Thursday, July 1, 2010

Kurosawa, Ozu & Mizoguchi (Part 1 ot 3)

Kurosawa, Ozu & Mizoguchi - sounds like a Tokyo law firm. Akira Kurosawa & Yasujirō Ozu are inarguably, the two greatest directors in Japanese cinema. Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi is not as well known but highly esteemed for Ugetsu, The Crucified Lovers and other jidaigeki films. Not being familiar with Japanese history from the Edo or Meiji periods, I have never been a big fan of period films set in the samurai and shōgun periods.

The reason I mention this prestigious trio of Japanese directors is because New People/Viz Cinema had 12 film/3 week series in June featuring the works of Kurosawa, Ozu & Mizoguchi. As an added bonus, all the films were projected from 35 mm prints.

I watched 10 of the 12 films in the series.

Stray Dog starring Toshirō Mifune; directed by Akira Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1949)
High and Low starring Toshirō Mifune; directed by Akira Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1963)
The Only Son directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1936)
Record of a Tenement Gentleman directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1947)
Early Spring directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)
Tokyo Story directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1953)
Sisters of Gion directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1936)
Ugetsu directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1953)
Utamaro and His Five Women directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1946)
Street of Shame directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)


I've seen Stray Dog and High and Low before. Indeed Stray Dog may be my favorite Kurosawa films. High and Low is mystery based on King's Ransom, an 87th Precinct novel Ed McBain. High and Low is one of the best police procedurals I've seen.

The two films I missed from the series were Kurosawa's Drunken Angel and The Bad Sleep Well. My records indicate I saw Drunken Angel in January/February 2007. I saw Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low in January 2008. I didn't write anything up for Stray Dog or High and Low back then so I'll make up for it now.

Stray Dog is, by appearance, a policier with noirish overtones set in the immediate post-WWII years. Murakami (Toshirō Mifune), a young Tokyo cop, has his pistol pickpocketed while on a crowded trolley. Initially concerned about his career, he scours Tokyo to find the person who has stolen his gun. With the help of fellow detectives (especially Sato played by Takashi Shimura), they close in on the stolen gun but not before it is used in a few murders. Murakami is extremely self-reproachful as he feels his carelessness has caused the deaths of the victims. He becomes desperate to find the missing handgun.

An entertaining film with that plot could be set anywhere but Kurosawa adds a few elements that only he could. First it was filmed and set in 1947 Tokyo so we see a bombed out city with a defeated population, desperately poor and despondent. Layered in with the crime drama is a 1947 Tokyo travelogue and commentary on the social upheaval resulting in aftermath of the war. In addition, the plot takes place over a brutal heat wave which isn't that original but it allows Kurosawa to show a panting dog and made my skin feel clammy.

Takashi Shimura (left) and Toshirō Mifune in Stray DogSecond, Kurosawa had Mifune and Shimura to play the younger cop & his de facto mentor, respectively. More precisely, student and master. Their chemistry is subtle but adds immensely to the film. Kurosawa had previously paired these two actor in Drunken Angel and The Quiet Duel and would do so again in Scandal and most famously, The Seven Samurai. They appeared together in several other Kurosawa films.

Of the 15 or so Kurosawa films I've seen which Mifune and Shimura appeared together, it is Stray Dog which is most satisfying to me. Their relationship is more honest and realistic without the flamboyant braggadocio Mifune exhibited in The Seven Samurai or the pathetic alcoholic Shimura portrayed in Scandal. Kurosawa allows his leads to be more humble and less epic. This is probably because he gives the Full Kurosawa treatment to the villain, a mentally unhinged mad/stray dog and his confused girlfriend (Keiko Awaji). Off screen for most of the film, Isao Kimura as the killer is involved in the memorable and excruciating climax. Kimura would later achieve cinematic immortality as the youngest samurai in The Seven Samurai.

