25 May 2019

Why I Chose a Traditional Publisher

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl) 

Students often ask me why I don’t self-publish. 
I try to slip by the fact that I was a babe when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Meaning, I was writing long before self-publishing on Amazon and Nook etc. had even become an option.

Having a publisher and agent before self-publishing was a 'thing' has certainly made a difference, I'm sure.  But now we have a choice. 

Why do I still stay with a traditional publisher?

Gateway Endorsement

There’s no getting away from this:  a traditional publisher, no matter how small, is investing THEIR money to produce YOUR book.  They believe in your book so much that they are willing to risk their own money to see it published.

What’s more, readers know this.  They know that if your book has a publisher, then it has gone through a gateway of sorts.  Someone in the business who knows about the book trade – someone other than the writer - has determined that this book is worthy of being published.

They believe in your book.  That’s a huge endorsement.

You may believe in your book.  I hope you do.  And you may decide to self-publish it.  That’s your choice.  And it may be just as good as any book that is released from a traditional publisher. 

But the reader doesn’t know that.  Further, they don’t know if you’ve already sent the book to a dozen publishers and had it rejected.  In many cases, they assume you’ve done just that.  They assume that no publisher  wanted it.  Therefore, they figure they are taking a risk if they buy your book.  And most readers don’t want to take risks with their money.  (Some will, bless them.  We love those 
readers.)

Distribution and Promotion

Traditional publishers – particularly large or mid-size ones – get your paperbacks into national bookstore chains.  They will also include your book in their catalogue to the big buyers, create sales info sheets for your book, and perhaps buy ads.  They arrange for industry reviews.  We authors complain they don’t do enough promotion.  But they certainly do these things that we can’t do.

We, as authors, can’t access the same distribution networks.  We can’t easily (if at all) reach the prominent industry reviewers like Library Journal and Booklist. 

And then there’s the whole problem of bookstores insisting on publishers accepting returns.  So if your book doesn’t sell, your publisher has to pay the bookstore back the wholesale price they paid for the book.  Independent authors can’t work that way.  We authors would go broke if we had to return money to every bookstore that shelved our paperbacks but didn’t sell them.  Remember, you don’t get the book back.  The cover is sent back and the book is destroyed.  Yes, this antiquated system sucks.

All the other crap

I’m an author.  I want to write.  I don’t want to spend my cherished writing time learning how to navigate Amazon’s self-publishing program, and all the others.  I don’t want to pay substantive and copy-editors out of my own pocket.  I don’t want to seek out cover designers (although I admit that part might be fun.)  I don’t want to pay a bunch of money upfront to replace the work that publishers do.

If you self-publish, then you become the publisher as well as the author.  I asked myself: do I want to be a publisher? 
  
This was my decision, and you may choose a different one.  You may love being a publisher.  But I find it hard enough being an author.  Adding all those other necessary factors to the job just makes it seem overwhelming to me.  I may be a good writer.  But I have no experience as a publishing industry professional.  I have no expertise.  So I publish with the experts.

You may choose a different route.  Just be aware that when you self-publish, you become a publisher just as much as an author.  It’s all in how you want to spend your time.

Good luck on your publishing adventure, whichever way you choose to go!

That's The B-Team, a humorous heist crime book that is a finalist for the 2019 Arthur Ellis award, in the photo below.  You can get it at B&N, Amazon and all the usual suspects. 

ON Amazon

24 May 2019

Audiobooks


by O'Neil De Noux

Started listening to audiobooks the last few years of my commute to work as a police investigator at Southeastern Louisiana University. Found a couple clunkers but found more good ones. I often did not want to get out of the car.

Mysteries, historical novels, science fiction, classics I'd read as a kid like THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY, Daphne du Maurier's REBECCA, Vera Caspary's LAURA, Jack London's WHITE FANG even Bram Stoker's DRACULA. All narrated by professional narrators. The mysteries gave me reads of books by Dasheill Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, Donald E. Westlake, Dorothy Sayers, Marcia Muller, Bill Pronzini. Even cool mysteries I never came across before – THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS by James M. Cain, NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES by Cornell Woolrich, RIVER GIRL by Charles Williams.


