Imamura’s biopic of notorious killer, Akira Nishiguchi (named Enokizu Iwao in the film, played by Ken Ogata), is an unusual one spotted with moments of violence, absurdity, and even humor. It is unsettling, not only by Iwao’s cavalier treatment of violence, but Imamura’s implication that depravity is inherent within us all. Iwao is the archetype for this moral bankruptcy, an extreme depiction of emptiness. The film begins with his capture then details, in erratic flashback, his seventy-eight days on the lam and the relevant events preceding it. It is the portrayal of a childish man who was born a defiant boy, scornful of his father’s seeming cowardice. His father is Shizuo; a fisherman who was coerced into selling his boats to the Emperor’s navy when Iwao was young. Iwao spends his childhood in a reformatory then enters the war. Afterward, his marriage to Kazuko Omura is arranged and their relationship stagnates in a sea of uncomfortable silence. Iwao is later imprisoned for fraud and Shizuo visits Kazuko and the children, imploring her to leave the griminess of the backwoods and live with him and his wife. This is when Imamura’s film begins to open new territory. Kazuko attempts to seduce Shizuo (for she has always had a “great respect” for him) but he refuses to even acknowledge the occurrence. He arranges her to have sex with a friend of his instead and she, reluctant at first, submits, fantasizing that he is her step-father. Iwao is eventually released on parole and returns home suspicious and restless.
The killing of two transport workers, one discovered in a radish field the other at the bottom of a cement yard, begins his venture into senseless murder. After this, he commits apparent suicide by jumping into the sea from a cruise ship. The police don’t buy it and begin investigating acquaintances. His sexual appetite is insatiable and often violent so the trail of abused and frustrated women is easy to follow. He leaves a suicide note: “I have reached the final station on my life’s journey and started down the path to the next world” and this is more an affirmation of his newfound fatalistic lifestyle than the end of it.
We eavesdrop on some of his informants: the married woman who had an affair with him, a stripper in Chikuhashi, and his wife. When his parents are interviewed by the police, we see that they now own an inn in the Goto Islands. “Iwao has been no end of trouble since he was little, but I never imagined he’d murder anyone,” his father says, and this is brutal point of Imamura’s film. There is no external consistency to warn of a scoundrel because they are not pure embodiments of evil but products of misconceptions, frustrations and insecurities (their own and society’s). This is what makes products like Iwao distressing for he could be any of us under a similar mental state and set of circumstances.
Iwao, posing as a bail bondsman, later scams an old woman. As he flees he befriends a district attorney whom he soon murders. He stays at the man’s home for as long as possible then takes lodging at an inn owned by a sweet but morally questionable woman and her mother. Ogata is fantastic as Iwao: cold, obsessive, but also with an adaptable appearance and normal façade which creates an even creepier atmosphere. The editing style is very irregular with sharp jarring cuts intercut with associative asides and deep close-ups. When the ending finally arrives, there is a mysterious ambiguity to it. What are these still frames? It is horrifying and absurd, but also a reminder that, while the human shell who has committed such hideous acts is gone, the energy remains and cannot be exiled. Iwao offers no discernable motive apart from, “I wanted to remain free as long as I could.” Vengeance is Mine is a portrait of an empty shell, a wandering spirit propelled by animalistic impulses and selfish gain. Morality is never an option for such as he; only a pretense to murder.
“These customs are so complicated.”
Taeko and Yukiko, the youngest sisters in the prestigious Makioka family, are looking for suitors, but their guardian, Tsuruko, the eldest of the four sisters, has a habit of rejecting cavaliers at the eleventh-hour. She is practical and only concerned with tradition and appearance. Sachiko is the next eldest; more emotional and sympathetic yet still acquiescent of some of her older sister’s views. The entire film hinges upon Yukiko’s marriage (she being older than Taeko). She seems to know the kind of man she wants but has yet to find him. Taeko is quietly defiant, anxious to marry, and constantly frustrated by her sisters’ fastidiousness. The two sisters live at the home of Sachiko and her husband, Teinosuke.
