Tag Archives: Kurosawa Akira

Kurosawa #8 Throne of Blood (Japan 1957)

Miki (Kubo Akira) and Washizu (Mifune Toshiro) approach the witch (who wears a noh mask).

Throne of Blood is one of the best-known films by Kurosawa Akira. It was highly-praised in the West but not so warmly received in Japan. The reasons given for this difference in reception are (1) it is an adaptation/version/’re-imagining’ of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (2) Kurosawa used elements of noh theatre in a jidaigeki or period film, which in Japanese Cinema would traditionally have been influenced by the more populist kabuki theatre. The result is that the film ‘as a film’ has been rather obscured by the metatext about its status as Shakespeare and ‘Japaneseness’. That’s a shame because it is a great Kurosawa movie with a terrific performance by Mifune Toshiro and a wonderfully imaginative representation of time and place – forests, castles and windswept and fog-bound heathland.

The following notes have been adapted from material given out on a recent study day on Kurosawa:


This version of Macbeth is transplanted to the early part of the Sengoku period of civil wars in Japanese history (1467-1573). This assertion is partly based on the absence of firearms. These were important in the wars of the later 16th century that eventually produced the settlement of the Tokugawa Shogunate (otherwise known as the ‘Edo’ Period – Edo is the old name for Tokyo). During the long period of civil wars, the Japanese Emperor was confined to Kyoto and warlords vied for power in different provinces across Japan.

Although many Japanese filmmakers are associated with jidaigeki, these tend to be based on traditional stories that had become kabuki plays during the Edo period. Kurosawa was an innovator in staging much more historically accurate (more realistically detailed) films from the Sengoku period and the final warring period before the triumph of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603. Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, Kagemusha and Ran are the other Kurosawa films with this period setting.

The actions of the characters in Throne of Blood are consistent with those of the period in Japanese history – although as Stephen Prince (2003/2010) points out, the wars were perhaps not as bloody as Kurosawa makes them. But he was creating them from a 20th century perspective – informed by his own experiences of war and disaster.

Noh and kabuki

Japanese cinema developed roughly in parallel with cinema in the West and filmmakers such as Kurosawa were influenced by the Western films they saw in the 1920s. Japanese films were much more closely associated with Japan’s three traditional theatrical forms, noh, kabuki and bunraku (a form of puppet theatre) and the modern theatre associated with the contact with the West from the 1860s onwards (shinpa/shingeki).

Noh is the earliest of these forms, dating from the 14th century and is associated with drama and dance performed for the aristocracy in a refined and austere manner. Actors play heavily ‘typed’ roles and individuality is hidden behind masks. Movements are restrained and sometimes paradoxical, so that a small movement can signal a major dramatic act.

Kabuki is a later form developing in the 17th century during the Edo period and designed more as popular entertainment. In many ways, kabuki is the opposite of noh with its appeal to a popular audience in large theatres. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) suggests that noh is a classical form and kabuki is a baroque form. Kabuki has been seen as similar to Elizabethan drama in its appeal to audiences and its dealings in spectacle. (Noh is more concerned with words: actions are often ‘off-stage’). Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was kabuki rather than noh that became the source of plots for Japanese period film dramas, especially action films. The same companies who owned the early cinemas and started to make films were also engaged in promoting kabuki shows in their live theatres. Kabuki might be said to be the more ‘earthy’ Shintoist response to the Buddhist austerity of noh.

It is interesting therefore that Kurosawa chose noh rather than kabuki as a prominent aesthetic influence upon Throne of Blood. The clearest examples of this in the film are in the depictions of the witch in Cobweb Forest and the central performance of Yamada Isuzu as the Lady Macbeth character, Lady Asaji. Although Kurosawa didn’t require his actors to wear noh masks as such, he showed them appropriate masks and asked them to study the facial expressions. They also wore make-up that shaped their facial features to resemble masks. In the case of the witch, she first appears as the old lady ‘yaseonna’ and in later scenes as the mountain witch, ‘yamauba’. Yamada was shown the shakumi mask – ‘the face of beautiful middle-aged woman on the brink of madness’. Mifune as Washizu was also shown the heida mask of the warrior.

Contrasts and clashes: Mifune

The whole film is built on a rhythm of contrasting styles, moods and tones. One of these can be seen in relation to the playing of Mifune Toshiro. Mifune was Kurosawa’s leading man in most of his films between 1948 and 1965. Casting Mifune is one example of the ways in which Kurosawa innovated. As an actor, Mifune stood out in two ways. First was his sheer physical vitality. He literally ate up the screen space. Kurosawa claimed that Mifune could convey the same meaning in a third of the time that it took all other Japanese actors. He seems the least likely actor to be in a noh play – far too coarse and brutal, always seemingly teetering on the edge of breaking out into violent action. (But Kurosawa tells us he was a sensitive man of refinement.)

