Let’s Eat Slop

June 6, 2012

Once when I visited a farmer’s house, he served me a vegetable dish with miso bean-paste sauce cooked in clamshells – a style called kaiyaki in this part of the country – and fish.  While he drank sake over his meal, he said to me in thick dialect, “You might wonder what could be interesting about living in a hovel like this and eating slop like this.  Well, I tell you, it’s interesting just to be alive.”

from Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa


Stray Dog

July 24, 2011

A stray dog becomes a mad dog.  A mad dog sees only straight paths, and can’t shoot very well either.  This we learn from Stray Dog, a 1949 Kurosawa film starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.  The two actors would later become world famous as samurai, but in this film, they navigate a decrepit, post-war Tokyo during a heat wave, patiently going through the steps of a police procedural.  Shimura has a full head of hair and constantly wipes sweat from his face with rag:  in The Seven Samurai, he’s bald, and does his signature gesture of absent mindedly scratching his chest.

The film is usually classed as a film noir in style, but it seems more like a straight procedural.  Of course, the entire opening credit sequence treats us to the image of a panting dog – that tips us off that things are not the norm.  Mifune plays Murakami,  a complete greenhorn homicide detective who’s gun is stolen from his pocket on a crowded bus.  He’s mortified, and offers to resign, but the seasoned detectives tell him to cut the crap, “This isn’t the army!”  and they assign Sato (Shimura) to help him on the case and show him the ropes.  Sato is a zhlubby family man who dispenses philosophical wisdom and police tips with world-weary authority.

The action takes us through the seamy precincts of the city, a city without air conditioning – everyone sweats buckets.  As Murakami’s gun is implicated in one crime after another, he is consumed with anxiety, foreboding, and guilt over his stupid carelessness.  Sato tells him, if it wasn’t your Colt, it would be another Browning.

Murkami tails a showgirl who knows something and visits her home.  He won’t leave until she talks.  She blames the world for the crimes of Yusa, her boyfriend, it’s so unfair.  Some people have everything while they have to scrounge for scraps.  Yusa had his knapsack stolen on the way home from the army – that’s what set him off into crime:  who would do such a lousy thing!  Murakami tells her that he too had his knapsack stolen the same way:  two paths, a crossroads.  One became a stray dog and chose crime, one the straight and narrow.  That fate thing again.

 

From here the film takes off into another realm, of brilliant poetry, that only someone like Kurosawa can create.  A cleansing rain breaks the heatwave as the climax comes -Sato is shot trying to capture Yusa.  Murakami and the girl hear it happen over the phone.

Sato will live, and Murakami catches up with Yusa.  Murakami has no gun, he left it with Sato, but Yusa has his!  The chase leaves the town, and continues into the woods as they blunder and crash through lush, flowering meadows and undergrowth.  Beautiful flowers everywhere!

 

Murakami catches up with the mad dog who is shaking with fear in this standoff which could be, or will be, right out of Sergio Leone.

Murakami’s shot with his own gun, but Yusa is so scared, he just wings him.

It all happens on the lot of a suburban residence where a woman is playing the piano.  What was that noise?  Who are those men?  Nothing going on – she goes back to her piano.

We get an almost hyper-real set of images of Murakami’s suffering as the standoff continues

The blood drips slowly from his hand onto the pretty flowers at his feet.  Time is standing still…

Yusa is out of bullets:  a little more running through the flowers, and he’s caught and handcuffed.  The hunter and the mad dog lie in the foliage,  out of breath, while children walk by in the background, singing.  The juxtaposition is marvelous, and we know from earlier scenes that Murakami has developed a sympathy, almost sentimental, for his prey.

Yusa, looks at the sky, the flowers, and like a captured dog, begins to howl horribly.  It’s all over for him, he’s finished.  Why did it have to happen this way?

The film is elevated beyond procedural, beyond noir, into the realm of tragic humanism.  Sato tells his young protegé that he’ll stop sympathizing with the poor creeps who turn to crime after he’s arrested a few more of them.


Ran

May 11, 2010

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There are many things that can be said about Kurosawa’s film, Ran, a manficient work of art, a loose reworking of King Lear, but I won’t say them. I don’t feel up to tackling such a big subject, a monumental film, just now. Instead, I will show my favorite sequence from the long movie, the portion in which Lady Kaede reveals herself as one incredible piece of work, a femme fatale like none other I know.

The three sons of the Great Lord are fighting over his domain now that he has abdicated and is senile. Jiro is ambitious, but a bit soft and hesitant – his loyal retainer, a gruff, no nonsense intriguer gives him a few pushes in the right direction.  (He gets the film’s last words too.)

During a capture of a castle that Jiro carries out with his brother, Taro, the retainer kills Taro, a threat to his master’s future dominance, with a gunshot. “A stray shot. The vagaries of war...” Deniability, that is. Lady K., the dead man’s husband is not deceived. When her brother-in-law takes possession of her dead husband’s castle, she humiliates Jiro by publicly insulting him. Later, when he is alone, she comes to apologize, offering the dead man’s helmet as a peace offering.

Lady Kaede’s machinations, and everyone else’s intrigue combine to bring about the complete destruction of the house of the Great Lord, and his three sons.  Jiro’s retainer, at the end, sees that he’s been outwitted.  Her severed neck creates a tremendous gushing fountain of blood.  The enemy is storming the castle keep.  He has the last word – “My lord, Jiro.  We are undone.  Prepare to die.  I will follow shortly!”

[Link to Lady K. getting hacked, but the aspect ratio is off.]