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The Emperor and the Gangster

Josh Jones

As much influenced by Shakespeare and Dostoevsky as by the art and literature of his native land, Kurosawa used conventions of both Japan and the West to critique post-war Japanese society.


DONZOKO (The Lower Depths)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Kamatari Fujiwara, Bokuzen Hidari
(Toho Company Ltd., 1957) Rated: Not rated

YOIDORE TENSHI (Drunken Angel)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura
(Toei Co. Ltd., 1948) Rated: Not rated

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori
(Daiei Motion Picture Co. Ltd., 1950) Rated: Not rated

YOJIMBO (The Bodyguard)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Eijiro Tono, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara
(Toho Company Ltd., 1961) Rated: Not rated

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yuzo Kayama
(Toho Company Ltd., 1962) Rated: Not rated

Akira Kurosawa's influence on both popular and independent cinema is incalculable. The venerable Japanese director left a legacy at his death in 1993 that transcends the specifically Japanese context of his films, such that many people typically disinclined to watch foreign film know Kurosawa's name, and all moviegoers have felt his influence whether they know it or not. Despite Zhang Yimou's earnest contention that "through Kurosawa's films all of us can experience the soul of Japan," Kurosawa was often rejected by his countrymen for being too "Western." As much influenced by Shakespeare and Dostoevsky as by the art and literature of his native land, Kurosawa used conventions of both Japan and the West to critique post-war Japanese society. At the same time, he dealt in broad themes -- the importance of choice, the uses of compassion, and the existence of objective truth.

These themes and multiple influences are invoked in Ran, based on King Lear, and in Hakuchi (The Idiot 1951), adapted from Dostoevsky's novel of the same name. As these films demonstrate, Kurosawa excelled in sophisticated literary adaptations of Western works from within Japanese genres of the jidai-geki (or historical film), and gendai-geki (contemporary life film).

A subgenre of the latter, Donzoko (The Lower Depths 1957) -- a shomin-geki, or film about lower-class life -- is one of 13 films screened as part of Brooklyn's BAMcinématek series of Kurosawa films featuring his favorite actor and embodiment of his vision, the inimitable Toshirô Mifune. The first film in the series, The Lower Depths is a superb example of Kurosawa's ability to translate Western works for Japanese contexts. An adaptation of a stage play by Maxim Gorky (adapted by Jean Renoir in 1936's Le Bas-Fonds), The Lower Depths might well be set in one of the many hells described in certain Buddhist cosmologies, whose inhabitants relive their sufferings endlessly. Shot almost exclusively in the claustrophobic confines of a ramshackle tenement, and with a collection of characters that have all seen better days, the film abounds in dark humor and pathos.

The Lower Depths opens with a shot of two boys dumping a pile of rubbish from the roof of the tenement. From there, the camera descends into the confines of the prison-like building, about which one denizen asks, "How can you go to hell if you're already there?" In addition to relocating Gorky's story from Soviet Russia to Japan during the Edo period, Kurosawa steers away from the play's overt social criticism in favor of considering the costs of selfishness and self-deception.

In their private worlds of suffering and fantasy, the tenement dwellers relate to each other as drinking buddies, gambling partners, or just plain nuisances, but rarely as fellow human beings. Yoshisaburo, the jaded gambler, best articulates the moral ambiguity of their existence by responding to the accusation, "You shouldn't cheat at gambling," with the shrewdly existential query, "Why not?" Despite this philosophical nutshell, almost every scene in The Lower Depths is lightened by hilarity -- card games become impromptu drum circles and beatbox sessions, letting the ensemble cast leave off their anguish and cutting remarks, in order to cut loose in some silly dance routines.

Into all this pathos and slapstick steps a priest in white (Bokuzen Hidari), a world-weary Buddha-like figure who comforts some, humors or inspires others. He convinces an alcoholic actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) to "turn over a new leaf," and convinces the thief Sutekichi (Mifune) to run away with the landlord's sister. Everything comes unraveled when -- as often happens in Kurosawa's world -- passions spill over into violence and the priest, revealed as a fugitive, splits the scene. He too is unable to escape his failures, but what he does affirm, amidst the endless replays of past mistakes and present miseries, is the value of compassion for the sufferings of others. The Lower Depths is filled with dialogue about the nature of truth, but "Gramps" -- as the wizened priest is called -- neither confirms nor denies the existence of absolutes. Instead, he stumps the self-deluded bunch with cryptic quandaries: "Are all lies bad? Is all truth good?"

Like The Lower Depths, the earlier film, Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel 1948), deals with the possibility of moral choice and the value of compassion for the suffering and the insufferable. Perhaps more significantly, it marks Kurosawa and Mifune's first pairing. In his memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa recounts his first encounter with Mifune:

I opened the door and stopped dead in amazement. A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy. It was as frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed. But it turned out that this young man was not really in a rage, but had drawn "anger" as the emotion that he had to express in his screen test. He was acting.

Kurosawa's amazement at Mifune's "acting" prompted him to cast him in a role with plenty of opportunity for violent fits of rage. As the reckless, post-war Yakuza warlord Matsunaga in Drunken Angel, the young Mifune is more than usually flamboyant, displaying his characteristic mannerisms -- he struts like a peacock, glowers and glares, and grins like a devil. Shot in the hand, the gangster stumbles into the office of the alcoholic Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura, a Kurosawa stalwart), the "drunken angel" of the film's title. Sanada, at war with a tuberculosis epidemic, discovers a hole in Matsunaga's lung, and the two square off in Sanada's attempt to treat the cocksure, self-destructive Yakuza, and to cure him of his taste for organized crime.