Mifune dominates the screen with his physical presence – here presented in the context of the fog and stylised forest.

The second point was that Mifune’s accent was Manchurian and because he spoke as he acted – often violently – he offered a complete change to actors coached in kabuki theatre who enunciated clearly. One interesting aspect of the film is therefore the contrast between the acting styles of Yamada and Mifune in the internal scenes.

Japanese visual art: the pen and ink school

The history of Eastern painting is quite different to that of the West and up to the late 19th century, different forms of Japanese art were very popular in the domestic market. Kurosawa himself was interested in both Western painting styles and traditional Japanese modes. Stephen Prince (2010) describes this aspect of Throne of Blood:

The striking emptiness of the spaces in the film – the skies, the dense roiling fog that obscures mountains and plains – is a cinematic rendition of sumi-e composition. This style of pen-and-ink drawing leaves large portions of the picture unfilled, making this ‘emptiness’ a positive compositional (and spiritual) value. Kurosawa believed that this style of picture making resonated deeply with the Japanese, and he was eager to infuse the film with this aesthetic. (Production designer Yoshiro Muraki’s castle set was black and was built on the dark, volcanic soil of Mt. Fuji in order to heighten the sumi-e effect, the contrast of dark and light. Although based on historical sketches, the castle is not of any single period.) As a positive value, this pictorial and spiritual ‘emptiness’ is set against the human world of vanity, ambition, and violence, which Kurosawa suggests is all illusion. The Buddhist arts of Noh and sumi-e enabled him to visualise this disjunction between the hell of life as we poor creatures know it, subject to our strivings, our desires, and our will, and the cosmic order that negates them.

Contrasts and clashes 2: Camerawork and editing

Kurosawa has been highly praised by critics for several reasons – not least his command of the full panoply of the filmmakers’s art – camerawork, mise en scène, editing (which he did himself on this film) and sound design. Across his 30 films he demonstrates many different and styles and the ways in which he has absorbed and transmogrified styles from a variety of film movements.

In Throne of Blood, the film is predicated on the structure of static sequences, almost in tableau, broken up by scenes of dramatic action with a change of composition, shot size and camera movement. The great proponent of studying the formal characteristics of Japanese Cinema is Noël Burch whose controversial book on Japanese Cinema was published in 1979. (The book was controversial because of the use he put his scholarship to in terms of the politics of film studies in the 1980s.) Burch refers to the contrasting scenes in Throne of Blood (or ‘Cobweb Castle’ as he terms it in a direct translation) as ‘lyrical agitation’ on the one hand and ‘tense stasis’ on the other.

Burch also discusses Kurosawa’s debt to Eisenstein and the concept of the ‘shot-change’. In simple terms this means a style that contrasts with the invisible nature of Hollywood’s ‘continuity editing’. The shot-change celebrates the visible transition from one shot to another, possibly through deliberate ‘mismatching’ of eye-lines or as in Throne of Blood in the use of Kurosawa’s favourite device of this period, the ‘hard-edged’ fast wipe which abruptly takes us from one scene to another in the most visible way possible (cf the gradual fade out/fade in or the unobtrusive straight cut). This is one example of the way in which Kurosawa confirms the ‘artificiality’ of film, emphasising its constructedness. The use of noh acting devices is another. See too the distortion of space in the sequence of the funeral procession approaching the castle.

An example of Kurosawa’s dramatic mise en scène with its sparse decor and low-key lighting – and its overall resemblance to a scene from a noh play.

What does it all mean?

If we understand all these facets of the film, what do we make of Kurosawa’s approach to what is a familiar story? Stephen Prince offers us a particular reading:

The Noh masks point to a huge difference between this theatrical tradition and Shakespeare’s, one that helps give the film many of its unusual qualities. Noh is not psychologically oriented; characters are not individualised. Its characters are types – the old man, the woman, the warrior, and so on – and the plays are quite didactic, aiming to impart a lesson. Kurosawa, therefore, strips all the psychology out of Macbeth and gives us a film whose characters are Noh types and where emotions – the province of character in the drama of the West – are located here as absolute types. Emotion here isn’t an attribute of character psychology, but a formal embodiment in landscape and weather. The bleached skies, the fog, the barren plains, and characters going adrift against and within these spaces – this is where the emotion of the film resides. It is objectified within and through the world of things. As a result, the film has a definite coldness; it keeps the viewer outside the world it depicts. Kurosawa wants us to grasp the lesson, to see the folly of human behaviour, rather than to identify or empathise with the characters.

