The US role in carrying the Kuomintang to Taiwan and helping it to manufacture the image of a Leninist dictatorship there as “Free China”


Harvard University Press seems to have joined with the acutely anti-communist Hoover Institution (which is located in the middle of the Stanford University campus) to exculpate the Kuomintang government and army that was swept from mainland China after stockpiling weapons intended to fight against the Japanese invaders for use against the communists, whom Chiang Kai-Shek’s army had pressed north following his first white terror (in Shanghai in 1927). The story of Chiang’s evasion of US pressure (in the personal of military liaison Gen. Joe Stillwell) to fight Japan was brilliantly told by Barbara Tuchman in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1971 Stillwell and the American Experience of China, 1911-45.

Hoover Institution Chiang apologists Tse-Han Lai, Wou Wei, and Ramon Myers published an extraordinarily tendentious account of the KMT/ROC army and secret police descending on Taiwan with lists of community leaders in hands and guns blazing even as they disembarked in Keelung Harbor in A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947, published by Stanford University Press in 1991.* Lai et al. attempted to exculpate Chiang and Chen Yi, Chief Executive and Garrison Commander of Taiwan Province, from responsibility for the slaughter, massively to underestimate the number of Taiwanese murdered by the regime the US had foisted on them (Japan has simply walked away from its colony of half a century, and the US Navy ferried ROC soldiers to Taiwan; the US conducted a plebiscite in which the people of Okinawa chose their government (Japan), but there has never been such a consultation of the people governed on Taiwan), and pretends that the systematic slaughter was a tragedy rather than a planned culling of intellectuals (etc.) who might oppose the massive KMT looting of infrastructure the Japanese had built up on Taiwan and the blatant corruption on Taiwan presided over by Chen Yi.

In 2011, Harvard’s Bellknap Press published a massive apologia for Chiang Kai-Shek written by Jay Taylor (1931-), Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China.

In 2016 Harvard University Press published Accidental State: Chiang Kai-Shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan, by Hoover Institution curator Hsia-Ting Lin, another extended apologia for Chiang Kai-Shek’s military incompetence in losing the civil war on the Chinese mainland (and then Hainan) as he warded off competitors for US aid —which had stopped flowing before North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. While being careful to avoid any military action to retake China, Chiang and his American advocates (“the China Lobby,” many of whom had been Christian missionaries in China; Chiang had nominally converted) presented their refuge as “Free China.” The dictatorship, ruling under martial law for nearly forty years, pretended to be a government of all of China, so that the few people it actually governed (on Taiwan) were allotted only a small share of the representatives of the “Chinese people” (Lin does not seem to have noticed that the ROC pretense considered there to be three provinces on Taiwan rather than one). Lin does not demur from the Potemkin legislature or its election, writing,

“To legitimize the Republic of China as the central government of all China, the Taipei-based Nationalist government needed elected representatives for all China. In 1947 more than one thousand mainlanders in Nanking were elected by the Chinese people [sic.] as members of the National Assembly, Legislative Yuan, and Control Yuan. After coming to Taiwan, these representative were permitted to hold their seats until the next election could be held on the mainland [i.e., never; as Lin documents, Chiang Kai-Shek had no serious plans or any serious intent to retake the mainland], thus legitimizing [!] the Republic of China’s control of the island.”

Although the ROC only ruled Taiwan and a few other islands, the claim to be the rightful government of China (a fantasy the US maintained until 1979) ensured it not being responsible to the people it governed. The consent of the governed seems as irrelevant to Chiang’s apologist(s) as it was to him. And only slightly more important to most American government officials making East Asia/West Pacific policy, though some of them did not think the ROC had sound claims to rule Taiwan (let alone China!). Far from being an “accidental state,” the ROC was a conscious confection that denied those governed by the ROC (under martial law) from self-government.

Lin repeatedly props up Chiang’s actions and reactions as “understandable” (in its adverb form). Taiwanese seeking to be governed by the US under a UN mandate preparing for independence rather than de facto Chinese colonialism (following half a century of Japanese colonialism, which was harsh but followed its laws and built up infrastructure, including an educated workforce). He chronicles dissensus both within the KMT and within its paymaster, most frequently between the US State Department and the military, particularly General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan until relieved of his command in April of 1951 in attempting to lead a war against the People’s Republic of China, that is a Third World War.

