The Idiot

idiot 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1951

Studio: Shochiku Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Eijiro Hisaita, based on the story by Fryodor Dostoevsky

Cast: Masayuki Mori, Toshiro Mifune, Setsuko Hara, Yoshiko Kuga, Takashi Shimura

Cinematographer: Toshio Ubukata

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

If “Rashomon” comes with a lot of baggage, then “The Idiot” is that mysterious passenger who slips into the coach mostly unseen. It’s wedged in between the movie that made Kurosawa’s career in “Rashomon” and would be followed up by two of the greatest movies of all time: “Ikiru” and “Seven Samurai.” And yet, like “Scandal,” it’s fallen through the cracks of history. Most of the critical analysis of the movie only compares it to the movies that surround it (Michael Koresky’s Criterion essay on the film talks almost as much about “Rashomon” as it does “The Idiot”), or talks more about what the film could have been. I’ll talk about that first to get it out of the way, because I’m more interested in talking about the actual guts and bones of the movie itself.

Kurosawa originally envisioned “The Idiot” as two films, and the runtime of both halves was well over four hours. This was before “Rashomon” hit the stratosphere and the co-writer/director did not have the power he would soon yield, so when a test screening did not go well, executives at Shochiku Studios welded the two halves into a single film and began chopping. I could not find out how much, if any, control Kurosawa had over the final cut, which is two-hours-and-forty-five minutes in length. The second half seems (mostly) intact, but the first half is obviously chopped to bits, with intertitles explaining a LOT of character relationships, motivations and actions. There is even one especially annoying title card that explains what Fryodor Dostoevsky meant when he was writing the original source novel… as opposed to just letting the movie speak for itself. Legend also says that years later when Kurosawa made another movie for the studio he searched for days in their archives to find the missing footage – and couldn’t.

idiot 2So yes, “The Idiot” is a fragmented mess at the beginning. But I can only analyze what actually made it to screen, and that’s what I’m going to do. 95% of the other critical analysis frames anything written as “It’s Kurosawa’s destroyed masterpiece!” or something similar. But did it really have the makings of a masterpiece? I don’t want to write about what the movie isn’t… I want to talk about what the movie is.

The idiot of the title’s real name is the innocent Kameda (Masayuki Mori), and we open with him just back from the war after almost being shot to death. He meets Akama (Toshiro Mifune), a rich and rogue-ish figure and strikes up a friendship with him. They both end up falling in love with Taeko (Setsuko Hara), a kept woman just escaping her bounds. She doesn’t want to sully Kameda’s innocence, but isn’t really in love with Akama either, so the pendulum swings back and forth. At some point Kameda begins to court a woman named Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), but all Ayako does is seem to yell at him about either being an idiot or loving Taeko.

idiot 3Just writing that out, I’m thinking to myself “Gosh, that’s not a lot of plot for an almost three hour movie,” and I can’t imagine what else Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Eijiro Hisaita threw into the over four hour version. The fragmented opening really makes it difficult to engage with the story until about half an hour in… it took me two or three times to make it past that point anyway. And once you get what’s going on, you find yourself rewinding to watch the opening again to make sure you understand everything.

Cards on the table, even though I have read a few of Dostoevsky’s texts, I have not read the novel upon which “The Idiot” is based. Dostoevsky strikes me as an almost impossible author to adapt, though that hasn’t stopped a ton of filmmakers trying…the old chestnut “Crime and Punishment” in particular. His work is just so internal – so much to do with the inner workings of people’s minds and why they make the choices they make. So a large percentage of “The Idiot” is people talking about the way they feel over and over. How I feel, how you feel, how I feel about the way you feel, and one hell of a lot of talking about how Taeko must feel and why she’s acting like an insane person when making any decisions. To highlight the obsessions of these characters, Kurosawa and Hisaita embrace melodrama.

Let me state here that melodrama doesn’t have to be a bad thing, even though critics have adopted the word as such over the past two decades. “Gone With the Wind” is melodrama. “Titanic” is melodrama. The best sequences in “The Idiot” are pure melodrama, particularly one from the first half where Taeko is essentially being bid upon at her birthday party. Will she remain a kept woman? Over a dozen partygoers watch and follow her every word and movement, and the character makes such a strong impression that it almost (but not quite) makes up for the countless sequences where she isn’t around but other characters talk about her motivations. When Kameda knocks over an expensive vase and people are calling him an idiot, Taeko reminds them that the vases are hers and simply drops the second one. Pretty badass. The sequence climaxes brilliantly, with Taeko taking a bag of a million yen and tossing it in the fire, daring one of her suitors to pull it out while the entire party watches the money burn. So awesome.

Hara gives the best performance in the movie, and by far the best female performance in a Kurosawa film to date. There’s something so electric about her face here… it’s so organic that you really feel her character figuring out things and making decisions right then and there, however crazy they may be. They don’t seem crazy when she is onscreen because Hara is so beautiful, seductive and enigmatic that she could sell the audience on anything. It’s only after she’s gone and the other characters are talking about her that the viewer begins to think “Hey, that doesn’t quite make sense! Like at all!” I’m happy she had a fruitful career with Ozu after this, but just wish she would have made a few more movies with Kurosawa.

Mori is also very good as Kameda, in that you sympathize with him and at the same time kinda want to strangle him. He holds his hands to his jacket collar about 30% too much, though. Mifune is perfectly cast as Akama, and like Mori has a tightrope to walk. Mifune has to be dangerous, but also must allow his friendship with Mori’s character to seem grounded and real… all without any character motivation track laid aside from a lengthy intertitle. That he pulls it off is impressive… that he pulls it off well is most impressive.

Kurosawa and his cinematographer Toshio Ubukata shoot the film for the most part very simply. The big set pieces work because a big deal isn’t made of them…put the camera on the actors and let them do their thing. It’s a marked difference in how Kurosawa approached “Rashomon” and would soon handle “Seven Samurai,” but I feel like Kurosawa was so slavish to “The Idiot” novel that he was intent on letting Dostoevsky’s work be the star, not him. The sets are impressive, as are the frigid outdoor locations chosen because Kurosawa obviously wanted the entire affair to seem Russian without putting it in Russia.

I feel like I’m writing a lot of great things about “The Idiot”… and yet in the end I didn’t like it very much. The parts all work well, but taken as a whole it’s a lopsided emotional mess that makes its point but then can’t help but underlining it for an extra 45 minutes. Most of Kurosawa’s later work is long but rarely feels that way – he gives each film just enough runtime to tell the story he needs to tell and then exits stage left. If it’s three hours, that’s fine. Here I get the impression that “The Idiot” could have made a crackerjack 90 minute movie where Taeko was involved much more than she is in the second half. That way we see the emotions of the main characters instead of hearing about it repeatedly.

If this odyssey has taught me anything about Kurosawa, it’s that the more he adopts a story to his personal style (even if it’s an adaptation), the more successful it can be. He was trying to tell “Stray Dog” in the style of an author and failed, but the movie ended up amazing because it was really Kurosawa’s voice in the void. In trying to be so true to Dostoevsky, he loses himself and why he’s so singular as a storyteller.

Notes:

-Not crazy about the music of Fumio Hayasaka here. It’s too insistent… to intent on telling you how you should be feeling about any given scene, and up way too high in the mix.

– Takashi Shimura has a small, thankless role here but absolutely kills it. His confession that Kameda owns a farm is instilled with so much more emotion than it should possibly have. What a great actor.

Rashomon

rashomon 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1950

Studio: Daiei Film Co. Ltd.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto, based on the story by Ryunosuke Akutagaa

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Machiko Kyo, Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori

Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

Well, this is it. The big one.

“Rashomon” changed everything. It opened the United States to world cinema in a way that had never been seen before. It won an honorary Oscar. It made Kurosawa’s career – if there was no “Rashomon,” there probably wouldn’t be any “Seven Samurai,” “Red Beard” and certainly no Western co-funded films like “Ran” and “Kagemusha.” I cannot underscore enough just how important “Rashomon” is to Kurosawa’s career and to the history of cinema.

So you can see why it took me awhile to make peace with the fact that I just don’t like it that much.

By all accounts, I should love “Rashomon.” Kurosawa is right up there with Chaplin, Almodovar and Hitchcock among my favorite filmmakers, and without this movie, I might not know him at all (see above). I usually adore a story told through multiple perspectives – one of my all-time favorite novels is Agatha Christie’s iconic “Five Little Pigs.” And it’s the master being experimental and trying things no other director at the time would have dared. And yet, each of the five times I’ve sat down with this film, I hope that the spell it has cast on countless others will capture me as well… only to be left wanting. Don’t get me wrong, “Rashomon” is certainly a masterpiece – a great movie that broke boundaries cinema didn’t even know could be broken, but even though it’s a great movie, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good one.

