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.

13 comments:

janicelaw said...

A great director and great to learn about some of his less famous films. Thanks!

John Floyd said...

Great column, Bill, and great recommendations! Looking forward to Part Two.

R.T. Lawton said...

Excellent article. Thanks for the history.

Paul D. Marks said...

Fun and interesting post. It reminds me of being back in film school :-) .

William Burton McCormick said...

Janice, John, R.T., and Paul:

I'm really glad you folks liked the article. Kurosawa's filmography is so rich, the guest blog allowed me to delve into some "non-Samurai, non-drama" films for a time. And it gave me an excuse to re-watch all the films as research.

Eve Fisher said...

Writing down titles. Looking forward to part 2!

William Burton McCormick said...

Thank you very much, Eve. Part 2 will be up tomorrow.

By the way everyone, if it is not clear from my writing, there are links to the films in the text.

JIM DOHERTY said...

One of the things that struck me about Stray Dog was how it seemed to be influenced by the 1948 American police procedural film The Naked City. Both used location filming in a huge urban area to great effect. Both featured a rookie detective partnered with a grizzled, street-smart veteran.

Some critics suggested that Kurasawa was influenced, in this film, by Simenon's Maigret novels. If so, Simenon returned the favor in 1956, when Le Revolver de Maigret was published in France (an English edition, Maigret's Revolver, was published in the US in 1984). The plot is similar to Stray Dog, with a revolver of Maigret's stolen by a troubled young man, who uses it to commit crimes.

What goes around comes around.

Leigh Lundin said...

Bill, I admire all the adventuring you do. Man, I love it.

I’d seen The Magnificent Seven, Roger Corman’s fun sci-fi spin-off Beyond the Battle of the Stars, and The Seven Samurai, but despite as a kid reading every Dashiell Hammett story I could get my hands on, I never guessed the connection to Red Harvest or A Fistful of Dollars. Now that you've mention them, I'm feeling a bit dim.

Fascinating summaries, Bill, I look forward to tomorrow’s installment.

William Burton McCormick said...

Jim - Thank you for the insightful post. You are correct. Kurosawa mentioned in his biography that both Naked City and the works of Simenon influenced Stray Dog. Well spotted!

Leigh - It's the nature of cultural and creative interchange. Almost a complete circle. American writer Hammett pens Red Harvest, which influences Japanese writer/director Kurosawa to make the samurai film Yojimbo. That film in turn is copied by Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, who transforms Yojimbo it into a Western and sells it back to America as a Fist Full of Dollars.

Cheri Vause said...

Made me go back a hundred years ago when I was in college and took a Shakespeare class. We watched Castle of the Spider Web, a MacBeth story that is not only stunningly beautiful, but incorporated the Samurai tradition and Noh. Lady MacBeth never makes a face (Noh) but uses her body to portray emotion that is quite powerful. If you haven't seen it, the film is a must.

I now have two new crime films to see. Thanks! Just loved the article!

William Burton McCormick said...

Cheri: I am really glad you brought up Castle of the Spider Web. I own it on its alternate title Throne of Blood. One of my absolute favorite films, and despite not having a line of Shakespearean dialogue proper, is my favorite adaption of MacBeth. Isuzu Yamada is wonderful in the Lady MacBeth role, as is Mifune in the lead. And that ending with the arrows....

Cheri Vause said...

Mine, too.