Chiang wanted a Third World War, which he hoped would include defeat of the PRC Red Army that had quickly and thoroughly defeated the ROC Army, but also did not want his troops to fight, either to retake Hainan or to open a second front for the PRC on the Asian mainland. As he had throughout the time of US engagement in fighting the Japanese, Chiang made sounds about fighting the communists. He declined actually to do either, instead concentrating on KMT infighting and suppressing dissidents in his satrapy pretending to be China. (Lin does quote Douglas MacArthur before the Korean War as judging that Chiang knew nothing of the art of war, the arts of palace intrigue and public doubletalk on the other hand, Chiang was even more accomplished than MacArthur.)

Lin barely mentions the long-running White Terror (aimed more at potential critics of Chiang than at communist sympathizers), putting that in scare quotes the only time he mentions it. That, the downplaying of Taiwanese killed by ROC occupiers, and classifying the mass murder as a “tragedy” rather than the result of conscious policy places Lin very much in the Lai and Taylor tradition of Chiang/KMT apologists. He exceeds them in blaming the observer George Kerr (Formosa Betrayed) for negligence “in the events surrounding the February 28 incident of 1947,” making me wonder which Taiwanese Kerr was responsible for slaughtering.

And Lin does not consider the extent to which the land reform (1) was aimed at breaking any power of Taiwanese elite, (2) targeted some small-holders, and (3) was not universally popular in Taiwan.

On a far less consequential level, I am sure that Lin make more mistakes in identification than two US legislators I noticed: the fervid ROC-backer (the prototypical former Christian missionary in China) Walter Judd was a US representative (from Minneapolis), not a US Senator, and the word order in the name Washington State US Representative and then US Senator is obviously “Warren Magnuson,” not “Magnuson Warren.”

Overly credulous of Chiang Kai-Shek’s diary and preoccupied by political maneuvering in both (ROC and US) governments to pay any attention to the views of the people living on Taiwan, Lin has done considerable archival research and manages to illuminate the fault line and conflicts within both governments (with the UK foreign office frequently very suspcious of Chiang and determined to avert a war across the Taiwan straits.)

*Keelung Hong and I criticized the KMT apologia at length in a review reprinted in our book Looking Through Taiwan, published by the University of Nebraska Press. Also see “Some American Witnesses of the KMT’s 1947 Reign of Terror on Taiwan, and the recent novels Green Island and 228 Legacy.

(There is also some material on maneuvering by Japan not to cede the colony it acquired China’s claims to (China had never pacified the interior of the island) to any state or international entity. Japan just renounced its claim to sovereignty of Taiwan in the 28 April 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty.)


The book’s cover photo shows Chiang Kai-Shek shaking hands with US General William Chase, chief of the US Military Assistance Advisory  Group  in Taipei.


©2016, Stephen O.Murray

A Harrowing Korean-American novel of survivor guilt and other kinds of guilt: Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered


The Surrendered, the fourth novel by Korean-American writer Chang-Rae Lee (1965-) is at once a big book (480 pages) encompassing three generations of characters on the same number of continents, and sketchy. There are enthralling, often horrifying set pieces, but the middle of the story of the two main characters who survive the frozen hell of the Korean war is barely sketched.

The novel opens with a harrowing account of an eleven-year-old Korean girl, June Han, trying to protect her younger brother and sister in a desperate flight south from the communists. Her teacher father was rounded up as a traitor and her older brother was drafted and either killed or captured. Her older sister is taken away for sexual servitude, but blown up with her mother on the road. Which leaves June clinging to the top of a boxcar on a south-moving train.

The horrors are by no means over for her, and she is nearly dead from starvation when an America GI from upstate New York (Ilion), persuades her to follow him to an orphanage. Hector Brennan has had traumatic experiences I the war himself, including an enemy soldier who is tortured by another member of Hector’s squad and ends up begging to be put out of his misery. After that Hector worked with black GIs on tending to corpses. Better stinking remains than seeing or inflicting more killings, Hector decided. And he was already suffering survivor guilt and sexual guilt from the death of his alcoholic father before the war.

At the orphanage to which he led June, he becomes an indispensable handyman, and also the lover of Sylvie, the opium-addicted wife of a Presbyterian missionary who runs the orphanage and is frequently away setting up other ones. The children love Sylvie, June most of all and forges a special relationship with her.

