Tag Archives: Stephen O. Murray

The Chicago Lyric Opera’s adaptation of Bel Canto

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PBS (Great Performances) telecast the Chicago Lyric Opera première of “Bel Canto,” the opera by (first-time opera composer) Jimmy Lopez and librettist Nilo Cruz (who won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for “Anna in the Tropics”) based on Ann Patchett‘s best-sellling novel. The broadcast was hosted by Renée Fleming, thought to be the inspiration for Roxane Coss (Danielle de Niese) the soprano who went to Lima to perform at the birthday party of a Japanese electronics magnate (Cha Jeoncheol looks like a Korean name to me, and I’m not sure what language he sang in). In the four months as hostages of guerillas (Túpac Amaru/MRTA) his adoration of the singer and her singing turns to love that is consummated, while his translator gets it on with a female captor (this is one work in which the Asian men are the ones who have sex!).

As is often the case for me, I like the orchestral writing better than the vocal writing. I don’t think any of the arias will be excerpted, though Coss has an extended dramatic one. She also discovers and tutors young countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.

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The audience is locked in the single set (the residence of the Japanese ambassador). I liked the abstract staging of the Achille Lauro Peter Sellars provided “The Death of Kinghoffer more,” though I thought more of “Dog Day Afternoon” than that hijacking. A four-month captivity is harder to convey than those briefer hostage events.

The plausibility of music stirring love is easier to credit in a grand opera than in Pritchett’s novel that was based on the 1996-97 stalemate at the residence of the Japanese ambassador (President Alberto Fujimori did not show up to be kidnapped, only the vice-president; 72 of the original 700 guests were held hostage for four months). The closeups and roving camera provided an intimacy and visual dynamism that seeing the opera on stage had to have lacked. Still, it seemed too long to me even with strong acting from de Niese et al.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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“Departures”

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The 2009 Oscar winner that no one predicted was the Japanese movie “Okuribito” (Departures) receiving the best foreign-language film award rather than “Waltz with Bashir” or “The Class.” The movie had not been released in America beyond the Hawaii Film Festival and only had a limited release in May 2009 after winning the award. It has now arrived on DVD with a trailer and a (dubbed) eleven-minute interview with director Takita Yôjirô (Onmyoji*, When the Last Sword Is Drawn, both gorgeously shot historical dramas).

Takita said that he wanted the audience to know from the first scene that the movie about a professional cellist, Kobayashi Daigo (Motoki Masahiro), who returns home to Sakata when the orchestra that employed him in Tokyo dissolves and inadvertently discovers a vocation preparing the dead to be encoffined, is not grim. What is comic is not politically correct, but shows not only the tact of the encoffiners but that their work, done in front of funeral audiences can provide comfort to the living.

The movie then flashes back to Tokyo and Daigo deciding he does not have enough talent to make a living as a cellist. He has inherited the house (the downstairs of which had been a coffee bar run by his mother until her death a few years earlier and before that as a liquor bar run by his father who ran off with a waitress when Daigo was six) in Sakata, sells the cello which is far from paid off, and is at loss for what to do in his hometown.

He thinks that “arranging departures” in a newspaper want-ad must mean that he is going to a travel agency. He has no idea what “NK” in the ad means (nokanshi is an encoffiner). It turns out that it is arranging the departed. The widower who runs the encoffining business (Yamazaki Tsutomu) is sure that Daigo has a vocation (and/or has been unsuccessful in hiring an assistant). His certainty and upfront cash payments convince Daigo to try.

He gets off to a hideous start with a woman who has been moldering undiscovered for two weeks. After that trauma he rushes to a traditional bathhouse to wash off the stink. The grandmother who runs it is a node of the network of characters in the movie and became the stimulus for tears from me. (I saw the movie on what would have been my deceased mother’s birthday, so may have been extra-susceptible.)

