Sanshiro Sugata

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I’m not an avid martial arts film fan, but I’ve gotten enthralled with Kurosawa so I ought to watch some of his martial arts films. Set in the world of judo, Sanshiro Sugata focuses on the title character who’s looking for a jiujitsu teacher. He’s soon drawn towards a judo teacher, when he sees him making mincemeat of the overconfident jiujitsu pros that he easily tosses into a nearby river. Sugata aims to fight with that mastery.

Made during WWII, Kurosawa was scrutinized by censors. In fact 17 minutes of the original film are missing and replaced by summaries of what was removed. An essay on Criterion.com suggests that one aspect of the film that the critics and I guess censors didn’t like was how Western the film was. How Western? Western viewers will disagree. There’s a villain who dresses in a Western suit and perhaps some Hollywood-style camera work, but Sugata’s personality is so Japanese. When he atones for disobeying his sensei, he hangs on to a (strong) reed in a pond for hours. What Western hero would?

Also Sugata becomes enamored of Sayo, a young lady, because of her filial piety and pure prayers for her father. I can’t think of a heroine who earned a man’s attention for such traits.

The film has some good action scenes including a fight between Sugata and Sayo’s father. The father’s probably near 50 and yet is still a force in the ring. Nonetheless, Sugata’s caught between a rock and hard place. He had wanted to fight the jiujitsu master to the death to prove that judo is better, but he sure doesn’t want to kill Sayo’s father.

Sanshiro Sugata is Kurosawa’s first film and it introduces some of the actors he’ll work with again and again. I’m glad I saw it.

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State of the Union

While watching my MasterClass in Dramatic Writing by David Mamet, I got curious about Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, whom he mentions. So I found the DVD for State of the Union, (1948) a film adaptation of their play. I found it delightful, even though there’s plenty of jokes that you just couldn’t say today.

State of the Union stars Spenser Tracy as Grant Matthews, a successful business man whose young mistress, played by Angela Lansbury, is a newspaper owner with political savvy in spades. She sees that he’s got the background and charisma to become President. She convinces Jim Conover, her partner in political maneuvering to take on Matthews’ campaign. The one problem is Matthew’s wife Mary, played by Katharine Hepburn. Viewers know when they see Hepburn in the credits that the newspaper owner’s met her match.

Grant and Mary haven’t been together for four months. Mary’s aware of her husband’s affair and has kicked out the mistress the one time the hussy visited her home. Mary still loves Grant and does believe that he’d be a good President — if he stays true to his beliefs. Mary leaves her home to travel the country so that Grant is seen with the loving wife the public expects. His first speech is a doozie and reaps accolades from the common voter. However, Conover & Co. only care about political movers and shakers who can deliver delegates. They know how to game the system by making the right promises to key people. Mary is leery of Conover’s tricks and the mistresses manipulations. Still she sticks with the campaign hoping for the best, hoping Grant doesn’t slide all the way down the slippery slope.

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I will say I was surprised by some of Grant’s political ideas. For example, he foresaw and believed in a world government. He thought that since the 13 colonies banded together and made the USA, that a bunch of countries should band together and create a world government. Well, the EU is somewhat like what he proposed, but Grant envisioned a more far reaching confederation. I wasn’t surprised that Conover practically blew a gasket.

The film has wonderful banter and some rousing speeches. State of the Union examines our political system which is corrupted by campaign financing. (Sadly, such films don’t have much effect because money still taints the government.) Tracy, Hepburn, Lansbury and the rest of the cast offer delightful performances and a bold look at infidelity. Yes, there are jokes about gender stereotypes but I was able to forgive those venial sins of another era.

It was odd to enjoy a film that promotes fidelity knowing that the stars had an affair for 27 years. It’s a troubling issue. On the one hand, it’s acting and what’s presented is the better scenario. On the other, many in Hollywood have made bad choices and tried to glamorize them. It’s a question well worth discussing.

Fires on the Plain

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Years ago I read an absorbing, horrifyingly moving novel called Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka. It was a look at WWII in the Pacific showing aspects of war that left me stunned. When I saw the DVD in my library, I had to check it out.

Directed by Kon Ichikawa, who switched careers from graphic arts to film, Fires on the Plain was a powerful, timeless look at war, particularly World War II in the the Philippines. The main character is Tamura, who’s got TB, and returns to his unit after the hospital sent him away. They’re only taking patients with food and curable diseases at the hospital. Back with his comrades, who don’t want another mouth to feed, his superior shouts at him, gives him a few yams and a grenade. His orders are to return to the hospital and convince them to take him. If that doesn’t work, and it’s unlikely that it will, Tamura is to use the grenade to kill himself.