Sylvie Tanner was the child of missionaries in Manchuria at the time the Japanese annexed it. Although that is not where she became addicted to opium, she witnessed the rape of her mother, the torture of her young Chinese mentor, Benjamin Li, and more before escaping (how she did is another lacuna in the novel).


There are more disasters and bases for survivor guilt for both June and Hector at the orphanage. 30years on, June has closed her successful Manhattan antique business, sold her co-op apartment (or vacated it if she was renting it) and hired a private detective to find Hector and to find the son she had by him (seemingly not with him, though it seems she got to the USA as his wife) who went off to Europe after graduating from high school and never came back. Nicholas seems to have used what he learned about antiques form his mother’s business, working and stealing from a succession of European antique shops.

It may seem like I have told a lot of the plot, but I have only laid out the beginnings of the layers of stories of suffering and anguish of June, Hector, and Sylvie and of the very complicated relationships at the Korean orphanage, the most extended — though interrupted — story in the center of the web of anguished failures to save others in the novel.

As if there weren’t enough horror from the wreckage of Korea in the 1950s, Lee includes three accidental deaths and two by cancer and a charred copy of J. H. Dun ant’s 1862 A Memory of Soldering, the site of an 1859 battle that was fought in what is now northern Italy (between Verona and Milan) and was the last major battle in world history where all the involved armies were under the personal command of their monarchs (Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II against the Hapsburg Franz Joseph I) involving more than 200, 000 men and 37,000 casualties, and leading to the founding in 1863 of both the International Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions on warfare. The Red Cross link is why Sylvie’s mother gave it to her. (Both Sylvie and Hector witness Violations of the Geneva Convention.) I don’t think that Lee needed to pile on casualties from the Second Italian War of Independence, though the chain of ownership of the book spans four generations.

The opening is so painful to read about that I put it down twice. After surviving that, I devoured the remaining 450+ pages in two days. That qualifies it as a “page-turner.” There were surprises and there are still some things I find mysterious, including how A Memory of Solferino survived its second conflagration. Light reading, The Surrendered definitely is not, but compelling reading, it is.

©2010, 2016 Stephen O. Murray

Laid off and pretending to go to work every day


Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s (Bright Future) 2008 “Tokyo Sonata” would have profited from some trimming, especially of the younger son playing “Claire de lune” and the father stumbling through garbage piled along the street.

Kagawa Teruyuki (Devils on the Doorstep, Sway) plays a business executive, Sasaki Ryûhei) who is made redundant by moving operations from Japan to China. Unable to tell his wife (Koizumi Kyôko [Kaza-hana, Hanging Garden]) that he no longer has a job, he puts on a dark suit and tie and goes off for the day on his usual schedule. He runs into a high-school classmate (Tsuda Kanji) who was laid off earlier and mentors him in unemployment survival tactics.

Mr. Sasaki is an authoritarian father, whose elder son, Takashi (the exceptionaly tall Koyanagi Yû) is already rebelling and out on his own a lot. Mr. Sasaki is stressed out and not earning money when the younger son, Kenji (Inowaki Kai) wants to take piano lessons. His father forbids it and he diverts his school lunch money for the lessons. When his father finds out that he is not the only one sneaking around and trying to keep Mrs. Sasaki from finding out, he is quite brutal.


The wife-mother learns about both deceptions, and then is taken on a wild ride by an inexperienced and desperate burglar (Yokusho Koji). The stressors seem to me a bit piled on (straining credulity, upping the melodrama proportion, and the black humor proportion). The humiliation of a salaryman losing his salary and identity as an executive and having to take a job as a janitor in a shopping mall is acutely shaming for him. It exacerbates his concern about his lack of paternal authority.

Though the camera is not fixed, there are few closeups, and the inclusion of multiple characters in shots is reminiscent of Ozu, along with the focus on social change speeding family disintegration, the great Ozu theme. (The ending seems to have been added after the initial release, providing more catharsis than the, I think, longer version of the previous scene being the last one.)

The movie won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes. The disc includes a director and cast appearance after the first Tokyo showing following that win, and an hour-long making-of feature, as well as a trailer for the movie.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The phenomenon of men lost after being cut loose from jobs is only going to become more common from automation more than outsourcing (manufacturing is returning to the US, but with far fewer jobs performed by humans): see Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Rage Against the Machine.” For another view of a Japanese man adjusting to downward mobility, see “Departures.”

