1950s, Drama, Foreign, Historical, Japanese cinema

Sanshô the Bailiff (Sanshô dayû, 1954)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

By Roderick Heath

Kenji Mizoguchi’s legendary 1954 film is an arresting blend: a story derived from folk-tale themes, essayed with a rigorous clarity of storytelling, and realised in the most beautiful and involving cinematic terms. Mizoguchi is often cited as being Japanese film’s most perfect and lucid stylist, and Sanshô the Bailiff would certainly bear that reputation out. If his great rivals Ozu and Kurosawa preferred, respectively, the quiet, intricate intimacy of close, deeply personal drama or an expressive, elemental sense of nature and the soul, Mizoguchi rather evokes both sensibilities and sets them in subtle conflict. These tendencies can be seen in the intricate way Mizoguchi offsets the rhythms of his human drama, replete with cruelty, parasitic and hypocritical governance and officials, hard moral choices, and bleak chances, with the calm abundance and simplicity of nature, imbued with an undercurrent of spiritual longing. His work in Sanshô is both utterly heartfelt but also the product of a thoroughgoing ironist, as ideal and actual, nature and humanity, baseness and transcendence lock in a defiant, grueling struggle.

The film opens with a storytelling technique reminiscent of the in medias res tradition of classical sagas, as the family of Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu) makes the journey across Japan to join their patriarch at his distant job post. His wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), son Zushiô (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), and the daughter Anju (Kyôko Kagawa), whom he hasn’t seen since she was an infant, are going on foot, accompanied only by their female servant Ubatake (Chieko Naniwa). Camping one night in a district that is rife with slave traders, the family are visited by a priestess (Kikue Môri) who offers them shelter. But the offer was a ploy to get Tamaki and Ubatake into the boat of two slavers who try to leave the two children behind: in a panicked struggle, Ubatake falls from the boat and drowns and Tamaki is taken to Sado Island and forced into a life of prostitution. Zushiô and Anju are sold to the estate run by Sanshô (Eitarô Shindô), bailiff for the state of Tango and defender of the interests of the entrenched aristocracy—he manages the estate of the Minister of War—who maintains a strict and brutal hegemony over a large population of indentured servants. Sanshô’s son Taro (Akitake Kôno), quietly disgusted by his father’s inhumanity, learns of Anju and Zushiô’s parentage and advises them to conceal their real identities and wait to until they are older and stronger to break free.

Zushiô takes on the name Mushu, after the place of his birth, and Anju becomes Shinobu, and they survive for 10 years amongst Sanshô’s slaves. Zushiô becomes hardened and callous, emptied of any intention to escape and preferring to get in tight with the bailiff, even carrying out one of his standard punishments for attempted escape—branding on the forehead—on an old man. When Anju hears a newly arrived girl singing a song she heard on Sado Island, in which her and Zushiô’s names are mentioned, it seems to confirm that their mother is still alive and living under the name Nakagimi. Tamaki is indeed still alive, and her captors are so fed up with her attempts to escape they have hobbled her by cutting her Achilles’ tendons. Zushiô is initially contemptuous of his sister’s attempts to talk him into escaping, but when they obey Sanshô by carrying a old and sick slave woman, Namiji (Noriko Tachibana), into the forest to die now, Zushiô comes around. Anju insists that Zushiô take Namiji instead of her. But once he’s gone and the bailiff’s men are roused, Anju drowns herself in a lake to avoid inevitable torture. Zushiô finds shelter at a monastery where Taro has become a monk, and Taro and the abbot endeavor to help him make contact with the prime minister in Kyoto.

For many good reasons, the exalted spheres of Japanese cinema in the late ’40s and ’50s were preoccupied with a deeply ruminative, urgently humanistic philosophy that arose from the country having to contend with the wrenching cultural and physical fall-out of the Second World War. That soul searching tended to be explored through historical parable. Sanshô is one of the most sublime results of that era, and, in spite of its formal beauty and warm heart, it’s also a coldly realistic film that tells a grim truth about Japan’s feudal past that’s virtually unimaginable in the Technicolor plasticity of Hollywood historical movies from the same period. Nor is the film at all hesitant about describing the interests of power and varieties of exploitation—physical, fiscal, political and sexual. It’s made clear early in the film that Taira was sacked for attempting to ease the burden on his citizens rather than meet the demands of a militarist government. Sanshô himself is protected and honoured for his capacity to turn human suffering and ruthless oppression into piles of money for the government coffers.