Directed by Kon Ichikawa, The Makioka Sisters is a quiet but affecting film dealing with quintessential Japanese issues: society, tradition, and integrity. There is also the rigidity of family values and the pride inherent there which are explored. Through this we meet Yukiko’s various suitors and eavesdrop on the lives of the Makioka family. The film begins in 1938 Osaka with Taeko asking Sachiko for her dowry money in advance. Soon, Teinosuke remarks, “A geisha is always careful not to wet her painted lips. She must take in the food without letting it touch her lips.” And this is a running theme throughout the film: these sisters, these women born and bred by the traditional path, conditioned to lead their kin down this path … will they follow in their sisters’ footsteps or rebel?
We meet a few colourful supporting characters outside the family such as suitor, Mr. Nomura, an officer of a fishery agency at the Agricultural Office. He is forty-two and lost his wife and children five years before. He is a reserved man and always proper but also antisocial and quite possibly dangerously obsessed with his work – one of the many ill-suited suitors for Yukiko. We learn of Taeko who aspires to have her own doll shop. She arranges with a photographer (Itakura) to have pictures taken for an exhibition booklet at the Koigawa Gallery (paid for by her sister, Sachiko). A man named Okuhata is a former lover; he manages a jewelry shop. Five years ago, the two had attempted to elope but were stopped by the police. Not soon after, a newspaper prints the news of their elopement and erroneously indicates Okuhata and Yukiko. The family is outraged and, for a time, the scandal (such as it is) brings them much embarrassment. Itakura used to work for Okuhata but left for “selfish reasons,” and so, there is a rivalry between them now, mostly emanating from Okuhata. Itakura is genuinely appreciative of Taeko’s work; Okuhata, mildly amused. Taeko genuinely feels for him despite his low income and modest personality, however, his is a status is frowned upon by the older sisters.
It is a film about appearance and the disturbance of appearance. The elder Makioka sisters are strict about maintaining a respectable aura at all times, though in brief moments of joy they laugh and tease each other. They have been molded by the conditioning of traditional society, only in private moments do they feel the opportunity for defiance; it is a liberating act. They are not brainwashed you see, they are products of societal conditioning and centuries of tradition. The soundtrack (at times heavy, at times light), with sweeping strings and airy synths, is a bit unusual on occasion but when juxtaposed with the visual style and general tone it feels appropriate. It is, overall, a quiet film though with beautiful imagery and fluid cinematography. The screenplay is based on a story by Junichiro Tanizaki, a writer who often interchanged between controversially sexual and violent tales (Quicksand, The Key) and stories of Eastern values as they were assimilated by the West in 20th century Japanese society (Naomi, Some Prefer Nettles). Ichikawa’s film captures the latter with a finesse that is certainly worthy of Tanizaki’s work.
“When I am with you, I wonder why I always think of my past.”
About a thousand years ago, a noblewoman, living under the customary seclusion of her day, wrote what many consider to be the first classic novel. Murasaki Shikibu was of the Heian court in Kyoto at a particular time when some of Japan’s greatest literary works were written. As per tradition, she had little communication with men outside of her immediate family and her learning of Chinese was generally frowned upon, but following her husband’s death shortly after the birth of their daughter, she withdrew to a Shingon Buddhist temple. While gazing past an ancient lake by the light of the moon, legend tells us that Murasaki composed The Tale of Genji. Her skill as an author was acknowledged and soon she became a lady-in-waiting at the court, continuing to pen vast prose for the remainder of her life. Sugii’s animated adaptation of Murasaki’s canonical tale captures the atmosphere of the period very well. There is a pensive, unrushed characteristic of the film which is appealing but also an occasional cause of obliqueness. There is not eroticism but passion, not flamboyance but exploration: Buddhism at its most dastardly and sincere.
