Red Beard

2014-12-03

Red Beard performs surgery as Yasumot o looks on

I had imagined the premise of Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) incorrectly for years. I assumed it was some samurai film with lots of sword fights so I never bothered with it. Then when I listened to the commentary on The Lower Depths, I realized that it was a drama. I had to right this wrong so I picked up the DVD at the library.

Set in 19th century Japan, Red Beard isn’t just about the curmudgeon older doctor so nicknamed, it’s equally about young Dr. Yasumoto, who has just finished medical school and arrives Red Beard’s clinic. Yasumoto is not happy about working in a clinic that serves the poorest of the poor. He had his heart set on treating high status samurai. Surely, this is a mistake the arrogant, obstinate  young doctor believes.

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Yasumoto (Kayama) and Red Beard (Mifune) with director A. Kurosawa

Yasumoto refuses to put on the clinic uniform or to abide by any of the clinic rules. He’s horrified by the outward appearance of the poor. He almost gets killed when he flouts a rule about avoiding the hut in the back where a deranged, wealthy woman is housed. All the while Red Beard is gruff, wise and patient. He sees so much more than Yasumoto can.

I loved Red Beard’s gruff ways. He was gentle with the patients who needed it, but tough with those who were foolish. He was wise in dealing with Yasumoto, allowing the young doctor to figure life out on his own and smiling when he finally donned his uniform and took on treating the poor of his own accord.

The plot twists and turns. Sometimes Red Beard is the focus, often Yasumoto, or a poor girl who’s rescued from a brothel. So many characters are given the spotlight and they all deserve it. The film has an emotional depth on par with The Human Condition, and one that few films bother to attempt. Kurosawa doesn’t beat you over the head with a message, but he does make you muse on how you should be kinder or more compassionate, how you should stretch beyond your comfort zone. It’s a film I could watch again and again. I’m so glad my misconception was dispelled. Red Beard is a treasure.

 

Renoir’s The Lower Depths

Before Kurosawa adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957, Jean Renoir made a French version. Well, sort of French. He kept the Russian names of characters, but set the film in France so it’s gotten a blend of Russia and France.

This film portrays a softer poverty. All the actors wear clean, apparently ironed clothes. Most have an air of dignity and polish. Most could pass mustard in any middle class social event.

The cast again includes a drunken actor, a venial husband and wife, who’re slumlords and the wife’s sister, whom Pepel loves. He believes if only Natasha would marry him, he could give up his life of crime and become a better man. He believed she was his only means of improvement.

Natasha is almost married off (sold off, essentially) to a official of means. Her sister, aware and jealous of Pepel’s interest in Natasha, orchestrates a dinner with the unctuous, over-stuffed official, for whom I felt a sort of pity as his attraction to Natasha and his treatment of her was both caring and sincere. A big scene is when Natasha gets drunk at the elegant restaurant where the official has taken her and Pepel bursts in and starts a melee.

One character, who wasn’t in the Kurosawa film, was the Baron. An aristocrat who’s gambled away his fortune meets Pepel and learns about the tenement. Accepting his lowered state philosophically, he moves in and makes esoteric observations of his plight and joins in the card playing, finally meeting the players he can best. C’est la vie.

The film does look at poverty, but at a cleaned up easier to endure version of it. Renoir offers a pastoral view of poverty through this motley crew. I’m not sure what the aim of doing so was. I doubt it would change people’s minds or actions the way Charles Dickens, Émile Zola’s or Upton Sinclair’s work did.

Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths

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The landlady Osugi and the thief, Sutekichi

Kurosawa adapted Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957. The film shows viewers life in a tenement situated in a pit where people toss garbage without thinking. From the vantage point of the working class people who toss the garbage, there’s nothing down below. (The middle and upper class probably don’t even know the pit’s there.) When Kurosawa takes you into the tenement, you meet a little society consisting of a former samurai, a drunken actor, a thief named Sutekichi, a prostitute, a vagabond wiseman, a metalworker, whose wife is dying, a stingy landlord and his wife and sister-in-law. The crucial relationship is the “love” triangle between the Sutekichi, Osugi, the landlady and Okayo, the landlady’s younger, sister. Sutekichi and Osugi have been involved for some time, but it’s all about sex, not love. The thief becomes smitten and convinced that if Okayo would marry him, he’d magically be able to mend his ways. Of course, Osugi soon becomes jealous. She’s not going to let the thief run off with there sister.

The Lower Depths is a close up look at poverty in the Edo era (1603-1868). Dirt poor is an apt description. The characters’ clothing is ripped and tattered. They’re all disheveled. The tenement itself is squalid. You can bet the landlady isn’t going to spruce it up any time soon.