Shame and self-annihilation in 1919 Kauai


Philip Kan Gotanda’s play “Ballad of Yachiyo” was first staged by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1995 in a production I’m sorry I missed. Reading it, it seems difficult to stage, easier to film with cinematic jump cuts. A potter who acquires (and molests) an assistant is central to the story and it must be difficult to manage the different pots he makes in a stage production.

The play is set in 1919 on the island of Kauai, where Gotanda’s Japan-born parents first lived in the US (a Yonsei [third generation] he was born in California’s Central Valley city of Stockton in 1951, after his parents returned from the Manzanar concentration camp). The Matsuomtos are struggling to make ends meet and send their 17-year-old daughter Machiyo across the island to live with a childless couple, the Takamuras. Papa had aided the Takamura patriarch when they first crossed from Japan to Hawai’i.

Hiro was the wastrel son of a respected potter in Japan who was adopted into the (sonless) Takamura family by a merchant who had made a success in Hawai’i. Shamelessly explaining his (culturally shameful) backstory to Yachiyo, he says:

His only child [Sumiko] was his only weak spot. And since his daughter wanted me, he made sure she got me. The old man offered me a proposition. I got a second chance to be an artist, to redeem myself in my father’s eyes. In exchange, I marry his daughter and I give up my [family] name…. So, you see, her father bought me for her, like a pet dog. And she knew what I was, what she was getting. We had an agreement. This one was between Sumiko and me. Her father didn’t know. I told her I didn’t love her and that she must allow me my freedom. That I would be discreet and never bring her shame.

In Japan and Japanese enclaves on Hawai’i marriages were generally arranged by parents, not love matches, and husbands were expected to have concubines on the side, while continuing the family line (that is, producing sons) and providing for it. Sumiko may be anguished by her husband’s no-longer discreet womanizing, but he does not seem to feel any guilt or shame about that (just about having been adopted in and not perpetuating his natal family name)

Hiro has been getting careless about discretion for his extramarital affair (with the public figure of a taxi-hall dancer).

The assistance in his work/art of Yachiyo inspires Hiro to do better work than he has done since leaving Japan. She is attractive and right there in reach, and it’s not very surprising that he seduces her.

Yachiyo had an Okinawan labor-activist suitor, Willie Higa, at home, one who is willing to take her back even knowing she is no longer a virgin, but the pregnant young woman commits suicide rather than deliver “soiled goods” (how she views herself) to the man who loves her. She drowns herself and the play ends with her tombstone life dates: 1902-1919 (and the surviving photo of the real-life Yachiyo).

Ironically, her father has taken on a business of writing love letters for cane workers and is able to support Yachiyo (as is Willie). He regrets sending her away and does not seem crushed by shame of a daughter getting present.


Gotanda was imagining the story of his father’s eldest sister, Yachiyo, who killed herself (ingesting ant poison, a method someone else reportedly used within the play) in 1916, at the age of 16 (that is younger, and earlier than the play’s Yachiyo) after being impregnated by a married man. He only heard of this aunt who had died two and a half decades before he was born as an adult, in a slip from the decades of silence from his father. Yachiyo was erased from family history, even from stories about the Kauai days of his father’s growing up. Gotanda imagined the characters… and was familiar with how shame is managed (buried) in Japanese families.

I find all of them sympathetic, including the somewhat self-hating (along with other-blaming) Hiro. At the time of rehearsing the first production, Gotanda said: “The play is my gut’s response to stories that have to do with my own bloodline. I think it is a great luxury and adventure to be able to dive into one’s own history, one’s own lineage, psychology and story, and illumine and at the same time fictionalize it.”

(In that Gotanda’s preface begins with his discovery that he had a paternal aunt who killed herself  when she was impregnated by a married man in Kauai in 1916, long before he was born in California (in 1951), I don’t think that revealing Yahiyo’s suicide here is “plot-spoiling.”)


I’m not going to attempt a review/analysis of Gotanda’s “Fish Head Soup,” first staged at Berkeley Rep in 1991. It seems too schematic to me, with a “seemingly mentally ill” Papa, the return of a faked suicide, flashbacks of being suspectly similar looking to Viet Cong, the present day for being a “gook.”

