The new version of The Magnificent Seven is an entry in a major global franchise. The universal elements in the film’s story have been around for a very long time. Robin Hood, for instance, is a story in which a group of outlaws protect villagers from the Sheriff’s men. But the specific story structure of seven ‘professionals’ recruited to protect a village comes from the imagination of Kurosawa Akira and his collaborators and the folk tales and history of 16th century Japan that created the 1954 film Seven Samurai, widely regarded as a classic action film. Seven Samurai prompted the original Hollywood remake in 1960 and several sequels. In his chapter on ‘Remaking Seven Samurai in World Cinema’ in East Asian Cinemas (eds Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai, I. B. Tauris 2008) David Desser explores the influence of the film on a range of productions in Hong Kong and India as well as in the US. My interest is in the extent to which the new film draws on Kurosawa and how much is lost through the process of adaptation. The scriptwriters of the new film, Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, are credited alongside the original writers Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo. I note that Pizzolatto is a novelist who has written for the TV serials True Detective and the US remake of The Killing, and that he has also taught writing – all of which might give some hope that he could make good use of the original script.
There are certainly aspects of the original script still present, but the new film is 133 mins long, roughly 65% of the running time of the Kurosawa film, so quite a lot is missing (there is no ‘padding’ in Seven Samurai). The location of the story has moved north from the 1960 version and re-located in the Sierra Nevada (“three days from Sacramento”) in 1879. This makes sense since Seven Samurai was similarly based in the mountains in an isolated village. The date and setting make the new film a ‘mountain Western’ with gold mining. Here is the first problem in that the townspeople of Rose Creek don’t have a visible farming community and their attachment to the land is symbolic rather than being portrayed realistically. (In the original, the bandits have already been to steal the rice harvest and are expected again for the barley harvest.) The new script isn’t quite sure what to do with the gold miners and it doesn’t have time (or enough imagination?) to represent farming. Instead it introduces the villain as a capitalist exploiter and the main motivation of the townsfolk to be expressed through Emma (Haley Bennett), a woman who wants “righteousness” after her husband was killed by the exploiter “but will take revenge”. A similar figure was a minor but important character in the original. Apart from the preacher, none of the other townspeople is given a narrative function as such. Because of this, Kurosawa’s main theme is lost.
Seven Samurai is about a distinctive clash of caste and class presented as a humanist epic. The farmers in the isolated village normally despise the samurai, whose societal role as warriors employed by feudal lords is under threat during the 16th century when many of them are unemployed, becoming ronin or ‘masterless samurai’. The samurai who are recruited to help the farmers are poor and hungry – they will fight for three bowls of rice a day. But they are also men of honour, so they will fight to maintain that honour. Kurosawa makes this explicit and deeply moving by a decision to employ what was already becoming his trademark, the ‘master and apprentice’ roles within the group of samurai. Shimura Takashi as Kannei is the ‘master’, the older man who is a wise warrior, a skilled fighter and a leader of men. Katsushiro (Kimura Isao) is the young man, the devoted follower and the one with most to learn because he is distracted by a young woman from the village. Shimura was the actor used most by Kurosawa. But he isn’t the star of the film. That’s Mifune Toshiro. Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, the man who would be a samurai. His secret will only emerge later when we learn that he was a farmer’s son and that he had been abandoned as a baby during a raid by pirates. Kikuchiyo forms the bridge between the samurai and the farmers. He understands both and despises both, yet supports both. It is his human story that reveals the film’s theme. The genius of the Seven Samurai script is that we learn about a wide range of characters – so there are individual stories – but those stories also inform the overall narrative about a society in which both farmers and samurai/bandits are suffering (but in which the farmers will be the long-term winners).
The script for the new film struggles to find the same sense of coherence. We do learn something of the ‘back stories’ of ‘Chisolm’ (Denzel Washington) Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and a few others, but these stories don’t relate to the overall narrative in the same way as they do in Kurosawa’s film. Chisolm does have a personal reason to fight, but like Emma’s motivation it is about revenge against the villain, not about honour. Revenge is not a motive to trigger carnage on the scale depicted here. At the end of the Seven Samurai, the three survivors are the ‘master’, the ‘apprentice’ and the second in command. The other four samurai have been killed and the master observes, as planting begins for a new crop, that the farmers have won. I suppose I shouldn’t spoil the ending of the new version, save to note that what it seems to do is to highlight the new ‘diversity’ amongst the defenders of the village. Yet the weirdest thing about the whole film is that presence of a black law enforcement officer (Chisolm), an East Asian gunslinger, a Comanche warrior and a woman leading the townspeople is never really commented upon. Director Antoine Fuqua has said that he wanted to make the kind of Western that he watched as a child with his grandmother. In this sense his film is ‘colour-blind’. But this is a film set in that period of Western history when the four ‘minorities’ he presents in the narrative were actively engaged in conflicts in the ‘real West’ as well as the Hollywood ‘revisioned’ West of movies from the 1970s onwards. It’s as if movies like Harry Belafonte’s Buck and the Preacher (1972) never happened. In The Magnificent Seven we see the gamblers and saloon girls leaving town when the attacks begin, but in McCabe and Mrs Miller (1973), the brothel-keeper played by Julie Christie is a new kind of female entrepreneur to stand alongside the school teacher and the homesteader as a new female type – and a representative of capitalist enterprise. Instead of running away she would consider selling out to the kind of capitalist exploiter who threatens the town in the new Seven. The East Asian character is again not investigated in any way, even though 1879 was some 10 years after Chinese workers had helped build the first transcontinental railway in the US. Chinese migrants (and therefore East Asians generally) would have been part of the life of many Western towns. I’m not sure how a Korean would have got there, but the point is that Fuqua seems fairly cavalier about both ‘real’ history and the myths developed during the declining years of the Western as a mainstream genre. By contrast, Kurosawa’s historical representations were essentially ‘realist’ with careful research to get things ‘right’.
Kurosawa famously built his village in the mountains, for the most expensive film in Japanese history at that point. He built it to specifications with the various action sequences in mind. Fuqua presumably built his own town on location for the same reasons. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have thought so much about how to shoot the action scenes. The only thing I remember from the great battle is the bizarre sight of Denzel Washington performing a riding stunt worthy of a Roy Rogers movie in order to shoot a bad guy. Fuqua did choose to have a church at the centre of the action and this was a good decision, conjuring up a whole host of Westerns, but again I don’t think it was thought through fully. Kurosawa set his battle in the midst of howling winds and torrential rain with swordsmen struggling in a sea of mud to great effect. Nothing as exciting happens in the new film. However, I should record that I actually enjoyed watching Denzel and co. even as I was ticking off the missed opportunities. The film was entertaining, it just wasn’t ‘special’. Seven Samurai still stands at No 19 on IMDb’s all-time list of the Top 250 movies and for good reason. It has a great story, human values, engaging characters, terrific performances, photography and editing rarely bettered, a wonderful score and Mifune on fire. See the trailers below for a quick summation of the differences.
Throne of Blood is one of the best-known films by Kurosawa Akira. It was highly-praised in the West but not so warmly received in Japan. The reasons given for this difference in reception are (1) it is an adaptation/version/’re-imagining’ of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (2) Kurosawa used elements of noh theatre in a jidaigeki or period film, which in Japanese Cinema would traditionally have been influenced by the more populist kabuki theatre. The result is that the film ‘as a film’ has been rather obscured by the metatext about its status as Shakespeare and ‘Japaneseness’. That’s a shame because it is a great Kurosawa movie with a terrific performance by Mifune Toshiro and a wonderfully imaginative representation of time and place – forests, castles and windswept and fog-bound heathland.
The following notes have been adapted from material given out on a recent study day on Kurosawa:
This version of Macbeth is transplanted to the early part of the Sengoku period of civil wars in Japanese history (1467-1573). This assertion is partly based on the absence of firearms. These were important in the wars of the later 16th century that eventually produced the settlement of the Tokugawa Shogunate (otherwise known as the ‘Edo’ Period – Edo is the old name for Tokyo). During the long period of civil wars, the Japanese Emperor was confined to Kyoto and warlords vied for power in different provinces across Japan.
Although many Japanese filmmakers are associated with jidaigeki, these tend to be based on traditional stories that had become kabuki plays during the Edo period. Kurosawa was an innovator in staging much more historically accurate (more realistically detailed) films from the Sengoku period and the final warring period before the triumph of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603. Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, Kagemusha and Ran are the other Kurosawa films with this period setting.
The actions of the characters in Throne of Blood are consistent with those of the period in Japanese history – although as Stephen Prince (2003/2010) points out, the wars were perhaps not as bloody as Kurosawa makes them. But he was creating them from a 20th century perspective – informed by his own experiences of war and disaster.
Noh and kabuki
Japanese cinema developed roughly in parallel with cinema in the West and filmmakers such as Kurosawa were influenced by the Western films they saw in the 1920s. Japanese films were much more closely associated with Japan’s three traditional theatrical forms, noh, kabuki and bunraku (a form of puppet theatre) and the modern theatre associated with the contact with the West from the 1860s onwards (shinpa/shingeki).
Noh is the earliest of these forms, dating from the 14th century and is associated with drama and dance performed for the aristocracy in a refined and austere manner. Actors play heavily ‘typed’ roles and individuality is hidden behind masks. Movements are restrained and sometimes paradoxical, so that a small movement can signal a major dramatic act.
Kabuki is a later form developing in the 17th century during the Edo period and designed more as popular entertainment. In many ways, kabuki is the opposite of noh with its appeal to a popular audience in large theatres. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) suggests that noh is a classical form and kabuki is a baroque form. Kabuki has been seen as similar to Elizabethan drama in its appeal to audiences and its dealings in spectacle. (Noh is more concerned with words: actions are often ‘off-stage’). Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was kabuki rather than noh that became the source of plots for Japanese period film dramas, especially action films. The same companies who owned the early cinemas and started to make films were also engaged in promoting kabuki shows in their live theatres. Kabuki might be said to be the more ‘earthy’ Shintoist response to the Buddhist austerity of noh.
It is interesting therefore that Kurosawa chose noh rather than kabuki as a prominent aesthetic influence upon Throne of Blood. The clearest examples of this in the film are in the depictions of the witch in Cobweb Forest and the central performance of Yamada Isuzu as the Lady Macbeth character, Lady Asaji. Although Kurosawa didn’t require his actors to wear noh masks as such, he showed them appropriate masks and asked them to study the facial expressions. They also wore make-up that shaped their facial features to resemble masks. In the case of the witch, she first appears as the old lady ‘yaseonna’ and in later scenes as the mountain witch, ‘yamauba’. Yamada was shown the shakumi mask – ‘the face of beautiful middle-aged woman on the brink of madness’. Mifune as Washizu was also shown the heida mask of the warrior.
Contrasts and clashes: Mifune
The whole film is built on a rhythm of contrasting styles, moods and tones. One of these can be seen in relation to the playing of Mifune Toshiro. Mifune was Kurosawa’s leading man in most of his films between 1948 and 1965. Casting Mifune is one example of the ways in which Kurosawa innovated. As an actor, Mifune stood out in two ways. First was his sheer physical vitality. He literally ate up the screen space. Kurosawa claimed that Mifune could convey the same meaning in a third of the time that it took all other Japanese actors. He seems the least likely actor to be in a noh play – far too coarse and brutal, always seemingly teetering on the edge of breaking out into violent action. (But Kurosawa tells us he was a sensitive man of refinement.)
The second point was that Mifune’s accent was Manchurian and because he spoke as he acted – often violently – he offered a complete change to actors coached in kabuki theatre who enunciated clearly. One interesting aspect of the film is therefore the contrast between the acting styles of Yamada and Mifune in the internal scenes.
Japanese visual art: the pen and ink school
The history of Eastern painting is quite different to that of the West and up to the late 19th century, different forms of Japanese art were very popular in the domestic market. Kurosawa himself was interested in both Western painting styles and traditional Japanese modes. Stephen Prince (2010) describes this aspect of Throne of Blood:
The striking emptiness of the spaces in the film – the skies, the dense roiling fog that obscures mountains and plains – is a cinematic rendition of sumi-e composition. This style of pen-and-ink drawing leaves large portions of the picture unfilled, making this ‘emptiness’ a positive compositional (and spiritual) value. Kurosawa believed that this style of picture making resonated deeply with the Japanese, and he was eager to infuse the film with this aesthetic. (Production designer Yoshiro Muraki’s castle set was black and was built on the dark, volcanic soil of Mt. Fuji in order to heighten the sumi-e effect, the contrast of dark and light. Although based on historical sketches, the castle is not of any single period.) As a positive value, this pictorial and spiritual ‘emptiness’ is set against the human world of vanity, ambition, and violence, which Kurosawa suggests is all illusion. The Buddhist arts of Noh and sumi-e enabled him to visualise this disjunction between the hell of life as we poor creatures know it, subject to our strivings, our desires, and our will, and the cosmic order that negates them.
Contrasts and clashes 2: Camerawork and editing
Kurosawa has been highly praised by critics for several reasons – not least his command of the full panoply of the filmmakers’s art – camerawork, mise en scène, editing (which he did himself on this film) and sound design. Across his 30 films he demonstrates many different and styles and the ways in which he has absorbed and transmogrified styles from a variety of film movements.
In Throne of Blood, the film is predicated on the structure of static sequences, almost in tableau, broken up by scenes of dramatic action with a change of composition, shot size and camera movement. The great proponent of studying the formal characteristics of Japanese Cinema is Noël Burch whose controversial book on Japanese Cinema was published in 1979. (The book was controversial because of the use he put his scholarship to in terms of the politics of film studies in the 1980s.) Burch refers to the contrasting scenes in Throne of Blood (or ‘Cobweb Castle’ as he terms it in a direct translation) as ‘lyrical agitation’ on the one hand and ‘tense stasis’ on the other.
Burch also discusses Kurosawa’s debt to Eisenstein and the concept of the ‘shot-change’. In simple terms this means a style that contrasts with the invisible nature of Hollywood’s ‘continuity editing’. The shot-change celebrates the visible transition from one shot to another, possibly through deliberate ‘mismatching’ of eye-lines or as in Throne of Blood in the use of Kurosawa’s favourite device of this period, the ‘hard-edged’ fast wipe which abruptly takes us from one scene to another in the most visible way possible (cf the gradual fade out/fade in or the unobtrusive straight cut). This is one example of the way in which Kurosawa confirms the ‘artificiality’ of film, emphasising its constructedness. The use of noh acting devices is another. See too the distortion of space in the sequence of the funeral procession approaching the castle.
What does it all mean?
If we understand all these facets of the film, what do we make of Kurosawa’s approach to what is a familiar story? Stephen Prince offers us a particular reading:
The Noh masks point to a huge difference between this theatrical tradition and Shakespeare’s, one that helps give the film many of its unusual qualities. Noh is not psychologically oriented; characters are not individualised. Its characters are types – the old man, the woman, the warrior, and so on – and the plays are quite didactic, aiming to impart a lesson. Kurosawa, therefore, strips all the psychology out of Macbeth and gives us a film whose characters are Noh types and where emotions – the province of character in the drama of the West – are located here as absolute types. Emotion here isn’t an attribute of character psychology, but a formal embodiment in landscape and weather. The bleached skies, the fog, the barren plains, and characters going adrift against and within these spaces – this is where the emotion of the film resides. It is objectified within and through the world of things. As a result, the film has a definite coldness; it keeps the viewer outside the world it depicts. Kurosawa wants us to grasp the lesson, to see the folly of human behaviour, rather than to identify or empathise with the characters.
. . . If Kurosawa strips the psychology from Macbeth, he also strips out Shakespeare’s political conservatism, refusing to give us the play’s reassuring conclusion (flattering to James I) in which a just political authority triumphs. In Kurosawa’s film and worldview, the cycle of human violence never ends. Thus the film’s many circular motifs describe the real tragedy at the heart of the history that Throne of Blood dramatises. Why do people kill each other so often and through so many ages? Kurosawa had no answer to this question. But he showed us here, through the film’s chorus, its circularity, and its Buddhist aesthetics, that there may not finally be an answer within this world. The aesthetics and philosophy of Throne of Blood take us well beyond Shakespeare, and that’s why this is a great film. Its accomplishments are not beholden to another medium or artist. Kurosawa gives us his own vision, expressed with ruthless, chilling power, and it’s the totality of that vision, its sweep and its uncompromising nature, that move and terrify us and that we are so seldom privileged to see in cinema.
I confess that I don’t care much for Shakespeare. I’m sure that I am missing out, but I’m too old now to start over. It does mean, however, that I can watch Throne of Blood objectively, not worried about ‘fidelity’ to an existing text. At the same time, because I’ve seen other film versions, I know the basic story so I can focus on how the events are presented. It seems to me that Burch and Prince make persuasive arguments. Throne of Blood is certainly one of Kurosawa’s major achievements – and a film to which he would return with varying success in the later works, Kagemusha and Ran. Its strengths are in the careful structuring of the narrative, the strong and coherent visual style, the location and settings and the direction of a group of highly-skilled actors led by Mifune on top form.
In a lengthy essay on Throne of Blood, Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) explores the questions about both the Shakespeare adaptation and the supposed ‘Japaneseness’ of the film in some detail, marshalling a range of theoretical ideas. I don’t have space to explore these here but I’d like to quote Yoshimoto’s conclusion which ties in nicely with some of the discussion above:
Despite its use of noh and other types of traditional Japanese art, Throne of Blood has little to do with the affirmation of Japaneseness. Nor is it an attempt to create a new national film style. Instead, Kurosawa simultaneously tries to expand the possibility of film form and re-examine the specific history and genre conventions of Japanese Cinema. Throne of Blood is a unique film made by a true innovator of cinema. (Yoshimoto, 2000:269)
Noel Burch (1979) To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Berkeley: University of California Press (this book is now available as a pdf on free download from the University of Michigan
Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham NC: Duke University Press
For much of his career up to 1965 Kurosawa Akira was contracted to Toho (in the latter part of this period through his own production company) but in the late 1940s, because of labour unrest at Toho, Kurosawa took his projects to other studios. Scandal was produced by Shochiku, more associated for cinephiles with the work of Ozu Yasujiro. Although often regarded as one of Kurosawa’s ‘minor’ works, Scandal has several interesting features.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Mifune Toshiro plays Aoye Ichirô, an artist (Kurosawa’s ‘profession’ before he entered the film industry). Aoye is on holiday painting landscapes in the mountains. One day a young woman with a suitcase walks up to his painting spot. She appears to be heading for the hotel where Aoye is staying so he gives her a lift on his motorbike. At the hotel, Aoye visits the young woman’s room to see how she is settling in. Both are dressed informally and when they peer over the balcony to admire a view they hear a click – the paparazzi (or at least their predecessors in the Japanese ‘yellow press’) are at work. The young woman is a famous singer and there is a market value in an image of her and the handsome artist. Aoye then sues the scandal magazine (ironically titled ‘Amore’) which runs the photo. He chooses an unprepossessing lawyer to prosecute the case, seemingly won over by the lawyer’s sick daughter who is bed-ridden with TB. And this is where the problems begin . . .
Some critics see this film as failing because it moves into melodrama. Several of us on this site are melodrama fans, so that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It must be said, however, that Scandal offers a rather unusual combination of elements. Kurosawa sets up an interesting proposition in the first few scenes. The artist paints a picture which is not a ‘faithful reproduction’ of a landscape – but it conveys a truth (which the artist eventually finds through hard work). The photograph at the centre of the ‘scandal’ is just the opposite – an accurate rendering of a moment, but ultimately ‘untruthful’ about what is happening. This ‘mismatch’ between ‘imitation of reality’ and the truth behind an image is carried through to Aoye’s relationship with the lawyer played by Shimura Takashi and with the lawyer’s sick daughter. These relationships become the focus of the melodrama (rather than the expected relationship with the singer).
Scandal is ostensibly a ‘social protest’ film about the ‘yellow press’ (what is now usually called the tabloid press). Because information and comment had been so severely repressed in the Japanese media during the long wartime period, there was an explosion of sensational journalism in the immediate post-war period. This was clearly a social issue. Exposure of corruption was, of course, a social good, but it was accompanied by exploitation of personal problems. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro in his book on Kurosawa and Japanese Cinema (2000) observes that Kurosawa was early in critiquing this kind of journalism and it was not followed up in Japanese Cinema until Masumura Yasuzo’s Giants and Toys in 1958 (and again by Kurosawa in The Bad Sleep Well, 1960). But Scandal also has another reference to contemporary social problems. The lawyer is poor and his daughter is seriously ill with TB – just as the Mifune character in Drunken Angel (1948). The lawyer even lives in an area with a stagnant pool as in the earlier film.
The ‘media discourse’ which the film explores is well represented in the film’s mise en scène. Kurosawa and his cinematographer Ubukata Toshio have great fun with posters, microphones, flashbulbs, cine cameras and arclights in a series of montages and set pieces, such as the court case that comprises much of the last section of the film.
The problem with the film, I think, is in how Kurosawa has fashioned a narrative around the idea of a ‘true’ man and a ‘man of imitation’ – the Mifune-Shimura axis again played in a way that sees the artist character of Mifune puzzled by the new media environment and determined to preserve his honour (and that of the singer) whereas Shimura (the lawyer) is a much more feeble character who, although he does not understand the new world is easily persuaded to abandon his honour. This is a melodrama of redemption in which Shimura becomes the centre. (There is also a true melodrama ‘villain’ in the form of the magazine owner.) The court case is linked back to the ‘truth’/’imitation’ thematic in several ways. In the lawyer’s ramshackle office there is a photo of his daughter in school uniform. he artist recognises that this is a true photo and it helps him to decide to hire the father. The father knows this truth, so when he is about to do something shameful, he turns the photo to face the wall.
The expected melodrama involving the singer doesn’t happen, instead the focus switches to the lawyer’s daughter. The singer must be present for the court case and the narrative demands the presence of another woman – almost as a chaperone. This is the artist’s model and his friend. At one point, they discuss the conventions of Western painting and the artist suggests that Japanese art can’t deal with the nude. In this sense the artist is aware of the ‘westernisation’ of Japanese culture – and when he visits the lawyer’s family at Christmas he brings a tree on his motorbike.
I was struck by some of the American responses to the film (which has now appeared on DVD in Criterion’s box sets of Kurosawa). A New York Times review by Vincent Canby from 1980 suggests that the film is a satire on the Americanisation of Japan during the Occupation and that in some ways the film seems first like a pastiche of Hollywood romcoms and then undercuts this with its change of direction. Another reviewer points us towards Sam Fuller’s films about journalism. Yamaguchi Yoshiko (like Mifune, born in Manchuria) who plays the singer later appeared in some American films as ‘Shirley Yamaguchi’ – including Sam Fuller’s Japan-set thriller House of Bamboo (1955). The courtroom scenes are similar to those in Hollywood films, although the presence of newsreel cameras makes them look more like Senate hearings. There is a suggestion that some of the courtroom procedures might be ‘new’ – perhaps as a result of reforms by the Occupation forces?
This is certainly a film worth seeing, with some excellent set pieces and a real sense of the vitality found in so many of Kurosawa’s films in this period. Perhaps it has been overshadowed only because it was made in the same year as Rashomon. One warning though – if you don’t like melodrama acting, you may find Shimura’s performance just a little ‘too much’. I prefer him in Ikiru (1952).
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.
(This post was sent to us by Leung Wing-Fai )
I Live in Fear, also known as Record of a Living Being, centres on Kurosawa Akira’s humanist concerns. The contemporary drama is one of the lesser-known films of the acclaimed auteur. It tells the story of a 60-year old industrialist Nakajima (played by Mifune Toshiro who was only 35 at the time) who decides to take his entire family to Brazil after the Second World War and the Bikini Incident. In 1954 the US forced the 166 inhabitants of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands to leave their homes, and then conducted a full-scale test of an atomic bomb, which was thousand times as powerful as the explosion at Hiroshima. The Japanese fishing boat ‘Lucky Dragon’ strayed just beyond the demarcation zone resulting in all crew members being killed or suffering radiation sickness. The incident sparked a national petition (with 20 million signatures) calling for a ban on nuclear weapons.
Nakajima’s family takes him to court and tries to declare him mentally ill in order to stop him from spending the family fortune on migration to Brazil. On the other hand Nakajima believes that the nuclear threat is the madness and fails to understand why everyone else should be so complacent. The opening credit shows crowded Tokyo streets full of faceless commuters who seem orderly yet lacking in direction. It can be interpreted as a statement on the group’s lack of ability to challenge fate, which the old man’s children are all ready to accept. One of his sons tells him that there is no point worrying about the atomic bomb as they cannot do anything about it anyway. Nakajima is not only fighting the fears of nuclear destruction but the weight of the crowd represented by his numerous relatives.
One of the most striking scenes is when Nakajima hears planes flying low, and sees a flash of lightning in the sky; he rushes over to his grandson and wraps himself around the baby to protect him. His daughter is horrified and grabs the child from Nakajima. The scene sums up the old man’s motivation and the reaction of his unsympathetic family. The turning point comes when Nakajima burns down his factory to force his family to migrate, with the opposite effect; they are more convinced that he is demented. The ending is most regretful. Nakajima has been put in an asylum. One of the magistrates goes to visit him; when Nakajima sees the setting sun, he thinks that it is a nuclear explosion and shouts, “It’s burning! The earth is on fire”. The film was supposedly inspired by the death of Kurosawa’s long term colleague, the composer Hayasaka Fumio who once told the director, “The world has come to such a state that we don’t really know what is in store for us tomorrow . . . Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all”. Hayasaka died during the filming of I Live in Fear, which explains the dark world-view. Unsurprisingly the film was too topical and dark to be successful among the Japanese public, but even now it reminds us that perhaps fear heightens the sense of being, as the two titles respectively suggest.
This is an excellent film by any criteria. It shows Kurosawa Akira at the height of his powers during the phase when he could produce ‘entertainment pictures’ which also offered another dimension of artistic achievement. High and Low is based on the crime fiction novel by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter). ‘McBain’ was well known for his police procedurals (Hunter wrote non-genre novels, several of which became Hollywood movies and also other genre novels under different pseudonyms and screenplays under the Hunter name). King’s Ransom is one of the famous ’87th Precinct’ novels. It details the investigation of a kidnapping case. Kurosawa adapted various Western literary sources including Shakespeare, Gorky and Dostoyevsky, but I don’t think he adapted any other genre novels by Western writers (unless you count the claims that Yojimbo is based on a Dashiell Hammett story).
Plot outline (some spoilers)
Kingo Gondo is a business executive – someone who has worked his way up to Production Manager in a Japanese shoe company. The narrative opens on the night when other executives from the company have come to his house to persuade him to join them in ousting the company President and ‘modernise’ the company’s product line. Gondo (Mifune Toshiro) is in some ways an old-fashioned craftsman who doesn’t want to make cheap fashion shoes. He refuses to join the plot and when the men have gone he reveals to his aide that he has been secretly buying shares and if he does the final deal he will control the company himself.
Gondo lives in a modern house on top of a hill overlooking the port city of Yokohama. Soon after his meeting he is shocked to receive a phone call from a kidnapper who claims to have taken his son and is demanding a huge ransom of ¥30 million. But the kidnapper has made a mistake – he has taken the wrong boy and he actually has the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. Nevertheless he wants his money. The police are called – led by Inspector Tokura (Nakadai Tatsuya). Gondo is faced with a terrible dilemma – does he pay the ransom to free the boy and lose all the money he has gambled on the takeover of the company? (He has mortgaged the house to get enough funds.) Or does he risk the boy being killed and save his business future?
The original title of the Japanese film translates as Heaven and Hell, which seems very apt. To the kidnapper, Gondo’s house, the rich man’s house on the top of the hill seems to be represented as heaven. In the poorer apartments below life is certainly more hellish, especially during the oppressive heat and humidity in Summer. Kurosawa’s adaptation (co-written with several collaborators) has several clever tricks up its sleeve. The actual investigation is expertly paced and features a fascinating train sequence for the drop-off of the money and some excellent police department scenes. This is quality entertainment, but what makes the film great art is the application of two familiar Kurosawa strengths. The first is the excellent playing of the lead roles with Mifune in an unusual role in which he ‘humanises’ Gondo the businessman. The second is the decision to film most of the first section of the narrative in static tableaux of the Gondo family and the police in Gondo’s house – emphasised by the brilliant use of the CinemaScope frame as in the composition above. This is almost like a stage play with characters holding their positions and sometimes looking or staring off-screen. This is then contrasted by the much busier (and more ‘realist’) scenes of the investigation shot on location in Yokohama and on the railway.
What I think that this stylistic difference achieves is to establish a kind of distance from the events and to invite an analysis of the story in metaphorical terms. This seems like a modernist device. (A conclusion strengthened by the single use of colour in what is otherwise a black and white film at a crucial point in the investigation.) It would seem that Kurosawa certainly achieved his aim of stirring up a critical storm (if that was his intention). Some critics have criticised the film as ideologically conservative. It is certainly true that one of the platforms for the police investigation is the presentation of their work as helping Gondo’s family to protect the boy and pointedly helping the rich to stay safe. The Inspector even says at one point that he would understand if Gondo refused to pay – because he would be risking all. The critics’ disquiet is heightened by the fact that the kidnapper also faces the death penalty when he kills his accomplices and that the narrative almost seems to endorse his capture in order that he be executed (the police don’t do much to prevent a further murder). Can this be the ‘liberal’ Kurosawa of earlier films?
But it’s not as simple as that. Kurosawa undercuts the straightforward ‘support for the establishment’ message, mainly through Mifune’s performance as Gondo who first suffers a business setback and then rebuilds his career. He is embarrassed by the begging that his chauffeur performs pleading for help with his son and he is deceived by the aide he had trusted. If anything, Kurosawa critiques contemporary capitalism as he did in the earlier The Bad Sleep Well (1960). At the end of the film, Gondo meets the kidnapper twice. First he unknowingly meets the man on the street and then finally is summoned to meet the now condemned man in prison. But the kidnapper never explains his motives. He is not contrite and Gondo is left puzzled. I think Kurosawa is asking us to consider what the story is about. Who or what is to blame for this kind of criminal action?
On the down side, Kurosawa makes little use of Mrs Gondo (Kagawa Kyuko) apart from some lines of dialogue and the contrast offered by her costume in the first section of the film (traditional Japanese) and in the second (Western).
Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro offers a long and detailed analysis of the film which I won’t summarise here except to note that he refers to the discourse of ‘urban geography’ – how the Japanese city looks in 1963, relating it to ‘looking’ as a general activity (several clues come from sketches of his experiences made by the kidnapped boy and the police use photography in interesting ways). The suggestion is that there is a metaphor for changing national identity at work here in the new ways of looking at society – although Kurosawa doesn’t seem convinced of a coherent new identity being formed.
I watched the BFI Region 2 DVD of the film (which is only available on 16mm film in the UK). I hope we eventually get to see a 35mm print. I understand that Martin Scorsese is executive producing a possible Hollywood remake. This is the kind of film you suspect Scorsese would admire. It is reported to be being written by Chris Rock – sounds interesting!
Nice clip from the film here:
This is the film that many have argued put Kurosawa “on the map”. It was his first ‘personal film’ and the first film that he made with Mifune Toshiro. Very much a film ‘of the moment’, it took a genuine social issue from the streets of a devastated Tokyo and fashioned it into a cinematic treatment, drawing upon the crime film/melodrama in a film noir mode then popular in Hollywood, Britain and in Europe – where similar stories could be found in the ‘rubble films’ of Germany (West and East) and the neo-realist films of Italy. It was awarded No 1 film of the year in Kinema junpo magazine.
At the centre of the film is a crusading doctor, a local practitioner with an office near the festering stagnant pool formed by a bomb crater at the centre of a community living and working in ramshackle dwellings. The doctor’s crusade is to save the locals from environmental and lifestyle diseases such as TB. But Doctor Sanada (played by Kurosawa’s other ‘go to’ actor, Shimura Takeshi) has his own fatal weakness. He’s an alcoholic forced to acquire medical alcohol from his colleagues or to visit the sleazy drinking dens in the neighbourhood. One night a garishly dressed hoodlum bursts into his surgery with a gun wound and demands treatment. This is Matsunaga (Mifune), a local gangster (yakuza) controlling the black market who turns out to have a shadow on his lung.
There are many intriguing aspects of this film. Perhaps it doesn’t all fit together – as Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro argues. Watching it on a faulty Hong Kong disc was quite difficult, but I was impressed nevertheless. Even more clearly than in the earlier Sugata Sanshiro films, Kurosawa presents his familiar master/apprentice, older/younger male pairing. The doctor sees himself in the young thug and in turn Matsunaga attacks the older man because he knows that he is right – and he can’t bear it. The film works through symbol and metaphor. The festering pool is both the source of real disease (the mosquitoes that breed there) and a metaphor for the moral and economic degradation of Japan. Sections of the narrative are separated by long shots of a young man playing a guitar seen across the pool in the moonlight. Objects are thrown into the pool. Garbage of course, but also a doll, a flower etc.
The story – by Kurosawa and his old school friend Uekusa Keinosuke – seems to me to be quite rich in the range of characters and their interrelationships. There are more female roles than in some Kurosawa films and this reflects the pressure by the Occupation authorities to promote the new democratic rights for women – which are mentioned in the dialogue. Doctor Sanada has an assistant who ‘lives in’ and she is the wife of the local yakuza boss who abused her and who has been imprisoned. When he returns, Sanada bravely tells him that his wife now has the right to refuse him. The other three female characters are perhaps generic types from the film noir crime genre. A bright and confident schoolgirl, one of Sanada’s patients, follows his advice and triumphs over her TB infection – a symbol of hope for the new Japan? Gin serves in a local corner bar. She loves Matsunaga and in some ways represents the traditional Japan, while Nanae is the typical femme fatale of the film noir – and a clear representation of the moral pollution which has arrived in Tokyo via the Occupation. (The film appears to have had some constraints in representing the Occupying forces directly.)
Perhaps the biggest strength of the film is also its biggest weakness – Mifune’s performance. Kurosawa had seen Mifune at an audition for new players to be contracted at Toho in 1946. He had supported Mifune’s selection then and cast him now as Matsunaga. Kurosawa has stated that what astonished him about Mifune’s performance skills was the sheer energy and the swiftness of his movements and his thinking. This direct style was well utilised by Kurosawa (although as he points out in his autobiography, Mifune appeared in several films for other directors before Drunken Angel). As the sick yakuza, Mifune is electrifying and brilliant though Shimura is, audiences can be forgiven in thinking that Mifune’s is the central character. He too spends much of his time drunk, but it is the doctor who is the ‘drunken angel’.
Here’s an extract from the film. It’s a nightclub sequence showing Mifune as the gangster. At the end of the sequence, a typical Kurosawa wipe takes us (very briefly) back to the surgery and Shimura as the doctor. At the opening of the clip, Nanae dances with the yakuza boss. A drunken Matsunaga (with his bandaged hand) then essays a terrifying jive with one of the hapless bar girls. [This clip has since disappeared from YouTube but I’m leaving the analysis here until I can find something else.]
The extract demonstrates the importance of music in the film – it was the first time that Kurosawa worked with Hayasaka Fumio. It also brings together some of the visual elements that are so striking. I’m not sure if the song is the one for which Kurosawa himself wrote some of the lyrics. I think it is, but Yoshimoto and Keiko McDonald seem slightly at odds on this. McDonald gives a detailed reading of all the popular songs and other musical references used in the film. I’m fascinated by both the music and the singer. I’m reminded strongly of 1930s films, especially from German and British musicals and melodramas – there is something of the stereotypical representation of the ‘jungle’ in the performance and the song here is indeed titled ‘janguru bugi‘ (‘Jungle Boogie’) and performed by Kasagi Shizuko. She was well-known at the time and this was one of her more popular numbers. I think that this nightclub scene could have come from various national cinemas at this time. China before 1949, India in the late 1940s and 1950s are just as likely as Hollywood. In a later fight scene, Mifune appears reflected in three mirrors – much as Orson Welles at the end of Lady From Shanghai. The Welles scene was also from 1948 – Kurosawa was part of what was happening in global cinema, not a ‘copyist’. I think that Drunken Angel is the first Kurosawa film which seems thoroughly ‘composed’ in terms of dramatic lighting and camerawork.
The portrayal of the doctor and the weight of expectation of death from disease is explored in at least three other Kurosawa films which would make an interesting quartet – Silent Duel, Ikuru and Red Beard. I haven’t seen Silent Duel yet and it’s a while since I saw Red Beard, but certainly it’s interesting to compare the Shimura roles in Drunken Angel and Ikuru. Kurosawa began writing Drunken Angel at a time of despondency which was visualised as the pool. The doctor is fighting to convince his patients (i.e. Japan) that there is a future for them if they change their ways and this is what happens for at least one of them. In Ikuru the Shimura character dies from the disease hanging over him – but not before he transforms the neighbourhood.
Kurosawa Akira (1982) Something Like an Autobiography, Vintage
McDonald Keiko (2006) Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context, University of Hawaii
Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University
Madadayo was Kurosawa’s last film – though he left behind several scripts and outlines, some of which have been filmed. The title translates as ‘not yet!’ – a shout of defiance by a retired professor at the contemplation of his own death but also a child’s exclamation during the Japanese game of ‘hide ‘n seek’ (“Are you ready”, “Not yet” and finally “You can come now!”).
The film was not released theatrically in either the UK or the US. It’s not difficult to work out why. Though I enjoyed the film on DVD (a so-so quality Region 2 disc from Yume), I needed a lot of guidance in order to understand every aspect. My main source was Keiko McDonald whose essay on the film is included in her collection entitled Reading a Japanese Film (University of Hawaii Press, 2006). McDonald’s essay is particularly useful since she both explains all the cultural references and gives her take on the usual Kurosawa debates.
The film does not have a strong narrative. Its story focuses on a professor from the time when he first announces his retirement up until the night of his 77th birthday and the 17th annual party organised in his honour by his ex-students. The start year is 1943 and the background to the events (barely glimpsed) includes the surrender, Occupation and economic re-birth and social revolution in Japan in the 1950s and early 1960s. Those events amount to very little of what might be expected in a narrative fiction feature. When the professor and his wife are bombed out in 1945, the students eventually build him a new home and there is a problem with a possible buyer of the adjacent property. Then the professor loses the stray cat which he has taken in and become strongly attached to. The students visit often and we see the initial retirement celebration and the 17th in some detail. How does Kurosawa make this into an interesting film?
Apparently, the professor is a historical character called Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971), who initially taught at a military college but then became a full-time writer and was revered as a ‘stylish essayist’. McDonald suggests that Kurosawa expected at least some of his Japanese audience to be aware of Hyakken’s writings. He then uses the professor’s musings and the strong relationship he has with his ex-students (the professor’s wife is the strong but mostly silent supporting figure in the background) as a vehicle to explore fundamental moral values and questions about mortality and change – both ‘natural’ and ‘social’. He does this largely through the medium of songs, poems and essays that might be familiar to large numbers of the audience who in McDonald’s words “have survived the Japanese high school system”. She entitles her essay ‘Cultural Responses to Simplicity’ and this is indeed the strength of the film. The best example of this simplicity for me is the example of the ‘moon’ sequences. On one occasion, in his temporary home after the bombing, the professor encourages his students to sing a childhood song about the moon as they all gaze at it across the rubble. On another occasion, the students improvise a musical routine around the moon song during the professor’s birthday celebrations.
There is little to say about the aesthetic of the film, though there are examples of familiar Kurosawa ‘extreme weather’ sequences and the ending utilises an expressionist use of colour. At one point I wondered if I was watching the film in the wrong aspect ratio since the composition looked rather ragged for Kurosawa. There is relatively little movement in the film. The professor remains seated or stationary for much of the time – only the students rush about. However, Kurosawa manages to inject life into the scenes and the central performances are very good. It may be an old person’s film – I certainly found it moving, warm-hearted, life-affirming etc.
In respect of the standard Kurosawa debates, it is clearly ‘Japanese’ and not ‘Western’, but it does conform to the theme of master and apprentice – except in this case there are many ‘apprentices’. I did reflect on what kinds of metaphorical meaning I could take from the film, but I think I agree with McDonald that the meanings in the narrative are not meant to refer to Kurosawa himself – he is not the professor. Rather the film explores the concept of a changing world and the need to retain/reflect on the virtues of a traditional Japanese education/socialisation. The professor both reminds his students of what they learned in childhood and allows himself to become part of the changing world. The film that Madadayo in some ways resembles (though not in tone) is Ikuru in which another ageing man confronts his own death rather more urgently and with more socially directed goals. The whole approach to death seems to me to be different in Japanese culture.
This is a subtle work from a master director. It is calm but warm and amusing as well as fulfilling. It will have helped many say “Not yet!”.