Tubercular yakuza, scandalous artists, and postwar paranoids duke it out with the world
For a variety of reasons, Western audiences have enshrined Kurosawa as the preferred director of Japan’s golden age. He’s considered less “Japanese” (and thus more “universal”) than either Mizoguchi or Ozu, and more action-minded than either of those directors. While Mizoguchi’s legend rightly rests on his subtle plumbings of the plight of women, and Ozu’s on his quietly devastating analysis of the family, Kurosawa’s subject has mostly been men – the forces that assail them from within and without and their often violent responses. His films offer a kind of tempered exoticism, transporting for Western audiences but also rooted in familiar, universal genre forms – for example, recasting the American western as a samurai drama in his most celebrated film, Seven Samurai.
While much of Mizoguchi’s and Ozu’s work has never been available outside of Japan, it’s a bit surprising that Kurosawa has suffered the same fate. Fans of classic Japanese cinema have had to content themselves with reading about, rather than seeing, films like Drunken Angel, Scandal, and I Live in Fear. Occasional film society screenings or nth-generation dupes notwithstanding, the lack of availability of such films has made it difficult to really assess Kurosawa’s career outside the textbook classics of Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ran, et al. Home Vision’s recent release of three of his early films in reasonably good VHS transfers catches the director, so to speak, in flagrante, working in personal and topical realms far removed from his more familiar and treasured historical dramas. The results are as expected, a stewpot of personal and social concerns explored with varying degrees of success.
Drunken Angel (1948) was Kurosawa’s seventh film (he started in 1943 with Sanshiro Sugata) and by all accounts his first major work. The title refers to tubercular gangster Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), and the film pivots on his relationship with a disreputable doctor, Sanada (Takashi Shimura), who tries against Matsunaga’s wishes to save him. In their first encounters, the disgusted Sanada refuses to spare him any pain by anesthetizing him. “Not for your kind!” he says. But the doctor, recognizing his own failures in the failing young man, gradually softens, trying to force Matsunaga to save himself by stopping his drinking and leaving the yakuza life. Subplots involve Sanada’s nurse, victimized by an ex-con just out of prison, and the replacement of Matsunaga by the same ex-con, whose climactic battle with his rival provides one of the film’s bravura sequences.
As always, the driving force of the film is masculinity under duress, specifically in the on-again off-again relationship between Matsunaga and Sanada. Kurosawa watchers will note some similarity between their interplay and that of any number of “masters and pupils” in his other films. Matsunaga must learn morality from an older man – Sanada – who has only gained it from his own failings. Only by recovering his humanity can Matsunaga gain peace, even in death. His failure to follow Sanada’s commands – “no alcohol, no women” – doesn’t discourage the doctor, and their relationship has an intensity and poetry lacking in the more conventional romances that crop up in the film.
Drunken Angel was made in Occupied Japan and shows it. The collapse of the “warrior nation” after the war is painfully evident in the film’s central image, a filthy, disease-breeding cesspool outside the doctor’s office and through which the characters constantly must pass in rituals of moral pollution. Kurosawa uses this image to explicitly tie Japan’s situation to his characters’, especially Matsunaga’s. In a scene typical of the film’s almost diagrammatic approach to its theme, the doctor tells Matsunaga, “Your lungs are like this swamp” and the camera lingers on the cesspool. Indeed, Drunken Angel throughout has the squalid look of a neo-realist film, complete with slum streets and gangsters and party girls trying desperately to survive in a rank, unlivable world.
Much of the misery is tied, quite overtly, to the American takeover. Japan is a country in an identity crisis, with American-style nightclubs replacing traditional Japanese venues and Western jazz and blues obliterating native musical forms. Kurosawa again makes explicit the connection between cultural chaos and personal decline when Matsunaga, in a sequence of operatic intensity, dances wildly in a nightclub before collapsing with a hemorrhage. (This scene also gives Mifune a chance to strut his stuff, which he does with panache.)
Still, there are glimmers of hope, particularly in the character of the cheery schoolgirl, one of Sanada’s patients who, unlike Matsunaga, is recovering from TB. She keeps the film from becoming a total exercise in gloom, and suggests at least some possibility for renewal – escape from the cesspool and all that it implies – in the younger generation.
Kurosawa considered Drunken Angel his first “real” film, and some of the sequences – for example, Mifune’s wild nightclub dance – are striking indeed. But other, more experimental scenes are less successful. In a dream sequence that might have been lifted from a kitschy horror film, Matsunaga breaks open a coffin on a beach to reveal a doppelganger that frantically pursues him. Overall, though, Drunken Angel is a dynamic examination of a postwar Japan in physical and psychic chaos, and a typically strong look at the forces that bind men, and sometimes destroy them.
Scandal (1950) was made the same year as Rashomon, just prior to it. Here we find Kurosawa in a topical, satirical mode, one that’s as timely today as then. This time Mifune plays Ichiro Aoye, a motorcycle-riding artist whose attempt to do a simple good deed – help a stranded pop singer on her way – triggers a huge scandal and subsequent libel trial. The pop singer is Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi), whose career and reputation are threatened by what was actually a casual encounter. Trashy paparazzi from “Amour” magazine follow the two and catch them in what seems like a post-coital moment, standing on a balcony on which two towels are hung, looking quietly out at the mountains.
This entertaining satire of journalistic excess – the damning article about Aoye and Sajio is called “Passion on Two Wheels” – actually focuses less on the scandal than on another, more personal kind of corruption. Aoye has hired a lawyer, Hiruta (Takashi Shimura), who is so weak that he can’t help joining the payroll of the defending “Amour” magazine. Mifune is surprisingly restrained here, perhaps unable to compete with the histrionics of Shimura. The latter’s endless self-lacerating cries of “I’m not even a dog, I’m a worm!” begin to grate long before the film ends. Still, Mifune gets a few scenes of passionate outburst that he milks to the max, particularly in the scene of his assault on the evil staff of “Amour.”
Tuberculosis was apparently rampant in Occupied Japan. In Drunken Angel it was shown as a constant threat. It also appears in Scandal but less pervasively. Here it’s concentrated in a single person: Hiruta’s daughter, Masako (Yoko Katsuragi). She’s an unusual character, a sickly girl (dying, in fact), who’s more troubled by her father’s moral lapses than by the disease that’s wasting her. She has an almost supernatural perception of his corruption, an intuition that helps drive her to her death in one of the film’s more poignant moments.
Scandal’s acting is middling at best, with Mifune giving a solid performance in what must on paper have looked like a vehicle for him. Shirley Yamaguchi, who starred in a couple of auteur classics (Fuller’s House of Bamboo and Vidor’s Japanese War Bride), suffers from the director’s obvious indifference; she’s mere window dressing. Scandal is ultimately Kurosawa Lite, but engaging and amusing in its picture of a voyeuristic society obsessed with the minutiae – particularly sexual – of other people’s lives.
I Live in Fear (1955), more commonly known as Record of a Living Being, again shows Kurosawa grappling with a contemporary concern: the human cost of the atom age. Like Scandal, the film is split between the topical and the personal.
Mifune again stars, this time as Nakajimi, a perpetually scowling, apparently deranged old industrialist. His obsession with removing himself and his family to Brazil to escape nuclear annihilation has triggered an investigation into his mental health, with the family hoping to have him declared incompetent. From the opening sequence, it’s clear that the film wants to show that his fears are realistic and that, far from being incompetent, he may be the only sane person in a world that accepts the possibility of worldwide destruction. The credit sequence is a series of overhead shots of streets crowded with faceless commuters, all moving in orderly but seemingly mindless patterns. This powerful image of sheeplike mentality and groupthink is made all the more ominous by a jazz score filigreed with theremin sounds that eerily portend rifts in the orderly body politic.
Unlike most of Kurosawa’s films, which celebrate action and its cathartic effects, I Live in Fear has a claustrophobic feel, forcing its hero into a constricted space from which he can’t move. Nakajimi cannot act; he’s frozen by his fears, which, significantly, don’t become palpable until he’s declared incompetent by the Family Court. The sense of unwilling containment comes not only from his terror of the bomb but from a family that crowds in on him in the court scenes, crushing him with its desire to strip him of his power and take control of his assets. Kurosawa repeatedly visualizes this sense of a quiet mob of relatives pressing in on him.
Nakajimi not only has to carry the weight of his fears and his family; he’s also explicitly a symbol of postwar Japan as a weak, demented old man. As the patriarch, his family must look up to him, honor him. But this patriarch is weak and perhaps insane, unable to cope in the face of forces beyond his control. His response is that of many Kurosawa heroes, though ultimately it’s a hopeless act: he burns down his foundry. He then becomes the madman his family has said he was.
I Live in Fear’s distillation of postwar Japan into the figure of Nakamiji is compelling and troubling. Mifune is mostly convincing, though occasionally hyperdramatic in his glares and grimaces. Like the other two films in this series, this one has a tuberculosis angle. Kurosawa’s good friend and frequent collaborator, composer Fumio Hayasaka, died of the disease during production, no doubt adding another shade of black to an already dark vision.