1960. Kurosawa Productions and Toho Studio. Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, Eijiro Hisaiti and Akira Kurosawa. Black and white CinemaScope photography: Yazuru Aizawa. Music: Masaru Sato.
This was the first feature from Kurosawa’ own production unit. The production team includes names familiar from his other films. And the lead character is played by Toshiro Mifune: almost an alter ego for the director. The film’s plot is reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though there is no reference to this in the credits. However, Shakespeare [like the classic Russian novels] is a recurring source for Kurosawa’s films. What is interesting is that what appears to interest him are the revenge tragedies: Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear.
Nishi’s (Toshiro Mifune) father was a victim of corporate corruption. Nishi marries into the family of Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) the Vice-President of a Land Development Corporation and a senior figure in the network of corruption. Obtaining the position as secretary to the Vice-President, Nishi proceeds to subvert the criminal network from inside. His unexpected emotional feelings for his new wife Yoshiko (Kyko Kagawa) engender similar vacillations to that of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s version. This sets up a dark, downbeat and tragic finale.
The film opens at a high-class wedding ceremony attended by leading businessmen and government officials. We are immediately plunged into a formal Japanese occasion. However, the wedding party themselves are plunged into anxiety as newspapermen and then police arrive on the trail of a corporate corruption conspiracy. There is a sharp contrast between the ritual formalism of the wedding reception and the public events being exposed. Kurosawa’s camera shows us the corporate bosses struggling to maintain a facade over their repressed anxieties whilst the newsmen act like a Greek chorus on the developing drama. This repression is powerfully visualised in one moment of the sequence. The young bride suffers from a disabled foot. This is partially hidden in the drapery of the traditional costume of a Japanese bride. However, she stumbles on entry, exposing her deformity. The visible shock that accompanies this accident presages the more dramatic shocks and exposures that follow later in the film.
Whilst the opening sequence raises a host of questions it also introduces the main characters and the theme of corruption that dominates the film. Kurosawa explained
“At last I decided to do something about corruption, because it always seemed to me that graft, bribery, etc., at the public level, is one of the worst crimes that there is. These people hide behind the facade of some great company or corporation and consequently no one knows how dreadful they really are, what awful things they do.” (In Sight and Sound, Autumn 1964).
In the film Nishi’s motives are more personal than social. As the story develops we come to find out about his history and to understand what it is that motivate his actions. We also start to realise the complicating emotions that he begins to experience. When Yoshiko stumbles at the wedding reception it is her brother Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi) rather than Nishi who rushes to assist her. Later in the film when the young wife stumbles and falls at home it is Nishi himself who rushes forward to catch and carry her to her room. Tatsuo also develops conflicting emotions. He harbours guilt over the childhood accident that resulted in his sister becoming lame. He hates his father, but suspects that Nishi is not a ‘good’ husband. But he finally takes the side of Nishi.
Parallel to these personal complications are those of Nishi’s investigation and manipulation, which aim to expose the corruption and the perpetrators. He does this partly by suborning and blackmailing lower member of the conspiracy. But he also sets up dramatic occasions when he can pressurise and observe the conspiracy’s leaders. The first of these occurs at the wedding. When the ritual cake arrives it is followed by a second: an unsuspecting waiter wheels in a large reconstruction of a corporate building It is in fact a copy of a block from which one of the network, Furuya [Nishi’s father] jumped or was pushed to his death. The ambiguity over the death springs from the loyalty embedded in the system: underlings sacrifice themselves because they cannot bring themselves to expose their superiors.
Parallel examples appear later in the film. Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), a corrupt accountant, is believed to have committed suicide. In fact he is hidden by Nishi. Wada watches his own funeral with Nishi. Dramatically the scene is accompanied by a secret recording made by Nishi of the conspirators discussing the convenient demise of Wada. A later scene in the building in which Furuya died has Shirai, (Akira Nishimura), the corrupt Contract Officer, driven mad by his competing fears of death and betrayal.
Nishi’s companion Itakura (Takeshi Kato) is a wartime friend and also a business partner. They have swapped identities so that Nishi [once Itakura] can penetrate the conspirator’s network unrecognised. In 1945 Nishi and Itakura were part of the defence at an armaments factory, now a bombed and ruined wasteland. It is here that the film reaches its conclusion. Here Nishi holds captive and interrogates Moriyama (Takashi Shimura), one of the key conspirators. However, Yoshiko mistakenly gives his secret away to her father and the conspirators set out to eliminate Nishi and safeguard their positions. Unlike the Shakespearean version there is no Fortinbras to bring in a new and accountable regime. All that Tatsuo can do is tend to his traumatised sister. Itakura [once Nishi] loses his identity and is rendered a non-person by the death of Nishi.
Whilst Shakespeare does not get an official credit Kurosawa’s version is full of references to the famous play. Apart from the dead father and the son’s efforts for revenge we have the murderous stepfather, the faithful friend and companion, the lovelorn heroine and her angry brother: we even have a suborned widow, though much less developed than Shakespeare’s Queen. Alongside these characters there is a ghost: a dramatic recreation of a murder: graves and funerals: gunplay instead of swordplay: and poisonings. What we seem to have is a Shakespearean tale reconstructed in contemporary Japan.
I found the opening of the film riveting as we watch the surface formality so typical of Japanese drama. But we also watch the hidden currents of greed, fear and revenge. The sequence sets up a series of strands of both personal and public conflict. The CinemaScope photography is exemplary as we watch the various manoeuvres by the characters. Visually the film’s conclusion provides a darker parallel, set in the disused arms factory, as Nishi and Itakura desperately seek to complete their investigations, only half aware of the trap that is closing in on them. The shattered and dismal landscape becomes a metaphor for the social chaos depicted in the film.
Unfortunately I find the drama that separates these two episodes less convincing. There are impressive set pieces: a man contemplates suicide on a smoking wasteland of stones and ash: three men walked through a labyrinth of gleaming metal, and bright lights and shadows, typical of the noir atmosphere in the film. There are secret meetings of the conspirators and the clear evidence of a Mr Big, in the shadowy background. However, the personal dramas do not achieve the same dramatic edge.
Part of the problem seems to be the motivation of Nishi. It is his suppressed emotions for his new wife that creates the vacillation that in Shakespeare springs from the character of Hamlet. But the film does not offer enough attention to the relationship to make this convincing. The female characters are mostly underdeveloped. This is a reflection of the contemporary world of business, government and the media. Thus when the high-ranking guests arrive for the reception only the male member signs the Reception Book.
But it is also that female characters are not really developed in most Kurosawa films. His films privilege male bonding rather than heterosexual couples. Despite her importance in the plot and in the relationships between the men Yoshiko is a fairly undeveloped character. And Furuya’s wife appears only to be duped in a similar fashion to Yoshiko.
Even so the film remains a dramatic and compelling story. It is beautifully composed with an evocative soundtrack. Kurosawa and his team offer distinctive stylistic tropes: like the familiar recurring cut on a wipe. The cast portrays the dark, seedy world of corruption with conviction.