“Kurosawa”: the documentary (2001)

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It would be hard to make a movie combining clips from Kurosawa movies and recollections of those who knew him that I wouldn’t like. The 2001 documentary “Kurosawa,” directed by Adam Low is an excellent movie even beyond the intrinsic interest of its subject, with interesting comments from Kurosawa’s son and daughter, various collaborators, Donald Richie (who did much to introduce and explain Japanese cinema to American audiences, including writing a book The Films of Akira Kurosawa), the great Japanese director Ichikawa Kon (Fire on the Plain, Harp of Burma, The Actor’s Revenge, etc.), two American admirers whose careers were advanced by appearing in westerns based on Kurosawa’s (James Coburn, Clint Eastwood; “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo” respectively), and two of the major Japanese stars of Kurosawa’s (and others’) movies, Kyô Machiko and Nakadai Tatsuya.

There is archival footage of interviews with Kurosawa himself, readings by Paul Scofield from the memoirs Kurosawa wrote (that, like him, are mostly about the art rather than the man), narration by Sam Shepard. And there is color footage of Kurosawa directing (from home movies shot by US servicemen) from “The Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” (1945) and (from Chris Marker’s documentary on the making of it, “A.K.”) “Ran” (1985). Plus showing Kurosawa directing the last scene in his last movie and thanking the crew (Madadayo, 1993) and one of the Suntory whiskey commercials he directed starring himself during the 1970s when he could not get financing for the movies he wanted to shoot, even after the international success (and Oscar) for the movie he made in Siberia, “Dersu Uzala” (1975). (He was able to make the great “Kagemusha” in 1980 with funding from “The Godfather” and “Star Wars” franchises.)

As James Coburn put it, the recurrent theme in Kurosawa’s movies was trying to live honestly. This was a challenge to the lords and samurais of his historical movies, the policemen and civil servants of his contemporary (in the 1950 and 60s) movies, and the doctors in “Red Beard” (which, in the 90 minutes of additional interview footage on the DVD both Coburn and Eastwood say is their favorite Kurosawa movie), “The QUet Dule” and “The Drubken Angel”. Self-sacrifice is another recurrent theme, though perhaps more broadly Japanese than Kurosawa-specific.

Kurosawa’s associates make it clear that for all his legendary unwillingness to compromise his vision, he was very concerned about the welfare of his company (within the Toho Corporation). His 1971 suicide attempt seems to have been partly motivated by anguish at letting down the others with whom he had founded a production company with the flop (and the one Kurosawa movie I dislike), “Dodes’ka-den.” (The DVD extra footage has fairly extensive discussion of the disasters preceding the suicide attempt and the inability to get financing that drove him to Siberia, and make it clear that if “Dersu Uzala” had failed, there would have been no more Kurosawa movies, which means the two towering masterpieces “Kagemusha” and “Ran” would not have been made.)

Everyone who speaks on screen agrees that “Red Beard” was the end of an era, not just in being the last Kurosawa movie starring Toshiro Mifune, but in look (specifically, camera fluidity and black-and-white filmstock), and in theme (less focus on conflict is the claim, that does not convince me until after “Ran”). My only real disappointment with the movie was that there was nothing including Mifune’s comments on the long relationship that was integral to so many masterpieces that ended with the protracted (two-year) “Red Beard” shoot. Surely, there must be Japanese television footage of Mifune saying something or another about Kurosawa!

Richie and others explain that with the Japanese cult of their own uniqueness, the success of Kurosawa movies in the West, beginning with the Golden Lion “Rashomon” won at the Venice Film Festival, made some Japanese believe that Kurosawa must be insufficiently Japanese (that is, if someone not Japanese understands and appreciates something, it can’t be truly Japanese, because to be truly Japanese is necessarily opaque to non-Japanese). This resentment-fueled rap engendered many difficulties for Kurosawa in Japan. (Ichikawa, who has also had external recognition, but also has made many movies not available in the West, does not address this tangle.)

