Centennial Celebration: The Films Of Akira Kurosawa, Part II


As part of a yearlong celebration of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, The UCLA Film And Television Archive (in collaboration with the American Cinematheque) presents CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION: THE FILMS OF AKIRA KUROSAWA, PART II. (Part l played at the American Cinematheque in May.) This is a unique opportunity to see these classics on the big screen.

Akira Kurosawa’s filmography is a crash course in filmmaking. For young filmmakers of the 1960’s Akira Kurosawa was a god. Scorcese and Coppolla worshipped him. (They later exec-produced ‘Kagemusha”.) Lucas, Milius and Peckinpah copied him. Serge Leone plagarized him (and settled out of court.) Ingmar Bergman labeled his own “Virgin Spring” a “lousy imitation of Kurosawa.”

In Japan he was considered the most Western director. He adapted narrative techniques from Westerns and European films to tell the most Japanese of stories, successfully straddled both story telling techniques. His meticulous Mise-en-scène caters to the Japanese love of mood and contemplation (woodcut and scroll art) while character actions within the scenes drive the story forward in a western way.

He was a clear-eyed, tart humanist like Breugal or Satyajit Ray. It’s not surprising that he was the first Japanese master to be recognized by the International film audience. Educated in world culture (in part due to the influence of his older brother Heigo) the young man who was discouraged by his father from becoming a painter, found a practical way to create message through image. He was a cunning adaptor of classic European literature.

His devout appreciation of Japanese painting, theatre and poetry suffuse his films. His extraordinary wide screen compositions build on the tradition of Japanese scroll painting, which prize asymmetry and empty space as a balance to dynamic action. Kurosawa’s battle scenes remind one of Otoko-e scrolls of the late Heian period. His late color films, like his masterful “Ran” (Lear), have the triumphant imperial style of the Azuchi Momoyama period (dear to the daimyo, Shogun and Imperial courts.)

His period films like “Rashoman” (with it’s Pirandello wit) resonate with modern themes. His modern socially conscious films often used classic theatrical or novelistic storytelling techniques.

His own influences were detailed in his autobiography: Heigo, Akira’s beloved older brother had a lasting influence. Heigo took pre-teen Akira to view the devastation of Tokyo’s Great Kantō earthquake. Flinching at the sight of bloated animal carcasses and human corpses, Heigo urged Akira to face his fears by confronting them directly. (“Being an artist means not having to avert one’s eyes,” Kurosawa explained in an interview years later.)

Hoping to become a painter, he moved in with his older brother. Heigo took Akira everywhere, exposing him to theatre, film, circus performance and the Proletarian Artists’ League. Kurosawa saw films by F.W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein, Carl Theodore Dreyer, jean Renoir Abel Gance, Ernst Lubitsch under his brother’s tutalage. He later cited John Ford, Frank Capra, Eisenstein, Satyajit Ray, Jean Renoir, Abel Gance (particularly “La roue” (1923), and the French silent avant-garde as influences. Misoguchi was his favorite Japanese director.

Heigo was a popular Benshi narrator for silent films. Benshi performers explained the foreign inter-titles in amusing ways, and had their own followers, who prized their performances as much as the film they were narrating. In 1932, as foreign sound films came in, Heigo led a strike of the Benshi performers. Heigo committed suicide in 1933. Benshi disappeared by 1936.

Director Kajiro Yamamoto was Kurosawa’s prime mentor. Yamamoto brought him into Photo Chemical Laboratory (which morphed into Toho, where Kurosawa made fourteen films). Yamamoto promoted the sensitive young man to First AD after a year, and trained him in every aspect of film making (art-direction, set-decorating, costume-design, sound recording, editing and working with actors.) Most importantly he taught him to write scripts. Kurosawa worked on Yamamoto’s “Umah” (Horse) for three years, directing second unit and running the production. That transformed him into a director.

While working on “Umah”, Kurosawa met his idol, John Ford. Forever after he wore clothes in the Ford style-a wool cap and sunglasses. Many of his films contain expressionist sequences, and narrative montages that rival classic Russian montage. He tried to simplify modern drama and return it to the emotional clarity of silent films. He studied silent films and considered “Rashoman” (his first international hit,) a laboratory for a retooling of those expressive techniques.” Before I start to make a movie, every time I try to imagine how I would have made this picture if it was a silent movie.”

He used multiple cameras to free up his actors. He edited after each shooting day, and was considered a genius by all who edited with him. He loved telephoto lens and anamorphic wide screen, only abandoning it when studio market concerns (television licensing) forced him to.

He was a stern perfectionist. Actors’ in his period films lived in their costumes to weather them. There’s an apocryphal tale that he once reversed the direction of a stream to get a better shot. The international success of “Rashoman” (winner of the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival) opened up Western film markets to Kurosawa and other Japanese directors (Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and following generations of filmmakers.)

“No regrets For Our Youth” (1946)
Kurosawa’s first post-war film, was a critique of Japan’s pre-war regime, and captured some of the passivity of the Japanese during the American Occupation. Free from the propaganda forced on his scripts by the studio during wartime, Kurosawa found a way to introduce the idea of democracy and individual choice into the script, based on the Takigawa incident. (In 1933, leftist teacher Takigawa was forced out of his University position by the Militarist government.) Critics considered the film controversial; the audience adopted the title as a post-war slogan.

The faculty and students of Kyoto University protest the Manchurian Occupation and the rise of Japanese Fascism. The University’s prized “garden of freedom” is invaded by militarism. Professor Yagahara, his daughter Yukie, and his students climb the hillside. Their hike is interrupted by distant machine gun fire. Startled by what they think is a snake, Yukie finds a dying soldier sprawling in the brush.

