Six Damn Fine Degrees #98: Adaptive Shakespeare

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.” ~ Richard III, Act V, Scene III

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: In the Swiss mountains

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

It’s been, oh, months since we featured the last post on a samurai film, so Matt decided it was finally time to watch the Samurai Trilogy, three films about the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki and starring the iconic Toshiro Mifune. He didn’t enjoy the films as much as, say, the samurai films with Mifune directed by Akira Kurosawa, but he still found things that he liked a lot.

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Criterion Corner: The Samurai Trilogy (#14-16)

I’ve said it before: there’s an effect not unlike Stockholm Syndrome that can come with long-form storytelling. If you follow the fates of a set of characters over a longer time, if you watch or read about a community over many chapters, seasons or volumes, it’s very well possible that you begin by bouncing off of, or even disliking, the story and its characters – but we are likely to hold on to the things we enjoy, minimise those we dislike, and over time we justify the time we’ve put into a story by investing in it emotionally. A film is usually over after two hours, and unless we revisit it at a later stage, it never really has this opportunity to win us around – but a series? A game lasting 50+ hours? A graphic novel that tells its story over ten volumes? At least for me it’s like this: either I stop early, or I keep going, because there are some interesting elements or characters I like, or perhaps I’ve heard from so many people that the story becomes really engrossing – and after I’ve put a certain amount of time into this story, I’ll find that I’m invested, because otherwise I’d have to tell myself that this time was pretty much wasted. Is it something of a psychological self-protection mechanism? Or do some stories simply need more time to have the intended effect? I suspect it’s a combination of the two – but, honestly, how am I to tell?

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Criterion Corner: High and Low (#24)

I’ve seen seven or eight films by Akira Kurosawa, but other than Ikiru and Dreams, the latter of which I saw about twenty years ago and don’t remember particularly well, it’s all been the Jidaigeki films, i.e. period dramas set during the Edo period (more or less) and featuring samurai, ronin and the like. Even Ikiru, which isn’t clearly set in the past, feels like it is about the past to some extent, as it is the story of an old man looking back at his life.

High and Low immediately makes for a striking contrast: it is set in the present day in a big city, its protagonists are businessmen and police detectives. More than that, while the film was released in 1963, there are many elements that would easily translate into our present day, and while High and Low comments on class in specifically Japanese contexts, much of its commentary could work equally well outside Japan. All of this comes together to make High and Low feel modern, in terms of the story, characters and the filmmaking itself – even almost sixty years after its release.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: What’s ‘femme fatale’ in Japanese?

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Takashi Shimura (1905)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

When people think of Akira Kurosawa, many of them will think of samurai fighting first and foremost, and the face that they will think of most likely is that of Toshiro Mifune. It’s no surprise – Mifune was an actor of tremendous charisma, he had a crackling, mercurial quality that makes it difficult for the audience to take their eyes off him.

Mifune and Kurosawa were frequent collaborators, making sixteen films together. Which sounds like a lot – but Mifune wasn’t the actor that Kurosawa worked with most often. That honour goes to Takashi Shimura (1905-1982), who co-starred with Mifune in Seven Samurai. Mifune’s character and acting were more immediately noticeable, but Shimura and his character Kambei were as key to the film’s success.

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East meets West, multipy by seven

Seven Samurai is probably the Kurosawa film that is most immediately enjoyable by Western audiences. The Japanese director has rarely been as culturally specific in his work as some of his compatriot film makers, finding inspiration in Hollywood westerns, and what is probably his best known film requires little in the way of cultural knowledge from audiences mostly ignorant of Japanese culture and history. (Hey, everything I know about Japan I learnt from Richard Chamberlain and Shogun!)

Which didn’t stop Hollywood director John Sturges from making a Western (in both senses of the word) remake of the film, The Magnificent Seven. Samurai (or, more accurately, ronin) become gunslingers, Japanese villagers become Mexican peasants, but the film remains largely unchanged in its broad strokes. It is perhaps more immediately iconic to Western audiences, featuring stars such as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn (the film feels like a The Great Escape (p)reunion at times, also sharing director and composer with the POW classic), but in terms of changes it is relatively restrained.

There are perhaps three major differences, though. The first of these is the leader of the bandits, portrayed by Eli Wallach. He has no counterpart in Kurosawa’s film and serves as an intriguing counterpoint to the gunslingers, a charismatic “There but for the grace of God” commentary on the heroes. The second, stronger change, is how the youngest, most inexperienced of the samurai and Toshiro Mifune’s peasant posing as a samurai, perhaps the actor and director’s most indelible creation, are conflated into one character in Sturges’ film, a mere boy of a gunslinger played by Horst Buchholz. While combining the two characters into one may work in theory, Buchholz is no Mifune; he manages the fanboyish kid who goes all googly-eyed over the larger-than-life heroes much better than the bumbling, cheeky but eventually most tragic character of the seven.

The change that weighs most in my mind, though, is this: in Kurosawa’s film, we believe that the time of the samurai, of sword fights and strictly regulated chivalry has come to and end. The ronintake the job of protecting the villagers because there isn’t anything else for them. As skilled as they are at what they do, they’re essentially relics of a bygone age.Brynner, Coburn, Bronson and especially McQueen are first and foremost stars. They give lip service to the passing of an era, but Brynner’s lines – “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.” – ring false coming from him, the self-awareness sounds phony. The Magnificent Seven is magnificently entertaining and, but it doesn’t pull off the sadness that accompanied the rollicking adventure in Kurosawa’s original.

But boy, how does Steve McQueen manage to have the worst haircuts and still be so eminently sexy? Add him to the list topped by Alexander Skarsgard. (Don’t know what I mean? Watch Generation Kill with a staunchly heterosexual male, get him drunk and then ask him what he thinks of Skarsgard.)