. . . If Kurosawa strips the psychology from Macbeth, he also strips out Shakespeare’s political conservatism, refusing to give us the play’s reassuring conclusion (flattering to James I) in which a just political authority triumphs. In Kurosawa’s film and worldview, the cycle of human violence never ends. Thus the film’s many circular motifs describe the real tragedy at the heart of the history that Throne of Blood dramatises. Why do people kill each other so often and through so many ages? Kurosawa had no answer to this question. But he showed us here, through the film’s chorus, its circularity, and its Buddhist aesthetics, that there may not finally be an answer within this world. The aesthetics and philosophy of Throne of Blood take us well beyond Shakespeare, and that’s why this is a great film. Its accomplishments are not beholden to another medium or artist. Kurosawa gives us his own vision, expressed with ruthless, chilling power, and it’s the totality of that vision, its sweep and its uncompromising nature, that move and terrify us and that we are so seldom privileged to see in cinema.


I confess that I don’t care much for Shakespeare. I’m sure that I am missing out, but I’m too old now to start over. It does mean, however, that I can watch Throne of Blood objectively, not worried about ‘fidelity’ to an existing text. At the same time, because I’ve seen other film versions, I know the basic story so I can focus on how the events are presented. It seems to me that Burch and Prince make persuasive arguments. Throne of Blood is certainly one of Kurosawa’s major achievements – and a film to which he would return with varying success in the later works, Kagemusha and Ran. Its strengths are in the careful structuring of the narrative, the strong and coherent visual style, the location and settings and the direction of a group of highly-skilled actors led by Mifune on top form.

In a lengthy essay on Throne of Blood, Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) explores the questions about both the Shakespeare adaptation and the supposed ‘Japaneseness’ of the film in some detail, marshalling a range of theoretical ideas. I don’t have space to explore these here but I’d like to quote Yoshimoto’s conclusion which ties in nicely with some of the discussion above:

Despite its use of noh and other types of traditional Japanese art, Throne of Blood has little to do with the affirmation of Japaneseness. Nor is it an attempt to create a new national film style. Instead, Kurosawa simultaneously tries to expand the possibility of film form and re-examine the specific history and genre conventions of Japanese Cinema. Throne of Blood is a unique film made by a true innovator of cinema. (Yoshimoto, 2000:269)


Noel Burch (1979) To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Berkeley: University of California Press (this book is now available as a pdf on free download from the University of Michigan

Stephen Prince (2003/2010) Throne of Blood: Shakespeare Transposed’

Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham NC: Duke University Press

Kurosawa #7 Scandal (Sukyandaru, Japan 1950)

The Japanese poster for the film showing the four principals. The handsome Mifune Toshiro is the artist. Below are Shimura Takashi as the lawyer, Yamaguchi Yoshiko as the singer and Katsuragi Yoko as the sick girl.

For much of his career up to 1965 Kurosawa Akira was contracted to Toho (in the latter part of this period through his own production company) but in the late 1940s, because of labour unrest at Toho, Kurosawa took his projects to other studios. Scandal was produced by Shochiku, more associated for cinephiles with the work of Ozu Yasujiro. Although often regarded as one of Kurosawa’s ‘minor’ works, Scandal has several interesting features.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Mifune Toshiro plays Aoye Ichirô, an artist (Kurosawa’s ‘profession’ before he entered the film industry). Aoye is on holiday painting landscapes in the mountains. One day a young woman with a suitcase walks up to his painting spot. She appears to be heading for the hotel where Aoye is staying so he gives her a lift on his motorbike. At the hotel, Aoye visits the young woman’s room to see how she is settling in. Both are dressed informally and when they peer over the balcony to admire a view they hear a click – the paparazzi (or at least their predecessors in the Japanese ‘yellow press’) are at work. The young woman is a famous singer and there is a market value in an image of her and the handsome artist. Aoye then sues the scandal magazine (ironically titled ‘Amore’) which runs the photo. He chooses an unprepossessing lawyer to prosecute the case, seemingly won over by the lawyer’s sick daughter who is bed-ridden with TB. And this is where the problems begin . . .


Some critics see this film as failing because it moves into melodrama. Several of us on this site are melodrama fans, so that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It must be said, however, that Scandal offers a rather unusual combination of elements. Kurosawa sets up an interesting proposition in the first few scenes. The artist paints a picture which is not a ‘faithful reproduction’ of a landscape – but it conveys a truth (which the artist eventually finds through hard work). The photograph at the centre of the ‘scandal’ is just the opposite – an accurate rendering of a moment, but ultimately ‘untruthful’ about what is happening. This ‘mismatch’ between ‘imitation of reality’ and the truth behind an image is carried through to Aoye’s relationship with the lawyer played by Shimura Takashi and with the lawyer’s sick daughter. These relationships become the focus of the melodrama (rather than the expected relationship with the singer).