And in a film so concerned with the definition of truth, I figured it was important to start this essay relating mine, though I know for a fact that it is vastly different from the next guy’s…

We open during a downpour in a group of ruins where a Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a Priest (Minoru Chiaki) have taken shelter. Another Man (Kichijiro Ueda) joins them. The Woodcutter happened upon the stabbed body of a Samurai (Masayuki Mori) in the woods and, with the Priest, witnessed the court testimony of the three people involved with the murder. First we hear the story from a Bandit’s perspective (Toshiro Mifune), then from the slain Samurai’s Wife (Machiko Kyo), then from the Samurai himself through a Medium. Finally, the Woodcutter explains that he actually saw the murder and gives his side of the story. None of them agree, and in the end the Samurai, the Bandit and the Wife all end up taking credit for the murder. Oh, and at some point a baby becomes involved.

rashomon 2Now before I get to the many, many good things about “Rashomon,” let me first just throw out the main stumbling block that I cannot overcome – the acting. It’s out of control, with every actor going back and forth between non-acting (seriously, the entire opening of the film appears to be about people who have had too much ZZZquil) and way Way WAY over-the-top acting. There’s no in between – no moment where I thought to myself “Wow, he/she did a good job with that character moment.” It was only me shocked by one extreme or the other. In Robert Altman’s introduction to the film on the Criterion release, he waves off the acting, simply stating that it must have been the acting style of the time in Japan. As someone who has watched all of Kurosawa’s previous films, and quite a few pre-and-postwar Japanese movies, I can firmly state that it’s false. The character Shimura played in the previous Kurosawa film “Scandal” was a “big” character, and yet never came close to the cackling that Mifune or Kyo make on a regular basis. Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay on “Rashomon,” which is otherwise awesome, waves off the acting as well because “Kurosawa was not looking for realism.” He also writes that the acting actually works because “many of the sequences are, essentially, silent.” Um, no.

Looking further, we must notice that the acting is “over the top” in the flashbacks and utterly subdued in the “present” scenes. My guess is that Kurosawa was perhaps trying to underline the difference between the “reality” of the characters’ minds and the reality of the rainstorm. Maybe? But, even if that is the case, it does not work. The acting continually takes me out of the movie to the point where it often ceases to be enjoyable, and since “Rashomon” is unquestionably a movie of great subtlety and nuance, the acting sticks out even more like a sore thumb. Worse yet, since each of the three main players are portraying four different characterizations of the same character, it’s a huge missed opportunity.

The introduction to the entire conceit is terribly flawed as well. The Woodcutter states early that he just doesn’t understand what has occurred, but when the Man doesn’t show much interest, the Woodcutter and the Priest launch into these speeches that amp up the story we are about to see in such a way that it will never be able to live up to expectations. Here is some of the Priest’s dialogue: “I, for one, have seen hundreds of men dying like animals, but even I’ve never before heard anything as terrible as this. Horrible, it’s horrible! There’s never been anything, anything as terrible as this, never! It’s worse than fires, wars, epidemics, or bandits!” Really, Mr. Priest? I mean, really?

Once we launch into the court testimony, things do get very interesting – not just in that the characters disagree with one another but in the various ways that they do. When the Bandit tells his version of events, Kurosawa’s film breaks from the Bandit’s point-of-view only once: just before the Wife consents to sex with him. He could never have seen the Wife when she looks to the sun and is overcome with lust, but in his mind she must have done this because he could have never raped someone he “loves” so much. In the stories of the Wife, the Samurai and the Woodcutter, it’s obviously rape, but the most shattering moment of the assault comes from a line in the Samurai’s perspective. The husband looks at his Wife, shattered and still emotional from being sexually assaulted, and the husband states (through the medium) that she had never looked more beautiful. Even now, remembering that moment, I still shudder.

rashomon 3Also really ingenious is the way Kurosawa frames the first three testimonies, with the characters looking toward the camera when they are speaking. In other words, the audience is questioning these characters as “we” try to get to the bottom of what is going on.

It’s also fascinating to me how Kurosawa handles the Woodcutter’s perspective. We open on him stating that he does not understand and the only time we physically see him in flashback is watching him wander through the woods and coming upon the body. Then he states that he actually saw everything, which is contrary to what we saw in the flashbacks previously. Then again, how reliable are the flashbacks? Are they showcases what the characters actually believe happened, or simply a dramatization of what they are saying? Thanks to the nature of the film, we’ll never know, but depending on where you fall on that subject, the Woodcutter’s testimony becomes even more questionable. Note that, throughout his entire story, we never actually see him. We don’t see him happen upon the rape aftermath. We don’t see him follow them as they change positions for the battle. In fact, the point-of-view here is entirely omniscient, not personal, and the story appears more of a “greatest hits” of the earlier three stories more than an individual’s perspective of it. The Wife is comatose but also a femme fatale. The Bandit is cowardly but also a monster. You can see where I’m going with this – I don’t actually believe that the Woodcutter was there and made up the story himself as a way to make sense of everything that happened earlier in the day.

Of course there’s no way to prove it. My hypothesis has just as much merit as the next guy’s, completely right but at the same time completely wrong. Though I want to hold back too many “Citizen Kane” comparisons because I feel like they fit better with Kurosawa’s next film, they fit here too – the more you try to answer questions, the more questions you’ll find. I love “Citizen Kane” more than 99% of other films, but don’t have that same affection for “Rashomon.” Like the flashbacks themselves, on the surface it has everything I could want in this type of story, but the more you squint and the more you question, the less fulfilling it seems. Stephen King wrote a great novella called “The Colorado Kid” about a mystery with no possible answer, but the point for the main character was that you want to keep looking, hoping you’ll see something new and different. Despite my ambivalence to many aspects of “Rashomon,” I see myself continuing this strange dance with the film for years to come, hoping to find the point…not of the movie’s mystery but unlocking its appeal for myself. Maybe some day…

Notes:

-This is the first of Kurosawa’s masterpieces on which Roger Ebert devoted one of his “Great Movies” articles, and though I point out a disagreement with his writing above, I want to underline here that they are all incredible reading that gives so much insight into Kurosawa’s work. Be on the lookout for his writings on “Seven Samurai,” “Ikiru,” “Red Beard,” “Ran,” and “Yojimbo.” They are essential.

-The woman at the center of the story and her rape is fascinating to look at from a feminist perspective, particularly how the three men see her after the event as opposed to her own interpretation of what had happened to her and how it ultimately caused her to take her husband’s life.

-There are a couple of incredible tracking shots of the Woodcutter walking through the woods at the opening of the film where nothing happens but the viewer is still totally invested because of the beauty.

-There’s a little-spoken-of American remake of “Rashomon,” (unseen by me) called “The Outrage.” Paul Newman takes the role of the Bandit, Claire Bloom as the Wife and Laurence Harvey as the husband. The director was Martin Ritt, who also directed “Hud” and “Norma Rae” and it was adapted by Michael Kanin, who wrote the Hepburn classic “Woman of the Year” and also wrote two television adaptations of “Rashomon” before this film. Maybe it’s good?

Scandal

scandal 1Year: 1950

Studio: Shochiku Co. Ltd.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Ryuzo Kikushima

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Shirley Yamaguchi, Noriko Sengoku

Cinematographer: Toshio Ubukata

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

I’m surprised that “Scandal” hasn’t amassed a larger following among cinephiles – its main topic of the paparazzi and how they affect the lives of people is in the zeitgeist and has been there for over a decade now. In many ways, this film has dated the least of any of Kurosawa’s oeuvre, and between its motorcycles and odes to two iconic American directors, it’s also the most American of his films so far – a huge change from the anti-American subtext in many of his previous movies. The fact that it’s pretty good should be a factor too. And yet it doesn’t seem to make much of a splash with critics, film buffs and didn’t even merit its own DVD release from Criterion, instead being sandwiched into the “Postwar Kurosawa” Eclipse set. Weird.

Our story concerns a B-list painter named Ichiro (Toshiro Mifune), who is photographed with the famous actress Miyako (Shirley Yamaguchi) on her hotel room’s balcony. Though they are both in their robes, it’s an innocent moment, with Miyako straining to see something Ichiro is pointing at. The photograph is sold, both are plastered on the cover of Amour Magazine with a story claiming they are lovers, and Ichiro decides to sue.

Of major note with “Scandal” is that it’s the closest Kurosawa ever comes to blatantly ripping off the style of another director (or two). The early stretches of the movie, with the employees of Amour discussing whether to publish the photo, the circus music that plays while the issue is being printed and one delightful sequence in particular where Ichiro and the editors trade barbs in the press like a tennis match, feels so much like a Billy Wilder movie that I was gobsmacked to see that Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” came out a year after “Scandal.” The other, bigger influence on the movie is undoubtedly Frank Capra, and those overtures begin the moment Takashi Shimura enters frame.

scandal 2Shimura gives an astoundingly good performance as Hiruta (one that frankly steals the movie out from under its “star” Mifune), a down-and-out lawyer who shoves his way into Ichiro’s studio and presents himself, all while pouring raw sewage from his shoes (he stepped in the wrong puddle on the way over) onto Ichiro’s floor. Hiruta has a hunchback, eyes that often bulge and is a big drinker. His law practice isn’t exactly booming, since his office is a converted birdhouse on the roof of a building (not kidding), but then again neither is his family life. His wife isn’t exactly a talker, and his daughter Masako (Yoko Katsuragi) is suffering from a really bad case of tuberculosis that has kept her in bed for many years. In other words, he’s a mess, but Ichiro hires him anyway.

