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March 23, 2010

Dora-heita

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Kon Ichikawa - 2000
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

One of the ironies of Akira Kurosawa's legacy is that as a filmmaker, his name has become more commercially viable in death. Following the expensive failure of Dodes'ka-den in 1970, financing for Kurosawa's films largely came from Russia, Hollywood and France. After Kurosawa's death came the production of older screenplays, as well as remakes of The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro, and a television series based on Seven Samurai. That Dora-heita was made almost thirty years after it was written is indication of the change of perception towards someone who was virtually written off by the Japanese film industry.

The selling point has been the screenplay, a collaboration of Kurosawa with well regarded peers Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Masakaki Kobayashi. The four created a production company, in theory a tantalizing idea, but one that might remind film students with long memories of a similar attempt by William Wyler, George Stevens and Frank Capra, where precarious financing trumped artistic autonomy. At the time Dora-heita was filmed, Ichikawa outlived his friends and colloborators, remaining an active filmmaker until 2006, a career lasting sixty years.

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Based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, the elements that link this film to Kurosawa's other films are readily identifiable. A magistrate is sent to an outlying fief, the subject of much corruption. The son of a lord, Koheita has the reputation of being more interested in playing around than fulfilling the duties of a samurai. His nickname can be interpreted as being a play on the Japanese word for alley cat. Koheita shows up to meet with the local feudal lords, where he promptly pulls rank, and lets one and all know that he plans to clean up the small town that is a haven for prostitution, gambling and smuggling. Koheita proves more than capable of handling all opponents, save for the woman Kosei, who single-mindedly is determined to bring Koheita back with her to Edo. Koheita plays three crime bosses against each other, and proves himself unbeatable using his wits as well as his sword.

Some of the machinations of the plot should remind some of Yojimbo and Sanjuro, with Toshiro Mufune as the lone samurai who comes to town. It is fairly easy to imagine Tatsuya Nakadai in the title role had the film been made in the early Seventies. Even had the film been made when originally intended, it could well have been derided as old fashioned with nary a suggestion of sex, and bloodshed limited to a small cut on someone's forehead. That Dora-heita was made thirty years later may have been in the film's favor, allowing the work to be judged on its own merits rather than in comparison with the genre work of the time. Koji Yakusho, an actor better known for his association with a different Kurosawa, Kyoshi, works up his voice to speak in the commanding timbre of the chambara of the past.

The greater emphasis on humor can be attributed to Ichikawa. There is also the thematic element of the playing of perceived identities, as in The Burmese Harp and An Actor's Revenge. Like previous Ichikawa films, the characters often undermine themselves with their hubris. Still, with the combined talents that wrote the screenplay, Dora-heita can not be called a great film, though it is certainly an entertaining film. Then again, with all of the expectations that would have been placed on them, Ichikawa, Kurosawa and company more than deserved the opportunity to relax and make some lightweight fun.

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Posted by peter at March 23, 2010 12:53 AM