Later, as he attempts to assert his claims, Zushiô finds himself forced to sneak about the prime minister’s residence to have any hope of seeing the all-powerful official, reduced to despairing pleading before being dragged away and imprisoned. Whilst the minister and the state he serves are capable of recognising nobility—Zushiô carries an idol that was given to his clan decades before by the prime minister’s ancestor—and restore Zushiô not only to rank but give him the governorship of Tango as compensation, he soon learns he isn’t entirely empowered to end slavery or even legally punish Sanshô when his misdeeds are restricted to a private estate. Justice is entirely subordinate to the regular running of the state’s machinery and the interests of powerful men. From the smallest to the highest level of the society portrayed, people make commodities of each other, and respect is a debased currency as hierarchy is constantly abused.

Mizoguchi doesn’t offer any actual portrayals of violence, and yet the key moments of corporeal cruelty that punctuate the film are all the more effective for their judicious presentation of how this mass of exploitation is enforced: even when the physical damage is only hinted at, it’s impossible not to cringe during the scenes of branding and Tomiko’s hideous punishment—the antithesis of torture-porn. The narrative’s steady, committed assault on the aristocratic family unit—mother turned to whore, children as forced labourers, father a figure of distant impotence—becomes a tour through the precincts of hell for the most stable and hallowed of social institutions. This necessary awareness of the true state of things is, however, inextricable with Zushiô’s final dedication to realising his father’s ideals: the secure walls of social roles that have been violated by his family’s travails give him an awareness of the terror and complexity of life that is alien to the invested folk around him, and drives his determination to keep the wheel in spin for people beyond himself and his kin.

For all the high tragedy, darkness, and cynicism that permeate Sanshô as a narrative, however, it’s also a cracking good yarn that powers on with Dickensian twists of fortune and fortitude of moral meaning. The breathless intensity of the storyline is undeniable, and that’s something of a lost art these days in so much cinema and literature—the capacity to retain the depth of great art and the force of fine melodrama in a singular shape. Mizoguchi and his screenwriters Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda make the teeth clench with clever delaying devices, like Zushiô’s initial failure to make the prime minister listen and in the finale in which he tries to track down the woman known as Nakagimi only to be put on to the overeager tart (Teruko Omi) who’s inherited that reputed name first. By this time, Zushiô has triumphed not only over Sanshô, but also over the self-interested world he represents; Zushiô used the power given him by the prime minister to ban slavery, against the protests of his advisors and knowing that his action will surely end his career nearly before it begins. Sanshô, in retaliation, sends his men to knock down the decree signposts, which is what Zushiô counted on, for he can now exert his right to seize Sanshô for destroying the governor’s property, leading to liberation of the estate’s slaves.

But it’s a victory for other people more than Zushiô himself, as he learns of Anju’s death and grimly weighs his future as the former slaves party, riot, and finally burn down Sanshô’s manor in a nihilistic consummation. Hanayagi’s performance is the most compelling in the film (although no one is less than excellent), essaying an individual who passes through almost insensibly strange contortions of luck and station. His character swings from extremes of stiff-necked, glowering inhumanity to frantic pleading and unendurable, almost metaphysical terror as he appeals to the prime minister, to troubled but determined efforts to live up to his father’s creed and rescue what’s left of his family life. With him stand Tanaka and Kagawa, two pools of feminine calm and rooted conscience driven to terrible ends by their determination not to cave in to mere force.

Mizoguchi’s formal invention in interpolating fragments of explanatory flashbacks has become a common device in filmmaking, especially Japanese genre cinema, and yet it seems uniquely fresh and concise here. In a few deftly composed minutes of film, Mizoguchi describes the characters who will preoccupy the drama, their reasons for being in their current predicament, and the dangers, both emotional and physical, that await them: revealing the circumstances by which Taira lost his job and with a brilliantly economical flourish, panning down from Taira’s humiliation by a samurai general to show Tamaki’s reaction, before dissolving back into the present-tense as she takes a cup of water from a river, lost in pained reverie even as she tries to reunite the family. As the family makes it trek, Mizoguchi offers precisely composed shots encompassing characters and landscape that suggest a harmonic completeness to their world, usually offering frames filled with water, earth, flowers, and sky. The relationship between the material and spiritual lives of the characters is constantly entwined with physical setting, courtesy of Kazuo Miyagawa’s photography. In later scenes, as when Zushiô finally visits his father’s grave, he finds it caked in flowers brought by his grateful subjects; Mizoguchi restores here the pellucid beauty of the early sequences, once again including sea, sky, land, and humanity in the shot. Anju’s suicide, a careful composition of the dim light of dusk and the utter stillness of the water, evoke the soothing end of pain and a forlorn, beatific deliverance.