From this point onward, it becomes readily apparent that Kurosawa is trying his best to make a Frank Capra movie. While the humor in the first third was broad, there was a lot of bite to it – but after Hiruta shows up, the tone noticeably alters. We realize that, even though we’ve been following Ichiro for over half an hour, the movie is really about Hiruta. The lawyer isn’t above taking bribes from Amour to get some extra money for his family, though the guilt of what he is doing quickly hobbles him emotionally to the point of being unable to function. We learn that Ichiro hired him because he hoped that the case would bring Hiruta out of his funk, and has known from minute one that the lawyer was double crossing him, but forgives him because he thinks Hiruta will do the right thing in the end. Yes, really. Hiruta’s poor, dying daughter is basically Tiny Tim, and Hiruta’s redemption in the last act hinges on her death. Oh, and there’s this metaphor about stars that I’d rather not discuss because “ugh.”

scandal 3Okay, in case you didn’t realize from reading the last paragraph, but the movie begins to lay it on pretty thick. Like most of Capra’s work, there comes a point where you just either go with it or don’t. Here it’s a long sequence where Hiruta comes home drunk to find Ichiro and Miyako singing “Silent Night” for the adorable dying girl after decorating her house for Christmas. Hiruta takes Ichiro to a bar where they sing “Auld Lang Syne” and drunkenly wander around town together. Nothing happens of note to further the plot – it’s basically a variation on the bus singing scene in “It Happened One Night” or the pool scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” in that it’s completely implausible but still oddly charming.

If you don’t go with that, then you certainly won’t go with the shenanigans in the court room. You won’t go with Ichiro’s defense to the judge being that he or the actress don’t “look” like the type of people who would lie (note again that she’s an actress). You won’t buy Hiruta calling himself on the stand to confess everything and come away clean. And you’ll probably roll your eyes when a cheer goes up as Ichiro wins the case, despite the fact that the spectators were malicious and rude in every prior scene.

Did I buy it? It’s like Nancy Meyers wrote in “The Holiday”: “I love corny. I’m looking for more corny in my life.”

A lot happens in “Scandal.” For a movie that is about an hour-and-forty minutes, you’ve got the actual scandal, the first set of repercussions, the lawyer, the bribe, the dying kid, the courtroom, the slowly simmering romance between the artist and the actress, the drinking and plenty more. But the movie oddly doesn’t “feel” overstuffed, with Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Ryuzo Kikushima zipping back and forth from one to another with relative ease, and because they don’t really care about the tone of the movie (instead assuming the actors will keep everything making sense), it’s easier to get away with it. They do take their time with important scenes or moments, like when we see Ichiro riding on his motorcycle with a Christmas tree tied to the back (it’s the most memorable shot of the entire movie).

Another great moment takes place when Ichiro can’t find a copy of the magazine he’s on the cover of. Frustrated, he simply shows up at the offices of Amour and demands a copy, then sits there in silence for what must be a minute reading the article about him. Everyone stares, but he doesn’t look up. Finally, he finishes, and when the editor approaches him, Ichiro simply knocks him out and leaves, the 1950 equivalent of a mic drop.

But while Mifune’s character is interesting and Shimura’s a revelation, the women don’t come off well. Like at all. Miyako should be, for all intents and purposes, the third lead, but her character is so ill-defined and useless that she becomes wallpaper by the halfway point. She’s there, but doesn’t make an impact. The screenwriters do something very odd when introducing her or talking about Miyako in general – they never let her speak and define who she is. Ichiro guesses about what kind of person she is. Her ballbusting mother does the same. In other words, she’s not a character, but a cipher. Worse still is Ichiro’s “best friend,” a horrible woman named Sumie and played by Noriko Sengoku. Sengoku also helped sink “The Quiet Duel,” and here her character actively hurts otherwise good scenes. Sumie is introduced complaining that Ichiro no longer draws her nude, then gives Ichiro the very worst advice possible over and over again, like the sad best friend in any awful romantic comedy. And sure, Masako is awesome and her death is a major plot point, but in all her beautiful dying she remains a saint, not a character. Whether consciously or not, Kurosawa adds in a moment that perhaps says more about his view of the female characters in this movie than he meant it too – when Sumi and Miyako are talking too much, Ichiro walks over to his motorcycle and just starts revving to drown them out.

I don’t think “Scandal” is like any other Kurosawa movie – it’s deeply flawed but doesn’t care, and I like that kind of gumption in a film. It means to say something about redemption, says it with more than a little treacle, but never grates. I wish more of you would watch it.

Notes:

-The article about this in the Criterion DVD is a waste of paper. Absolutely worthless.

-Ichiro is a painter, so it’s easy to see that Kurosawa put a lot into him, though it’s frankly odd that we never get a good look at any of his work.

Stray Dog

Nora_inu_posterThe Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1949

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Ryuzo Kikushima

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Eiko Miyoshi

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

That “Stray Dog” works at all today as a modern miracle. Its detective tropes and the dynamic of the two detectives at the center of the film have inspired hundreds of thousands of similar mysteries and noirs, both in film and on television. And yet not only does this movie work, but it works incredibly well.  This is the second noir Kurosawa co-wrote and directed, and far better than “Drunken Angel.” It’s also the movie where I’d say Kurosawa became “Kurosawa.”

The plot is simple but engaging. A newly minted police detective named Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has his gun pickpocketed on a crowded city bus. He becomes obsessed with finding the person who has the gun, which is being used for heinous crimes all throughout Toyko. At a certain point, Murakami is partnered up with a more seasoned detective named Sato (Takashi Shimura), whose approach to policing couldn’t be further from Murakami’s. Oh, and there’s a heat wave because things are always better when they take place in heat waves.

Both of the main characters are fascinating, and screenwriters Ryuzo Kikushima and Kurosawa create a masterstroke in delaying the introduction of Sato until almost 45 minutes into the movie. 99.99% of similar detective stories introduce the two paired detectives right away so we get to know them through their interaction with one another, but not here. The writers give us 40-odd minutes with just Murakami – we get to know him and, very importantly, understand why he’s as obsessed with getting the gun back as he is. If Sato was there from the get go with his differing opinions about how Murakami should be reacting to the situation, it would have hurt our identification with him.

tumblr_lzk4q4MPFV1r9w2jlo1_500What also makes Murakami interesting is that, if things had gone just a little bit differently, he could have been the frightened penniless murderer with the gun. Murakami was in the war, and the amount of able men who returned to find nothing waiting for them is staggering (something Kurosawa has touched on in four movies before this one), and getting the detective’s job was just plain luck. It didn’t have to happen that way. This brings an unease to the final confrontation between “hero” and “villain,” because in a way we are watching Murakami fight against himself.

Pretty deep for what at first glance appears to be a completely straightforward detective story, right?

And then we have Sato, who is unfortunately the lesser of the two detectives in terms of our engagement. This is completely not the fault of the film, the writing or Shimura’s wonderful performance. Everything about his character has been mined so many times in so many lesser movies beat for beat that you can’t help but know exactly what he’s going to say, how he’s going to say it and what’s going to happen in response. The second Sato takes Murakami home to meet the family, you know he’s going to be shot and that Murakami is going to feel guilt about it. You know he’s going to tell the youngster not to be as emotionally invested in the case as he is.

MV5BMTYzNzYzMjYxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjIxMjU4Mw@@._V1_SY500_CR0,0,707,500_AL_Even as I write that, I should point out that the way he is introduced is still interesting and, ultimately, superior to almost every homage and rip-off of Sato’s character. Instead of the co-writers immediately setting up the dynamic between the two detectives, they let Sato take charge of the investigation, with Murakami in the backseat observing the way he questions suspects and deduces things from the information he’s just gleaned.

Together, Mifune and Shimura crackle together with more chemistry than in their previous collaborations combined. They just… work. Simple as that. It would be easy but ultimately futile to talk about specific moments and why it works, because a lot of it is just fate. Let the excellence just be excellent.

The movie is very interestingly shot and edited. I would love to read the original screenplay to see just how many of the distinctive elements come from the writing and how many surfaced in the editing room. Some don’t work, but the vast majority do.

First is the out of continuity opening, where we learn he lost the gun by seeing Murakami tell his boss, then we zip back and forth as we uncover how exactly it happened. It sets the stakes high quickly, show that Murakami is a good officer despite this grievous error that could make viewers unsympathetic, and keeps us intellectually engaged as it peels away the layers of the onion. There’s even a narrator, who is randomly there and gone, but it still works in the context of the opening.

The second is an incredibly long sequence, lasting minutes, where Murakami is wandering through the slums and bombed out areas of Tokyo in order to be seen as a “lost soul” and be approached by someone who will lend him a gun. You keep thinking the sequence must be wrapping up, but it doesn’t. And it doesn’t. And it still doesn’t. But it oddly doesn’t become grating – it’s a masterstroke that Kurosawa let it go as long as it does. On a simple plot level, it reflects the frustration Murakami must be feeling about his inability to easily solve the case. On a deeper level, it’s Kurosawa laying train tracks that sets up Murakami’s identifying with the man who stole his gun…and underlines how close Murakami was to this life. Finally, on a “let’s be real” level, it works because that’s how cases are in real life – full of fits and starts, but sometimes stuck with the wheels spinning for an eternity.