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Though the characters were intriguing, it took me a while to warm up to the story. To their credit neither Gorky nor Kurosawa romanticize the poor. We can see from their behavior, that their behavior is a major cause of their poverty. The film mixes the misery with their capacity for joy and insight. The vagabond wiseman is like a priest and not only offers wisdom to the dying wife, the prostitute and others, but is willing to debate his beliefs with Sutekichi, who’s not ready to buy this holy talk. There are scenes that borrow songs, dance and conventions from Kabuki theater, but Kurosawa is careful not to present the characters as stereotypical happy poor people.

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I came to find the characters engaging, though Osugi is clearly a villain and Okayo a saint; more morally gray tones than simple black and white could help, but I guess that such nuance not in Gorky’s play. The essay I read on Criterion.com, points out that the film seeks to indict society with regard to its relationship to the poor. We just see how absent other classes are and how the landlady mistreats her tenants. For a real indictment, I would have liked to have seen some examples of interactions across class lines.

The Criterion Collection DVD features a commentary track by Donald Richie, the Japanese film expert. Richie provides great insights. Since the film’s in Japanese, it was easy to read the subtitles while listening to the commentary.

Human Condition, II

HUMAN CONDITION

Tatsuya Nakadai as Kaji

Part two of Kobayashi’s trilogy Human Condition maintains the excellence of the first film. Here the hero Kaji is a private in the military. It seems no one on the face of the earth faces more degradation than a WWII Japanese private. Kaji’s particularly targeted because he’s suspect of being a “Red” since he tried to get humane treatment for the Chinese P.O.W.’s stationed at the mine he managed.

The “vets” or soldiers with more experience are merciless in their brutality against the newer recruits. In fact, the sensitive Obara, who’s physically weak and plagued by domestic problems, is beaten and humiliated in a way I’ve never witnessed. While Kaji tries to help, that makes matters worse for Obara who commits suicide rather early on in this three hour film.

Although Kaji is strong and performs his duties without failure, because of his principles, he’s berated and targeted. In no uncertain terms, the film indicts the Japanese military, where a few good men are outnumbered by corrupt brutes. Even when he was in the hospital, he was beaten. The head nurse thought nothing of striking patients!

As in Human Condition, part 1, Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Kaji, is stellar. I just learned that he was a shop clerk and Koyabashi, the director of Human Condition, discovered him and put him in a film.

The Awful Truth

Taking a break from drama on the level of Human Condition, I watched Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. The Awful Truth is a 1930s romantic comedy about a married couple that races into divorce court after a misunderstanding. Each side has gotten the “wrong end of the stick.”

While they have 90 days between the court date and the divorce finalizing, Lucy, the wife, meets an Oklahoma tycoon who woos her, making Jerry, her soon-to-be ex-husband painfully jealous. Jerry no sooner gives up than Lucy realizes she wants him back.

In a nutshell: Lots of slapstick, lots of wit, lots of style and lots of fun.

Human Condition, Part I

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Tatsuya Nakadai as Kaji

Human Condition, Part 1 is probably the most movie film I’ve ever seen. Directed by Masaki Koyabashi, Human Condition, Part 1 shows places idealistic hero Kaji-san in a Manchurian mine that’s managed with an iron fist. Young Kaji-san believes if the workers are treated humanly, they’ll produce more. Even if they didn’t, he believes it’s the right thing to do. Who wouldn’t agree?

The answer is plenty of the other managers and administrators. The head honcho will indulge Kaji-san, but only so far. That man’s main preoccupation seems to be living the easy life. Okishima-san is a veteran at the mind, who think’s Kaji-san’s ideas are too humanistic, but he’s open to giving them a try. He’s one of the few friends Kaji has.

Soon the mine is given 600 Chinese war prisoners. At the same time the higher ups have increased the quota by 20%. Kaji-san wants to see them treated well. He’s certainly alone on that.

When the train comes with the Chinese, the workers are emaciated. Fifteen died en route. Kaji-san campaigns for humane treatment for the Chinese. By  giving them more food, by no means a lot, they are able to work. Trouble comes when some of these prisoners start to escape. Kaji-san’s Chinese assistant Chen gets talked into convincing his pal who mans the electricity to shut it off after 1 am. When the third group tries to escape, Kaji-san’s nemesis accuses Kaji-san, who was totally in the dark, of allowing the prisoners to escape.

The acting, particularly Nakadai’s, is outstanding. I’ve never been so moved. While the camera is used masterfully, the film manages to blend naturalism and art.

Three and a half hours is a long time for a film, but the time speeds by. That’s quite a feat.

Jules and Jim

Truffaut’s Jules and Jim is rightly considered a classic. Based on an autobiographical  novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the story focuses on two young men, with a deep friendship. Jules is Austrian and lives in Paris, while Jim is French. They share a way of looking at the world. Both are looking for love in 1912. When they meet Catherine, who resembles a sculpture which they view as the paragon of female beauty, they’re both struck by her spirit and openness. Jim agrees to let Jules court and marry her.