Scandal is ostensibly a ‘social protest’ film about the ‘yellow press’ (what is now usually called the tabloid press). Because information and comment had been so severely repressed in the Japanese media during the long wartime period, there was an explosion of sensational journalism in the immediate post-war period. This was clearly a social issue. Exposure of corruption was, of course, a social good, but it was accompanied by exploitation of personal problems. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro in his book on Kurosawa and Japanese Cinema (2000) observes that Kurosawa was early in critiquing this kind of journalism and it was not followed up in Japanese Cinema until Masumura Yasuzo’s Giants and Toys in 1958 (and again by Kurosawa in The Bad Sleep Well, 1960). But Scandal also has another reference to contemporary social problems. The lawyer is poor and his daughter is seriously ill with TB – just as the Mifune character in Drunken Angel (1948). The lawyer even lives in an area with a stagnant pool as in the earlier film.

The ‘media discourse’ which the film explores is well represented in the film’s mise en scène. Kurosawa and his cinematographer Ubukata Toshio have great fun with posters, microphones, flashbulbs, cine cameras and arclights in a series of montages and set pieces, such as the court case that comprises much of the last section of the film.

The problem with the film, I think, is in how Kurosawa has fashioned a narrative around the idea of a ‘true’ man and a ‘man of imitation’ – the Mifune-Shimura axis again played in a way that sees the artist character of Mifune puzzled by the new media environment and determined to preserve his honour (and that of the singer) whereas Shimura (the lawyer) is a much more feeble character who, although he does not understand the new world is easily persuaded to abandon his honour. This is a melodrama of redemption in which Shimura becomes the centre. (There is also a true melodrama ‘villain’ in the form of the magazine owner.) The court case is linked back to the ‘truth’/’imitation’ thematic in several ways. In the lawyer’s ramshackle office there is a photo of his daughter in school uniform. he artist recognises that this is a true photo and it helps him to decide to hire the father. The father knows this truth, so when he is about to do something shameful, he turns the photo to face the wall.

The expected melodrama involving the singer doesn’t happen, instead the focus switches to the lawyer’s daughter. The singer must be present for the court case and the narrative demands the presence of another woman – almost as a chaperone. This is the artist’s model and his friend. At one point, they discuss the conventions of Western painting and the artist suggests that Japanese art can’t deal with the nude. In this sense the artist is aware of the ‘westernisation’ of Japanese culture – and when he visits the lawyer’s family at Christmas he brings a tree on his motorbike.

I was struck by some of the American responses to the film (which has now appeared on DVD in Criterion’s box sets of Kurosawa). A New York Times review by Vincent Canby from 1980 suggests that the film is a satire on the Americanisation of Japan during the Occupation and that in some ways the film seems first like a pastiche of Hollywood romcoms and then undercuts this with its change of direction. Another reviewer points us towards Sam Fuller’s films about journalism. Yamaguchi Yoshiko (like Mifune, born in Manchuria) who plays the singer later appeared in some American films as ‘Shirley Yamaguchi’ – including Sam Fuller’s Japan-set thriller House of Bamboo (1955). The courtroom scenes are similar to those in Hollywood films, although the presence of newsreel cameras makes them look more like Senate hearings. There is a suggestion that some of the courtroom procedures might be ‘new’ – perhaps as a result of reforms by the Occupation forces?

This is certainly a film worth seeing, with some excellent set pieces and a real sense of the vitality found in so many of Kurosawa’s films in this period. Perhaps it has been overshadowed only because it was made in the same year as Rashomon. One warning though – if you don’t like melodrama acting, you may find Shimura’s performance just a little ‘too much’. I prefer him in Ikiru (1952).

Kurosawa #5: I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being Japan 1955)

Nakajima (Mifune Toshiro, centre) uses his fan vigorously in the heat of the adjudicator's office. Shimura Takashi (an adjudicator) can just be seen on the left edge of the frame. Nakajima is standing between his daughter and son.

