Thoughts While Watching the Screen (I Couldn’t Think of a Better Title)

Ever notice the cops/detectives in movie and TV chase scenes always seem to be in preternaturally good shape? I mean, these folks can run for blocks without showing any signs of getting winded. (I know. I’m familiar with the miracle of screen editing … but these kind of shows are supposed to be realistic.)

I was thinking of this while watching Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in French Connection II run a marathon in the heat of a French summer in pursuit of the drug kingpin played by Fernando Rey (who was riding in a boat at the time.) Now. I have never visited Marseilles (where FCII took place) but I did visit Paris in roughly the same time period and the heat was so intense I almost died from terminal thirst. I would like to believe that I was in reasonably good shape at the time of my visit but personally I couldn’t have run more than a couple of blocks in that heat.

It’s not just American cops either. In the Japanese thriller Stray Dog, Kurosawa goes out of his way to show viewers how hot it is. And yet what do we see? Toshiro Mifune as a Japanese policeman sprints after a fleeing felon in a …suit and tie? Even Hackman wasn’t that well dressed.

I assumed there might be a course in police academy about chasing down a fugitive that would account for the resilience and strength required to run that far and fast.

But then, come to think of it, that doesn’t explain why the crook is in such good condition. I mean, the “hero” has to have someone to chase, right? And I have a hard time picturing criminal types working out on treadmills in an underground gym. 

Must be the adrenaline rush powering the wrongdoer. I mean, I’d run, too (regardless of the weather) if I had someone who looked like the mighty Mifune on my tail.


I Got It from the Library: I LIVE IN FEAR (Criterion “Eclipse” Edition)

Godzilla:The Monster as Metaphor
Godzilla:The Monster as Metaphor

Blown up to the size of giant metaphors in the Godzilla films, Japanese fear and paranoia in the wake of  nuclear bombing, which decimated parts of their  country, may have  softened the blow for Western audiences.

Akira Kuosawa - Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Akira Kurosawa – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

But, as seen through the lens of the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa  it is up close and very personal. 

Translated literally the Japanese title is "Record of a Living Human being"
Translated literally the Japanese title for the film is “Record of a Living  Being”

Toshiro Mifune portrays an aging industrialist obsessed with moving to Brazil to escape what he is certain will be future atomic horrors.  He pleads with his family to go with him. They have no wish to accompany him.  Instead they take him to court to freeze his funds and have him declared mentally incompetent. (Some of the family members seem more preoccupied with being included in his will, even though he is still alive.)

Toshiro Mifune in (English title) I Live in Fear
Toshiro Mifune in (English title) I Live in Fear

Walking with a stooped gait and a haunted look in his eyes, the great Mifune is almost unrecognizable as the same actor who portrayed the heroic warrior in Kurosawa’s classic Eastern western The Seven Samurai.

Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai (yes, ot's the same guy)
Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai (yes, it’s the same guy)

I can hear echoes of King Lear in the screenplay (I know Kurosawa was a Shakespeare buff because he later remade Macbeth as Throne of Blood).

Although it was shot in the mid 50s, this little seen film  is more than relevant today with news about North Korea and Iran stoking fears of nuclear annihilation.

Slate Magazine, in a 2008 review by Fred Kaplan, compares the anxiety of Mifune’s character  to the paranoia  of New Yorkers following 9/11: “many of us feared to ride the subway, shuddered at strangely shaped bags, conjured mushroom clouds over the Empire State Building, and contemplated moving, if not to Brazil, then at least across the Tappan Zee Bridge, where life might be safer.

As one of the characters says in the film: “Is he crazy? Or are we, who can remain unperturbed in an insane world, the crazy ones?”

As Bill S. himself might say  “Ay, there’s the rub.”

Sounds more like a Sam Fuller movie title (but that's
Sounds more like  the tile for a  Sam Fuller movie (but that’s just me)

I Got It At the Library: SANJURO

Got a yen for a classic Japanese samurai flick?

When legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was asked to make another movie like  Yojimbo following the enormous box office success of his 1961 “samurai western”, he initially resisted. The story goes that Kurosawa  didn’t want to repeat himself,  a sentiment today’s multiplex moguls would find hard to relate to. ( Yes, I know, I’m not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition but, hey, it’s a blog, not a master’s thesis.)

Instead, the Japanese master made what is probably the closest he ever came to a comedy.

The mighty Toshiro Mifune actually plays a parody of the character he created in Yojimbo. 

In this 1962 release his sword slinging samurai is like a scruffy housecat. All he wants to do is eat, drink and lie around. And judging from the way he keeps scratching himself it’s been awhile since he had a bath.

Toshiro Mifune in “Sanjuro”: Resting Up After “Yojimbo”? 

He may be lazy but he still has wicked skills with a blade and he is still a sucker for the underdog. So when he wanders into an internecine struggle between warring factions in a small village he turns down big bucks from the bad guys to reluctantly help a group of idealistic but inexperienced samurai rescue an abducted village elder and restore him to his rightful place as the head of the clan.

The Not-So-Magnificent Eight (They’re the good guys, believe it or not)

Even though the tone of the overall film is light there is still plenty of swordplay including a climactic duel in which the blood literally spurts out of actor  Tatsuya Nakadai (who plays the heavy of the piece, just as he did in Yojimbo). The scene may seem tame by modern standards but it was fairly shocking back in the day.

To find out what really happened during the filming of the controversial scene you will have to check out the extras on the Criterion Collection.

In addition to a lovingly restored hi def version of the film the Criterion DVD includes a minidoc on the making of Sanjuro, including interview clips with Nakadai, production designer Yoshiro Muraki and longtime Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami. There’s even a vintage interview clip from Kurosawa himself.  (You’ll also find an essay on the film from esteemed movie critic Michael Sragow in a booklet tucked inside the DVD.) 

One for the Money, Two for the Show …

PS  Yojimbo was previously written up in this blog.


I Got It from the Library: YOJIMBO

No, it’s not a MTV rap series (cuz then it would be spelled Yo! Jimbo!)

Actually, yojimbo is a Japanese word which translates roughly as “bodyguard”.

It’s also the name of a samurai “eastern” directed by Japanese master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa with Toshiro Mifune as a fast sword for hire who drifts into a town divvied up by two rival gangs and proceeds to play both ends against the middle. 

Thanks to an impeccable restoration job by the Criterion folks you can watch this classic 1961 flick in all its original black and white glory.

The Criterion DVD also includes an illuminating 45 minute documentary on the making of the film.

In the doc we learn that Kurosawa was a big fan of John Ford westerns.

Western filmmakers in turn have been influenced by Kurosawa’s work.

His 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven in 1960.  Yojimbo was a primary influence on Italian director Sergio Leone when it came to making 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars and  remade by American director Walter Hill in 1996 as a Prohibition era gangster flick called Last Man Standing. (The first two films have an iconic glow of their own. The less said about the Hill flick the better.)

I used to refer to the mighty Mifune as “the Japanese John Wayne” but after watching Yojimbo again  I realize that description doesn’t do justice to the fabled Asian star.(And I’m a fan of the Duke, too. I loved the Monument Valley trilogy and The Searchers and I am not ashamed to admit that  Rio Bravo is as one of my alltime favorite flicks.)

 Mifune in his prime was faster on his feet and had a swagger and a presence uniquely his own. He didn’t have to speak English to get his point across. Some things need no translation. You saw this guy striding down the street and you almost felt sorry for the bad guys.

You can admire Kurosawa’s masterful shot composition, the sense of  texture and mood he gets out of his black and white cinematography and the almost balletic scenes of swordplay with the astonishingly agile Mifune.

Or you can just enjoy it for the entertaining actioner that it is.

One thing is for certain. It has never looked better than it does on the Criterion Collection DVD (and, no, they’re not paying me to write this.)

For the original Japanese theatrical trailer click on the link below: