Sanshiro Sugata

The technique of this “picnic” film (the director was nervous on his first day only, he tells us) already shows the style of Kurosawa in full flower, he never made a better film.

He records an enlightenment, by moonlight upon a flower in a house pond.

Swordless samurai wrestle for the championship. Revenge and prayers are womanish, spite and mercy are unavailing. A clean fight, by virtue of illumination.

The censor’s hand is much too free and much too freely credited with disturbing the drama of this little-understood film, in which a parasol represents a lady’s emotions by concealing them. The style is perhaps akin to that of John Ford (My Darling Clementine) and later on of David Lean (Great Expectations).

A critique of the war begins with a surprise attack that leads to a defeat. Lloyd’s Blood on the Sun constitutes the best analysis. The moon pond is described as a place of rebirth.


They Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail

Benkei and Yoshitsune and five stout men at the pass that is guarded under inviolable orders from Yoritomo. It seems advantageous to die storming the barrier, however Benkei counsels otherwise. The armor of God is the garment of a Buddhist monk, the Todai Temple at Nara is in disrepair, an empty scroll tells the tale Benkei extemporizes.

The severity of the moment is divided among , kabuki and kyogen, with Kurosawa filling up the interstices for a terribly thrilling drama, a wonderful comedy, a profound realization of art (and as always, John Ford is somewhere in the telling of the great tale, somehow or other, by affinity of style).


Drunken Angel

Dr. Sanada deals himself a liberal allowance of Government alcohol from his ration, diluted with leftovers from his teapot, to scour his insides against the bacilli that are all around his slum practice beside a cesspool in the great city. Yakuza run the neighborhood, he treats a young hood for tuberculosis discovered while stitching up a gunshot wound.

The new, expanded but hopelessly anachronistic subtitles (“Hey, bro.”) further explicate the theme as an open attack on feudal culture in service to the Axis, following on the veiled intent of Sanshiro Sugata. Drunken Angel can be seen carefully applied to Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha, it gives a great picture of jitterbugging Japan and is a stepping-stone to Kagemusha from a director who, like Fellini, never forgot the excruciating fact that he had once lived and worked under Fascism.

The relation to such films as Wyler’s Dead End is incidental, perhaps, but not insignificant.


The Quiet Duel

The contagion of the war is so great that even a doctor who merely operates on the wounded becomes infected.

A simple diagnosis, a long treatment.

Mifune immediately after Drunken Angel trades roles as it were, to give a performance on the heroic scale.

When it was shown in New York after thirty years, Canby grasped the significance but not the drama. This seems generally to have been the fate of Kurosawa’s excoriating masterpiece among critics.

“Instead, and with some reluctance, one must forgo the search for higher meaning,” Donald Richie writes a little too soon, “the picture won’t stand it.” It’s there in the last scene of the brain-gone syphilitic soldier sitting on the floor of the clinic, rendering unnecessary the play’s original ending censored for the film by the Occupation forces.


Stray Dog

The significance of the theme is probably lost amid the particularly successful filming on location, and is even spoken of occasionally as the mystery of defeat. The young detective who loses his revolver to a pickpocket, a fence, and a killer, through inadvertence on a very hot day in the city, nevertheless expresses a constant theme from Sanshiro Sugata.

There are points of contact with De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Bresson’s Pickpocket, and a whole study could be made of Kurosawa’s inspiration from Dassin’s The Naked City.

The location sound is a nearly continuous backdrop, marvelously effective. The actors are treated to extraordinary care in Kurosawa’s handling, and Hitchcock is delightfully evident at the Blue Bird and the Yayoi Hotel.



Three or four accounts of a crime all differ, each reveals a truth borne out in the witnesses assembled at Rashomon gate, a half-ruined pagoda-style building. Studies of teeming rain stand in for natural disasters that have befallen the place, studies of forest sunlight frame the incident of banditry that stands for a common occurrence.

A samurai and his wife, attacked by a bandit, who lures the man into the forest on a promise of buried swords and mirrors, then ties him up and rapes the wife (or she is compliant). Afterward there is a duel, bravely fought or pusillanimously, or the samurai kills himself (or is blindly killed by his wife). The samurai is unable to defend himself and his wife, the two men are each unworthy of her.

