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.

 

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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.

Human Condition, Part I

HUMAN CONDITION

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.

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.

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.