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Tag Archives: Setsuko Hara

The Idiot (May 23, 1951)

Hakuchi
The Idiot (Hakuchi) (1951)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Shochiku Company

As a nearly lifelong fan of director Akira Kurosawa, The Idiot is a difficult film to review. Watching it was an incredibly frustrating experience, since major portions of the film have been lost, and it’s doubtful they will ever be found.

Kurosawa’s original cut of The Idiot ran about four and a half hours, and was intended to be released in two parts. However, the Shochiku studio bosses trimmed it down to a little less than three hours, which is the only existing version.

Mifune and Masayuki Mori

The Idiot (a.k.a. Hakuchi) is an adaptation of the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Kurosawa followed the plot of the novel fairly closely, but changed the setting from 19th-century Russia to postwar Japan.

Appropriately, the film takes place in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. The snowy landscapes give the film the look and feel of a Russian novel. Kurosawa was always preoccupied with weather (especially torrential rainstorms), and The Idiot is a beautiful portrait of a frigid and hostile environment.

The main problem with The Idiot is that it appears to have been trimmed down in a completely arbitrary fashion. The constant wipes (a technique which usually conveys a sense of excitement and forward movement in Kurosawa’s films) seem to always signify an elision in The Idiot. Characters will move from one place to another with no explanation, or the setting will change without warning. Watching The Idiot in its current form is sort of like reading a novel and skipping various chapters at random.

Hara and Mifune

The Idiot is not a film I can properly review, but I will say this — if you have never seen a Kurosawa film before, make sure it’s not this one; however, if you are a Kurosawa fan, it is a film you must see at least once. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, with wonderful performances by the radiant Setsuko Hara, who also appeared in Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), and Masayuki Mori, who gives a haunting performance as the “idiot” of the title, a man deeply traumatized by war.

Kurosawa mainstays Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura have less to do, but turn in dependably good work. I wrote in my review of The Quiet Duel (1949) that it might be Shimura and Mifune’s least interesting pairing for Kurosawa, but this one definitely is, mostly because they don’t really interact much.

Mori and Mifune

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Late Spring (Sept. 13, 1949)

Late Spring
Late Spring (1949)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Shôchiku Eiga

Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Japanese cinema through the films of Akira Kurosawa. I was 11 years old, and my mother took me to see Ran (1985) at our local art house theater. Not long after, we saw Seven Samurai (1954) on the big screen.

I was hooked, and saw Rashomon (1950), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), and Dreams (1990) before I graduated high school. I also watched Hiroshi Inagaki’s trilogy of films about Musashi Miyamoto (1954-1956) that starred Toshiro Mifune.

At some point in my early adulthood, I realized that there was more to Japanese cinema than samurai and swordplay. Kurosawa himself made brilliant human dramas like Ikiru (1952) and contemporary police dramas like High and Low (1963), and he was just one director among many.

It’s become a cliche to say that Kurosawa was the “most Western” of Japanese filmmakers and that Yasujiro Ozu was the “most Japanese” of Japanese filmmakers, but there’s plenty of truth in it. Kurosawa drew inspiration from American westerns and French detective novels, while Ozu depicted Japanese family life without any fireworks or flashiness.

One of the most commonly mentioned aspects of Ozu’s directorial style is that he shot most of his interiors with a camera placed about three feet above the floor, which is the point of view of a person sitting on a tatami mat at home. Ozu framed his shots unpretentiously, and made the viewer of his films an unseen but unremarkable presence in the lives of his characters.

Wedding Day

Ozu began making films in the silent era. By the time he directed Late Spring, he’d made close to 40 movies.

Late Spring is based on Kazuo Hirotsu’s short novel Father and Daughter. Ozu wrote the screenplay with his frequent writing partner Kogo Noda.

The luminous actress Setsuko Hara, whom I last saw in the early Kurosawa film No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), plays Noriko Somiya, a 27-year-old who still lives at home with her father.

Her father, Shukichi Somiya, is played by Chishu Ryu. Both Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu appeared in many of Ozu’s films. Ryu worked with Ozu 33 times and Hara appeared in six of his films.

Noriko has a sunny disposition and is devoted to her father. She is charming, and gets along with everyone, but sees no reason why she should marry and leave her aging father to fend for himself (although she does seem to have romantic feelings for her father’s assistant, Shoichi Hattori, who is played by Jun Usami).

Father and Daughter

Her father desires to marry her off, but he is ambivalent. He loves her and doesn’t want to let her go, but children must marry and leave home. It is simply the way of the world.

On one level, Late Spring is a simple story of normal people living in a specific place and time, but on another level it is a timeless and universal story about change, aging, regret, and loneliness.

Unlike most American films, there are no solutions to anyone’s problems. No one is completely right or completely wrong. Late Spring isn’t a cri de coeur against the patriarchy, but it’s not a celebration of it either. The final reel of the film doesn’t feel calamitous or momentous, until the final minute, which is one of the most quietly devastating endings to a film I have ever seen.

Drink Coca Cola

After Late Spring, Setsuko Hara appeared in five more of Ozu’s postwar films. In her next two films for Ozu she also played a character named Noriko — Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953) — and Chishu Ryu again played her father in both films. They weren’t meant to be exactly the same characters from film to film, but they were all thematically linked.

Unlike the filthy cesspool Kurosawa depicted in his postwar film Drunken Angel (1948), Ozu’s critique of the American occupation of Japan in Late Spring is much more subtle. But in typical Ozu fashion it’s haunting despite its simplicity. Was he the first filmmaker to use the ubiquitous Coca-Cola symbol to represent American military and social power? If he wasn’t, its use in Late Spring is the first I’ve seen.

Late Spring is a brilliant film. It’s only the second Ozu film I’ve seen (the first was Tokyo Story), but I’m looking forward to seeing many more.

On a personal note, I’ve written this entire review with my four-month-old daughter asleep in a baby carrier on my chest. I have no idea what the future will bring, but someday I will have to let her go. It’s a prospect both wonderful and terrifying.

No Regrets for Our Youth (Oct. 29, 1946)

No Regrets for Our Youth
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Toho Company

No Regrets for Our Youth was the second film Akira Kurosawa directed after the end of World War II. (The first was Those Who Make Tomorrow, which was released on May 2, 1946. He was forced to direct it by Toho studio bosses. He disliked making the film and never included it in his list of official credits.) No Regrets for Our Youth is an interesting counterpart to two other films I watched this year, Italy’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City) and Germany’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us). These three pictures are all early efforts by filmmakers in former Axis powers to come to terms with the enormity of World War II.

Roma, città aperta represents an almost total abnegation of responsibility, which is fair enough, considering the role most Italians played in the war compared with the litany of horrors perpetrated by Germany and Japan. No Regrets for Our Youth is more similar to Die Mörder sind unter uns. Both films are stridently anti-Fascist, but both sidestep the gruesome specifics of what actually went on during the war.

Setsuko Hara stars as Yukie, the daughter of a university professor with leftist leanings. (Hara would only work with Kurosawa once more, when she starred in his film The Idiot in 1951, but she was one of Yasujirô Ozu’s favorite actresses, and starred in six of his films from 1949 to 1961.) The film begins immediately after the 1933 University at Takikawa protests against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Yukie is courted by two young men, Ryukichi Noge (Susumu Fujita) and Itokawa (Akitake Kôno). Itokawa is sensible and boring, while Noge is a political firebrand and hot-headed. Yukie is naturally drawn to Noge, but he is arrested after a demonstration and spends four years in prison.

When he is released, he seems to be a changed man; broken in some essential way. Yukie packs up and moves to Tokyo, where she lives for three years, toiling away in a variety of menial jobs. Itokawa and Noge both re-enter her life, and she ends up marrying Noge, who is now involved in espionage. Eventually he is arrested by Imperial forces, and Itokawa, who is now a lawyer, steps in to defend him.

No Regrets for Our Youth is a film with two distinct halves. The second half, in which Yukie goes to visit Noge’s parents, is visually and dramatically stronger than the first. Noge’s parents are both simple farmers living in a remote village. They are terrorized by the other villagers because their son was a spy, and they never go out during the day, only planting at night. Yukie decides to stay with them and fight against adversity, finding value in tilling the land.

It would be decades, of course, before most filmgoers in the West would see this film. The first Kurosawa film to make any impact outside of Japan was Drunken Angel (1948), and Kurosawa didn’t have a true breakout success until Rashomon (1950), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.

No Regrets for Our Youth is a good film, but it’s not a great one. The performances from the lead actors are excellent, especially from Hara. She ages and grows over the course of the film in a realistic way, which is important when a film covers a period of many years. The story is involving, but not exactly what I would call “gripping.” The scenes in the rural village have a distinctly Soviet flavor to them, and I believe that Kurosawa made this film in an atmosphere of heavy censorship and control by occupying forces.

This is the earliest Kurosawa film I’ve seen, so I don’t know what his pre-war films are like, but it seems to me that he really came into his own as an artist starting in the late ’40s, when he reworked American and European stories and film techniques for pictures like Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), two of the best police procedurals ever made; Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), two samurai films that drew heavily from American westerns and were in turn copied over and over by directors making actual westerns; and his reimaginings of Shakespearean dramas set in feudal Japan, Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985).