January 19, 2010
Akira Kurosawa is a director I’ve long taken for granted. I’ve never bothered to look much farther beyond the recognized classics: Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, Ran. The latter two floored me with their blood-red blood in my image-besotted youth, but I repressed that enthusiasm to make the usual auteurist arguments – belittling Kurosawa in order to praise Ozu, as if it were a zero-sum game. It’s absurd of course, and because of it I’ve missed out on the minor contours of Kurosawa’s career, the mini-masterpieces, curiosities and salvageable disasters that make auteur criticism worthwhile in the first place. His 100th birthday (on March 23rd) has spurred a series of retrospectives and releases that have finally shamed me into exploring more of his career. Film Forum in NYC is holding a massive retro, and Criterion released a 25-disc box-set, AK 100. I have no more excuses, so I sat down for Stray Dog and The Idiot.
Stray Dog, from 1949, is hot. It’s a meltingly humid summer in Tokyo, and everyone is sweating through their clothes and guarding their electric fans with rabid ferocity. The heat is making people quick-tempered, and then Detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has his gun stolen, a Colt. The rookie cop is desperate to recover it before he’s fired. It’s a perfect set-up to explore the various underbellies of Tokyo as handkerchiefs are applied to perspiring foreheads. The film has been compared to Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in its raw depiction of urban life, but Kurosawa’s technique is far more experimental than Dassin’s social-realist gangster film. In the first ten minutes, Kurosawa uses a quick flashback, whip pans, a voice-over about the godforsaken heat, and a close-up montage of legs getting onto a bus. This low-angle shot of Murakami’s lower half will rhyme with the muddy shoes of a murderer, one of the many linkages Kurosawa provides between the two.
As Murakami lurks through the docks, a seedy nightclub, a ballpark, and a gloomy hotel, he discovers that the perp has been cutting through civilians with his Colt. And also that both men were robbed of their belongings when they returned home from WWII. They are, essentially, the same person, connected through gun and history. Kurosawa is relentless in pairing the two, embroidering patterns around them until they’re inseparable on-screen. Their final battle is staged in a series of symmetrical framings, with the two collapsing to the ground in unison (see top image). It’s the most successful example of this well-worn trope that I can remember (although Eastwood does a decent job of it in Tightrope).
Paired with the oppressive, impeccably art-desgined atmosphere of pore-choked Tokyo, it’s a remarkable film, frank in its eroticism and its violence. The only influence Kurosawa cops to is Georges Simenon, who he modeled the script after, but the scene on the docks and the nightclub struck me as spaces straight out of a Josef Von Sternberg movie, clogged with smoke, pancaked makeup and decorative netting. These are impassable spaces that one can get lost in. Peek at the shot of the nightclub dancers collapsed in the upstairs room, where legs, arms, and heads no longer connect in an abstracted zone of pure eroticism. This shot could be inserted into The Shanghai Gesture and no one would blink.
Amid all of this, Kurosawa maintains his marvelous sense of pacing and tension, cross-cutting between Murakami’s interrogation of the killer’s girl with his boss’ run-in with the thug himself, connecting the two spaces with an incessant pouring rain and a faint radio melody playing over the phone when the deed occurs. Kurosawa then links this musical piece to the final chase, when the music of a lady practicing her piano pipes in over the frenzied showdown, a sound initially coming from nowhere that calls back to the previous scene – adding an uncanny sense of doom to their tussle. The film is loaded with these kinds of linkages, just charting the uses of flowers, guns, and shoes in the film could fill up a master’s thesis.
After Kurosawa broke people’s minds with the complex flashback structure of Rashomon (1950), he undertook what might be his greatest economic and critical failure, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Having read this recently, I was amazed at how closely he hewed to the book, aside from setting the film in contemporary Hokkaido. His Prince Myshkin is named Komeda, played with slow-footed grace by Masayuki Mori, whose experience in the war has left him an “idiot”, unable to tell a lie and as sensitive as a child. He is taken with a photo of Taeku Nasu (a smoldering Setsuko Hara), a kept woman about to be sold off for marriage. Komeda loves her out of pity, while Akama (the great Toshiro Mifune) lusts after her with a white-hot rage. This is the central triangle that radiates out to affect the major families of Hokkaido, all entranced by Komeda’s inhuman ability to empathize with everyone, that is, his kindness.
The respect Kurosawa has for the material is almost stifling, but the depth of feeling is palpable. He has his actors speak in a slow, halting style, wringing every subtlety out of the phrases, while utilizing symmetrical framings, deep focus, and frequent close-ups to register every minute change in their battles for power. The film has a ritualistic feel, akin to the work of Dreyer – he’s aiming for a religious intensity that can come off as stilted, but for me was riveting. But I should note that close-ups of Setsuko Hara have the same effect on me, regardless of the film. But it’s the most intense film I’ve seen from Kurosawa, the most emotionally committed and his only film that attempts to reach the sublime (that I’ve seen). For that alone, it’s a must see, even if you deem it ridiculous.