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Daigo is shunned for his new occupation, at least until the shunners see him in action. I think we the movie viewers do not need to see him preparing quite as many corpses as we do, but I generally think that Japanese movies are longer than they need to be, beautifully composed as every shot is.

I suppose that some of the outdoor shots of mountains, snow, river, and sea don’t advance the plot either, but I would not cut any of them. The total running time is 131 minutes. Even though the closing credits approach 4 minutes in length, this is a long movie.

Around the half-hour mark I was surprised that the movie had won an Oscar, but eventually it gripped me (and made me cry). Masahiro Motoki and Tsutomu Yamazaki won Japanese Film Academy Awards (actor and supporting actor) for performances of great subtlety and restrained power. As Daigo’s wife, Mika (Hirosue Ryoko) comes into her own late in the movie (having been a dutiful and conventional wife through the first two-thirds).

Yo Kimiko, who won the Japanese Academy Award for best supporting actress, is wry and ultimately moving as the NK receptionist. I didn’t catch the name of the bathhouse owner, but the actresses who played her was also outstanding.

The cello music, written by Joe Hisaishi (who won a Japanese Academy Award for another 2008 score), borders on sentimentality and seems ubiquitous — all the better to set off a crucial scene with no background or foreground music. Motoki Masahiro looks like an earnest man in his late-20s (perhaps having an about-to-turn-30 crisis along with unresolved father issues), though he was 44 (a very fit 44 as the bath scenes show). Takita’s bonus interview reports that the initial idea for the movie had been Motoki’s—15 years earlier. (I remember him as another earnest and more befuddled young man in Miike Takashi’s haunting “The Bird People in China” a decade earlier.)

Perhaps if I had not been recovering from the previous corpse preparations (and the epiphanies of two characters during it), I might have found the ending Disneyesque, but my critical faculty was dimmed.

I’m not sure if “Okuribito” was the best movie not in English from 2008, but even after years of “Six Feet Under,” I was moved by Daigo and his new vocation, and think that it was.


Takita Yojiro ‘s “Onmyoji” (in-Yang Master, 2001) is set back in Hêian times, focusing on a historical figure, Abe no Seimei, who became legendary as a wizard who saved the capital (now Kyoto). Nomura Mansai is very impressive as the most powerful onmyoji (wizard/sorcerer) who is foiling the efforts of the court onmyoji Doson (Sanada Hiroyuki, Twillight Samurai) against the emperor’s newborn son and current favorite (on behalf of a former favorite… and a prince who was unjustly accused of treason a century and a half earlier). There is not much swordplay and audiences unfamiliar with Heian ways (who have not read Tale of Genji) are almost certain to be confused. There seems to me a homoerotic element in the playful/bemused hedonist and slightly fey Abe aiding the earnest and hunky Minamoto no Hiromasa (Ito Hideaki).

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The phenomenon of men lost after being cut loose from jobs that was also fundamental to “Tokyo Sonata,”  is only going to become more common from automation more than outsourcing (manufacturing has been returning to the US, but with far fewer jobs performed by humans): see Elizabeth Kolbert’s overview  “Rage Against the Machine.”

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

I think that discussion of this movie, the only one to win a best foreign-language film Oscar (some early ones won special Oscars before the category was institutionalized is it for postings on Japanese culture. I am going to post some of my “best of” lists on the site that are not Japan-focused. Thanks to the readers of my 2016 postings!

A Harrowing Korean-American novel of survivor guilt and other kinds of guilt: Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered

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The Surrendered, the fourth novel by Korean-American writer Chang-Rae Lee (1965-) is at once a big book (480 pages) encompassing three generations of characters on the same number of continents, and sketchy. There are enthralling, often horrifying set pieces, but the middle of the story of the two main characters who survive the frozen hell of the Korean war is barely sketched.

The novel opens with a harrowing account of an eleven-year-old Korean girl, June Han, trying to protect her younger brother and sister in a desperate flight south from the communists. Her teacher father was rounded up as a traitor and her older brother was drafted and either killed or captured. Her older sister is taken away for sexual servitude, but blown up with her mother on the road. Which leaves June clinging to the top of a boxcar on a south-moving train.

