Nowhere is the charm of watching Akira Kurosawa's samurai classics on DVD more apparent than in the least critically lauded of the four films packaged together by The Criterion Collection. In a crucial battle sequence during 1962's Sanjuro -- the sequel to the 1961 classic Yojimbo -- the titular hero played by Toshiro Mifune is about to rip his sword through a series of opponents.
In the VHS version, the viewer is shoved smack-dab in the middle of the action, thereby losing perspective on the scene. In this letter-boxed DVD version -- packaged by Criterion along with Yojimbo, the magnum opus Seven Samurai (1954) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) -- Mifune's scruffy samurai attack can be enjoyed in Kurosawa's splendid wide-screen composition. "Sanjuro cuts through the massed enemies like a human sickle," film critic/historian Michael Sragow observes in the Sanjuro DVD's liner notes, "but his attack loses its circular beauty on the usual home-video prints ... ."
This tiny sliver of filmmaking magic is as microcosmic to this package as the package is to Kurosawa's incalculable career; more than any other filmmaker, Kurosawa introduced the West to Japanese cinema. And for good reason; Kurosawa was not only in love with the West, but the Western in particular. (Seven Samurai co-screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto cited John Ford's 1939 landmark Western Stagecoach as his favorite film.) The influence became cyclical, for Kurosawa's samurai films became heavily influential back in the States. Seven Samurai was remade by John Sturges as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and inspired works such as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and spaghetti-Western maverick Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Leone reshaped Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Similarly, George Lucas began his first Star Wars trilogy inspired by The Hidden Fortress, and provides an analysis of the film in this set. (His buddy Steven Spielberg was such a fan that he cast an aging Mifune in his 1979 comedy, 1941. Together, Lucas and Spielberg presented Kurosawa with an honorary Oscar in 1989; he died in 1998 at age 88.)
The four-movie gift package serves a crucial function: capturing both Kurosawa and Mifune at their collaborative peak. Was there any other match of director and actor -- Hitchcock and Grant, Godard and Belmondo, Scorsese and De Niro, Ford and Wayne -- that was so inextricably linked than this amazing pair? Their collaboration in this package alone spans eight years (1954-62), and Mifune's acting style shifts accordingly. Mifune's a story unto himself, he almost literally fell into his career, but by Seven Samurai had the unmistakable air of a method actor about him -- he remained in character throughout the shoot of the three hour-plus epic. It's as if Mifune had decided to mimic a chimpanzee, his wannabe samurai flailing his arms about as he lurches and scowls around each scene, often dropping into a brooding, sulking bundle when scorned. Though his volatile, comical Kikuchiyo at times smacks of scene-chewing, it still provides the perfect counterpoint to the seven's wise, self-possessed leader Kambei (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, himself an actual descendant of Japan's samurai class).
Only eight years later in Yojimbo, Mifune already looked and acted middle-aged; his method histrionics had slowed down to a near crawl with his samurai playing off (and nearly killing all) of two clans warring over control of a small town. Here Mifune's physical ticks -- mainly the scratching of his neck -- have become so pronounced you wonder how much John Belushi's later mimicking on Saturday Night Live was parody or homage.
Indeed, Seven Samurai is the crown jewel of the collection and gets special treatment in this package as the only film that has optional commentary. Michael Jeck, a rather professorial-sounding Japanese-film expert, encapsulates the mastery of Kurosawa's filmmaking craft, from his consistent use of deep focus and his acute sense of composition to his plot-moving editing rhythms and use of such subtle effects as manufactured wind.
But it doesn't take an expert's guiding voice to appreciate the beauty of Seven Samurai or the others, for that matter. Samurai is that rare bird, a three-hour-plus epic that not only moves at a breezy clip, but features crisply choreographed action scenes, a stellar ensemble cast (Mifune's just one of seven, remember), an actual plot and distinct characters -- virtually unheard of these days.
Akira Kurosawa has his detractors. Some critics dismiss his popularity among the '60s film-school scene that spawned directors like Lucas, Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola because Kurosawa's movies seemed tailor-made for Western audiences. They argue this popularity overshadows the works of other Japanese masters like Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu (the latter of whom Kurosawa thought was too bland). Still, in watching these four movies in their refurbished splendor -- a tiny epoch in a six-decade career -- it's easy to see why people loved how Akira Kurosawa could cut right to the chase.