Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Kurosawa's Birthday 2021

(On the set of Red Beard. From right to left, Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Reiko Dan, and Yoshio Tsuchiya.)

Akira Kurosawa's birthday was March 23rd. It would have been his eleventy-first, as Bilbo Baggins would put it. For the occasion, I decided to watch two Kurosawa films I hadn't seen yet over two nights, Drunken Angel (1948) and Red Beard (1965). They make an interesting pair because both have doctors as main characters, and they're Toshiro Mifune's first and last films with Kurosawa; they made 16 together.

The title character in Drunken Angel is played by Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular, as a crotchety but civic-minded, unshaven, alcoholic doctor named Sanada working in a slum near swampy water. He yells at the neighborhood kids not to play near the water or they'll get typhus; they yell back at him but momentarily comply. He still follows up with one of them about a medical condition he treated and is gruff but dedicated to his other patients. His assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), tries to keep him out of trouble and he's likewise protective of her – she used to be the girlfriend of a possessive gangster, Okada (Reizaburô Yamamoto), and wants to stay clear of him. One night, the gangster Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) seeks medical treatment from Sanada. He claims he injured his hand in an accident, but Sanada fishes out a bullet. He also discovers Matsunaga has tuberculosis and urges him to get an X-ray of his lungs to confirm its severity. Matsunaga is dismissive and violent, but does eventually comply and return to Sanada for treatment. The two often fight, and although Matsunaga tries to follow Sanada's medical advice to help his lungs heal (no booze or sex, among other things), he's pulled astray by his sometime girlfriend and performer at the dance hall, Nanae (Michiyo Kogure). He also feels pressure to live it up in front of Okada, his old mentor, who's been released from prison and is eager to get his old turf back, as well as Miyo (not that he's sticking to one woman). Matsunaga likes to boast about how he's Yakuza and they have a code of honor, but as his health worsens, he discovers limits to the loyalty of his fellow gangsters.

(Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune.)

Shimura is good as always. In his book Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explains how he and cowriter Keinosuke Uekusa originally tried to write the story as a contrast between the doctor, a model citizen, and the gangster, who was anything but. But essentially the doctor character was too boring and they couldn't get the story to work. When they rewrote him as flawed, based on a real, grizzled, imperious and boozing doctor they met, everything flowed. That approach certainly gives Shimura more to play with – Sanada is a bit of a mess, and often intemperate, but devoted to the well-being of his patients nonetheless. It's particularly interesting to see Mifune, who was 28 when the film came out. As Matsunaga, he's mostly clean-shaven, sometimes dapper, sometimes bedraggled and ill, and looks significantly different from his appearances in other roles for Kurosawa, even though Rashomon came out just two years later. Regardless, Mifune's energy and charisma shine through. This was only his third film; in his first, Snow Trail (1947), he and Shimura play bank robbers on the run in snowy mountains. (Kurosawa did not direct it, but wrote the screenplay.) Shimura and Mifune became friends on that film, with Shimura, who was 15 years older, supposedly becoming something of a mentor to Mifune. The two definitely have good screen chemistry.

I wouldn't rank Drunken Angel with Kurosawa's best, but it's a solid film and well worth a look if you're a fan of Kurosawa, Mifune or Shimura. Miyo oddly disappears near the end of the film, although two other minor but significant female characters feature in the ending. As usual, Kurosawa's social commentary flows from his humanism and interest in the characters themselves and their situation. It's less visually flashy than some of his films, with a notable exception – the climatic confrontation centering on Matsunaga (Mifune) is a gripping, vertiginous, bravura piece of camerawork and filmmaking. In his book Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explains that Drunken Angel came about because Toho Studios had built a large street set for a film by Kurosawa's mentor, Yamamoto Kajiro, and wanted to get more use of it. (Kurosawa worked on over a dozen films for Yamamoto, mostly as an assistant director.) Given that genesis, it's a fairly interesting project.

A few pages later in Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa describes seeing Toshiro Mifune for the first time:

On the day of the interviews and screen tests I was in the middle of the shooting of No Regrets for Our Youth, so I couldn't participate in the judging. But during lunch break I stepped off the set and was immediately accosted by actress Takamine Hideko, who had been the star of Yamamoto Kajiro's Horses when I was chief assistant director. "There's one who's really fantastic. But he's something of a redneck, so he just barely passed. Won't you come have a look?" I bolted my lunch and went to the studio where the tests were being given. 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 he had to express for his screen test. He was acting. When he finished his performance, he regained his chair with an exhausted demeanor, flopped down and began to glare menacingly at the judges. Now, I knew very well that this kind of behavior was a cover for shyness, but the jury seemed to be interpreting it as disrespect.