(This post was sent to us by Leung Wing-Fai )

I Live in Fear, also known as Record of a Living Being, centres on Kurosawa Akira’s humanist concerns. The contemporary drama is one of the lesser-known films of the acclaimed auteur. It tells the story of a 60-year old industrialist Nakajima (played by Mifune Toshiro who was only 35 at the time) who decides to take his entire family to Brazil after the Second World War and the Bikini Incident. In 1954 the US forced the 166 inhabitants of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands to leave their homes, and then conducted a full-scale test of an atomic bomb, which was thousand times as powerful as the explosion at Hiroshima. The Japanese fishing boat ‘Lucky Dragon’ strayed just beyond the demarcation zone resulting in all crew members being killed or suffering radiation sickness. The incident sparked a national petition (with 20 million signatures) calling for a ban on nuclear weapons.

Nakajima’s family takes him to court and tries to declare him mentally ill in order to stop him from spending the family fortune on migration to Brazil. On the other hand Nakajima believes that the nuclear threat is the madness and fails to understand why everyone else should be so complacent. The opening credit shows crowded Tokyo streets full of faceless commuters who seem orderly yet lacking in direction. It can be interpreted as a statement on the group’s lack of ability to challenge fate, which the old man’s children are all ready to accept. One of his sons tells him that there is no point worrying about the atomic bomb as they cannot do anything about it anyway. Nakajima is not only fighting the fears of nuclear destruction but the weight of the crowd represented by his numerous relatives.

One of the most striking scenes is when Nakajima hears planes flying low, and sees a flash of lightning in the sky; he rushes over to his grandson and wraps himself around the baby to protect him. His daughter is horrified and grabs the child from Nakajima. The scene sums up the old man’s motivation and the reaction of his unsympathetic family. The turning point comes when Nakajima burns down his factory to force his family to migrate, with the opposite effect; they are more convinced that he is demented. The ending is most regretful. Nakajima has been put in an asylum. One of the magistrates goes to visit him; when Nakajima sees the setting sun, he thinks that it is a nuclear explosion and shouts, “It’s burning! The earth is on fire”. The film was supposedly inspired by the death of Kurosawa’s long term colleague, the composer Hayasaka Fumio who once told the director, “The world has come to such a state that we don’t really know what is in store for us tomorrow . . . Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all”. Hayasaka died during the filming of I Live in Fear, which explains the dark world-view. Unsurprisingly the film was too topical and dark to be successful among the Japanese public, but even now it reminds us that perhaps fear heightens the sense of being, as the two titles respectively suggest.

Kurosawa #4: High and Low (Japan 1963)

A static 'tableau' of the Gondo family with the police. Kingo Gondo (Mifune) is sat at the left with his wife and son. Inspector Tokura is in the dark suit. Note the chauffeur on the extreme right of the frame in a supplicant's pose.

This is an excellent film by any criteria. It shows Kurosawa Akira at the height of his powers during the phase when he could produce ‘entertainment pictures’ which also offered another dimension of artistic achievement. High and Low is based on the crime fiction novel by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter). ‘McBain’ was well known for his police procedurals (Hunter wrote non-genre novels, several of which became Hollywood movies and also other genre novels under different pseudonyms and screenplays under the Hunter name). King’s Ransom is one of the famous ’87th Precinct’ novels. It details the investigation of a kidnapping case. Kurosawa adapted various Western literary sources including Shakespeare, Gorky and Dostoyevsky, but I don’t think he adapted any other genre novels by Western writers (unless you count the claims that Yojimbo is based on a Dashiell Hammett story).

Plot outline (some spoilers)

Kingo Gondo is a business executive – someone who has worked his way up to Production Manager in a Japanese shoe company. The narrative opens on the night when other executives from the company have come to his house to persuade him to join them in ousting the company President and ‘modernise’ the company’s product line. Gondo (Mifune Toshiro) is in some ways an old-fashioned craftsman who doesn’t want to make cheap fashion shoes. He refuses to join the plot and when the men have gone he reveals to his aide that he has been secretly buying shares and if he does the final deal he will control the company himself.

Gondo lives in a modern house on top of a hill overlooking the port city of Yokohama. Soon after his meeting he is shocked to receive a phone call from a kidnapper who claims to have taken his son and is demanding a huge ransom of ¥30 million. But the kidnapper has made a mistake – he has taken the wrong boy and he actually has the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. Nevertheless he wants his money. The police are called – led by Inspector Tokura (Nakadai Tatsuya). Gondo is faced with a terrible dilemma – does he pay the ransom to free the boy and lose all the money he has gambled on the takeover of the company? (He has mortgaged the house to get enough funds.) Or does he risk the boy being killed and save his business future?


