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Reviews: Kurosawa's _Yojimbo_ (1961) and _Indiana Jones IV_ (2008)



The picture is of Yojimbo's protagonist, the unnamed samurai.

I have heard so much about Akira Kurosawa, and never has a film of his failed to instruct and delight. Yojimbo, which may be translated as "Bodyguard," creates an ambivalent hero in a milieu of moral depravity. Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Well, in a world with heroes, this isn't true.

Into this morass of depravity -- actually a small Japanese town -- comes a ronin or a samurai without master. Even in medieval literature, this particular lordless or unmoored soldier is a figure of great interest, first because of his longing for home, and second because of his power. Practically all action flicks have copied this kind of anti- or para-hero, but there's no beating the original. Actor ToshirĂ´ Mifune (above) seems like just another mercenary, then he proves his virtue, which of course gets him into deep trouble.

Yojimbo is a great western (the genre) -- better than the westerns you've seen. Most notably, Fistful of Dollars copied the Yojimbo story, and Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name imitates the ronin.

Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai is his best example of a long epic film. At 110 minutes, Yojimbo introduces Kurosawa without boring you. But one of his great strengths is his patience as a filmmaker. While Yojimbo is an action film, there's not an excess of action; suspense is built by character development. Further, the director carefully frames every shot -- this might be called "angular cinematography."

This one's so good that I don't want to retell the story. Let it be said that we're not sure about the ronin until the end, then he proves his mettle. The final sequence affected me in a way that no action film has.




Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull got mixed reviews, but as a fan of the series, I really enjoyed watching this one. The references to the other films were a delight for me, and this one follows all of the conventions and rules of the series: unbelievable action sequences (as in impossible), archaeological mystery, dark spaces, exotic locales, fistfights with comedic sound effects, whip-play, and of course, the hat.

It all operates on a level that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can excel at. (Both filmmakers' "high culture" attempts at film have never rubbed me right.) The audacity of the heroes and villains makes for what I interpret as comedic excess in action sequences. This is my only real complaint about the series: if multiple guys are shooting AK-47s at you, it's just about impossible to not get shot. If I remember correctly, the first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, thought to be the best of the series, did without chase scenes where people jumped in and out of speeding vehicles multiple times while being shot. Those are just too much for me.

There is that aspect of suspension of disbelief that only a child could really enjoy (George Lucas has always courted this demographic). But that same weakness for me becomes a strength when archaeological antiquities take on supernatural power -- this is one of the main draws of all four of the movies. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull takes this the furthest of the series, and I enjoyed it for that (extra-terrestrial life, anyone?).

The way that I get into that aspect of Indiana Jones flicks -- that antiquities can hold supernatural power -- gives me an insight as to why some people insist on the veracity of religious "faith." Should not the sum total of human experience and insight be placed into one thing or one person? This is the argument for icons and saviors. When I believe in the Ark, or the stones in the jungles of India, or the cup of Christ, or the Crystal Skull, I feel a little better about myself and human life.

But I acknowledge that I am suspending my disbelief. Religion -- in the American definition -- is the belief that if we permanently suspend our disbelief, and put our personal power into "faith," that this will make us better people, and more profound. Only fools believe fiction; those that appreciate fiction for what it is worth get more understanding. My college biology professor Rick Lampe was also an ordained minister, and he taught an evolution class where the "debate" about evolution was not allowed to be mentioned due to its stupidity.

I suppose the less-than-stellar reviews for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had something to do with how Spielberg and Lucas went overboard on the suspension of disbelief, not on the particulars of the plot or cinematography. After a career of using excess to great effect and lucre, Lucas and Spielberg do what got them there.

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Comparing the two films, Kurosawa is a genius at creating a small, believable world; Spielberg and Lucas create spectacle and feel-good adventure. Both methods may be brought to the level of art; Kurosawa is the master, and the makers of the Indiana Jones series are innovators and legends, but lack the fanatical drive required for genius.
 
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