Short Movie Reviews: Five by Akira Kurosawa

The Bad Sleep Well 

Kurosawa’s study in corruption and revenge seems to favor linear plot mechanics over the more ambiguous ambitions of its characters, but it is not so. Although the script avoids talky scenes in which people try to explain themselves to each other, the audience is never deprived of such knowledge. So when Koichi Nishi begins to fall in love with the women he married in order to facilitate better the destruction of her father, there are no weepy scenes to emphasize what is essentially a trite dramatic situation, making the bond between the man and the woman stronger for avoiding its pulp origin. Structurally, their relationship is as parenthetical to the main plot like as is that of Hamlet and Ophelia, with much suggested in a very few scenes. While it seems the relationship between them is thinly presented, the truth is that it is unnecessary to dramatize that which can be conveyed obliquely. From a twenty-minute opening scene that provides a wealth of expository information within the framework of a wedding party (a device that has been since used both skillfully and otherwise in “The Godfather” and “The Deer Hunter”) “The Bad Sleep Well” is more concerned with group dynamics than intimate scenes between individuals. I don’t know of any director who can fit so many people into a single shot without diminishing any of those so included. His best scenes take place in corporate board rooms or social functions. At the approach of a climactic moment between two individuals, such as Nishi’s approach to intercept Wada’s suicide attempt, the camera turns away from the action. In shots including both Nishi and his wife, it is rare to see them occupy the frame with either intimacy or equality. The shocking events of the final reel are more troubling, not simply because they happen off screen, but because of the compression of the passage of time. We resist accepting what has happened partly because there hasn’t been time enough for such tumultuous events to have occurred. Compared to the slow, methodical procedure of “Hamlet’s” fifth act, in which each character is sent to their finish with ample flourish, the surprising resolution of “The Bad Sleep Well” is as sudden and crippling as a telegram that you read over and over again and still cannot accept the truth of its message.

Stray Dog

Akira Kurosawa is without question one of the world’s greatest film directors. Toshiro Mifune, his most constant leading man, was an actor without rival. When he made “Stray Dog,” his third film for the director, he was a good looking young man who had done little except portray gangsters. Detective Murakami, a rookie who loses his gun to a pickpocket on a crowded train in the sweltering July heat, is the first of many characters to show the depth and diversity of Mifune’s great talent.  The opening shot, the head of a panting dog that seems pinned to the earth by the rays of the sun, is one of Kurosawa’s most menacing. As the story unfolds, and we remember that doghead as a symbol of the unwanted war veterans who were turned out like stray dogs on the streets of postwar Japan, its menace increases. By the end of Murakami’s search for his missing gun, after each of its seven bullets have been fired, his sympathy for such vets has run out and he begins to share the older detective Sato’s feeling that the job of the police is to protect the innocent from these feral beasts.  Kurosawa wrote “Stray Dog” as a novel in the style of a George Simenon thriller, then translated it into a screenplay. The film became the first police procedural to be filmed in Japan. However, it is not so much the suspense of a police investigation that makes it such a tantalizing film, as the tour of occupied Japan which cradles the action. When Murakami discovers who pinched his gun, he tails her through the bland streets of Tokyo, where the authority of the police is relatively stable, for an entire day until she breaks her silence and gives him a clue as to how he might recover it. Then Murakami descends into the lower depths of the city, trying not to drown in the double exposures of depravity where he poses as a down and out desperado in need of a gun. Later in the film, Kurosawa treats us to an a most documentary look at baseball game as Murakami and and Sato trap the gun dealer in one of the stadium’s tunnels.  The great Takashi Shimura, who has appeared in more Kurosawa pictures than Mifune, and another couple hundred by other directors, turns in a brilliant performance as Sato, the older detective who trudges through the investigation, wearily wiping the sweat from his face, a methodical dog catcher of human dogs gone rabid. Another standout in the cast is the very young Keiko Awaji as the showgirl with a sentimental attachment to the criminal. Although she went on to become a major actress who worked frequently with Mikio Naruse, it is her awkward reticence and lack of experience that makes her character in “Stray Dog” so unusual.