This last understanding is achieved at Rashomon gate by a woodsman, a priest, and a brigand. A baby is found, the brigand takes its protective amulet and the rich kimono it’s swaddled in, rebuffing the woodsman’s protestations as coming from a thief himself (the lady’s pearl-handled dagger), the priest holds the baby but relinquishes it to the woodsman, who has six of his own.


The Idiot

A case of epileptic dementia contracted while under sentence of death for war crimes, the wrong man.

This is in every way a contrast to The Quiet Duel.

The mirror of Japanese society after the war is brushed clean and now presents the aspect so described.

As in Rashomon, a simple selection. Ikiru settles the matter along one of Kurosawa’s lines.

It will be observed that this is well before Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp and, like Ikiru, closely related to Ran.

Question of calling your soul your own, under any circumstances. Fellini’s La Strada represents something of a variant, from a certain point of view.

Nearly half is missing, elided by Shochiku with shocking coolness. The stylistic remainder gives an impression of impurity, but the material is so rich it is all one to Kurosawa, after a fashion. Kubrick has a vivid memory of it in The Shining, Losey in The Go-Between.

Question of how this looks, how it is to be taken. Thus the title comes to have another signification.

“All the characters are victims of the war and its devastating emotional aftershocks” (Dan Pavlides, Rovi).



A decisive, pivotal film for Kurosawa. The moonlit pond that was the source of an enlightenment in Sanshiro Sugata and had festered into a swamp in Drunken Angel is addressed once and for all.

The cause is made clear in the principal variant, Ran, when the Great Lord takes his titles home and shirks his duties with catastrophic results.

Ikiru begins more modestly with an everyday occurrence in politics. City Hall has devised a Public Affairs Department to deal with complaints, it sends taxpayers on a runaround through the various city agencies, the Deputy Mayor refers anyone still persevering back to the Public Affairs Department.

The Section Chief is dead and doesn’t know it, he rubberstamps whatever reaches his desk and ignores the rest.

Madadayo honors the man he becomes in the course of his ordeal.

The influence of Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, It’s a Wonderful Life) appears to be considerable. A Christmas Carol is indicated.

The painstaking realism and deep studies with actors in Stray Dog now reach a breadth as wide as a river. The title might be translated with an easy pun, Living.


Seven Samurai

“Four hundred years ago, Japan was a land of civil wars. Bandits roamed the lawless country terrorizing farmers...”

Gisaku’s waterwheel recurs in Dreams.

It’s the least the villagers can do, who have next to nothing.

Every condition of fighting man, perhaps their seven ages, and something of the Fianna...

The “peaceful grove... a death trap.”

The farmers’ hidden reserve. “You can’t understand unless you’ve been hunted.” Life of the farmer.

The flag and the trumpet call, John Ford. The great battle, feats of soldiering. La mort et l’amour. The famous battle in rain and mud. The village at peace... four samurai given to the land.

It was not recognized at once as one of the great war films, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times (who saw it titled The Magnificent Seven) compared it to High Noon and at that rate “it is much too long for comfort” he said “or for the story it has to tell.” Similarly, J. Hoberman (Village Voice) has “a brilliant yet facile synthesis of Hollywood pictorialism, Soviet montage, and Japanese theatricality that could be a B western transposed to Mars,” i.e., Greenwich Village.

Variety saw “high adventure and excitement... lensing is excellent, as is editing...”

Time Out, “Kurosawa’s masterpiece... without peer.”

Halliwell’s Film Guide, “superbly strange, vivid and violent” (citing Gavin Lambert in Sight and Sound on “narrative... imagery, incisiveness and sharp observation”, furthermore John Simon’s “sheer entertainment. Yet it is also an unquestionable triumph of art”).


I Live in Fear

Of nuclear fallout, H-bombs, cataclysm, slow death, instant murder.

He started a foundry in the city, has a large family, mistresses and so forth. He starts to build a permanent shelter elsewhere, reads a newspaper article and changes his mind.

The big plan is to swap places with an elderly suntanned émigré farmer in Brazil, move the whole family there, the lot.

He burns the foundry down as a convincer, the employees repine.

He lives on another planet in the asylum, the blazing sun is Earth.

