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Akira Kurosawa is, simply put, one of the best directors in movie history. He has created numerous acknowledged masterpieces and influenced the careers of many prominent directors worldwide. Filmgoers might instantly recognize titles such as The Seven Samurai or Rashomon or Ran, but I would like to highlight a couple of his movies from the 70's that sometimes go overlooked. Both are uniquely special, and both are excellent examples of the humanism that is a hallmark of Kurosawa's films.
Dodes' Ka-den (1970) is a salad of riches. This ensemble creation features characters that are in varying measures charming, grotesque, admirable, humorous, and pitiable. It is Kurosawa's first color film, and the setting of a post-war Japanese slum is shot as a surreal, at times garish, landscape. Color, magically bright and often symbolic, is a primary character of many scenes.
A pair of workers stumble home drunk every evening. Both have clothing that matches the color of their houses. Despite the advantage of this visual cue, one night each manages to pass out in the other's home. The women who do daily chores at the neighborhood spigot and are the hub around which much of the film's action takes place are stunned when both the workers and later their wives act as if nothing unusual had happened.
There is a rag collector whose gaze is as rigid and dead as the tree outside his shack. A boy lives with his father in the shell of an automobile. The father's shyness and complete lack of common sense put the child at great risk. An elderly man resolves desperate situations with ingenious but unorthodox methods. Tragedy, comedy, and absurdity are intertwined. And periodically a boy trundles through town acting like a trolley car.
The title of the movie represents his imitation of trolley sounds. Watch the acting closely. Although intentionally theatrical, the changes in facial expressions and the timing and duration of responses are flawless. This is ensemble performance at its best, directed with sensitivity and panache. In Dodes' Ka-den Kurosawa depicts the virtues and foibles of the poor in dramatic fashion. He has a clear-cut way of exposing the self-important and elevating the humble. You may cry. You may laugh. But you will not be unaffected.
Dersu Uzala (1975) is a remarkable portrayal of two men from very different cultures who develop an endearing and enduring friendship. The story leaves a sad, sweet taste long after viewing the film.
A Russian survey team leader, who is also the film's narrator, enlists a local ethnic Nanai hunter named Dersu Uzala as a guide in the wilderness of Eastern Russia during the early years of the 20th century. This gorgeously shot film follows expeditions through dense forests and open landscapes. At times you really do feel enveloped by the trees or humbled by vast expanses of water and ice. Several scenes highlight the differences in attitude between the Russian soldiers and the guide. The guide is keenly attuned to the vicissitudes of life in the forest. The Russians, by comparison, are insensitive to the habitat they are exploring. Portrayed with obvious irony, the guide's assistance speeds the inevitable development that leads to the destruction of his world.
The Russians are repeatedly surprised by the guide's abilities. For example, the singing of birds alerts the guide to the imminent cessation of the rain that has driven them to shelter. In one long scene the hunter and the captain find themselves stranded on a huge ice field intersected by a tapestry of rivulets of water. They are far from their camp as nightfall approaches, and strong winds hinder their chances of survival. Quick thinking and a frenzy of activity on the guide's part save the day. The guide is played by a cherub of a man, round faced and innocent. He sees the entire forest as alive and talks to tigers and campfires with the same sincerity he exudes while talking to humans. His simplicity, ingenuity, and compassion win over the Russians. When the guide's eyesight fails him, the captain invites him to live in his city home. The guide, understandably, is completely out of his element in a house and in a city.
A joint Russian/Japanese production, Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Film Oscar and Kurosawa won awards for best director in numerous countries including the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. This is an utterly satisfying movie.
For a video on Kurosawa's life and films, let me suggest Kurosawa.
Photo credit: ORAZ Studio
Fred has been a film fan for forever.