Kurosawa Documentary
Wellspring // Unrated // $34.99 // April 23, 2002
Review by Phillip Duncan | posted May 5, 2002
Highly Recommended
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Akira Kurosawa is considered by many to be one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers, most certainly when measured in terms of Western success and influence. His entire career was spent making and reinventing the cinema art that he loved so much.

Born in 1910 to a former Samurai family, Kurosawa was raised in a traditional Japanese way. By the fifth grade, he had begun training in the art of kendo sword fighting and was learning calligraphy. He was only 13 years old when one of the worst earthquakes in history struck Japan. Combined with the many fires that accompanied it, almost as many people were killed as there were when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Kurosawa stated that he remembers his brother taking him into the destroyed part of town and showing him the corpses. There were more bodies than he could remember and they had suffered every type of death imaginable. When he tried to look away, his brother told him not to because only then would he be afraid. When you face something head on, it cannot scare you.

As they grew older, his brother became an announcer for Japanese cinema. He translated and narrated American silent films that were show. At this time, Kurosawa says that he always preferred as little talking as possible. He would rather let the narrative and picture tell the story. The small comment was one that would continue to be used through his long career in film.

At the age of 26 he applied for a position as Assistant Director at Photo Chemical Laboratories (later TOHO). He increased his salary by writing scripts for the studio as well. His family looked upon this move as a disgrace, since it was looked at as a slap in the face to his strict upbringing.

His flair for visual inventiveness was obvious even in his early work, which were mainly propaganda films. As he struggled through the American occupation, Kurosawa also came to terms with his inability to stand up for his beliefs. After the occupation ended he began to explore the newfound freedoms of postwar Japan by exploring topics that were not allowed before and was determined to embrace this new freedom and use its advantages to his best ability.

Kurosawa's Rashomon gained international acclaim when it won the grand prize at the 1951 Venice International Film Festival. Kurosawa's tale about the flexibility of truth was an international hit and a masterpiece in modern storytelling but was looked down upon by the Japanese public. The documentary has a wonderful segment that reunites some of the cast and crew from the film and they reminisce about the making of the film and the sensation it caused at the time.

Kurosawa himself admits later in the film to adhering to a theory that is often talked about when terms like auteur theory are discussed. When asked of his life after Rashomon, he says one only has to look at the characters in his film. They were characters that were self-sacrificing or struggling against great odds. Much like him, they were characters that were honest and tried to make the most out of what life had given them.

As his later films increased in popularity (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), he became more and more of an influence on the world of cinema and Hollywood. Everything from Italian Spaghetti Westerns to modern Hollywood blockbusters have been based on his films. Everyone from James Coburn to George Lucas have given thanks to Kurosawa and praised his unique visions.

Whether you know everything or nothing about Kurosawa, this is a perfect disc that examines the life of this amazing filmmaker. Made up of personal interviews, clips read from his biography, and footage from other sources, it's a great look at a great career. It follows him from the beginnings of his career in Japan up until his death. It presents an introspective look at his philosophy of filmmaking and why he experimented and made the films he did.

Video: There are numerous sources of video in this disc; from old Hi-8 home movies to newly shot footage. Mast are presented in a nonanamorphic 1.85:1. The video quality varies, based on the films and their age, with the new interview footage looking the best. The video's a mixed bag, but nothing that distracts from the experience.

Audio: The audio is a digital stereo mix that is competent in the interview sequences, but lacking when the film clips are shown. The levels vary quite a bit in these clips; from too load to almost inaudible. Considering that most of these titles are on DVD, the audio could have been better.

Extras: There is a test only filmography, but the best and only true extra is over 100 minutes of additional interview footage with Kurosawa. This is broken into approximately 8 segments that run 5 to 15 minutes each. Most of the information here is not included in the documentary but it is all strictly subtitled text.

Overall: This is definitely a disc to own, whether you're a film scholar, Kurosawa fan, or a lover of great cinema in general. This documentary gives you everything you need to know. It spans his beginnings up until his death with a great emphasis on his great works and samurai series.

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