The opening city views coalesce on the real streetcar in Dodesukaden. Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons is probably cited in Nakajima’s mental collapse.

“It is one of the weakest of the great Japanese director’s works” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times). Time Out Film Guide agrees and speaks of “the cinema’s supremely humanist emotional manipulator.”


Throne of Blood

Moors, heaths, a monument, the while men sing the theme in unison, an effect from John Ford. The language from the start is that of Ran, in monochrome.

Macbeth, victorious against a rebellion on a day of bad weather, hence “so foul and fair a day I have not seen...”

Lord of Cobweb Castle. Subterfuge of a royal hunt. The forbidden room, steeped in a traitor’s blood. “Without ambition a man is not a man. After this beginning you may even rule the nation.” A very beautiful analysis, and there is Welles in back of it.

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times could not persuade himself to take it very seriously. “Hits the occidental funnybone,” he wrote, “grotesquely brutish and barbaric.” He had hit upon it unknowingly. Any number of critics have since risen to the occasion, a grisly and despicable thing but not without humor (Variety, “all motion picture, an achievement of mood and photographic invention”).

The relationship to Hamlet is very vivid in the reduplicated murder of His Lordship (and Banquo) avenged by the hostile Inui, fomenter of the rebellion.

An influence might well be perceived on Peter Brook’s King Lear.

“... till Cobweb Forest begins to move...”

The sudden influx of fowl would seem to link Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Kenneth Cavander, writing in the Monthly Film Bulletin, said “its final impression is of a man who storms into a room with an impassioned speech to deliver and then discovers that he has forgotten what he came to say” (cited in Halliwell’s Film Guide, “a treat to look at”).


The Lower Depths

Kurosawa’s view is, naturally enough, not Renoir’s. If he descends into the cesspool that is his frequent concern (Drunken Angel, Ikiru, etc.), it is not, as Bosley Crowther expressed it in his New York Times review, to excite the sympathies of moviegoers, and Dodesukaden proves it.

A monochrome ukiyo-e Gorky, with an aged pilgrim sojourning in the flophouse, like the sky reflected in a puddle which, after all, is mainly water.



The Bad Sleep Well

Despite such a practical, beautiful analysis as Richie’s, he still finds it a letdown after the first twenty-three minutes, and Kurosawa is too Japanese not to agree with him. The beginning is a prologue merely, based on Paths of Glory and Giant. It ends in the real beginning of the film: a first quotation from On the Waterfront (the wedding cake is reflected in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but has its strongest reverberation in Edward Dmytryk’s Mirage). This opening deserves a further comment, it introduces a chorus of reporters, derived from The Thing or Citizen Kane, anticipating The Devils as an expository device.

Kurosawa is a master of the long and medium long shot, as when an executive rises from the banquet and walks away from the camera, sees a line of reporters forming perpendicular to his progress, and reverses his steps (several times Mifune is easily spotted in the middle distance despite the surface anomie of his characterization).

Miura’s suicide is fascinatingly filmed with a long lens to compress his leap into the road and a truck sweeping by as one plane without cutting.

The volcano scene looks ahead of its time, and was imitated in Manhattan Murder Mystery.

Wada and Shirai are the Hidden Fortress kyogen clowns treated as Kabuki actors. The juggernaut of corruption is like watching your own funeral, and Wada does exactly that.

The brother and sister talk establishes them with rapid intercutting and the sound of a practice piano, which recurs later.

Kurosawa develops a gangster theme from On the Waterfront (or The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing), and then launches a parody of It’s a Wonderful Life with the long take of the briefcase gag, which demolishes Shirai. Then the alley scene from On the Waterfront appears, with a touch of Banquo.

Mifune at home is a strong resemblance to Cary Grant in North by Northwest (which is quoted again later). A characteristic Kurosawa feature is the sliding door that becomes a wall. Another scene out of Giant or On the Waterfront modulates business dealings into feudal rewards.

The juvenile if flawless piano music returns as Iwabuchi plays paterfamilias and explains that politics means a certain standard of living. The scene ends with a clock chiming Big Ben, and Shirai is seen striking a mie as he realizes the truth.

Again Kazan’s alleyway is seen, now as a place for murder. The confrontation of the two clowns, portrait bust vs. ghost, is the summit of Kurosawa’s art in this regard.