The original title of the Japanese film translates as Heaven and Hell, which seems very apt. To the kidnapper, Gondo’s house, the rich man’s house on the top of the hill seems to be represented as heaven. In the poorer apartments below life is certainly more hellish, especially during the oppressive heat and humidity in Summer. Kurosawa’s adaptation (co-written with several collaborators) has several clever tricks up its sleeve. The actual investigation is expertly paced and features a fascinating train sequence for the drop-off of the money and some excellent police department scenes. This is quality entertainment, but what makes the film great art is the application of two familiar Kurosawa strengths. The first is the excellent playing of the lead roles with Mifune in an unusual role in which he ‘humanises’ Gondo the businessman. The second is the decision to film most of the first section of the narrative in static tableaux of the Gondo family and the police in Gondo’s house – emphasised by the brilliant use of the CinemaScope frame as in the composition above. This is almost like a stage play with characters holding their positions and sometimes looking or staring off-screen. This is then contrasted by the much busier (and more ‘realist’) scenes of the investigation shot on location in Yokohama and on the railway.

What I think that this stylistic difference achieves is to establish a kind of distance from the events and to invite an analysis of the story in metaphorical terms. This seems like a modernist device. (A conclusion strengthened by the single use of colour in what is otherwise a black and white film at a crucial point in the investigation.) It would seem that Kurosawa certainly achieved his aim of stirring up a critical storm (if that was his intention). Some critics have criticised the film as ideologically conservative. It is certainly true that one of the platforms for the police investigation is the presentation of their work as helping Gondo’s family to protect the boy and pointedly helping the rich to stay safe. The Inspector even says at one point that he would understand if Gondo refused to pay – because he would be risking all. The critics’ disquiet is heightened by the fact that the kidnapper also faces the death penalty when he kills his accomplices and that the narrative almost seems to endorse his capture in order that he be executed (the police don’t do much to prevent a further murder). Can this be the ‘liberal’ Kurosawa of earlier films?

But it’s not as simple as that. Kurosawa undercuts the straightforward ‘support for the establishment’ message, mainly through Mifune’s performance as Gondo who first suffers a business setback and then rebuilds his career. He is embarrassed by the begging that his chauffeur performs pleading for help with his son and he is deceived by the aide he had trusted. If anything, Kurosawa critiques contemporary capitalism as he did in the earlier The Bad Sleep Well (1960). At the end of the film, Gondo meets the kidnapper twice. First he unknowingly meets the man on the street and then finally is summoned to meet the now condemned man in prison. But the kidnapper never explains his motives. He is not contrite and Gondo is left puzzled. I think Kurosawa is asking us to consider what the story is about. Who or what is to blame for this kind of criminal action?

On the down side, Kurosawa makes little use of Mrs Gondo (Kagawa Kyuko) apart from some lines of dialogue and the contrast offered by her costume in the first section of the film (traditional Japanese) and in the second (Western).

Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro offers a long and detailed analysis of the film which I won’t summarise here except to note that he refers to the discourse of ‘urban geography’ – how the Japanese city looks in 1963, relating it to ‘looking’ as a general activity (several clues come from sketches of his experiences made by the kidnapped boy and the police use photography in interesting ways). The suggestion is that there is a metaphor for changing national identity at work here in the new ways of looking at society – although Kurosawa doesn’t seem convinced of a coherent new identity being formed.

I watched the BFI Region 2 DVD of the film (which is only available on 16mm film in the UK). I hope we eventually get to see a 35mm print. I understand that Martin Scorsese is executive producing a possible Hollywood remake. This is the kind of film you suspect Scorsese would admire. It is reported to be being written by Chris Rock – sounds interesting!

Nice clip from the film here:

Kurosawa #3: Drunken Angel (Japan 1948)

Mifune (foreground) and Shimura in a scene with typical film noir lighting effects producing a ‘disturbed’ mise en scène

This is the film that many have argued put Kurosawa “on the map”. It was his first ‘personal film’ and the first film that he made with Mifune Toshiro. Very much a film ‘of the moment’, it took a genuine social issue from the streets of a devastated Tokyo and fashioned it into a cinematic treatment, drawing upon the crime film/melodrama in a film noir mode then popular in Hollywood, Britain and in Europe – where similar stories could be found in the ‘rubble films’ of Germany (West and East) and the neo-realist films of Italy. It was awarded No 1 film of the year in Kinema junpo magazine.

At the centre of the film is a crusading doctor, a local practitioner with an office near the festering stagnant pool formed by a bomb crater at the centre of a community living and working in ramshackle dwellings. The doctor’s crusade is to save the locals from environmental and lifestyle diseases such as TB. But Doctor Sanada (played by Kurosawa’s other ‘go to’ actor, Shimura Takeshi) has his own fatal weakness. He’s an alcoholic forced to acquire medical alcohol from his colleagues or to visit the sleazy drinking dens in the neighbourhood. One night a garishly dressed hoodlum bursts into his surgery with a gun wound and demands treatment. This is Matsunaga (Mifune), a local gangster (yakuza) controlling the black market who turns out to have a shadow on his lung.

