BFI publish quite a number of Akira Kurosawa films. I’d recommend the じだいげき Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Red Beard.
Seven Samurai 七人の侍
was Kurosawa’s tribute to American westerns later remade as a western,The Magnificent Seven and more obscurely as Science Fiction, Battle Beyond the Stars. In Seven Samurai a peasant village has problems with bandits and hires seven samurai for protection.
Roger Ebarts essay on Seven Samurai is worth a read.
Yojimbo 用心棒 was remade as a western, A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone and later as a gangster movie by Walter Hill; Last Man Out. It is about a ronin that drifts into a town and plays one gang against another to his own advantage.
Red Beard 赤ひげ
was Mifune’s last film with Kurosawa. It is a sweeping story of a doctors clinic in 1890′s Japan, beautifully shot in Widescreen Black and White. No samurai action.
Tartan publishes a range called Extreme Asia
From which I’d recommend the following
The Happiness of the Katakuris
By the director Takashii Miike, who normally makes horror and yakuza films, comes this very black musical comedy. The Katakuri family has moved out of Tokyo and opened a guesthouse in the country. However their guests have a habit of dying and burying them on top of the toxic dump doesn’t help matters. A lot of the story is told through song and dance.
(A slight warning if you watch any other Takashii films, while they are stylish they can be very disturbing and very violent. Audition must have the most disturbing scene I’ve ever known. I’m normally not squeamish about films (its not real after all) but I had to fast forward through this.)
Unreleased in America because of its content. This film guest staring Takeshi Kitano is a very dark take on a solution to juvenile crime in Japan. You pick a class at random each year, send them to an island, arm them and tell them there’s only going to be one survivor.
(p.s. Battle Royal 2 isn’t very good. Just enjoy the original.)
More mainstream releases from Tartan.
Not your normal じだいげき. This film tells the story of a samurai on the lowest rung, barely qualifying with a 50 ryo holding that’s mostly mortgaged to pay for his wife’s funeral. He’s left to raise his two daughters and care for his ailing mother but can no longer keep up appearances and has to take in piecework making cricket cages in order to make ends meet.
Of course there’s still some samurai action but the film is mainly about the smaller people. (Mind you almost the only peasants in the film are famine stricken corpses floating in the river). It’s set in a period of relative calm just before the Meiji Restoration.
Artificial Eye is one of the UKs leading distributors of world cinema both on video/DVD and in the cinema.
By Yasujiro Ozu the director of Tokyo Story. Along with Kurosawa, Ozu is probably one of the best know Japanese film makers. Floating Weeds is about a troupe of travelling players performing at a small seaport in the south of Japan in the late 50s.
A film that has something for everyone.
Directed by and starring Takeshi Kitano, this is a continuation of a series of films made in the 70s about a wandering blind masseur who also happens to be a master swordsman. The plot is fairly simple; Zatoichi comes to town and helps the townsfolk who are being exploited by the criminal gangs.
It can be explosively violent at times and could get a best-use-of-CGI-blood award, but it also has slapstick humour and song and dance routines. The soundtrack when you figure out how it was made is delightful. In an early scene you realise the percussion on the soundtrack is made by the peasants digging in the field. The actors are from a Japanese performance troupe similar to Stomp.
Having seen this film you might be tempted to watch the original 70s films which are available from Warrior on DVD. I wouldn’t recommend them, the picture quality is atrocious. They look as if they were mastered off a friends bootleg VHS copy. I can only hope Kitano will make another one.
Films to watch out for
These are films that have recently been in cinemas in the UK, some may even still be showing. They are worth seeing if you get the chance. They are all available from Japan with English subtitles, but if you’re patient they’ll probably all get a UK DVD release.
This is a wonderful film. The idea behind the film is that when you die you go to an afterlife reception facility (looking very like a rundown school) where you are interviewed about your fondest memories. You have to choose just one memory which the facilities’ staff make into a short film. On the last day the films are screened and you go into eternity with just that one memory.
My favourite performance in the film is an obaasan おばあさん who says almost nothing. Just collects pine cones and leaves from the facilities gardens. The film as a whole is quite simply made and the cinematography is quite good, capturing the very misty and atmospheric facility.
(And although the title reads as Wonderful Life, it was probably changed for its English release to avoid confusion with Capra’s film.)
Nobody Knows 「だれもしらない」
This Japanese film won best actor at Cannes 2004 for the 14year old actor Yuuya Yagira.
“Four siblings live happily with their mother in a small apartment in Tokyo. In fact, the children all have different fathers and have never been to school. The very existence of three of them has been hidden from the landlord. One day, the mother leaves behind a little money and a note, charging her oldest boy to look after the others. And so begins the children’s odyssey, a journey nobody knows.”