The film begins with Lord Genji carrying a woman named Yugao through a deserted mansion. She is one of his many mistresses and much beloved. Genji is the emperor’s second prince. It is said, “Nothing rivals him in the Capital” and this is certainly true but, beyond the physical realm, it is soon revealed that he is powerless. When the opening credits clear, we see him being fitted and pampered (to his boredom). Lady Aoi is his first wife and he is less than ecstatic about it. Neither of them feel any real attachment to each other as their marriage was a parental political move. He has many other lovers (there are about fifteen described in the novel): some beautiful, some cold, some intelligent, others meek. His interest in (most of) these women springs from their unattainability and his interest wanes once they are attained.
He has been having an affair with the late first prince’s wife, Miyasudokoro Rokujo (everyone, including the emperor, seem to know about it but it’s officially a secret), for quite some time. She is five years his senior and cynical as to the possibility of their marriage. She is neither the first nor the last love he has conquered recently, yet her pride and jealousy bears an energy that extends beyond the grave. His stepmother, however, is his greatest desire. When Genji learns that the Empress is pregnant, he is conflicted. “I cannot hold back my feelings,” he says to her eventually. Theirs is a doomed path – there can be no easy resolution in the rigid confines of this society. There is a cherry blossom motif which occurs throughout the film representing the cause (or one could say, the result) of this trouble.
The voice acting is superb; often conversational, always emotional. Much of the dialogue contains men talking about women and women talking about men, but it is theatrical and existentially earnest. Featured is a haunting soundtrack that is both fitting to the time period and dynamic. The animation is smooth and tasteful, preferring slow pans and long takes to allow tension to build over time. While a bit dated at first glance, its odd static movements become captivating and surreal. It is a deliberate film with conversations being heard but not seen for minutes on end and characters saying things like, “I have nothing to say.” It’s all done so well though that it’s suffocating serious tone is not painful but blissful. Sugii’s film, however, only adapts the first twelve chapters of the original novel’s fifty-four (entirely understandable considering this spans over a thousand pages). Despite this, it is a worthy adaptation that maintains the essence of its source material in a respectful way.
“Turn me back into who I was before. My old self.”
Akira and Fumiko are caught pickpocketing American tourists in a jazz club by a journalist named Kashiwagi. He alerts the police to their crime and they are imprisoned. Akira befriends a man named Masaru while inside. When they are released, Akira reunites with Fumiko, steals a car, and cruises the beach. Akira spies Kashiwagi out with his fiancé, Yuki, and strikes him with the driver’s side door, abducting Yuki. They all stop after a while: Fumiko and Masaru rush off to swim and have sex, Akira meanwhile, rapes Yuki. Such is the life of juvenile misfits in Kurahara’s 1960 film, shot in a way that is both influenced by Nicolas Ray and prophetic of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
Akira soon fences the car to an automotive chop shop (run by children apparently) and, with the money, rents a flat. Masaru soon joins a yakuza mob while Akira is confronted by Yuki. She is pregnant but more concerned about Kashiwagi who has become a temperamentally detached man of late. Akira has a plan but it is one closely related to his inner nihilism. There are memorable scenes here; stark and realistic structurally but performed with such psychosis that it operates outside of reality. It is ultimately tragic but doesn’t wallow in it. Instead, perhaps less desirably, tragedy is an expectant cloud fit to release upon all involved inescapably.
Prominent in the film is the jazz score: omnipresent, ever in the mind of the criminal, Akira – a drug of the ears enrapturing all those who dare listen. There is even a scene at a jazz club where Yuki stops a playing jazz record and Akira attempts to stab her with a broken beer bottle. Jazz, in the film, is depicted as an irresistible plague so fulfilling in every way that only violence can result; an implosion of emotion caught within the clutches of every third and fifth. This is complemented by (or rather, complements) the energetic cinematography and schizophrenic characters – all directed by the confidant Kurahara as he depicts animalistic man in the throes of youth.
Often compared to Godard’s Breathless, Kurahara’s take on the “misguided youth” theme occurred at a time when the youth subculture genre was a relatively new angle in film. Kurahara, who will continue to celebrate a career full of box office successes, is just as at home here with guerilla tactics, frenzied editing, and erratic camerawork. Indeed, two other films of note, directed by Kurahara and similar in approach and sensibility, would be his follow-up, Black Sun, and his debut, I am Waiting. A frantic film, Kyonetsu no Kisetsu, radical only through association with the protagonist, is an unforgiving hyper-realistic nightmare fraught with the incomparable joys of jazz.
