OK, I'm going to play the pretentious film critic here for a while, so bear with me. I've recently taken a liking to Japanese movies (at least, the ones I have seen, which are all Akira Kurosawa films) and I was a bit bored, so I thought I'd run through with some brief comments on each one. So crack out the nigori nihonshu, grill up some teriyaki and udon, and open your Netflix queue!
Stray Dog - 1949 - A very young Toshiro Mifune stars in this depiction of a rookie cop that loses his firearm to a pickpocket. For those that carry or own guns, this is a particularly relevant story because it details the horrifying emotions that sweep the main character as he realizes the evils that his gun has done in the hands of a criminal. The storyline seems pretty simple or dull (stolen gun, big deal) but it is surprising how much suspense Kurosawa packs into this. Takashi Shimura also stars as the wise mentor cop, in a very likable role.
Rashomon - 1950 - This is the one beloved of wine guzzling art-film lovers because of its alleged refutation of absolute truth. It tells the story of a crime out in the woods, the rape of a woman and murder of her husband. The story is told four times, first by the suspect, secondly by the woman, thirdly by the summoned spirit of the husband, and lastly by a woodcutter who was in the area and saw what went on. The differences in the stories they tell are supposed to make a brilliant point about how all truth is relative, but it seems to me that unlike the first three accounts, the fourth is essentially impartial and has no motive to tell anything but truth in the matter. The popular interpretation is that all four accounts are wrong and all four accounts are yet also right, but I take the traditional interpretation of the first three accounts were wrong and the last account was probably right. Call me a philistine if you must. But still, a good movie. Mifune is the wild-eyed suspect and Shimura is the woodcutter.
Seven Samurai - 1954 - The first Kurosawa film I saw, this is probably one of the best known. It tells the story of a group of samurai that band together to defend a village of destitute peasants from roving bandits. Shimura has the lead role in this one as the head of the samurai, and Mifune had a memorable role as the childish, immature, and overcompensating Kikuchiyo [sic?], who eventually proves his worth and earns a place with the others.
Throne of Blood - 1957 - This is a dark, dark film, but I like it. Mifune shifts dramatically here, into a brooding, older character beset by ambition, malice, and greed. It is an adaptation of Macbeth, and a very good one at that! The "Lady Macbeth" character is particularly loathsome in her needling words of manipulation to Mifune's Macbeth. Not a particularly happy film, but a good one!
Yojimbo - 1961 - One of my favorites, this establishes Toshiro Mifune as the Eastern Eastwood. Or rather, that's a bit backwards...Eastwood became the Western version of Mifune after this movie. It is a story of a wandering ronin samurai that enters a town split by two warring factions, and he ends up playing both against each other. Sergio Leone remade this movie with the young Clint Eastwood as "A Fistful of Dollars", a great film in its own right, but a near carbon copy of this film.
Sanjuro - 1962 - Sanjuro is a continuation of the Yojimbo character, and while it was a good movie, it didn't strike me as a particularly memorable one, in the company of these other movies. Mifune's character throws his lot in to help a group of generally witless and inexperienced samurai that are embroiled in a political fight involving their masters.
High and Low - 1963 - Another one of my favorites, this one ventures out of feudal Japan and into the contemporary. Mifune (again!) does really well in this one as an ambitious executive that is blackmailed by the kidnapping of his chauffeur's only son. I won't disclose any more of the plot, as this one is particularly suspenseful. It is surprising and frustrating to me, when I consider how great a movie like this is, and how relatively thrilling it can be made to be, without the almost requisite staples of modern crime drama (shocking violence and sex). The final scene is particularly effective (I did promise not to give away the plot details). All in all, a very recommendable movie!