The third is a big set piece that does not work. It’s at the biggest baseball game of the year – every person in Tokyo seems to be there… including the man who apparently has the gun. The two detectives have to find him and, more importantly, get the gun from him before he kills innocent people. The stakes couldn’t be higher…but it just doesn’t work. Kurosawa and his editor cut away for a long time to the actual gameplay on the field, and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t help with the suspense, nor does it help us on a character level. It’s just… there. It’s hard not to think about what a missed opportunity this is, especially considering it’s one of the centerpieces of the movie. Imagine what Welles or Hitchcock or Hawks could have done with that and you’ll see why it’s such a letdown.

Finally, you’ve got the finale, which has Murakami fighting with the villain in an endless field of flowers. In theory, it’s just another variation on stuff we’ve seen from Kurosawa before – the high grass battle in “Sanshiro Sugata,” the snow battle in “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2,” – but in execution it’s beautiful. The flowers are such a brilliant image at odds with what is happening, and the moment after Murakami is shot and blood from his hand drips on a white flower is the most memorable in the movie. Well, that or the shot of the two men, handcuffed together and attempting to recover from their fight. They both struggle to catch their breath, and then the villain just starts to scream at the top of his lungs in agony. At his life, at being caught… at everything. It’s emotionally shattering.

I like Kurosawa’s two subsequent crime movies, “High and Low” and “The Bad Sleep Well” more than “Stray Dog,” but then again those are both masterpieces that rank as two of the greatest films of all time. That said, “Stray Dog” is a distinguished noir, one that works better than almost all it inspired, and if this was the only movie Kurosawa ever made, it’s safe to say that it would still be remembered fondly today.

Notes:

-The women in this movie are the most fascinating characters that Murakami and Sato encounter. The first, who Murakami follows throughout the entire hot day before finally giving in and helping him while they share a beer, is so much deeper than she needed to be. The girlfriend of the villain is shallow, but purposely shallow, and still very engaging.

-You’ve got to love the seeds being planted for “Scandal” when someone states the following about a dead body being photographed by many photographers: “She would never want anyone to see her this way.”

-There’s another musical number in this movie, a well done one, but the really cool part happens immediately after. The dancers walk backstage and literally collapse from exhaustion and heat, their legs simply giving up on them.

-The Criterion disc has a wonderful essay by Terrence Rafferty that mentions that Kurosawa didn’t like the film because he didn’t feel like it captured the mood of the author he was trying to emulate. Rafferty argues that this is a moot point since it’s the first Kurosawa movie where the identity of its creator is so obviously Kurosawa – not influenced by anyone else. I agree with this assessment.

The Quiet Duel

the-quiet-duelThe Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1949

Studio: Daiei Film

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Senkichi Taniguchi

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Noriko Sengoku, Miki Sanjo, Kenjiro Uemura, Takashi Shimura

Cinematographer: Soichi Aisaka

Music: Akira Ifukube

“The Quiet Duel” comes with an air of mystery around it. It’s arguably Kurosawa’s most difficult-to-find film and, thanks to its release in 1949 by Daiei Films instead of Kurosawa’s home base of Toho Studios, it remains the only early Kurosawa not released by the Criterion Collection. There’s only a fraction of critical discussion about it as compared to almost any other film in the master’s oeuvre. So it was exciting to dive into it – see if there was something there that other’s have been missing for decades…

I remained super-excited for about the first 15 minutes. Then I was not as excited. Then I was bored. Then I got angry.

This is an unusually bad movie, not only because it comes from a great director who should know better, but because it has an opening that rivals almost anything else in Kurosawa’s career. How could something so wonderful crash and burn so quickly and completely?

But before we get to the bad stuff, let’s concentrate on the good…that opening. The main titles are played over rain, which is first beautifully washed over a fountain but quickly becomes pounding… overwhelming. So overwhelming that when we first cut to real people, we cannot hear them while they try to speak to one another. This is a metaphor for what will happen later, but handled very well here.

Our main character is a doctor named Kyoji (Toshiro Mifune), who we meet as he attempts to help patients in the midst of the war. The conditions couldn’t be worse, of course, and there’s this sequence where he has to operate on a man that legitimately left me breathless. The man getting the operation is named Susumu (Kenjiro Uemura) and he remains vaguely conscious throughout. If that wasn’t enough, Kurosawa creates an incredible series of escalations during the sequence, all beautifully staged and edited. The humidity is unbelievable, and the only source of cool is one barely waved fan. The lights are blinking on and off. The storm breaks through the ceiling, causing dripping and pouring water whose noise becomes excruciating for both Kyoji and the audience. Finally, when the operation becomes more complex, Kyoji removes his thick gloves in order to do the best job he can. This is a mistake, because seconds later he accidentally slices his finger open on a bloody scalpel.

the-quiet-duel-1949-kurosawa-toshiro-mifune-e1288551899376Turns out that Susumu had syphilis, and when Kyoji cut himself he contracted it. One of the medical aides does not want to give him the bad news, but Kyoji deduces it himself in a sequence shot in gorgeous film noir style.

At this point I was basically on cloud nine. This was amazing! Tremendous! A bunch of other synonyms for “amazing”!

Then the crap started.

It’s impossible to pin down what exactly went wrong because it’s not one thing. Or two. Or three. Literally every aspect of the movie goes haywire after Kyoji gets back from the war. That’s really hard. Think about how rare it is for every single part of a movie to be bad.

We’ll start with the plot. The movie flash forwards a few months to when Kyoji is back home in his practice with his father, played by Takashi Shimura. Shimura is obviously a great actor, but here appears to be on Tylenol PM. It doesn’t help that his character serves no purpose other than to supply exposition. But I digress… Kyoji is keeping his syphilis a secret from everyone. He has called off his engagement to this wet blanket of a girl named Misao (Miki Sanjo), who manages to keep hanging around and insisting on making Kyoji dinner while guilt tripping him over and over about why he left her. Then, coincidentally, Susumu pops back up in town (what are the chances?!) with a pregnant wife and an unwillingness to come to terms with his own diagnosis. There’s also a nurse name Rui who falls in love with Kyoji, but more on her later.

The-Quiet-Duel-1949-01If this all sounds rather soap opera-esque, that’s because it is. And not a good soap opera. This isn’t “One Life to Live,” this is more like “Port Charles.” In case you didn’t get from above, the entire movie hinges on an idiot plot – if Kyoji says two sentences to Misao at any point, the movie is over. So instead Kyoji broods quietly while Misao tries to shove food down his throat and take her back. Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Senkichi Taniguchi throw in the Susumu twist because they have 90 minutes to fill and Kyoji staring won’t quite do it, no matter how pretty Mifune is.

There’s a wonderful story somewhere in here that is universal. Think about it transported to the height of the AIDs crisis, where one partner finds out he has it and must break it off out of love. But “The Quiet Duel” doesn’t try to go that deep. It doesn’t help that syphilis is curable – it only takes three years. But in a head-bashing monologue, Kyoji talks about how he’d rather suffer and make Misao suffer now because he knows she’d waste three years of her life waiting for him to get better. Um, what?! Wait, it falls apart further. Kurosawa and Taniguchi throw in that, even after Kyoji found out he had it, he continued to let it go untreated while he was serving in the war. And now he has dozens of patients who also don’t know about his diagnosis who are at risk. In other words, he’s a horrible doctor. Bye bye sympathy.

Oh, and there’s a subplot that is all about a young patient being able to fart. I’d rather not discuss it — *shudder*

What makes it more baffling from a story standpoint is that it appears that this is the first movie Kurosawa made free from the censors. I can’t find anything to back me up, but the subject matter alone I think would have been banned outright had censorships still been in place. Further, one of the nurses talks openly about how she wishes she had an abortion and dislikes motherhood, which also probably would have been poo-pooed. So why Kurosawa feels the need to saddle himself with so many clichés in this new freedom confounds me.

And then there’s the acting. The cast, all of whom I’m sure are capable actors and many of whom provide incredible performances in other Kurosawa films, all suck here. There are no two ways about it. The soap opera parallel I made early is especially apt in terms of the acting. Mifune doesn’t seem to understand his character’s motivation, so he broods and stares until his big monologue where he loses it and curses the predicament he has put himself in. Mifune goes so over the top there that it almost feels like a parody. Noriko Sengoku plays nurse Rui, the woman who wishes she had an abortion and slowly falls in love with Kyoji. She is, in theory, the most interesting three-dimensional character in the film, but Sengoku’s performance is so insanely BIG that you can’t take Rui seriously for a moment. The moment where Rui realizes that Kyoji has syphilis is played like a bad skit on “Saturday Night Live,” with Sengoku mugging horror like a silent movie star who isn’t going to get her studio contract renewed.

The movie looks cheap too. Forget Monogram, this reminded me of a PRC film. The main doctor’s office set is cobbled together of props that look to be from different eras (when what’s happening onscreen becomes boring, which is often, start glancing at the stuff sitting on tables for a giggle). Aside from one or two showy shots at the climax, especially one where Mifune walks down stairs to confront our villain, and Kurosawa’s trademark cutting swipes, there is nothing here to make the visual style distinct or interesting. Nothing. I would go so far as to say that if someone told me that Kurosawa got sick and missed four weeks of shooting, I would not be surprised.