I found this young man strangely attractive, and concern over the judges' decision began to distract me from my work. I returned to my set and wrapped up the shooting early. Then I proceeded to look in on the room where the jury was deliberating. Despite Yama-san's strong recommendation of the young man, the voting was against him. Suddenly I heard myself shouting, "Please wait a minute."

p. 160

Kurosawa and Yamamoto carry the day and Mifune joins the film company. Kurosawa continues:

After joining the company, Mifune appeared in Sen-chan's To the End of the Silver Mountains [also known as Snow Trail] as the roughest and most violent of the three bank robbers who were the villains of the story. He playing with amazing energy. Right after that he had the role of a gangster boss in Yama-san's New Age of Fools [also known as These Foolish Times and These Foolish Times II], and here he played with an opposite kind of cruel refinement. I became deeply fascinated by the acting abilities Mifune showed in these two films, and decided I wanted him to play the lead in Drunken Angel. I realize that many people think I discovered Mifune and taught him how to act. That is not the case. As can be seen from the sequence of events I just described, it was Yama-san who discovered the raw material that was Mifune Toshiro. From that raw material it was Sen-chan and Yama-san who fashioned the actor Mifune Toshiro. All I did was see what they had done, take Mifune's acting talent and show it off to its fullest in Drunken Angel.

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the spped with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression. Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet for all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.

I know it sounds as if I am overpraising Mifune, but everything I am saying is true. If pressed to find a defect in him as an actor, I could say his voice is a little rough, and when it's recorded through a microphone it has a tendency to become difficult to understand. Anyway, I'm a person who is rarely impressed by actors, but in the case of Mifune, I was completely overwhelmed.

p. 161

(In 35 mm film, 10 feet is a little under 7 seconds and 3 feet is 2 seconds.)

The one other problem with Mifune, according to Kurosawa, is that he was so strong a presence he could overpower his partners and unbalance a film. Kurosawa explains, "The drunken-doctor performance Shimura gave was a superb 90 percent, but because his adversary, Mifune, turned in 120 percent, I had to feel a little sorry for him." Shimura is just fine, but Mifune has the flashier role and supposedly Drunken Angel made him a star. IMDb lists 185 acting credits for him.

Meanwhile, Red Beard (1965) is a superb film, even a masterpiece. As with Drunken Angel, the title character is a doctor who serves the poor, but this time, it's Mifune who plays the doctor. He was 45 at the time the film came out but is made to look older, helped by some makeup but also a full, bushy beard. It's the 19th century, and a young doctor, Noboru Yasumoto (Yûzô Kayama), has studied with Dutch doctors in Japan. Through family connections, he believes he can become the personal doctor to the Shogun, really the flashiest medical position possible. Instead, he's assigned to a public clinic in the countryside serving poor patients. The head of the clinic is Kyojō Niide (Mifune), also known as "Red Beard." Yasumoto chafes at his position, refuses to wear the clinic robes and generally acts immaturely, but his experiences gradually and profoundly change him. He witnesses death up close. He assists with a bloody operation and faints. He confronts the limitations of his schooling and his many erroneous assumptions. He comes to care for the patients in a human and not just medical sense, most of all an abused young girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), an almost feral orphan adopted and mistreated by a brothel madam; Niide rescues Otoyo and puts her in Yasumoto's care (and vice versa, as you'll see). Red Beard is just over three hours, and in that time it convincingly shows us Yasumoto's growth, but also provides a number of engrossing side stories and vignettes. Some characters appear for only a scene or two, yet still are affecting and memorable. At the center of it all Niide/Red Beard, and Mifune radiates gravitas and wisdom throughout, another strong mentor character in a Kurosawa film.

(Dr. Noboru Yasumoto brooding, played by Yûzô Kayama.)

Visually, Red Beard isn't as kinetic with its camerawork as, say, Seven Samurai or Yojimbo. Kurosawa opts more for masterful compositions – you'll frequently see someone reclining on the floor, sometimes with another character standing, the vertical contrasting the horizontal. (If you want to see cool diagonal compositions, check out Kurosawa's version of The Lower Depths.) Kurosawa does employ some artful dolly work, not as intricate as in his film High and Low, but some really nice staging for the camera as we tour the clinic or Niide and Yasumoto walk and talk, crossing paths, turning, continuing, and forming new compositions. Most of this is subtly done, not drawing attention to itself. Surprisingly, Red Beard does have two fights, both with a funny side. Both had me howling with amazed enjoyment – the first has some intricate, lightning-fast stunt work and is beautifully staged, and the second is more about solidarity. (I don't want to spoil anything.) There's also a haunting, stunning scene where the calls of women echo as the camera plunges into a well. And of course Kurosawa includes shots of rain. He mostly opts for a restrained, stately style in Red Beard, but picks good moments for bravura flashes. It's an approach that serves him well for most of his later films, including Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha, Ran and Dreams.

