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Friday, 22 July 2011

Day Of The Samurai 2: After The Rain 1999

For this week’s Day Of the Samurai I’ve chosen a film with a most interesting history surrounding it.
Ame Agaru is a Samurai film made in 1999 not long after the death of one of Cinema’s all time greats, Akira Kurosawa. He left behind him a script that he had not had the chance to put to film. Then came in Takashi Koizumi who had been his assistant director for many years, he took the script and with it made this film. So in a way, this is Kurosawa’s last offering to Cinema.
But there are even more interesting facts surrounding this film; for one of the main actors was Shiro Mifune, the son of Toshiro Mifune whose famed collaboration with Kurosawa had given rise to one of the greatest actor/director teams ever from which sprung 17 fantastic films.
Thus we have the legacies of both Kurosawa and Mifune that live on through their “heirs” of sorts and create this film. But it is not only the spirits of these two greats that lives on through this film, it is also the whole spirit of the Samurai genre, which by the year this film was made had waned considerably since the 60’s when it was at its height. As well as this, much of the crew, including Editor, Cinematographer and more, had worked with Kurosawa previously, mostly on Ran, so this was very much a reunion for this great group of talents as well as a tribute to one of the greatest directors. Even Kurosawa’s daughter designed the costumes, and then went on to become a successful costume designer.
Tatsuya Nakadai
Furthermore, another veteran Japanese actor and a favourite of Kurosawa’s appears in a small role in this film, Tatsuya Nakadai, star of Ran, Kagemusha and many other Kurosawa films who also received much praise for his performances in other works such as The Human Condition Trilogy. I was overjoyed to see his name listed in the opening credits as he was a great actor who survived well past the height of his career, which was probably in the late 50’s and 60’s. It felt very fitting to see him in such a nostalgic film. For it is a very nostalgic film, in both the way it is executed and through its script.

The camera work is classical, and one struggles to keep in mind that this film was actually made the same year as such films as Fight Club with its technical wizardry and The Phantom Menace with its abundance of CGI. Ame Agaru does not even attempt to seem like a film of its time. The combat scenes in particular were strongly reminiscent of those found in Classic Samurai films such as the one I reviewed previously, The Sword Of Doom. The clunky sound effects, spurting blood, slow falls to the ground when wounded, it is all presented in a very nostalgic way and it succeeds admirably at capturing the style of previous films of the genre.
But I did notice the strong tendency towards long takes that this director displayed; some were quite impressive such as the shot of the combat scene I mentioned previously, which appeared to be shot in one take. I found this interesting that this nostalgic film, which was not trying to do anything new, but was looking back to the glorious past, was actually more classical in its approach than the films it was looking back to.
Take for example Sword of Doom, a film made in 1966, it was far more experimental with its techniques than Ame Agaru was, perhaps because it was (along with the many other films of the genre at the time) trying to push the genre forwards, trying to bring something new to the table so as to distinguish it from the multitude of other similar films. 
This film however had no such need, in fact it was made at a time of such cinematic advancement that to take a more classical approach was actually going against the norm in some ways.
The cinematography was one of the film’s strong points, and although at times the shots of flowing water, trees in the wind and swooping birds can get a bit overly artistic, it is still a very beautiful film. The cinematography was absolutely stunning and each shot was meticulously framed. It presents a very idyllic view of the landscape and the times.

In fact, everything about the film is beautiful in some way or another, some films may have a beautiful appearance but if you look past that there is little there, thankfully Ame Agaru is not one of these films. Its script matches the cinematography in beauty and pleasantness.

At first glance the story is a very simple one. A lone samurai without a master (a ronin) is stuck at an inn for several days due to heavy rain which has caused the river to burst its banks. Much of the first part of the film is taken up by the festivities in this inn caused by his incredible generosity which pushed him to host a feast for his fellow travellers. Afterwards he stumbles across a group in the process of having a duel that could have taken a rather fatal turn had he not intervened and diffused the situation; this act of bravery impresses the Lord of the fief who happened to be observing the actions from afar.
This Lord is fascinated by this extremely skilful ronin and becomes set on employing him as master of arms.
All seems to be going well, but soon obstacles arise, in the form of tradition orientated counsellors, jealous peers and the unorthodox past of the samurai.

This plot-line is of course of interest, especially as it proves to be quite insightful into Feudal life in Japan. Much of it is shown only in passing, but I found the attitude of the Lord towards his servants and the scheming of his advisors to be well seen and the ceremonial aspects were quite fascinating as they represent a wholly different culture to me, but this isn’t something specific to this film but rather to the genre as a whole. But this plot line is used mainly as a means to get to the real point of the story, the character of this samurai and his relationship with himself and his wife.
I won’t go into any details, because this makes up the very core of the story and I wouldn’t want to reveal it entirely.

