Dividing the Kingdom

Akira Kurasawa’s Ran is a Japanese retelling of King Lear. It’s dramatic, epic and bloody. Other than the different setting, the big difference is rather than three daughters, the King in Ran has three sons. Here’s an old Siskel and Ebert review of this film, which I’m not alone in considering a classic.

Ran is thrilling and brought King Lear to life in a way the average reading or production usually doesn’t. I admit like the king’s advisors in all versions, I knew that Lear was wrong to step down when and how he did. That’ll always frustrate me.

The colors, costumes and war scenes were all remarkable. This Japanese version is compelling and moves briskly. Moreover, it gives viewers something to mull over as this story crosses cultures so successfully.

My only bone to pick is that the make up for the King/Samurai was so over done. He looked like he was half dead already, like he’d been embalmed.

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


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.


Stray Dog


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.


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.

I never intended to get into Japanese films as much as I have. I now have been so impressed with the 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:

The Kindergarten Teacher

I never really wanted to get caught up in someone else’s obsession. When I watched The Kindergarten Teacher, (2014) I was a witness. The film was engrossing and well-acted, but rather disturbing. (After The Minutes, I could do with a some drama that wasn’t.)

The Kindergarten Teacher is about Nira, a teacher who becomes obsessed with Yoav a student who’s a poetic genius. Poems come to him from out of the blue, poems with words like “banality.” Poems that describe the complexity of love with more wisdom than most adults can muster. The teacher is a would-be poet and she starts passing off Yoav’s work as her own in her poetry group.

Nira becomes obsessed. So focused on Yoav’s genius, Nira ignores most of her other students and while she has a fine marriage and two children, none of this matters much compared with Yoav’s poems.

Soon Nira has gotten Yoav’s nanny fired and has disregarded every boundary in her profession or commonsense. Watching this film is like watching a train wreck. You know it will end badly, but I was surprised how.

The Kindergarten Teacher is compelling, and I was able to believe that Yoav did write the poems. I would certainly watch another film with the star, Sarit Larry, who played Nira, bu for a time, I need to watch drama that isn’t disturbing.

FYI: There’s going to be an America version released in 2018.

Earrings of Madame de . . .

Directed by Max Ophuls, Earrings of Madame de . . . is a film dripping in style. The earrings have a magical power, power to return to a married couple that grow apart and power to represent a range of emotions.

The beautiful Countess Louisa is married to an older general. While she’s hidden her debts from him and thus decides to sell a pair of earrings he gave her, their marriage isn’t bad. They are distant from each other, but he seems to understand her and marriage. In their social circle, I don’t believe anyone has an ideal marriage between soulmates. Here we see a marriage where there’s a lot of freedom. The general seems icy, but he does care about Louisa.

After she sells her earrings and reports them missing at the opera, the jeweler informs her husband and he buys them back. He then proceeds to give them to a lover as a farewell gift. When the lover must sell them to cover a gambling debt, you wonder just when they’ll return to Paris and to the countess.

Louisa soon meets an Italian diplomat named Donati. Their relationship goes from cordial to flirtatious to romantic obsession. As you’d expect, Donati has bought the earrings and gives them to Louisa, who’s already made a spectacle of herself when like Anna Karennina collapses when Donati falls from a horse during a hunt. People have been talking, but the sophisticated General brushes aside such possible indignities. He’s above such trifles.

However, things begin to fall apart when Louisa thinks she can fool her husband into thinking she’s found the earrings in her drawer.

The film is a masterpiece of cinematography and style. I constantly reevaluated what I thought of Louisa, the General and Donati. I had sympathy for each at various points. The film’s mastery is that they’re all likable and all in the wrong. Because of their social standing and their inability to sympathize much with each other or put aside social façades, the ending was inevitable. Louisa’s fate was due in large part to her distance from reality and her own lies.

It’s an intriguing and stunning film, but it’s also easy to remain aloof from the aloof characters.

I started to listen to the commentary that’s available on the Criterion Collection DVD, but the pedantic theories got old fast.

Drunken Angel

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.