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April 2010
Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema  Online
by Peter Cowie
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The last few months have proven to be very good for fans of director Akira Kurosawa. In December, the folks at Criterion released a 25-film DVD boxed set that included formerly difficult-to-find titles like the Sanshiro Sugata films and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, and February saw an extras-laden Blu-ray of the director’s masterpiece, Ran, courtesy of Lionsgate. Now, in celebration of the centennial of Kurosawa’s birth, Rizzoli has published the sublime Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema, a generously illustrated and comprehensive study of the director’s work.
Federico Fellini: The Films  Online
by Tullio Kezich (editor)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In his introduction to Federico Fellini: The Films, Fellini Foundation director Vittorio Boarini declares the book contains everything one needs to know about Fellini’s work. It is only a slightly hyperbolic claim, given that under the guidance of editor Tullio Kezich (a Fellini scholar who previously collaborated with Boarini on the Fellini volume The Book of Dreams), Rizzoli and the Fellini Foundation have compiled a treasure trove of illustrations, quotations, synopses and production histories that shed new light on each of the director’s films.

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Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema
by Peter Cowie
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The last few months have proven to be very good for fans of director Akira Kurosawa. In December, the folks at Criterion released a 25-film DVD boxed set that included formerly difficult-to-find titles like the Sanshiro Sugata films and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, and February saw an extras-laden Blu-ray of the director’s masterpiece, Ran, courtesy of Lionsgate. Now, in celebration of the centennial of Kurosawa’s birth, Rizzoli has published the sublime Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema, a generously illustrated and comprehensive study of the director’s work. Written by Peter Cowie, whose studies of Ingmar Bergman and Francis Coppola have long been essential reading for film buffs, the book examines the literary, cinematic and autobiographical influences on all of Kurosawa’s classics and provides hundreds of stills and sketches illuminating the director’s process.

The book opens with affectionate forewords by Martin Scorsese and Kurosawa’s daughter, Kazuko, along with an introduction by Donald Richie, whose 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa remains an indispensable text on the director. Indeed, much of Cowie’s critical analysis of Kurosawa’s body of work draws upon Richie’s scholarship as he divides the director’s career into six chapters. The first, “The Man and His Formative Years,” describes Kurosawa’s entry into the film industry and his early apprentice work. The second, “Images of the Modern World,” examines Kurosawa’s studies of contemporary Japanese society, including treasures like Drunken Angel, Ikiru and High and Low. as well as lesser known films such as Scandal and Kurosawa’s final film, Madadayo. Throughout this chapter Cowie clearly contextualizes Kurosawa’s work within Japanese culture and film history, with particularly useful comparisons of his movies and those of contemporaries like Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu.

The third chapter, “The Historical Imperative,” covers many of the films for which Kurosawa is most famous: his international breakthrough, Rashomon; his poignant moral tale, Red Beard, and the samurai classics Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Cowie then moves from Japanese history to international literature for “The Literary Connection,” a chapter that explores Kurosawa’s adaptations of Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, adapted from Macbeth, and the King Lear-inspired Ran), Dostoevsky (The Idiot) and several lesser known plays and novels. The next section of the book, “Formalism and the Elements,” addresses the pervasive motifs in the director’s oeuvre as well as the influences of painting, music and theater on his work. Cowie wraps things with a final chapter, “Riding Into History,” that contemplates Kurosawa’s legacy. Each of the book’s six chapters is extremely thorough, with attention given to all of Kurosawa’s films and major influences, and Cowie’s critical assessments of the director’s strengths and (relatively few) shortcomings are convincingly argued. His decision to organize the films thematically rather than chronologically leads to a number of intriguing insights regarding Kurosawa’s development as an artist, and he makes skillful use of anecdotes from the director’s colleagues.