Gentle, idealistic Professor Yagahara (Denjiro Okochi) loses his tenure. Carefree, apolitical Yukie (Setsuko Hara) prefers to pal around with her father’s students than learn flower-arrangement and the other female skills expected of well-bred docile Japanese women.

Courted by conventional Itokawa (Akitake Kôno), Yukie’s entranced with the intellectual Noge (Susumu Fujita), who’s jailed for his radical beliefs. She joins him after his release, and when he is executed as a traitor she joins his country family, as a rural cultural worker and organizer with the local peasants.

It is one of the rare Kurosawa films with a strong female character. Kurosawa follows Yukie’s transformation over twenty years as Japan morphs in the background. Setsuko Hara is marvelous as Kurosawa’s unique female protagonist. Sugimura gives a strong performance as Yukie’s mother-in-law who learns to love the girl she once scorned.

Kurosawa uses quite a few experimental visual techniques. Dissolves accompany Yukie from her tranquil Koto home to war-time Tokyo; later he dissolves from her manicured fingers at the piano keys, to her work scarred hands in the country. When Yukie and Noge are arrested as spies, they are separated and questioned. Kurosawa shows us the legs of a pacing guard, revealing Yukie in silhouette in her cell as a superimposed white pendulum weighs the time till she knows the outcome.

Kurosawa shows us the legs of a pacing guard, revealing Yukie in silhouette in her cell as a superimposed white pendulum weighs the time till she knows the outcome.

Her father collects her. She weeps in the train. The headlines of her father’s paper announce ringleader Ryukichi Noge’s execution. Back home he comforts he. “You were Noge’s wife. Just think of everything he accomplished. He struggles, risked his life to save Japan from War…. You should be proud.” They take his ashes to his family’s farm, where her in-laws look on her with suspicion. A lengthy montage of dramatic close-ups shows Yukie learning the peasants work skills.

It is one of the rare Kurosawa films with a strong female character. Kurosawa follows Yukie’s transformation over twenty years as Japan morphs in the background. Setsuko Hara is marvelous as Kurosawa’s unique female protagonist. Sugimura gives a strong performance as Yukie’s mother-in-law who learns to love the girl she once scorned.

Drunken Angel (1948
Japanese critics considered “Drunken Angel” Kurosawa’s first masterpiece. Once again, Kurosawa took on a topic of social critique during the conformist “Red Scare” era. The script was extensively rewritten due to Occupation censors, yet Kurosawa spoke of the film as the first time he freely expressed himself.

The film was haunted by the death of Kurosawa’s father. After his father died, Kurosawa wandered, depressed, through the streets of the Shinjuku neighborhood. “The Cuckoo Waltz” blared incessantly out of bars. Kurosawa used it on the soundtrack. Like Kurosawa, his protagonist suffered to the ironic strains of the cheerful pop tune. (Kurosawa tried and failed to get the rights for “Three Penny Opera.”)

Takashi Shimura is wonderful as a gruff alcoholic doctor who tries to get a stagnant mosquito-ridden pond drained, to improve the health of a Tokyo slum. Kurosawa cast unknown actor Toshirō Mifune in a starring role as the TB infected young gangster. His dynamic performance, so intense that Kurosawa wondered about toning him down, made an indelible impression. He played in fifteen of Kurosawa’s next 16 films in film’s longest director-actor collaboration. Kurusawa described Mifune in an interview- “The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.”

The Idiot (1951)
Kurosawa adapted a novel by his favorite author Dostoevsky. It was the first of his many adaptations from European literary works. Set in Hokkaido, Kurosawa stayed faithful to the source; some suggested he was too faithful.

Kameda (Masayuki Mori), a war criminal recently released from Okinawa, meets the banished rich man’s son Akama (Mifune) on a train. They make an unlikely pair. Both spot a picture of Taeko (Setsuko Hara) In a window and are smitten. The snowy nighttime street scene seems haunted by Capra. The two men stop in front of a photographer’s window, staring at Taeko Nasu’s portrait as if at a shrine. Their reflections on the glass frame her central image. Each man’s character is clear from the shot. Akama is animated with crude desire. Empathetic Kameda looks past the face to her inner life.

Arriving in Hokkaido, The epileptic “holy fool”, Kameda (Prince Mishkin) becomes entangled with two women Taeko and Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga as the Aglaia character) Kameda rescues kept woman Taeko from an arranged marriage. Akama courts her, and when she rejects him, turns murderous.

In one of Kurosawa’s classic expressionist weather scenes, Kameda tries to decide which woman to wed, as a blizzard swirls behind him.

The sequence at Takeo’s birthday party, thrown by Takeo’s protector Tohata (Ejiro Yanagi), is extraordinary. Pulling back from a rattan chair, we see Takeo’s back hunched in the chair. She stares at the snow-draped windows of a glass conservatory. In one image we understand that kept Takeo is trapped in a gilded cage. Music plays, reminiscent of early French sound pictures, the party swirls around the glowering Takeo.

Tohata offers Koyama (Minoru Chiaki) a dowry of 600,000 yen to marry her and take her off his hands. Mr.Ono (Takashi Shimura) Kameda’s relative and Ayako’s father, is the thieving fixer who brokered the deal. Blithe, spoiled Koyama assumes the marriage will go through.

Sunk in her thoughts, Takeo sits, surrounded by the plotting men, silently wrestling whether to agree. Kurosawa cuts from face to face, everything becomes clear.

In a reverse shot, a tracking camera shoots through the snowy windows, revealing the decorous dancing couples, closing in on Takeo’s tormented, resolved face. Mr. Kameda arrives, at her invitation, and everything changes. Takeo glides through the room. Draped in a glossy black cloak she reassembles a character from Feuillade’s “Fantomas” series, or Poe’s Raven.

