Two late-1940s movies Kurosawa wrote and others directed

I thought that Shimura Takashi, who appeared in more Kurosawa Akira movies than anyone else, was great in “Snow Trail” (or “To the End of the Silver Mountains,” Ginrei no hate, 1947), which was written by Kurosawa Akira, directed by Taniguchi Senkichi on location in Hokkaido on Mount Hakuba. He and Mifune and Kosugi Yoshio are three bank robbers who flee with their loot into avalanche-prone mountains with no road out. They lack both mountaineering experience and the physical stamina for a high-altitude trek.

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Mifune, in his screen debut, with a mustache, is fierce and overflowing with resentments. Shimura (in one of his best roles/performances) goes from being a tough criminal to saving the life of the mountaineer forced to lead them over the mountain, Honda (Kôno Akitake). (Kosugi is swept away in an avalanche fairly early.) The screenplay seems pretty rudimentary to me, mostly relying on the terrain covered with lots and lots of snow. (The opening and the underlit bath scene are noirish, though most of the movie takes place in a decidedly unurban location. Mifune helped with the camera work, not planning to become an actor before the movie and “Druken Angel,” directed by Kurosawa with Shimura in the title role, made him a star.)

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Kinoshita Keisukes 1948 “The Portrait” (Shozo) from a script by Kurosawa seems more Kinoshita sentimental than Kurosawan, not that Kurosawa had any distinctive reputation then. “The Portrait” is not unlike Kurosawa’s small-scale, Capraesque 1947 “One Wonderful Sunday”  with its alternation of optimism and difficulty following WWII. Midori (Igawa Kunijo), the mistress of a real-estate speculator moves into the upper story of a house he has just bought with an associate to drive out the tenants, a painter and his family, including a daughter-in-law and grandson. The daughter assumes Midori is the daughter of the older man and her father paints a portrait that exudes a virtue Midori thinks false, but which influences her, after a drunken confession to the daughter-in-law, who knew the score but believes the strength and beauty of the portrait are within Midori. The family is like the pair in “One Wonderful Sunday” in finding joys that don’t cost money.

I was unimpressed by the visuals from Kusuda Hiroshi, who was Kinoshita’s brother-in-law and shot most of the 51 Kinoshita-directed movies (many of which, including this one, are available streaming on Hulu.com).

 

©2016,  Stephen O. Murray

 

A wistful 1947 Kurosawa rom-com?!

I consider Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) the greatest of film-makers anywhere/ever, which is why I have begun this blog with reviews of his earliest movies, but in 1947, when he wrote and directed “Subarashiki nichiyobi” (One Wonderful Sunday, 1947) he was not yet making “Kurosawa films.” (“Drunken Angel” the next year is his first masterwork IMO.)

In its “eclipse series” (without bonus features), Criterion has just released five early Kurosawa films (No Regrets for Our Youth is the one earlier than “Sunday,” also the earlier one I’ve seen). The print transferred has a lot of imperfections, but, given Criterion’s track record, must be the best one available.

Watching the movie about a young couple in immediately post-war Tokyo who are too poor to marry, I was surprised to see what I thought were echoes of the early sound films of René Clair (Le Million, A nous la liberté). Kurosawa told Donald Richie that his conscious influence was the tear-jerkers of D. W. Griffith (Broken Blossoms, Way Down East) and resilient characters in Frank Capra movies.

At the start, rangy young male factory worker, Yuzo (Numazaki Isao) a male factory worker is waiting on a corner, eyeing a discarded cigarette on the pavement. As soon as he picks it up, his date, the short and somewhat pudgy Masako (Nakakita Chieko [Yama no oto]) shows up. Embarrassed, he explains that he has not had a smoke in three days (and doesn’t have one during the movie, BTW).

He is very depressed, because he only has 15 yen, and can’t afford much of anything for their weekly date. She is higher spirited and suggests they look at a model house (free), then visit the zoo (admission one yen each). Yuzo thinks the animals look depressed.

Masako sees a sign for a concert in which Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony is being played and recalls that their very first date was a concert with that on the program. They dash through the rain (there are no light rains in Kurosawa films!) and are frustrated.

Back at his room (his roommates are out), Yuko finally brings Masako down, but there is a reprieve (or two or three). There is a hideous direct appeal to the audience by Masako, and an ending with some of the optimism in the face of degradation (reality) of Capra and Griffith — and we get to hear the opening movement of the “Unfinished” Symphony after all (other Schubert is on the soundtrack, as early as the opening credits). Fantasy triumphs over the depressing reality of their poverty and bombed out Tokyo. She says, “If you don’t believe in dreams, you cannot live,” and, like Giulietta Masina in the somewhat later Fellini masterpieces or Jean Arthur in Capra movies from the 1930s, she is able to cheer up others and make them forget their stomachs are empty.

The movie is very episodic, slight (though running 108 minutes), with the last parts shot in very phony-looking studio sets. Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai (who shot many later Kurosawa films including Seven Samurai, Ikiru, High and Low, Red Beard, Dersu Uzala, and Ran) managed some interesting compositions (and dissolves).

“One Wonderful Sunday” should appeal to those who don’t find Capra movies corny and Kurosawa completists. Kurosawa made other films set in the (then-) present day (including Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low — all of them better than “Sunday”). But for focus on female characters — and sympathetic ones at that! — this and “No Regrets for Our Youth” (from 1946) are pretty much it (and maybe the girl in “Red Beard”[1965]).

 

©2016 Stephen O. Murray

 

An English-subtitled DVD is available in the Criterion Collection Eclipse Postwar Kurosawa set.

A 1946 Kurosawa movie focused on a woman

“Waga Seishun ni Kuinashi” (No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946) is more interesting as a phenomenon than enjoyable as a film. What makes it interesting:

(1) It is Kurosawa’s first postwar movie, and

(2) one of the first Japanese movies passing the censors of the US (“Allied”) occupation of Japan, which is all the more striking, because,

(3) it celebrates a leftist opponent of militarism and fascism during the early 1930s. That the MacArthur regime permitted commemoration of what not only appears to be (but is named as) a communist is outright startling.

(4) The movie is the closest to be an autobiographical film by Kurosawa (up until his last, “Madadayo”). Kurosawa was a leftist opponent of the fascist militarism of the 1930s, and shocked his parents by first becoming an art student and then undertaking an entry-level job in the film industry. (The autobiographical component is limited in that the movie focuses on a female student who shocks everyone by going to work as a peasant with the parents after he is killed in police custody.)

(5) The film focuses on a woman, unlike other Kurosawa film.

(6) The actress in the lead role is Hara Setusko , closely associated (by appearing in many movies directed by) Ozu (though also memorable in Kurosawa’s adaptation of The Idiot). The mother-in-law is also played by Ozu regular Sugimura Haruko.

(7) Shimura Takashi was already in the Kurosawa repertory company (and in many, many other Kurosawa movies, with the biggest parts being in “Ikiru,” “The Drunken Angel,” and “Seven Samurai”, with a fairly impotant one in the first film Kurosawa directed “Sugata Sanshiro”).

(8) The influence of prewar Soviet cinema, particularly Eisensteinian montage and treatment of seething crowds, is very obvious, along with some Dovzhenko agrarian romanticism (particularly characters lying down, looking at the sky, and the blurred farm labor sequences).

For a hardcore Kurosawa admirer, which I certainly am, and someone unfazed by subtitled black-and-white films, these would seem many and compelling, but the movie severely tried my patience, for three reasons:

(First) and Kurosawa’s fault, is that the first hour is boring: very talky with only a few interesting visual touches (the piano playing and the montages of Yukie (Hara) and of Tokyo, when she moves there. *Yea, yeah, I’ll provide some plot summary eventually…)

(Second) is that the print transferred to DVD is in bad condition and way too dark. (I would suspect this is true of the VHS, too, but don’t know for sure.)

(Third) is that the subtitled are (a) white, (b) relatively small, and (c) wildly ungrammatical. Even for someone with considerable experience of native speakers Japanese and of Chinese languages, it is often difficult to make any sense out of what appears. Articles were seemingly assigned randomly: not there when they are needed and there when they are not needed. The prepositions are practically never correct. There is a lot of subject-verb disagreement and mass nouns are pluralized more often than not.

I jotted down a few of these. My favorite is one that in context I could make sense of:

“Your head is combed like hot water.” (Because the speaker was holding her hand on Yukie’s forehead, I could decode this as “You have a fever” or “You’re running a fever.”)

“Living would relieve cheap shine.”

“I wanted to guide the hot bloody.”

“Now you still haven’t decided like a homeless.”

(I failed to mention the lack of punctuation in the list of aberrances.)

Lines like these are a challenge, and I’d estimate that there are fewer than ten percent of the lines that are not lexically or grammatically marred.

It was an effort of will to get through the first hour—in which idealistic young students are shocked when Yukie’s father is not allowed to lecture any more at their university (ca. 1933 Kyoto), and there is a triangular relationship between Yukie and two of the students (who look like cadets in their uniforms). Yet another strangeness of the subtitles is that Noge, the bespectacled zealot (played by Fujita Susumu), and Itokawa, the more pragmatic (and eventually mustachioed) suitor of Yuki and friend of Noge (played by Kôno Akitake) are called “Wild” and “Hun.”