And “Yankee Dawg You Die,” first staged at Berkeley Rep in 1988 seems a pat reversal between the older actor who has worked steadily in often demeaning roles under the name “Victor Chan,” though his ancestry is Japanese and the judgmental younger actor Bradley Yamishita, who gradually acquiesces to stereotypical roles, while Victor, who had regularly announced that he never turned down an offer of work as an actor, turns down one to appear as a character like his father (in pre-WWII Salinas). There is a lot of speechifying about having to do what is written in order to work and various examples of stereotypical roles.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Also see my discussion of Gotanda’s “Life Tastes Good” and “The Wash.”


Breaking loose vs. maintaining subordination


Philip Kan Gotanda’s play “The Wash” was first staged in San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre in 1987. It is the most straightforward (straight ahead rather than jumping into flashbacks or dreaminess) and least specifically Japanese-American of the work by Gotanda with which I’m familiar. The first two stage productions and the 1988 movie adaption directed by Michael Toshiyuki Uno had Japanese-American actors, though a San Francisco reincarnation made the characters Jamaican American (with Carl Lumbly taking the part Mako had played in the movie).

There are three settings (that can coexist on a stage): the family home where only the 68-year-old patriarch (Nobu Matsumoto) continues to dwell. Masi, his 67-year-old wife of many decades continues to come in once a week to take Nobu’s dirty clothes and to return those she has washed.

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He has not accepted that their marriage is over. Masi had not sought a divorce when she moved in with their older daughter, Marsha, but has been seeing a very kindly 65-year-old Nisei widower, Sadao. Over the course of the play Masi decides she wants to marry him.

Meanwhile, Nobu has been sort of seeing the fifty-something owner of a small Japanese restaurant, Miyako, a widow who was born in Japan and married a GI who brought her to the US. The “sort of seeing” is mostly eating her tempura. Miyako seems to have some interest in a relationship with the crotchety older Japanese man, but he has not thought of himself as potentially on the romance or marriage market: he is already married.


(Mako [1933-2006]  and Nobu McCarthy [1934-2002] from the 1988 movie version)

The younger daughter, Marsha, is estranged, having wed a black man, which it anathema to her father.

Summarizing interviews (the Yonsei) Gotanda did with older Nisei women, he noted that “Nisei women have no dreams of their own. They live their lives in order to help their husbands realize their dreams, and the dreams of their children.” Masi tentatively goes against her socialization into the self-denying role, and seeks fulfillment for herself (not least sexually, having been spurned sexually by her husband for years).

The liberation arc and the male inability to adjust are familiar, making the play predictable—and transferable to other ethnicities (with aleration of the food references). “The Wash” is a solid play, and was, no doubt, the first play (and movie) with a geriatric Japanese Americans breaking out of lifetime subordination to giri, which is to say to the needs of others.


(The play was published separately and in the 1995 Fish Head Soup and Other Plays with an introduction by Michael Omi.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Deadly sibling rivalry among the affluent and alienated postwar “sun tribe”


Taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) was coined to describe the rich, bored, nihilistic, and often vicious young characters invoked in books by Ishihara Shintarô (1932-), Season of the Sun (1955) and Crazed Fruit (1956). Both became movies, the second one starring Ishihara’s younger brother, sometimes singer, not-yet much of an actor, and about to become a Japanese superstar, Ishihara Yûjirô, who was proclaimed “the Japanese James Dean,” though his characters were more decisive than those the recently deceased James Dean played.

In “Cray Fruit”/“Crazed Fruit” (Kuratta Kajitsu, 1956), the first movie directed by Nakahira Kô, Ishihara Yûjirô played the jaded older brother. Takishima Natsuhisa, who is lounging about or cruising clubs at beachfront Hayama. His younger brother, Haruji (Tsugawa Masahiki, who was born in 1940) seems more a James Dean type to me — vulnerable and yearning. (Or the yearning and vulnerable Sal Mineo, who was born in 1939, so was the same age as Tsugawa when he played in “Rebel Without a Cause.”) Haruji is romancing an older woman, Eri (Kitahara Mie, who was born in 1933). Natsu considers her out of his younger brother’s league both in looks and experience. Natsu claims to want to protect his innocent younger brother, but wants to bed Eri himself.


Nastu learns that Eri is not just older and more experienced than Haruji, but is married to a foreigner (Harold Conway, born in 1911) who often leaves her on her own as he transacts business of some kind (there is no indication that it is illegal, nor is there any that it is legal). To buy his silence with Haruji, Eri accepts Nastu’s sexual advances.