The horrors are by no means over for her, and she is nearly dead from starvation when an America GI from upstate New York (Ilion), persuades her to follow him to an orphanage. Hector Brennan has had traumatic experiences I the war himself, including an enemy soldier who is tortured by another member of Hector’s squad and ends up begging to be put out of his misery. After that Hector worked with black GIs on tending to corpses. Better stinking remains than seeing or inflicting more killings, Hector decided. And he was already suffering survivor guilt and sexual guilt from the death of his alcoholic father before the war.

At the orphanage to which he led June, he becomes an indispensable handyman, and also the lover of Sylvie, the opium-addicted wife of a Presbyterian missionary who runs the orphanage and is frequently away setting up other ones. The children love Sylvie, June most of all and forges a special relationship with her.

Sylvie Tanner was the child of missionaries in Manchuria at the time the Japanese annexed it. Although that is not where she became addicted to opium, she witnessed the rape of her mother, the torture of her young Chinese mentor, Benjamin Li, and more before escaping (how she did is another lacuna in the novel).

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There are more disasters and bases for survivor guilt for both June and Hector at the orphanage. 30years on, June has closed her successful Manhattan antique business, sold her co-op apartment (or vacated it if she was renting it) and hired a private detective to find Hector and to find the son she had by him (seemingly not with him, though it seems she got to the USA as his wife) who went off to Europe after graduating from high school and never came back. Nicholas seems to have used what he learned about antiques form his mother’s business, working and stealing from a succession of European antique shops.

It may seem like I have told a lot of the plot, but I have only laid out the beginnings of the layers of stories of suffering and anguish of June, Hector, and Sylvie and of the very complicated relationships at the Korean orphanage, the most extended — though interrupted — story in the center of the web of anguished failures to save others in the novel.

As if there weren’t enough horror from the wreckage of Korea in the 1950s, Lee includes three accidental deaths and two by cancer and a charred copy of J. H. Dun ant’s 1862 A Memory of Soldering, the site of an 1859 battle that was fought in what is now northern Italy (between Verona and Milan) and was the last major battle in world history where all the involved armies were under the personal command of their monarchs (Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II against the Hapsburg Franz Joseph I) involving more than 200, 000 men and 37,000 casualties, and leading to the founding in 1863 of both the International Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions on warfare. The Red Cross link is why Sylvie’s mother gave it to her. (Both Sylvie and Hector witness Violations of the Geneva Convention.) I don’t think that Lee needed to pile on casualties from the Second Italian War of Independence, though the chain of ownership of the book spans four generations.

The opening is so painful to read about that I put it down twice. After surviving that, I devoured the remaining 450+ pages in two days. That qualifies it as a “page-turner.” There were surprises and there are still some things I find mysterious, including how A Memory of Solferino survived its second conflagration. Light reading, The Surrendered definitely is not, but compelling reading, it is.

©2010, 2016 Stephen O. Murray

Breaking loose vs. maintaining subordination

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Philip Kan Gotanda’s play “The Wash” was first staged in San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre in 1987. It is the most straightforward (straight ahead rather than jumping into flashbacks or dreaminess) and least specifically Japanese-American of the work by Gotanda with which I’m familiar. The first two stage productions and the 1988 movie adaption directed by Michael Toshiyuki Uno had Japanese-American actors, though a San Francisco reincarnation made the characters Jamaican American (with Carl Lumbly taking the part Mako had played in the movie).

There are three settings (that can coexist on a stage): the family home where only the 68-year-old patriarch (Nobu Matsumoto) continues to dwell. Masi, his 67-year-old wife of many decades continues to come in once a week to take Nobu’s dirty clothes and to return those she has washed.

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He has not accepted that their marriage is over. Masi had not sought a divorce when she moved in with their older daughter, Marsha, but has been seeing a very kindly 65-year-old Nisei widower, Sadao. Over the course of the play Masi decides she wants to marry him.