I got lost in big books – NEW YORK by Edward Rutherfurd, Ken Follett's Century trilogy – FALL OF GIANTS, WINTER OF THE WORLD and EDGE OF ETERNITY.


It brought me to THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah and the excellent books of Adriana Trigiani (THE SHOEMAKER'S WIFE, ALL THE STARS IN THE HEAVENS and LUCIA, LUCIA).


I listened to other great books like Isaac Asimov's brilliant Foundation trilogy – FOUNDATION, FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE, SECOND FOUNDATION. I listened to Harlan Ellison narrating his own stories – I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM, JEFFTY IS FIVE, DEATHBIRD STORIES which includes his Edgar Award winning THE WHIMPER OF WHIPPED DOGS.


Many readers have asked if I had any audiobooks available. I had to tell them no until Amazon linked up with Audible to create ACX. I now have fourteen audiobooks available read by professional narrators. They manage to enhance my writing, adding nuances I was unaware in my books and short stories.

It is a good deal for writers and narrators. The book must be available on Amazon Kindle. The writer retains the full copyright and puts the book up on ACX and asks for auditions. Narrators record a few pages of the book the writer puts up and if the writer likes the narration, the writer offers the narrator a deal. The writer can pay the narrator (this is pricey) or simply split the audiobook royalties. When the deal is struck, the writer gives the narrator a deadline and the narrator records a narration. After the first 15 minutes of narration is complete the writer gets to hear it and ask for corrections. When the entire narration is done the writer needs to listen and approve the entire book. The writer controls the process. The deal lasts for seven years and can be automatically renewed. The audiobook becomes available on Amazon.com and Audible web sites.


Here is a link to ACX: https://www.acx.com/help/about-acx/200484860

LINK to list of my audiobooks: http://www.oneildenoux.com/audio-books.html


ACX is another way to sell your books and short stories.
http://www.oneildenoux.com

23 May 2019

Only the Dead Know Brooklyn

by Eve Fisher

A friend who knows me well sent me the following article -  Weegee's New York City by Christopher Bonanos - in New York Magazine, chock-full of crime-scene photographs from the 1930s.  (Thank you, Betty!) 




April 18, 1937: Spurned Suitor Clubs Violinist to Death!  (The trail of blood is where the body was dragged...)  

May 5, 1937: The corpse everyone is checking over is that of Stanley Mannex, a 47-year-old Turkish immigrant, found in the ivy behind the New York Public Library.  (I'd love to know that backstory.)





April 20, 1937: Tony Benedetti was a single father of four from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, underemployed in New York during the Depression. Under a newly passed New York law looking to reduce the number of public charges, his family became the first in the state to be deported — put on a train at Penn Station back to Fayette County, where they were received by local welfare officials.

Two points:  the kids are crying, but dad is smiling.  Is that to cheer them up or what?  And I'd love to know what the local welfare officials did with him and his kids when they got there...



Date unknown, person unknown, location unknown.  But it's New York.  Everyone's wearing hats, and no one looks surprised.  I'm still amazed at how the corpse's hat ended right side up and in apparently perfect condition...

These are a few of the photographs taken by Weegee, a/k/a Arthur Fellig, the legendary crime-and-mayhem photographer of mid-century New York. In 1938, he became the only New York freelance newspaper photographer with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio. Weegee worked mostly at night; he listened closely to broadcasts and often beat authorities to the scene. When other photographers asked him about his technique he supposedly answered, "f/8 and be there".  By the '40s he had pictures in the Museum of Modern Art and had been curated by Edward Steichen.  (Wikipedia)

Weegee's first book of photographs was Naked City. Film producer Mark Hellinger bought the rights to the title from Weegee and made the movie The Naked City in 1948 - which I have not seen - and the police drama of the same name - which I have seen.  I remember all the episodes ended with "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."  BTW, here's the opening of the episode "The Fault in Our Stars" starring a very young Roddy McDowall:


But back to Weegee's photographs - they're everywhere on the internet, from the above to this site where they have been colorized to add to their gruesomeness:  

Pre-Weegee, someone also took these photos from 1910s New York City, and if you continue to scroll down, more Weegee:  

And Paris has more than Murders in the Rue Morgue here:

Now, I'm not into gore, I admit it.  I don't watch autopsies, gory movies, or read torture porn.  But there's more than one way to look at a photograph.  Like the last photo above, the hat lying by itself, looking perfectly fine despite the fact that the dead guy's face was either bashed in or shot and there's blood everywhere.  The other thing that struck me about it, was how the uniformed cop and the detective (?) with the flash camera are leaning, trying to see what the other detective is showing them as he straddles the body.

