February 4, 2008

Postwar Kurosawa (Eclipse Series): A real treasure

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Reviewer: Diana Slampyak
Rating (out of 5): ****½

The Postwar Kurosawa box set from Criterion's Eclipse collection shows an artist in tune with his country's plights, pronouncing them out loud and stimulating thought on what's to be done about them. We see an Akira Kurosawa not dealing with the samurai past, but with the there and then after the war. Themes such as economics, "insanity," protest, and privacy come into play in these often extremely powerful films, films we can still relate to. We might, for example, watch The Seven Samurai to get a sense of Japanese history, but we watch these films to not only understand Japan in the late '40s and early '50s, but also to correlate their events with those in our own lives. Thus, each film in this series should be watched with a critical eye ready to easily absorb the conflicts and trials within and see the validity of these today.

One Wonderful Sunday (1947) is a paean to poor, young lovers everywhere, a plight we all can understand and empathize with. Yuso (Isao Numazaki) and his fiancée, Masako (Chieko Nakakita), meet up for a usual Sunday date, only to discover that between the two of them, they have only 35 yen. Even that's not much in 1947, so they do what they can, finding free or nearly free things to do. Yuso remains mostly depressed as the more cheerful - and ever-resourceful - Masako invents ways to entertain him. First they go to an open house, where she tries to get him interested in playing house. But he'll have none of it. They eventually go see about renting a real apartment together, almost hook up in his apartment, and then run into an abandoned amphitheatre. As Masako cheerleads Yuso on to play baseball with some kids, take her for coffee and to a dancehall, and otherwise try to engage him and will away his depression, Yuso only becomes more sullen. Until, that is, they get to the amphitheatre and forces conspire to change his demeanor - and ours. Though a little hokey at the end, the film offers a very realistic view of post-war Japanese economics and the problems it forced upon the younger generation. Only Kurosawa could pull off this sort of romantic comedy with social commentary - and he does it nicely in this treasure. **** stars out of five.

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No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) centers itself around a real event: the protest against a lack of freedom of thought that took place in the '30s at Kyoto University. The fascists rise to power, denouncing academic independence, and a popular professor (Denjiro Okochi) loses his job. His daughter, Yumie (Setsuko Hara) fights against this threat to learning by protesting with friends. As time passes, Yumie finds her loyalties drawn between two men: Noge (Susumu Fujita) and Itokawa (Akitake Kono), the first dangerously courting free will, the second tied to the fascist regime. Yumie eventually chooses to support Noge, and their lives exist with tragedy looming over them. Horrors - real and realistic - abound as Yukie's life meanders down the path of resistance. Here, then, we are reminded of the Tiananmen Square incident as well as resistance raging in third-world countries today. Using beguiling cinematography, Kurosawa creates tension with every camera angle, every shadow, creating a masterpiece meant to be watched and re-watched. *****

I Live In Fear (1955) shows a man penalized by family and the law because of his fear of A- and H-bombs. Ultimately, it asks us to ponder who is more crazy: this man, or "we, who are unperturbed in an insane world." Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa's most frequent performer, here plays the man, Nakajima, realistically and frighteningly. Wanting only to save his family from the bombing he fears will occur at any moment, he strives to move his family to Brazil, the only place, he thinks, that is free from worry. His family deems him mad and tries to have him committed to save the family fortune and factory. But Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa staple), a domestic court counselor, comes to his aid and helps him stay free. He questions whether Nakajima's fears are unfounded and whether they are shared by others, which they are. He admits that even he fears future attacks. As the film plays out, problems arise as Nakajima's fears grow and grow, dividing his family and leaving him no choice but to force a disaster all his own. Can we not, given the shape the world is in today, share Nakajima's outlook? Definitely Kurosawa and his repertory at their best. *****

Scandal (1950) even more so relates to America today, for its plot shows us how cruel the paparazzi can be and how easy it is for them to lie and get away with it. Here we have an artist and a singer (Toshiro Mifune and Shirley Yamaguchi) caught by paparazzi in a supposedly compromising position, a photo of which gets plastered on the cover of a popular rag. The artist, Aoye, urges the singer, Saijo, to join forces in suing the paper for lying about their totally innocent encounter. Aoye chooses counsel not so wisely, for Attorney Hiruta (Shimura again) is crooked and out-of-practice at his own game. Who will win the battle? The newspaper seems to have an upper hand, but will Hiruta trump its prowess? Taut and emotional, it nevertheless lacks the punch of Kurosawa's finer works. Filmed one year before Rashomon, Scandal not his best or most interesting, but it's still worth seeing given our rampant obsession with stars and their lack of privacy. ***½

The Idiot (1951) follows Dostoyevsky's novel faithfully but gives it a Japanese feeling. Kameda (Masayki Mori), the idiot, finds himself a new friend almost immediately upon getting out of the asylum he's been in and setting foot on a train home to Hokkaido. This friend, Akama (Toshiro Mifune), instantly sees more in Kameda than idiocy and they soon get to Sapporo. The two become mixed up in love and passion with two women, Taeka (Setsuko Hara) and Ayako (Yoshika Kuga). Treated whimsically by Taeka, who tolerates his 'wisdom' as he stands up for her against those who would call her a slut, he nevertheless stands no chance in winning her over, and once he realizes this, he plots murders galore and mayhem ensues. Mori plays the idiot with grace and charm, so it's easy to empathize with him, despite his downfall. In Kurosawa's hands, Dostoyevsky's classic seems even more potent. Although a long film at 2 hours, 45 minutes, it's one well worth investing time in. In fact, it emerges as the strongest in this most welcome series. *****



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Posted by cphillips at February 4, 2008 1:12 PM
Comments

Wonderful review, Diana. And you are so right about correlating events in these films with events in our own lives (and that of our country and its culture). I think this correlation is something many of us make unconsciously, as we watch any film that offers this sort of resonance. We certainly SHOULD be doing this, if we care about our past, present and particularly our future (for whatever, at this point, it might be worth). I'm going to queue up now for these lesser-known--but from the sound of your review--perhaps even more important Kurosawa....

Posted by: James van Maanen at February 4, 2008 3:27 PM