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Some Kurosawa DVDs

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1961, 110 minutes, Criterion, www.criterionco.com)

Yojimbo is one of Kurosawa’s most loved films. It is filtered through samurai pictures but one senses there might be a nod to films like Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz in which Burt Lancaster plays a devil may care adventurer and Gary Cooper plays a rather dour adventurer. Toshiro MifuneÕs character, called Sanjuro, seems to combine elements of the two, playing games, taking sides, changing sides, laughing at the folly in front of him. Sergio Leone borrowed a lot of it for his Fistful of Dollars.

The late Brian Davies remarked upon the wonderful conjunction in this film of Cinemascope and Japanese mediaeval architecture.

The cover claims that the transfer was created from a 35mm composite fine-grain master. Be that as it may, Chapter 13 has a white stripe right down the middle twice for ten seconds or so and in Chapter 15 the stripe appears throughout.

The extras include only the Japanese trailer. That is, however, interesting. It use,s almost throughout, shots that are not in the film. They are either staged for the trailer, as in the confrontation between Mifune and the pistol carrying rival, or simply other takes of the same scene.

The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1958, 150 minutes, artevideo, www.arte-tv.com)

Leonard Maltin mentions that in the US this film is 128 minutes. The French DVD says the original release was 133 minutes and that this French DVD, with French subtitles only, is 150 minutes). My memory of it, from a single viewing in 1971 is so indistinct I cant recall what might be the scenes that are added back to the original Japanese version.

It’s said that the film was an inspiration to George Lucas for Star Wars, not impossible to comprehend given the near-abstract sets and locations denuded of any character.

This is one of a package of six films issued by Arte video in France, the other titles being Judo Saga, Throne of Blood, Sanjuro, Red Beard and Dodes’kaden. Each of the disks is loaded with extras. On the disk unfder review, there is a sort of essay on women in Kurosawa’s films which describes the roles of his chief female characters and is designed to redress the idea of Kurosawa inhabiting a solely male universe. There is also an interview with Kurosawa discussing the film. Extras on the other titles include a doco by Chris Marker on Kurosawa made during the shooting of Ran and conversations with some of his collaborators including Toshiro Mifune and his composer Masaru Sato. It’s a brilliant package.

High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1963, 143 minutes, Criterion, www.criterionco.com)

Based on an Ed McBain novel this is advertised on the cover as being presented in its original Tohoscope aspect of 2.35:1. The cover claims that the new digital transfer was created from a new composite print. The beautiful scope compositions don’t always come off on the transfer largely because it still seems to trim a little off the sides. The story itself is brilliantly done. Kurosawa could do anything from Shakespeare and Gorky to pulp fiction and invest it uniformly with his sense of gravity. There is no particular mystery and the police procedural elements are rather thin. The cover of the disk contains a sensational essay on the film by the American critic Chuck Stephens. Chuck has a way with words: ‘An anti-Narcissus adrift in a narcotic-saturated, discotheque-driven nightworld, the mirror-shaded Takeuchi…’. Chuck also makes a lot of puns and word plays on the lead character’s name, Kingo Gondo and his profession as the manager of a shoe factory (“What Gondo cant foresee is Takeuchi’s plan to stamp on his toes…a moral dilemma worthy of Kingo Solomon’).

Watching it reminds me that there is another Japanese version of an Ed McBain novel that I’ve not seen. In 1979 Kon Ichikawa made a film whose title now eludes me. It was shown outside Japan once as far as I know, at the 1980 London Film Festival. Since then it has never re-appeared. The producers had somehow forgotten that you had to own the rights to a book before you filmed it. Someday probably when we are all in the public domain it will pop up.