Straddles:  "See?  Someone came up on him, and shot him, point-blank range, and he took a step or two before he fell."
Uniform:  "What're ya talking about?"
Straddles:  "Look at the trail of blood.  He moved after he was shot, ya blind bat!"
Flash:  "Want me to hit it with a little more light?"

Another aspect of all the dead body shots I've shared here is that there's a lot of bending over in police work.  None of this Sam Spade looking down at his partner's dead body and pointing around.  No, these guys are all getting their faces right in the action, talking with their hands and their mouths.  I'm sure that at least one of them has a flask in his hip or coat pocket, and that they're all smokers.  And I still can't get over how they all manage to keep their hats on.

There also aren't any women standing around.  Which makes sense, because back then, the only woman around at the scene of the crime would be the victim.  And there are a lot of those.  From the woman lying in bed, back to her beloved (?) who just blew her brains out before killing himself, to the girl who was found lying looking calm and drained as if a vampire had shown up moments before...

All of these snapshots are a trip back in time - except that the only thing that's changed is the clothes.  Murder stays the same.  The motivation stays the same (love, jealousy, greed... same old, same old).  The blood stays the same.  The fascination with the crime stays the same.  And that's why we're all here.

BTW, click here to read "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" by Thomas Wolfe, the New Yorker, June 7, 1935.  Maybe the big guy was Weegee.









22 May 2019

War & Remembrance

David Edgerley Gates


The Caine Mutiny put Herman Wouk on the literary map, among the war writers Norman Mailer, James Jones, Gore Vidal, John Horne Burns, and Irwin Shaw. Wouk and Shaw were the most commercially successful, by far, which drew a certain amount of snobbish condescension. I'm a big fan of Irwin Shaw's, as it happens, but today it's Herman Wouk, who died just this week past. 


The Winds of War was published in 1971, War and Remembrance came out in '78, and somewhere in there I remember my dad and a friend talking about Wouk's authenticity. Both of these guys were Navy vets, WWII, and while they admitted it was a little convenient that Victor Henry or somebody in his family circle managed to be present at so many historical turning points - Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and a host of lesser lights, all had cameos - they were impressed by the fluency and momentum of the novels, the gathering darkness, the furious consequence. They thought Wouk had gotten it right, that the books were absolutely convincing. (My dad thought Catch-22 was pretty accurate, too, if for different reasons.)


For me, that was a strong recommendation, and when I got around to reading The Winds of War not long afterwards, the fact that it was so resolutely old-fashioned worked very much in its favor, and I read War and Remembrance because I wanted to see how the story came out. My dad used to joke that he and his crew must have seen Part V of Frank Capra's Why We Fight a dozen times, but he never found out how it ended. We know now that they Allies beat Hitler and the Japanese, but Wouk is skillful enough that we want to know whether Natalie and her uncle Aaron survive the Nazis. You could do worse as a writer.


Wouk's model is of course Tolstoy; his title gives it away. It might be worth pointing out that Tolstoy's title in his native Russian is Vojna i Mir, and the second word, mir, means both 'peace' and 'world.' You could almost translate it as Repair, or chaos made whole again. There's a lot of this in Wouk. The narrative and moral arc of War and Remembrance is return. We're delivered from an unnatural order, entropy or chaos, its power over us denied, the balance restored. You could almost call it biblical unity, if not for being reminded how little comfort history is.


The best obit was the Hollywood Reporter, and there was an extraordinarily clear-eyed piece by Anna Waldman in the New York Times. Wouk was a guy who deserves consideration.





21 May 2019

Lefty Calls the Shots

by Michael Bracken

Late evening, Thursday, April 11, 2019, I entered the emergency room and spent much of the night there. Temple thought I was having a heart attack. I felt confident I was not, but I knew something was wrong.