Like the other soldiers, his clothes are beyond tatters, his shoes are falling apart and he has little to eat. He knows his orders are impossible. So he leaves and wanders. He’s not sure where to go, and he doesn’t have any valor or philosophy or loved one’s to live for, but he’ll evade the fires the Americans (or is it the locals) set off before they attack. His desire to live is as thin as a razor’s edge, but he’ll trudge on. Along the way he meets a Filipino brother and sister in a deserted village. He winds up shooting the girl. Her brother runs off and in the distance black smoke rises from fires. It’s best for Tamura to make a run for it.

Tamura continues to flee. Along the way he meets fellow soldiers, all soldiers for an army that’s all but lost. There’s no food, no plans, no leadership, and no trust of each other. The only person Tamura can trust, sort of, is Yasuda who said he was going to surrender, but towards the end of the film is still psychologically tethered to a mean, unpredictable older soldier who’s probably lying when he says he can’t walk and he has no weapons. This trio stays together, but not only does Yasuda sleep with one eye open, he sleeps in a hiding place far from the old man.

The film is filled with beautiful and poignant scenes. One I’ll never forget is when it’s pouring rain and Tamura is with a group of soldiers planning to go to a city where the Americans are to surrender. When they come to a soldier lying dead in a puddle, another soldier whose shoes are full of holes, removes his shoes and takes the dead man’s. Then Tamura reaches the corpse with the shoes beside it. He picks up the discarded shoes and looks through them. Eighty percent of the soles are gone. They’re useless. So are the shoes Tamura’s own pair, which he removes and proceeds barefoot. Later when Tamura encounters another corpse. As soon as he establishes the man is dead, the takes his shoes.

The film has no ideology or message. It simply shows the affects of a particular war, which is unique in some ways and not in others. The soldiers know they’re losing and they trudge along. They keep going without having the least idea why. The lack of morale or trite reason to live, makes the characters all the more heroic in a very modern sense.

The hardship the characters experience was hard to watch and I had to take several breaks. I think I saw the film over three days. Still I’m glad I did. I’ll definitely look for more Ichikawa films.

If you’re interested, I found the film with English subtitles on YouTube.

Executive Suite

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Executive Suite is as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1954. Directed by Robert Wise, Executive Suite begins with Avery Bullard, Tredway Co. president, whom we never see, calling a last minute meeting and then suddenly dropping dead on the street. From a skyscraper’s window one of the executives sees Bullard’s body on the street and plans to cash in. He immediately places a short sale on company stock that he doesn’t have the funds to pay for.

Bullard was legendary, but had no succession plan. He turned the struggling furniture company around but has let it go stagnant recently. He’s been romancing the founder’s daughter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, but recently has been ignoring her. It seems he’s checked out are relied on prior charm and expertise and has been coasting.

As Bullard’s i.d. was missing it took a while to identify the body. Once they do, the executives now must vote for a new president. Shaw, the numbers man, wants the post and begins to persuade his colleagues to vote for him. Blackmail is not beyond him. Good guy, who’s in the design and development division, McDonald Walling is played by William Holden.

Also starring June Allyson, Frederick March, and Shelley Winters, Executive Suite addresses relevant concerns like corporate vision, responsibility to workers and the duty to create quality products at a fair price.

Stray Dog

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The first noir crime film in Japan, in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) rookie detective, Murakami, gets his pistol stolen while he’s riding a crowded bus. Humiliated, Murakami (Mifune) takes responsibility for his carelessness and begs his boss to fire him. The pragmatic boss brushes his request away and pairs the rookie with a veteran detective (Shimura) named Sato. The two set out to track down the pistol.

Plagued by guilt, Mifune is obsessed with finding his pistol and disguises himself to search the black markets of aprés-guerre Tokyo. We see the squalor and darkness of these markets (which aren’t quite as bad as the poverty in Dos’ka den). These scenes are beautifully and masterfully shot to show this underworld full of hustlers, prostitutes, bums and drunks.

Aprés-guerre is a term Murakami and Sato discuss at length as Sato notices the difference between the pre-WWII generation and the aprés-guerre generation. A WWII veteran, Murakami expresses his sympathy and understanding for the culprit whom he imagines is a product of a rough society. Yusa, the thief, also is a veteran so Murakami identifies with him and knows how the war damaged the soldiers.

However, Sato tells him that thinking is generational and won’t help a cop do his work. If a cop’s philosophy views a criminal as being without choice or responsibility, the officer just won’t be able to work as he should, Sato asserts. Sato reminds Murakami that he’s chosen law and order, while Yusa’s chosen exploitation and crime. There is a difference, a big one.