“You remind me of my younger days. It’s been thirty years since the war. I’ve been wandering places with a gun…it’s an old man’s whining.”
Golgo 13 is a shadowy protagonist, an uncompromising antihero. Also known as Duke Togo, his profession is that of maestro sniper. His identity is anonymous, his past ambiguous, his weapon of choice: a custom M16 rifle. Based on one of the oldest manga series’ still in existence, Golgo 13 is a tortured man (both literally and figuratively) who lives in a darkly realistic world. He is mythologically capable, able to carryout the most impossible of hits with ease (“He’s the strongest man I’ve ever met; he calculates everything precisely”). He speaks seven languages and is proficient even whilst using a rifle that is ill-suited for sniping. He is also, of course, adept at martial arts and handling handguns, not to mention, smoking cigarillos. This is all part of Duke Togo’s charm, he is a Zelazny-esque character whose invincibility is his greatest trait (not unlike James Bond or such ilk). The series was first depicted in live-action in 1973 by Junya Sato. 1977 found the return of master assassin Tolgo to the big-screen, this time portrayed by Sonny Chiba and directed by Yukio Noda.
At the start of the film, Golgo is hired in Miami on a yacht by a man named Rocky Brown, whose part of the U.S. syndicate. He wants a drug embezzler killed. The embezzler however, is Chou “the Kingpin,” the head of the Hong Kong mafia, and his ruthless reputation is just as renown as Golgo’s. Chou though, is himself, only a pawn. Three skilled hitmen had attempted to assassinate Chou before but were deathly unsuccessful. Also, hot on the trail of Chou is Sminny, a hard-as-nails (though a bit daft) Hong Kong detective – certainly one can perceive early on that he will be a formidable antagonist for Golgo as well. Sminny has help however from the briefly able Lin-Li, an insider infiltrating Chou’s nightclub, and an ample supply of fellow officers at his disposal. Shortly into the film, Sminny is “anonymously” tipped off that Golgo has been hired to kill Chou. Sminny has experienced Golgo’s handiwork before so is wary that the killer extraordinaire is on the prowl.
The audience is treated with zoomed close-ups and crosshair lenses, as one might expect from such a film. Shootouts, hostage situations, framings, double-crosses, giant walkie-talkies, and a man shot in the face falling on a lever with a sign reading “Don’t Touch.” It’s like a live-action film that wants to be an anime, completely over-the-top but entertaining nevertheless. Chiba, of course, shows off his karate chops (pun intended) and is fine form as usual. “Your first shot was from anger, the second from fear, the third from love,” he knowingly intones to a young killer – he is, of course, also talking about himself.
There are many little asides throughout the Golgo universe, few expressed subtly. His very name is referential to Golgotha, the place of Christ’s death. Golgo’s chief imagery is a skeleton wearing a crown of thorns. Harumi Ibe’s (Detective Bureau 2-3, A Colt is My Passport) score is as epic as it is, at times, overwhelming, but it perfectly complements the spirit of the manga. Noda’s adaptation is a hit-and-miss affair that struggles to find a consistent tone. It is, after all, a B-movie and it often shows with overtly-direct dialogue, shoddy editing, inconsistent acting, and questionable plot, but Chiba captures the look and spirit of Golgo with ease, a role he was meant to play.
“Nation is a wall between men…it isolates human beings from each other and cuts ties. In other words, it’s against the divine law; so I intend to continue attacking it.”
