RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Shochiku Eiga

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

Advertisements

Scandal (April 30, 1950)

Shubun
Scandal (1950)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Shochiku Company

I’ve been a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s films since I saw Ran (1985) on the big screen when I was 12 years old. Like most fans of Kurosawa, I came to his period samurai films first and slowly branched out into his contemporary dramas (like Ikiru) and his crime movies (like High and Low and Stray Dog).

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my OCD Viewing project is that it’s given me an excuse to finally sit down and watch some of Kurosawa’s lesser-known films that I might never have gotten around to watching otherwise, like No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and The Quiet Duel (1949). Neither of those ranks among my favorite Kurosawa films, but I’m happy I saw them, and they gave me a better understanding of his body of work.

Scandal (Shûbun) is another one that didn’t appeal to me very much on paper, but really affected me when I watched it.

Mifune

Scandal stars Toshirô Mifune as a painter named Ichirô Aoye who strikes up an innocent friendship with a famous classical singer, Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi), and suddenly finds his name and face splashed all over the tabloid press. His senses of righteousness and decency are both deeply aggrieved, and he proceeds to wage a quixotic war against Asai (Shin’ichi Himori), the sleazy editor of a periodical called Amour.

I love watching Mifune in just about anything, but the real surprise for me in Scandal was the performance of another Kurosawa mainstay, Takashi Shimura, as Hiruta, the lawyer Mifune employs to clear his name.

Hiruta is the most interesting character in the film, and he comes to dominate the film’s second half. Hiruta is a morally compromised character, but this is exactly what makes his story so good. Mifune’s anger is righteous and his character is admirable, but it’s Shimura’s complicated and bittersweet journey that makes Scandal such an affecting film.

Shimura

The year 1950 also saw the release of Rashômon, Kurosawa’s enduring masterpiece about the slippery nature of the truth. It premiered internationally at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, and introduced the world to Kurosawa’s greatness. So in a way, Scandal marks the end of Kurosawa’s early period. I don’t rate it as highly as Drunken Angel (1948) or Stray Dog (1949), but it’s still an excellent film.

Even an average film from Kurosawa is head and shoulders above most directors’ best work. Despite an overabundance of sentimentality and a reliance on a few too many shopworn melodramatic moments, Scandal is a satisfying film full of surprisingly beautiful moments, like an elegiac New Year’s Eve celebration or an average man’s final walk through a city street as just another anonymous human, despite everything we have just seen him go through.

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.