Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.
PLAYING on January 19th at The Film Forum
This is Kurosawa's third film.
For a detailed, frame-by-frame analysis of this film, click here.
A 12th century lord -- Yoshitsune (Hanshiro Iwai), along with some retainers dressed as monks, are fleeing from his avenging brother. They must cross a heavily guarded border commanded by Togashi (Susumu Fujita), which they do with the help of a hysterical character, the porter Kyoryoku (the brilliant Kenichi "Enoken" Enomoto). After much intrigue (and a good deal of amazing humor!), they make it across the border, where they get drunk and continue their journey, leaving Kyoryoku behind.
- To set the 1945 scene, Kurosawa writes: "The war was hurtling Japan along the road to defeat at breakneck speed, and yet the Toho studios, employing the hands of people with empty stomachs, continued to show remarkable vitality in the production of motion pictures. But those who were not running around frantically trying to complete a picture were sitting on their heels in the central courtyard talking. They were so hungry it was painful for them to stand up." [Galbraith, p. 57]
- Kurosawa was happy to be one of those who were "running around frantically." He wanted his next film to be a jidai-geki called Dokkoi kono yari (The Lifted Spear), which would have covered much of the same ground as Kagemusha (The Double/Shadow Warrior)  (January 27th). Obviously, a great number of horses would be needed, and they simply were not available.
- This script was thrown together quickly: it is based on the Kabuki play The Subscription List (Kanjincho), which in turn was based on the Noh drama Ataka. The fact that there are no women in the script made it easier to shoot. Most of the female employees of the studios had been evacuated by this time...
- Two acting performances stand out: the amazing Enoken (oh how I wish we had more of him to see! -- he is hysterical!) and the great Denjirô Ôkôchi, here as Benkei, the chief retainer.
- The turning point in the scenario occurs as we observe Togashi watching Benkei read the subscription list. Does he know that he is being fooled? The dialogue is inconclusive; what matters is the nuance of the acting performances! Fujita is magnificent, as he sits and stares, unemotionally, closes his eyes and even seems to fall asleep.
- After that, it is the brilliant idea of Benkei to beat Yoshitsune (who is pretending to be a porter) in order to completely fool Togashi and the guards. It would seem unthinkable that a retainer would strike his master, and Enoken's reactions show us just how horrible it seems...
- After their escape, Benkei is ready to cut off his arm. Yoshitsune forgives him and they all get incredibly drunk!
- Superb camera work. Just imagine, this entire film is basically studio-bound (there are few shots from the real forest)...
- In the middle of production, on August 15, 1945, Kurosawa was summoned to the studio to listen to a radio address, the first ever by the Japanese Emperor, whom many still revered as a deity ...
- The film went back into production after the surrender, in spite of the fact that food shortages were so bad that much of Japan was starving to death. "When we recorded the chorus," Kurosawa said, "nobody could sing very loud because we were all starving. I sang, too." [p. 60]
- [Before shooting was completed] American soldiers frequented the set, including director-turned-Navy lieutenant commander John Ford, though Kurosawa was not aware of his presence until he formally met Ford in London a dozen years later.
- The film remained banned throughout the Occupation, per the "feudalism rule."
- There are 10 wipes in this film: 8 horizontal (6l/2r) and 2 vertical (top to bottom).