In Kobe City, Hyogo, there is a man named Kenzo Okuzaki. He is a veteran of the Second World War and is searching for the men responsible for the deaths of two soldiers in his regiment executed twenty-three days after the war had ended. It was following the New Guinea campaign and many horrible deeds are rumoured to have been committed there. Throughout the film, Okuzaki interrogates former military men demanding answers. Tales of starvation and cannibalism arise. His was the 36th Regiment though he became a prisoner of war one year before the war ended. It is now forty years after the war and tensions are still taut. Okuzaki continually blames Emperor Hirohito for his conduct and misguided judgment during the war. He declaims the man as a “symbol of ignorance, irresponsibility, and impossibility.” Less than two years following the release of this film, Hirohito would die of cancer, since to be remembered as Emperor Showa. He was undeniably caught within a difficult time, but nevertheless attributed to the encouragement of mass civilian suicides (which did indeed occur), use of toxic gas, and was, some say, either a puppet or a ruler who lost control of his military.
There is, early in the film, a wedding between a Mr. Otagaki and Miss Sano. Okuzaki acts as a go-between at the ceremony. He gives a speech detailing his relationship with Mr. Otagaki and the circumstances of their mutual imprisonment. Okuzaki has spent thirteen years and nine months in prison for three convictions: murder, assault, and obscenity. His crimes are the murder of a real estate broker, the shooting of a sling at Emperor Hirohito, scattering pornographic flyers of the Emperor, and for plotting to murder the former prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka. These crimes, all part of Okuzaki’s belief in nonconformity. The misguided leadership of Emperor Hirohito and, what he believes, the unlawful execution of two soldiers, are only a piece in the puzzle of this man’s conviction. He is uncompromising in this vision and therefore, a danger to others.
At the beginning of the film, Okuzaki informs the chief of police that he is leaving for Tokyo. The chief is pleased that he was made aware but wary, suggesting a police escort for half of the journey just in case. Okuzaki is an enigmatic man who is no stranger to violence or deception and using such tactics to discover the truth he’s seeking. On the Emperor’s birthday, he denounces the establishment via loudspeaker, driving a vehicle covered with signs and writings of protest. He is also a man of compassion and honour, visiting the graves and loved ones of the two executed soldiers.
Kazuo Hara is a noted documentary filmmaker whose films (particularly this one) tend to end up on “top favourites” lists of auteur filmmakers. It is his most wellknown and decorated film, embodying the central concept of all his documented subjects: nonconformity. Shot by Hara himself, the film is a rough compilation of handheld interviews and conversations, arguments and confrontations; a no-frills documentary that’s only focus is to depict Okuzaki and his cosmology. It is a film portraying a kinetic reality, well beyond the scope of such modern attempts at reality filmmaking. Hara is ever the observer, filming it all, but never participating; prompting one former officer to scream at him whilst being strangled by Okuzaki, “You just film it and do nothing?” Does this mimic Hara’s own cry to the audience? Do we conform because it’s easier to endure or dare we oppose the establishment and bare our individuality?
“This is butchery!”
Directed by renowned chambara/yakuza filmmaker, Hideo Gosha, Kedamono no Ken is a classic jidaigeki film made in the archetypal style. It was the follow-up to Gosha’s debut, Three Outlaw Samurai, and shares many similarities with it in his signature use of flashback, close-ups, and blatant violence. Filmed in black and white (as were many jidaigeki films in the ‘60s), it was representative of a reluctance to abandon tradition and progress in a different direction. The narrative of this film however is much more literal-minded in expressing this concept.
The story begins with ronin, Gennosuke Yuuki (played by Mikijiro Hira), being hunted by his former clan members. He has murdered their counselor, Yamaoka. In dealings with the vice-counselor prior to this, he was persuaded into believing that Yamaoka’s death would rush certain revolutionary reforms. The assassination complete, Gennosuke is abandoned, left to bear the guilt and consequences of the action, all promises of reform stemming now from the corrupt vice-counselor (now, counselor full stop). Gennosuke is hunted by Daizaburo, a close friend from the dojo, as well Master Katori, and Misa, the daughter of Yamaoka and fiancé to Daizaburo. There is a continual conflict between not only greed and honour but honour and integrity, the upholding of one’s law-derived code and one’s individual code – how some separate the two codes and how others do not.