When Zushiô finally finds his mother, now aged, blind, and devastated by too much loss, it’s on the edge of a beach that’s been turned into a wasteland by the literal calamity of a tsunami, but that all too accurately reflects the shattered lives and mental states of the last two Tairas. When Zushiô apologises in grief for not returning as a great man or saving Anju’s life, but having tried to stick by his father’s principles, Tomiko, grizzled and crushed but not lost, assures him that if he hadn’t done so, she’s sure they would never have been reunited at all. It’s a simple message, but delivered with force and conviction. In cumulative detail and effect, Sanshô the Bailiff is like the universe in miniature. l

1960s, Foreign, Japanese cinema

Samurai Assassin (1965)



Director: Kihachi Okamoto

By Roderick Heath

On March 24, 1860, in what became known as the Sakuradamon Incident, Ii Naosuke, virtual dictator of Japan for the Tokugawa shogunate, was assassinated outside Edo Castle by a confederation of clans led by the Mito. Ii had generated hate because he negotiated with foreign envoys, had installed an easily manipulated boy, Tokugawa Yoshitomi, as heir to the shogunate, and eliminated disaffected clan chiefs and their samurai aides in the infamous Ansei Purge. However, far from restoring a sense of security, Ii’s death resulted in the collapse of the shogunate, leading to the civil wars of the 1860s that saw the destruction of the samurai class and set Japan on its wayward course into the modern world.

Kihachi Okamoto’s Samurai Assassin, also simply called Samurai (and not to be confused with 1954’s Miyamoto Mushashi, also starring Toshirô Mifune, retitled Samurai for Western release and awarded an Oscar), about a time of upheaval, was made in a time of upheaval. 1960s Japanese cinema is a remarkably rich trove perhaps because of the pressures on it, when pop-art genre cinema overtook emperor director-artists like Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kobayashi, and even Kurosawa, who had helped usher in the new phase with his Yojimbo (1961). Okamoto’s career was erratic (and perhaps typical of the era), seeming most at home in the anarchic spirit of the late ’60s, with a run of darkly comic, satiric films like Nikudan (1968), cynical takes on popular fare (Kill!, 1968), and intense studies of fraught moments in Japanese history (such as Samurai itself and The Longest Day of Japan, 1967). He also made of one the best entries in the long-running Zatoichi series, Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo (1970), putting Mifune and Shintaro Katsu in close proximity, for which cinema fans ought to be eternally grateful. Samurai is a film that, in a wonder of construction, displays Okamoto’s cinematic gifts perhaps at their most vivid.

Okamoto and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, working from a story by Jiromasa Gunji, wove the story of Ii’s assassination around a dark and mordant parable involving an imaginary protagonist in that event, Sir Tsuruchiyo Niiro (Mifune), a ronin reduced to strong-arming and extortion. The film begin with the Mito clan’s band of assembled ronin gathered at the Sakurada gate of Edo Castle waiting to kill Ii, but he fails to show, forcing the conspirators, led by the ruthless Hoshino Kenmotsu (Yûnosuke Itô), to consider whether they have an informant in their midst. The chief suspects are the two non-clansmen in their number, Niiro, and Niiro’s friend Einosuke Kurihara (Keiju Kobayashi), an intellectual who claims to have joined their number because his studies of western philosophy assure him that Ii’s tyranny must end.

Niiro shares none of the elevated principles or sturdy loyalties of the other conspirators. His motivation is basic and willfully narrow: he intends to regain his honour, gain position as a samurai, and become famous for killing Ii (Koshiro Matsumoto). Having lived, as he describes it, like a dog for five years, he sees only two dimensions to life: the security of life as a samurai, and the degradation of survival in the everyday world. Niiro’s vague character and background become an enigma that the conspirators (and the audience) have to solve before moving on. They learn he is the son of a mysterious nobleman, was given the name of a doctor friend of his concubine mother, and raised with the aid of Seigoro Kisoya (Eijirô Tôno), a crusty but kindly merchant. Whilst awaiting the day of the assassination, Niiro encounters a comely waitress in a tavern, Okiku (Michiyo Aratama, the memorably suffering first wife of Kaidan’s “Black Hair”) whose troublingly familiar face and name unsettle and yet appeal to him.

