Akira Kurosawa’s Jidaigeki (era drama) and Samurai films repertoire is certainly impressive, and it’s arguably the reason why he is such a household name in general film discussion. He is cited as one of the authors to the western genre with his Yojimbo (1961) starring Toshiro Mifune that went on to inspire Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. Seven Samurai (1954) went on to become The Magnificent Seven (1960). And The Hidden Fortress (1958) inspired George Lucas to create an entire universe with Star Wars, which practically takes inspiration from the Samurai Chanbara genre as a whole as well. But some of Kurosawa’s most immediate commentary on modern-day Japan can be spotted in his works that are set in contemporary times rather than the medieval past, and those films are where we can see Kurosawa’s treasured values the clearest.
Certainly I am not trying to downplay the magnitude of artistic and civic merits that his period films have, rather those films have some of his most substantial contributions to cinema. Crafting a film set in the distant past essentially creates a timeless bubble that could reflect present-day society and issues through historical lenses, providing context to the modern human condition and sometimes harrowing warnings of how much things had not changed despite illusions of progress. Some of my favorite works of his in this category include films like Red Beard (1965) that promotes progressive stances such as universal healthcare and highlight Kurosawa’s humanistic and oftentimes paternalistic values.
This second episode of ‘Film Browse’, as the name suggests, will focus on Kurosawa’s contemporary works set in postwar Japan and the modern day. As I said, his films that are set in modern times offer a more immediate commentary to the Japan that Kurosawa himself was experiencing first-hand. His postwar films focus more on the corruption of the morals of Japan still in recovery, then as you progress through the years, he starts to critique the establishment itself, attacking bureaucracy and corruption of the 1%.
As such, I am presenting the list in the year-of-release order. This list will not cover all of his films set in contemporary Japan. But they are, I would argue, some of the most essential ones. If you think there should be other films that need to be added to the list, leave a comment down below and tell us why.
1. One Wonderful Sunday (1947) Starring Isao Numasaki and Chieko Nakakita
As the title implies, there is indeed something wonderful about this film. Akira Kurosawa has shown multiple times that he has an optimistic outlook on life. And despite constantly questioning human behavior and being criticized for reveling in the glory of the past, he makes the effort to truly show that there is hope for the future, there is something to look forward to in times of suffering. One Wonderful Sunday (1947) gives the snapshot of a date between a financially struggling, engaged couple. They only have 35 yen to spend on the date, but they will try to make every bit of it worth it.
Kurosawa’s brand of postwar optimism is in full display in this film. The couple goes through numerous misfortunes throughout their date; ranging from damaging a food stall after playing baseball with kids to losing out buying tickets to a classical concert because scalpers would buy them in bulk and resell them at a higher price they couldn’t afford.The film is a roller-coaster of endearing moments and genuine heartbreaks as the couple navigates a postwar Tokyo fraught with wealth inequality.
In perhaps one of the hallmark moments in this film, one of the characters acts as a conductor to an invisible orchestra in an abandoned concert hall while their partner directly tells the audience to clap and cheer them on in an almost fourth-wall-breaking sort of way. In the dreary postwar era of Japan, young people are penniless, war veterans receive little to no benefits, good jobs are hard to come by, and affordable housing is a pipe dream. This marvelous scene reminds the viewers that they are not watching the film in isolation of the world outside their theater, but rather the film is genuine documentation of the people they may be sitting next to. The premiere showing of this film is definitely something I would like to see first-hand if I had a time machine. Kurosawa offers no particular solution, nor did he tell the audience to come up with one. He simply wants his people to be more compassionate, more empathetic with one another in order to overcome this predicament.
2. Drunken Angel (1948) Starring Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune
In case you missed it, I recently discussed Drunken Angel (1948) as well as the next one on the list, The Quiet Duel (1949) in our article The Doctors of Akira Kurosawa: Between Ethics and Paternalism. And since we have rather thoroughly went over Takashi Shimura’s character as the (titular?) doctor Sanada in that article, I believe we should put some more highlight on Toshiro Mifune’s character, the brooding yakuza Matsunaga here. This film tells the story of the impertinent clinic doctor Sanada and his dysfunctional relationship with his patient Matsunaga, who after a tuberculosis diagnosis, chooses to simply brush it off and continue his hedonistic and self-destructing lifestyle.
Matsunaga is defined through his toxic masculinity typical of the yakuza, in which the rather forceful display of strength is emphasized, and hiding one’s ailments and misfortunes are encouraged. But throughout the film, Matsunaga slowly internalizes that the tuberculosis diagnosis he had gotten from doctor Sanada is real, and no tough acts will suddenly make it go away. Mifune embodies his role as this sick alpha dog that is becoming too thin for his stature, and he slowly descends into madness due to his knowledge of his own inevitable demise and the metaphorical knife stabbed on his back by his brothers in crime.