Noge comes to dinner with Itokawa, Yukie, and his parents (after the school has been shut down altogether and the student groups banned) and says he is going off to China (the just-conquered Manchuria). Yukie has something of a mad scene and decides to move to Tokyo. After the passage of a few years, she runs into Itokawa and meets Noge again. Both are successful in financial institutions of some sort. Yukie is a sort of economic analyst.

After they marry, Itokawa is seized in a restaurant by Police Commissioner “Poison Strawberry” Dokuichigo (Shimura). This and the following scenes of Dokuichigo sneering (Shimura was so good at that!) and interrogating Yukie bring the movie to life (very fraught life, but not longer boring).

Noge dies (offscreen) in police custody and is posthumously branded as being a spy. Yukie is released, plays the piano in obvious hysteria, and decides to go live with Noge’s parents, peasants whom she has never met. They are, not surprisingly, discomfited to have a city girl on their hands, but Yukie throws herself into tilling the fields in ways that would have made Maoists happy when they emptied the universities to “re-educate” students during the 1960s.

Hara is impressive in playing the young woman determined to make herself a model peasant daughter-in-law. The project seems crazy to me, but apparently seemed virtuous to Japanese. It is definitely cinematic and includes some signature Kurosawa scenes of slogging through the mud and heavy rain…

In a rushed coda after Japan loses the war, Noge and Yukie’s father are rehabilitated and honored. Yukie, both in the fields, and restored to upper middle-class life, regularly repeats Noge’s mantra “No regrets in my life, no regrets whatsoever”—which also seems to me borderline crazy, in that he was tortured to death and Yukie suffered greatly as the wife of a much-maligned “spy” (etc.!).

Hara is convincing aging some twenty years, slogging through the rice paddies and destroying her pianist hands. She could do much more than Ozu ever asked her to do! Both Yukie and Noge anticipate the long line of Kurosawa individualists (often embodied by Mifune Toshiro), refusing to do what others expect them to do.

For me, the first great Kurosawa movie is “Drunken Angel” (1948), which teamed Shimura and Mifune (as, respectively, a slum doctor and a tubercular, alcoholic gangster). It also had much social commentary about it (and sympathy for slum-dwellers trying to get along). There are some striking scenes and sequences in the second hour of “No Regrets,” but getting that far is a daunting challenge, and the bewilderment induced by the titles recurs (though there are long stretches of working the fields with no talk to mangle in translation in that last third of the movie).

Kurosawa told Donald Richie that the story of Noge was inspired by a real-life case (Ozaki Hidemi), but that he was asked to leave the subject to a younger director, so had to substitute the second half. This is disconcerting in that I think the second half is much the better one! (The fired professor is based on the firing of Takikawa Yukitoki from the University of Kyoto faculty in 1933, and Ozaki was a student of Professor Takikawa, outraged by his dismissal.)

Less disconcerting is Kurosawa’s memory that he “believed that the only way for Japan to make a new start was to begin respecting the ‘self’ [instead of the usual submission to expectations and the group/family). “I wanted to show a woman who did just that.” In this, he definitely succeeded (though I vigorously dissent from Richie’s claim that the movie is “perfect”). Kurosawa also told Richie that “it was only here and in ‘Rashomon’ that I ever fairly and fully portrayed a woman… [one who] lived by and was true to her feelings.” As Richie notes, Kuorsawa showed this “sternly and uncompromisingly.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

An English-subtitled DVD is available in the Criterion Collection Eclipse Postwar Kurosawa set.

 

The sequel to Kurosawa’s saga of judo in early Meiji times

In 1945, as Japan was being carpetbombed with incendiary bombs and then nuclear-bombed, screenwriter-turned movie director Kurosawa Akira directed “Zoku Sugata Sanshiro,” a sequel to his 1942 judo hit “Sugata Sanshiro” (SS, the name of the rickshaw driver turned judo master), about which he said: “This film did not interest me in the slightest. I had already done it once. This was just warmed over.” The print in the Criterion Eclipse early Kurosawa set and on its streaming channel Hulu was in worse shape even that of SS, though not missing footage. I liked the final fight in a snowy pass, though that was followed by a silly ending in which the brothers of Higaki, who had fought a battle to the death at the end of SS but is still alive if weakened and transformed in the sequel, as their brother was at the end of the first movie. (Tsukigata Ryuosuke plays both the frail survivor of what he set up as a fight to the death in the first movie and as his epileptic, wild-haired younger brother in the sequel.)