Meanwhile, Nobu has been sort of seeing the fifty-something owner of a small Japanese restaurant, Miyako, a widow who was born in Japan and married a GI who brought her to the US. The “sort of seeing” is mostly eating her tempura. Miyako seems to have some interest in a relationship with the crotchety older Japanese man, but he has not thought of himself as potentially on the romance or marriage market: he is already married.

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(Mako [1933-2006]  and Nobu McCarthy [1934-2002] from the 1988 movie version)

The younger daughter, Marsha, is estranged, having wed a black man, which it anathema to her father.

Summarizing interviews (the Yonsei) Gotanda did with older Nisei women, he noted that “Nisei women have no dreams of their own. They live their lives in order to help their husbands realize their dreams, and the dreams of their children.” Masi tentatively goes against her socialization into the self-denying role, and seeks fulfillment for herself (not least sexually, having been spurned sexually by her husband for years).

The liberation arc and the male inability to adjust are familiar, making the play predictable—and transferable to other ethnicities (with aleration of the food references). “The Wash” is a solid play, and was, no doubt, the first play (and movie) with a geriatric Japanese Americans breaking out of lifetime subordination to giri, which is to say to the needs of others.

 

(The play was published separately and in the 1995 Fish Head Soup and Other Plays with an introduction by Michael Omi.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Deadly sibling rivalry among the affluent and alienated postwar “sun tribe”

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Taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) was coined to describe the rich, bored, nihilistic, and often vicious young characters invoked in books by Ishihara Shintarô (1932-), Season of the Sun (1955) and Crazed Fruit (1956). Both became movies, the second one starring Ishihara’s younger brother, sometimes singer, not-yet much of an actor, and about to become a Japanese superstar, Ishihara Yûjirô, who was proclaimed “the Japanese James Dean,” though his characters were more decisive than those the recently deceased James Dean played.

In “Cray Fruit”/“Crazed Fruit” (Kuratta Kajitsu, 1956), the first movie directed by Nakahira Kô, Ishihara Yûjirô played the jaded older brother. Takishima Natsuhisa, who is lounging about or cruising clubs at beachfront Hayama. His younger brother, Haruji (Tsugawa Masahiki, who was born in 1940) seems more a James Dean type to me — vulnerable and yearning. (Or the yearning and vulnerable Sal Mineo, who was born in 1939, so was the same age as Tsugawa when he played in “Rebel Without a Cause.”) Haruji is romancing an older woman, Eri (Kitahara Mie, who was born in 1933). Natsu considers her out of his younger brother’s league both in looks and experience. Natsu claims to want to protect his innocent younger brother, but wants to bed Eri himself.

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Nastu learns that Eri is not just older and more experienced than Haruji, but is married to a foreigner (Harold Conway, born in 1911) who often leaves her on her own as he transacts business of some kind (there is no indication that it is illegal, nor is there any that it is legal). To buy his silence with Haruji, Eri accepts Nastu’s sexual advances.

Against his own self-conception of being a playboy who uses women without emotional involvement with them, Nastu falls in love with her, or at least becomes jealous of his brother (who eventually “goes all the way” with Eri) and of her alien husband.

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When Nastu intercepts a message from Eri to Haruji moving their trip/date one day earlier (Haruji has stayed the night in Yokohama), he goes and takes her off. When Haruji returns, he is distraught that his older brother has put the moves on the women he considers his and goes after them. They are in a sailboat, he in a faster motorboat. The end is predictable though much drawn out, shot from above.

There are a lot of closeups, particularly for a 1950s Japanese movie, and idle affluent youth (they seem more affluent than Brando’s “The Wild One,” living in some ease on their parents’ presumably newly acquired (“boom”) wealth. Their behavior in the movie and elsewhere shocked their elders—and could not have passed Hollywood Production Code strictures on adultery, fornication, murder, etc.

