Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the world’s great film directors, best known for his samurai epics – Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood. He made 53 films including these three, my current favourites.
Dersu Uzala (1975) is the only film he produced and financed outside Japan. After his early success, Kurosawa was involved in a failed Hollywood project and his subsequent Japanese productions failed to ignite the box office. In a fit of depression, he tried to commit suicide in Dec 1971 and it was unsure whether he would work again. But in 1973 he was approached by the Russian Mosfilm studios and he proposed to them an idea he had been thinking about for thirty years – to make a film of the memoirs of the Russian explorer Vladimir Arseniev, who surveyed huge areas of uncharted wilderness in Ussuriland in the Far East of Russia in the 19th century. During this expedition he met a nomadic tribesman Dersu Uzala who became the group’s guide and Arseniev’s personal friend. Shot in colour over the course of a year in challenging conditions, it is a moving and beautiful film which has become a personal favourite.
My other two favourites are amongst the earliest and best detective and police procedural films in Japanese cinema.
‘Stray Dog’ (1949) stars a young Toshiro Mifune – who was to appear in 16 Kurosawa films – as a rookie detective whose pistol is stolen. Trying to track it down leads him into the illegal weapons market and the hunt for a young gangster. Kurosawa brings alive the streets of a sweltering Tokyo and both acting and cinematography are brilliant.
Also great is ‘High and Low’ (1963), in which the son of wealthy industrialist (again played by Mifune), is kidnapped for ransom. The film’s interesting twist in the story should stay as a surprise. What I find fascinating is the way he documents the police investigation (reminds me of Fritz Lang’s ‘M’), again beautifully filmed with great characters. Based on an Ed McBain novel, it bears comparison with the great Hollywood film noir.
A Japanese director you may not have heard of, from a younger generation than Kurosawa, is Hirokazu Koreeda. ‘After Life’ (1988) was his first feature film after making a string of documentaries and its a great one.
Set in and and around a dilapidated institution, this it seems is where the dead go before passing on to the other side. Here in less than a week, a trained team helps then isolate their one defining memory of their lives. This is then re-enacted and filmed; once screened the person disappears carrying that single memory only into an eternal future. From this unusual premise Koreeda builds a fascinating and truly original film, drawing on his documentary background and including real-life people alongside professional actors. Its genuinely moving and thought-provoking.