Against his own self-conception of being a playboy who uses women without emotional involvement with them, Nastu falls in love with her, or at least becomes jealous of his brother (who eventually “goes all the way” with Eri) and of her alien husband.


When Nastu intercepts a message from Eri to Haruji moving their trip/date one day earlier (Haruji has stayed the night in Yokohama), he goes and takes her off. When Haruji returns, he is distraught that his older brother has put the moves on the women he considers his and goes after them. They are in a sailboat, he in a faster motorboat. The end is predictable though much drawn out, shot from above.

There are a lot of closeups, particularly for a 1950s Japanese movie, and idle affluent youth (they seem more affluent than Brando’s “The Wild One,” living in some ease on their parents’ presumably newly acquired (“boom”) wealth. Their behavior in the movie and elsewhere shocked their elders—and could not have passed Hollywood Production Code strictures on adultery, fornication, murder, etc.


(50s Japanese beachwear! Okada Masumi and Tsugawa Masahiko)

I don’t know who wrote the Hawaiian-style music (some if it sung by Ishihara Yûjirô), who the jazz-trumpet music. The score was credited to Satô Masaru (who scored such Kurosawa films as “Throne of Blood” and “Sanjuro”, plus “The Rusty Knife”) and Takemitsu Tôru, the first feature-film credit for the latter. Takemitsu’s film-score writing really took off in 1960 with Shinoda’s “Youth in Fury”/Dry Lake.”

P.S. Kitahara Mie and Ishihara Yûjirô starred together in many movies (including “The Rusty Knife” and “I Am Waiting,”) and wed in 1960, when she ceased appearing onscreen. Ishihara Shintarô became a conservative (the xenophobic Sunrise Party, which merged into the Japan Restoration Party) politician and was Governor of Tokyo from 1999 until 2012, when he moved on to the House of Representatives (for one term). Some of his later work was filmed as “The Rusty Knife,” “I Am Waiting,” (both of those starring his brother), “Pale Flower,” and “Petrified Forest.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

“Going straight” is difficult for someone with a temper and ongoing provocations


Sabita naifu” (The Rusty Knife, 1958, directed by Masuda Toshio) is a noir film from the Nikkatsu studio with the then-big star singer and actor Ishihara Yûjirô (Crazed Fruit, I am Waiting, I Hate But Love), who sings the title song both at the beginning and at the end of the film. Ishihara played Tachibana, who served five years in prison for killing the rapist (he though singular, but learns there were others during the course of the movie) of his girlfriend. He has gone straight, running a marginally successful bar. He employs Makoto (Kobayashi Akira), who was in the Mishima gang with him. Makoto is having an affair with Shingo Mano (Shimizu Masao) whom Tachibana deplores as a “slut,” and who is happy to spend the hush money Makoto takes (even as Shimabara refuses it).

Both were witnesses to a murder of a politician that made to look like a suicide by hanging. They were with Shimabara (Shishido Jô before his already large cheeks were surgically increased in size) who threatened to go to the police if a new payment of hush money was not made to him. Early in the movie Shimabara is killed by Mishima gang members posing as policemen.

The local (Ukada, an industrial city on the western coast of Honshu) gang lord, Katsumata (Sugiura Naoki) impresses on Makoto and Shimabara the need for them to maintain their silence, as Katsumata’s determined but constantly frustrated nemesis, Prosecutor Karita (Yasui Shôji) pressures them, armed with a letter naming them as witnesses written by Shimabara to be sent if he did not return to his girlfriend in Tokyo.


Journalist Keika (Mie Kitahara, Ishihara’s frequent costar [Crazed Fruit, I Am Waiting; and, earlier, Carmen Falls in Love] Mie Kitahara] and eventual wife) overhears that her father might have been murdered and did not commit suicide. She tags along with Tachibana, who cooperates with Prosecutor Karita. The movie includes two very long fight scenes and a chase scene involving identical big trucks. The volatile Tachibana evolves from someone wanting to be left alone by both sides (legal and illegal) into someone crusading to avenge the dead girl despite having already served five years in prison for killing one of them. Ishihara turned in a nuanced performance, at first suppressing his anger and bitterness and eventually taking on finding the mastermind pulling Katsumata’s strings..


There is some awful back projection for a motorcycle ride of Makota and Shingo by daylight, but a satisfying noir look for most of the rest of the movie, including the scenes with the politician who tells Katsumata what to do, including killing Keika’s father.