Although lacking Mifune’s perspective, the movie does have that of Mifune’s only peer, Nakadai Tatsuyo. Nakadai and Kyô Machiko both mention Kurosawa’s insistence that they not blink. Nakadai also relives the experience of being all alone in the burning castle in “Ran” and having to avoid stumbling when he emerged with eight cameras on him.

In addition to the pleasure of the film clips and seeing various Kurosawa collaborators (including groups of them returning to the sites of shooting “Rashomon” and “Ran”), there are superb shots of Kurosawa’s house near Mount Fujiyama and of his tombstone being washed, and a very effective use of the ending of “Ikiru” for Kurosawa’s death. (I don’t understand the need for the bridge of urban streets, though having “Throne of Blood” playing on a giant screen many stories up one tall building is amusing.)

I did not expect the movie to explain the genius of Kurosawa or even his psychology. (I already knew he was descended from samurais, had attempted suicide in 1971, and was unable to get his projects funded during the 1970s, undoubtedly costing the world half a dozen or more Kurosawa films.) Kurosawa said that his self minus movies was zero. Planning and shooting movies was his life and “his favorite movie was always the next one.”

The movie runs nearly two hours and there is another 90 minutes of interview footage, a Kurosawa filmography, and weblinks (they seemingly only work in Windows). I have no idea how the movie would function as an introduction to Kurosawa for those so unfortunate as not to have seen at least some of his masterpieces. For someone like me, who venerates the body of work Kurosawa generated, the documentary is not just fascinating but inspiring.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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Kurosawa’s protracted valedictory movie: “Madadayo” (1993)

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The 2001 documentary “Kurosawa” includes footage of Kurosawa Akira directing a child playing the quarry in hide-and-seek, hiding in a haystack (on a studio set). That scene, which turned out to be the last one that Kurosawa ever directed (though he wanted to make more movies after it), best explains the title “Madadayo” (1993). When asked whether the hiding child is ready to be sought yet (“Mo ii kai?”), he answers “Mada day yo,” which means “Not yet!” At the very end, the child is mesmerized by a very Technicolor sky and does not answer. The game is over…

The beginning of the movie is a parallel non-“Mada day yo” juncture in the protagonist’s life. In Japan’s Gotemba prefecture, some time during “the Great Pacific War” (1939 is my guess), a demanding high-school teacher (called “Professor”) of German Uehida Hyakken (1889-1971, played by Matsumura Tatsuo) announces to his class that he is retiring to write full-time.

The wry teacher has a band of devoted students who have annual drinking parties in honor of his birthdays, help him when his home is destroyed by US bombs, arrange for a new house with a large fish pond to be built for him after the war, and commiserate when his beloved cat disappears. At each of the fêtes in his honor, the professor jocularly says “Mada day yo,” meaning he is not ready to die yet (after chugging a very large mug of beer). He even manages to say this at the last (1971) one in which he is stricken after grandchildren of his former students wheel a large birthday cake to him. It is immediately after this that he goes home and dreams about the child (presumably himself) hiding and being distracted by the dramatic sky beckoning him out of the terrestrial world (instead of repeating “Mada day yo”).

After the summit/summation of his career that was the epic “Ran” (1985), Kurosawa’s “King Lear,” Kurosawa made three idiosyncratic, light-on-narrative, long on dreaminess and childish-innocence movies: “Dreams” (1990), “Rhapsody in August” (1993), and “Madadayo” (1996). They seemed let-downs form the very ambitious anti-epic “Kagemusha” (1980) and “Ran” (1985). Kurosawa felt that he had said what he had to say about epic subjects. Like fellow auteur Jean Renoir (The Little Theater of Jean Renoir) and such authors as William Faulkner (The Reivers and Thomas Mann (The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man), Kurosawa’s last work was light-hearted. “Madadayo” is something of a comedy, not a genre associated with Kurosawa (except in the very dark comedy of “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” and Mifune’s character in “Seven Samurai”).