There are a few things that will be interesting for the most devoted of Kurosawa aficionados. There’s an early example of those scenes where Kurosawa has supporting characters discuss the main character. But there’s no insight into motivations, as we see in “The Bad Sleep Well” or “Ikiru,” just an easy way to get exposition out.

And let’s talk about the climax being Susumu showing up at the clinic after his son is stillborn and wandering around in a drunken stupor until he sees the dead bloody fetus. Really? I mean, really? It doesn’t impact Kyoji or his journey in any way…it’s just another sign that the filmmakers really had no idea what they were doing or why this was a story they wanted to tell.

In case you couldn’t tell, I really hated this movie. It frustrated me, and since it started so well, that made the horrible everything else even worse.

Notes:

-The music was composed by Akira Ifukube, who would go on to create the iconic Godzilla march. Here the music is insistent and grating, never moreso than in the scene when Kyoji and his ex-fiance go on a walk together. But one can’t really blame Ifukube – he was trying to bring emotions and weight to a situation that was not there in the first place.

-One of the most inadvertently funny moments is when a character goes to fill his glass with saki and it overflows, but he just keeps pouring. That’s how much he wants to drink!

Drunken Angel

drunken angel 1Year: 1948

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Keinosuke Uegusa

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Reisaburo Yamamoto, Chieko Nakakita

Music: Ryoichi Hattori, Fumio Hayasaka

It’s the general consensus among Kurosawa scholars that “Drunken Angel” is the first time Kurosawa really was “Kurosawa.” And it’s easy to see why – Kurosawa famously battled with the censors and got a lot of subversive, grey subject matter into the film. It also stars both of Kurosawa’s great collaborators – Takashi Shimura and, making his first appearance in a Kurosawa-directed film, Toshiro Mifune. But really, the film is just another step in the maturity of the master… it’s a good but not great movie that’s easy for critics and scholars to point to in the same way they do with “The Lodger” for Hitchcock.

It’s obvious from frame one of the film that Kurosawa was pissed about something. He plays the credits over a “swamp,” giving a close up to the dirt, raw sewage and I-don’t-know-what-all before showing us a bunch of prostitutes in the middle of a ghetto. There are gambling halls, cheap outdoor sales tents selling dreck and not a lot of hope for anyone there.

Our dual protagonists are at opposite ends of the swamp. The first is a doctor named Sanada (Shimura). Sanada is a drunk who regularly waters down his office’s pure alcohol in order to drink it. It becomes clear that he could have been a well-paid surgeon in a metropolis, but something went wrong along the way, leaving him a bitter shell of a man who remains a good physician but without a hint of a bedside manner. He has had a long fall into this ghetto.

The other is Matsunga (Mifune), a gangster who grew up in this world and has reached the pinnacle of his lifestyle as the film opens. He’s rich, his only rival is in prison, all the businesses give him free whatever and he has his choice of women. He wallows in the waste of the ghetto like Sanada, but not because he is trapped there – this is his kingdom. Unfortunately, Matsunga has contracted tuberculosis, setting him on a collision course with our doctor.

Sanada isn’t exactly nice when he tells Matsunga that he might die. And Matsunga, blunt object that he is, doesn’t exactly take the news well. The encounter gets violent. So does the second. So does the third. By the fourth both men are tired.

drunken angel 2What fascinated me is why Sanada keeps going back for more. After the first time a gangster insulted me and beat me senseless, I would press charges. But our good doctor seeks him out again. And again. More than one character comments on what a good man Sanada is, and Kurosawa and his co-writer Keinosuke Uegusa pretty blatantly set up the doctor as the drunken angel of the title, even going so far as having Sanada just say it, telling the gangster “You always imagine angels come looking like dance hall girls. But they’re like me.”

But maybe it’s more than just that, and certainly it’s more interesting if it is. What if our bachelor Sanada is really in love with Matsunga? Obviously Mifune is not a bad looking guy (even in full sick make-up you can’t help but note his strong cheekbones), and Kurosawa does some very interesting things with the doctor’s character that hint toward homosexuality. He’s single and, though he warns others to stay away from his live-in nurse, shows no affection for her in a way other than paternal. He jokes with a good looking bartender that she should marry him, and then bursts out laughing before he can even finish the thought. Most obviously, Matsunga walks out of a dance hall to meet him while he is sucking on a Popsicle for no apparent reason. Sanada doesn’t have to be gay – the story works well enough if he’s not…but the new shades and depth that the idea brings to the film are fascinating.

drunken angel 3The movie seems to be about Matsunga coming to terms with his illness and Sanada “saving” him, but Kurosawa and Uegusa have more twists in mind. Sanada’s nurse (Chieko Nakakita) was once the wife/kept woman/whore (it’s kept vague in the film) of Matsunga’s old rival Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto). And it just so happens that Okada is about to get out of prison.

Is Okada a changed man? Well, as soon as he gets out of prison he grabs a guitar from a nearby minstrel and begins singing a song called “The Killer’s Anthem” (not kidding) in front of a sign that says “No. 1” (also not kidding). While Kurosawa brings a lot of subtlety to various places in the film, this is not one of them, though I must admit I like all the characters learning he is out of prison by hearing him sing.

Okada is a wonderful villain because he twists the knife in both our protagonists in just the right way. Sanada and his nurse are in legitimate danger when he comes looking for her, and Matsunga is facing off with his more powerful rival at the weakest moment in his life.

Why doesn’t this Nurse Whatshername have anything to say about what’s happening? Well, that’s because the writers don’t really seem to give a crap about her. She is first introduced in a scene where she defines not her own character, but Sanada’s character. He then defines her instead of allowing her to speak for herself. The only time she speaks up is when she says she might as well go back to Okada because she doesn’t want to cause any trouble. Seriously. What a waste of a character, especially considering how important she is to the plot. This is one of the biggest shortcomings of the movie. It’s short for a Kurosawa movie, only a little more than 90 minutes, and I desperately wish there was an extra 20 minutes that gave me enough material to remember her name and learn to care about her in the way Sanada does.

Matsunga’s spiral, on the other hand, is great. He falls back on drinking and gambling despite it being the very worst thing for his health. He keeps trying to challenge Okada even though somewhere inside he must know it’s futile. The best scene in the movie is where a bunch of thugs come to collect the nurse and begin to threaten Sanada’s life. Sanada is all bluster and truly believes he isn’t going to die, but Matsunga knows better. He rises from his sick bed and begs for Sanada’s life, even getting on his knees in order to secure it. The moment, where we see no hint of the swagger or danger Mifune had so far brought to the performance, is truly shattering.

The spiral ends in a fight, as we knew it must. Despite being on the verge of death, Matsunga attacks Okada and they pathetically roll around the upper floor of the gang’s building with a knife consistently just being out of reach. During this melee, Matsunga gets covered in white paint – not so subtly becoming just as much of a drunken angel as the doctor before he’s stabbed to death by Okada. It’s… odd that Okada isn’t killed in the fight as well, and I wonder if this was a censor’s decision. We learn that Okada is sent back to jail for murdering Matsunga, so the gangster still succeeds in taking Okada out and protecting his friends… but still. Weird.

The movie ends beautifully, with a bartender who, in two scenes, showed more depth and character than Nurse Whatshername in the entire movie, taking Matsunga’s ashes away from the ghetto to spread them. Sanada refuses to admit that Matsunga did something good by going after Okada… choosing to believe that he only did it trying to get his territory back. As if. Shimura is incredibly powerful here, the doctor’s stubbornness somehow feeling perfect and tragic. It feels more right than Kurosawa’s proposed ending, where Sanada paid for a big funeral and trucked the coffin through gang territory to show that Matsunga was loved by someone. The censors didn’t like it and made Kurosawa change it, and though it would have brought an easier tear, it wouldn’t have been as honest to the character as this is. One day Sanada will admit to himself that Matsunga was an angel as well… but not yet. He can’t yet. It would break him.

The direction and cinematography isn’t overly showy except in a few places, and the more gritty tone fits the piece better… and Criterion’s transfer isn’t the best so the grainy-ness actually helps things too. But here you remember the weirder, more off-putting visual moments instead of the good ones – a metaphorical doll in the swamp that’s cut to two too many times, a cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs dream sequence where a well Matsunga finds a sick Matsunga in a coffin on the beach…because obviously. And yet because the story has more layers than you’d expect (probably because Kurosawa and Uegusa were making things subtle to avoid the censors) and because the two main characters are so engaging you walk away from “Drunken Angel” exhilarated… the first time I can say that in this journey so far.

Notes

-Kurosawa’s obsession with feet and shoes continues here. We get unnecessary lingering shots of Matsunga’s ex-girlfriend’s high heels when she’s packing.

-There’s a completely random, beautifully shot musical number in the middle of the movie that has an incredible shot that does a quick pan in toward the main singer’s mouth when she belts a particularly long note. It feels very 1940s MGM musical.

-There’s an interesting documentary on the Criterion disc about Kurosawa’s relationship with the censors after the war, and focuses specifically on the problems he had with “Drunken Angel.” The information is great, specifically looking at how his reactions to what the censors said changed the story and how he played the two bureaus off of one another. That said, “One Wonderful Sunday” remains more shocking to me, especially how often it showcases the damage from the war in almost every scene.

