#90 Kwaidan. Dir. Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan is comprised of four Japanese ghost stories, each inspired by one of the stories in Lafcadio Hearn’s 1904 anthology, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. At the time of filming, Kobayashi’s Kwaidan was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced. Its high cost of production is up on the screen. As the film plays you see in vibrant technicolor the massive sets that were built in an airplane hanger. Kobayashi also does not let the large scale of his design substitute for attention to small details. A camera will never capture every small detail of its object, and in the case of Kwaidan, no better capture of the mise-en-scène would have made the audience believe they were watching anything other than something artificial–impossible because the horizon is always an unnatural color or matte painting. But Kobayashi surely spent money to assure that even the little pieces of his cinematic imagination felt like our most vivid dreams.

Take, for example, the second story, “The Woman of the Snow”. Much of the story takes place in a forest in wintertime. Access to an airplane hanger allowed for long shots to frame hills, a small lake, and two characters wandering in a snow storm. Unblinking eyes float on the painted horizon, and for this fantasy to seem real, the reeds around the lake and the snow that blew in the (indoor) wind were as realistic as they could be. (I would guess that in some corners of the set the fake snow must have accumulated to become snow drifts several feet deep.)

Kwaidan is often presented as Kobayashi’s respite from moral issues. Compared to the subject-matter of The Human Condition (which I have yet to see) and in terms of plot, Kwaidan is hardly asking moral questions. Yet at least two of the four stories–the first two–show individuals with the freedom to decide on outcome, but while also believing they will not suffer negative consequences from selfish decisions. The samurai in the “The Black Hair” leaves his first wife to marry another woman for higher social status. After attaining wealth and social privilege, he grows unhappy and fantasizes about walking through the gate and hallway of his old home, to see his first wife contentedly weaving with her spinning wheel. His arrogance is that he dreams his abandonment did no damage whatsoever.

“The Woman of the Snow” is a pure example of someone ignoring a clear truth. In the setting of a character actually experiencing a ghost sparing him and killing his friend, the truth of the ghost’s demand to never speak of this event is real as a law of nature. Thus, when years pass and the man tells his wife about the woman of the snow, who is played by the same actress that plays the wife, the return of the ghost feels almost deserved justice. She did say should would kill him if he said anything, so what did he expect?

The third story is called “Hoichi the Earless”. Hoichi plays the biwa and one night his playing attracts the attention of a spirit. This spirit is a samurai and brings Hoichi to a square to sing for a dead Emperor and his retinue. The spirits request Hoichi to sing about a 12th-century battle, named the Battle of Dan-no-ura. This recounting of the ancient battle is beautifully composed with a rotation of three shots: the Emperor and other ghosts sitting absolutely still as they listen to Hoichi; a slow pan over a Japanese drawing of the battle; and, warriors in dozens of boats that rock in the waves of red-colored water (the blood of those who died and fell overboard?). While the title of the story describes the injury Hoichi suffers from a mistake the priests make in trying to protect Hoichi from further visits from the biwa-loving spirit, the story is just as much about the tragedy of fading memory in history. The frozen faces in the audience of ghosts shows how distant everyone is from understanding the reasons for the ancient clans to kill each other in battle.

“In a Cup of Tea” is the last story in a film that is over three hours long. Sitting through to the very end takes a little patience. The fourth story is not of lesser quality than the other three, but the experience of it could feel unnecessary. By the end of the third story, Kobayashi has fed the viewer dozens of stunning visuals by having actors slow or stop their movement in long or medium shot. We get more artistic beauty from “In a Cup of Tea”–in this case from faces floating in water and from a swordsman fighting a ghost in his lord’s compound–but the anthology style of Kwaidan can let one feel little guilt for stopping early.

#53 Sanjuro. Dir. Akira Kurosawa

A DVD copy of Sanjuro was gifted to me. If I had purchased a hard copy myself, I definitely would never have skipped buying Yojimbo, the first in the pair of films about Sanjuro, the ronin who names himself “30 years old”. Sanjuro is a film for the those–investors and samurai fans alike–who wanted more from Kurosawa’s creation. The success of Yojimbo created the desire for a sequel, and Kurosawa repurposed an old script to have Toshiro Mifune and other players, like Tatsuya Nakadai, continue the adventure.

Much like how I feel when watching a Mizoguchi film, a Kurosawa film is comforting because it is so well crafted. One does not watch Sanjuro to see what can happen if continuity is thrown out the window. Rather, one seeks a film like this because it demonstrates how, in the hands of an expert, a so-called “straightforward” style of story-telling is not an impediment to radical creation. In the realm of fiction, James Clavell’s Shōgun is the first cousin of a Kurosawa film; the former is dedicated to observing the action of characters from third person, but the precision of its description allows for different layers of a feudal system to be folded into one complex picture.