There are many intriguing aspects of this film. Perhaps it doesn’t all fit together – as Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro argues. Watching it on a faulty Hong Kong disc was quite difficult, but I was impressed nevertheless. Even more clearly than in the earlier Sugata Sanshiro films, Kurosawa presents his familiar master/apprentice, older/younger male pairing. The doctor sees himself in the young thug and in turn Matsunaga attacks the older man because he knows that he is right – and he can’t bear it. The film works through symbol and metaphor. The festering pool is both the source of real disease (the mosquitoes that breed there) and a metaphor for the moral and economic degradation of Japan. Sections of the narrative are separated by long shots of a young man playing a guitar seen across the pool in the moonlight. Objects are thrown into the pool. Garbage of course, but also a doll, a flower etc.

The story – by Kurosawa and his old school friend Uekusa Keinosuke – seems to me to be quite rich in the range of characters and their interrelationships. There are more female roles than in some Kurosawa films and this reflects the pressure by the Occupation authorities to promote the new democratic rights for women – which are mentioned in the dialogue. Doctor Sanada has an assistant who ‘lives in’ and she is the wife of the local yakuza boss who abused her and who has been imprisoned. When he returns, Sanada bravely tells him that his wife now has the right to refuse him. The other three female characters are perhaps generic types from the film noir crime genre. A bright and confident schoolgirl, one of Sanada’s patients, follows his advice and triumphs over her TB infection – a symbol of hope for the new Japan? Gin serves in a local corner bar. She loves Matsunaga and in some ways represents the traditional Japan, while Nanae is the typical femme fatale of the film noir – and a clear representation of the moral pollution which has arrived in Tokyo via the Occupation. (The film appears to have had some constraints in representing the Occupying forces directly.)

Perhaps the biggest strength of the film is also its biggest weakness – Mifune’s performance. Kurosawa had seen Mifune at an audition for new players to be contracted at Toho in 1946. He had supported Mifune’s selection then and cast him now as Matsunaga. Kurosawa has stated that what astonished him about Mifune’s performance skills was the sheer energy and the swiftness of his movements and his thinking. This direct style was well utilised by Kurosawa (although as he points out in his autobiography, Mifune appeared in several films for other directors before Drunken Angel). As the sick yakuza, Mifune is electrifying and brilliant though Shimura is, audiences can be forgiven in thinking that Mifune’s is the central character. He too spends much of his time drunk, but it is the doctor who is the ‘drunken angel’.

Here’s an extract from the film. It’s a nightclub sequence showing Mifune as the gangster. At the end of the sequence, a typical Kurosawa wipe takes us (very briefly) back to the surgery and Shimura as the doctor. At the opening of the clip, Nanae dances with the yakuza boss. A drunken Matsunaga (with his bandaged hand) then essays a terrifying jive with one of the hapless bar girls. [This clip has since disappeared from YouTube but I’m leaving the analysis here until I can find something else.]

The extract demonstrates the importance of music in the film – it was the first time that Kurosawa worked with Hayasaka Fumio. It also brings together some of the visual elements that are so striking. I’m not sure if the song is the one for which Kurosawa himself wrote some of the lyrics. I think it is, but Yoshimoto and Keiko McDonald seem slightly at odds on this. McDonald gives a detailed reading of all the popular songs and other musical references used in the film. I’m fascinated by both the music and the singer. I’m reminded strongly of 1930s films, especially from German and British musicals and melodramas – there is something of the stereotypical representation of the ‘jungle’ in the performance and the song here is indeed titled ‘janguru bugi‘ (‘Jungle Boogie’) and performed by Kasagi Shizuko. She was well-known at the time and this was one of her more popular numbers. I think that this nightclub scene could have come from various national cinemas at this time. China before 1949, India in the late 1940s and 1950s are just as likely as Hollywood. In a later fight scene, Mifune appears reflected in three mirrors – much as Orson Welles at the end of Lady From Shanghai. The Welles scene was also from 1948 – Kurosawa was part of what was happening in global cinema, not a ‘copyist’. I think that Drunken Angel is the first Kurosawa film which seems thoroughly ‘composed’ in terms of dramatic lighting and camerawork.

