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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

May 3, 2006
[Originally published Wednesday, 2006-05-03 08:00am]

I fell ill several times over the course of the past winter, with everything ranging from a nagging sore throat to a debilitating stomach virus. Aware that rest is the best medicine, my ailments gave me the chance to play hooky from work, cover myself with fleece blankets and catch up on some classic movies.

The recent re-release of Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Ran lead to a personal marathon of his films and a deep appreciation for one of the greatest directors of all time. Transcending the hack-and-slash brutality that one might expect from films centered around the way of the samurai, Kurosawa's works explore human emotion in touching, beautiful ways. With themes ranging from the heights of Shakespearean melodrama to the everyday lives of street hustlers, Kurosawa developed complex characters as vessels to navigate the blurry territory between good and evil. Of course there is also a fair amount of sword fighting to be had in a Kurosawa film, which is awesome.

For anyone interested in checking out some classic filmmaking, or for anyone sick of renting crap like Deuce Biggalo 2, the following list of Kurosawa highlights consists of films the that anyone with the patience to read subtitles and the ability to overlook really, really bad fake laughter can enjoy. While a good portion of this list may not be stocked in the foreign section of Blockbuster, any independent video store worth it's salt should keep them stocked. And, there's always Netflix, which has just about every movie you could ever want, domestic or foreign, even if it does turn out to be some sort of information-gathering conspiracy.

Seven Samurai

Without a doubt Kurosawa's most famous film, it's also a great introduction to his work as a whole. Serving as the inspiration for the John Sturges western The Magnificent Seven, Seven Samurai portrays a band of mercenary swordsmen who heroically pledge to defend a small village from marauders. The samurai deal with mistrust from the villagers as well as strife within their own collective, being more akin to soldiers of fortune than to selfless heroes. All of this leads up to the finale - a battle scene that ranks amongst the best ever filmed.


Rashomon

Far before Memento gained critical favor for its innovative timeline, Kurosawa experimented with narration in this flashback-based film. A rape/murder scene is told and retold by those who experienced it - the attacker, the victims (both living and dead) and an innocent bystander testify to what they remember. The various accounts of the incident of course don't match up, and the viewer is left with a puzzle as to what actually happened... though not knowing the truth is half the fun. Subtle and complex, this film packs a lot into its brief 90-minute running time.


Yojimbo

Another of Kurosawa's films to be remade as a western (Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars), Yojimbo places a lone samurai in the middle of a town's gang war. Looking to capitalize on both ends, the samurai (played by long-time Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune) moves back and forth between gangs, double-crossing his way to more and more of their money. Yojimbo is memorable not for its drama or action (though it has plenty of both), but rather for the comedic delivery that makes it an entertaining watch every time.


Ran

Any sort of list about Kurosawa's movies - and probably any Best Of film list at all, for that matter - should include Ran. As a faithful retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, Ran teems with tragedy at every turn, and by the film's end almost all of the characters have been killed off. Despite the film's gloomy perspective, Ran is so visually stunning and perfectly executed that it leaves viewers craving for more. Additionally, being one of Kurosawa's latter films, it is presented in full color, making it seem vivid to the point of surrealism.


Stray Dog

This isn't really a "samurai" movie in the traditional sense, as it takes place in modern times, but the plot could just as well be placed in a feudal era. The movie benefits from a simple storyline: a young detective carelessly loses his gun and goes undercover to get it back. As one of Kurosawa's earlier works, Stray Dog lacks the refined mastery evident in the other films on this list, but traces of the auteur are evident to the experienced Kurosawa fan. Stray Dog is to Kurosawa what Reservoir Dogs is to Tarantino - a great movie in its own right, it becomes even more satisfying within the context of the director's later works.

SEE ALSO: akirakurosawa.info
SEE ALSO: www2.tky.3web.ne.jp/~adk/kurosawa/AKpage.html

--
Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LASís editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other articles by Jon Burke.

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