Showing posts with label William Burton McCormick. Show all posts
Showing posts with label William Burton McCormick. Show all posts

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.