Kurosawa works in the possibility of moral choice as Sanada, himself no angel, and a lovestruck girl (Kumiko Kisho) try desperately to convince Matsunaga to go straight. The dominant theme, however, is the decay of Japanese feudal society. Drunken Angel uses Spanish guitar and repeated close-ups of a foul, oozy drainage pond outside the doctor's office (in his autobiography, Kurosawa subtitles the film "A Neighborhood with an Open Sump") to underscore Sanada's cynical commentary on the corruption of post-war Japan. "Japanese make so many pointless sacrifices," he says, "Human sacrifice has gone out of style."

Kurosawa's genius is evident in a final showdown between Matsunaga and an old boss, shot as one long, magnificent take, but it wasn't until two years later that the director fully realized his vision, and won international acclaim, along with an Oscar. Rashômon had as much impact on the film world as Citizen Kane, and still tops "Best" lists, like the BFI's recent Sight and Sound poll. Rashômon tells the deceptively straightforward story of a brutal rape and murder in 12th-century Japan, and the trial that follows.

The terrible event is filtered through many retellings of the rape. Four are related to an unseen court and three others (two from the same character) before the crumbling, monumental gate of the film's title, where two witnesses of the crime seek shelter from a rainstorm after their testimony. The movie begins with the two witnesses, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) meeting under the Rashômon gate, from which, according to a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) who joins them, "the demon fled in fear at the ferocity of man." Rashômon, then, is another hell, where the damned are left to put the pieces of their experience together into a comprehensible whole.

The priest and woodcutter attempt to do this for the trial of Tajômaru (Mifune), a notorious bandit who waylaid a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyô) in the forest. No one can figure out who killed the samurai, and though each participant confesses to the crime, each does so to make him or herself look the more noble for it. Each retelling is subtly different, with the three characters -- Tajômaru, the samurai, and his wife -- changing slightly each time to fit the perspective of the teller. Whether these irreconcilable differences stem from the narrators' moral lapses or limited perceptions, they deny the possibility of an objective reality. As in The Lower Depths, in Rashômon, characters choose their "hells" out of self-interest, preferring to delude themselves and others rather than face ignoble truths.

After the success of Rashômon, Kurosawa went on to make several influential and well-loved jidai-geki -- historical samurai epics -- with Mifune, including Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai 1954), the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven (1960); Kumonosu Jo (Throne of Blood 1957), an adaptation of Macbeth; Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress 1958), without which we would have no Star Wars. While paying homage, however, to the long tradition of Japanese historical samurai films, Kurosawa also poked fun at that tradition with the parodies Yojimbo (1961), a Japanese "Western," and its sequel, the even more comic Sanjuro (1963).

Both films feature a masterless samurai -- a Ronin -- played, of course, by a swaggering Mifune. One can see how much these films inspired Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" in Sergio Leone's Westerns, particularly Fistful of Dollars (1964), taken almost entirely from Yojimbo (provoking a lawsuit by Kurosawa). From the squinty-eyed, stubbly visage to the wry, sardonic humor, Mifune's Ronin, who calls himself Sanjuro, is the original embodiment of outlaw cool.

In Yojimbo, Sanjuro arrives in a frontier town held captive by two warring criminal clans and decides to rid the town of the two bloodthirsty families with his sword and his wits but just why he does so remains a mystery. In contrast to Eastwood's avenger, Sanjuro prefers to lay around, slugging sake and insulting the people he protects when he isn't dispatching dozens of enemies with his deadly swordplay. Nonetheless, Sanjuro's sympathies clearly lie with the defenseless villagers, as evidenced by his daring rescue of the beautiful wife (Hiroki Tachikawa) of Tokuemon (Shimura), who lost her to Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka), one of the warlord gamblers. In an amazing display of his prowess and his concern for the weak, the Ronin easily kills 12 guards to rescue the distressed damsel and return her to her family. Where he first seems in it for profit, he undertakes the rescue out of compassion for Tokuemon and his wife and son, even going so far as to toss his lot of gold coins at the family as they bow to him in thanks.

While Yojimbo is a classic Western, its sequel Sanjuro is a pure parody of the samurai genre. Kurosawa dispenses with Western conventions for a story of political intrigue in which a royal Chamberlain (Yûnosuke Itô) is kidnapped by a town's unseen, corrupt Superintendent and his minions Kurofuji (Takashi Shimura), Takebayashi (Kamatari Fujiwara), and henchman Hanbei Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai).

Sanjuro (Mifune) leads a bumbling bunch of inexperienced young samurai, masterminding a rescue of the Chamberlain's wife (Takako Irie), daughter (Reiko Dan), and the Chamberlain himself. It is the wife, a mannered aristocrat, who reminds Sanjuro of the value of human life, symbolized by delicate white camellias, apt for the more "civilized" city of Sanjuro, in contrast to the previous film's dusty border town. The world of Sanjuro is clean and genteel, like the Chamberlain's wife, who calls Sanjuro an "unsheathed sword."

In both Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Mifune perfects the cinematic type of the rugged mercenary with a conscience that would come to dominate much of American cinema, not only in Leone's imports but in the revenge films of the seventies, like those of the late, great Charles Bronson. In his collaborations with Kurosawa, from the early Drunken Angel to their last joint effort Red Beard (1965), Mifune would help the director perfect his vision of humanity beset by suffering, violence, injustice, and confusion but gifted with choice and empathy. Mifune would ultimately go on to form his own production company, and make inferior samurai epics, and Kurosawa continued to make films until 1993 -- making him one of the most consistently fine film directors of the 20th century, and arguably one of the greatest. But due to their formidable talents, the Kurosawa-Mifune films have the most lasting resonance.

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