Three items related to Akira Kurosawa have recently come to my attention and should be of interest to any fan of Asian films.
First off, Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi) is due to come out this month on Criterion DVD. This 1948 release was the first Kurosawa project in which Toshiro Mifune appeared; previously he'd been in three films by other directors.
Takashi Shimura stars as Dr. Sanada, the title character. Despite his problem with alcohol, Sanada is a consciencious physician who runs a clinic located near a large cesspool, which represents Japan in the early post-WWII years. But Mifune, as a gangster with TB, steals the movie. The scene in which, drunk and with pompadour flying, he jitterbugs like a madman, well, that alone is worth the price of admission.
Drunken Angel is a film of several other firsts besides being the first pairing of the director with Mifune. It was the first film that Kurosawa considered to be truly his own, having previously had to deal with Japanese wartime and then Allied Occupation censors. It was also the first time he worked with composer Fumio Hayasaka, who went on to score all but one of Kurosawa's films until he died in 1955. Finally, this was the first Kurosawa film to win the prestigious Kinema Jumpo Best Film award, which is roughly equivalent to the New York Film Critics' Award.
I first saw this film at Japan Society in 2003 and have hoped ever since that it would become available on DVD in the U.S. And now it soon will be joining the many other Kurosawa films from Criterion. (I believe that there are more Kurosawa films available from Criterion than from any other director, which is fine by me.) And coming from Criterion, you know it's going to be a magnificent transfer. Hopefully there'll also be enough DVD extras to make all of us thrilled.
Also in the news from Criterion, is the announcement that January, 2008, will witness the release of Postwar Kurosawa. This will be Series 7 in Criterion's Eclipse line of lower cost box sets of lesser known films by great directors. The set will include:
No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi), 1947
One Wonderful Sunday (Subarashiki nichiyobi), 1947
Scandal (Shubun), 1950
The Idiot (Hakuchi), 1951
I Live in Fear (Ikimono no kiroku), 1955
I've only seen No Regrets, a solid film about a college professor's daughter who is caught up in the turmoil of the suppression of dissent in Japan during the 1930s and '40s. I Live in Fear is said to be most memorable for the then 35 year old Mifune's remarkable portrayal of a 70 year old who is terrified of the nuclear bomb and hatches a plan to move with his loved ones to Brazil, where he believes they will be safe.
The only real potential clunker is The Idiot. This movie was a box office disaster. It supposedly didn't work because Kurosawa made the mistake of too slavishly adhering to his source material. In his autobiography, Kurosawa said he was prepared to "eat cold rice" because the film bombed. He was spared, however, when Rashomon (1950) won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. In any case, I can't imagine any Kurosawa fan passing up five films at a most reasonable price.
Finally, and this is perhaps the only potentially bad news, VarietyAsiaOnline recently carried an article about Toho's plans to remake Kurosawa's classic Hidden Fortress (Kakushi-toride no san-akunin, 1958). This tale of a gruff general who, accompanied by two peasants, escorts a princess through enemy territory served, at a minimum, as inspiration for George Lucas's original Star Wars.
Shinji Higuchi, a director skilled in SFX, is to direct. Hiroshi Abe, said to be branching out from romantic comedy to action roles, will be taking over the Mifune role. Masami Nagasawa is set to portray the princess. In this remake, the two peasants will be combined into one character, a mountain dweller. This role will be filled by Jun Matsumoto, of the boy band Arashi.
Such ventures generally have disaster written all over them, but we'll just have to wait and see.
For the complete VarietyAsianOnline article on Toho's announced plans, click here.