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Wellspring presents
Kurosawa (2000)

"Take myself, subtract movies, and the result is zero."
- Akira Kurosawa

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: July 09, 2002

Stars: Akira Kurosawa, Paul Scofield, Sam Shepard
Other Stars: Shuichi Kato, Kon Ichikawa, Donald Richie, Tadao Sato, Machiko Kyo, Shinobu Hashimoto, Isuzu Yamada, James Coburn, Clint Eastwood, Stephen Prince, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Coppola
Director: Adam Low

Manufacturer: Blink Digital
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:55m:27s
Release Date: April 23, 2002
UPC: 720917314327
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AB+B B+

DVD Review

The measure of a filmmaker's greatness is almost certainly impossible to quantify, but by whatever standard you care to use, the late Akira Kurosawa is among the handful of the medium's masters. Kurosawa-san died in 1998, at the age of 88, and this documentary overview of his work, made two years after his death, is a handsome, worthy look at his legacy. Interviews with collaborators, family members, scholars and other film professionals are intercut with clips from many of Kurosawa's films, providing a tidy chronological look at the man and his work, and a suggestion of his vast impact on filmmaking in his native Japan, and perhaps even more so in the West.

Kurosawa's formative years are of particular interest to fans of his films, for their influence is of course everywhere. The documentary makes the point that the main scarring event of Kurosawa's childhood was the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, when the city's streets were strewn with corpses and debris—as many were killed by the quake as by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Young Akira and his brother went looking at the horror, and it's an image the filmmaker reproduced decades later for the climax of Kagemusha.

Kurosawa answered a classified ad in 1936 for assistant directors, and quickly ascended as both an A.D. and a screenwriter in the makeshift Japanese film business. There are some tantalizing clips of his first movies, including Sanshuro Sugata, made in 1943, his first time at the helm, and The Most Beautiful, from the following year; Kurosawa went on to marry one of the actresses in that movie about female factory workers during World War II. But of course his first big splash on the international scene is with Rashomon, which electrified world cinema, first at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. One of the high points of the documentary is a reunion of the surviving members of the Rashomon crew, fifty years after the shoot, at the film's location—most notable is Machiko Kyo, the leading lady, and it's clear that all these years later, the pecking order with movie stars at the top is intact. Unaware of the manner in which their film was received overseas, only slowly did the titanic impact of Rashomon become apparent, not only on Kurosawa and his crew, but as the first film that made the point with the world community that Japan had a thriving, capable creative movie industry producing work of the highest quality.

The filmmakers do an excellent job of keeping this project from being merely a laundry list (Then he made this film, then he made that film), the only downside of which is that not all of Kurosawa's movies make the cut. (Two of my favorites, in fact—High and Low and The Hidden Fortress—don't even rate a mention.) An especially good device is having a portable video player on which those who worked on Kurosawa's films can review clips, and we can watch them watching. Isuzu Yamada, who played Asaji, the Lady Macbeth figure in Throne of Blood, is particularly good on this account; her director wanted her to model her performance on Noh theater, to have the emotion expressed by her movements, but not by her face, which was to remain in a metaphorical Noh-like mask. (Yamada even takes out the very mask that Kurosawa gave her as a model.)

Great attention is of course given to Kurosawa's relationship with Toshiro Mifune, though what exactly caused the unbridgeable rift between them during the making of Red Beard, their last movie together, isn't made clear here. And there are the dark times: the financial disappointment of Dodesukaden, Kurosawa's first film shot in color; his 1971 suicide attempt; and the long years he worked on Dersu Uzala, a film financed by the U.S.S.R., as he was unable to secure financing anywhere else.

Much is made of Kurosawa's one disastrous foray into Hollywood: Twentieth Century Fox signed him on to direct the Japanese sequences of Tora! Tora! Tora!, about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Kurosawa quickly felt duped—he was told that David Lean was to direct the American sequences (it was Richard Fleischer instead), and the studio brass did not approve of his working methods. He was off the project after three weeks, and none of the footage he shot made it into the movie. (Some of his drawings for it, shown in this documentary, do look just magnificent.) Kurosawa's contentious relationship with the United States is a theme here—the director was occasionally dismissed at home for being too American, though in the U.S. he was the very personification of Japanese film. James Coburn talks about his passion for Kurosawa, and the affinity between samurai and cowboy stories, culminating in the remake of Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven; and Clint Eastwood eloquently discusses the respect for Kurosawa he shared with Sergio Leone, as they teamed up to remake Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars.

In his last years Kurosawa seems to have been lionized in the West but not at home—only with the assistance of Francis Coppola, for instance, could Kurosawa secure financing for Kagemusha, and this documentary opens with the presentation to Kurosawa of an honorary Oscar, in 1990; the presenters are two of his biggest fans who became two of his benefactors, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Most poignantly, there's on-set footage of Kurosawa directing the last shot of his last movie, Madadayo, as the sensei hangs it up for good.

There's a good amount of interview footage with Kurosawa himself, happily, and an abundant shots of him ruminating over a glass of scotch as he looks at the mountains from his retreat—only late in the documentary do we learn that these were from a series of whiskey ads that Kurosawa shot and starred in during some of the lean years, apparently the Japanese equivalent of Orson Welles shilling for Paul Masson.

Sam Shepard narrates, and Sir Paul Scofield reads extensively from Kurosawa's writings, mostly from his memoir, Something Like an Autobiography.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A good crisp transfer, and what's especially nice is that the aspect ratios of the clips from Kurosawa's films are preserved, be they 1.33, 1.85 or 2.35. Some of the newer interview footage doesn't look quite as sharp—the clips of Clint Eastwood seem to be of especially poor quality—but generally a very nice job.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English and Japaneseno

Audio Transfer Review: Minimal amount of interference on the audio side, as well; little hiss, and nice balance. The bulk of the interviewees speak of course in Japanese.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Documentaries
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: What's billed simply as Bonus Interviews (01h:30m:33s) is almost another entire Kurosawa documentary in its own right. It lacks narration or film clips (which is unfortunate, especially when the topic is composition or Kurosawa's use of color), but these ninety minutes are devoted principally to Kurosawa's craft, with his screenwriting collaborators, set designer, assistant directors, script supervisor and other colleagues. (His daughter, Kazuko, worked as a costume designer on his last pictures.) Clint Eastwood tells which Kurosawa picture is his favorite (somewhat surprisingly, it's Red Beard), and a couple of actors talk about their excitement when Kurosawa, persona non grata in the Japanese film industry at the time, placed an ad for an open casting call for Kagemusha. (The director sat through three thousand auditions.)

There's also a thorough Kurosawa filmography, and weblinks to twelve sites devoted to the director, as well as to Wellspring Video, the distributor.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

This fine overview of the work of Kurosawa-san will serve the uninitiated well as an introduction to the master, and has much to offer even those intimately familiar with his films. While sadly for us there will be no more Kurosawa pictures, there's still much to learn from him, and this DVD is a wealth of information, sensibly presented.


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