Samurai films reflect adventure at its purest

Commentary

June 23, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Whether in The Adventures of Robin Hood or The Wild Bunch, action-movie art often occurs when directors apply fierce commitment and instinct to implausible exploits - and create revelation, wonder and excitement.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the masterworks of Japan's great director Akira Kurosawa and his lesser-known equal Masaki Kobayashi. They and their stars, Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai, are at the center of the Charles Theatre's three-month series of samurai movies, playing Saturdays at noon, Mondays at 7 p.m. and Thursdays at 9 p.m., through mid-September.

The magnificent swordplay of their movies has remained unmatched for decades - and not just because the voluptuous stagecraft relies on daredevil choreography rather than special effects or wire work. These stories probe, and sometimes destroy, the ideal of living by a clean warrior's code. Only the virtuosity and intelligence of the directors make these volatile poems of conflict seem preternaturally calm between battle scenes.

The series kicks off tomorrow with Kurosawa's 1954 Seven Samurai, in the uncut, 3 1/2 -hour version that first arrived on these shores 23 years ago. None of the film's stature, not even its quality of surprise, has shrunk over the years. It remains the purest of adventure films. And that purity should come as a welcome jolt to today's audiences.

Kurosawa is the opposite of contemporary action filmmakers like Michael Bay (The Rock, Armageddon, the Bad Boys movies), who start pummeling audiences in the first five minutes - not messing around with "back story" - and then destroying geography, shredding and distorting realistic settings so that any slash or shot or feint, no matter how outlandish, becomes plausible. The resulting emphasis on sensation over logic has helped relegate most action films to a subliterate audience.

Seven Samurai is still the adventure movie for action lovers of all ages, because Kurosawa invests all his craft and exuberance in developing the story - and along the way, revolutionizes his chosen form by creating unemployed samurai willing to leave feudalism behind and serve the peasants. As they protect a farmers' village from rampaging brigands, Kurosawa creates a true epic, not a small-minded movie on an epic scale. It's about an entire host of heroes who resolve their individual conflicts and band together to perform an improbable feat - in the process, testing their own values and those of their caste or culture. When the samurai erect the village's defenses and back them with their skills, Kurosawa shapes their every maneuver and tactic, and even the muddy chaos that ensues, into the film's meticulous over-all strategy. The result is that you leave feeling all worked up and clearheaded.

With his audaciously anarchic 1961 Yojimbo (July 8, 10 and 13), Kurosawa might as well have proclaimed, in the manner of Monty Python, "and now for something completely different." It's a black comedy about universal corruption, and it provides an earthy star turn for Toshiro Mifune. In Seven Samurai, as an aspiring samurai trying to hide the secret of his peasant past, Mifune generated a bare-knuckled brand of pathos. In Yojimbo, he's a seedy, cunning master swordsman - and he's magnificently funny. He grunts, slumps, sweats and scratches in the performance that catalyzed John Belushi's 100-proof parody of him on Saturday Night Live.

There's a lodestone pull to the story, inspired by Dashiell Hammett's 1929 gangster novel, Red Harvest: To those tired of choosing the lesser of two evils, the fantasy of razing both evils can be irresistible. In Yojimbo, a stranger wanders into an isolated hellhole, sees that both sides of a power struggle are amoral and vicious, and plots their destruction at each other's hands. Without acknowledging Hammett, Kurosawa said that Yojimbo took shape in his mind when he envisioned a hero who "is able to stand squarely in the middle, and stop the fight"; ordinary folk (the rest of us) are "weakly caught" in the center.

When Kurosawa got around to making the movie, he learned what Hammett knew before him: that if corruption is everywhere the "hero" must share in it, too. At the end of Yojimbo, when Mifune says, "Now there'll be a little quiet in this town," he reminds you of the Vietnam War policy of "pacification," destroying a village in order to save it. Still, Kurosawa convinces you that the villains deserve annihilation, and Mifune achieves his goal through prowess that turns you on, not bums you out.

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