The dramatic confrontation in the office building is highlighted by an exterior zoom on an optical printer, and has two important qualities: an almost terrifying intensity correlated to the illumination by flashlights, and the use of sound before and after the office window is opened on the city streets below. Dramatically this is the peripeteia. The poisoned whiskey gag figures famously elsewhere, and another important quotation from North by Northwest begins Moriyama’s investigations (in this scene he resembles the “real” Lester Townsend).

Bits of Blow-Up and Notorious appear. Iwabuchi seems to be modeled on J. Carroll Naish. The ruins of the munitions factory frame Mifune’s startling apparition as an original of Lt. Columbo with trenchcoat and tune. Moriyama is psyched-out with a familiar gag, and sells out for a mess of pottage.

Kieko’s choice of father or husband is a crux: she enters the front door as Iwabuchi stares down at her from the landing, and a maid polishing her crutch takes her place. She falls for her father’s ploy and with unspeakable sadness is seen limping up the stairs, only to be drugged into unconsciousness.

Cries out of hell or The Lower Depths greet her at the ruins, where Itakura says, “Now all of Japan can be treated the same way,” and in the end she is reduced to idiocy. The final scene advances a theme later used in The Last Tycoon (“Go abroad!” says the unknown Mr. Big), and effects a tour de force by having Iwabuchi stumble and mistake night for day.

Kurosawa’s erudite inculcation of Hamlet merits close study, and a certain “stretching” of scenes recalls Olivier’s film. The noble mechanism of failure at the close is explained in one way thereby, though it also resembles The Hill. His Ophelia’s lameness recurs in Dodesukaden, and Mifune’s reminiscences amid the ruins are a wide application of the play. He’s almost unrecognizable in this role, which might be modeled on William Holden a little (in Born Yesterday, perhaps).

The lack of appreciation for this masterpiece might reflect the time, we’ve seen the Management Revolution rob stockholders and employees alike, and this sort of construction fraud is a commonplace nowadays.

Masaru Sato’s excellent score opens with Ben Casey drums and Ebony Concerto sax, and goes on from there.

Kurosawa’s modernity is the equal of Teshigahara’s, for instance. All of Japanese art is here somehow, in a longitudinal perspective of a long bench or beam in the ruins, lost in the far background.


Red Beard

The enormous structure takes in the hidden roots of sickness and then, after the intermission, treats of a cure.

Much attention is paid to the set representing a nineteenth-century hospital, the Koshikawa Clinic (Variety, in its peremptory and in fact previous review, thought these scenes could be trimmed). A fully-functioning regard for the film will note this clinic at work during the course of events, as it were, and the soul of health in it the buxom cooks, for the most part.

It takes the entire length of the film to get at the real causes of health and not mere poverty and suffering. The joke structure has the young intern rebel at his post in this clinic, and then at his transfer to the shogun.



The satirical impulse is greatest, the immediacy is from the cesspool in Drunken Angel (Red Beard follows suit).

Ikiru is the main point in this grand symphonic treatment that critics have never really heard. Every idiot Kurosawa can find on the muckheap comes in for scrutiny (the city is just around the bend), along with the work and sacrifice in some that keep the place going.

That’s the whole question, the analysis is quite proper in every respect, Kurosawa is a great Japanese artist and has mercy on his mummeries, he’s the streetcar conductor after all.

Takemitsu cites “MacArthur Park” for his theme, presumably “‘cause it took so long to bake it” (the park is now part of a vast slum).


Dersu Uzala

Ford, Flaherty & Griffith, the passing of the frontier.

The secret merriment of Kurosawa is the Nabokovian mirror-treatment, the Russian East. Naturally, this escaped most reviewers, and at that point all the subtlety was lost.

Nevertheless, John Ford in Siberia, another visit with Nanook, and the famous Russian thaw with Griffith in mind.

Or, Kurosawa in Siberia with 70mm and 6-track stereo sound to his aid.



The nature of action is understood on the same basis as that of Sanshiro Sugata. Every dimension of the original is expanded, however, in order to have scope for an abundant discussion of everything cinematically entailed with the theme, from The Prisoner of Zenda and Lt. Kije to Being There. John Ford is consciously an influence in castle court and battle, but the religious meditation seems specifically Hitchcockian.