Clumsy Kameda knocks over a valuable vase. As the host protests, Takeo asks,” Didn’t you give those vases to me?” She hovers over the remaining vase, as if contemplating destroying her protected world. “I meant to smash them anyway.” She smashes the vase.

Kameda and Takeo sit on either side of the screen, staring deep into each other’s eyes, framing the characters behind them.

The two stare deep into each other’s eyes. Kameda tells Takeo her eyes remind him of someone. “He and I faced a firing squad together.” Kurosawa’s close up of her face, sound of marching on the soundtrack as he describes the prisoners marching to their execution. “And the man with eyes like mIne?” “He was in the first group to be shot.” His eyes “cried out. Why must I suffer like this?”

Believing him astute at seeing into a person’s heart, Takeo asks the ridiculed Kameda if she should marry. He tells her no, and offers to take her in. Akama puts a million yen on the table for Nasu’s hand, raising the stakes. Setsuko Hara (“No Regret For Our Youth”) is marvelous as the tempting Taeko (Nastasha in the book) the epicenter of Kurosawa’s roving camera.

Kurosawa envisioned a film of 265 minutes to be released in two parts. Shochiku studio forced him to cut it down to three hours then released it at 166 minutes, filled with annoying wipes and questionable voice-overs. Even with this butchery, what’s left is a feverish fragmentary film, set in an exquisitely shot surreal winterish Hokkaido, the portrait of a pure soul dragged through the machinations of everyday life. It was the source of his next masterpiece, the Dostoyevsky inflected ” Ikiru.”

Ikuru (1952)
Kurosawa’s script for “Ikiru”, written with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, is a model of post-war humanism. Kurosawa reflects on Japan’s resistance to change in this contemporary story, satirizing complacent bureaucrats and skewing the salaryman culture.

While Public Affairs Section Chief Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) putters uselessly at his desk, two poor women are sent from one city office to the next, wasting a day attempting to get raw sewage out of a ditch, which filled in would make a fine children’s pool.

Marking time as a Tokyo bureaucrat, Kanji Watanabe learns he is dying of cancer. I cannot bring myself to die,” he insists, “because I have not yet learned to live!” The terrified man resolves to make the end of his life meaningful.

Estranged from his self-involved son (Nobuo Kaneko) and daughter in law, (who are plotting to use his pension as the down payment on a modern house); unable to communicate, Watenabe goes out on the town with a cynical, boho author (Yonosuke Ito). They trawl Pachinko parlors, noisy bars and a district of prostitution, all shown in intoxicating neon lit montage. “It’s time for a new hat and a new self, his friend advises when a bargirl pilfers his hat.

There’s a tricky adagio act sequence with mirrored overhead shots of piano keys. The two men sit worshipfully before a stripper. “Striptease…It’s more than art, it’s more direct,” instructs the writer. An overhead shot of a sea of dancers seems a salsa-scored inferno. In a cab ride home, while his paid companion counts her bankroll, Watenabe sinks glassy eyed into himself, as passing neon reflections on the window scroll over his face

Their nightscape wanderings, their tour of the dark side has a westernized existential quality. When Watanabe sits in the bar softly singing “Life Is Brief” tears wash down his cheeks and the noisy bar falls silent.

Flashbacks of his wife’s death haunt him. How did his little boy become the selfish young man before him? His friend warned him to remarry, to think of his future and stop doting on his son.” He’ll never love you the way you loved him. And when he gets married, they’ll squeeze you out.” Why didn’t he listen?

Late in the film, Watanabe sings the song again, rocking on a swing in the playground he built. It’s an astonishing, private moment of joy.

Repelled by the decadent lifestyle, hopeless Watanabe finds a wiling ear in a young office worker Toyo (Miki Odagiri) who wants to quit the boring civil service. He helps her get a job making toys. In a superb scene in a restaurant, Watanabe confides in Toyo. Behind them, framed by their alcove balcony, a birthday party of giggling schoolgirls plays an ironic counterpoint to his desperate confession. Upset that he’s been treating her to meals, Toyo protests,” You give me the creeps. Keep your old man’s infatuation.” Trying to explain why he’s been following her around, Watanabe falls silent, than bursts out “You’re just so alive. This old mummy envies you. Before I die I want to live just one day like you do. Until I’ve done it I can’t give up and die. How can I be like you?” Toho pulls out one of her wind-up rabbits. Making her toys “Make her feel like she’s playing with every baby in Japan. Why don’t you make something too?”
Quit your job, she suggests.” It’s too late” he grieves, rushing out of the restaurant.” The March Of the Toy Soldiers play, the schoolgirl party swirls up the stairs, as he hurtles past, determined to make a difference.

Back at work, he searches through a towering pile of buried requests and locates “Petition By The Women’s Committee to Repair and Fill In Cesspool,” He cuts through the red tape and orders his underlings to make it happen. As he goes to survey the site and “file a report in one day”, his astonished co-workers line up to watch him go. Through the reflection of the door swinging behind him, we watch his stunned workers.

Kurosawa ends the film with a series of stories told by his co-workers at his funeral.

Throne of Blood (1957)
Kurosawa’s love of Noh theatre influenced his bold adaptation of Macbeth.
“I wanted to use the way that Noh actors have of moving their bodies, the way they have of walking, and the general composition which the Noh stage provides,” he explained discussing the project. Arguably the most thrilling adaptation of Shakespeare, Kurosawa simplifies the story as a backdrop to a series of bold coups-de cinema. He eliminates the character of Macbeth, substitutes a haunting spirit for the three witches and ends the movie with an epic killing that inspired the best of Martial Arts filmed violence (none of which could match the bleak world view of Kurosawa.)

