually to the unification of Japan.
In the fields of Nagashima, Kurosawa tracks his "beloved samurai era to the point of extinction."
The Criterion Collection's double-disc set of a few years back unspools a fine-looking uncut version of this underrated film. The DVDs include an imaginative treatment of Kurosawa's watercolor storyboards as well as a history of the troubled production.
Read the complete "Kagemusha" review.
* About "Deja Vu reviews": As in, didn't I read that before ... hmm.