Tuesday 3 May 2016

A Cinephile Diary - Young cinephile Shaun Heenan discovers Kurosawa's modern day thrillers on Fandor

This week’s Fandor Criterion offerings were a selection of films from the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. In the early days of my film fandom, I made my way through IMDB’s top 250 list, which contained number of Kurosawa films, but most of those covered there were his samurai films. This week’s offerings were all set in the 20th century, and I was glad to find time to catch up with three of them.

High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1963) is an excellent film about a kidnapping, split neatly down the middle. The first half focuses on the kidnapping itself, shown from the perspective of a rich shoe company executive named Gondo, played by Kurosawa-regular Toshiro Mifune. The kidnapper was trying to take Gondo’s son, but after capturing the wrong child he realises he can still probably demand ransom for the son of Gondo’s driver. The second half changes tone completely. The film becomes a fantastic police procedural, showing the efforts of local law enforcers as they try to locate this criminal. The logic of the search is shown with great clarity, and the tension builds beautifully as they get closer and closer.

Kurosawa fills both halves of the plot with great moral complexity. He’s interested in examining why such an event would have taken place. What about this society caused a man to take such drastic action? The film does not forgive him, but it aims to explore him. There’s a scene in the first half which Roger Ebert included in his list of the 100 greatest moments in the history of cinema, where the two fathers discover the mistake, and look at each other, realizing that with the lowered personal stakes, Gondo could easily choose not to pay. There’s moral ambiguity in the latter scenes as well, with the police taking a course of action which seems downright villainous. The film skips quickly over this detail at the time, but Kurosawa wants us to dwell on it, and to wonder whether or not we’re supposed to take issue with it. This is great filmmaking.

The earlier film Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1949) is another police procedural, also crafted with great skill. Toshiro Mifune plays the lead here as well, this time as a rookie policeman named Murakami who has his handgun stolen by a pickpocket on a crowded bus. Murakami feels great shame at his own carelessness, which grows much deeper when he realises his weapon is being used in a series of crimes. He teams up with an older detective named Sato (Takashi Shimura), and the two work their way through Tokyo’s criminal underworld in search of the thief.

Importantly, the film takes place in immediate post-war Tokyo. The landscape is damaged, but not as damaged as the returned soldiers. Kurosawa investigates the way the war has changed these people, for the better or for the worse. Their actions are their own, of course, but the situation forced upon them also takes some of the blame. The film takes place during a heatwave, and in every scene characters are constantly mopping the sweat away from their brows. Nobody here is ever comfortable, and that feeling helps to raise the tension for the audience. The film’s climactic showdown is a real highlight, showcasing the utter exhaustion suffered by both parties. It’s another great film.

The third film I watched was another real winner. The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1960) also takes place in post-war Japan, with a number of important scenes taking place in a recently-bombed factory. The themes of the week’s other two films display some disappointment with society and hope for improvement in the future. This film is far grimmer than that, finding only despair, and finding it in places which make the film disappointingly relevant today.

The film opens with a scene of somewhat clumsy exposition, as the major players and relationships are explained. In short, the plot is about a kickback scheme between a large corporation and a government department. Caught in the middle of this is a secretary named Nishi (played once again by Toshiro Mifune), who has recently married the daughter of the head of the corporation involved in the scam.

The plot becomes much denser over the course of two and a half hours, with a bunch of faked deaths, assumed identities and seemingly forced suicides. I make it sound vague, but there’s a tight web of detail here, which is revealed cleverly piece by piece. It’s a very good thriller from a masterful filmmaker, and it has a seriously powerful ending.

With the recent announcement of Criterion’s exclusive partnership with TCM for an upcoming streaming site (which I suspect I will not be able to access), I’m not sure how many more weeks of Criterion articles I’m going to get out of Fandor, but I’ll carry on as long as they’ll let me. For now, I can tell you that next week’s article will be about sci-fi films. I’m hoping to find a spare four hours or so to watch Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire as a part of that, but no promises on that one.

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