August 7, 2012

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The collaboration between Toshiro Mifune and director Akira Kurosawa ended in 1965, following the release of Red Beard, their sixteenth and final film together. Having built up an international reputation thanks to his work with Kurosawa, Mifune looked West, receiving his first Hollywood paycheck playing against type as a Japanese industrialist in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966). He would jump back and forth between Japan and the U.S. through the early 80s, working mainly in stolid war dramas (MidwayInchon), but also getting to stretch out a bit with John Boorman (Hell in the Pacific) and Steven Spielberg (1941). In terms of viewership, his greatest success was playing opposite Richard Chamberlain in the TV mini-series of James Clavell’s Shogun (1980).Perhaps realizing that Hollywood would continue to shunt him into stereotyped Japanese roles in stuffy historical dramas, he spent the majority of his remaining career at home. For his final U.S. film in this period, he re-united with John Frankenheimer to shoot the entertainingly silly East-meets-West martial arts film, The Challenge (1982). Frankenheimer had similarly entered a low ebb in his career, resulting in these two dynamic talents making a mid-budget action film for CBS Films, to be distributed by the small Embassy Pictures studio.

The Challenge stars Scott Glenn as a prototypical ugly American who gets caught in the middle of a feud between two Japanese brothers over their family’s legendary samurai swords. Glenn was fresh off of his supporting role in Urban Cowboy, and this was CBS and Embassy’s attempt to capitalize on that and make him a star. That it didn’t work doesn’t take away from Glenn’s admirably schlubby performance, in which he slouches and slurs his way through Kyoto. Buried up to his head in dirt, he even manages to croak out “Deep In the Heart of Texas.”  Shot on location, the film has a largely Japanese crew, including DP Kozo Okazaki, but there were some up and coming American collaborators as well. John Sayles did a major re-write of the screenplay, and had fond memories working on the film, as he told Philip Wuntch:

The funniest experience I had was rewriting The Challenge for John Frankenheimer before it started filming. When Frankenheimer found out he could get Toshiro Mifune, he changed the background from Chinese martial arts to Japanese martial arts. They’re completely opposite forms, but he said no one would know the difference. We changed all the martial arts scenes and all the background story because he was able to get Mifune.

Steven Seagal was living and teaching Aikido in Japan, and was brought on as “martial arts coordinator”, presumably helping to help choreograph and fact check the accuracy of the fight sequences. He would later open a martial arts school in North Hollywood, teaching the movie execs who would later make him a short-lived star. But as Sayles writes, it was Frankenheimer’s eagerness to work with Mifune that necessitated large scale revisions, as well as scouting locations in an entirely different country from which they expected. As an actor, Mifune still garnered that kind of respect, although Embassy had to be hoping it was Glenn that would drive the box office, as it was his face that is emblazoned on the posters.

The movie provides a stark vision of culture clashes, creating a triangle between old-school samurai Toru (Mifune), his super-rich Westernized brother Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura), and the brusque uncultured America of Rick (Scott Glenn). Rick is a down and out boxer, who Toru recruits to help escort one of his lost swords back to Kyoto. Unaware of the dangers of his employment, he agrees, but he is soon waylaid by Hideo’s goon Ando (a wonderfully sarcastic Calvin Jung), and endures a barrage of beatings before he has any idea what is going on. It’s a broad mishmash of the kineticism of Chinese kung-fu movies, the honor code of Japanese samurai films, and the body count of Hollywood action movies.

Mifune plays his Toru as a gruff, soft-spoken patriarch with a shock of white hair, injecting gravitas into a movie of profound absurdity. The final action sequence has the samurai-robed Mifune taking down an entire skyscraper of guards and goons with his bow and arrow (and an assist from a machine-gunning Glenn). It’s an outrageous sequence that presages the bloodbath at the end of Commando (1985), and the only thing keeping the film moored to its dramatic arc is Mifune playing it absolutely straight. The sequence is a pungent metaphor for the fears Americans had toward the growing economic power of Japan, as the film pines for the civilized, if technologically backward dojo of Toru, while painting Hideo as an unprincipled free-market capitalist ready to destroy tradition for his material gain. The American Glenn comes to the aid of Toru, battling back the threatened economic competitor.

It is what they call “a rich text”, although it’s unclear how much Frankenheimer contributed. It was during this period that he had become a serious alcoholic, and he told Charles Champlin that he was even bringing drinks to the set, for the first time in his career. It was following this eye-opening and sense-dulling shoot that Frankenheimer checked himself into rehab and dried out. It is not one of his more visually interesting films, lacking his usual smooth lines and frames-within-frames. Although I should admit I had to watch it in a cropped 1.33:1 aspect ratio (it was shot in 1.85), as this VHS version is the only one available. He would dry out, and revive his career on television, where he began. Mifune would also make a series of TV movies in Japan, before ending his career in 1995 with the drama Fukai kawa.


January 19, 2010

stray dog
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.