Doctor Sanada, and by extension Kurosawa himself, also criticizes the yakuza’s feudalistic loyalism that permeates the larger Japanese society, remnants of the nation’s own history and hierarchical system. Kurosawa seems to castigate the concept of nationalism itself, allegorized by Matsunaga’s extreme loyalty to his crime family. The tuberculosis that caused Matsunaga to be terminally ill represents both his destructive allegiance and Japan’s extreme nationalism that led to them to commit acts of atrocities during the war as signs of devotion to their homeland and emperor, which finally led to their defeat.
3. The Quiet Duel (1949) Starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura
In a weird turn of fate, just one year after the release of Drunken Angel, it is Toshiro Mifune’s turn to be the headstrong doctor that pesters his patient to seek treatment, and Takashi Shimura now plays his father who is also a doctor. The Quiet Duel (1949) chronicles doctor Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) who contracts syphilis after being infected with the blood of his patient during the war. Coming home after the war, doctor Fujisaki hides his syphilis from his friends, family, and especially his fiancee.
The battles in this film are fought not within the patients he oversees, but they do certainly play a part. Rather, his own inner turmoil of being (responsibly) sexually deprived, unable to satisfy his inner desire, and forced to trudge on unperturbed are the catalyst to his suffering. Because truly this man has seen worse; he has seen his patients suffer through various illnesses and he has probably seen numerous soldiers die under his supervision during the war. His paternalistic behavior to his patients is the coping mechanism of his pent up desires and post-traumatic stress. The Quiet Duel is not one of Mifune or Kurosawa’s greats, but the dilemmas posed is as relevant as ever with the current pandemic-stricken world.
4. Stray Dog (1949) Starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura
If you are currently reading this article during summertime, then Stray Dog (1949) is certainly the Kurosawa film to watch. The entire film is triggered through a series of unfortunate events starting from rookie detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) getting his gun stolen in a crowded, steaming can of soggy tuna that is the public bus. The story then leads to his revolver being used by a criminal for robberies and eventually murder. The high heat of Tokyo’s summer clouds everyone’s better judgments, including detectives, witnesses, and the suspect themselves. It’s hard for anyone to work under the heat
Kurosawa’s take on film noir and the buddy cop dynamic between the greenhorn Murakami and senior detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) is highly enjoyable and perfectly captures the vibes and atmosphere of postwar Japan. There is a lengthy sequence in the film where detective Murakami goes undercover as a homeless veteran in Tokyo’s shady underbelly and Kurosawa demonstrates how the city has lost its empathy by having everyone ignores the visibly lost, grimy Murakami, because everyone is suffering through their own battles, and the ones who will pay attention to you will only be the crime syndicates that have something to gain from your desperation.
5. Scandal (1950) Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, and Takashi Shimura
Scandal seems like Kurosawa’s personal commentary on the celebrity culture perpetuated in postwar Japan, in which the entertainment industry has become increasingly westernized through its appetite for gossips and scoops concerning the private lives of celebrities. Toshiro Mifune plays as a painter who coincidentally meets famous singer Miyako (Yoshiko Yamaguchi). And after being spotted together inside an inn by a paparazzi, a scandal breaks out concerning the matter of their relationship. The “couple” hires lawyer Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) and plans to sue the news outlet that created the fake scandal. Little did they know at the time, Hiruta is desperate for money to pay for his daughter’s tuberculosis, and his conscience and ethics as a lawyer are compromised by the corrupted entertainment industry that tempts him to flunk the case.
As I said, Kurosawa heavily criticizes paparazzi culture that breaks conventional norms on the privacy of public figures. The film is almost his own meta-commentary of the industry that he is directly involved in and witnesses himself. And it’s perhaps one of his only works that address the ‘show business’ aspect of postwar Japan. Scandal is again nowhere near Kurosawa’s best works and it’s more of a footnote to his legacy. But it might be worth the watch just to see Toshiro Mifune at his prime simply being charming and the film probably depicts what he experiences in real life due to his massive stardom at the time.