Vast as it is, both the Imitatio Christi and the jeu en règle of the common actor are indicated. A very complex proposition in which the multivalency of the image is prized, thus for example Lord Shingen’s battle-surrogate is a thief saved from crucifixion because of the resemblance, yet there is added to this in the monumentally static and comical opening scene a simultaneous notion of Alexander and the pirate, all of this set in the sixteenth century and concluding with the Battle of Nagashino.

The double and the late lord’s mistresses might suggest Bob le flambeur’s last scene in its rhythm at one point. The rainbow of Dreams makes an early appearance, the kagemusha exposed and sent away recalls the clowns of The Hidden Fortress, his presence at the battle comes by way of the persistent straggler in The Seven Samurai. The conclusion is very much akin to Zulu Dawn, at the same time the fallen banner in the stream suggests Excalibur.



Ikiru explains why the cesspool in Drunken Angel came into being and how it is done away with, Ran is essentially a remake of Ikiru to find the far sources of the problem and represent in larger symbolism the disaster of inaction.

This is the other side of the coin from Fascist brutality opposed by wisdom in Sanshiro Sugata, the fainéant is none other than King Lear, his daughters are now sons who vie, two of them, for his throne and set the world on its bleeding ear.

And expressly, as far as an image of the Buddha can make it, this is not a tragedy but the depiction of an enlightenment.

The Kabuki elements are very strongly conceived as counterparts to the color-woodcut battles on various cinematic models (Olivier has been noted).

This central character among Kurosawa’s troupe appears last as the honored professor in Madadayo, having attained the wisdom laid out for him in the earlier films.



Eight dreams, with structural relations that begin with reference to Ran. “Sunshine through the Rain” depicts optimal weather conditions for the foxes’ wedding procession. They tread slowly, steadily, Kabuki-style, striking a mie of circumspection every few steps. The dreamer as a boy returns home, his mother hands him a ritual knife for suicide from the foxes, who must be apologized to (cp. Wild Strawberries, and for the style throughout, The Conversation) for witnessing their rite. A field of flowers and a rainbow, under which they live, are the boy’s destination.

By way of The Little Foxes and The Cherry Orchard, the dreamer comes to “The Peach Orchard”. Again a boy, he serves refreshments to five girls next to a doll display of court figures. He has counted six, but they deny this, and do not see the other girl leave the house. He follows her, against their protests. The dolls are alive on a terraced hill, rebuke the family for cutting down the trees, which they represent. He resists the charge, weeping. They show the orchard in blossom, dancing in four levels simultaneously for the camera. The vision departs, leaving bare stumps of trees.

The image from Eliot’s The Waste Land (“Who is the third who walks always beside you?”) evokes “The Blizzard”, from Scott of the Antarctic and The Illustrated Man. The girl, a demon, besets a party of mountaineers, lulling them asleep with a magical garment or cloth (cp. the Golden Fleece in Jason and the Argonauts). The expedition leader wards her off and she flies away like the lovers in La Belle et la Bête, the skies clear, the peaks are visible, their camp is nearby.

By sheer dream progression, a demobilized soldier enters “The Tunnel”, which is guarded by a strange dog, and emerges from it to be addressed from behind by Pvt. Noguchi of his old army unit. They recount how Noguchi, wounded in action, dreamed he was home with his parents eating special cakes, told his dream and died. The entire unit marches out to greet their commander, the sole survivor. He apologizes, and bids them rest in peace. Their makeup is from the Kabuki or How I Won the War, the reference is partly to Eliot’s “Stetson!”

From this evocation of the past, “Crows” begins in a museum. Several famous paintings by Van Gogh are viewed by the dreamer with his outdoor easel and canvases ready for an excursion, beginning with a self-portrait, brushes in hand, Starry Night, Sunflowers, the famous drawbridge and the bedroom at Arles. The drawbridge is re-created on location, partly colored as in the painting, the dreamer with his gear goes to inspect it and talks with some local ladies, in French. “He’s been in the madhouse,” they tell him. He finds Van Gogh painting, who tells the story of his ear (“I was doing a self-portrait, I couldn’t get the ear right so I cut it off and threw it away”), exhorts his visitor to paint (“I consume this natural setting”). The dreamer is matted into several Van Gogh landscapes, walking along the paths, etc. Van Gogh enters a wheat field, startling a flock of crows à la The Birds.

