#21. Dersu Uzala (1975)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Vladimir Arsenyev, Akira Kurosawa, Yuri Nagibin (based on Dersu Uzala novels by Vladimir Arsenyev)
Starring: Maxim Munzuk, Yury Solomin
Akira Kurosawa’s first and only film made entirely outside of Japan is a stunning and meditative work the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Dersu Uzala is the Academy Award-winning film about Captain Arseniev (Yury Solomin) and his transformative experience with a local aboriginal tribesman named Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munzuk), who guides Arseniev and his troop through the harsh Russian frontier. Uzala wins the hearts and minds of Arseniev and his men through his continuous displays of toughness, instinct, and intelligence, which saves the men’s lives on multiple occasions. Arseniev and Uzala form a strong, lasting bond after the Captain’s life is saved by the mysterious aboriginal man during a sudden blizzard. When we flash forward several years, Arseniev is once again traversing the Russian forests and mountain ranges where he encountered Uzala in years previous, and hopes to once again run into his old friend. Dersu Uzala is a deeply moving and beautiful film based on the true story of the titular Nanai trapper. While it’s certainly not like many of Akira Kurosawa’s previous films, the masterful director is able to put his own spin on the classic man vs. wilderness tale, telling an endearing story of camaraderie in the process. The cinematography featured in Dersu Uzala is breathtaking, featuring beautiful visuals of mountain ranges, snow-covered forests, and quaint villages. While the story of Dersu Uzala is an epic one, the visuals and direction by Akira Kurosawa make the film feel like a smaller, more intimate character study that happens to feature an adventure of epic proportions. The story of Uzala and Captain Arseniev is the highlight of the film – watching their chemistry blossom over the 144 minute runtime feels truly special and memorable. Maxim Munzuk’s portrayal of the wise, but rather odd, Uzala is the highlight of the film, and his chemistry with Yury Solomin’s more restrained Captain makes for an interesting and endearing dynamic. Kurosawa’s exploration of themes of lifestyles of old and the effect that man has had on nature of all sorts of deeply moving and still manages to feel relevant – these are themes we have been struggling with as a society for decades now. Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala is a beautiful and heartwarming story from start to finish. It may not match the epic scale of films like Kagemusha, Ran, or Seven Samurai, but it eclipses those movies in sheet heart and soul. Dersu Uzala is Kurosawa’s unsung masterpiece, and should be seen by anybody interested in international cinema.
#24. Seven Samurai (1954)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Kato, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki
Akira Kurosawa’s first major outing in the genre that made him famous also just happens to be one of the great films ever made. Seven Samurai is his sprawling epic that clocks in at well over three hours long – but the world class director doesn’t waste a single minute. Seven Samurai sees a small mountain farming village about to be pillaged by a gang of ruthless bandits. The farmers band together and recruit a group of experienced, but hungry, ronin to defend their village. When the bandits finally decide to strike the village, their battle with the titular seven samurai is a violent and unforgettable affair. Akira Kurosawa’s prowess as a director is clear from the moment Seven Samurai begins – he wastes no time in setting the scene and establishing the film’s central conflict. The bandits are a constant looming threat, and the film never lets you forget it. Even though the film’s runtime is so long, the race against the clock for the farmers and samurai is always front and center, making internal conflicts between the group of samurai that much more frustrating. Kurosawa absolutely knew what he was doing when structuring the film – building the tension constantly until the film’s final, action-packed act. Kurosawa paces the film as a classic tale of adventure, which works perfectly for Seven Samurai’s epic story – Kurosawa’s influence on film structure can still be felt today. Anybody who’s seen the animated A Bug’s Life knows the basic story of Seven Samurai, as Pixar opted to remake Kurosawa’s film for a more family-friendly audience. The entire cast of characters are memorable and well-written, and their interactions with one another are some of the best parts of the film. The most memorable character in my opinion is Toshiro Mifune’s inexperienced, but invaluable, Kikuchiyo. Mifune’s presence in his collaborations with Kurosawa is almost always the highlight of these films, and Seven Samurai is absolutely no different – his largely improvised performance is often unpredictable and always wild. Arguably the most impressive aspect of Seven Samurai are the movie’s incredible and exhilarating action scenes, especially the climactic battle in the rain. These scenes are frantically paced thanks to the editing, and Kurosawa’s prowess for camera placement. The action is quick, violent, and hard-hitting, and still feels as visceral and exciting as modern action-adventure filmmaking. Seven Samurai is a film that is far easier to watch than it is to write about – its far-reaching influence and technical innovation speak to this. The adventure is absolutely worth the long run-time, and is a great introduction into the samurai sub-genre.
#65. Kagemusha (1980)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai
Kagemusha is Akira Kurosawa’s epic tale of deception within a political dynasty in Sengoku era Japan. The film served as Kurosawa’s return to Japan after a brief excursion to Russia in order to make the equally incredible Dersu Uzala. Kagemusha’s intricate story sees Takeda Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), leader of the Takeda clan, save a thief from execution due to his uncanny resemblance to the daimyo. This “Kagemusha” (also played by Tatsuya Nakadai) is taught the ways of the Takeda clan in order to serve as their leader’s double, eventually fooling even those closest to the daimyo. After a series of unfortunate events, the Kagemusha is forced to assume leadership upon Takeda Shingen’s untimely demise, throwing the clan into chaos when their enemies suspect that something is going on. Akira Kurosawa is best known for his intimate and action-packed samurai-era epics, and Kagemusha absolutely delivers on that front. While it may be something of a slow burn in its first act, the story being told by the director is an intimate and delicate character study of an incredibly powerful man and his enemies. Stories of people being thrown into positions far over their own heads are age-old, and yet Kagemusha manages to shed a new light on the classic story structure. The titular Kagemusha is transformed from a barbaric thief to a dead ringer for the daimyo of the Takeda clan, and the transformation is wonderful to behold. While Kagemusha is a more personal tale than some of Kurosawa’s other epics, it also features incredible, sweeping panoramic scenes of action. While never as thrilling as something like Ran, Kurosawa’s film doesn’t seem interested in telling a non-stop thrill ride – instead it’s sure of what it is, which is a tale of deception and intrigue, and it delivers on these fronts. The dual performance of Tatsuya Nakadai is admirable, with the actor eventually able to blend the two dynamic personalities into the transformed Kagemusha. The samurai epic saw modest success, tying with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and picking up an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. While it may not be the best introduction to those not familiar with the samurai genre, Kagemusha is a captivating, beautiful, and highly rewarding for those brave enough to give it a shot.