The child-like, hedonist, pet-doting professor has some of the innocence of the Siberian (actually Tuvan) guide in “Dersu Uzala” (1975) and history certainly impinges (US fire bombs and postwar economic recovery in particular, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in “Rhapsody”), but “Madadayo” is primarily an affectionate portrayal of the artist as a stubborn old man doing exactly what he wants. What he wants is to write essays, which is easier to do than to make movies, in that movies require financing and the efforts of many persons beyond the writer-director. Knowing that the difficulties Kurosawa had doing what he wanted to do (make movies—after “Red Beard” in 1965, he was only able to make seven more, and none in the last five years of his life) adds the poignancy of seeing wish-fulfillment in the project.

Single-sex drunken parties are a major institution for the otherwise staid, buttoned-down Japanese salarymen. I rarely find drunks amusing, and the ideas of fun of drunken Japanese businessmen do not amuse me. (Their sentimental nostalgia is also less than fascinating to watch/hear and the drunken songs are tedious.) And the puns probably got lost in translation. (The urination humor comes through: yawn!) In my estimation, there is too much of these parties—and indeed I don’t see why the movie needed to run more than two hours (134 minutes in total). I understand that the parties show the passage of time, including the aging of the characters, and sociocultural change (in particular, the inclusion of wives at the final party), but I’d prefer to know what Uehida was writing about (the way Paul Shrader showed Mishima’s writings in his too-little-known and little-appreciated biopic “Mishima,” though it is possible, especially in that Uehida’s essays are given credit as the source of the movie, that Kurosawa unobtrusively did this —and seamlessly for someone like me who has not read Uehida; the story of a horse balking as it passes a store that sells horsemeat that the professor tells seems a likely candidate, and I see that there is an Uehida Hyakkenook titled Nora, My Lost Cat; Natsume Soseki’s perennially popular I Am a Cat probably also exerted some influence).

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Matsumura and Kyoko Kagawa as his wife are especially good. Other than the final dream, my favorite part of the movie is an extended exploration of how the professor has made his new house thief-proof. The movie also includes some entertaining stories and remarks by Uehida and some striking visual compositions, and is not perplexing like the hacked up “The Idiot” or the one Kurosawa movie I actively dislike “Dô desu ka den” (in which Matsumura also appeared, but not in a leading role), but it is certainly not one of Kurosawa’s ten or fifteen greatest masterpieces. Kurosawa was quoted as saying, “I hope that all the people who have seen this picture will leave the theater feeling refreshed, with broad smiles on their faces.” This was not the intent of his masterpieces and seems to me to be evidence of an (unexpected!) overeagerness to be beloved (as Uehida was) on the octogenarian Kurosawa’s part.

As a movie about aging, “Madadayo” is considerably less heartbreaking and grim than “Ikiru” (1952), one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces. There seems to me to be little at issue in “Madadayo.” It is amiable and does not offer a feeble recycling of the master’s earlier movies (like the last movies of Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder) or the disappointing finale of William Wyler (The Liberation of L.B. Jones) and the outright disasters of the last movies of John Ford (Seven Women) and George Stevens (The Only Game in Town). “Madadayo” is reminiscent of Ozu films (especially “Good Morning” (1959) and “The End of Summer” (1961); the latter, Ozu’s penultimate movie, even includes a grandfather playing hide-and-seek), shot in vivid, schematic color, but considerably more self-indulgent and sentimental than Ozu’s films. There are worse career endings, some examples of which I have reeled off in this paragraph, but Ozu (An Autumn Afternoon) and Mizoguchi (Street of Shame) ended their careers with better final movies.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The Ultimate Kurosawa Anti-Epic: “Ran” (1985)

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For me the greatest film director ever was Kurosawa Akira (1910-98). After a series of epoch-making films during the 1950s (including, Rashomôn, Seven Samurai, Ikiru), Kurosawa and actor Mifune Toshirô parted after the long-extended (two years) shooting of “Red Beard” and Kurosawa had difficulties getting movies financed, especially after the commercial (and artistic) failing of “Dodesukaden” (1970) bankrupted the sort of “United Artists” production company he and  Ichikawa Kon had set up.