Traitor!
Many of my symptoms were consistent with a heart attack—chest pain that extended to my left shoulder and shoulder blade and spread down my left arm and up the left side of my neck—but the pain had begun on Sunday and had grown progressively worse during the days prior to my hospital trip. I had lost grip strength in my left hand, my fingers on that hand weren’t functioning as they should, and my blood pressure was about thirty points higher than my normal.

Were I having a heart attack, many of these symptoms would likely have occurred in a brief amount of time—fifteen to thirty minutes—rather than over the course of days, but that didn’t make them any less concerning. The doctor and the nurses—none of whom appeared to be playing cards—asked questions, poked me with needles, ran tests, and ultimately ruled out a heart attack. Having undergone quadruple bypass surgery in 2008, this was good news.

The prognosis: Chest wall inflammation or costochondritus. The doctor recommended over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and rest.

I returned home in the wee hours of Friday morning having learned that, except for the registration process, a stay in the emergency room is much like a stay at Motel 6: The bed is uncomfortable, there’s no room service, and the people in the next room make lots of noise.

AFTERMATH

For several days, full use of my left hand—regardless of whatever level of pain I felt—was curtailed. I could not, for example, carry a full dinner plate to the table with that hand, and when I attempted to type, those fingers never seemed to strike the keys at which I aimed them.

As a writer, this was, perhaps, what most concerned me about my situation. If the words in my brain never get transferred to a page, am I really a writer?

I attempted to dictate, but this proved as futile now as it did in 2008 when, following bypass surgery, I purchased my first dictation software. The amount of time I spend cleaning up gibberish and reformatting to something resembling proper format makes the process cumbersome and counter-productive, and requires nearly as much use of both hands as straight-forward typing.

Using my right-hand only, I handwrote a fair amount on a notepad. Unfortunately, this requires me to eventually type everything, which is akin to doubling my workload and postponing but not diminishing the use of my left hand.

Thumb typing on my iPhone proved perhaps the best of several bad choices, and I wrote much of the opening scene of a new story this way. Though the file required formatting when copied into a Word document, there was far less gibberish to clean up than when I dictated.

Note of these solutions proved ideal, in part because I tried to force the process to fit my method of writing rather than adapting my method of writing to fit the process.

LOOKING AHEAD

As I write this, about two weeks after my emergency room visit, the pain—except for occasional twinges—has diminished to barely noticeable, and my grip strength has mostly returned, though a bit weaker at the end of the day than the beginning. Unfortunately, the fingers of my left hand continue to vex me.

All of this suggests that I am not prepared for aging. I have not planned for infirmities, lapses in mental prowess, and the like. Despite toying with dictation software and thumb typing, I have no clear plan for how to continue writing when I lose control of my body. And will I someday be tended to by medical personnel who think I’m hallucinating when all I’m trying to do is tell them the cool story I thought up while idling away my time in some home for the aged?

I don’t have answers, and I don’t have solutions, so I suspect these thoughts will occupy a fair amount of my time going forward. I only hope that I’ll not let concerns about the future interfere with today’s production.

Throwback Tuesday: My first novel, Deadly Campaign, released as an audiobook in 1994 and as a trade paperback in 2000, is still available from Wildside Press and can be ordered from Amazon. Covering City Hall during an election year was all the excitement reporter Dan Fox needed—until he discovered Alderman Bill Franklin’s bullet-ridden body. While Fox digs for the story, long-hidden secrets rise to the surface—secrets that threaten the political fabric of the city—and Fox soon discovers he’s caught in the middle of a Deadly Campaign.

NEWS FLASH!

Between writing the above and the date this gets posted, I attended Malice Domestic and returned home as co-editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine. A few months ago, Carla Coupe announced that she was stepping away from Wildside Press and, following wonderful discussions with both Carla and publisher John Betancourt, Ive become her replacement.

Wildside Press has published several of my books and Ive had a story in every issue of BCMM, so I have a long and positive relationship with John and Wildside, and Im looking forward to what the future holds. The next few issues will contain stories Carla and John have already selected, so my initial impact may be minimal. Carla and John will be guiding me through the transition, and Ill share important information when I have it.

20 May 2019

Crime Films of Akira Kurosawa, Part 2

by William Burton McCormick

In Part One, I talked about how legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, known to many for his dramas, Shakespearean adaptions and samurai films, also made significant contributions to the broadly-defined crime film genre. I highlighted and provided links to two excellent films from the late 1940’s:
Drunken Angel (1948), the first Yakuza (gangster) film after World War II, and Stray Dog (1949), an early police procedural and the ancestor of the buddy cop film. Both films paired Kurosawa’s favorite actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, showcased the director’s emerging talent and explored the gritty underworld of postwar Tokyo from a Japanese point-of-view.

We continue now into the 50’s and 60’s, Kurosawa’s prime, for three more crime films featuring Mifune and Shumara. Our first is a doozy.

Rashomon
Rashomon (1950)

And then there was Rashomon.

While it was considered too Western for many in Kurosawa’s homeland, Rashomon is arguably the most influential Japanese film worldwide of any genre. It is inarguably one of the most revolutionary crime films ever made.

Based on the 1922 Ryūnosuke Akutagawa short story “In a Grove,” Rashoman features a samurai among its principle characters but this is no samurai film. Instead, Rashoman is a period piece psychological thriller set in eighth-century Japan.

In a framing story, several people take shelter from a rainstorm beneath a ruined city gate in Kyoto. (The famous gate is called “Rashomon”, hence the title.) One of the stranded people, a woodcutter played by Shimura, tells the others via a flashback how he discovered the dead body of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) in the woods. Shimura then details the ensuing trial he attended where the three persons involved in the murder give testimonies: the samurai’s self-admitted killer (the bandit Tajōmaru played by Mifune); the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyō), who was raped by the bandit but what she did afterwards remains open to question; and lastly the dead samurai himself, who speaks channeled through a medium. All three give conflicting accounts of events in that wooded grove and the actions that lead to murder. In addition to the killing, there is a question of shifting motivations and loyalties by all parties as result of the rape. And the mystery of a missing jeweled dagger.

As the bandit, wife, and the samurai all give their sides to the story, Kurosawa reenacts each version for the audience to see. We are challenged to find reality within incompatible vignettes and ask if such a thing as truth exists. We ponder each speaker’s motivations, wondering at lies and self-delusions told to an unseen judge (indeed, the audience is the surrogate judge). We weigh evidence and probabilities and strain to reach a definitive conclusion. Is there one? And only one? That is the mystery, art and source of enjoyment in Rashomon.

Kurosawa adds fine touches throughout the film. The wife, dressed in a white veiled gown and bathed in radiant forest sunbeams, is one of the most beautiful images put to film. When the bandit sees her, we feel his lust, even as we are abhorred by his actions. In one flashback, told by the victor, two combatants engage in a swashbuckling sword fight worthy of an Errol Flynn film. When an impartial party describes the same scene, Kurosawa shows the combatants as terrified cowards, clumsily hacking at each other, the winner victorious through sheer luck rather than skill. One account is fantastic, the other realistic, but which is true? Or perhaps neither are?

Towards the end, a witness comes forward to present a fourth account of events. But will the witness solve the puzzle for the audience or only muddle the truth further?

In a Grove
So influential was this film that it has entered the English-language lexicon. “A Rashomon” or the “Rashomon Effect” is creative jargon (particularly in film or television) for a story told multiple times from various points of view. Even if you have not seen the original film, it is likely you’ve seen or read a work that uses this device. Maybe the writers reading this have knowingly or unknowingly used the “Rashomon Effect” in their own work? If so, please mention it in the comments below.

Historically-speaking, the release of Rashomon was a watershed event for Japanese cinema. Prior to and during World War II, there was little exposure to Japanese film outside their country. After Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Vienna Film Festival, it was released with subtitles throughout America and Europe, going on to win Best Foreign Language film at the 1952 Academy Awards (a first for any Asian film), Best Director for Kurosawa from the National Board of Review and numerous other awards. In its wake came other Japanese films, including Kursoawa’s own masterpieces like Ikiru (1952), The Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne of Blood (1958). Directors as varied as Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman, and Francis Ford Coppola all count Rashomon among their favorite films.