Above all the film is a character study of this Samurai named Misawa Ihei, and he is presented in the most favourable light possible. At first he resembles Toshiro Mifune’s character in Yojimbo in demeanour, but afterwards we discover that he is as kindly as Mifune was grumpy.  Here is shown a different kind of Samurai, a charitable, polite, self effacing Samurai who ignores tradition and ideals of honour and dishonour in favour of doing the right thing and helping others.
 He is an immensely likeable character not only due to the script but also because of the fantastic performance by Akira Terao (who had worked with AK years before on Ran), which was a performance of much depth, for behind this cool, polite and charitable persona is a deadly and highly skilful Samurai. It is easy to forget this when watching the Samurai going about his good deeds and talking with his wife, which makes the bloody confrontation he becomes involved in even more shocking for it is entirely unexpected and is over as soon as it began, but during it we see a different side to the character and the performance shows all this perfectly.
Yoshiko Miyazaki as his wife had a relatively small role, but her incredibly expressive performance successes in conveying much through few words and ultimately she plays a pivotal role in the story so I’m glad she was so great.  The rest of the cast were all good, some better than others of course but I feel that the acting side of the film was definitely one of its strong points. Even if Shiro Mifune’s performance was very much over the top and uproarious it still worked well in context. He is nowhere near as great an actor as his father was though; the charisma is just not as powerful.

I previously mentioned the character of Misawa Ihei’s great kindness, but this same kindness seems to be his continuous downfall. For confronted with the proud, susceptible nobles, such as the Lord, he does not know how to act, for by testing himself against the nobles and their men he clearly shows his superiority and yet is so humble and kind that they find it almost unbearable and feel insulted.
However amongst the poorer people he is far more at home, and as is shown later in the film he sacrificed his chances of becoming a high ranking samurai in order to help the poor people by participating in duels for money so as to buy food, which is dishonourable in other warriors eyes.

Although Kurosawa’s influence is present throughout the film, it never feels like the director is trying to mimic Kurosawa in every single way. Of course his directional style is very similar to that of Kurosawa’s, but he is not afraid to include many of his own personal touches that really stand out against AK’s recognisable technique. This makes the film seem at time familiar (for Kurosawa fans) and refreshing due to the slight touches here and there that a talented director cannot help including even while completing a project begun by his master.
I found this nostalgia to be very appealing, it shows that not every film needs to continuously push boundaries and break new ground in order to be great and although those are the films that will be remembered (ie 2001 or Citizen Kane) there is still room for excellent films that don’t necessarily bring anything new to Cinema.
The Lord (Shiro Mifune)
The use of colour further detaches this film from AK’s work, of course he directed several films in colour, including his masterpiece Ran, but the truth is he will always be remembered for his earlier Black and White films such as Rashomon, The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.
In Ran and the earlier Kagemusha, the use of colour was astounding, especially for those who like me were used to watching his films in Black and White.
Reds, Yellows, Blues and Greens were abundant and lushly shot. Most of this colour came from the fantastic (and award winning) costume design of those two films, as the shots of nature were simpler. But the contrast created between the simple, even desolate, shots of nature was fantastic. However, in Ame Agaru, a much more sombre colour palette is used, the colours are far more muted, giving the costumes and sets a much more “lived-in” appearance than those of Ran, which were almost theatrical.

Ame Agaru’s depiction of the times and the way of life of this particular samurai is very idyllic. It plays out almost like a fairy tale, mainly due to its rather moralising tale which isn’t unpleasant but rather slightly unbelievable. Whereas the costumes, sets etc... set an admirable tone of realism the attitudes of the characters and the dialogue somewhat detracts from that as I for one highly doubt that everyone was so nice (there really isn’t one bad character in the film) and had such meaningful and deep discussions all the time. But then again, I did find this uplifting attitude very refreshing for all too often films tend to take the darker route and portray the ugly side of humanity, and while many of my favourite films fit this description it is nonetheless very pleasant to see a film that can tell a great story that stays uplifting without having a cheesy “feel-good” air to it.
The end was puzzling, I was expecting something much more conclusive but I still think that it works well when one looks at the film as a whole. For although it doesn’t provide any conclusion to the main plot line, that concerning the Lord, it does end with the more important plot line, that of the characters relationships amongst each other, being satisfying concluded. So although it seemed abrupt at first, upon reflexion I appreciated it more.
Ultimately, Ame Agaru is a very enjoyable film that I would not hesitate to call a great film and that I’m sure will gradually become one of my favourites. It may not have that air of genius that surrounding much of Kurosawa’s work, but that genius or magic or whatever you wish to call it, still remained in diluted form which combined with the considerable talent of the director was enough to make a fantastic film.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film would be the success with which it revived the genre; it didn’t rework it in any way to appeal to modern audiences nor did it rely on modern advancements (as did the awful Zatoichi directed by Takeshi Kitano in 2005) instead it constructed a brilliant Samurai film that could easily be mistaken for one made in the 60’s if not for the quality of the colourised image.

Anyway, this review has gone on far too long, so I’ll conclude it by saying that I highly recommend this film, especially to Kurosawa fans.

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