Yet given the excellence of Richie’s book as well as tomes by other scholars like Stephen Prince (The Warrior’s Camera), the question that must be answered is whether there is enough new material in Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema to justify its steep price — is there enough new material to make it worth a purchase? The answer for any serious Kurosawa fan is an emphatic “yes,” not only because of the soundness of Cowie’s commentary, but also because of the hundreds of gorgeous images that supplement it. Accompanying the author’s text are storyboards, sheet-music samples, sketches, annotated script pages and paintings by Kurosawa and his collaborators, many of which have never been published. These documents offer a riveting look at the director’s processes, and further behind-the-scenes insights can be gleaned from the many still photographs taken on the sets of Kurosawa’s various productions. There are also many sumptuous images from the films themselves that beautifully and succinctly illustrate Cowie’s premises regarding Kurosawa’s techniques and a wealth of publicity materials from the films’ international releases. Taken together, these documents and Cowie’s writing (along with a detailed filmography at the end of the book) make Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema the best, single, English-language volume on the director to date.   

Rizzoli
$75.00 hardcover


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Federico Fellini: The Films
by Tullio Kezich (editor)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In his introduction to Federico Fellini: The Films, Fellini Foundation director Vittorio Boarini declares the book contains everything one needs to know about Fellini’s work. It is only a slightly hyperbolic claim, given that under the guidance of editor Tullio Kezich (a Fellini scholar who previously collaborated with Boarini on the Fellini volume The Book of Dreams), Rizzoli and the Fellini Foundation have compiled a treasure trove of illustrations, quotations, synopses and production histories that shed new light on each of the director’s films. Kezich died shortly after completing the volume, which stands as the grand summation of his life’s work as Fellini’s biographer: each of the director’s productions, from his earliest screenwriting gigs to his 1960s classics (La Dolce Vita, ) and later films and television commercials, is documented in exquisite, illuminating detail.

Kezich takes the reader through Fellini’s oeuvre in chronological order, devoting a chapter to each film and starting with Variety Lights, the 1950 film Fellini co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, and ending with The Voice of the Moon (1990) and a short coda regarding the director’s TV commercials. Each chapter opens with a quote from Fellini himself, followed by concise but thorough production histories by Kezich, who provides valuable background on the making of each film as well as biographical information to explain where Fellini was in his personal life and career at the time of each movie’s creation. Each chapter also contains a detailed synopsis of the film in question, followed by statistics regarding the box office and distribution histories of the pictures. Within the synopses, Kezich provides information not only about the actors and key crew, but also about those who dubbed the actors’ voices; given that nearly all of the performances in Fellini’s films were post-synchronized, this information is essential to give credit where credit is due in the cases in which characters were formed by two artists, the actor on screen and the one on the dubbing stage.

Kezich largely refrains from aesthetic judgments of the films, preferring instead an objective mode of narration that makes the book more of a reference guide than a critical study. He does provide some analysis, however, in the words of others: each chapter ends with a summary of international critical responses to the film under discussion, allowing the reader to sense the ways Fellini’s work was received in its own time. One of the big surprises the book contains is the revelation of the rareness of commercial or critical success of Fellini’s movies given his current posthumous stature, yet Kezich does not waste much time editorializing on the shortsightedness of the director’s critics. Rather, he provides readera with the raw materials needed to form their own opinion a of the work, offering a historical and aesthetic context in which Fellini’s movies can be understood. This approach makes Federico Fellini: The Films a more interactive reading experience than most film biographies; it is designed to be read in conjunction with the reader’s own discovery of Fellini’s art, or to supplement the insights of those who are already fans. Where appropriate, Kezich occasionally weighs in with his own point of view — he aggressively argues against Fellini’s alleged misogyny, for example — but, overall, his style is to present Fellini’s work in a straightforward, unobtrusive style.

As with Rizzoli’s current tome on Akira Kurosawa, what really makes Federico Fellini: The Films a must-own for any cinephile is the vast collection of beautiful illustrations. There are more than 900 images accompanying Kezich’s text, ranging from advertising materials (posters, billboards, magazine and newspaper ads, etc.) to the usual production stills and images from the films themselves. Of major interest to film scholars are the copious preparatory drawings by Fellini himself, sketches that present his ideas in their earliest forms. All of the illustrations are annotated by Fellini Foundation archivist Giuseppe Ricci and his research team, who provide a wealth of fascinating, behind-the-scenes facts and anecdotes. Dozens of Fellini’s friends and collaborators offer observations and recollections not only in the captions accompanying the artwork, but also in Kezich’s text itself, and the multitude of perspectives generates a narrative of the director’s life that is as vivid and rich as one of his best films.

Rizzoli
$75.00 hardcover


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