Later, when he can’t pay the tavern bill, he goes to Kisoya to ask for money, but the old man, resentful of Niiro’s lack of contact and spurning of all he and his mother laboured for, sends him away. But Kisoya still pays Niiro’s debt to Okiku, and in meeting her is likewise stunned by her appearance. He explains to her that Niiro’s disgrace was owing to his falling in love with a princess, Kukuhime (Aratama again),the spitting image of Okiku. Niiro won Okiku’s affection by protecting her from some drunks, but because his lineage was in question, he could not marry her. His disappointment that turned him into a drunken, brawling wastrel. Okiku, touched by Niiro’s tortured soul, reaches out to him and offers him hope of peace without becoming a samurai, but Niiro fixates on his mission. The price for his coming glory mounts when he’s commanded by the Mito to kill Kurihara, whom they now believe is the traitor.

The narrative describes a near-perfect circle, beginning at and returning to the snowy compound outside the castle, and the flirtation of one of the young Mito men with a waitress, a motif that offsets Niiro’s desire to return to innocence with Okiku. The film digresses to explore the mysteries of both the situation and the characters, most vitally Niiro, whose fall from grace and relentless ambition to regain his standing is the linchpin. The very notion of telling a story, and the art of constructing history, are at stake here, as a dry, officious voiceover affecting to be an unexpurgated and precisely factual account of the assassination kept by the Mito clans, explicates the intricacies of the conspiracy and the efforts of the conspirators to locate the traitor and prepare for the great day. Except that figures and events keep getting edited out. After Niiro is compelled to kill his friend Kurihara, the Mito find that the spy was another man Hoshino, who is dispatched after a kangaroo court. He then orders both eliminated men similarly expunged from the official record expunged: “This must remain the conspiracy of honourable, serious men!” And Niiro stands watching as the appointed scribe burns the papers that included his dead friend and the traitor of this glorious enterprise.

Of course, it’s not a glorious enterprise, reeking as it does of reactionary politics and opportunism, hardly much better than Niito’s motives. The least trustworthy man seems to be Kurihara because he is actually motivated by high ideals, wanting as he does to usher in a new age for Japan and humanity in general. The innermost secret, which Kisoya desperately lets slip to Okiku when he realises the plot Niito is complicit in, is that he is in fact Ii’s natural son. This revelation is overheard by one of the Mito minions, and Kenmotsu sends nine assassins to take care of Niito on the morning of the assassination; Niito cuts them to shreds, and, still with no concept of the truth, accuses his boss of trying to get all the glory, and vowing to claim Ii’s head himself. Finally, the drama narrows the motivating idea of the assassination to a very direct metaphor—the outcast son, head twisted in knots by the confused realities of his creed, kills the corrupt father, and destroys the future both hoped for.

Not that it was necessary, but the film is further testimony to the awesomeness of coproducer Mifune, who, like many male movie stars of the period, loved playing seamy antiheroes, but with an edge few indulged. Who else, save perhaps Marlon Brando, would allow his first appearance in the film to be a shot of him picking his nose? Niiro, with his smouldering resentment, shabby style, and wayward passions, is a terrific addition to the Mifune resume, from startling displays of athleticism to dragging a platter of sake bottles by his toes to lying in a dissolute sprawl of self-loathing. Okamoto perpetually frames Niiro in doorways, poised between the domestic interior and the exteriors that are almost always buffeted by rain or snow. The whole film, too, plays like a scurrilous inversion of the normal generic assumptions, looking for the dishonourable and self-destructive tendencies in the samurai ideal—the exactness of the title confirms the desire to pinpoint the death of a creed rather than a celebration of it. And Itô is queasily effective as the deceptively limpid-eyed engine of the enterprise, particularly when he executes the real spy, swinging from plain shock as the man’s blood stains his clothes to laconically advising the distraught Niito to be “more cold-blooded,”and finally, bewilderedly and yet with utter efficiency, encouraging Niito to kill his father.