The Noh-Noir climaxes in a nightmare of violence. A fog-wrapped forest of “moving trees” engulfs his troops as Washizu (Mifune) is killed by his own warriors’ arrows. In an unforgettable tour de force, Mifune, cut down in an endless hail of arrows, staggers forward like a dying porcupine bristling with quills. (It must be the first instance or fragging on film,)

Of course Zhang Yimou resorted to digitized arrows in “House Of Flying Daggers.” Kurosawa made Mifune walk a series of chalked marks. Archers shot hundreds of hollow arrows, each on a guide wire, as Mifune moved forward. The near misses haunted him for a lifetime.

Kurosawa postponed his original plans to film Macbeth, when Orson Welles shot his 1947 version.” Throne Of Blood” expresses Kurosawa’s deepening pessimism. Fatalist to the extreme, his script emphasizes a lack of free will and a very Asian thrall of Karma. Man is doomed to repeat an endless cycle of violence.

During the feudal chaos of the Sengoku Period regional warlords held sway from their mountain castles. The Great Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki as Shakespeare’s Duncan), from his castle high on Mt. Fuji, orders Samurais Washizu (Toshiro Mifune playing the Macbeth character) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki as Banquo) to put down a rebellion.

Eager to obey, hounded by their unseen destiny, the Samurais ride through the dense fog, returning over and over again to the place they started. On their way to the Great Lord’s Cobweb castle, they meet a fearsome glowing spirit in the forest, keening a song in her luminous hut, her face as still as a Noh mask. Murderous Asaji (Isuzu Yamada as Lady Macbeth) also frightens him into action. She, too, is impassive. She too plays on his mortal fears, gliding across the stylized, highly polished floors, the rustling of her white train as threatening as a rattler’s tail.

Washizu is shocked by the prophecy and repelled by his wife Asaji’s advice to kill the king. She browbeats him, warning him that once the King hears of the prophecy, he will order Washizi’s death. Bit by bit she breaks him down: he must kill all rivals to consolidate power, the king killed his predecessor, and lastly he has a child on the way.

Unlike western acting, based on the psychological makeup of a character, mask work demands a transference or possession by the actor who wears the mask. Kurosaw assigned classic Noh masks to each character. In the scene where Asaji convinces him to murder the king, Mifune reproduces the expression of the Warrior (Heida) mask Kurosawa assigned him, to create an upper class Samurai destined to abandon his code of honor.

Kurosawa typically layers his characters with nuance and ambivalence. Survival, not ambition motivates Washizu. Breaking the Samurai code of honor dooms the man.

Kurosawa’s expressionist use of nature rises to a crescendo as nature turns on man and beast.

Memorable images captured in glorious high contrast cinematography
include a galloping rider-less white horse (the first of many similar haunting images in world cinema) and the birds flying madly through the throne room (years before “The Birds.”) Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum claims that Throne of Blood was T.S. Eliot’s favorite film.

The Lower Depths (1957)
“The Lower Depths” is another of Kurosawa’s Western literary adaptations, from the famous play by Maxim Gorky. The Lower Depths was a popular play in Japan and influenced other film projects including Minoru Murata’s classic silent, “Souls On The Road” (possibly the world’s first road movie) which introduced realism to Japanese film.

Kurosawa manages to adapt a stage play while retaining the virtues of theatre and the expressive possibilities of film. Kurosawa sets the story in a ravine. After opening shots of the world above (women dump garbage onto the roof of the Edo-era shack below) Kurosawa concentrates all the action in a claustrophobic hovel. He uses multiple cameras and circling camera moves to show alternating views of the drama. His expressionist chiaroscuro approach and occasional low-angle tilts (as in the chaotic death of the landlord) intensifies the hopelessness of life in the ‘lower depth’.

Working at the top of their game, an ensemble of actors, soon to become familiar to Kurosawa fans, play the denizens of the squalid flophouse who escape their hopeless lives through drink and gambling, trading barbs all the while.

The dipsomaniac Actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) claims alcohol has poisoned his “bital” organs. ‘If work made life easy, I’d do it.’ offers one character. The hardworking Tinker Tomekichi (Eijirô Tôno) works ceaselessly, unable to accept his lot. Things are hopeless for his dying wife Asa (Eiko Miyoshi), the fallen Samurai Tonosama (Minoru Chiaki), the romance obsessed prostitute Osen (Akemi Negishi), the earthy, practical candy vender (Nijiko Kiyokawa) in love with the inept policeman Shimazo (Kichijirô Ueda), Yoshisaburo the Gambler (Kôji Mitsui), Sutekichi the Thief (Toshirô Mifune) who’s having an affair with the landlady Osugi (the marvelous Isuzu Yamada) while yearning for her sister Okayo (Kyôko Kagawa). Used to manipulating men, Osugi expects Sutekichi to free her from her aged husband, venal Rokubei (Ganjiro Nakamura), but Rokubei ogles Okayo while Sutekichi hopes to marry her. Jealousy brings out the worst in Osugi who beats Oyako insensible.

‘People never do anything but repeat themselves.” says one, expressing the fatalism of the story’s worldview. Kahei, an old pilgrim (Bokuzen Hidari), joins them for several nights, bringing a spiritual humanism to the depths he’s passing through. The flophouse regulars share their dreams with him, and he tries to shore up their hope. Kurosawa, like Gorky, suggests that hopeless dreams are “the opiate of the people.”

Grandfatherly Kahei cares for the dying Asa as she starves to death, listens to Osen’s romantic memories, suggests to the alcoholic actor that he travel to a distant temple to take a cure, overhears Osugi’s murderous plots and Sutekichi’s dreams of love and counsels Okayo to run away with Sutekichi. More than once he stops a murder before he disappears down the road.