The funny thing about praising the style of Sanjuro is that one can, with a small push from Stephen Prince’s audio commentary, read the film as Kurosawa telling the next generation of Japanese filmmakers they made a mistake to reject the Japanese cinema Kurosawa helped create. Not for lack of enthusiasm, the young samurai in the film fail to read almost every political maneuver that is taking place. Consequently, Mifune’s exposition is not just for the audience–Sajnuro has to tell his own allies that, if he was a less capable swordsman, his head would be cut off by their hands and from their blind stupidity.

#1, Seven Samurai. Dir., Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai was not the first criterion in my collection, but it probably should have been. When I first watched this film–a loan from my library–I started to see my ignorance of cinema history clearly, without bias or defensiveness. If it had taken me this long to see Seven Samurai, there must be so many other films I was slow to discover.

A dear friend gifted me the criterion edition of the film. I watched the copy almost immediately, but then Seven Samurai remained on my bookshelf for years. If I had to guess why it took me so long to re-watch the film, I would say the simplicity of its plot is able to trick the person who has forgotten the details. Simplicity is not a bad thing, but when you forget particular images and only remember the story of samurai defending peasants against bandits, the reasons to return to Seven Samurai are hidden from your mind.

Being a samurai is hard work

The samurai film is forever linked with the western. Seven Samurai shows us that the American genre might not be able to translate everything. The easy part is substituting seven samurai with seven gunslingers; the harder part is compensating for the loss of Kurosawa’s curiosity about the physicality of being a samurai. They swing swords as cowboys draw pistols, but Kurosawa emphasizes how much a samurai needs to work, run, climb, build, run and run even more. Seiji Miyaguchi’s character, Kyūzō, is seemingly indefatigable, which is visually contrasted by the stillness of his face.

John Ford’s Stagecoach demonstrates that in the universe of the western, the cowboy is limited in physicality because he is the center that action revolves around. Even as the stagecoach barrels across the plains, the target of the camera is a crouching John Wayne; it is his attackers, indigenous warriors on horseback, that come in and out of frame by the acceleration of their horses. Parts of Seven Samurai show us what happens when bodies move in a universe with no fixity. Even with repeated shots of Kambei Shimada (played by Takashi Shimura) strategizing with a map of the village, the audience cannot assemble shots of huts, rivers and pathways into something logical. The samurai organize the space for themselves, but with a lot of hard work. In fact, Kurosawa gives a lot of the film’s running time to show us all of the human energy behind the plan to have bandits attack from just one direction.

Laughter in melodrama

Plenty of comedies are funny because nobody in the film laugh. It is good that nobody laughs because we need flawed characters to accept the ridiculous premises of a situation with absolute seriousness. This is Spinal Tap, for example, is funny because you are watching an unbelievably bad band dedicate itself to producing great rock ‘n roll. No member of band can see that it is their fate to always fail in embarrassing ways.

Parts of Seven Samurai are humorous and I would even guess some viewers would audibly chuckle at some of its bits. Interestingly, people in the world of Seven Samurai frequently laugh, particularly at the oddball behavior of Kikuchiyo, the ronin jester. This decision of Kurosawa–to let characters laugh when failure, trickery or buffoonery would be funny in the film’s internal world–is important to have the film carry emotional force. The decision works because it balances the darker sides of the melodrama.

I do not know if there is a definite point where Kurosawa’s use of humor would have gone too far and become cheap comic relief; but there might be a way to intuitively know Kurosawa achieved something masterful. Melodrama in film is a tricky balancing act, where so many little things can cheapen or kill the rousing of emotional feeling. Kurosawa shows that moments of sorrow or despair can actually be amplified when characters prefer the emotional states of joy and laughter to anger and sadness. The other samurai laugh at Kikuchiyo because they need an antidote to the cold structure of feudalism. In fact, laughter is a democratic wrecking-ball that breaks the social barriers between samurai and peasant.

This is not our victory

Kurosawa puts an exclamation point on his story by giving the cruelty of medieval Japan the last word in Seven Samurai. When the remaining samurai can only watch the celebration song of the peasants, the audience shares their feelings of exlcusion. In the last remaining minutes of a 207-minute epic, Kurosawa carefully lets the barriers of feudalism return to their repressive heights. Earlier in the film, villagers were rebuked for shamelessly begging for help at the feet of passing samurai; now, during the finale, nobody can imagine that samurai and peasant are equal.