“Rusty Knife” is part of a Criterion Nikkatsu Noir set that also includes “I Am Waiting.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Which is more irrational, fear or complacency?


I consider Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) the greatest filmmaker ever. Of the 32 feature films he directed, there is only one that I actively dislike (Dodesukaden from 1970, sometimes billed as “Clickety Clack”). The other ones that I don’t like are the version of his adaptation of Dosteovesky’s The Idiot, which Kurosawa believed was destroyed by the studio (“Hakuchi”, 1951), and “Donzo” (1957) his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play “Ne Dne” (The Lower Depths). One might infer from this that I don’t like Kurosawa doing Russian literary classics (I’m not sure that Vladimir Arsenyev’s Dersu Uzala qualifies as a literary classic, but not only is the book Russian, but so was Kurosawa’s film adaptation of it—which won a best foreign-language film for the then-USSR).

Rather than Russian sources being the problem, I think that Kurosawa’s cinematic exploration of the lumpen-proletariat were (1) unconvincing and (2) boring. Since the screenplay neither added to nor subtracted much from Gorky’s play and I also don’t like Jean Renoir’s 1936 adaptation of the play (as “Les Bas-fonds”), I blame Gorky more than Kurosawa (or Renoir).

Renoir transported the very Russian setting to France of the 1930s. Kurosawa transported it to some unspecified time late in the Edo era (the early 19th century, with the devolution of the Tokugawa Shogunate that included economic stagnation). The film is set-bound as no other Kurosawa film I’ve seen is. The closest the camera gets to escaping from the hovel where the characters live is the opening pan of nearly 360 degrees—which shows that the flophouse is next to a garbage dump (monks are shown dumping garbage directly on it). Three-fourths of the film is inside this flophouse, in which there is a central area and curtained-off individual spaces and in the courtyard between this dormitory and the landlord’s dwelling (into which the camera wanders briefly late in the film).

After that initial spin, the camera does not move much. There are few closeups—mostly mid-range shots of the down and out. I will not attempt to run through the set of stock figures (“characters”), only note that their poverty looks fake (do I mean “stylized”) to me. And none looks badly (or un-)fed. A particular yawner is the cliché of a prostitute with a “heart of gold” (played by Negishi Akemi [Red Beard]). And the drunken revelry rings very hollow to me, and, I think, to the denizens of the “lower depths.”


I don’t find their antics particularly funny, though Kurosawa considered Gorky’s play very funny. (Gorky himself considered he had written a protest play about desperately poor people; I am certain that he did not intend his play as a comedy, though I am less sure about Mother, his best-known novel, of which I saw a stage version with a comic Olympia Dukakis playing the title role.)

Probably because Mifune Toshirô was cast in it, the most interesting role (or performance) is his Sutekichi , a would-be yakusa, a petty thief with airs of being a serious gangster. Fujiwara Kamatari also manages to wring some pathos (and even an irony or two) out of his part as a failed actor.

There is a very melodramatic finale involving the landlord discovering Sutekichi’s long-running affair with his wife (Yamada Isuzu [the Lady Macbeth of “Throne of Blood”]), his wife discovering that Sutekichi is really in love with her younger sister (Kagawa Kyôko [Sansho, Madadayo]), etc., etc. To put it mildly, the finale of Kurosawa’s other 1947 adaptation of a play (Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” as “Throne of Blood”) is far more memorable. Indeed, the whole film is more memorable both visually and the performances (including Mifune’s).

I guess that Kurosawa wanted the viewer to experience claustrophobia, being trapped with the characters as they are with each other (though they do not seem to share the “Hell is [the] other people” of Sartre’s “No Exit”) and, indeed, seen to have sympathy and even solidarity with each other (for the most part). Kurosawa did not seem to find the one-note characters as irritating as I did. (But he did flatten them by filming with telephoto lenses, but he did that in other films, most notably in “Akahige” (Red Beard), a very long film that I love.

The Criterion edition includes more than half an hour from “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” and, like “Rashômon,” has a commentary track laid down by Kurosawa expert Donald Richie. Richie is interested in themes, the documentary in technical matters of building and photographing on the single set. (Actually, I found this more interesting than the film itself). Criterion also paired the Renoir and Kurosawa adaptations of Gorky’s play (Jean Gabin played the part Mifune would.)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray