Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cal vs. Stanford for the Kurosawa Crowd

The Stanford Theater's Kurosawa Retrospective ended yesterday. I only caught three films in the series:

Rashômon starring Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura; Japanese with subtitles; (1950)
Scandal starring Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura; Japanese with subtitles; (1950)
One Wonderful Sunday; Japanese with subtitles; (1947)


As I previously mentioned, the PFA is having its own Kurosawa retrospective (30 films from June to August). I would have seen more films at the Stanford series but the looming PFA series, being a procrastinator, still suffering from the effects of a prolonged respiratory illness, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, the Tiburon Internationl Film Festival, the King Tut exhibit at the de Young Museum, preparing my income tax returns, a Kurosawa retrospective on Turner Classic Movies in March and other activities conspired against the Stanford series.

In particular, I regret missing the last three films of the series: The Idiot (1951); The Lower Depths (1957) and Ran (1985).


I've seen Rashômon before. There is no point in recounting the plot since the film was popular enough to lend its name to a scientifically observed effect of subjectivity in memory and perception. I watch the film to see if Kurosawa tipped his hand as to which version of the truth is the real truth. I've read opinions on the subject and it is certainly suspicious that Lady Kanazawa meets up with the bandit (Mifune) at the river later in the film. It's likely that none of the four version presented were the truth.

Scandal was an entertaining but minor film in Kurosawa's filmography. The plot revolves around painter who is photographed with a popular singer (Shirley Yamaguchi) at a mountain resort. The tabloids imply the two are having an affair and the photo is of them in a moment post-coital repose. The two decide to sue the newspaper but have the misfortune to hire sad-sack lawyer Takashi Shimura. Slovenly, frequently drunk and venal, Shimura has thrown the case unbeknownst to his clients although they have their suspicions. Shimura is, however, devoted to his tubecular daughter who is his only chance at redemption. Sadly, it is her death ulimately leads to his finding his moral conviction.

Mifune is able to show off his screen charisma as always optimistic, never fearful painter and Shimura gives a preview of the type of character he would perfect in Ikiru (1952).

One Wonderful Sunday was very different from any other Kurosawa film I've seen. First of all, neither Mifune or Shimura are in the film which is unusual for Kurosawa films of the period. The two leads are Isao Numasaki and Chieko Nakakita. A quick perusal of IMDB shows that the two actors did not make anymore films with Kurosawa.

One Wonderful Sunday is not epic which is an adjective I'd use to describe most of Kurosawa's films and/or lead characters. Instead, One Wonderful Sunday feels like The Bicycle Thief transplanted to 1947 Tokyo. The story revolves around a young couple as they try to spend a Sunday afternoon in Tokyo with only 30 yen between them. As they make their way around town, we get a glimpse of post-war Tokyo - the poverty, the grifters, the gangsters, etc. Along the way, we share in the couple's heartbreak such as when a ticket scalper buys the last tickets to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and scalps them at a 50% markup. Kurosawa engages in all kinds of cinematic devices during the film - sunshine/rainfall/wind to signal the mood of the couple, breaking the fourth wall, etc.

At one point Nakakita urges an imaginary audience to clap for her and her boyfriend who is despondent because the howling wind will not allow him to conduct an imaginary orchestra. The effect is Nakakita speaking directly to the audience in the theater. I was amazed that speaking across 60 years and different culture, Nakakita was able to elicit a modest round of applause from the audience. Maybe I was really surprised that I joined the clapping.

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