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The Bad Sleep Well

Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well blew me away. It’s not one of his most famous films, but it’s packed with power. I learned of The Bad Sleep Well via Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Picture channel where Zhou analyzes Kurosawa’s effective placement of actors.

The film opens with reporters and detectives invading the wedding between the handsome apparently straight as an arrow Nishi to Yoshiko, the pretty and disabled daughter of CEO Iwabuchi, whose corrupt deals caused Nishi’s father’s suicide. Nishi has positioned himself in Iwabuchi’s corporation as his assistant and married into the clan to exact revenge for his father’s death.

Disrupted by the appearance of a wedding cake that looks like the building Nishi’s father killed himself and by the arrest of a loyal, timid employee indicate the disaster of the marriage. Nishi has spent five years trying to get into Iwabuchi’s inner circle to expose the kickbacks and violence that fueled the success of Public Corporation. Iwabuchi and his colleagues are cold blooded, willing to goad their employees to suicide if it helps them keep their dirty cash flowing in.

While the film differs from hamlet, there are many intended parallels. Nishi’s obsessed with his father’s death. Yoshiko is very much like Ophelia and she meets no better end. While Nishi’s mother never married, Kurosawa uses gray flannel ghosts to freak out his characters.

The evils of corporate greed have bene a common theme in modern film Somehow Kurosawa, while showing blatant, unrepentant evil, doesn’t seem to have exaggerated. The executives and their conniving seem all too real.

Every scene had me riveted and the ending was a complete surprise, though it was perfect. It’s a film the I won’t soon forget.

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No Regrets for Our Youth

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Directed by Kurosawa, No Regrets for Our Youth surprised me as it’s the story of a young woman by a director whose prolific body of work otherwise emphasised male characters. The heroine Yukie is carefree and playful at the start of the film. She has no use for anything serious. The film opens with Yukie strolling through the mountains with her father’s university students. When they come to a shallow creek, she halts and waits for someone to rescue her.

Noge, a very political, man of action carries her across the water that seems about three inches deep. On the sidelines looking awkward is his friend Itokawa who has feelings for Yukie, but is too shy and unsure of himself to do anything. Yukie likes teasing men more than anything and  plays Noge and Itokawa off each other.

As political tensions rise in Japan leading up to WWII, Yukie’s father is fired by the government because he’s spoken out against military aggression. Made after the war No Regrets for Our Youth, contains several scenes with characters discussing the importance of academic freedom, free speech and the importance of self sacrifice when working towards a greater good. Both Yukie’s father and Noge, who is arrested and imprisoned pay for their ideals.

After seven years, Yukie leaves her hometown Kyoto, to work in Tokyo. Here she bumps into Itokawa who’s continued to play it safe. He’s a lawyer and is married. He’s kept in touch with Noge, who’s just been released. Now Yukie’s matured somewhat and when she sees Noge again she’s willing to give up a conventional life to risk life with a rebel.

Soon Noge is arrested and she’s imprisoned, questioned and eventually released. We’re not entirely sure of what Noge did with his underground work but he says that in 10 years the Japanese will thank him and Yukie. From then on Yukie’s life is full of hardship, hardship she voluntarily takes on despite protests from her parents and Noge’s parents. It’s amazing to see someone who was such a flibbertigibbet turn into an honest to goodness heroine.

While the film was made early in Kurosawa’s career and lacks the mastery of later films, No Regrets of Our Youth tells a compelling story and enlightened me on anti-war protests in Japan prior to and during WWII. Also, I wish this Criterion Collection DVD featured more commentary or background information.

Kurosawa: Masterful Movement

I’ve watched this engrossing, enlightening YouTube video by Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting, three times. He makes it clear how much more absorbing a Kurosawa film is than your average Hollywood film often due to the masterful use of movement.

What’s more, I enjoyed spotting the films I’d seen: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, One Wonderful Sunday, I Live in Fear and Ikiro.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail

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Directed by Kurosawa, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) follows a group of seven samurai warriors t who dress as monks to travel through their enemy’s checkpoint. Adapted from classic story that both Noh and Kabuki theatre had covered, Kurosawa adds a comical character, a self-described blockhead who’s a porter taking the same trail as the warriors. For me he was the highlight of the film.

It’s a short (59 minutes) and simple film with little violence considering it takes place during a time of war and the characters are samurai. The theme that struck me most was reverence. The leader hid his face most of the time and his soldiers, particularly his second in command treated him like a god. I was struck by this as my own culture so emphasizes equality that I just couldn’t imagine feeling so in awe of any person.

The climax comes early in the film when the warriors must convince the lord at the checkpoint that they are monks. The lord has been told to look for seven warriors in disguise. It’s dramatic, but more suspenseful than high octane as a modern film would be.

The film’s good for people wanting to get to know the breadth of Kurosawa’s work, otherwise I wouldn’t say it’s a “must-see.”