As was much of Kurosawa’s work, Rashomon was remade as Western. 1964’s The Outrage stared Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey, Claire Bloom, William Shatner and Edward G. Robinson. The original is better.

All Japanese films published before 1953 are in the public domain, so Rashomon can be viewed for free here. (This free link is not a particularly clear print and I would recommend to those genuinely interested to stream a pristine version of this beautiful film from Amazon for less than $4.00 here.)

You can also download an English-language translation of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” for free here.

If you’ve seen Rashomon, please use the comments to tell us which of the four accounts you believe and what you think really happened in those woods.

The Bad Sleep Well
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

We return to the then-present day for a film noir with a plot that is both complex and difficult to discuss without spoiling things. Speaking simply, it is the story of Koichi Nishi (Mifune), a man who marries the boss’s daughter, Yoshiko (Kyōko Kagawa), at a large Japanese land development company in order to expose corruption and murder (and more – but that would be telling) there. Shimura plays Moriyama, one of the executives who comes into conflict with Nishi’s would-be whistleblower. Nishi has an especially difficult challenge getting confessions, as anyone who is even partially exposed has a penchant for rather suspicious suicides (One man tries to jump into an active volcano!)

Like all true noir, no one is completely good. Nishi may be determined to expose the truth, but he’s all too willing to use his bride’s affection as a tool to get access to whom and what he wants. This is doubly tragic for Yoshiko, as she not only loves Nishi, but is physically handicapped, and it is implied she had a difficult time finding a husband. Now, the one she has wants to use her to destroy her father and his company. Layered characters abound.

Kurosawa’s visual touches are as ever strong with sound and shadow used to chilling effect hinting at horrors just off screen. While considered one of his finest films, The Bad Sleep Well is perhaps not Kurosawa’s most accessible. The twenty-minute wedding reception that begins the film is deliberately paced and gives no indication of the thriller that follows. And the ending is very dark. Noir aficionados are known to love it, but general audiences are more divided.

As it was released after 1953, The Bad Sleep Well is not in public domain, so I have no link. You can, of course, stream it or purchase a DVD with English subtitles at Amazon or similar venders

High and Low (1963)

High and Low
Loosely based on the Ed McBain novel King’s Ransom, Mifune stars as a shoe-manufacturing executive named Gondo. Gondo has personally borrowed millions to prevent a hostile takeover of the company by rival executives who wish to oust him. Minutes before he is to purchase the stock that would secure his position, he receives a phone call by someone claiming to have kidnapped his son and demanding the borrowed money and more as ransom. It is soon discovered the kidnappers have errored. Gondo’s son is safe but the boy’s playmate was taken by mistake. Undeterred, the criminals insist on the money from Gondo or they’ll kill their young captive. What ensues is a gripping drama where Gondo wrestles with his conscious. Pay the ransom, and he’ll lose company, position, home, and find himself jobless while millions in debt, the very existence of his family in jeopardy. Refuse to pay and an innocent boy dies, a young life extinguished because someone held a grudge against Gondo. What would you do?

While this crisis of conscience plays out in Gondo’s manor on a hill (the “high” of the title), Inspector Tokura (played by a young Tatsuya Nakadai) attempts to track down the criminals, his investigation taking him into the “low” of Tokyo’s slums and drug dens. The investigation is riveting, a surprisingly modern police procedural where the inspector uses both forensic evidence and mind-games against the kidnappers planted in the media to entrap his targets. Shimura returns in a minor role as Inspector Tokura’s superior.

Kurosawa’s visual flourishes remain ever-strong in High and Low. A black-and-white film, he inserts a touch of color at a key moment to great effect. And a scene in a claustrophobic alley overrun by zombie-like heroin addicts is as chilling as anything George Romero would put to film years later.

One of my personal favorites.

Afterword.

As sixties waned, Kurosawa began to lose popularity in his native land. Japanese audiences found his style too Western for their tastes. From a Japanese point-of-view there is merit to this. Once asked from whom he learned his craft, Kurosawa replied: “John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.” Those same tastes that had made him the leader in breaking Japanese cinema worldwide, now took him out of fashion at home. By the late 70’s Kurosawa had difficulty finding funding – until a new generation of filmmakers who worshiped his work – George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg – helped get the necessary backing.