The dialogue captures the pungent poetry of Gorky. Spurred on by Kahei, Sutekichi proposes. He promises to quit his thieving ways and get a job. “There are so many serious swindlers living high on the hog. That was my excuse.” “I don’t love you,” she admits. “You’ll learn to love me. The lessons are free.” ” Say yes to him. He’s the kind who needs support,” counsels Kahei, urging her to escape her murderous family. He’s gone before things come to a head. After Rokubei’s murder Sutekichi’s arrested and Okayo and Osugi vanish. The Tinker sells his tools to pay for Asa’s funeral. “Take my advice. Don’t do anything. Just let the world carry you along,” says the Gambler.

In the closing scene, as the sake drinking survivors learn of the actor’s suicide. The Gambler growls, “It was such a great party. Then he had to go and ruin it. Bastard!” Throughout the scene, the tenants sing (and dance) an acapella comic song, from the traditional Shinto “fool festival.” The antic dance is Kurosawa’s homage to Japan’s performance tradition. A devotee of traditional theatre he ends the movie with the hyoshigi (bamboo clappers) used to announce and close traditional theatrical performance.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
In Kurosawa’s Hamlet-like story of corporate scandal in post-war Japan, seemingly mild mannered Nishi (a button-down Mifune in glasses) uses his position at the heart of a corrupt company to expose the men responsible for his father’s death. Mifune’s all banked fires, giving the most restrained performance of his life.

Kurosawa savages corporate culture. His Noir Hamlet is corrosive reversal of his humanist masterpiece “Ikiru.” Cynical, pierced with mordent satire, it’s as black hearted as Welles’s “Touch Of Evil.” In this bleak tale, man has lost the ability to improve society and the only amends for sin is death.

The opening twenty minutes is a lavish corporate banquet, celebrating the marriage of Kôichi Nishi (secretary to Iwabuchi, Vice President of Public Corporation) to Iwabuchi’s gentle crippled daughter Yoshiko (Kyôko Kagawa). The wedding is a bravura set piece. A Greek chorus of paparazzi who storm the wedding, sit on the sidelines, exposing the crooked kickback scandal between Dairyu Construction and Public Corporation Of Land Development.

When the limping bride is escorted down the hallway, to the strains of “Here Comes the Bride”, they can’t help staring at her infirmity. She stumbles and Kurosawa, a master of dramatic sound cues, stops the music. The silence is a rebuke. Once her brother Tatsuo catches her and walks her into the banquet hall, Kurosawa resumes the music. A Strauss waltz washes the bad moment away.

The banquet hall doors frame the ceremony like a proscenium. Kurosawa shoots the backs of the reporter’s heads, standing in the hallway watching.
A know it all head reporter (Kôji Mitsui) gives his running commentary. “He only married her to guarantee her success,” describing mild-mannered, bespectacled Kôichi Nishi (Toshirô Mifune), best friend of Iwabuchi’s dissipated son Tatsuo. “He only became secretary after his engagement.”

As a police detective arrives to arrest another executive implicated in the scandal, reporters swarm him.” You searched Dairyo and nabbed their accountant. Is the president or director next?” The detective arrests Assistant-to-the-Chief Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara as Polonius) leaving anxious Contract Officer Shirai (Kô Nishimura) to handle the master of ceremony duties.  “It all adds up,” drawls the reporter. When Furuya jumped from the seventh-storey window to cover up the illegal government construction bid, “Iwabuchi was division head, Administrative Officer Moriyama and Contract Officer Shirai under him. The Clean Up Trio of Graft all landed equivalent positions at Public Corp. NIce little racket they’ve got going.”

Champagne corks pop with the precision of a firing squad as Iwabuchi’s wastrel son Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi as Laertes) gives a shocking toast. The avuncular Public Corp president Arimura (Ken Mitsuda) saves the moment. It’s is the only time we see the shadowy figure all the guilty executives serve. Mendelssohn’s Wedding March plays as the wedding cake, a model of their corporate headquarters, is wheeled in. The surreal cake’s a weapon; a menacing rose marks the window Furara stepped out of. Shirai drops a tray. The culpable guests avert their eyes. Iwabuchi downs a beer as a silent example of how they should behave. The submissive bows, the anxious darting eyes, the forced laughter, and the sotto voce deadly directives- the atmosphere is grim. In this rich satirical moment, at the expense of corporate culture, Kurosawa suggests that murder is acceptable as long as protocol is served. The reporters comment “Best one act I’ve ever seen.” “It’s just the prelude.”

A montage of headlines details the widening scandal. Hamlet (Nishi) is sidelined as we watch the clean up crew in action. Midnight calls lead to salaryman suicide. Two more executives kill themselves at the boss’s command. Ordered to write a note of confession before suicide, Wada is about to throw himself into a volcano when Nishi stops him. Nishi, and cohort Itakura (Takeshi Katô) playing Horatio) take him to his own funeral. Peering through the windshield of Nishi’s car, trembling Wada watches the corporate hypocrites comfort his wife and daughter.” Please let me die, we’re wasting this fine funeral,” he begs.

To convince Wada to join his revenge, Nishi plays a surveillance recording. To the strains of a supper club mambo Moriyama and Shirai discuss getting rid of him. “Man, oh man, what a relief,” one chuckles,” You were born with the gift of persuasion.” “Look who’s talking. You left him no choice but suicide.” “Cut it out. No need to spell it out like that. Let’s drink and enjoy ourselves,” ” Still it all leaves bad taste in my mouth. ” “Get yourself a young girl, the best remedy for a day like today.” The Mambo swells, as sweating Wada collapses in the front seat.