As time passes, the missing gun is used in robberies and a murder. Murakami knows the pistol had all seven bullets and the plot becomes a race to get to the gun. In this race, the heroes’ search takes us through Japanese society from local watering holes, to a packed baseball field, to a burlesque hall, to a filthy shanty and to Sato’s simple, loving home. Along the way we’re treated to Sato’s wise practice.  It’s fascinating to see him deal with each subject, be it a showgirl or a pickpocket, with just the right approach. His understanding of people makes chasing and shootouts unnecessary.

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I learned about Stray Dog from the commentary feature with the Drunken Angel DVD. Mifune and Shimura starred in Drunken Angel. Here they both play completely different characters. Mifune moves from angry gangster to exemplary rookie cop and Shimura shifts from righteous drunk doctor to wise, veteran cop. Another pivotal performance was given by Keiko Awaji, who plays a showgirl, an uncooperative witness. In the extra features, Awaji explains how she didn’t want to be in this or any film. She wanted a career in operettas, but she got talked into this role. She was terribly pouty and unpleasant about the filming process and this difficult attitude made her performance work. Go figure.

I never intended to get into Japanese films as much as I have. I now have been so impressed with the stellar performances that it’s clear that it’s high time I learn the names of these actors.

Here’s a compilation of Mifune’s performances:

With William Powell of The Thin Man movies, I was looking for a suave, witty detective story. If The Thin Man is an A movie, The Kennel Murder is a C+.

The film opens with detective Philo Vance, played by Powell, at a dog show where his dog loses. At the show there’s a rich man, Archer Coe, with plenty of enemies. His niece resents his control over her, his cook, who’s Chinese, resents his Coe for selling his collection of ancient Chinese porcelain, his secretary resents Coe for forbidding him to marry his niece, his lover’s been cut off after a jealous Coe finds her with an Italian lover, who was supposed to buy the Chinese porcelain collection . . . . No one seems to like Coe.

When Coe is found dead in his bedroom with the door locked, the inept, comical police sergeant assumes it’s a suicide. But Vance doesn’t buy it. When Coe’s hapless brother’s found murdered, murder is suspected, but who did it?

Powell is clever and stands head and shoulders above the police force who all provide comic relief. It’s an entertaining movie but not as witty as The Thin Man films and better 1930s films. With Myrna Loy, Powell had an equal to engage with; here he was the lonely brain. The other characters were stereotypes; and there are some flaws in the murder.

So I’ve seen better films and wouldn’t recommend this strongly, but The Kennel Murder did entertain.

The Kennel Murder

Drunken Angel

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Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel has nothing to do with Christmas. It’s an engaging film that grabbed me with characters I didn’t expect to see in a film, Japanese or otherwise.

Have you ever seen a film where a doctor call his patients idiots? Or one where you saw the patient and punch and toss a doctor out of a bar on his hinny?

Me neither.

Till I saw Drunken Angel that is. Set in post-WWII Japan, Drunken Angel presents a Tokyo neighborhood on the edge of a smelly, dirty swamp. The city’s polluted and the society’s sick and poisoned. It’s a city where everyone shops at the black market as that’s the only store with any desirable goods. Kurosawa wants to show a society that’s gone to pot.

His hero is a doctor who’s openly alcoholic and drinks diluted medical alcohol as the real stuff’s hard to come by. Despite his drinking, the doctor is a wise, caring man, surrounded by exasperating fools. A gangster comes to his office complaining that a nail poked into his hand. When the doctor extracts it, he sees the nail is actually a bullet. During this encounter, the doctor notices that the gangster probably has tuberculosis, but the young man rebuffs his advice to get an X-ray.

The gangster runs a nightclub and fights getting the healthcare he needs every step of the way. The doctor yells at him, pesters him, and throws bottles at him. The gangster just doesn’t get it. Finally, he goes to a high class doctor and gets his X-Ray done, but does nothing about it.

If this wasn’t exasperating enough to a doctor who really cares, Miyo, his nurse, who’s usually a sensible, calming influence, starts thinking maybe, just maybe, she should go over to the jail to see the no-good older gangster whom she was involved with (I can hardly call this brute who gave her VD and then deserted her a “lover”). The older gangster just cares about money and power. He sends his thugs out to get chase her down, but the doctor protects her.

I watched this absorbing film twice. The characters, though rough and very flawed, were original and vibrant. Drunken Angel shows Japan, broken, polluted and corrupted, after the war. It’s a side I hadn’t seen and a critique of a society that’s lost its morality and except for one character its ability to tell the truth.

The Criterion Collection DVD has an illuminating commentary by Donald Richie. Listen to that if you can.