The portrayal of the doctor and the weight of expectation of death from disease is explored in at least three other Kurosawa films which would make an interesting quartet – Silent Duel, Ikuru and Red Beard. I haven’t seen Silent Duel yet and it’s a while since I saw Red Beard, but certainly it’s interesting to compare the Shimura roles in Drunken Angel and Ikuru. Kurosawa began writing Drunken Angel at a time of despondency which was visualised as the pool. The doctor is fighting to convince his patients (i.e. Japan) that there is a future for them if they change their ways and this is what happens for at least one of them. In Ikuru the Shimura character dies from the disease hanging over him – but not before he transforms the neighbourhood.


Kurosawa Akira (1982) Something Like an Autobiography, Vintage

McDonald Keiko (2006) Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context, University of Hawaii

Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University

Kurosawa #2: Madadayo (Japan 1993)

The first birthday celebration after retirement when the students perform a satirical song with the professor

Madadayo was Kurosawa’s last film – though he left behind several scripts and outlines, some of which have been filmed. The title translates as ‘not yet!’ – a shout of defiance by a retired professor at the contemplation of his own death but also a child’s exclamation during the Japanese game of ‘hide ‘n seek’ (“Are you ready”, “Not yet” and finally “You can come now!”).

The film was not released theatrically in either the UK or the US. It’s not difficult to work out why. Though I enjoyed the film on DVD (a so-so quality Region 2 disc from Yume), I needed a lot of guidance in order to understand every aspect. My main source was Keiko McDonald whose essay on the film is included in her collection entitled Reading a Japanese Film (University of Hawaii Press, 2006). McDonald’s essay is particularly useful since she both explains all the cultural references and gives her take on the usual Kurosawa debates.

The film does not have a strong narrative. Its story focuses on a professor from the time when he first announces his retirement up until the night of his 77th birthday and the 17th annual party organised in his honour by his ex-students. The start year is 1943 and the background to the events (barely glimpsed) includes the surrender, Occupation and economic re-birth and social revolution in Japan in the 1950s and early 1960s. Those events amount to very little of what might be expected in a narrative fiction feature. When the professor and his wife are bombed out in 1945, the students eventually build him a new home and there is a problem with a possible buyer of the adjacent property. Then the professor loses the stray cat which he has taken in and become strongly attached to. The students visit often and we see the initial retirement celebration and the 17th in some detail. How does Kurosawa make this into an interesting film?

Apparently, the professor is a historical character called Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971), who initially taught at a military college but then became a full-time writer and was revered as a ‘stylish essayist’. McDonald suggests that Kurosawa expected at least some of his Japanese audience to be aware of Hyakken’s writings. He then uses the professor’s musings and the strong relationship he has with his ex-students (the professor’s wife is the strong but mostly silent supporting figure in the background) as a vehicle to explore fundamental moral values and questions about mortality and change – both ‘natural’ and ‘social’. He does this largely through the medium of songs, poems and essays that might be familiar to large numbers of the audience who in McDonald’s words “have survived the Japanese high school system”. She entitles her essay ‘Cultural Responses to Simplicity’ and this is indeed the strength of the film. The best example of this simplicity for me is the example of the ‘moon’ sequences. On one occasion, in his temporary home after the bombing, the professor encourages his students to sing a childhood song about the moon as they all gaze at it across the rubble. On another occasion, the students improvise a musical routine around the moon song during the professor’s birthday celebrations.

There is little to say about the aesthetic of the film, though there are examples of familiar Kurosawa ‘extreme weather’ sequences and the ending utilises an expressionist use of colour. At one point I wondered if I was watching the film in the wrong aspect ratio since the composition looked rather ragged for Kurosawa. There is relatively little movement in the film. The professor remains seated or stationary for much of the time – only the students rush about. However, Kurosawa manages to inject life into the scenes and the central performances are very good. It may be an old person’s film – I certainly found it moving, warm-hearted, life-affirming etc.

In respect of the standard Kurosawa debates, it is clearly ‘Japanese’ and not ‘Western’, but it does conform to the theme of master and apprentice – except in this case there are many ‘apprentices’. I did  reflect on what kinds of metaphorical meaning I could take from the film, but I think I agree with McDonald that the meanings in the narrative are not meant to refer to Kurosawa himself – he is not the professor. Rather the film explores the concept of a changing world and the need to retain/reflect on the virtues of a traditional Japanese education/socialisation. The professor both reminds his students of what they learned in childhood and allows himself to become part of the changing world. The film that Madadayo in some ways resembles (though not in tone) is Ikuru in which another ageing man confronts his own death rather more urgently and with more socially directed goals. The whole approach to death seems to me to be different in Japanese culture.

This is a subtle work from a master director. It is calm but warm and amusing as well as fulfilling. It will have helped many say “Not yet!”.