Snow Trail

snow trail 1Year: 1947

Studio: Toho Studios

Director: Senkichi Taniguchi

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Yoshio Kosugi

Cinematography: Junichi Segawa

Music: Akira Ifukube

Akira Kurosawa did not direct “Snow Trail,” but its importance to his development as a filmmaker makes its inclusion here a necessity. He wrote the screenplay, which focuses on one of his obsessions – mountain climbing. It is the first starring role for Kurosawa’s muse Toshiro Mifune, and the lead is the maestro’s other muse, Takashi Shimura. In other words, it’s a Kurosawa film in (almost) all the ways that matter.

That said, this is a weird movie. You have to watch it twice in order to understand it, and not because of narrative complexity or subtlety – it’s because Kurosawa and director Senkichi Taniguchi’s first half is so scattered and unfocused that you have no idea what the movie is about (or who the protagonist is) until you are halfway done. It seems as if Taniguchi and Kurosawa are zipping in and out of different movies, one every ten minutes, trying to settle on something that appeals to both of them.

The first ten minutes are a police procedural, with several officers discussing a major robbery perpetrated by a trio of villains, who are hiding out in a hot springs on top of a nearby snow-covered mountain. Then, suddenly, we are in the hot springs following two hotel clerks who are suspicious of a trio of new guests. The suspected robbers aren’t exactly subtle in their attempts to cover their tracks – they not only break the radio, but steal the tubes. They hide in their room and never leave together. We think we’re in for a tense stand-off when the screenplay switches focus again. The clerks and all the spa guests are forced to strip and stay in the springs until they are found by the police, and the POV shifts to the three thieves, now on the run on the nigh-impassible snow-covered mountain.

snow trail 3I was surprised to see that John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” was actually released after “Snow Trail,” because this section of the film is so thematically similar to “Sierra Madre.” We finally get to know the three robbers – Shimura plays Nojiro, a seasoned thief who is missing a few fingers but makes up for it with a really awesome pair of sunglasses. Kurosawa regular Yoshio Kosugi plays an older thief (despite looking younger than Nojiro) named Takasugi who appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And Mifune plays Eijima, the hotheaded wildcard of the group. They split the money and say they’re going to stick together, but soon Takasugi is frozen out (I apologize for the pun) and is put on ice… literally. Eijima and Nojiro continue to wander in the wilderness, looking for a way down the mountain, when they happen upon a family in a gorgeous log cabin, where the movie again shifts, this time going for a “Bride of Frankenstein”/“Saboteur” vibe.

It’s also when Kurosawa’s screenplay finally figures out what it’s about. Nojiro becomes our hero, getting to know and like the trio of family members. Is it possible that, even though he’s a scoundrel, he’s not a bad guy after all? Le gasp! The family consists of a grandfather who tends to speak in clichés and, though blind, can see into Nojiro’s good soul, a young woman named Haruko (Setsuko Wakayama) who screams and Screams and SCREAMS (she apparently thinks it’s adorable) every time she steps out of the house. There’s also Honda (Akitake Kono), a veteran mountain climber that Eijima and Nojiro will ultimately take hostage to help them get down the mountain before the police find them. None of the family are fleshed out in any meaningful way, so much so that when Nojiro goes to pains to save Honda’s life in the third act you are surprised that Kurosawa believed that the story and character had enough weight to pull off the development.

Yes, Kurosawa’s script could have used another draft or four to really bring out the characters, motivations and any sense of driving force, but there are still several small moments that are delights. When Haruko is taking a bath, she complains that the water is too hot, so Honda dumps a shovelful of snow through the window to cool the water. When that doesn’t work, he starts breaking off gigantic icicles and dumps them in as well. The idea of stripping all the spa guests and dumping them into the hot springs, knowing they won’t be able to run to get help is ingenious. And the final moment of the film, with Nojiro being driven away and asking to look at the mountain one last time, is quite beautiful.

This was Taniguchi’s first feature, and he makes quite an impact with his visuals. In fact, dare I say that the movie is more visually accomplished than it would have been had Kurosawa directed it at this point in his career? The firelit sequence where the thieves break up their money has as much atmosphere as any great noir, and all of his work on the mountains (the cinematography was by Junichi Segawa) is tremendous. He plays with audience’s expectations in certain shots – like one on the mountain that shows a frightening store of snow high up, ripe to begin an avalanche, then he shifts the camera down… to show three very real actors racing across the snow beneath it.

When the avalanche does happen, it’s a breathtaking sequence, where we see a very real actor or stuntman getting buried in thousands of pounds of falling, shifting snow. You almost wonder why Taniguchi didn’t frame that as the finale showpiece instead of the fight on the edge of the mountain that currently climaxes the film. There are fantastic images of unbroken snow that the actors are very obviously walking through for the first time. How did they set up for take two? And that climactic fight on the edge of the mountain, while not as engaging as the avalanche, is still pretty thrilling… especially when our hero and villain literally find their world falling out from beneath them as the “ground” collapses around them – it was only frozen snow. Then there’s the haunting final image of Shimura watching the mountain outside the window, the beautiful monolith reflected over his peaceful eyes. Beautiful.

snow trail 2Shimura gives a great performance, and really steps up his game once Kurosawa’s script shifts to his point-of-view. It’s one of those un-fussy roles where Shimura easily could have gone over-the-top, but he keeps it subtle, and the film is better for it. Mifune is fine here – he isn’t particularly memorable in either a good or a bad way. His intense stare hadn’t been perfected yet, and it’s hard to believe that his breakthrough performance in “Drunken Angel” would only be a year later.

It’s a shame “Snow Trail” doesn’t get more discussion or play today. Even though Kurosawa’s collaboration with Taniguchi isn’t necessarily a great film, it is a memorable one, definitely worthy of the hour-and-a-half investment.

Notes

  • Janus owns the rights to the film, and I’m a little surprised that it never included it on one of Kurosawa’s Eclipse boxed sets. Perhaps they are planning a solo title release for it sometime in the future?
  • Kurosawa’s obsession with feet continues! In the final battle Eijima attempts to shove his crampons into Nojiro’s face – it’s a tense, tense sequence where Shimura looks so legitimately afraid that Mifune is about to blind him that you almost wonder if the two had a little fight just before the cameras began to roll.
  • Kurosawa was apparently obsessed with mountain climbing, and would devote one of his lesser shorts in “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” to a ghost that visits an exhausted climber on the cliffs of a blizzard-buzzed mountain.

One Wonderful Sunday

one wonderful sunday 1Year: 1947

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Keinosuke Uegusa, Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Isao Numasaki, Chieko Nakakita

Music: Tadashi Hattori

Though many will point to “Rashoman” as the Kurosawa film that truly redefined world cinema, perhaps we too easily overlook “One Wonderful Sunday” as another hugely important transitory step.

Perhaps it’s because the movie is, upon first glance, a simple story about two people spending a day together. And no, it doesn’t have the same emotional resonance or depth other great “walking” films have – it’s not as good as Linklater’s “Before” series or Minnelli’s “The Clock” or even “Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist.” But what it does do is serve as a precursor to the short-lived (but incredibly important) Italian neorealism movement, specifically its pinnacle film “Bicycle Thieves,” and also tries some shockingly edgy things with editing and breaking the fourth wall that predates Goddard’s “Breathless” by well over a decade.

And yet, at its heart, it’s simply a walking movie. When one feels lost, walking a familiar path often helps one to find his or her way. The labyrinth is used often and well to help people with questions take a journey to find their answer. I’m guessing that a lot of people in 1947 Japan were feeling lost, what with recovering from a lost war and an occupation they actively loathed but could not fight. So Kurosawa frames “One Wonderful Sunday” around two lovers walking around the ruins of Tokyo, desperately trying to pick up the pieces of their broken lives but unable to figure out a way how to do that.

The two people in question are Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita). Yuzo has returned from the war and does one hell of a lot of brooding, so much so that it defines his character. Masako is a peppy young woman eager to have fun and almost always optimistic – picture is little orphan Annie was Japanese and had never met Daddy Warbucks. The following defines her character: when Yuzo tells her how bad he feels that she has a huge hole in her shoe, her response is that it just helps it drain faster when she steps in a puddle. We don’t know how they met or what has kept them together.

Yuzo is ostensibly framed as the lead of the movie. It begins on him looking at a half-finished cigarette on the ground, stays with him after he and Masako have a fight and the ending lingers on him. But the really interesting character here is Masako. She’s the one we are drawn to and her optimism and devotion to Yuzo is fascinating, especially considering his alienation and her own dire financial circumstances. Their first excursion together in Tokyo is walking through a newly built, overpriced shack that they can’t afford. She’s laughing and trying to pretend they live there and he immediately turns into a Debbie downer. At one point she stands there staring at him as if to say “What are you doing, dummy? Don’t you know the movie is called ‘One Wonderful Sunday’?”