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(50s Japanese beachwear! Okada Masumi and Tsugawa Masahiko)

I don’t know who wrote the Hawaiian-style music (some if it sung by Ishihara Yûjirô), who the jazz-trumpet music. The score was credited to Satô Masaru (who scored such Kurosawa films as “Throne of Blood” and “Sanjuro”, plus “The Rusty Knife”) and Takemitsu Tôru, the first feature-film credit for the latter. Takemitsu’s film-score writing really took off in 1960 with Shinoda’s “Youth in Fury”/Dry Lake.”

P.S. Kitahara Mie and Ishihara Yûjirô starred together in many movies (including “The Rusty Knife” and “I Am Waiting,”) and wed in 1960, when she ceased appearing onscreen. Ishihara Shintarô became a conservative (the xenophobic Sunrise Party, which merged into the Japan Restoration Party) politician and was Governor of Tokyo from 1999 until 2012, when he moved on to the House of Representatives (for one term). Some of his later work was filmed as “The Rusty Knife,” “I Am Waiting,” (both of those starring his brother), “Pale Flower,” and “Petrified Forest.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

“Going straight” is difficult for someone with a temper and ongoing provocations

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Sabita naifu” (The Rusty Knife, 1958, directed by Masuda Toshio) is a noir film from the Nikkatsu studio with the then-big star singer and actor Ishihara Yûjirô (Crazed Fruit, I am Waiting, I Hate But Love), who sings the title song both at the beginning and at the end of the film. Ishihara played Tachibana, who served five years in prison for killing the rapist (he though singular, but learns there were others during the course of the movie) of his girlfriend. He has gone straight, running a marginally successful bar. He employs Makoto (Kobayashi Akira), who was in the Mishima gang with him. Makoto is having an affair with Shingo Mano (Shimizu Masao) whom Tachibana deplores as a “slut,” and who is happy to spend the hush money Makoto takes (even as Shimabara refuses it).

Both were witnesses to a murder of a politician that made to look like a suicide by hanging. They were with Shimabara (Shishido Jô before his already large cheeks were surgically increased in size) who threatened to go to the police if a new payment of hush money was not made to him. Early in the movie Shimabara is killed by Mishima gang members posing as policemen.

The local (Ukada, an industrial city on the western coast of Honshu) gang lord, Katsumata (Sugiura Naoki) impresses on Makoto and Shimabara the need for them to maintain their silence, as Katsumata’s determined but constantly frustrated nemesis, Prosecutor Karita (Yasui Shôji) pressures them, armed with a letter naming them as witnesses written by Shimabara to be sent if he did not return to his girlfriend in Tokyo.

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Journalist Keika (Mie Kitahara, Ishihara’s frequent costar [Crazed Fruit, I Am Waiting; and, earlier, Carmen Falls in Love] Mie Kitahara] and eventual wife) overhears that her father might have been murdered and did not commit suicide. She tags along with Tachibana, who cooperates with Prosecutor Karita. The movie includes two very long fight scenes and a chase scene involving identical big trucks. The volatile Tachibana evolves from someone wanting to be left alone by both sides (legal and illegal) into someone crusading to avenge the dead girl despite having already served five years in prison for killing one of them. Ishihara turned in a nuanced performance, at first suppressing his anger and bitterness and eventually taking on finding the mastermind pulling Katsumata’s strings..

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There is some awful back projection for a motorcycle ride of Makota and Shingo by daylight, but a satisfying noir look for most of the rest of the movie, including the scenes with the politician who tells Katsumata what to do, including killing Keika’s father.

“Rusty Knife” is part of a Criterion Nikkatsu Noir set that also includes “I Am Waiting.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Which is more irrational, fear or complacency?