It took five years and going to Siberia to get financing (Soviet) for another movie, the gorgeous “Dersu Usala,” another five years after that and help from some of Kurosawa’s (then young and newly successful) American admirers (Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas) to put together financing of “Kagemusha” (The Shadow Warrior, 1980) with  Nakadai Tatsuya (born in 1930) as Lord Takeda Shingen and as the thief who was recruited to play his double and was engulfed by the role. The scene in which he must sit still atop a hill to inspire the clan’s troops makes me gulp and shudder even in memory. The battle scenes surpass even Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky.” The compositions and cinematography are ravishing.

The costumes and visual compositions and epic battle scenes in “Ran” (Chaos, 1985) match those of “Kagemusha.” King Lear is widely considered the Mount Everest of roles for an actor and Nakadai Tatsuya rose to the challenge. This is the ultimate story about aging and making bad decisions that cannot be reversed

At the start of the film, the 70-year-old Japanese warlord Lear, Hidetora Ichimonji (Nakadai), who has a lot of blood on his hands over the years fo consolidating power, is concluding a successful hunt for wild boars. He has a terrifying dream while taking a nap and resolves to put his earthly affairs in order. He gives each of his three sons one of the castles he controls.

His youngest son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryû playing the Cordelia of this version), attempts to convince him that dividing his realm is a bad idea. The son who is concerned about his father infuriates the father and is banished.

Controlling castles and realms of their own, the sons (egged on by Lady Macbeth-like wives [Kurosawa had already done his version of “Macbeth” in 1957’s “Throne of Blood”) make retirement less than quiet and comfortable for Hidetora. Turmoil grows into fratricidal civil war. There is an unforgettable scene in which Nakadai (exceptionally tall for Japanese especially of his vintage) slowly emerges from a burning castle and down a long flight of stone steps.

The sequence is stunningly dramatic, and I learned from bonus feature interview recollections from Nakadai that he was all alone inside the burning building and there was no possibility of a retake if he stumbled on the way down.

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Kurosawa carried over from Shakespeare the structure of a ruler too soon old and way too late gaining understanding. Cordelia/Saturo dies and only after dying is recognized as the filial child, while Hidetora/Lear wanders disconsolate on the cold plain.

There is a fool in both, and Kurosawa turns the blade an extra twist, as well as expanding the part (Kyoami, played by Pîtâ, is the least stylized character in the film: that is, he has a personality rather than just playing a role).

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In “Ran,” Kurosawa offers less catharsis than Shakespeare’s “Lear,” not being interested in providing any straw of consolation for audiences to clutch.) Kurosawa also provided a (bloody) backstory for the king/lord splitting his realm and retiring.

The movie has a lot of action and a lot of blood. What makes it the greatest film of the 1980s and one of the greatest ever are the astonishingly wide-ranging (in emotion) portrayal by Nakadai (the star of some other searing dramas including “The Human Condition,” “Seppuku,” “Kill!”), and the stunning, expressionist visual composition (includingWada Emi’s Oscar-winning costume design) and color cinematography (Nakai, Saitô, Ueda). Both “Kagemusha” and “Ran!” show the devastation of pride and empire — to music inspired by Mahler’s First Symphony, “The Titan.” (Kurosawa pressed that model on Takemitsu Toru, who had wanted to use human voices).

Kurosawa looked down on human folly as if from heaven throughout his two great, culminating 1980s masterpieces, and the last scenes in both movies are shot from above. Kurosawa made some more, smaller movies, but he thought “Ran” would be his final statement and it resounds as the self-conscious pinnacle of a great artist’s artistry and ambition.

The cataclysm is filmed in the most vivid colors. “Ran” is the ultimate Kurosawa film. After that he doodled—interesting doodles, but there is nowhere to go after Lear.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Playing for keeps: Kurosawa’s 1980 “Kagemusha”

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“Kagemusha” (1980, also known as “The Shadow Warrior,” though released in the US with its Japanese title) is not as great a movie as Kurosawa’s next movie, “Ran” (1985), but that may be an empty category and I find it easier to like “Kagemusha” than I do “Ran,” great a film as I recognize it to be. Nakadai Tatsuya is in my opinion even better in the Pirandelloish role of thief pretending to be clan leader in “Kagemusha” than as a fully Shakespearean Lear in “Ran.”