Okamoto’s direction, aided by Hiroshi Murai’s great cinematography and the editing of Yoshitami Kuroiwa, with a stunning array of lightning jump cuts, is as sharp as one of the flourished katana blades. Samurai maintains a relentless grip on its narrative even as it delves into flashbacks within flashbacks, sliced into crucially revelatory units, and quietening down for two portentous scenes. In one, Ii watches a Noh play that features a masked demon, and the other is Kurihara’s funeral, with his widowed wife and child mourning as the priest’s chant fills the soundtrack. Okamoto’s nihilistic streak strikes with force against the usual macho romanticism of the jidaigeki genre. Samurai tackles the complex narrative by exploiting the propelling tension between the measured, past-tense voiceover and the rapid on-screen drama, building its story in overlapping accounts that build an ironic tapestry. If the script perhaps makes the themes a touch too obvious, and the central conceit is distinctly melodramatic, the overall film still serves an acidic purpose.

The finale’s staging predicts the orgiastic, apocalyptic violence found within a couple of years in American films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Niiro and the Mito assassins assault Ii’s procession, the defenders and attackers butchering each other as the wind-driven snow buffets them in a giddy free-for-all, the warriors barely discernable in their frantic, desperate grappling. Blood and squirming bodies litter the snowy compound, the wounded flee along ditches and tumble into icy water, including the assiduous record-keeper, along with his papers. The final images are of Niiro bearing off his father head on the point of his sword, hysterically proclaiming that he’ll only part with it for a decent sum of money, while the mangled Kenmotsu beams in savage glee as he crawls after him, enfolded by the billowing snow. In a chilling coda to a superb piece of cinema, the voiceover dryly informs us that Niiro was to be cut out of the history, and that the cold weather was rather unseasonable.

1960s, Horror/Eerie, Japanese cinema

Kaidan (1964)

aka Kwaidan

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

By Roderick Heath

Japanese horror cinema has been bludgeoned in the past decade by a glut of cliché and repetition and cash-in Hollywood remakes. But it’s a genre with a long tradition, and arguably the most famous exemplar is still Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan. His film, consisting of four traditional ghost stories, was based in their collected retelling by Lafcadio Hearn, whose book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, first appeared in 1904. Kaidan was obviously an attempt to make a capital-A Art Horror film, with its showy artificiality and hyper-stylisation, quotations of traditional Asian artistic styles, and a famously spare score by the master composer Toru Takemitsu. A more Japanese film is hard to imagine, but Kobayashi, director of The Human Condition (1959-61) and Seppuku (1962), admitted his desire was to communicate a sense of the Japanese tradition to the rest of the world. Japanese audiences rejected Kaidan, probably for being too slow, pretentious, and not sensational enough. Part of me feels a certain sympathy. Kobayashi’s excellent visual storytelling renders unnecessary refrains in the narrative line that continually tell us the same thing twice, and the film’s episodes take their sweet time about getting to the point. But Kobayashi’s technique imbues his tales with a rhythmic, slowly uncoiling sense of dread: in each section, the domineering quiet and pregnant atmosphere holds the threat of grim portent before and after the moment of revelation, and never entirely disperses.

The first two stories explore the contracts by which men and women live together. Kurokami (“Black Hair”) is based on the same folk myth that Mizoguchi adapted in his Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and tells of a married samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who leaves his first wife (Michiyo Aratama) behind in poverty after his lord dies, ignoring her desperate pledge to ply her trade as a weaver even harder than she is now. He travels to take a position in the service of another lord. He prospers and marries the lord’s spoilt daughter (Misako Watanabe), and, soon disillusioned, begins to pine for his first wife. He finally packs in his post and returns to his old home, where he finds his wife seemingly unchanged, still labouring on her loom. They spend the night together. When he awakens in the morning, he finds he’s slept with a corpse; a spectral mane of black hair, like hers used to be, enfolds him and reduces him to an age-shattered husk before he can escape.

This episode makes for a stark, moody, almost subliminally disquieting opening, if arguably one hurt by the cheesy effects of Mikuni trying to escape the wrath of a wig. But Kobayashi stares at his characters with implacable coldness, discerning in Aratama’s intense performance a palpable desperation, and discovering in Watanabe’s simpering, smug smile an obnoxiousness that is confirmed when her lips part and reveal a maw full of rotten black teeth. Like so many ghost tales, it is about the immutable nature of loss and memory, here making biting commentary on the inability to regain what is thrown away in terms of a foolish man’s violence towards a generous wife, exchanging her for a woman who has a half-dozen people labour to bring her a bucket of water to cool her face. The finale is vicious in the reversal it represents: the first wife’s submissive self-sacrifice contains a contract of responsibility that transcends death. The gender roles cut both ways.