Finally, Kurosawa delves into psychological issues which compare and contrast Murakami, the cop with Yasu, the killer. Both characters stand in as a proxy for Japan itself but Kurosawa keeps the film literal enough so the audience can appreciate the characters for themselves. The increasingly desperate Murakami chasing the unseen but increasingly desperate Yasu as if he is chasing his own tail or doppelgänger.

Clearly, Kurosawa aimed for something greater than a potboiler detective story. Like a magician showing the audience just enough to sell the trick, Kurosawa delivers a noir, a psychological thriller, a commentary on social decay, and a veiled examination of Japan after WWII.


A perfect companion piece to Stray Dog is High and Low (1963). Focusing more on the whodunit aspects of the plot, High and Low provides ample social commentary on Japan nearly 20 years after WWII.

In High and Low, Mifune plays Gondo, a shoe company executive who is ready to launch a hostile takeover but his plans get interrupted by his son's kidnapping. Quickly it is discovered that the wrong boy was abducted; they kidnapped Gondo's chauffeur's son.

Pressured by his wife, his son, his chauffeur and even the police to some extent, Gondo pays the ransom demand even though both the kidnapper & Gondo know the wrong boy has been kidnapped. The rest of the film deals with the intricate procedures associated with paying the ransom and then the subsequent police investigation to catch the kidnappers. A secondary plot line involves Gondo's financial ruin as he was leveraged to the hilt for the takeover and had to use that money to pay the ransom. At the same time his financial ruin is playing out, he becomes a hero in the media for his selflessness as well as regains his self-respect.

The film is based on an Ed McBain novel but it translates well to 1960s Japan. Like Stray Dog, Kurosawa uses the film to showcase the Bullet Train and parts of Yokohama (south of Tokyo) and provide social commentary. Heroin addicts and the poverty/income gap are highlighted in the film. Actually, Gondo's house on the hill is très chic - a large circular, Western-style living room with panoramic views of the entire city.
Tatsuya Nakadai (second from right, seated) and Toshirō Mifune in High and LowAt the other end of spectrum is the slum at the bottom of the hill where the kidnapper lives and constantly sees Gondo's mansion. A rather distasteful sequence is set in an alley where heroin addicts gather to score some smack (usually by prostitution). There was another interesting scene where police are tailing the kidnapper when he ducks into a night club. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the cops blend in by dressing as gay men. I guess it was a gay cruising spot although there were numerous women in the scene.

When compared to Stray Dog, it's clear how far Japan advanced between 1947 and 1963. Their cities are rebuilt, people are working legitimate jobs, some Japanese have obtained extreme wealth and the protagonist and antagonist are distinctly characterized.

In Stray Dog, Mifune and the killer are differentiated by the slightest twists of fate. In High and Low, Mifune and the kidnapper couldn't be more different. After establishing his bona fides as an aggressive industrialist, Gondo silently endures the hardships, deprivations and humiliations with Job-like forbearance whereas the kidnapper's motivations are never fully explained and ultimately, he is shown to be a coward. I suppose Japanese self-identity (or at least Kurosawa's take on Japanese self-identity) had progressed in the 16 years between films such that good and evil could be consumed separately and economic conditions had improved enough that the Japanese could afford a higher grade of collective self-esteem and the luxury of ignoring self-examination.

In that sense, High and Low doesn't resonate with me like Stray Dog but High and Low is still a film worth seeing for the crime story it tells as well as a being a snapshot of Japan in the early 1960s.

This film may also be the first prominent pairing of Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshirô Mifune. Nakadai plays the chief police inspector investigating the kidnapping. Kurosawa's collaboration with Mifune would end in 1966 while Nakadai would continue making films with Kurosawa through 1985's Ran. Takashi Shimura has a small (non-speaking?) role as the police chief. Kenjiro Ishiyama as the bald headed detective they called Bosun and Yutaka Sada as Aoki the chauffeur provided solid support. Tsutomu Yamazaki as the kidnapper was sufficiently malevolent. Yamazaki may be familiar to modern audiences for his role in the Oscar winning film Departures where he played the older and mentoring mortician.

No comments: