The More Things Change

Chaos and transformation in Akira Kurosawa's films
by Bilge Ebiri  posted January 13, 2010
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

Looking over the scope of Akira Kurosawa's career—represented both by Criterion's wondrous new 25-title set "AK 100" and by Film Forum's retrospective—one is tempted to see two films as intriguing bookends, even though they really aren't. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945) was not the first film Kurosawa made, and Kagemusha (1980) was not his last, but they do lend a certain pleasing symmetry to his career. In Tiger's Tail, a noble warrior on the run poses as a porter alongside another porter (a classic fool character played by the popular comedian Kenichi Enomoto) to evade a suspicious border guard. In Kagemusha, a petty thief is enlisted to pose as a great warlord, in order to maintain a clan's unity. In the first film, a lord is brought to the level of a fool; in the later film, a fool is elevated to the status of a lord.

This echoing speaks to one of the fundamental motifs in Kurosawa's work. His narratives are often concerned with transformation. In and of itself, a protagonist who changes is nothing new; Hollywood won't make a movie without a hero who "grows." Kurosawa's characters often have to virtually become someone else, but they rarely grow. Their transformations are paradoxical: characters are brought down or elevated, subsumed or destroyed, but they gain little insight. They walk a mile in someone else's shoes but mostly fail to see through their eyes. Instead of becoming more functional people, Kurosawa's characters change just enough to see that the world has become even more confusing and inhospitable to them.  This tension also makes its way into the very style of the films: like the characters, the movies transform—stylistically, narratively—before our eyes, while avoiding reconciliation.

The climactic moment of Tiger's Tail comes when the great warrior Yoshitsune (Hanshiro Iwai), disguised as a porter, is identified, prompting his loyal bodyguard, Benkei (Denjiro Okochi), posing as his superior, to beat him and to prove that this vassal is no lord. The plot hinges on Yoshitsune's ability to dissolve into his adopted identity, to allow his lowly status to override his nobility. We sense in this moment that something has changed irrevocably between these two men, but the film doesn't really take the idea any further. After safely passing the border and pausing to celebrate, Yoshitsune and his men abandon the porter who has been accompanying them; the fool wakes up from their drunken revel to find that they have all vanished. One could be tempted to view such an ending as Kurosawa's acknowledgement that the earlier blurring of class and status was ultimately an illusion, but it feels a bit too abrupt for that—perhaps a result of the film's rapid production schedule.

Within several years, however, the director would further develop this theme of transformation with a series of films that played two characters off each other. In Drunken Angel (1948), Sanada (Takashi Shimura), a kindly, alcoholic doctor working in the Tokyo slums, takes on Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), a tubercular, hot-headed young yakuza, as a patient. Sanada tries out some tough love on Matsunaga, persuading him to give up the gangster life, which is killing him. But while Sanada belittles Matsunaga (and Kurosawa had no romantic illusions about the yakuza), there's also something about the young man that attracts the older, somewhat pathetic doctor. Additionally, we can sense in Matsunaga's demeanor a newfound openness—much of the drama of the film comes from wondering whether he will live up to the demands of his new friend and leave the gangster life behind.

This being a Kurosawa film, he doesn't. Drunken Angel presents these two worlds as incompatible. If the early scenes focus on Sanada and his small, crowded office, the later scenes depict the frenzied chaos that is Matsunaga's life, complete with long bouts of debauchery and a lot of macho bluster. The social realism of the first half gives way to a stylized, dreamlike collage of music, girls, dancing, and gangsters. Finally, Matsunaga dies the most useless death possible, trying to hold on to his turf after he's pushed out by his boss, who's fresh out of prison. Kurosawa stages their final fight as almost surreal, slapstick comedy, letting them upset a can of paint and slide around in its puddle. When Matsunaga is stabbed and collapses, Kurosawa pulls away to emphasize his pitiful loneliness and in doing so also takes in the surrounding slum. The irreconcilable and chaotic nature of Matsunaga's life and death, perhaps, is a reflection of the society around him.

Stray Dog (1949) complicates the dual relationship of Drunken Angel, as well as its social overtones. This time, Mifune plays Murakami, a young (hot-headed, of course) homicide detective, who has his gun stolen and, in his obsessive search for it, immerses himself in the world around him. During one extended montage sequence, he poses as a drifter and wanders through Tokyo's underbelly, looking to find somebody selling stolen guns. The detective's journey over the course of the film will take him through crime-infested red-light districts, black markets, and teeming slums, so much so that Yusa, the gangster he seeks (and whom we don't see until the end), begins to seem representative of an entire generation of dispossessed Japanese.

This entire society is changing, and that too is at the heart of Stray Dog's narrative. Sometimes the references are blunt: a female thief known for wearing kimonos now sports a perm and a dress, confusing the police. Murakami himself acknowledges his similarities to Yusa by noting that both of them had their backpacks stolen upon their return from the war. Murakami's shift in attitude is hard to gauge, however. On one level, the detective gains an understanding of how a desperate young man of his generation can be pulled into a life of crime. But he's also paired with cynical veteran detective Sato (Shimura, again playing a mentor figure to Mifune), who advises Murakami to be less forgiving of criminals.

In an ordinary thriller, the hero's inevitable development would be fairly clean: prodded by the criminal's increasingly ruthless actions (possibly resulting in the death of one of his loved ones), he would eventually toughen up and get his man. But Stray Dog heads in a stranger direction. In the finale, after Yusa predictably shoots Sato, Murakami finds and chases the man into a dense thicket of trees; along the way, this film which had started off as a police procedural with hints of postwar neorealism, takes on dreamlike overtones. When Murakami confronts Yusa, he actually allows the criminal to shoot at him three times, without ducking. And the final fight between Murakami and Yusa, passing through a wet patch of mud and a field of flowers, is physical, surreal, and awkward, much like the final fight in Drunken Angel. When Yusa is finally apprehended, he lets out a blood-curdling shriek. Yes, Murakami has overcome his sympathy toward this pitiful gangster to finally subdue him. But the film's central narrative problem remains unsolved. Yusa's final breakdown feels almost like a taunt to both the cop and the audience. At the moment when we can expect narrative closure and dramatic satisfaction, we are confronted with a desperate, inhuman, and ultimately unexplained scream.

James Maxfield, in a study of the moral ambiguity in Kurosawa's early thrillers, likens Yusa's wail to Kurtz's "The horror! The horror!" at the end of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Much like Conrad, Kurosawa has turned a bit of genre work into a troubling psychological journey. In the coda, Murakami begins to note that he still might have some sympathy for Yusa, but Sato cuts him off, telling him that these feelings will pass with further cases. Murakami's journey has brought him back behind the rigid social divide between criminal and cop. The film ends with the promise that the insight he might have gained from it will soon be forgotten.

A different pattern of transformation takes place in 1955's I Live in Fear, for which Mifune aged himself several decades to play Kiichi Nakajima, an intransigent industrialist and patriarch with an overwhelming fear of nuclear war, obsessed with moving his entire family to Brazil. Kurosawa contrasts Nakajima with a domestic court counselor, the kind dentist Dr. Harada (Shimura). I Live in Fear does not present the master-pupil relationship of Stray Dog (and such films as Sanshiro Sugata), but this relationship is still one of influence and effect. Nakajima's obsessions begin to haunt Dr. Harada, who himself begins to wonder about nuclear devastation. But Nakajima, half-mad at the start of the film, becomes even more hopeless as it progresses. Finally, Harada visits Nakajima at a mental asylum, where the patriarch has now found a kind of insane peace, convinced that he lives on a distant planet ("What happened to the earth? Are there still many people there?"). Harada had tried to connect with Nakajima at an earlier point in the film. Now, he sees that such a connection is truly impossible. 

From its opening scene, a mundane portrait of Harada at work, to its bizarre, highly composed finale—where, in an eerie, symmetrical shot, we see Harada arriving at the insane asylum as Nakajima's family leaves—I Live in Fear charts a path from realism to a heightened expressionism. Toward the end of the film, Nakajima gathers his family and, having given up on his pride, begs them to come to Brazil with him. The static scene, composed with long takes, stands in sharp contrast to the earlier scenes in the family court, which were shot with multiple cameras and edited almost hectically. The film gradually seems to inhabit Nakajima's perspective—literally at one point, when Kurosawa films a sudden lightning strike with such stylized terror that one suddenly understands the nature of Nakajima's fear.

Mifune plays a very different kind of industrialist brought down to earth in High and Low (1963), one of Kurosawa's least contested masterpieces. When we first meet Gondo (Mifune), he is calmly planning to take full control over his shoe manufacturing business through an elaborate financial scheme. A sudden kidnapping throws his plans into disarray, and Gondo finds himself basically ruined after agreeing to pay off the 30 million yen ransom. By the end of the film, although the kidnapper has been captured and the money returned to him, Gondo is a broken man—he's lost his business and is now starting over at a smaller company, his former ambition now but a memory.

In the final scene, the kidnapper reveals his resentment of the wealthy man's huge home, visible at all times high atop a hill. His confession reminds us that the film itself has progressed from the modernist spaces of Gondo's expansive home, where much of the first act is confined, to the dank slums of Yokohama, where the police follow the kidnapper as he scores some heroin and tests it out on a junkie prostitute. The viewer's, and to some extent Gondo's, point of view has broadened, more open now perhaps to the suffering of others and the inequities of modern capitalism. But Kurosawa finds little redemption in this. He again ends the film on a note of strange, discomfiting uncertainty, as the kidnapper, now behind bars and condemned to death, attempts to laugh at Gondo and instead has a screaming nervous breakdown. As the kidnapper is taken away, Gondo faces his own reflection. There is no solace in gaining a better understanding of the world. If anything, it throws things even further out of balance. As Stephen Prince, in his book length study of Kurosawa's work, The Warrior's Camera, observes:

High and Low offers, finally, structures of separation, not humanistic reconciliation, a vision of contemporary society rent by inequalities of wealth and social standing and the pathologies these breed. ... The final frame is an image of stasis, of blockage, of eternal confrontation between the high and the low. Gondo will be sitting here forever.

The Bad Sleep Well, made three years before High and Low, is also set in the shady corporate world but takes an opposite tack. Mifune plays Nishi, a young man who marries into a ruthless industrialist's family with the intention of uncovering his corrupt misdeeds. We learn that Nishi is in fact the illegitimate son of Furuya, a former executive at the company in question who was forced to commit suicide by his bosses. The name and identity of Nishi actually belong to another young man, whom Itakura (the Mifune character's real name) has taken on as an accomplice.

Reminiscent of Hamlet (Nishi/Itakura torments the Public Corp. executives with seemingly supernatural reminders of their crimes), The Bad Sleep Well goes from a procedural (the early scenes are mostly focused on the police and journalists) to something of a horror film, introducing eerie music, chiaroscuro lighting, and dark, otherworldly locations (our hero's hide-out turns out to be a cave-like space under a bombed-out ruin). And then, suddenly, it seems to turn into a romance: Itakura's identity as Nishi might have been a charade, but he develops genuine feelings for his wife, whose father is the head of Public Corp. Nishi/Itakura, as played by Mifune, is a driven, determined, confident character, and the executives he pursues are, to a man, weaklings—often whimpering and dumbfounded in the face of the hero's plots against them. But as uncertainty creeps into his world, The Bad Sleep Well strips away Nishi/Itakura's infallible sense of mission, giving him a sense of the other lives he would be destroying with his exposé. When the film ends with his death, his mission left unaccomplished, we are only told of it and do not see it —divorced from his single-minded purpose, Nishi/Itakura ceases to exist altogether, leaving behind a mess of clothes and a wrecked car.

There's a strange resoluteness to Kurosawa's refusal to allow his characters any kind of genuine redemption—even in the ostensibly heroic Samurai films with which he built his reputation in the West. Sanjuro (1962) ends with the hero acknowledging that he is just as bad as the villain he has just dispatched, and wandering off. Seven Samurai (1954) concludes with the samurai's ostensible leader refusing to savor their victory: "Again we are defeated...The farmers have won. Not us." One might be tempted to view these as instances of warriors out of step with their times, as with John Ford's melancholy loners in films like The Searchers and Sergio Leone's later, Kurosawa-inspired Westerns. But civilization often hovers at the edges of Ford and Leone's films—heroes may have to be sacrificed, but society progresses, in the form of reunited families, crusading settlers, advancing railroads, domesticated prostitutes, etc. There is rarely any such hope or optimism in Kurosawa's films; they usually end on the note that the world has, in some way, become a lesser place. Reconciliation, even at the end of these action movies, seems impossible.

It was only in later years that Kurosawa seemed to find a glimmer of hope in the tragic arcs of his films. That's not to say that he discovered happy endings. If anything, films like Kagemusha, Ran (1985), and Rhapsody in August (1991) are even more brutal and embittered than the earlier works. However, a note of grace also creeps in. In Kagemusha, the double is eventually outed as an impostor, but, watching the clan that hired him mown down mercilessly in the climactic battle, he returns to the fold, charges the enemy, and is immediately shot down and killed. Kurosawa seems to find something ennobling here, offering what Prince has called "a discourse on the necessity of denying the self."

So what changed? Of course, the chaos of post-war Japan, during which Kurosawa seemed to find so much material for works of social import, had by now become the financial juggernaut of the 1970s and '80s. Transformation—social, cultural, global—had been the order of the day when Kurosawa made his earlier masterpieces. By the '80s, with Japan a First World powerhouse, stasis rather than turbulence was the order of the day. (This was reflected in Kurosawa's professional fortunes, as the prolific auteur of the '40s, '50s, and early '60s became a big-budget warhorse in the '70s, unable to get projects off the ground without foreign money; Dersu Uzala was produced by the Soviets, Kagemusha partly by Americans.) Perhaps ironically, the earlier films presented characters caught in the swirl of a rapidly shifting society, only to be denied transformation and reconciliation. By contrast, the later films present rigid, unchanging worlds, and suddenly, transformation seems possible, even if it's delusional and tragic. A fool no longer need wake up to find himself still a fool. Now, he can choose to die a lord. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

The Criterion Collection
Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura in Drunken Angel, directed by Akira Kurosawa
Photo Gallery: The More Things Change


January 6–February 4, 2010 Kurosawa Festival


Bilge Ebiri writes about film for New York magazine and Bookforum. He is also the director of the feature film New Guy (2003).

More articles by Bilge Ebiri