The Lower Depths

Of all the great contemporary foreign film directors, Japan’s Akira Kurosawa is by far the most accessible and the most influential. As a matter of fact, millions of Westerners who’ve never seen his films have been touched by them without realizing it. The Magnificent Seven is, of course, the most famous American remake of a Kurosawa classic, Seven Samurai. Clint Eastwood’s breakthrough starring vehicle, A Fistful of Dollars, was virtually a frame-for-frame translation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and George Lucas has acknowledged that his Star Wars was largely inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Clearly, Kurosawa’s work travels exceptionally well, as five newly released videotapes demonstrate vividly.

On the surface, the pictures couldn’t be more different. Sanshiro Sugata, the director’s first feature film, is a martial-arts epic (judo master versus jujitsu guy in a fight for their honor) prefiguring The Karate Kid. Stray Dog is a combination policier and chase film (homicide cop after the bad guy who stole his gun) set in the postwar Tokyo underworld. The Lower Depths, based on a Maxim Gorky play, is a slice-of-life, ensemble-acting tour de force, set in a 16th-century Japanese equivalent of skid row, that could be an Eastern The Iceman Cometh. The Bad Sleep Well is a high-finance murder and revenge saga (centered on a millionaire industrialist who has killed a business rival); think of it as Wall Street meets Hamlet. And Dreams is a surrealist anthology in gorgeous color with special effects from George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic and a sort of Twilight Zone narrative structure.

Only some of Dreams’ eight vignettes have a genuinely dream-like quality. Even at their weakest, they’re charming (as when a museum-goer enters a Van Gogh painting, eventually meeting the artist — played by Martin Scorsese, no less). And two sequences — a nuclear disaster on Mt. Fuji and an encounter between a world-weary army officer and the ghosts of his slaughtered battalion-are as haunting and spooky as anything ever filmed.

Obviously, Kurosawa doesn’t like to repeat himself. Still, all of these films are linked by Kurosawa’s economical visual sense, derived equally from vintage American studio filmmaking and the conventions of Japanese theater; by his tremendous flair for casting; and, most importantly, by a playfulness and an obvious love of cinematic grammar. Like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Kurosawa seems enthralled with the kinetic, technical, and emotional possibilities of the movies. And he makes that enthusiasm palpable to an audience without slighting the demands of the story being told. It’s this aspect of Kurosawa’s art that probably explains why Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are such Kurosawa buffs (Spielberg helped raise money to finance Dreams); despite the cultural chasm that separates them from the elder Japanese filmmaker, they clearly sense in him a kindred spirit.

Of this latest batch of Kurosawa films on tape, first-timers should probably begin with Stray Dog, which is like a ’40s American film noir with Toshiro Mifune in the Robert Mitchum role. After that, the biggest crowd pleaser is probably Dreams, which has the benefit of a spectacular Dolby Surround soundtrack, although all the rest (save for Sanshiro Sugata, whose subtitles are a trifle indistinct) are absolutely riveting viewing. All tapes: A

The Lower Depths
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