One Wonderful Sunday

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Kurosawa’s 1942 ironically titled One Wonderful Sunday should be called One Looooong Sunday. It just didn’t do it for me. The film depicts two young lovers on their weekly date in post-WWII Tokyo. Inflation is sky high and the couple just have 35 yen to spend. Times are tough as the woman’s shoes have soles that flap and holes. She can’t afford a winter coat and neither can he. Since they only can meet on Sunday, I assumed they both have jobs, which they never talk about.

Masako, the woman, makes every effort to stay cheerful, while despite some upswings in mood, Yuzo, the man reminds me of Eeyore, a real downer. Yuzo always sees the downside in every situation. Masako, would you really want to marry a man whom you’re forever bolstering and cheering up? Who does so little to support you?

At one point the couple tours a model home and he just complains about the poor craftsmanship, materials and high cost. Later we see where he lives. Hovel would be too kind. On the one hand, the gap shows how out of reach a good life is for the average Japanese worker at the time, on the other it showed me that nothing would every satisfy Yuzo, which is why time and again, I wanted to tell the smiling Masako to “Run!” Find someone who isn’t so needy. While some of his depression could be due to the emotional scars of serving in the war, Masako, it could just be how this guy is and he ain’t gonna change. That he just brought 15 yen for the day, while she had 20, can be taken symbolically as well as literally.

Masako and Yuzo had no plan for the day and ended up playing baseball with some kids, buying buns when the ball hit a bun shop, viewing a model house, meeting a homeless boy, looking for an apartment, visiting the zoo, trying to get into a concert (but scalpers bought the last of the cheap seats and Yuzo started a fist fight over that, which was understandable, but counterproductive), having tea, crying — a lot, pretending to own a café. Scenes were long — really long for me. I wished to see the couple in context because I never understood what Makasako saw in Yuzo, who seemed bipolar. The scene where Misako and Yuzo pretend to own a café, imagining the bombed out wasteland to be the site of the café was powerful. A later scene at the end when Yuzo pretends to be conducting the symphony they didn’t get to see fell flat. In that scene the depressed Yuzo gives up and Masako talks directly to audience pleading with them to clap so Yuzo’s dreams return. Evidently in Japan none of the audiences clapped. I don’t blame them at all. It was time for Yuzo to pull it together or Masako to wish him well and say goodbye.

Since Japan did flourish in the decades after this, perhaps I have too much knowledge that prevents me from liking One Wonderful Sunday. I know everything turns out alright for most of the Japanese so Yazo’s depression didn’t gain my sympathy.

Review: I Live in Fear

Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (1955) drew me with the first scene when a dentist mentions he’s a judge for the local family court. Family court in Japan? This is bound to be interesting. At family court, where in 1955 Japan three men from the neighborhood and a silent woman (the secretary?), hear the cases of family disputes. In this case adult children want to have Kiichi Nakajima, their father, ruled incompetent because his fear of subsequent atomic bombings compels him to move his family, wife, grown children and their spouses and his mistresses and children by them, to Brazil, where they’ll be safe.

The court hears all sides and ponders a decision, while back at home family members continue to bicker, worried about money, the father’s will, the family business-a foundry the father still runs. Meanwhile the father goes around town presenting his plan to his illegitimate children, a son whose mother has died, a daughter whose mother runs a bar Nakajima funds and a married daughter who’s husband talks way too much about the effects of such bombs to a man who’s already obsessed and anxious about them. Say what you will about this man who certainly got around, but he provides and protects them all. He’s given jobs and a home to his legitimate sons and makes sure the others get money every month. In a touching scene outside the courtroom, when tempers were running high and the father was furious with his children, he returns to the corridor and gives his wife and children a bottle of orange soda pop. Providing for his family is so ingrained. Yet no one notices.

The case drags on, apparently more than most cases do in family court. All judges admit that the father has a point. The dentist, played by one of my favorite Japanese actors, points out that perhaps it’s crazy to go along with your life ignoring the bomb. Certainly, in Japan it should have been. In hindsight we know nuclear bombs haven’t been used since WWII, but in 1955 it wasn’t clear they wouldn’t be. The judges just can’t bring themselves to rule for Nakajima. Leaving a successful business and good middle class life, to go to Brazil was just too much. (Though there are lots of Japanese in Brazil and Peru. I wonder when they immigrated.)

He’s looked into buying a farm in Brazil and the seller comes to Japan to show the family a film about it and answer their questions. Nakajima isn’t completely crazy. He takes rational steps. The court clearly considered this though they also sympathize with the adult children who just don’t want to be uprooted. Eventually, Nakajima’s youngest legitimate daughter and his wife agree to go, but an appeals court would still need to rule in favor of the father.

The film’s an absorbing look at Japanese culture and the impact of nuclear weapons. I know I’ve pretty much filed their existence in the back of my head, and though I don’t want Nakajima’s obsession, a reminder of their consequences isn’t bad.

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