The arc of the movie is set up to be Yuzo losing his dignity only to discover it once more at the climax and move forward toward a brighter tomorrow, and that is fine. But Masako is such a better character in every way that she becomes the de facto heroine here…and instead of the more obvious arc the filmmakers devised the movie instead becomes about her journey to bring this man who obviously doesn’t deserve her back to life. There’s a dark passage at the halfway point where Yuzo is so angry and frustrated and brooding that he begins to do anything possible to force that sadness onto Masako. In essence, he emotionally beats her until she finally breaks and begins to weep inconsolably. Up until that point, we had been with Masako and wishing for her to help him, but at that moment we lose all sympathy with Yuzo and the movie never quite recovers from it…so much so that it becomes difficult to cheer the optimistic ending for him. You can’t help be reminded of Herzog’s “Sunrise,” where we never quite sympathized with the husband again after he tried to murder his wife, or “West Side Story,” where you no longer respected Maria after she slept with her brother’s murderer.

one wonderful sunday 2But Masako of course takes him back and we are treated to not one, but two major climaxes. The first is much better, and because it’s so good it manages to let the air out of the second. After the duo don’t have enough money to pay for tea and cakes at an overpriced, gross diner, they fantasize about building their own café together. They have the conversation while walking through a bombed-out area of the city, fantasizing about rebuilding it with their own café of cobalt blue curtains and coffee for the masses. Yes, it’s very on the nose, but it works because, honestly, haven’t we all had that similar fantasy?

The second climax feels like a scene that might have been the first one Kurosawa imagined for the project, and therefore kept in although everything around it had matured and altered. The lovers go to an amphitheatre where earlier they could not get tickets and Yuzo playfully tries to conduct an imaginary symphony when, shocker of shockers, he gets lost in a fit of depression again. There’s no real reason for him to get as depressed as he does considering the excellence of the last scene where they were imagining, but okay, we go with it. Masako runs to him and tries to lift him up through pretending there is applause for him. When that doesn’t work, she breaks the fourth wall, staring at us through the screen and begging us to clap…to help Yuzo get on his feet and conduct. The moment would have much more resonance if Yuzo was a composer, or if the earlier scene hadn’t happened, but it still is bold and truly startling to see Kurosawa just unapologetically go for it, and he deserves many kudos for making the scene as good as it is. And yet, I can’t help but feel like the sequence, which lasts for what feels like ten minutes, is wholly unnecessary and anticlimactic after the magic of the scene that preceded it.

Isao Numasaki and Chieko Nakakita both do very well in their roles. Numasaki in particular deserves credit for taking a most unlikable character and making him somewhat watchable. Nakakita is great as well, but doesn’t have much chemistry with Numasaki, perhaps because we sense that she can do so much better. She could easily find a man who, instead of brooding about that hole in her shoe, could actually do something about fixing it.

one wonderful sunday 3Despite its deep flaws, “One Wonderful Sunday” is not a bad picture…it’s just not a great picture. And it really could have…should have been. As you watch it, there are many great scenes, scenes where one can’t help but place it in the context of film history. There’s a moment at the mid-point that is almost beat-for-beat reconstructed in “Bicycle Thieves,” where Yuzo is at his breaking point and tries to get a ticket to a symphony through violence, only to be beaten himself for being so desperate. Another moment has our two leads standing on the swings of a swingset and moving back and forth, and one can’t help but think of “Ikiru” and sigh that this just isn’t in the same league. Still, I’m not unhappy I spent a little under two hours with it, but I probably won’t ever feel the need to revisit it again.

Notes:

-Kurosawa seems obsessed with feet in the movie, specifically Masako’s feet. Besides the hole in her shoe, Kurosawa makes the odd decision to frame several shots on feet and then pan up to the characters’ faces. This works the first two times to showcase the tattered, breaking shoes of the main characters but is unnecessary after that. There’s also an odd choice later where the characters are walking up stairs in line for the ticket booth where Kurosawa lingers on Masako’s feet for no discernible reason.

No Regrets For Our Youth

no regrets 1Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1946

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Eijiro Hisaita

Cast: Setsuko Hara, Susumu Fujita, Denjiro Okochi

Cinematographer: Asakazu Kakai

Music: Tadashi Hattori

Editor: Akira Kurosawa

Scarlett O’Hara, meet Akira Kurosawa.

The hero of “No Regrets For Our Youth” is named Yukie (Setsuko Hara) and she is portrayed as equal parts beautiful, fascinating, strong and infuriating. Also like the famed Ms. O’Hara, she sends quite the mixed message about feminism, but more on that later.

This is really three movies rolled up into one – the first focusing on Yukie’s immaturity in her youth, the second on her love and loss and finally on her maturation into a woman. The reason I see them as separate films instead of simply acts is because the tone is so different, the locations completely alter and Yukie doesn’t appear to be the same woman in any of them.

no regrets 2She’s the daughter of a beloved university professor (Denjiro Okochi) and, as the movie opens, he is being labeled as a “red” and her family’s world is collapsing around her as the university students have an anti-militarist stand-off that they lose. Yukie doesn’t want to deal with it in any way, and would rather concentrate on a presumed love triangle between the dull, complacent Itokawa (Akitake Kono) and the political activist/better-in-every-way Noge (Susumu Fujita). Picture Scarlett before the Civil War. Though Yukie never says “Fiddle dee dee,” she does begin to play piano in order to avoid having a serious conversation about politics, which sounds about equal in my eyes.

Time passes and she chooses neither man, at least at first. It’s obvious her heart is with Noge, though he is soon imprisoned for his activism. When he is released he comes to dinner and appears docile and changed, which infuriates Yukie so much she runs upstairs to prostrate her body against her bedroom door, soap opera style.

No Regrets 3Itokawa fades into the background and Yukie moves to Tokyo where she reconnects with Noge after a few years, and this time they fall in love. He’s politically active again, but this time working illegally to undermine the government. He doesn’t tell Yukie about what he’s doing and she doesn’t ask. One would think that she would be happy he’s back to being his old self, but no. Like that spoiled brat of a child who cries for a toy and then immediately breaks it, Yukie spends every day of their married life crying and crying and crying (and crying!) at the thought of losing her beau. These passages are among the most infuriating in the movie because they seem to underline that Yukie only wants what she can’t have – if Noge is active then she wants him passive, if he is passive she wants him active.

No matter, he’s dead from his work soon enough, discovered and arrested by police to die mysteriously in his cell soon after, and we enter act three, or the Scarlett rebuilding Tara section of the movie. Yukie moves in with Noge’s mother and near-comatose father and helps them revitalize their rice farm, despite being town pariahs thanks to Noge’s actions. These scenes are the best in the film because they showcase a true determination and change in Yukie, making the viewer believe she has, after all, learned from her immature actions and is making changes for the better.

For a film that aims to be cerebral and about the inner mind of a single person, Kurosawa handles the movie in a very visual way. At times he goes into surrealistic territory, with several scenes and sequences almost seeming to have been directly inspired by Murnau. Take a moment where Yukie symbolically accepts the job of becoming a rice farmer by bending forward to show her arms, which then fades into the sticks of two farming tools.  He also gives us several montages to get information across, particularly in the first third of the film. There’s also a moment where we find ourselves in a movie theatre where a comedy is playing and all eyes are on the screen and all mouths are laughing. The camera pans to the left, finally reaching the single face not on screen – Yukie, who is watching Noge and crying (again). One can’t help but be reminded of the scene in Hitchcock’s “Strangers On a Train” where Hitchcock shows the heads in the stands watching a tennis game bounce back and forth as they watch the ball until we focus on the one face that does not. Kurosawa made this movie two years before Hitchcock released “Strangers” and, though I highly doubt Hitchcock saw this movie before he made that one, it’s still neat to think “What if…?”

Other editing choices and visual touches are too experimental or hurt the movie because they directly contradict the tone Kurosawa is trying to build. Take the moment Yukie faints and there’s a bunch of quick cutting. Or the moment she prostrates herself against the door. They were flourishes that the movie didn’t need to get it’s point across.

What bugs me about the storytelling is that it goes out of its way to make Noge seem absolutely extraordinary in every way, and in doing so short-changes Yukie. He’s ostensibly this phenomenal guy but, as portrayed by Fujita, he’s also a total bore. Fujita doesn’t emote in any discernible way – you don’t get the feeling that he’s head over heels for Yukie, nor do you get the feeling he really cares about these ideas he pontificates about and ultimately gives his life for. The movie is very careful to not illustrate what exactly Noge is doing to overthrow the government and never implies that it’s violent or radical in any way…but wouldn’t that have made him more interesting? Wouldn’t specificity one way or the other have made us engage with him more as a character? More than that, by having Yukie purposely remove herself from his actions and not even ask him about them, screenwriter Eijiro Hisaita shoots himself in the foot by removing a large part of Yukie’s emotional maturation. One can’t help but wonder how much better the movie would be if these issues were addressed, or if Kurosawa had met Toshiro Mifune a few years earlier and had cast him in the roll. After all, Mifune could portray unhinged (“Drunken Angel”) as well as he could be buttoned up (“The Bad Sleep Well”) so this could have been a perfect role for him.

The other troubling thing about Noge is that, when you think about it, the movie is all about him. And yes, there could be a fascinating movie made about a woman who supports her “great” husband, but I feel that this movie doesn’t realize how it’s stacking the deck against its own heroine. When her father is reinstated to the University after the war he gives a four minute speech pontificating about how great a man Noge was, with barely a mention of his own daughter! And in the movie’s final scenes, Yukie mentions in an almost offhanded way that she is the leader of some sort of union in the valley she now lives, but that has nothing to do with her arc in the movie. She should have somehow made an incredibly big impact on Noge and his own work in order for the ending to feel cathartic and not like a cheat.