6. Ikiru (1952) Starring Takashi Shimura
Ikiru, I would argue, is the essential Kurosawa film set in contemporary times. It is an utterly gorgeous, poignant, and melancholic journey of a dying salaryman masterfully played by veteran actor Takashi Shimura. The film starts as the main character is indirectly diagnosed to have stomach cancer by his physician. I say ‘indirectly’ because in Japanese culture (and in some Asian cultures as well), terminal illness diagnosis may be kept hidden from the patient or family member to allow a more peaceful passing without any burden on their psyche. This is a theme that is explored in some films like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019). But of course, career salaryman Watanabe discovers his impending demise and have the sudden epiphany of how much of his life he had wasted as an unproductive member of the local government and as a father to his uncaring son. He then tries hard to penetrate layers upon layers of bureaucracy in his office to approve public projects and rediscover the meaning of happiness through self-searching journeys in the nightlife of the city.
Kurosawa’s ideal through his films has been shown to be that one’s life is meant to serve others to the best of their abilities. His fascination with the medical profession is a testament to this. In this film, he highlights how important civil servants actually are to a nation and the potential good they could bring to society if they work efficiently and funnel taxes into meaningful public goods. However, Japan’s rigid, almost archaic bureaucratic system rooted in such things as the Tokugawa shogunate of the past almost always presents a red tape for any type of progression. The reports done by the people down on the corporate ladder would have to go up the stairs in a methodical manner, changing hands so many times that no one particular person could be held responsible if failures occur. Kurosawa despises this system, he allegorizes Watanabe’s cancer to be this bureaucracy that sticks to Japan like a terminal illness, and any positives civil servants could possibly achieve were highly limited.
Ikiru represents a change in approach for Kurosawa’s films set in contemporary times. Instead of the postwar gloom and pessimistic atmosphere of the previous films, he now tackles the establishment itself. The next two films on the list, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low comment on the corrupted institutions and inequality that Japan must now face as the worst of the postwar crisis is almost behind them and the country is recovering.
7. The Bad Sleep Well (1960) Starring Toshiro Mifune and Kyoko Kagawa
We are now entering the 1960s. Quite steadily the crisis that Japan faced in the postwar period is slowly behind them. The country is entering a state of capitalistic euphoria as the economy is gradually improving. Some global events such as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held during this decade, demonstrating Japan’s ability to enter the world stage once more as that particular Olympics was also the first in history to be broadcasted live via satellite. But with development, inequality and social injustice were also becoming more prominent. As such, the 1960s was also a time of student movements and protests.
Adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Toshiro Mifune plays Nishi, whom in order to avenge for the unjust death of his father, infiltrates the company of one of the men responsible and marries his daughter Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa). Through a series of plots that exposes the deep corporate corruption of these ‘evil’ men, Nishi acts like a wolf hiding under a sheep’s clothing, deep undercover and patiently waiting for his chance to strike. Kurosawa highlights the depravity of these businessmen who will quite literally sacrifice human lives to advance their careers and/or increase their capital. And Kurosawa shows that under the depravity of their actions, these men are indeed still humans who have families and nuances. As the title suggests, the Japanese society that Kurosawa saw allows them to remain scot-free, resting comfortably in their palaces. And perhaps the most depressing part is, these men are still answering to higher powers that are even more immune to the rule of law.
8. High and Low (1965) Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyoko Kagawa, and Tsutomu Yamazaki
I would describe High and Low to be Kurosawa’s most thrilling, satisfying film to watch and one of my personal favorites. At its core, High and Low is a crime drama about the kidnapping of rich shoe businessman Gondo’s (Toshiro Mifune) personal driver’s son. The kidnapper mistakenly kidnaps someone not related at all to Gondo, but believing that the businessman will still pay the ransom money due to the heavy burden on his conscience, the kidnapper is unperturbed and still demands the money in exchange for the boy. Gondo himself is in the middle of buying majority stakes in his company, even going as far as mortgaging all of his property. He is stuck under the dilemma of bailing out a child that is not related to him (under the constant begging of his driver who is the son’s father) or run the risk of going bankrupt and penniless. The film is a brilliant display of cat and mouse between the police detectives and the kidnapper. The suspect seemingly has an omniscient presence capable of seeing inside of Gondo’s house while calling from a mysterious location. The stakes are breathtakingly high, a child’s life is dependent on the investigation. The suspect is smart, unhinged, and has a personal vendetta to settle with Gondo specifically.
The latter half of the film focuses more on the kidnapper and the social inequality that led to his desperation. If you are a fan of the recent Best Picture-winning Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon-ho, I would argue there are some similarities in the two films’ themes. For starters, there is a somewhat geometric value to class inequality highlighted by the two films; the utilization of ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’, as well as the placement of both the films’ wealthy people’s houses on top of a hill overlooking the poor below, are some of the commonalities. While the sub-basement apartment floods in Parasite, the slums below the hill in High and Low boil under the summer heat as they don’t have the privilege of using air conditioners. The cinematic parallels between the two films are actually something I am currently exploring for a future deep dive essay, so look forward to it.
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