The film, set near the end of the warring kingdoms period was settled by Tokugawa (Tokugawa Ieyasu’s) victory (in the Battle of Sekigahara in October of 1600), seems somewhat slow—though this is probably at least in part from my attention span being a casualty to ever-more fragmented jump cuts of postmodern life and art, though some of the scenes of immobile councils seemed overly long even when I saw “Kagemusha” in its theatrical release

“Kagemusha” is particularly interesting to a sociologist as a meditation on coming to believe that one is what people regard one as being (a self-role merger). As the double successfully passes as the warlord, he comes more and more to internalize role expectations and starts unthinkingly to act appropriately for his high station. He rises to the office (I think of Truman, though he had his own style and did not attempt to impersonate FDR). Not just mannerisms but attitudes become “second nature” to the actor who forgets that he is acting.

For me the most riveting moment is when the double is on display, impassively holding his position — embodying the immovability of the leader of the clan, for which the mountain is a symbo). A phalanx of guards, including a page who knows he is protecting an impersonator, take bullets for him. The page is atop the pile of bodies. The in-the-know guard tells him, “Do not move. Consider that you are already crucified. These men have given their lives to protect you.” The “you” is more the status than the (pseudo-)incumbent, but the two of them know that at least the page knew that the man he was shielding with his body was not the real Shingen. Even with no real stake in the clan, and having lived as a violator of laws, the double takes his duty very seriously and identified with the clan that he has pretended to lead, even after his role is done.

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Where he has more room for maneuver—as a grandfather—the impersonator establishes a relationship, and he has been performing so well for so long that he is left unsupervised and with the child who idolizes him and accepts him in his role attempts to complete his impersonation (by riding the horse that only Shingen could ride). When the double is thrown, the mistresses notices for the first time that he is lacking Shingen’s scar, and the role is at an end. Only Shingen’s brother, Nobukado (Yamazaki Tsutomu [who went on to star in high-profile Japanese exports “Tampopo” and “Departures,” and is still appearing in movies), who had sometimes himself served as his brother’s double before, has compassion for the strains of having to be someone else full-time. No one else has any sympathy for having to simulate a status so much higher than the thief’s previous one or for the difficulty of an impulsive commoner having to show the gravity and restraint of a stern and stoic warrior leader. Shingen’s son< Katsuyori (Hagiwars Ken’ichi) is particularly unhappy having to show deference to a low-born criminal pretending to be his father.

I love the helmets, the costume design, the eye-popping art direction, all lensed, sometimes expressionistically, by Saito Takeô (who had done “High and Low” and “Sanjor” and would return to work on “Ran” and the final, minor three Kurosawa films) and Ueda Shôji (who walso worked on the last five Kurosawa films). The color cinematography of the last six Kurosawa films (including the Russian one partly shot by Nakai Asazaku, who worked on many Kurosawa films, oing all the way back to “No regret for Our Youth”in 1946, and including “Ran”) is more than remarkable. For me, it’s as good as color cinematography gets, and this was Kurosawa’s painterly eye as well as great cinematographers able to deliver what he envisioned.

(The movie marked the last appearance oonscreen of Shimura Takashi who had been in most Kurosawa films going back to the first in 1943 in “Sugata Sanshiro,” He played a minor courtier in “Kagemusha.” He died in 1982, before “Ran” was made.)

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

The last Kurosawa/Mifune collaboration: “Red Beard”

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“Akahige” (Red Beard) was Kurosawa’s last black-and-white film, and his last widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) one. Kurosawa enjoyed using both ends of the screen so that it is absolutely essential to see it in letterbox format that Criterion used in an impeccable transfer (they also did a great job of immaculate sound transfer).