Kurosawa films tend to center on male characters, and although Red Beard has two male leads, it notably presents a number of female characters, some of whom only appear briefly but nonetheless leave a powerful impression. Okuni (Akemi Negishi) is the daughter of a patient who only really appears in one scene, but delivers a heart-wrenching story to Niide. Niide's compassionate response opens Yasumoto's eyes, and it's a fine, moving performance by Negishi. Kyôko Kagawa plays a character known as "The Mantis"; she's confined to a small house because she's supposedly dangerous, and tells an arresting tale of being abused by a series of men that pulls on our sympathies, although she proves to be a complex figure. We see Onaka (Miyuki Kuwano) in the flashback tale of a dying patient, who explains their complicated love story. Osugi (Reiko Dan) is a kind-hearted servant at the clinic who nurses a secret love for Doctor Handayû Mori (Yoshio Tsuchiya) – but not secret enough, because her female colleagues are fond of teasing her about it. The key female character, though, is the orphan Otoyo, and young actress Terumi Niki is captivating as she portrays Otoyo's transformation from a traumatized child who won't speak and lashes out into a conscientious, kind soul. Her scenes with Choji (Yoshitaka Zushi), a street urchin boy, are particularly memorable, and Kurosawa coaxes fine performances from his child actors as well as the rest of the cast. Although Kurosawa adapted Red Beard from a collection of short stories by Shūgorō Yamamoto, Kurosawa claimed his film was significantly different. The Otoyo storyline, for example, was inspired by a novel by one of Kurosawa's favorite authors, Dostoevsky, Humiliated and Insulted. Regardless, the final mix is highly effective.

(Terumi Niki at Otoyo and Yoshitaka Zushi as Chôji.)

Unfortunately, Red Beard caused Mifune and Kurosawa to have a serious falling out; reportedly, they eventually reconciled decades later. As film historian Donald Richie explains in a piece on Red Beard, it took nearly two years to film, in part because Kurosawa got sick twice and Mifune and Kayama both got sick once. I've read that Mifune became frustrated because the full, natural beard he grew meant he couldn't act in other films during the period. It's a shame, though, because the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration is one of the great ones in the history of cinema and yielded much of the best work either would do. And whatever pains it took to make, Red Beard is an excellent film, a fine accomplishment for Kurosawa, Mifune and everyone else involved. (It's also nice to see Takashi Shimura in a small role, essentially a cameo.)

While watching Red Beard, I enjoyed it so much I occasionally felt regret I hadn't seen it yet and wondered why, although I had heard of it of course, I hadn't seen it get the acclaim of other Kurosawa films. But not seeing it before wasn't entirely accidental. I had held off on watching Red Beard because I was waiting for Criterion to put out a Blu-ray and also because I sometimes put aside well-regarded movies I haven't seen yet for special occasions. There's also a special thrill in having artists you like and seeing something else from them for the first time, and a slight pang of loss at the prospect of such experiences ending. I received DVDs of High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well as birthday presents in separate years, and held off on watching them for a while because I wanted to savor the experience and my list of "Kurosawa films I haven't seen yet" was dwindling. Delaying is somewhat silly in that I enjoy rewatching movies, and good movies yield more with repeated viewings. But not knowing the outcome of scenes or the whole movie does change the viewing dynamics, and I do think there's much to be said for planning to give certain movies special and more focused attention.

Although I love many directors and actors, Kurosawa and Mifune are among my all-time favorites and hold a special place for me. I think I was nine years old when my dad took me and my siblings to see Yojimbo and Sanjuro in a double feature at the much-missed Biograph Theater in Washington, D.C. Over the next few years, I saw Yojimbo again, as well as Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai for the first times. I saw Ran when it was released in theaters in 1985; it definitely benefits from repeated viewings. One of the virtues of our current age is it's easier to find older movies on disc or streaming services, including foreign films.

In any case, I can recommend both Drunken Angel and Red Beard. At 185 minutes, Red Beard is more of a time commitment and yields more subtle rewards than some of Kurosawa's other films (think Ikiru more than Seven Samurai or Yojimbo), but it's a fine piece of work.

(My most extensive post on Kurosawa is this one from 2008.)

(other than the linked ones)

Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. Vintage Books, New York, 1982.

(A still from Red Beard's haunting well shot.)