But though Hisaita’s screenplay falls short on these important fronts, the mistakes are made up for at least in part thanks to Hara’s incredible performance. Kurosawa and his cinematographer Asakazu Kakai shoot her like one of the silent greats, and she is so appealing in her many stages of maturation that you can’t help but go along for the ride, bumpy as it may be. This is definitely one of the great performances in a Kurosawa movie, though I can’t help but wish the character met the excellence of the performance.

This is a deeply flawed film, but one in which you can tell that Kurosawa was quickly learning to be a master of his craft. He wasn’t there yet, but the different between this movie and “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2” are like night and day, and he made that only two years prior. I do feel like I would have enjoyed the movie more had I known more about the pre-war and post-war Japan, and especially the Takigawa Incident that inspired the movie’s first act, but still, I have no regrets for spending two hours watching it.

Notes:

-A bunch of idiotic critics who are trying to look more knowledgeable than they are list this as Kurosawa’s sole movie with a female protagonist. Look no further than “The Most Beautiful” or “Rhapsody in August” for proof otherwise. What’s most shocking is that the Criterion booklet essay, written by Michael Koresky, makes that same dumb statement even though he mentions “The Most Beautiful” a few paragraphs earlier! He also describes “Sanshiro Sugata” as “masterful,” which makes me think he didn’t even bother to watch other Kurosawa movies before sitting down to write the essay. What a shame.

-Takashi Shimura makes a cameo in the movie as a police officer and makes an incredible impression, subtly contorting his face and lips (part of this is the lighting as well) to resemble that of a pig as he interrogates Yukie.

-Kurosawa is not listed as a co-screenwriter in the credits, a first for him.

The Men Who Tread On the Tiger’s Tail

men who tread 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1945

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Kenichi Enomoto, Takashi Shimura, Susumu Fujita

Cinematographer: Takeo Ito

Music: Tadashi Hattori

Though it’s one of those rare movies that manages to be both convoluted and too simplistic at the same time, “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” is the first work in Akira Kurosawa’s oeuvre that “feels” like an Akira Kurosawa film. It features many, many moments, motifs and character beats that would become hallmarks of the master’s career, and even though his artistic expressions were still in their infancy, he manages to do some things better here than he would do later in much more celebrated work. I’m not sure I’d call it good, but it is a solid film that I’m happy I spent an hour with.

Presumably inspired by some true-ish event, the movie opens with a very long written prologue explaining who is at war with who and where it’s happening and blah blah blah. After the second page of title cards I gave up trying to understand the specifics. Luckily, the actual story is simple and easily understandable: During wartime, a lord and his samurai must secretly cross a border to get into friendly territory and plan to do so dressed as monks, despite there being many border guards searching for them. In a development that Kurosawa added to the legend, the group is accompanied by a porter (Kenichi Enomoto) who is a complete idiot, but an idiot in such a way that he sees logic where others might easily overlook it.

Just in the plot description you can see several Kurosawa hallmarks. The large group of samurai trying to accomplish a goal (“Seven Samurai”), obviously, but also the use of a fool. While one could point out “Sanjuro” or “Ran,” the obvious comparison here is “The Hidden Fortress,” where two fools accompanied a princess and her protector on a journey. What genuinely surprised me here is that Kurosawa’s use of the character trope worked better here than it did in the later film. Instead of honing his very strong storytelling technique with the character here into something transcendent, Kurosawa stripped away everything likeable about the archetype for “The Hidden Fortress’” duo. Here the porter actively likes the samurai and the lord. Here he actively tries to help and give ideas. Here he actively tries to get them out of jams. He’s very active. So while you may judge him and laugh at him, you know inherently that this is a good person you want to root for. In “The Hidden Fortress,” the duo of idiots connives and try to backstab and try to steal and do everything in their power to undercut the good men and women at the center of the story, which makes me dislike them.

men who tread 2
Subtle.

The inclusion of the fool character of the porter puts a spotlight on what an interesting mix of tones Kurosawa is playing with here. Despite having many samurai, this isn’t an action movie, and the way the characters discuss their predicament and the way it pays off at the border makes me believe that Kurosawa wanted to make a very cerebral movie, one where the real battleground was in the characters’ minds, not through their swords. This is another hallmark of the master’s work, but one which he has not learned to control. The porter’s humor oftentimes undercuts the underlying tension, as do Kurosawa’s random cuts to Enomoto mugging worse than a silent film star during suspense sequences. How can we take the situation seriously if Kurosawa isn’t?

The tone issues aren’t enough to sink “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail,” however, and I think a major facet of that is because, in addition to the tonal shifts, almost everything else in the movie is at some point at odds with itself. There is a kabuki narrator who speaks from time to time, and indeed Enomoto seems to be almost slathered in kabuki make-up. Sometimes the set backdrops seem purposely artificial, as when you can see badly painted clouds in the sky, which underline and support the kabuki style in the same way it did in Keisuke Kinoshita’s “The Ballad of Narayama” years later. And yet Kurosawa doesn’t play fair with that either – the movie opens with the cast in a very, very real forest and there are shots of the very real sky throughout. He’s trying to have his cake and eat it too, and at a certain point the viewer either goes with the “let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” mentality or checks out of the movie. I went with it.

men who tread 3That “anything goes” attitude spreads to the cast. Enomoto is obviously in a very different movie than Susumu Fujita, who shows up for what I can only guess was a big cameo as the head of the guard station the men try to sneak through. Fujita is calm and obviously underplaying everything, very much the way he did in “Sanshiro Sugata.” Takashi Shimura pops up too, playing one of the samurai, but is completely wasted and barely makes an impact. Instead the main member of the samurai is Benkei, played by Denjiro Ookouchi, who is fine if not outstanding. The rest of the group, who are all wearing what appears to be clown costumes while in character as monks, melts into one another since there isn’t the runtime to properly develop them as characters. Normally I would complain loudly about this but, honestly, the story couldn’t hold up a two-hour-plus feature so I understand giving the other samurai and the lord the short shrift.

If I don’t sound too over the moon about “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” so far, I must point out that there are actually several quite incredible scenes and sequences within it. There’s a protracted comedic beat, done often today in sitcoms but much better here, where the Porter gives the viewer all the exposition he needs by explaining who the characters are and their motivations as he slowly comes to the realization that he is surrounded by deadly samurai. And though Kurosawa’s editing back to the porter’s mugging undercuts some of the power of the sequence, the actual mental face-off between the guards and the samurai is a thing of beauty. The way they use logic against one another and the way Kurosawa builds tension throughout this entire sequence shows expertise far beyond anything he had apparently been capable of previously. There’s a moment where Benkei is singing an alleged poem about why they have come to the checkpoint while staring at a blank scroll, and one of the guardsmen slowly sneaks over toward him, intending the snatch the paper and explode everything…and the moment brims with tension. Will Benkei mess up the poem? With the guardsmen grab the scroll? Will one of the samurai lose patience and just start slicing? It’s wonderful, wonderful tension and I would have loved if the movie would have lingered here for another ten minutes or so.

Instead we get a truly…odd epilogue that left me dumbfounded. The samurai escape and a party from the guardsmen arrive to deliver sake and an apology. The viewer immediately is put on edge, thinking this is another game. Then Benkei immediately begins drinking the entire case of sake, gulping bowl after bowl like an animal. Is he afraid it is poisoned? At least that’s where my mind went to. But then we see the porter sneaking sips of the sake, and the suspense dissipates because we know the porter will not die. And suddenly everyone is asleep. I still genuinely have no idea what the moment meant and what the viewer was supposed to gain from it – is there something I, as an American viewer, am missing because I don’t understand an aspect of Japanese culture? If so, please enlighten me, because these last five minutes manage to just about derail the entire movie.

At 59 minutes, the movie feels just about right. Kurosawa would of course realize that he really likes long running times in the next couple of years, but right now he could afford to be quick. As I wrote previously, I’m not sure that the story could have supported a longer running time. The film’s centerpiece – that 20 minute sequence at the checkpoint – can stand as one of Kurosawa’s best, and I’m eager to see what the master has next up his sleeve.

Notes:

-The Criterion booklet explains that the Porter character somehow was seen as unpatriotic and got the movie banned in Japan for several years.

-Speaking of the essay, Criterion essays often run the gamut from being truly insightful and extraordinary (read Ignaty Visnevesky’s article on “Mouiser Verdoux” for a great example) to laughably horrible (the article in “Rebecca,” written by Robin Wood). Stephen Prince wrote the article for the boxed set of Kurosawa’s four earliest films, and for the most part his insights and prose are passable, until I came to this sentence: “…and like his other movies during the war, it shows an artist fully formed, with themes and a narrative that are wholly consistent with his later works.” Um, what now? Did he even see “The Most Beautiful?” And fully formed? Really, Stephen Prince? Really? How can anyone take you seriously after you boast like…it’s not like we can’t immediately watch the movies after finishing the essay, dude.