Gennosuke befriends a poor farmer early on in the film. They are betting odds with shady prospectors. They win, the prospectors get angry, and Gennosuke scares them off. The farmer confides that there is a Mount Shirane in Koshu, owned by the shogunate, bearing gold. He suggests they try their hand at some panning; the penalty for poaching: decapitation. Unable to come up with a reason not to, the two men form a partnership, Gennosuke acting as bodyguard. Atop the mountain, they meet Jurota Yamane (Go Kato), a squire furtively panning for gold with his wife, Taka. He dreams of becoming a samurai, just as Gennosuke once did. The counselor of his clan promised him a hefty two hundred koku for delivering the gold. When rival prospectors later hold his wife hostage however, Jurota is unwilling to sacrifice his duty for his love. He is portrayed as a villain at this point yet, like Gennosuke, there is more to his character than superficial appraisals can reveal. “This mountain is a dwelling for beasts,” says Gennosuke, and this is perhaps the central idea behind the film: we’re all beasts when cornered. Gosha is very dogmatic in expressing this theme and this is the film’s chief strength and weakness: it is tirelessly focused on its message. Economic and minimalist but not in as daring a way as Kobayashi or Teshigahara; still, it is as technically-proficient as anything to come out in the early ‘60s with furious swordfights and picturesque set pieces all directed with Gosha’s assured eye.
Certainly an indication of greater things to come for Gosha, the film is a fine example of jidaigeki films made at the time. Taking place in 1857, when Western reform loomed on the horizon, transition has always been a primary concern of Japanese filmmakers, and Sword of the Beast effectively captures the chaotic atmosphere of the period when change was least in all minds but those few fanatical enough to bring it about.
“I’m a virgin, but my heart is that of a prostitute.”
Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards is another of Suzuki’s yakuza films. A marvel for 1963, it is a seldom mentioned title in his career (perhaps the title length is intimidating). It is stylistically and defiantly a Suzuki film, containing all of his usual trademarks, both glorious and baffling. With the opening credit sequence superimposed over a burning car, the film is violently self-aware, allowing for the absurd – like much of Suzuki’s work. We have the tough-as-nails protagonist (played expertly by Jo Shishido), the wronged mistress (Reiko Sasamori), and the evil villain (Kinzo Shin), for the film shares elements with fables as well as cheesy “undercover cop” films. There is structural familiarity but also a conscious artistic and absurdist postmodern take on the private detective character.
Members of two gangs are gunned down during a gun trade by an unidentified third group, the goods stolen. A man named Manabe is soon arrested by the police but the day has come for him to be released. The police plan to tail him so that he’ll lead them to whichever gang is involved, however, both gangs camp outside of the precinct prepared to shoot him down. The reason the police allow them to do so is, of course, because they have hunting licenses. The media fervently covers the story. The protagonist is private detective, Hideo Tajima. His office is Detective Bureau 2-3 and he has one assistant and a magazine editor who help him at opportune times. They bring him potential assignments and bring the film a great deal of camp. They are eager and dependable however, so they are also watchable.
Hideo arrives at the police station and convinces the chief (after a fair amount of tedium) that a non-policeman, a complete “unknown,” namely himself, would be the most ideal inside man to crack the gun trade. He doesn’t do this for free of course. He is given a gun and fake I.D. by the police. His name is now Ichiro Tanaka, a man who’s been sentenced twice and has since been released. They give him a residence in Musashidai. The chief reassures him that only the top brass know of this arrangement; if he commits a crime he will be arrested, he is only to act as bait. Upon Manabe’s release, Tanaka (Hideo) helps him escape with such bravado that he even stops to watch the carnage unfold at one point to admire how well it all worked out. These are signature Suzuki scenes, embraced by some and despised by others. Another, where a television news report is simply black and white scenes shot for the film as if a dozen cameramen were covering the action with finely-focused close-ups and all. The colours of certain scenes, extreme reds and vibrant yellows, the claustrophobic closeness of key shots (beautiful by the way), the jagged editing; it’s absurdist cinema, sometimes a bit too much, but Suzuki’s confidence is clearly cast upon the film.
Tanaka is accepted into Manabe’s gang, or rather one he’s a part of. We meet Yoshihama, nephew to Boss Hatano. Hatano, however, is actually maneuvered by a man named Beniki. It isn’t long before they discover Tanaka’s true identity and we witness Hideo’s daring and pure sense of reckless abandon in full force. And so a song is sung in the film, “This one’s a lout, he is stupid; this one is a lout, he is clever. The two louts plan together – a lousy job. Who will be more cunning? The fox or the raccoon? They join forces, but in the end, a third thief swindles them.” A little on-the-nose, but fitting in this cinematic world. There are, in fact, two musical numbers in the film (one in which involves Shishido). Harumi Ibe’s score consists of rollicking jazz-influenced bombasticism that is very appropriate to the perfectly-framed and colourful visuals of which Suzuki is never spare in providing. A fine film in the Suzuki canon, but may be a bit too unrealistic and silly for some more accustomed to Suzuki’s darker works.
“Nothing’s so solemn as a man’s last moments.”
Akahige is the beginning of Kurosawa’s later career; when his output became less prolific and dealt more with sprawling ideas (this one running over three hours) and a more determined, less specific approach to storytelling. 1965 also marked an end for black and white film in Kurosawa’s filmography and his final collaboration with longtime collaborator, Toshiro Mifune. Known for his unparalleled use of widescreen, Red Beard is the final of these as well. The film is based on an anthology of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto and Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured, both of which share humanistic qualities present in much of Kurosawa’s work.
Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), an arrogant novice educated richly at the Western-influenced port of Nagasaki, dreams of being the personal physician of the Shogunate – an affluent career in correcting cataracts and such work. His family and contacts are wealthy and reputable so he is confounded when, for his postgraduate work, he is sent to the rural Koshikawa Clinic as understudy to Dr. Kyojo Niide (Mifune), Red Beard. Adapting to his new post and having to follow Dr. Niide’s firm policies cloud his ambitious mind for a good portion of the film early on. For Yasumoto, his position is one wherein he may innovate and excel. When Niide demands to see his medical notes, Yasumoto refuses. Niide views a physician’s work as belonging to the medical community, not to be hoarded by aspiring practitioners. By breaking every rule, Yasumoto hopes to be dismissed from Niide’s service and moved to a more comfortable locale where he can be independent. His self-image is great, but he also has a genuine interest in helping others: at his worst, his bleeding heart is blinded by his ego. He hears Red Beard’s wisdom, “Even bad food tastes good if you chew it well,” as practical as it is humourous, and is encouraged by the other employees of the clinic, “He’s unfriendly to people he likes.” It is once he begins meeting with the doctor’s patients that he finally sees worth in Niide’s methods.
We meet Sahachi who sells the goods he crafts to help support the patients at the clinic. With his failing health however, he soon becomes too ill to work. We learn of Sahachi’s past, riddled with earthquakes and lost love, as a reason for his insistent selfsacrifice. Yasumoto’s introduction to The Mantis is the longest shot in the film. The gossip he had heard before of her, of outright violence and murder, is contrasted by her initial subservience to him – but this is also dangerous for she is well-versed in getting physicians to respond to her feigned vulnerability. We meet also, Rokusuke, once a gold lacquer merchant, now dying of liver cancer. Niide’s lesson for Yasumoto is simply to watch the man die. Niide believes in alleviating a patient’s suffering as much as possible especially when there is no cure to their ailment. To comfort, one must be able to look death in the eye. It is a harrowingly moving scene that consists of gasps and horrified looks. It is Niide’s intention for Yasumoto to relinquish his literal mind towards a greater understanding of death: its mysticism, its inevitability, and finally one’s acceptance of it.
In this film, Kurosawa is associating and, in many ways, predicting the far reaching consequences of, the incursion of Western medicine in Japan, an emphasis on the physical, and the dismissal of any spiritual or psychological facet in one’s analysis. It is a reaffirmation of Kurosawa’s views of existentialism in that the personality of the individual determines his fate; a transitional film, where such topics as social politics and conventional heroism give way to detailing the philosophical and existential struggle we all must endure and bear others through.