When I look back on my favorite films, it’s not only the narrative, acting, cinematography, and direction that comprise of what makes it both astonishing to watch and powerfully memorable—it’s the look of the work as well. It’s the way the story is told through the established world provided by brilliant set design, the construction of a cinematic universe that we’re able to become immersed in and live in for the alloted time. It adds to the director’s complete vision and the mis-en-scene of the film as a whole. And this week, the Criterion Collection is highlighting some of their favorite examples of brilliant art direction and set design on film. From Paul Schrader’s visually arresting Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters to Takeo Kimura’s Tokyo Drifter, check out the aesthetically remarkable and expertly-crafted films free for the week on Hulu.
Tokyo Drifter (1966)
In this jazzy gangster film, reformed killer Tetsu’s attempt to go straight is thwarted when his former cohorts call him back to Tokyo to help battle a rival gang. Director Seijun Suzuki’s onslaught of stylized violence and trippy colors is equal parts Russ Meyer, Samuel Fuller, and Nagisa Oshima—an anything-goes, in-your-face rampage. Tokyo Drifter is a delirious highlight of the brilliantly excessive Japanese cinema of the sixties.
Things to Come (1936)
A landmark collaboration between writer H. G. Wells, producer Alexander Korda, and designer and director William Cameron Menzies, Things to Come is a science fiction film like no other, a prescient political work that predicts a century of turmoil and progress. Skipping through time, Things to Come bears witness to world war, disease, dictatorship, and, finally, utopia. Conceived, written, and overseen by Wells himself as an adaptation of his own work, this megabudget production, the most ambitious ever from Korda’s London Films, is a triumph of imagination and technical audacity.
Thief of Bagdad (1940)
Legendary producer Alexander Korda’s marvel The Thief of Bagdad, inspired by The Arabian Nights, is one of the most spectacular fantasy films ever made, an eye-popping effects pioneer brimming with imagination and technical wizardry. When Prince Ahmad (John Justin) is blinded and cast out of Bagdad by the nefarious Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), he joins forces with the scrappy thief Abu (the incomparable Sabu, in his definitive role) to win back his royal place, as well as the heart of a beautiful princess (June Duprez). With its luscious Technicolor, vivid sets, and unprecedented visual wonders, The Thief of Bagdad has charmed viewers of all ages for decades.
Paul Schrader’s visually stunning, collagelike portrait of acclaimed Japanese author and playwright Yukio Mishima (played by Ken Ogata) investigates the inner turmoil and contradictions of a man who attempted an impossible harmony between self, art, and society. Taking place on Mishima’s last day, when he famously committed public seppuku, the film is punctuated by extended flashbacks to the writer’s life as well as by gloriously stylized evocations of his fictional works. With its rich cinematography by John Bailey, exquisite sets and costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and unforgettable, highly influential score by Philip Glass, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a tribute to its subject and a bold, investigative work of art in its own right.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, Kwaidan features four nightmarish tales in which terror thrives and demons lurk. Adapted from traditional Japanese ghost stories, this lavish, widescreen production drew extensively on Kobayashi’s own training as a student of painting and fine arts.
The Ballad of Narayama (1958)
This haunting, kabuki-inflected version of a Japanese folk legend is set in a remote mountain village where food is scarce and tradition dictates that citizens who have reached their seventieth year must be carried to the summit of Mount Narayama and left there to die. The sacrificial elder at the center of the tale is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), a dignified and dutiful woman who spends her dwindling days securing the happiness of her loyal widowed son with a respectable new wife. Filmed almost entirely on cunningly designed studio sets, in brilliant color and widescreen, The Ballad of Narayama is a stylish and vividly formal work from Japan’s cinematic golden age, directed by the dynamic Keisuke Kinoshita.