The three make a carefree group, but you just know that this arrangement won’t last forever. Catherine is capricious but didn’t fascinate me the way she did all the men who fall for her. She has no job and no interests. She’s pretty and open to life. Her spirit can be summed up when after viewing a play, they’re discussing the heroine, as Jules and Jim debate, Catherine illustrates her view of the role of women by jumping in the Seine. Fully clothed, Jim jumps in and fishes her out.

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Soon WWI breaks out and Jules and Jim fight on opposing sides, both fearing that they may shoot the other. Catherine is back at home in Germany caring for her daughter and receiving beautiful love letters from Jules. In addition to being enigmatic, Catherine struck me as a taker. There’s no mention of her writing great letters to Jules to support him while he’s fighting for his country.

After the war, the men return and soon Jim is on his way to see Jules and Catherine and their daughter Sabine. Jules confides to Jim that Catherine’s taken lovers including a man named Albert, who appears from time to time. In true European form, Jules excuses Catherine since this is her nature. He is right, but it’s exasperating watching this woman escape all responsibility and never be held to account, which would help her grow up. Perhaps if Jules, or Jim, were stronger and more of leader, though that’s not his nature, Catherine might not test him so much or get bored. It’s doubtful, but possible.

Whenever you’ve got a trio, you can bet a friend is going to start something with his pal’s wife and with Jules’ permission, Jim begins an intimate relationship with Catherine. She still has sex with Jules and Albert and probably other men we don’t see.

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It was interesting to see how Truffaut portrayed a sexy couple, or a few such relationships without a lot of nudity. I think his films are sexier with their fully dressed characters than those where the actors are buck naked.

Though I didn’t like Catherine, I did like the movie, which was masterfully paced and full of emotional surprises. Jeanne Moreau gives an outstanding performance. As I write historical drama, I found it interesting how Truffaut didn’t spend money on exquisite period costumes or settings. There are hints of the eras, but the costumes weren’t as accurate or elaborate as you see in period pieces made now.

The Criterion Collection’s DVD come with terrific bonus features including interviews with the sons of the men the story is based on and with the original “Catherine” who lived to be 96 and saw the movie before she died.

Cléo 5 to 7

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Agnés Varda’s 1962 film Cléo 5 to 7 focuses on a beautiful, young singer during the two hours she’s waiting to hear whether she has cancer or not. She’s had her tests and the doctor said to call him at 7. How do you occupy yourself right before you’re going to get such a diagnosis?

Cléo first goes to a fortune teller. She gets her cards read, but the fortune teller gets upset when asked to read Cléo’s palm. Things do not look good. From there Cléo and her maid go shopping and we see how much more grounded and practical her maid is. Sure anyone would be on edge and jumpy at this time, but we figure, given her purchase of a winter fur hat, bought purely to annoy her maid, that Cléo is capricious.

The film made me sympathetic to Cléo. She’s a rising star, but she’s surrounded by men who have little time or respect for her. It’s not till she’s in a park right before 7 when she meets a fellow that she might be able to trust. Her maid and friend are reliable and trustworthy, but really, when you’re about to learn if you have terminal cancer, you are pretty alone.

There’s a lot of attention given to the strangers Cléo passes who’re living as if they have forever (though one stranger certainly does not). These little snippets of action and conversation spice and show what life really is like and how we aren’t the center of anyone’s drama.

The lead Corrine Marchard does a fine job as Cléo bringing her to life in a way that we see her as more than a dizzy singer with a bit of bad luck. Yes, she’s got privilege and doesn’t understand fully how much, but we still want to learn more and understand Cléo better.

The camera work in the film is inspired and masterful, creating a look that remains fresh today.

Street without End

street woDirected by Mikio Naruse, Street Without End centers on Sugiko, a beautiful young waitress. All the customers are smitten with her and when she walks down the street a talent agent stops her to get her into the movies. Her best friend and roommate is a little put off, but when Sugiko gives up the idea of a film career, the friend gets hired by the studio.

One day, Sugiko gets hit by a car. The wealthy driver takes her to the hospital and gets smitten. She wasn’t hurt badly and the rich man soon starts courting her. His mother and sister disprove but soon the two are married.

After the wedding, Sugiko is sneered at and mocked by her mother-in-law and sister who connives to give Sugiko a hard time. Her husband defends her in a weak way but when the gets a job he starts going out drinking late and so he’s not at home to protect her from the mean mother-in-law and sister.

The silent film can be touching and it does show pre-WWII Japan, but compared to most people, who lack Sugiko’s luck, her life isn’t all that rough. So it was hard to get into this film, though I can appreciate some moments. Later Naruse made a mark for films about women who had major struggles.

So it’s not a must see.

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.