The full-length (184 minute) commentary track by Stephen Prince explains the technical aspects of Kurosawa’s tracking, panning, and flattening perspective using telephoto lenses and cameras set at 90-degree angles to each other (Prince also goes into considerable detail about the diffusion of western medical ideas and practices into Japan and the medical ideas and practices of feudal Japan. Although delivered in something of a monotone, there is so much information presented so clearly that the commentary track would probably be of interest even to someone who does not like the movie but is interested in technical aspects of film-making.

I think that some shots are held a bit too long and that the exposition of the stories of the patients is a bit too detailed, but the performances are superb. The most crucial one is that delivered by Kayama Yuzo, who was a major Japanese heart-throb during the early-1960s. Mifune Toshirô ‘s mixture of the usual Mifune fierceness and Shimura-like compassionateness is impressive (if adumbrated in both “Sanjuro” [also based on a novel by Yamamoto Shøugorô] and, earlier, in “The Quiet Duel.” The supporting roles are also superbly portrayed (Shimura Takashi —who appeared in even more Kurosawa movies than Mifune: 21—has a cameo, Yoshio Tsuchiya Yoshio is affecting as the kind-hearted less-brilliant Dr. Mori, Araki Michikô is an especially vicious villain as the brothel-keeper who would not be out of place in a Mizoguchi film, and Ryû Chishû was plucked from the world of Ozu to play yet another father). And there is a major sympathetic female part, Terumi Niki as Otoyo, who grows from a terrified victim into a wise and compassionate woman protecting a young thief, Chobo (Yoshitka Zushi) and presiding over his growth the way Dr. Yasumoto has hers.

I’ll grant that “Akahige” is long (184 minutes including an intermission) and need not have been quite so long, but having just watched Tsai Ming-Liang’s “What Time Is It There?”, even the overly protracted scenes in “Akahige” seem to speed by. My appreciation of Kurosawa’s genius was enhanced by watching “Akahige” again with Stephen Prince’s commentary that interested me in scenes that had not interested me very much on first viewing. It seemed worth 6+ hours to me, and my attention span is regrettably short (considerably shorter than it used to be).

Kurosawa’s technical mastery is very interesting, but the storylines are touching without being sentimental (well, maybe a little in the case of Chobo, but Kurosawa cuts incipient sentimentality there with absurdist humor as the kitchen staff contributes its own folk remedy).

Although “Akahige” was Kurosawa’s biggest box-office success in Japan, post-Mifune (and post-Kayama?), Kurosawa had difficulty getting backing for his movies (George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola underwrote his great 1980 anti-epics “Kagemusha”, the Soviet government financed”Dersu Uzala”; the international success of those two large-budget movies made filming “Ran” possible). Mifune made some great films without Kurosawa (especially “Chushingura” and the samurai trilogy directed by Inagaki and “Samurai Rebellion” directed by Kobayashi Masaki) and Kurosawa eventually made his last masterpieces without Mifune, but it is difficult not to regret the end of their collaboration (which was 99+% Kurosawa’s fault after taking nearly two years to shoot “Akahiga”). However, their legacy is huge and Criterion is to be applauded for delivering the transitional masterpiece “Akahige” to DVD so superlatively well.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Stray Dog (1949)

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The 1949 Kurosawa police procedural “Stray Dog” (Nora Inu’) is a bit long with a running time of 122 minutes. And there have been so many representations of pairs of policemen working together since then that some of the freshness it must have had in 1949 has dissipated, but the mortified (guilt-ridden more than ashamed) rookie, Murakami (Mifune Toshirô), who had his pistol stolen on a very crowded bus on a very hot August day needs a more experienced calming influence, which Detective Satô (Shimura Takashi) supplies.

The pistol starts being used in robberies, including one in which a woman is killed for 50,000 yen. Murakami is told to hang out in a district where a gun dealer (lending out rather than selling pistols) will approach him if he looks sufficiently desperate. He is, in fact, pretty desperate to retrieve his gun and agrees to trade his rice ration card for one. The over-eager rookie scares away both the man who was going to return the gun to the dealer and to the dealer who has that man’s rice ration card (and, thus, identification).