“Still ready to die for them?” asks Nishi, revealing his plot. The illegitimate son of Furuya, NIshi has swapped identities with pal Itakura to infiltrate Public Corp and destroy his father’s murderers. Nishi destroys Shirai to bait his trap. Shirai, one of two people with access to the kickback accounts, finds the safety box empty and a picture of the office building In its place, the seventh floor window ominously marked. He hurries to his bosses. Someone’s planning blackmail. Though it’s a small robbery, the bosses ask for his keys. Frantically searching for his keys, Shira finds the missing money in his briefcase, just where Nishi planted it. It’s clear Shirai’s the next one to go.

As on a death march, Shirai goes home. In the lights of a passing car, he sees Wada’s ‘ghost’ haunting his street. Cracking under the pressure Shirai goes to his boss. In a scene of domestic farce, apron-wearing Iwabuchi barbeques for his family, before leaving to organize another cover-up murder. Things don’t go as planned. When Iwabuchi and Moriyama arrive at the restaurant paranoid wide-eyed Shirai cowers in the corner of the traditional washitsu dining room. Each insidious remark, meant to lull him into a voluntary suicide, exposes his memory of their joint murder of Furuya. Shirai squirms in his corner, as frightened as Akim Tamiroff about to be offed in “Touch Of Evil.”

Later, at the scene of Furuya’s murder, Nishi forces Shirai to drink supposed poison. (It’s a goof on Hamlet’s murder of Claudius.) Shirai ends up in an asylum, off-screen guiltily muttering,” Furuya, I’m sorry” like Lang’s insane Mabuse.

In another stunning sequence, Shirai, rescued by Nishi from a hit man, is hauled into Nishi’s car. Spinning around he sees Wada’s “ghost” in the back seat. Wide-eyed in horror he bounces in the speeding car as the lights of oncoming traffic (in delirious process shot) fill the windshield behind him.

Locking for evidence Nishi locks Moriyama in a bombed out munitions factory. Kurosawa set the bar for wide screen black and white compositions. This sequence is a perfect example. His Munitions set, as bleak as a battle scene by German Expressionist Otto Dix, belies Japan’s postwar prosperity.

Locked in a vault for two days, Moriyama refuses to talk. He’s starving.” Ham and Eggs will cost you fifteen million,” says Nishi, squeezing him for the kickback checking accounts, and his share of the loot. Wada argues, “You don’t understand bureaucrats. A good official never implicates a superior, no matter what the cost.”

Fish-faced Moriyama (Takashi Shimura), who’s spent the film slinking around with lips drawn back in a permanent state of dismay, cracks for food, underscored by Masaru Satô’s ironic, carnivalesque music.

Even Ichwara must bow to his superior. In a phone conversation he assures president Arimura (or perhaps some larger unseen shadowy figure?) “In the worst case I will take my own life, I wouldn’t think of dragging you into this.” Ichwara’s unctuous laugh makes it clear he’s dispensable too.

Compassionate Wada brings Yoshiko to their hiding place. Accepting her father’s guilt, Yoshiko tries to help her husband. Nishi realizes too late that he loves her. Their clinch is cathartic. A love that might have been.

A series of dramatic turns leads to Nishi’s betrayal. Racing to rescue him from their father Yoshiko and Tatsuo pass his crashed car. Nishi’s roadside death (in his smashed up Studebaker) drives Yoshiko to Ophelia-like madness.

Nishi’s murder brings little relief. Once the press and the prosecutor’s off his back, Once his children abandon him, Ichwara’s on the phone to his unseen superior. “Everything’s been laid to rest. I’m sorry for all the concern I caused you.” Offering to resign, he’s sent overseas, already making plans for his future.

Red Beard (1965)
Based on short stories by ShÅ«gorō Yamamoto (with a sub plot borrowed from Dostoyevsky) “Red Beard” has the leisurely pace and detail of a 19th century novel. Like “Ikiru”, “Red Beard ” tackles social injustice and the humanist ideal of making a contribution to society.

It’s 1825. Arrogant young doctor Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), proud of his studies with the Dutch doctors in Nagasake, hopes to become a personal doctor to a shogun family. Trained in the modern techniques of Western medicine, he chafes at studying with the old doctor Kyojô Niide, known as Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), convinced that Dr. Amano, father of his onetime fiancée Chigusa (Yôko Fujiyama) sent him to the charity clinic to spite him.

An unwilling assistant to Red Beard, Noboru refuses to wear his uniform, drinks forbidden sake and passes out while watching his first surgery. What’s worse, he’s convinced that Red Beard wants to steal his medical notes and private diagnoses. A series of set pieces, each a tale on its own, illustrates Yasumoto’s transformation from a privileged bourgeois to a caring doctor as Red Beard teaches him the value of human life.

Rebelling from Red Beard’s strict rules, Noboru enters the forbidden garden, the private ward of a deranged murderess The Mantis (Kyōko Kagawa). The seductive Mantis escapes. Coming to Noboru’s room, she tells a story of repeated rapes. Wrapping herself around him, she reenacts the rapes that led to her murderous attacks. Kurosawa’s fierce camera and extreme close-ups detail the lethal seduction, as Noboru fights for his life. Rescued by Red Beard, he’s nursed back to health. Red Beard’s shadow hovers over the sleeping Noboru like his guardian angel.

Healing in all its forms make up Noboru’s Pilgrim’s Progress. And he’s not alone. Other characters in the film learn healing lessons along the way.  Red Beard treats the spirit of his patients. “Medical science doesn’t know everything. If the patient has a chance we help. That’s about all. We can only fight poverty and ignorance and cover up what we don’t know,” he explains to his resentful young student. “There is always some story of great misfortune behind illness.” Summoned to surgery, Red Beard leaves Noboru with the dying Rokusuke (Kamatari Fujiwara). “There’s nothing so solemn as a man’s last moments. Watch him closely.” It seems like an easy assignment, but as the man gasps for breathe, Noboru flinches, recoiling into a corner.

