Three of Kurosawa’s scathing critiques of Japanese society past and present – in beautiful new video transfers.
Akira Kurosawa has been seen as one of the three components of a kind of Holy Trinity of golden-age Japanese auteurs, with Ozu reckoned as the contemplative Father; Mizoguchi as transcendent Holy Spirit; and Kurosawa; nicknamed “the Emperor,” in the role of Son. Such comparisons, of course, are more convenient than sensible, since the similarities between these men, particularly in their scathing critiques of the rigid norms of postwar Japanese society and their existentialist bent, are as great as their differences.
Nonetheless, there’s something about Kurosawa that fits nicely the idea of the martyred Son. For one thing, he was born in 1910, which makes him younger than Mizoguchi (1898-1956) and Ozu (1903-1963), and his deep admiration for these masters, particularly Mizoguchi, has been well documented. On a more formal level, the concept of a biblical “son” – the martyred, Christlike male who longs to redeem an immoral world and is usually destroyed in the process – is central to Kurosawa’s oeuvre, as evidenced not only in famous works like The Seven Samurai but in lesser-known efforts like Stray Dog and The Bad Sleep Well. These films, along with the even more obscure (in the West) The Lower Depths, are finally available in sparkling new transfers courtesy of Home Vision Cinema.
Much of Kurosawa’s inspiration came from American and European artistic forms. Stray Dog (1950) was influenced by the work of Georges Simenon, and in a curious process, Kurosawa first wrote it as a novel and then adapted it into a film. As in Simenon, Stray Dog is based on a real-life incident, and a seemingly insignificant one: a thief steals a rookie policeman’s gun, and the policeman spends the entire film trying to recover it. Kurosawa loads this small story with telling incident, expanding it into a superb mix of noir and neo-realism.
Critics have often remarked on Kurosawa’s films as quests, and much of Stray Dog is taken up with the desperate attempts by Detective Murakami (Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune) to retrieve his gun, which is being used to commit murder. Murakami spends much of his time in literal frantic pursuit, chasing his quarry and accomplices through the ragged streets of heat-drenched Occupied Tokyo. Like many a noir hero, Murakami is a good man drawn into a criminal demimonde, here the squalid world of postwar profiteering, corruption, and murder. And like these heroes he has an unsettling link to that world in the form of his gun, which makes it impossible for him to return to normal life. Kurosawa uses his quest to explore a series of seedy tableaux, from opium dens to western-style grindhouses, and the social casualties that populate them. He even provides a classic doppleganger for Murakami in the form of the thief; much is made of their similar backgrounds and very different, but inextricably joined, fates.
Stray Dog was Kurosawa’s tenth film and showcases his ability to orchestrate a complex story without losing the viewer. In one alarming sequence, the thief’s girlfriend, unhinged by Murakami’s relentless pursuit of him, puts on a beautiful stolen dress and begins to dance in a circle with increasing frenzy, obviously in the midst of a breakdown. The eloquent unspoken question, a common one in neo-realism, is why shouldn’t an impoverished girl have a beautiful dress, by whatever means? In a just world, the film seems to be saying, this would be possible. But the world of Stray Dog is anything but just, and the viewer’s experience of it parallels Murakami’s awakening. This Christlike figure stands in for Kurosawa when he says sadly, “There are no bad people in the world, only bad environments.”
The Lower Depths (1957) is another adaptation of a classic European work, this time Gorky’s ensemble play about material and spiritual poverty. Kurosawa moves the “action” – mostly just a long series of conversations – from Russia to Japan in the Edo period. He also blunts the social critique of the original, using black humor to skewer the pretensions of an impoverished group of people – landlord and landlady, thief, prostitute, artistan – who fill up their empty lives with gossip, airy philosophizing, and occasionally physical assaults on each other.
Kurosawa, who has said he dislikes the idea of the “star,” here constructs miniature melodramas that keep the focus on the group rather than any one individual. Thus we have a middle-aged landlady who ruthlessly harasses her sister, an alleged ex-samurai who’s the butt of everyone’s jokes, a dying old woman whose coughing triggers nasty remarks rather than sympathy, a prostitute who rambles on about the great love of her love whose name she can’t remember. The key aspect of all their personalities is a kind of pompous self-delusion, which Kurosawa exposes ruthlessly. The exception is Toshiro Mifune’s Sutekichi, a thief who watches it all with disgust.
Kurosawa takes a deliberately theatrical approach to these limited lives, with characters entering and exiting for their brief moment “on stage,” and they even use theatrical terms to refer to their lives, as when an old man screams at an intruder, “Get out of the way! This is a grand exit before the final curtain!” This is a sophisticated strategy that keeps the viewer in on the joke about these grandiose characters, but surprisingly, the film was not enthusiastically received by Japanese audiences, who particularly disliked the sudden tragic ending. But Kurosawa’s vision is true to his realist roots. In the world of The Lower Depths, morality is a luxury. When a visitor objects to being cheated in a card game, a savvy character reminds him, “They can’t afford to be decent!”
The Bad Sleep Well (1960) was Kurosawa’s first independent production and, after successes with period films like The Seven Samurai (1954) and The Hidden Fortress (1958), one he consciously wanted to invest with “some social significance.” The film, set in present-day Japan, has a novelistic expanse, with a large cast of characters, ambitious set-pieces, and a strong narrative that successfully, sometimes brilliantly, juggles a dizzying variety of plot threads.
The film’s justly celebrated opening is a long wedding scene, but no ordinary one. For one thing, the bride is lame, barely able to make it down the aisle – a bad omen. The huge wedding cake arrives to gasps of horror: it’s a replica of an office building, modeled on that of the corporation whose head is the father of the bride, but it has a single red flower sticking out of the seventh-floor window, a gruesome reference to an employee who jumped from there. As if that weren’t enough, the bride’s brother loudly declares to the groom, “If you mistreat her, I’ll kill you!” It’s no surprise, then, when the police arrive and start arresting members of the corporation on corruption charges.
The groom is Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), and he’s behind the macabre wedding cake, only one of many steps in his plan to infiltrate and destroy the corporation that employed his father, who was forced to kill himself by jumping out that window. The film follows his methodical efforts, and portrays him as a kind of ironic model of the stereotyped super-efficient, quiet, devoted Japanese worker. His ostensible motive is personal revenge, but Kurosawa gives him a larger social purpose in attempting to disrupt the smooth functioning corporation that exists in a moral vacuum: “I wanted to punish men who prey on people unable to fight back!”
Like all Christlike crusaders, Nishi has a fatal flaw that makes him human, and thus compromises his mission: he’s actually in love with his enemy’s daughter. What’s more, in spite of his ruthlessness, he can’t go to the extremes of immorality that Kurosawa shows as the modus operandi of the corporation. While he’s able in one case to turn a key member of the corporation into a walking ghost, he pauses before hurling one of his human targets out a window, unable to perform such violence. This hesitation – which Nishi shows he’s aware of when he laments, “I don’t hate enough” – proves his undoing.
The Bad Sleep Well was shot in glorious Tohoscope, and appears in a new letterboxed director’s cut here for the first time. This pristine print gives the viewer the full impact of Kurosawa’s achievement, particularly in the close-ups of the ghostly, haunted faces of the corporation workers who’ve been pulled violently into Nishi’s scheme. Typical of the sumptuous images here is a smoky volcanic landscape where accountant Wada tries to kill himself. The camera elegantly surveys this teeming vortex, an unforgettable symbol not only of the utter destructiveness of the corporation but of the violent uncertainty and fatal potential of postwar Japanese society.