The Idiot (Hakuchi) (1951)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
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.
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.
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.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Daiei Film Co., Ltd.
Rashomon was the breakout film not just for director Akira Kurosawa, but for Japanese cinema in general. It was awarded the prize for best film of the year at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and received the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1952.
It took me a few years to really “get” Rashomon. I was a big fan of Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and Seven Samurai (1954) from a young age (I saw both of them on the big screen when I was 12), but when I started exploring the rest of his filmography on VHS tapes I checked out of the library, Rashomon didn’t make much of an impression on me. I enjoyed both Yojimbo (1961) and Throne of Blood (1957), but I thought Rashomon was “boring.” (Forgive me! I was a teenager.)
I remember watching Rashomon for the first time and seeing it as a kind of “whodunnit.” I thought the different viewpoints were all leading up to some kind of pat conclusion. When it ended ambiguously, I was vaguely unsettled and a little bit angry. Perhaps, since it took place in 11th-century Japan, I was expecting more swordplay. And of course, seeing it on VHS wasn’t an ideal presentation.
Flash forward maybe 10 years. Rashomon was playing at Film Forum in New York, so I went to see it. It was like seeing a completely different film. Not only had I grown more comfortable with ambiguity, but seeing a 35mm print on the big screen revealed what a deeply beautiful film Rashomon is. Kurosawa and his cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, shot Rashomon deep in virgin forests in the heat of midsummer. Searing flashes of sunlight wash across the characters, alternating with washes of darkness. Thickets of leaves tremble in the breeze, and look so close you could reach into the screen and touch them. Sweat pools on the actors’ faces, falling from their chins in heavy drops.
Rashomon is an uncomfortable meditation on the elusiveness of truth. It exposes the world as a kind of hell, because human beings cannot even be honest with themselves. But it is also a deeply sensuous experience, and an utterly beautiful film.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
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.
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.
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.
Stray Dog (1949)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa’s ninth film is one of my personal favorites. I love a good police procedural, and Stray Dog is one of the best.
Kurosawa originally wrote Stray Dog as a novel. He was influenced by the Inspector Maigret novels by French writer Georges Simenon. In the 1960s, in an interview with Donald Richie, Kurosawa expressed his disappointment about the film. “I wanted to make a film in the manner of Simenon, but I failed,” he said. “Everybody likes the picture, but I don’t.”
I think it’s good for artists to be their own harshest critics, but in this case I think the public is right. Kurosawa may have failed to make the film he wanted, but he succeeded in making a great film nevertheless. For my money, Stray Dog and Drunken Angel (1948) are Kurosawa’s two earliest masterpieces.
Like The Naked City (1948), which was one of the first police procedural movies, Stray Dog pairs an older, seasoned detective with a younger, inexperienced detective. They’re played by Kurosawa regulars Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune.
If you’ve seen Seven Samurai (1954), you know Shimura as the de facto leader of the samurai (he’s the one with the shaved head) and you know Mifune as the wild and unpredictable odd man out.
Shimura and Mifune played variations on this relationship in numerous Kurosawa films. In Drunken Angel Shimura was an alcoholic physician who struggled to convince the swaggering young gangster played by Mifune that he had to treat his tuberculosis. In The Quiet Duel (1949), Mifune played a young surgeon desperate to keep his syphilis infection a secret, and Shimura played his father and the head of their medical practice.
In Stray Dog, Shimura plays Detective Sato and Mifune plays Detective Murakami. Their relationship has elements from their previous two collaborations with Kurosawa, but there’s a playfulness and sense of humor that was absent from both Drunken Angel and The Quiet Duel.
The film begins when Murakami’s service weapon is stolen, and Murakami’s shame is more than he can bear. The little .25 caliber Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket was lifted by a pickpocket on a crowded bus. Its magazine was loaded with all seven rounds. After the weapon is used in a mugging, Murakami writes a resignation letter, but his lieutenant rips up the letter and advises him that catching the thief would be a better form of penance.
Stray Dog presents a panoramic view of postwar Japan. Unlike the huge cesspool in Drunken Angel that functioned as a grim and fairly obvious metaphor for life during the American occupation, Stray Dog presents a world that has changed forever, in ways both good and bad.
After Murakami makes a positive identification of a female suspect, another detective who is familiar with the woman is surprised to learn that she was wearing a dress, since she always wore a kimono in the past. Murakami assures the older detective that she was wearing a Western-style dress, and that she had a perm and stank of perfume. The older detective shakes his head and observes that times have certainly changed.
When Murakami goes undercover to track the passage of the stolen pistol through the black market, we see one destitute person after another in a series of dissolves. Life is not easy for most people after the war.
But there’s also the sense of life returning to normal. Sato and Murakami track a suspect to a baseball game and keep him under observation in the stands. This tense sequence features seamlessly integrated 16mm footage of an actual game between the Nankai Hawks and the Yomiuri Giants. The players all have numbers on their uniforms, which was forbidden as “too individualistic” during World War II.
I think that Stray Dog presents a more realistic view of police psychology than The Naked City. After Murakami and Sato narrow down their search to a single suspect, Murakami feels sympathy for the man. Like Murakami, the criminal is also a returning serviceman, and Murakami thinks that he could have easily become a criminal if he hadn’t become a cop. As his stolen Colt is used in a series of increasingly brutal crimes, he feels responsible for each one. Sato tells him to leave the psychoanalysis to detective novels and just focus on arresting the bad guys. Sato says that Murakami will never forget his first arrest, but after each subsequent collar he will grow less and less sentimental.
Sato has a much lighter touch than Murakami. When we first see him, he is laughing and sharing popsicles with the female suspect who Murakami got nothing from after leaning on her too hard. Sato’s way with suspects appears more lenient than Murakami’s, but it’s because he has a much better idea of what he’s doing.
Murakami is dogged but fairly incompetent in the early stretches of the film, but as he learns from Sato he becomes more patient and observant. A young person learning from a seasoned veteran is one of the oldest stories in the book, but it’s a damned good one when told well, and Kurosawa told stories extremely well.
In addition to the convincing performances and the involving story, Stray Dog is a triumph of atmosphere. The film takes place in the hottest days of summer, and Kurosawa never lets the viewer forget it. The opening shot is a closeup of a dog lying on the ground and panting. The first words we hear from the narrator are, “It was an unbearably hot day.” In nearly ever scene there is something that conveys the humidity and languor — people fanning themselves, sweat glistening on faces and staining clothing, men mopping themselves with handkerchiefs and rolling up their sleeves. When a chorus of scantily clad showgirls led by the beautiful and petulant Harumi Namaki (Keiko Awaji) traipse off stage and collapse on the floor, their flesh is beaded with perspiration.
At just over two hours, Stray Dog is a long movie, but even in the stretches where not much happens there’s always a sense of forward movement conveyed by well-paced edits, frequent dissolves, and wipes to transition from one scene to another. (Kurosawa loved wipes.)
Fumio Hayasaka’s score conveys tension and excitement, but it’s used judiciously. Kurosawa also makes great use of diegetic music in the film’s two climactic scenes. In the first, the heat has finally broken and there is a tremendous rainstorm as the radio in a hotel lobby plays Sebastián Yradier’s “La Paloma” in the background. In the second climactic scene, Murakami confronts his quarry behind a house where a young woman is playing Friedrich Kuhlau’s Sonatina in C Major, Op. 20 No. 1. The music tinkles out of an open window, its serenity at odds with the violent confrontation that is about to explode.
Stray Dog is one of the best police procedurals of all time, but like a lot of great films it transcends its own genre to tell a universal story.
Starting in 1950 with Rashômon, Kurosawa would gain more and more attention worldwide as he produced one great film after another. Stray Dog was one of the last films Kurosawa made that was pretty much unknown outside of Japan until the 1960s. It’s still not as widely seen as his best-known films, so if you like Japanese cinema and haven’t seen it yet, you have something to look forward to.
The Quiet Duel (1949)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Daiei Motion Picture Company
The Quiet Duel is not one of director Akira Kurosawa’s major works. Most reviewers treat it as a lamentable, melodramatic footnote in his career, but I don’t think that’s fair.
Unlike No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), which I think all but the most dedicated Kurosawa completists can skip, The Quiet Duel is worth seeing at least once if you’re a Kurosawa fan. It also functions as a thematic bridge between two of Kurosawa’s major early works, Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949).
Like both of those films, The Quiet Duel pairs two of the director’s most dependable stars: Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura. It shares with Drunken Angel the theme of a doctor who struggles with his own conscience, and it presages the major theme of Stray Dog — two young men who face the same difficult circumstances but who make very different ethical decisions.
Mifune and Shimura are always interesting to watch when they’re on screen together, and if The Quiet Duel is their least interesting pairing in Kurosawa’s body of work, it’s only because most of their appearances together for Kurosawa were in films that are all-time classics.
The Quiet Duel (or The Silent Duel, as it’s also translated), is based on a play by Kazuo Kikuta. Mifune plays Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki, a young physician who contracts syphilis when he cuts himself while performing surgery in a field hospital during World War II.
After the war, he returns to work with his father, Dr. Konosuke Fujisaki (Shimura). Kyoji rejects his fiancée, Misao (played by Miki Sanjō), without an explanation. He treats himself with Salvarsan in total secrecy. (Salvarsan is the trade name for arsphenamine, the first effective treatment for syphilis.) And he struggles with his sexual desire and romantic longing, both of which he completely stifles so he won’t infect anyone else with his malady.
Later in the film, he again crosses paths with the man he operated on during the war. Unlike Kyoji, this man treats his syphilis as a trifling matter, and doesn’t care who else he infects (his wife is pregnant). We’ll see this moral theme again in Kurosawa’s next film, Stray Dog (1949), in which Mifune plays a young police detective whose gun is stolen. The “stray dog” of the title is a young man who suffered the same indignities and deprivations as Mifune following the war. Unlike Mifune, he chose to take his pain out on the world, and goes on a crime spree with Mifune’s gun.
Most of The Quiet Duel is pretty stagey, and the story is melodramatic. But when Mifune finally lets loose, he lets loose as only he could, and it’s something to behold. And while the film isn’t a great showcase for Kurosawa’s directorial talents, there are a few scenes — especially the surgery sequence that opens the film — that rank among the best work he did.
Drunken Angel (1948)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Now seems as good a time as any to talk about how Akira Kurosawa changed my life.
When I was 11 or 12 years old, my mom took me to see Ran (1985) on the big screen. I always loved going to the movies, and since we didn’t have a television, we went to the movies a lot. Until I saw Kurosawa’s Ran, however, I don’t think I’d thought much about what actually went into making a movie.
Ran changed all that. Everything about it was vividly present onscreen — bold color choices, meticulously arranged visual compositions, music too quiet and gentle for the bloody violence it accompanies, the overly theatrical makeup for the actors — and I drank it all in.
I’ve read some critics talk about seeing Citizen Kane (1941) for the first time and becoming acutely aware of cinematography, music, camera movements, and so on. That was my experience with Ran, and it began my love affair with Kurosawa. It was a love affair that continued with Seven Samurai (1954) (which I also saw on the big screen in a revival house shortly after seeing Ran), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), Dreams (1990), Rashômon (1950), Kagemusha (1980), Ikiru (1952), High and Low (1963), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Stray Dog (1949).
I can’t claim to be a Kurosawa completist, though. He directed a lot of movies that I haven’t seen. I think I’m spacing them out, since in most cases I’m blown away all over again and if there’s a Kurosawa movie out there that I haven’t seen, it’s something to look forward to.
While I wasn’t exactly blown away by the last new-to-me Kurosawa film I watched and reviewed, No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi) (1946), I was blown away by Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi), which I’d also never seen before.
Drunken Angel was Kurosawa’s seventh film. “At last, my own style has come through in this film,” he once said of the film, and I tend to agree. While it seemed as if something was missing from No Regrets for Our Youth, all the elements I look for in a Kurosawa film were present in Drunken Angel. One of those elements is force-of-nature actor Toshirô Mifune, who plays a cocky young Yakuza. Another element is Takashi Shimura, who plays an alcoholic doctor with good intentions but a terrible bedside manner (the “drunken angel” of the title). (Shimura also appeared in No Regrets for Our Youth, but his role was less central than it is in Drunken Angel.) Shimura and Mifune would eventually appear together in 15 of Kurosawa’s films, but this was the first.*
It’s not just the actors that make Drunken Angel a great film. The ways the visuals help to tell the story, the three-dimensional characters, and the way the film’s themes are clear and straightforward without being heavy-handed … all of these are hallmarks of Kurosawa’s best films.
Dr. Sanada (Shimura) practices medicine in a ramshackle post-war community in which only the clubs, bars, and black market seem to be thriving. It’s an overcrowded warren surrounding an enormous cesspool filled with garbage and teeming with disease. (In a scene early in the film, Sanada angrily chases off a group of boys who are blithely playing in the filth.)
One day a young Yakuza thug named Matsunaga (Mifune) walks into Sanada’s office to have a hand wound treated, but the doctor suspects Matsunaga has a bigger problem — tuberculosis, which was rampant in post-war Japan. With the swagger typical of a young gangster, Matsunaga refuses to submit to treatment or to doctor’s orders, a problem compounded by Sanada’s angry and blunt way of talking to his reluctant patient.
Things are made even more complicated by the reappearance of Matsunaga’s gangster boss, Okada (Reisaburô Yamamoto), who returns from prison in a haunting and memorable scene.
I referred earlier to Mifune as a “force of nature.” Even here, as a young actor, he throws everything he has into the role. Mifune was an actor who used his entire body to tell a story — he could have been a great silent film actor.
The setting of the film is almost a character itself. The cramped, overcrowded little city was designed as a large open-air square by production designer Takashi Matsuyama, who originally built it for These Foolish Times (1947), a comedy about the post-war black market. It was expensive, so instead of demolishing it, the Toho Company wanted Kurosawa to use it for his next film. Kurosawa had about a third of the set torn down to create the enormous cesspool in its center.
During the American occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952 there were multiple censorship boards that forbid things like the use of U.S. military uniforms in Japanese films, so Kurosawa had to find a way to depict the occupation without actually showing it. Images of westernization abound, even though no Americans actually appear in the film, and the visual symbolism of the cesspool is pretty easy to interpret, especially when the city is reflected in the darkness of its bubbling surface.
Drunken Angel wasn’t released in U.S. theaters until December 30, 1959. Kurosawa wasn’t well-known outside of Japan until Rashômon (1950), which was a big hit on the film festival circuit in 1951.
If you’ve never seen any of Kurosawa’s films, Drunken Angel is not a bad place to start. Seven Samurai might be his most exciting, iconic, and accessible picture, but it’s nearly three and a half hours long. If you’re unsure about Kurosawa and don’t want to invest more than two hours of your life finding out if his films are for you, Drunken Angel is about an hour and 40 minutes long, and it’s an excellent movie.
*Although Drunken Angel was the first time Mifune and Shimura acted together in one of Kurosawa’s films, it was not the first time they acted together. Their previous collaboration was in Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail (Ginrei no hate) (1947), which was written as well as edited by Kurosawa, and is about a trio of bank robbers hiding out in the mountains with a father and daughter who do not suspect that they are criminals.