After his death, Rokusuke’s desperate daughter Okuni (Akemi Negishi) arrives, dragging her three children with her. (Akemi Negishi, one of Kurosawa’s regulars, debuted as the tempting”Queen Bee.” in Von Sternberg’s “Anatahan.”) Okuni admits to attacking her husband with a knife. It was an act of vengeance, the man ran off with Rokusuke’s wife, and then married the daughter. Her adulterous mother foisted her lover on Okuni and arranged their marriage. Okuni discovered her husband had destroyed her father’s family. Yet she had three children with him. Her father forgave her and hoped to live with her and the children.

As Okuni details her dreadful story, Noboru remembers Rokusuke’s death. This time he feels pity for the good man, haloed in light, struggling to breathe his last. Ashamed to move in with her long-suffering father, she accepted her husband’s abuse until he ordered her to ask her father for money. “Telling me to get money from the man he had hurt,” she cries. “So you tried to stab him?”, mused Red Beard, ” No, an accident. He was drunk-and he had this knife. You stabbed him while trying to get it. That’s what happened,” he continues with certainty. “It often happens. Luckily I know Magistrate Shimada.” Noboru’s astonished by Red Beard’s solution. He boards the children out and blackmails a magistrate to free poor Okuni.

The saintly Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who worked himself to death for the rest of the patients, advises Noboru “Why don’t you wear your uniform, Doctor? It helps people. Seeing it we know it’s a clinic doctor. Poor people who can’t see a physician can get help from him.”

Even beloved Sahachi has a tale. He’s tormented by guilty secret for which he must atone. Returned to the inn to die, Sahachi calls his friends to hear the truth. Kurosawa unspools the tragic romance in lovely flashbacks. One snowy day a lovely woman lends Sahachi her umbrella. He became smitten with the mysterious Onaka (Miyuki Kuwano), who refused to introduce him to her parents. They married despite her reservations. “It seemed like a dream. We were so happy,” whispers the dying Sahachi. “Then came the great earthquake.” Fires broke out. Sahachi searched for his missing wife then gave her up for dead.

Kurosawa’s sequence in the quake ruins is memorable. A building topples sliding sideways to the ground. Noboru wanders through the devastation, tormented by guilt. Behind her, the sun, obscured by smoke, looms as large as another character. ” We were so happy, I became afraid. A girl like me did not deserve it. I felt I’d be punished if it lasted… I was right. This is my punishment…The time to end it has come.” Knowing that Sahachi will assume she died in the quake, she dutifully returns to the man she agreed to marry.

In a lamp lit scene posed in front of a slatted fence, Its shadow patterns as abstract as an image by Paul Strand, Sahachi learns of the baby Onaka had with her betrothed. The deflated man turns away, listening as if to a death sentence. “So unbelievably sad.” He expected to never see her again. The lovelorn Onaka returned to him and suicide in his arms. Sahachi’s death marks Noboru. A visit to the bloated, indolent Lord Matsudaira (Nobuo Chiba) grown fat from a rich diet he’s unwilling to give up, gives Noboru an inkling of what his job as doctor to the Shogun might entail.

Red Beard takes Noboru to a local brothel. Tending to a syphilitic whore, he hears Madam Kin (Haruko Sugimura) abusing twelve-year-old Otoyo (Terumi Niki.) Realizing she’s feverish, Red Beard decides to remove her. “Are you joking? Trying to get her for free?” screams the evil madam, calling for her bouncers. As the men surround Red Beard he warns, ” A bad doctor can kill you, I won’t kill you but I might break a couple of arms and legs,” dispatching his attackers with a blend of judo and anatomical savvy. When he’s done, ten men lie on the ground, with twisted broken limbs. He turns to Noboru. “Tend to the wounded. I’m afraid I went too far.”

The story of Noboru and his first patient, Otoyo, is based on the orphan Nellie subplot in Dostoevsky’s “The Insulted And The Injured.”

“Why does such a child have to suffer so? Her mind’s far worse off than her body,” instructs Red Beard as they carry the traumatized girl to the clinic. He commands Noboru to cure her. Through her suffering, Noboru begins to understand his role as doctor-to ease suffering of mind and body, like his spiritual mentor Red Beard. Noboru puts Otoyo to bed, sitting by her sick bed as Red Beard once sat by his. “No one will hurt you here ” he says trying to stop her incessant scrubbing of the clinic’s floors. Only convulsions force her back to bed.

Noboru falls sick himself and sly Red Beard has Otoya nurse him back to health. A brilliant montage illustrates Otoya nursing Noboru and recovering her sanity in the process. Noboru and Otoya tenderly care for each other. The clinic cooks (a comical chorus) resent the troubled Otoya, finding her ungrateful and sullen. Echoing Red Beard, Noboru explains, “She’s put up with more than we do in a lifetime.”

Recovered, Otoya bonds with a little neighborhood thief Chobo (Yoshitaka Zushi). She lets him steal gruel. In a maze of kimonos drying in the sun, Otoya chases down the starving boy. Noboru and the head cook spy on them. Chobu presses candy on her. “Take them. I had a hard time stealing them.” She promises to save the clinic’s leftover rice for his hungry family. The eavesdropping cook falls to her knees, weeping and ashamed. She withholds second helpings to save rice for Otoya. When the evil madam tries to take the Otoya back. Red Beard, Noboru and the enraged cooks drive her from the clinic.