This leads to a bravura sequence in a packed baseball station in which the policemen manage to find a needle in a haystack, the dealer Honda. This enables them to seize his inventory of guns and Honda aims them at a dancer Naimiki Harumi (Awaji Keiko) whom the robber with the gun, a veteran who was robbed on the way home (as was Murakami), Yusa (Kimura Isao, who would go on to play the lovelorn one of the “Seven Samurai” and would be on the police side of the law in “High and Low”) regularly visits.

Though the intense Mifune and the wise and genial Shimura are the focus of the film, Awaji has the opportunity to show the widest range of emotions and to evolve more than any other character in the movie. There are some comic moments to relieve the intensity of Murakami’s desperation, and the initial chase, and even an idyll at home with Satô’s citations, wife and three children.

If I had to guess the prime visual inspiration, my guess would be Sternberg, though the stretch in which Murakami is caroming around dubious neighborhoods provides montages that are almost Eisensteinian, though what is on display is more akin to Italian neorealism (De Sica’s “Bicycle Thief’ in particular). Kurosawa said he was influenced by the novels of Georges Simenon (though Maigret had nothing like so ardent a young partner as Satô gets in Murakami) and that the script was influenced by Jules Dassin’s 1948 “Naked City” (which also lacks a genuine partner for Barry Fitzgerald’s experienced detective; it was an exemplar of location shooting for a policier, for sure).

The visual compositions and the acting are superb. Nakae Asakazu’s cinematography, Masuyama’s art direction, and Shimura’s acing all won Mainchi awards. Other than going on a bit too long (especially the climactic chase, and especially as an attempt to imitate Simenon’s economy), my only reservation is with the simplistic account of becoming addicted to violence with made dog analogies supplied by Detective Satô (and the slavering dog under the opening credits).

I guess that Murakami feels in danger of becoming a stray dog himself, if he loses his position as a policeman for his carelessness in losing his weapon. His superiors do not seriously consider this, but this fear also opens a sort of identification with the criminal who will turn out to be the bitter veteran Yusa, though Yusa feels none of the responsibility Murakami does and even at the closest approach to being unhinged is not like a dog with rabies. Well,… there is the monomania that Satô tells Murakami is characteristic of mad dogs and that Murakami embodies even more than Yusa.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

(I have no idea why the font size of what I pasted varies!)

“Vendetta of Samurai” (1952) written but not directed by Kurosawa

“Vendetta of Samurai” (Mataemon Araki: Ketto kagiya no tsuji, 1952, written by Kurosawa for Mazuo Mori) features four of the (1954) “Seven Samurai” (Shimura Takashi, Mifune Toshiro, Kato Daisuke , and Chiaki Minoru), plus the rubber-faced old farmer Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) as a teahouse owner. After illustrating the improbable legend of Mataemon (Mifune) slaughtering 36 samurai in the Igagoe Vendetta of 1634, there is a revisionist narration and then a slow middle of the movie as Mataemon plans the ambush in which his young brother-in-law Kazuma (Katayama Akihiko [Mother]) will avenge the murder of Kazuma’s brother by Matagoro (Chiaki). This involves Matemon going against his best friend, Jinza(Shimura), and a fearsome spear fighter Hanbei. Mifune is very restrained. The middle of the movie is IMHO becalmed. Though I appreciate the contrast of legend and greater realism, I miss the cinematic dynamism of Kurosawa’s direction.

Mataemon remains implacable and imperturbable, but Kazuma trembles and Mataemon has to order him to finish the kill. The other two samurai in the revenge party also show fear, as does Matagoro. Also, in their duels to the death both Mataemon and Kazuma have the advantage of having helmets. Jinzai removed his just before crossing the river into town, and Matagoro had been wearing only a straw hat.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

(This should have been included with my posting on two other Kurosawa scripts directed by others at https://japaneseculturereflectionsblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/two-late-1940s-movies-kurosawa-wrote-and-others-directed/.)

Discussion of Japanese literature and movies (in translation and subtitled, respectively).