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Toho’s film catalog riddled with gems

Films include 'Godzilla,' 'Seven Samurai'

Mention the name Toho to most American filmgoers, and you’ll probably get blank stares in response. But list some of this powerhouse Japanese studio’s pics, and you’ll elicit eager affirmation.

Toho brought us Godzilla — first as “Gojira” in 1954 and then retitled, recut and dubbed into English for American distribution in 1956 as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters.”

The studio also fostered the career of Akira Kurosawa.

Most Toho films never screened in the United States, but those that did made an indelible impression on American auds and even some filmmakers — George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola among them.

The watershed for Toho and the American market came in 1956, the year that both “Godzilla” and Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” hit U.S. cinemas. Not since “King Kong” (1933) had a monster pic awed auds as “Godzilla” did.

“It looks clunky now,” says Donald Richie, the dean of Japanese film scholars writing in English, “but back then, no one had seen anything like this. Eiji Tsuburaya (the f/x master on “Godzilla” and many other similar pics) did his job extraordinarily well. All the Japanese studios were making monster movies, but they were nondescript compared to Toho’s.”

The studio was also the first to merchandise its monsters, according to Richie, and to this day it zealously guards its Godzilla franchise, which was later expanded to include such creatures as Rodan and Mothra. (American rights to those titles are held by Classic Media, which has released some on DVD and promises more.)

Japanese “art” films had already made inroads in America by the time “The Seven Samurai” appeared in U.S. cinemas. Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” a Daiei production, had been given an honorary foreign-language award by AMPAS in 1952. The same prize went to Daiei’s “Gate of Hell,” in 1955, as did an Oscar for best color costume design.

Toho’s turn came in 1956, when “Musashi Miyamoto,” the first pic in Hiroshi Inagaki’s samurai trilogy, received the foreign-language Oscar. Amazingly, the Acad hasn’t honored a Japanese pic in that fashion since, though it has nominated 10 such films.

“The Seven Samurai” did more than capture two Oscar noms, for B&W art direction and costume design; it also inspired an American remake, “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), and thus entered the American consciousness in an unprecedented way. (“Rashomon” also spawned a remake, 1964’s “The Outrage,” but it was far less successful, despite a starry cast.)

Kurosawa’s influence on American film reached its zenith some 15 years later, with the release of Lucas’ “Star Wars” (1977). The younger director always credited “The Hidden Fortress” (1958) as inspiration for his saga, but parallels exist not just in Lucas’ 1977 film — a princess on the run, two bumbling sidekicks, a rough-hewn but able hero — but also in 1999’s prequel, “The Phantom Menace,” where a body double confuses the enemy.

Yet despite Kurosawa’s reputation in America and elsewhere, Toho wasn’t always supportive of this demanding director. His great 1980s successes, “Kagemusha” (1980) and “Ran” (1985), enjoyed only nominal Toho backing.

Kurosawa couldn’t doubt the American film community’s esteem, though. “Kagemusha” was nommed for foreign-language pic in 1981, and “Ran” earned the helmer his sole director nom. More important, the Acad gave him an honorary award in 1990.

Oscars notwithstanding, Kurosawa’s movies — whether period pics like “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” or indictments of modern society like “Ikiru,” “The Bad Sleep Well” and “High and Low” — remain pillars of the foreign-film canon.

“If there are a half-dozen movies associated with arthouse cinema,” says Jonathan Turell, managing director of Janus Films and CEO of the Criterion Collection, “one is ‘Seven Samurai.'”

Turell should know, for Janus is practically synonymous with arthouse fare in America. The company also holds Stateside distribution rights to some 60 Toho titles, almost half of which have been released on Criterion DVDs.

“We probably have more films in active distribution from Toho than from any other studio,” Turell says. “We’ve gone from someone who distributed their films to someone who has taken care of their films.”

Via Janus/Criterion, American cineastes have been able to savor some of the masterpieces from Japanese cinema’s golden age — films by such helmers as Mikio Naruse (“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” 1960), Hiroshi Teshigahara (“Woman in the Dunes,” 1964), Masaki Kobayashi (“Kwaidan,” 1965), Kihachi Okamoto (“The Sword of Doom,” 1965) and Masahiro Shinoda (“Double Suicide,” 1969).

In addition, Toho deserves credit for focusing attention on some of Japan’s finest actors: Toshiro Mifune is the best known, but Takashi Shimura and Tatsuya Nakadai also have found their way into American hearts.

Richie contends that Kurosawa’s and Naruse’s films are Toho’s crown jewels, but he also points to the work of Shiro Toyoda, whose literary adaptations remain largely unknown in this country. Were Janus/Criterion to introduce auds to Toyoda’s pics, we might well be celebrating another genius of Nipponese cinema. And what a grand way that would be to cheer Toho toward its next major anniversary.

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