Now that “Ran” has opened, the Nuart is launching a Thursday evening Kurosawa Film Festival this week with the director’s next most recent film, “Kagemusha” (“The Shadow Warrior”), and his first feature, “Sanshiro Sugata” (1943).
Akira Kurosawa is said now to regard “Kagemusha,” which has been rarely seen since its 1980 release, as a kind of dress rehearsal for “Ran,” an exploration of major themes and an attempt to discover if the Japanese period picture, done on a scale of unprecedented grandeur, might still work. It did, for certain, yet as splendid as “Kagemusha” is, it’s not as accessible as “Ran,” which of course has the advantage of being a reworking of “King Lear.”
“Kagemusha” begins rapidly in medias res to such an extent as to be initially confusing, but it draws us soon enough into the same remote, exotic world of 16th-Century Japan it shares with “Ran.” The wise and mighty Lord Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai, who is also “Ran’s” Lear) observes that until his country is united, its rivers will run red with blood and bodies will pile high as mountains. But it looks as if the lord, who is ailing, will not live to see the completion of his task.
The lord’s loyal brother (Tsutomu Yamazaki), however, perceives that beneath filth and rags a petty thief (also Nakadai) bears an uncanny resemblance to Shingen. Thus it shall be: Yamazaki will double for his brother in battle--he has already done it often enough--and the thief can be trained to carry on as Shingen in matters of state.
The thief’s extensive secret coaching for his new identity becomes for Kurosawa an idyll which allows him to reflect with reverence upon the rituals and traditions that gave meaning to Shingen’s enclosed world. But Japan is still to be united, and when the lord’s shadow rebuffs the lord’s son, just as Shingen did himself, war breaks out.
You would have to see “Ran” and “Kagemusha” side by side to decide which film has the greater battle scenes. In them both you sense the presence of the D.W. Griffith of “The Birth of a Nation,” the Eisenstein of “Alexander Nevsky,” and surely the cavalry charges of John Ford. They do, in fact, possess a terrible beauty. Nakadai alternates the authority of the true Shingen with the vulnerability of his imposter, and his kagemusha becomes truly tragic when he at last believes he really is Shingen.
“Sanshiro Sugata” is a remarkably confident and fully realized first film, and it tells of a handsome, likable young judo student who becomes champion by daring to challenge. A more symbolic and prophetic debut for Kurosawa would be hard to imagine. For more information: (213) 478-6379, 479-5269.
The County Museum of Art will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Directors Guild of America with a two-month tribute, which starts Friday with the presentation of Rouben Mamoulian’s “Love Me Tonight” and “Blood and Sand.” Mamoulian will be present for a discussion of his work with the audience, and all the films in the series are to be accompanied by their directors.
The opening sequence of “Love Me Tonight” (1932), considered the first film musical in which songs and dramatic action are truly integrated, is an example of why Mamoulian is regarded as one of Hollywood’s major innovators and stylists.
The film begins with a symphony of sounds and images of Paris at dawn. A church bell rings, a workman swings his pick on a cobblestone, a cobbler tacks a shoe, a housewife beats a carpet--each of the sounds becoming a part of a joyous chorus. By the time Maurice Chevalier opens his tailor shop and sings Rodgers and Hart’s “Isn’t It Romantic?"--the refrains repeating and building until we reach the balcony of late-sleeping princess Jeanette MacDonald, who completes the song--Mamoulian has transported us to a world in which everything is possible. Even a princess falling in love with a tailor.
Paul Mazursky will present his “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1975) and his “Harry and Tonto” (1974) Saturday. For full program information: (213) 857-6201.