Later, believing you can call a dying person back if you call down a well, Otoya and the cooks wail for Chobo, trying to keep the poisoned boy alive till dawn. A shot from the bottom of the well, shows the women peering down crying for the boy. A drop of water breaks up the reflection of their ring of faces.

There are romances: Yasumoto and Masae (Yôko Naitô), the loving sister of the girl who jilted him, Doctor Mori (Yoshio Tsuchiya) and Nurse Osugi (Reiko Dan.) Kurosawa edits the episodic tale with his signature wipes. His famous telephoto lens captures every detail, every wood grain on his meticulously constructed set. Disappointed with the response to “High and Low”, Kurosawa was determined to film “something so magnificent that people would just have to see it.” Kurosawa wanted room for his roving camera and consummate tracking shots. He insisted on authentic period construction to reproduce virtually an entire town. He ordered his crew to dismantle old sets, using their time-scarred wood to build the dilapidated clinic gates. He aged the teacups used in the film, pouring a half-century’s worth of tea on them to stain them.

“Red Beard ” was a fateful film for Kurosawa. It marked his last collaboration with Mifune. Sporting a specially dyed thick beard, Mifune (who played a supporting roll) was unable to take any other projects for the two years it took to complete the film. The financial stressed wore on Mifune. Kurosawa was hospitalized after the shoot. Hideo Oguni, one of the screenwriters, claimed that Kurosawa lost faith in Mifune when ShÅ«gorō Yamamoto (the author of the stories) criticized his performance. They never worked together again. Both their careers suffered. After 23 films in as many years, Kurosawa would struggle to make only seven more moves in his next twenty-eight years. “Red Beard” was his last panoramic widescreen film (hard to show on television) and his last film in black and white. For a man whose chiaroscuro sculptural set pieces in TohoScope raised the bar for wide screen composition, this was a tragedy. “Red Beard” has remained his most popular film in Japan.

Dersu Uzala (1975)
In 1969, Kurosawa formed “The Four Musketeers”, a production company with directors Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa and Masaki Kobayashi. They produced one project, Kurosawa’s Technicolor “Dodes’kaden”, a failure at the box-office. The company dissolved, Kurosawa’s eyes began to fail, and he made a suicide attempt. Considered unbankable in Japan, Kurosawa accepted an offer from Mosfilm to film “Dersu Uzala’, his only foreign language film. Based on the journals of Russia’s beloved explorer, Vladimir Arseniev, the film details the decade long friendship between Captain Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) and the nomadic Goldi (aboriginal) tracker Dersu Uzala (Tuvan theatre actor Maxim Munzuk) his guide through the harsh frontier he’s been sent to survey. Arseniev’s men mock the noble savage. Arsenyev learns from him. Once Dersu rescues Arseniev from a blizzard, the party relies on him.

(Some have suggested that Dersu was the inspiration for Yoda. It seem likely, Lucas borrowed his characteristic wipes from Kurosawa and based Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” on “The Hidden Fortress.”)

Shooting in eastern Siberia, Kurosawa once again captures nature as a protagonist in his story. Mostly shot in long shots, the pace is leisurely and the story organic. The seasons melt into each other, each shot in a distinctive palette. There’s a thrilling scene on a frozen marsh, and a swirling raft scene that recalls Griffith (“Way Down East.”) and prefigures Herzog’s “Aguirre.” In one scene the group cross the frozen lake, surrounded by the reflections of the sunset.

“Dersu Uzala” is a film about sustainabilty. The two friends, who struggle to understand each, other cannot share a worldview. Arseniev, the military explorer, is sent to open up a territory. Nomadic Dersu represents the vanishing world in balance.

“My fondest memories of Dersu are connected with the beginning of that autumn,” remembers Arseniev, as the two pose for portraits. Kurosawa intercuts the black and white stills.

In a fateful scene with a tiger, the two men and the tiger blend into the dappled amber landscape. Dersu, who only hunts for food, tries to warn the tiger “Listen tiger, Soldiers fire rifles. You go away!” Firing a warning shot, he wounds the beast who disappears with a flash into the brush. “What me do?” cries the alarmed Dersu, dropping the gun. “Kill tiger” Arseniev misunderstands. “The tiger ran away. He’s unharmed.” “No” insists Dersu. “Tiger always run until die. Now me much frightened.” Arseniev tries to comfort him. “Don’t be afraid, Dersu. A dead tiger can’t hurt you.” Dersu knows better. “Kanga will. He send another tiger!”

“Kanga is a forest spirit whom the Goldi worship’ narrates Arseniev. “From that day Dersu changed. He became morose and irritable.”

Well-meaning Arseniev invites Dersu to live with his own family in Khabarovsk. One night, panicked Dersu comes to Arseniev. “You say your home my home, thank you, Captain. My eyes get bad. Kanga not want me to live in forest. He send the tiger.” Kurosawa shows a tiger prowling through the brushes flame red from the firelight. “Probably what Dersu called the tiger” suggests Arseniev “was the specter of his fear of the forest, conjured by the imagination of a man grown old.”

Good intentions can’t solve this clash of cultures. In Khabarovsk, once-vital Dersu sits by the fire, a forest creature trapped in a city dwelling. Upset with the venality of city life, he decides to go back to the hills. Well-meaning Arseniev gives him a rifle. ” It’s a gift. New model. It’s easy to aim. Even with bad eyesight you won’t miss.” Even this gesture proves toxic. Dersu is robbed and killed for his brand new rifle. Arseniev travels back to Siberia to identify the “dead Goldi.”

The success of the film (two awards at the Moscow International Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) put Kurosawa back on the map. His Russian cinematographers Fyodor Dobronravov, Yuri Gantman and Asakazu Nakai later shot Kurosawa’s spectacular “Ran.”

For more information go to http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/calendar.


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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