The Bad Sleep Well

We round out Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespearean adaptations with the loosest of the bunch, so loose in fact that we posit that the “adaptation” is a construction of Western critics grasping at straws instead of a purposeful, or even unpurposeful, decision by Kurosawa. In any case, as Kaori Ashizu argued in the journal of the Shakespeare Society of Japan, going into The Bad Sleep Well understanding it to be a Shakespeare adaptation actually undermines a lot of the excellent storytelling Kurosawa is doing.

Donovan Hill joins us, and along the way we also talk about public office corruption in Japan and Ohio. Good times!

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Ran

The Criterion Collection sure loves Shakespeare. Turns out so does Akira Kurosawa, though sometimes by accident? Throne of Blood is rather objectively the best adaptation of MacBeth that exists. Soon we’ll watch The Bad Sleep Well which could be Hamlet but it might be better to not think of it as Hamlet — we’ll get into that in a few weeks.

This week in the middle is Ran, which Kurosawa wrote, then someone pointed out that it sounded a lot like King Lear, so Kurosawa rewrote it to lean into the comparison.

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Kagemusha

Donovan Hill often joins us for discussions on the works of Akira Kurosawa because he has a long history with the films, having had them thrust upon him by his obsessive father from a very young age. Dr. Hill passed away recently and Donovan joins us in an episode dedicated in his father's memory, and dedicated to a discussion of the rose-tinted view of Japan's national memory. Kagemusha (1980) is one of the few Kurosawa period films that could be accurately described as historical fiction, not just being set in his normal nebulous samurai period, but specifically being about real people and real battles drawn from history, even if certain elements make it about as historically accurate as Inglorious Basterds.

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The Lower Depths

Two movies for the price of one with this week's outing. In 1902 Maxim Gorky debuted his play The Lower Depths about a group of people living in a flophouse in Russia. It was an international hit of a character study, leading to localizations around the world. In 1957 Akira Kurosawa made a version that was fairly faithful to the source material except transported to 19th century Japan. In 1936 Jean Renoir made it into a romantic comedy.
Reportedly, Gorky actually liked Renoir's version, but even Renoir recognized that Kurosawa made the better adaptation. They're both wonderful movies and are both included in the Criterion Collection's The Lower Depths double disc.

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Stray Dog

Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura are two of the greatest actors of the 20th century. It happens that they also frequently collaborated with one another and with some of the greatest film directors to come out of mid-century Japan. As such, it seems they may be the actors who most often appear in the Criterion Collection as well, though it's hard to track that information without it becoming a whole new obsession.

They costar in Stray Dog under the helm of Criterion standard Akira Kurosawa from 1949 and it would be a feat of pure disaster if all that talent didn't make for an amazing film. Plus it's a police procedural! Who doesn't love a good police procedural?

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Ikiru

When confronted with mortality, a man decides to change his life. In the West these stories (A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life) are usually framed around Christmas for the inherent symbolism of the holiday in particular and winter in general.

With Ikiru (1952) Akira Kurosawa makes the best version of this type of story without any over religion, just humanity. It's quite probably his best film, though we've probably said that before.

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Throne of Blood

There's an old theater superstition that you should not utter the name Mackers, er, MacB. The Scottish King? MacBeth.

If we shadows have offended

Akira Kurosawa seems to have taken the Scottish Curse a bit too literally, transposing his adaptation of the Bard's play into his usual feudal Japanese setting, infusing it with Noh theatre tropes, and editing profusely, the last of which everyone needs to do when adapting Shakespeare to film.

Good thing, too. Because if 1957's Throne of Blood had been cursed, our beloved Toshiro Mifune definitely really would have died during his final scene.

Oh, and friend of the show Donovan Hill stops in for this episode, as well. What a treat!

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Red Beard

Apparently Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune did not end their relationship on the best of terms, but if they had to part ways fighting, they still managed one heck of a film, but then could either ever make a bad film? Red Beard, from 1965, is not only the two greats' final collaboration, but also Kurosawa's finally black and white film. That probably makes it special, too, right?

Rashomon

Donovan Hill adds a third point of view that probably isn't "truth" as he joins us to talk about Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950). The film invented an oft-poorly-imitated film convention and introduced Kurosawa to the West. Pat says modern Japan sees it as one of Kurosawa's "classics." You know, like the rest of his films.

Sanjuro

Yojimbo proved so popular that Akira Kurosawa reworked his next project, another period piece starring the great Toshiro Mifune, into a sequel/prequel/parallelequel starring possibly the same character or maybe not but Mifune plays him similarly and they have similar names.

Anyway, however they're ultimately related, a year after Yojimbo came out Kurosawa released Sanjuro (1962), a film that has decidedly more to say about how samurai weren't all that great. It's no wonder this one wasn't remade as often.

Donovan joins again and we thank him for his time. It's always so exciting and long-winded when he's around.

Yojimbo

Akira Kurosawa's 1961 period drama Yojimbo is one of the most influential films in history, not to mention the most ripped-off. It's most famous unofficial remake is arguably as well known as Yojimbo itself: Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. I'll forgive the rip-off since Leone made a pretty impressive film but we won't talk too much about that.

Being our resident Kurosawa-obsessive, Donovan Hill returns to us once again and will be with us next week as well for Kurosawa's related follow-up film Sanjuro. Toshiro Mifune stars, and I never get tired of seeing him.

High and Low

As our resident Kurosawa obsessive Donovan Hill joins us again to talk about the director's 1963 crime drama High and Low. The first hour is a morality play taking place in a shoe company executive's living room. The next one and a half are a police procedural that feels like Law and Order. I'm not selling this right.

Great and interesting movie. Fun conversation. Always glad to have Donovan around. If you'd like to join us for any conversations talk to us on Facebook

Seven Samurai

In this episode we continue to get our footing on this whole "podcast" thing as we discuss Akira Kurosawa's 1954 epic Seven Samurai which clocks in at over three hours long, but somehow avoids feeling like it. The same may not be said for our 54 minute episode, but, hey, we're not Kurosawa.

Now seems as good a time as any to point out that our theme music is by the great Jonathan Hape. Check out his other work on bandcamp.