Hidden Fortress (1958) 

Kurosawa’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of its two basest characters makes “The Hidden Fortress” one of his weakest films. Imagine “The Wild Bunch” with the Gorch Brothers as its lead characters. The first hour plays like the existentially comedy of Samuel Beckett, with Tahei and Matalishi, would-be war profiteers who have recently escaped an episode as gravediggers, scheming and squabbling over the phantom riches of which they dream.The film becomes more interesting in its second half, when the buffoons throw in their lot with the disguised Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), who has a bounty on her head, and her protector, the great General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune). When the story is focused on the princess and the general, there are scenes worthy of its director. The antics of the vulgar fools, however, make the movie as a hole somewhat tiresome. Uehara is the picture’s biggest draw. She is a mysterious and compelling presence, with the demeanor of a seasoned actress. Yet this was her first film in an undistinguished career that she gave up after only three years. Sam Peckinpah fans will also enjoy “The Hidden Fortress” to see where the director got some of his ideas for the mannerisms of the Gorch brothers. There are also several shots and sequences in the film in which Kurosawa emulates John Ford, particularly in the variation of where in the composition he places the horizon line.

High and Low 

The reputation of Kurosawa’a 1963 kidnapping story as a mythic crime epic may bring to mind the sprawl of a Michael Mann thriller, but there are no such pretentions to “High and Low.” While Mann attempts to imbue his simplistic tales with significance by slowing them to a Wagnerian pace, not one of Kurosawa’s 143 minutes is spent in such inflation. In fact, “High and Low” is the most briskly entertaining thriller since “Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” Its first hour , set primarily on a single set and composed of long takes, resembles Hitchcock’s “Rope,” with the added intricacies that the larger cast of characters demands of the mise en scene. As the director skillfully fills his wide screen with the constant human motion, the script twists and expands with mix-ups and possible motivations until the decision on how to handle the kidnapper who demands 30 million yen to ransom the wrong child is made, and the film moves into it second phase. The payment of the ransom is as purely cinematic as the first hour was theatrical. Set on a speeding train, the film crew must have been as tense and precise in getting their shots as the characters are in following the orders of the kidnapper. Unlike “North by Northwest,” this is a real train speeding thorough a real countryside, not a set with a process shot prepared for every window. As the train approaches the place where it has been promised the boy will be waiting, the audience can feel every curve of the track. The second half of the film is a fairly straight-forward police procedural, until the final scenes which bring it into the rough territory of the Nikkatsu pictures such as those directed in the early sixties by Seijun Suzuki as well as new wave pictures such as Oshima’s “Violence at Noon.”

Seven Samurai 

For a movie about seven killers hired to dispatch forty bandits who threaten a farming village, it is surprising that the most appealing aspects of “Seven Samurai” are its subtlety, sweetness, and gentility. Even the most horrific moments, those split-second expressions capturing the incredulity of impending death, are tempered with the heartache of Kurosawa’s empathetic camera. As for the violence, these samurai are so skillful that it seems they can kill their opponents without drawing blood. The battles are quick as speed chess, with the casualties tallied after every round. Which is to say that the clashes between samurai and bandit are a very small part of this extraordinary 3 ½ hour classic, most of which casts its warm eye on life, not death.  “Seven Samurai” is not a classic because of the breadth of its spectacle, but for the delicacy of its detail. Characters are represented by sound as much as by sight: The quiet readiness of the samurai, the hoofbeats of the bandits’ horses, the cacophony of the panicking farmers. Just as Kambei, the leader of the samurai, can infer a person’s character by their body language, so is the audience made privy to the dreams and aspirations of even the minor characters by the most oblique gesture. The old woman who cannot endure one more moment of death-in-life, the young virgin who wants to make love just once before she is killed.  Although the story takes place in the 16th century, this 1954 film may have resonated with its contemporary audiences in a Japan that had renounced its military and stood defenseless amid the expansion of the Communist empire throughout parts of Asia. It is a paean, not only to the country’s forsaken traditions, but to the land itself: the fields, the mountains, the rain, the mud, and the indomitable will of the Japanese people, who were yet to emerge from the war-ravaged empire to become the very model of modernity.

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