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I consider Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) the greatest filmmaker ever. Of the 32 feature films he directed, there is only one that I actively dislike (Dodesukaden from 1970, sometimes billed as “Clickety Clack”). The other ones that I don’t like are the version of his adaptation of Dosteovesky’s The Idiot, which Kurosawa believed was destroyed by the studio (“Hakuchi”, 1951), and “Donzo” (1957) his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play “Ne Dne” (The Lower Depths). One might infer from this that I don’t like Kurosawa doing Russian literary classics (I’m not sure that Vladimir Arsenyev’s Dersu Uzala qualifies as a literary classic, but not only is the book Russian, but so was Kurosawa’s film adaptation of it—which won a best foreign-language film for the then-USSR).

Rather than Russian sources being the problem, I think that Kurosawa’s cinematic exploration of the lumpen-proletariat were (1) unconvincing and (2) boring. Since the screenplay neither added to nor subtracted much from Gorky’s play and I also don’t like Jean Renoir’s 1936 adaptation of the play (as “Les Bas-fonds”), I blame Gorky more than Kurosawa (or Renoir).

Renoir transported the very Russian setting to France of the 1930s. Kurosawa transported it to some unspecified time late in the Edo era (the early 19th century, with the devolution of the Tokugawa Shogunate that included economic stagnation). The film is set-bound as no other Kurosawa film I’ve seen is. The closest the camera gets to escaping from the hovel where the characters live is the opening pan of nearly 360 degrees—which shows that the flophouse is next to a garbage dump (monks are shown dumping garbage directly on it). Three-fourths of the film is inside this flophouse, in which there is a central area and curtained-off individual spaces and in the courtyard between this dormitory and the landlord’s dwelling (into which the camera wanders briefly late in the film).

After that initial spin, the camera does not move much. There are few closeups—mostly mid-range shots of the down and out. I will not attempt to run through the set of stock figures (“characters”), only note that their poverty looks fake (do I mean “stylized”) to me. And none looks badly (or un-)fed. A particular yawner is the cliché of a prostitute with a “heart of gold” (played by Negishi Akemi [Red Beard]). And the drunken revelry rings very hollow to me, and, I think, to the denizens of the “lower depths.”

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I don’t find their antics particularly funny, though Kurosawa considered Gorky’s play very funny. (Gorky himself considered he had written a protest play about desperately poor people; I am certain that he did not intend his play as a comedy, though I am less sure about Mother, his best-known novel, of which I saw a stage version with a comic Olympia Dukakis playing the title role.)

Probably because Mifune Toshirô was cast in it, the most interesting role (or performance) is his Sutekichi , a would-be yakusa, a petty thief with airs of being a serious gangster. Fujiwara Kamatari also manages to wring some pathos (and even an irony or two) out of his part as a failed actor.

There is a very melodramatic finale involving the landlord discovering Sutekichi’s long-running affair with his wife (Yamada Isuzu [the Lady Macbeth of “Throne of Blood”]), his wife discovering that Sutekichi is really in love with her younger sister (Kagawa Kyôko [Sansho, Madadayo]), etc., etc. To put it mildly, the finale of Kurosawa’s other 1947 adaptation of a play (Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” as “Throne of Blood”) is far more memorable. Indeed, the whole film is more memorable both visually and the performances (including Mifune’s).

I guess that Kurosawa wanted the viewer to experience claustrophobia, being trapped with the characters as they are with each other (though they do not seem to share the “Hell is [the] other people” of Sartre’s “No Exit”) and, indeed, seen to have sympathy and even solidarity with each other (for the most part). Kurosawa did not seem to find the one-note characters as irritating as I did. (But he did flatten them by filming with telephoto lenses, but he did that in other films, most notably in “Akahige” (Red Beard), a very long film that I love.

The Criterion edition includes more than half an hour from “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” and, like “Rashômon,” has a commentary track laid down by Kurosawa expert Donald Richie. Richie is interested in themes, the documentary in technical matters of building and photographing on the single set. (Actually, I found this more interesting than the film itself). Criterion also paired the Renoir and Kurosawa adaptations of Gorky’s play (Jean Gabin played the part Mifune would.)

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray