Tagged: Kurosawa Akira

Kurosawa #6: The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, Japan 1960)

The wedding party arrives at the beginning of the film

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 attract him are the revenge tragedies: MacbethHamlet 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.

 

The derelict factory

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.

Kurosawa #5: I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being Japan 1955)

Nakajima (Mifune Toshiro, centre) uses his fan vigorously in the heat of the adjudicator's office. Shimura Takashi (an adjudicator) can just be seen on the left edge of the frame. Nakajima is standing between his daughter and son.

(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.

Kurosawa #4: High and Low (Japan 1963)

A static 'tableau' of the Gondo family with the police. Kingo Gondo (Mifune) is sat at the left with his wife and son. Inspector Tokura is in the dark suit. Note the chauffeur on the extreme right of the frame in a supplicant's pose.

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?

Commentary

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:

Kurosawa #3: Drunken Angel (Japan 1948)

Mifune (foreground) and Shimura in a scene with typical film noir lighting effects producing a ‘disturbed’ mise en scène

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.

References:

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