Having settled the Van Gogh matter, Kurosawa sets up his seventh dream with his sixth. “Mount Fuji in Red” has six nuclear reactors explode, sending radioactive gases toward a helpless populace. Each one (Plutonium-239, Strontium-90, Cesium-137) has a different color for identification. This is a suggestion from the last scene of Dreams That Money Can Buy. From the artistry of Van Gogh to poisonous colors, the dreamer proceeds to “The Weeping Demon” and his radioactive world of ten-foot dandelions. He has one horn and suffers in his rags, there is no food, his kind are eaten by two-horned and three-horned demons, who are seen howling and writhing beside red pools. “Immortality is their punishment.”

There is a stone beside the river in the “Village of the Watermills” where children and townsfolk lay flowers now and then to commemorate a sick visitor who was charitably buried there. An old man explains the simple life in accord with nature, no electricity, no lights obscuring the stars. He joins the cheerful funeral procession of his first love, who broke his heart, dead at 99. He is 103, it’s a little like Fellini, echoing The Wizard of Oz (“Ding-Dong the Witch Is Dead”). The dreamer puts flowers on the stone and travels on.

Behind the credits, river grasses play in the current. “It’s good to work hard and live long and be thanked,” as the old man says.


Rhapsody in August

The essential point of departure, overlooked by critics, is the renunciation of militarism in Dreams (“The Tunnel”).

Rhapsody in August may be described as a search for an image to express Nagasaki. A second theme of Japanese sensibilities in relation to “awkwardness” is finely expounded.

A child’s drawing of an eye on a blackboard, an overhead lamp and a shock cut to a roaring waterfall (from Fernandez’s Un Dorado de Pancho Villa) give the Guernica effect.

Ants crawling up a rose during the August 9th commemorations give another image.

Finally it’s an old woman whose paper umbrella folds upward in a driving rainstorm as she presses on.

The structure entails a rich Japanese in Hawaii who claims to be her brother. She has doubts about this, there were so many children in her family. It’s proven to her, she plans to visit him.

His son by an American wife visits her, takes part in the commemorations and learns of his father’s death. The news comes to him at the waterfall while playing with the old woman’s grandchildren, who wear jeans and T-shirts from M.I.T., USC and Brooklyn.

The eye was a mania of another brother, who witnessed the sky “splitting apart” and an eye appearing. Kurosawa films this as imagined by the grandchildren, a qualification of his first image.

There is no sense of recriminations, only the task in hand, to find an image, or rather and more precisely to film a work that addresses this problem.

The single best shot is a tilt from sky and horizon to the dust-colored playground of the school in Nagasaki, bright and barren save for the grandchildren in part of the frame admiring the twisted wreckage of a jungle gym.

Kurosawa uses two shots to represent old women at prayer in a small shrine, framed by fields and sky and, in the reverse shot, framing them.

The children, who are nice and pleasant but somewhat callow toward their grandmother, acquire some consideration of her feelings, she had been a schoolteacher like her husband but was at home on the other side of the mountain from the town.

The Washington Post’s critics heaped vituperation on the director for this, it wasn’t their fault, it went over their heads.

This is the supreme feat of a great master, though he wouldn’t say so, modestly derived from a novel. The critics are only worth mentioning for their stupidity causing a poor release of Kurosawa’s next and last film.



Dodesukaden and John Ford are the major tributaries.

First translations sometimes have the advantage of immediacy, the English subtitles are hard-working, unidiomatic, not unintelligible, and have their part to play in the critical misunderstanding. They certainly convey Uchida’s satirical verses to a radio jingle advertising a nostrum, “defeat... occupation... democracy... crooks...”

MASH or History of the World: Part 1 for the “moon like a tray” serving as halo, Mister Roberts the whiskey concoction, The Red Pony Nora, the cat.

The grief of the war is expressed in the Nora sequence.

The banquet scenes recall The Bad Sleep Well. The final dream is adduced like Wild Strawberries.