Sanshiro represented judo in combat with jujitsu in the first movie. In the second he represents it against first American boxing and then against some totally unspiritual karate (the Higaki brothers). His spiritual crisis in the second movie comes from realizing that his defeat of jujitsu practitioners has destroyed their livelihood and ability to support their families. The priest at the judo academy sort of snaps him out of that. The priest sitting up with Sugata for all-night meditation also supplies some gentle humor. Sanshiro attempts to meditate, but falls asleep. When he wakes up, he is reassured by discovering that the priest, though still sitting in lotus position, has also fallen asleep.

The romance advances not at all. A fight at water’s edge seems a parody of Yano’s early in the first movie. The triumph of the short (though stocky) Sanshiro against the American boxing champion (and, earlier, an American sailor bullying a small richshaw driver) is pretty obviously propaganda encouraging the belief that spiritual Japanese marital art could/would triumph against materialist American power.

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I thought that Fujita Susuma, who was 31, was rather old to play a beginning pupil in the judo academy, and rather bland.

Fujita and Ôkôchi not only returned for the sequel, but appeared in The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” (1945) and “No Regrets for Our Youth” (1946) under Kurosawa’s direction (Fujita also played a major role in “The Hidden Fortress” (1958).)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

An English-subtitled DVD is part of the four-disc Criterion Eclipse set The First Films of Akira Kurosawa.

 

 

 

 

Kurosawa’s first film

Considering Kurosawa Akira (I’ll be using the family name, personal name Japanese order for names in my blog) the master of master filmmakers, I’d long been curious about his first one, the 1942 judo movie “Sugata Sanshiro,” and more so since seeing Johnnie To’s homage to it in “Throwdown” (2004).

The movie that Kurosawa adapted from what was then a recent best-selling novel set in 1886-87 Japan is an odd mix of Victorian melodrama and the Tao of marital arts. The idealized dutiful daughter, Sayo (Todoroki Yukiko) whom Sanshiro shyly romances, and the handle-bar mustachioed, cigarette-smoking, derby-wearing, perpetually smirking villain, Higaki (Tsukigata Ryuosuke) who expects to marry her seem Victorian, though what cinches the case that Higaki is a villain is his using an open flower as an ash tray.

In contrast, the beauty of a seemingly night-blooming lotus by the light of a full moon triggers the transformation of the brash ruffian Sanshiro as he clings to “the staff of life” having plunged into a temple pond when chided by his master. It is during that long night that Sugata realizes the need for self-discipline and renunciation of ego. A strong hothead being cooled into a disciplined fighter is a staple of martial arts drama. Skill is important, but self-control is more important.

There is no intact print or negative of the movie, and two of the seven original fight scenes are lost. Not only is each one different from the others, but the first one, in which the judo master Yano Shogoro (Ôkôchi Denjirô) is attacked by the jujitsu master Monma Saburo and his disciples involves showing a different judo technique in throwing each of the assailants into a canal behind Yano. The humiliated jujitsu master begs Yano to kill him, but Yano does not. (Sagata is a rickshaw driver recently from the countryside who watches the succession of ju-jitsu failures and then takes master Yano in his rickshaw.

Later Sanshiro will defeat Monma in an exhibition match from which Monma does not rise. Before that, Sanshiro takes on a summo wrestler. After it, he must fight the father of his beloved, Murai Hansuke (Shumira Takashi, already there in Kurosawa’s first movie and in pretty much every one Kurosawa shot in Japan: Shumiura died between the making of “Kagemusha” and “Ran”). The final one occurs in high grass by night with one invited witness and the uninvited woman (Sayo) who in some sense is being fought for by Higaki and Sanshiro.

A vision of the moonlit lotus returns to Sanshiro when Higaki is strangling him. The fight seems to me to end abruptly and is followed by an ending I would find strange if I did not know there was a sequel (one of only two Kurosawa movies I have yet to see).

Later Kurosawa movies generally center on some sort of spiritual (or at least existential) crisis and rising to challenges not fully recognized. The stillness before action and the dramatic meteorological accompaniment would also be recurrent features of Kurosawa movies. And wipes, a technique from silent picture days that was archaic even in 1942, but one that Kurosawa continued to like and to use.

I would not recommend Kurosawa’s first movie as a starting point for viewing Kurosawa movies, but it is of more than historical interest and does not just show embryonic Kurosawa techniques and concerns: there is nothing tentative in his first movie’s direction. An out-and-out villain is rare in the Kurosawa corpus, and even Higaki is changed by his defeat. I’d have liked to know how Higaki, a formidable jujitsu master, came to adopt western dress and vice (cigarettes).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

An English-subtitled DVD is part of the four-disc Criterion Eclipse set The First Films of Akira Kurosawa.