An emergence of a world media culture rehabilitated Kurosawa’s reputation in Japan. By the time he died in 1998 at age 88, his reputation in the East matched his renown in the West. AsianWeek named Kurosaw “Asian of the Century” for the Arts, Literature and Culture. CNN called him one of the five people of the twentieth century who most prominently improved life in Asia.

In the end, Mifune, whose expressiveness revolutionized Japanese acting much the way Marlon Brando did in America and had occasion to work with directors from Japan and abroad over a hundred-and-fifty-film career, summed up Kurosawa’s achievement best:
"I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him."
William Burton McCormick
William Burton McCormick

19 May 2019

Crime Films of Akira Kurosawa, Part 1

William Burton McCormick
William Burton McCormick

Lenin's Harem
We’re incredibly proud to present author William Burton McCormick (with many thanks to Rob)…
A five-time Derringer Award finalist, Williams's fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Black Mask, The Crime Writers’ Association Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour, Nancy Pickard Presents Malice Domestic 13: Mystery Most Geographical – and elsewhere. His historical novel of the Baltic Republics, Lenin’s Harem, was published by Endeavour Media. A native of Nevada, William lived fourteen years in Eastern Europe including Latvia, Estonia, Russia and Ukraine.
— Velma

The Crime Films of Akira Kurosawa

by William Burton McCormick

Acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is well-known outside his homeland for his samurai films and the Western imitations they inspired. The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven. Yojimbo (loosely based-on the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest) was remade often shot-for-shot by Sergio Leone as A Fist Full of Dollars. George Lucas transferred the plot and characters of The Hidden Fortress from sixteenth century Japan to a galaxy far, far away for Star Wars.

Fans of world cinema know that Kurosawa’s filmography is more varied than the samurai film, making contributions to numerous genres, including powerful dramas and adapting Shakespeare and Dostoevsky for Japanese audiences. No matter the source, the films always remained a product of Kurosawa’s own unique genius. In addition to directing, Kurosawa wrote or co-wrote his own screenplays and did his own film editing. A devotee of Orson Welles and John Ford, Kurosawa’s visual flair matches the former and his ability to capture sweeping landscapes and to film men-in-action may even surpass the later.

The five films we will discuss for SleuthSayers fall into the “crime film” category in some way or another. Noirs, gangster flicks, buddy cops, police procedurals, and Hitchcockian thrillers are found below. All five films feature Kurosawa regulars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.

MIFUNE, Toshiro
Those unfamiliar with his sixteen films with Kurosawa might recognize Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese soldier trapped on a deserted island with Lee Marvin in Hell in the Pacific, as Admiral Yamamoto in Midway, or as Lord Toranaga in the 80’s miniseries Shogun. John Belushi aped Mifune’s mannerisms from Yojimbo (down to the neck twitch and raised eyebrow) for his “Samurai” skits on Saturday Night Live. George Lucas was so enamored with Mifune, he offered the actor his choice of Obi-wan Kenobi or Darth Vader in Star Wars, but Toshiro felt his English insufficient, and not wanting to be dubbed, turned Lucas down.

SHIMURA, Takashi
Takashi Shimura was a veteran of twenty-one Kurosawa films, more than any other actor. A leftist imprisoned by Japan’s militant government before World War II, Shimura brought a world-weariness to his roles. He is weathered-but-tough in the Yul Brynner-equivalent role in The Seven Samurai, weathered-and-dying in the drama Ikiru, which the late critic Roger Ebert considered the greatest of all Kurosawa films. Those in the West might recognize Shimura as Dr. Yamane, one of the scientists trying to destroy the rampaging monster in the first Godzilla film (directed by Kurosawa’s friend Ishirō Honda.)

Drunken Angel made Kurosawa, Shimura and particularly Mifune stars in Japan. Two years later they would release Rashomon, which would break down the doors for Japanese films worldwide and change cinema forever. They are among the five films discussed over this two-part article.

Drunken Angel
Drunken Angel (1948)

In postwar Japan, Shimura plays an alcoholic doctor named Sanada who runs a private clinic in the Tokyo slums. Once a promising physician, drink and a wild past derailed his career, leaving the middle-aged Sanada to eke out a meager existence while his old medical school classmates earn a good living attending to the wealthy. One night, a gangster named Matsunaga (Mifune) barges in seeking help for a bullet wound. Doctor Sanada attends the wound, but when he diagnoses Matsunaga with tuberculosis, the enraged gangster beats the doctor and leaves. Despite the assault, Sanada hunts down Matsunaga, insisting on treating the illness. This is nominally done to prevent the spread of TB to others, but Sanada also sees his own wasted youth in the younger man. By saving Matsunaga, Sanada believes he is in some ways saving himself. And so begins a combative, uneasy friendship between the two men.

There is some great noir-ish dialogue in Drunken Angel. When a thug threatens to murder the doctor, Sanada laughs and says: “I’ve killed more men then you ever will.” It is not only a taunt of the criminal, but a self-effacing commentary on his failed medical career, and more subtly, a partial hint at why he seeks redemption in Matsunaga’s survival.

The film effectively builds suspense and drama with two ticking timebombs. One is the progress of Matasunga’s illness and the challenge Sanada faces in keeping a dangerous, animalistic man on a recovery routine. The other is the pending release from prison of another gangster, Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), a cold-blooded murder who previously sexually abused Doctor Sanada’s assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita). She is terrified of his return. Things are complicated further when it is revealed that Okada is Matasunga’s boss.

The story unfolds as a tragedy of shifting loyalties set within a war-devastated Tokyo. The U.S. occupation censors did not allow films that criticized the American presence and discouraged more than passing references to the war. Films of the time were encouraged to ignore the recent past completely. Despite this, Kurosawa’s film reveals the devastating results of the conflict. A mosquito-breeding cesspool, around which much of the drama unfolds, is obviously a crater from Allied bombing. Early Western advertisements are glimpsed on city streets. People talk of ration cards. The brothels, so common in the gangster world, play jazz music and waltzes indicating the “pan pan” girls who work there have an international clientele. The first Yakuza (gangster) movie released after the war, it is a gritty glimpse of the dark side of life in the years of rebuilding Tokyo.

All Japanese films made before 1953 are in the public domain. So, you can watch Drunken Angel with English subtitles online for free here if you wish.

Stray Dog
Stray Dog (1949)

In this film noir, Mifune plays a rookie detective named Murakami, who has his Colt revolver picked from his pocket on the local trolley. Understandably upset, and pressured by his superiors, Murakami goes on a quest through the postwar Tokyo underworld to find his missing gun. Things only worsen, when it is discovered that the stolen Colt has now been used by the thief (or some other party) to commit a series of increasingly dire crimes. Soon Murakami is paired with an older detective, Satō (Shimura), to find the gun and solve these crimes.

Stray Dog is an important work in the history of crime fiction cinema. It is one of the earliest police procedurals with more attention to detail in investigative work than a Hollywood film of the same era. Secondly, it is considered the forerunner of the buddy cop film. Certainly, Mifune’s and Shimura’s chemistry together is never stronger, often funny, sometimes poignant.

Several set pieces display Kurosawa’s mastery. A scene at a baseball game is both humorous and exciting and the way the detectives locate their suspect especially clever. And a late-film moment where a key telephone conversation is in danger of being drowned out by passing thunder or nearby radio speakers is as suspenseful as any Hitchcock piece of the 40’s. The movie’s climax is gripping and beautifully filmed.

Like Drunken Angel, the postwar life is portrayed as unflinching as the censors would allow. People trade their government issued ration cards for a host of illegal services (guns, sex, loan sharking), the cards functioning as a sturdy currency when life is influx.

Shimura, Mifune; Stray Dog
Shimura and Mifune – Stray Dog
Though Stray Dog is cop film and Drunken Angel a gangster film, they make a natural pairing for those who want an excellent cinematic experience and a glimpse into the underworld of postwar Tokyo from the Japanese point-of-view.

Stray Dog is available to view online for free (with English subtitles) here.

If you’ve seen (or watch now) either Drunken Angel or Stray Dog, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

In Part Two, we look at one of the most influential films crime films of all time as well as two excellent Kurosawa noires from the 60’s.