Tagged: Kurosawa Akira

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

Kurosawa #2: Madadayo (Japan 1993)

The first birthday celebration after retirement when the students perform a satirical song with the professor

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!”.