Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.
PLAYED (January 6th through 14th).
This is Kurosawa's ninth film. (The IMDb lists Asu o tsukuru hitobito (Those Who Make Tomorrow)  as "directed by" Akira Kurosawa, but this does not really count as one of his films. First of all, Kurosawa has disowned the piece in no uncertain terms. It was made under SCAP (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) pressure; McArthur had initially felt that unionization was needed, and thus weird films like this were being produced during the early days of the Occupation. Made with two other directors (Hideo Sekigawa and Kajirô Yamamoto [Kurosawa's mentor]), it is about the real-life craziness of such efforts to unionize the film industry. It is not available in any form to my knowledge, and even the great Kurosawa scholar, Donald Richie, has never seen it!
For a detailed, frame-by-frame analysis of this film, click here.
It might be worthwhile to take a brief look at the many different ways one can examine the mighty canon of this great master filmmaker.
For example, most Japanese film scholars break down its national cinema into two basic formulas: the "jidai-geki," or period film and the "gendai-mono," or modern drama.
Between 1943 and 1993, Kurosawa made 17 "gendai-mono" films and 13 "jidai-geki" ones.
Four pre-Occupation (type: 1 gendai-mono, 3 jidai-geki); nine Occupation (8 and 1; almost all of these films deal with contemporary social issues, naturally enough); and 17 post-Occupation (8 and 9 -- pretty even!) ...
Like his hero, John Ford, who created his own little repertory company (with John Wayne playing the director's alter-ego in approximately 11 or so films), Kurosawa used the two greatest Japanese actors of the 20th century, who are forever associated with him: Takashi Shimura, who appears in an amazing 21 of the 30 films, and of course, Toshirô Mifune who is in 16.
They both appear in this film, and their ensemble work here is so magnificent -- perhaps because Kurosawa found it so interesting to give each actor totally different characters to play from film to film. His previous year's film (Yoidore Tenshi; Drunken Angel ; playing at the Film Forum on January 23rd) had been a big success, with Shimura playing an alcoholic doctor ministering in a bombed-out, post-war Tokyo slum, and Mifune as the gangster in charge of the neighborhood. In Stray Dog, both actors play policemen!
The film opens with an extraordinary image: a mangy dog, tongue hanging out and panting. (The grief Kurosawa experienced in the filming of this cute stray is told in detail on my blog, here.) As if that doesn't make you feel a bit hot and sweaty, the narrator intones:
"One very hot day..." [I used orange type on my blog entry to indicate how Kurosawa uses filmic images to portray an intense heat!]
With his usual whimsical, fast-paced use of wipes (an old Hollywood technique, used extensively in the 1930's especially in low-budget serials, etc.), Kurosawa gallops off to a hot and sweaty start, as we learn (and will soon see!) that Murakami (Mifune) has lost his pistol on a city bus. (There was a flourishing black market for guns, of course, at that time.)
By the time that Mifune has chased down the female pickpocket (Noriko Sengoku), everyone is drenched in sweat. The young detective begs the woman for information about his stolen Colt pistol. She now -- post-war -- wears a dress instead of a kimono and continually insists to policemen that they are "violating her civil rights," a phrase that the militaristic-weary populace was obviously learning how to pronounce en masse. It didn't hurt that this was exactly the sort of thing that McArthur had been asking Kurosawa and Ozu, et al. to put in their films during the Occupation. As they pause to share a beer on the roof a shack, she finally gives him the big "hint," and then lies down on the roof and stares up at the stars.
"Oh how beautiful!" Cut to a close POV right behind and under her head -- looking up at her and Murakami and a field of stars filling the top of the frame. "I'd forgotten how nice the stars are for about 20 years." He looks at her and then looks back up at the stars, as well ... fade to black.
A lovely touch, ending a scene which has temporarily slowed down the action. Kurosawa now begins a controversial section (Richie hates it!) of an entire eight minutes and 48 seconds of montage -- not a single word of dialogue is spoken!
Actually, Kurosawa had great praise for his AD, Ishirô Honda (the director of the original Gojira, Godzilla ), who shot most of this sequence which shows Murakami roaming the back alleys of Tokyo, looking for his stolen pistol. I personally find the entire experience an extremely dramatic one, even as I see this film for the umpteenth time! You can feel the sticky, stifling humidity and with the soundtrack blaring distorted 40's American cabaret music, run-down, post-war Tokyo is completely palatable, even today...
Eventually, Murakami is partnered in this singular quest with an older detective, Sato (Shimura. [Keeping him in reserve for this long was a stroke of genius.]) From here on, everything moves forward steadily. The two policemen work together and form a close friendship, as they sweat their way through the hot day doing the dirty grunt work that detectives do, including a long stakeout at the Tokyo baseball stadium with 50,000 fans in the way! (This is extremely cool footage!)
Kurosawa makes a vivid point of comparing and contrasting the two men, as they later share some beer at Sato's house at the end of the day. Murakami uses the French term "après guerre" to explain to Sato how he cannot bring himself to hate this hunted criminal, who has already murdered with Murakami's pistol. He strongly identifies with him, in fact, because he learns that, like himself, this man had his backpack stolen when he returned from the war and all was hopeless. They chose different pathways, but the young cop cannot help but feel he could have easily ended up like Yusa, the criminal. Sato feels no sympathy at all. He makes a pun about the unpronounceable phrase involving the croaking frogs in his yard...
The movie surges towards a brilliant conclusion, involving the Murakami character taking over the narration duties in the film, as he hisses these words to himself, while trying to pinpoint the murderer, who is sitting amongst a large group of other men, waiting for the train:
A few things to think about:
- Very near the beginning of the film, the viewer is told of a key plot point, i.e., the number of bullets which were in Murakami's stolen Colt! Kurosawa carefully, with great subtlety, allows us to "count" the bullets as we learn what happens to them -- and if we viewers can keep up a running count, the director makes it worth our while in the end!
- Notice during the montage that AK chooses to use dissolves exclusively. There are no wipes in this section at all.
- There are 34 wipes in the film; 18 horizontal and 16 vertical.
- Notice the ECU on Yusa's note about the cat. Powerful effect.
- Try to spot Minoru Chiaki (the "woodcutting samurai" in Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai) , playing at the Film Forum on January 29th and 30th) as the "design man" at the Blue Bird nightclub holding an electric fan in front of his sweaty body -- in his very first role for Kurosawa. The two men later became very good friends away from work.
- There is a funny bit which is hard for non-Japanese to appreciate. It occurs during the scene where Sato is interviewing the geisha who had information about Yusa. Her name is Kintaro, which is apparently pretty funny to a Japanese audience. My Japanese friend told me: "Kintaro is a well-known old tale and almost every child knows the story from picture books. The main character Kintaro is a chubby strong boy with an axe, living in a forest. He wrestles with a bear and becomes a friend of the bear!"*
- Watch for Kokuten Kodo (the village elder in Seven Samurai; 10 films with AK!) as the old man who answers the telephone in Harumi's apartment basement.
- Very difficult to observe in a theater, but when you get home and watch this on DVD: check out the way Kurosawa films Yusa in the act of throwing his gun at Murakami -- you need to play it back in slow motion. The actor is filmed in three separate cuts, all totaling less than two seconds, in which he is shown in various stages of throwing the gun. Kurosawa would go on to use this technique frequently -- it gives the impression of slowing down a very fast motion.