Yukionna (“The Woman of the Snow”), the second tale, was originally cut out of Western prints and sometimes shown as a short, but it’s the tightest, finest segment. It tells the story of a young woodcutter, Mi Nokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), who, with an older lumberjack, is caught in a blizzard. Unable to cross the river to get back to their village, they shelter in a ferryman’s boathouse. During the night, Nakadai awakens to see the elder having the life sucked out of him by a pale, stunningly beautiful spirit (Keiko Kishi), who moves to do the same to him. Impressed by his youth, however, she instead makes him promise never to speak of her, and departs. Nokichi is discovered near death the next day, and his mother (Yûko Mochizuki) nurses him back to health. Having recovered by summer, Nokichi encounters a young woman, Yuki (Kishi again), on the road; she claims to be an orphan travelling to Edo. She seems to fall swiftly for Nokichi, and marries him, eventually bearing him two children. One night, shaken in recognising the similarity of Yuki to the spirit, Nokichi dismisses it with a laugh and tells her about that encounter. But of course, Yuki is the spirit, and, outraged at his having broken his promise, which was a contract for life for “both of us,” only spares his life for the sake of their children. She returns into the snowy night leaving him with the threat to return and kill him if their children should ever have cause to complain about him. Now there’s a way to keep deadbeat dads in line.

Yukionna trembles with longing and regret, and Kobayashi’s stylisation is dazzling, but also subtle and intense. Under the motif of a painted sun that constantly evokes a relentless, watching eye, the forest world of the tale suffers under raw, lashing gales and a dreamy summer sun in which Nokichi and Yuki recline and make love, drawing out the sense of natural rhythms inherent in such folk myths. In one peerless shot, the woods about Nokichi’s hut quiver ever so slightly with a suggestion of a haunting presence, as the snowy cladding on the fir trees crumbles in misty veils. This second episode deepens the first’s anxiety over the complexities of male-female relations. Yuki’s state becomes a powerfully ominous avatar for the mystery any couple will find in each other, and the potential of denial and silence to destroy intimacy. The final image, of a pair of sandals Nokichi made for Yuki disappearing and leaving their imprint in the snow, is yearningly tragic.

Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi (“Hoichi the Earless”) is the blockbuster episode. Its hero, Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), is a blind biwa player and reciter of historical songs about the Heike clan, which was wiped out in a civil war in the 1100s. The tale begins with a Kabuki-on-the-backlot vision of the Heike’s defeat at sea, followed by the mass suicide of the clan’s women: it’s a perfervid riot of colour and action, glazed with the sorrowful mystery of history. Hoichi is so gifted a reciter that shortly after moving into a monastery close to where the Heikes’ ruined castle lies, the ghost of one of their generals (Tetsuro Tamba) comes to ask Hoichi to recite for his lord. Being blind, Hoichi doesn’t know that his audience are ghosts. Meanwhile, mysterious will o’ the wisps accompany sightings of the Heikes’ ghostly ships and the wrecking of fishing boats: the Heike are still vengeful in their haunting.

Once the abbot of the monastery (Takashi Shimura) learns this, he and another monk work to save Hoichi from being torn apart by the ghosts. They paint his body with holy texts to make him invisible to the spirits. They forget to cover his ears, however, which the general can still see when he comes to collect, and he tears them off Hoichi’s head. Hoichi survives and becomes famous and rich thanks to his story. “Hoichi” is the most visually dramatic tale, from its placidly threatening, shimmering seascapes to the full-bore genre chic of the Heike castle, where the ghosts casually morph from courtly hosts into their bloody post-battle states, and then into fog-wreathed grave markers. Although the episode is cumbersome and distended in points—having given us the tale of the battle in the beginning, Kobayashi labours the point in the middle—the screen positively bleeds colour and atmosphere in evoking Japanese Gothic.

If the first two episodes meditate on the way past corrodes present interactions of men and women, “Hoichi” takes the same idea on in a broader, more political and artistic fashion. The victims of someone else’s triumph, having staked their claim to immortality in honour by fearlessly meeting death, refuse to be forgotten, consuming the living when they stray into the ghostly realm. Hoichi himself is a strong metaphor for the dangers of the accomplished artist. His gift stirs up the dangers inherent in analysing the past, exhuming the suppressed memory. Hoichi’s sense of the past is far greater than his awareness of the present, hence his blindness; to become a truly great artist, he has to sacrifice more than he would want to.

The final chapter, “A Cup of Tea,” depicts a writer in 1900 (Osamu Takizawa, also the film’s narrator) composing the title story, about a samurai retainer named Kannai (Kanemon Nakamura) who sees a demonically mocking face in his cup of tea. Soon, the owner of the face, Shikibu Heinai (Noboru Nakaya), who seems to be a ghost, appears to Kannai, claiming to have some sort of unfinished business with him. Kannai doesn’t know him and strike down the shade, but the ghost disappears. Three agents of Shikibu come to present his challenge to Kannai, and Kannai lashes out at them. He seems to kill them, but they reappear. Kannai’s situation evokes a proto-Kafka sense of the mysteries of social hierarchies and roles. The vengeful spirit is, in essence, the ethic of honour and feudal responsibility affixing itself to Kannai just for the hell of it; the ethic demands victims, and no warrior’s skill can overcome it. As Kobayashi put it in 1968, regarding Séquences: “Men, in their actual civilisation, let their human aspects dim. They have lost their faculty of wondering and their ability to recognise the soul.”

The tale breaks off here, as the writer’s publisher and sister come to visit and find him gone, only his ghostly form beckoning from within a vat as Shikibu did from the tea cup. It’s a blackly humorous punchline, spun from the fact the story was never completed. It doesn’t really promote the story from being a concluding scrap, but it does bring the motif of telling stories to a terminus, as tale consumes teller. It also halts the film’s cultural memory at the edge of the modern world in which the folk-myth is fading yet still asserting a binding spell. Although the film is largely specific in its cultural resonance, it fits into the genre of its period as well. The paint-in-water imagery of the title sequences present an interesting accord with the similar effects used in Roger Corman’s pop-arty Poe adaptations, and the generic reflexes in “Black Hair” resemble Corman’s explication of similarly morbid tales like “Morella” (in Tales of Terror, 1963) and the pseudo-Poe of The Terror (1963).

The lustrous colour compositions place it in the company of Bava and others in the new vitality their embrace of colour gave to the gothic genre, pushing on to almost experimental extremes. The large budget and high grade of technical proficiency gives it a unique edge where it lacks concision in form. That Kobayashi stresses such a restrained, attentive style both sustains tension and draws out the latent themes with care: Kaidan seizes on the both the analytical relevance and the irreducible poetry of the tradition it invokes. Despite the longeurs, it provides one of the richest, most entrancing cinema experiences around.

1960s, Foreign, Japanese cinema, Thriller

Branded to Kill (1967)


Koroshi no rakuin

Director: Suzuki Seijun

By Roderick Heath

Seijun Suzuki, who kept making films into his 80s, helmed a mind-numbing 39 movies between 1956 and 1967 as a stable director of Nikkatsu Studios. During that stint, the independent-minded director became fed up with formula films and began expanding, perverting, and subverting the gangland drama, a personal crusade that reached its apogee in Branded to Kill. That film drifted so far away from the script and the requirements of the studio, Suzuki was sacked and could not get work outside of television for a decade afterwards. Branded to Kill is utterly original and utterly strange – and as we all know, there’s no strange quite like Japanese strange. Suzuki’s film is a crossbreed of genre yarn with Kafka, Orson Welles, Euro-art cinema, and the Japanese underground aesthetic. The arty existential assassin flick has been done to death over the past half-century, with entries from Jean-Pierre Melville and John Boorman to Beat Takeshi and Jim Jarmusch. Branded to Kill is particularly reminiscent of Boorman’s own 1967 picture Point Blank, but it’s more ferocious, more stylish, more sexy, more insane, more…more, than any rivals. Other aspects recall the Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner, also from 1967.

Branded to Kill is, amongst other things, a perfect exemplar of 1960s Japanese cool, with omnipresent stovepipe suits, dark sunglasses, crisp black-and-white in a widest-of-wide frame, a blearily expressionist jazz score by Naozumi Yamamoto, and the sheer never-in-Hollywood boldness of it. It’s a blinding genre trash job that drags the gangster film into a surreal and cruel netherworld punctuated by startling sexuality and violence, as well as presenting a no-holds-barred savaging of the corporate-ladder existence at the high point of its near-religious grip on postwar Japanese society, leaving even Kurosawa’s cynical The Bad Sleep Well (1961) in its wake. Penetrating Suzuki’s plot is initially a tall order, as the film’s visual narrative is sliced into cubist hunks. A shadowy organisation of assassins ranks its members according to prowess.

The current No. 3, Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido), arrives back in Tokyo with his wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) and is driven from the airport by Kasuga (Hiroshi Minami), another assassin who’s slipped far down the totem pole and is trying to get back in the game. He invites Hanada in on a job he’s been given by crime boss Yabuhara (Isao Tanagawa) to pick up a man who’s sneaking into the country and shuttle him to Nagano. On the way, they’re tracked by other top assassins hired to keep Hanada and Kasuga from getting their charge to his destination. In a battle within the grounds of a deserted building, Kasuga’s drunkenness sees him make a fool of himself, much to Hanada’s disgust, so Kasuga hysterically charges at No. 4, Koh, and the two men kill each other. Hanada then has to fight through another ambush on his own, this time taking out the No. 2 man before finally, and in underwhelming anticlimax, dropping his man at his rendezvous in a motel car park.

Returning to Tokyo, Hanada’s car breaks down, and he gets a lift with a young woman, Misako (Anne Mari), who claims to hate men. Holing up in his bleakly modern apartment, Hanada indulges in bestial relations with Mami and his own fetish for the smell of cooking rice, but continues to think about Misako. He’s hired by Yabuhara to kill several more men, and then Misako asks him to kill a western agent (Franz Gruber). But a butterfly landing in front of his rifle scope causes him to miss and kill an innocent woman instead, a foul-up that will spell his doom in the assassin’s ranks. But it’s at home that Hanada is shot by an apparently jealous Mami and left to die in their burning apartment. But he’s not fatally wounded, and he stumbles bleeding to Misako’s place.

Hanada and Misako ensnare each other in erotically charged but aggressive, inchoate trysts. When he has recovered from his wounds, Hanada locates Mami at Yabuhara’s place. She’s been having an affair with Yabuhara and was ordered to kill her husband. Mami spills the beans before Hanada shoots her: both the assassinations Yabuhara had him commit and the one Misako hired him for are linked in an effort to stem the damage that’s been done to a diamond smuggling scheme by rogue operators. Yabuhara is shot by another killer before Hanada can take care of him, and Misako is snatched; a film left playing on a projector in the apartment shows footage of Misako being tortured for not killing Hanada. A voice on the film challenges Hanada to come and do battle with some other assassins. Hanada ventures into battle and defeats all five enemies, only to be confronted by his real enemy, No. 1 (Koji Nambara), the man he took to Nagano, who plans to grind down and destroy his last rival just for the hell of it.

Summarizing the plot can only partly communicate how all this unfolds in Suzuki’s fractured, oblique, intensely fetishist sequences. The Byzantine world of intrigue and insensible relations of power and lust is reflected in the style, all acute dividing angles shot in deep focus with mysterious nooks of the frame. Branded to Kill is fundamentally the drama of a man who assumes himself to be a man of power and certainty and discovers he’s anything but. The story follows the ritualised structure of so much Asian genre cinema that has the hero confronting an escalating series of professional and physical challenges from his opponents, and yet Suzuki’s film also eats away at the cliché of the arch-professional lone warrior. Unlike, for instance, Itto Ogami of the Lone Wolf and Cub series or, indeed, Melville’s Le Samourai or Walker of Point Blank, Hanada is not ennobled by an awesome ascetic stoicism. He begins the film icy cool, sneering in disdain at Kasuga’s incompetence, and is steadily reduced to a shambling, despairing wreck. The causes of his steady disintegration are laid out by Kasuga, whose degeneration he blames on loneliness, leading to women and drink, the two great pitfalls of the profession: soon Hanada gives in to one and then the other.

The narrative is suspended by Hanada’s three fraught, intimate relationships with Mami, Misako, and No. 1. Mami’s animalistic sexual encounters with her husband seem to reflect her inner certainty that “we’re all beasts,” a theory the film bears out. When Hanada shoots her through the head, her blood swirls in the flushing toilet over which her head hangs; later, the same image returns in a moment of pure madness in a restaurant washroom when Hanada’s equilibrium has been almost completely destroyed by No. 1. The narrative sustains a series of reversals. Mami’s veneer of chic conceals raw, masochistic carnality. The ethereal, misanthropic, almost ghostly Misako surrounded by images of gothic fetidness (dead birds, butterflies, soil, leaves, and most constantly, water) becomes an icon of selfless love, tortured almost to death without losing her faintly satisfied smile. And Hanada’s uber masculinity is so deeply undermined that he’s reduced to walking around in one of Misako’s midriff-baring tops and strolling arm-in-arm with No. 1 (the only way they can be sure the other can’t get away or get hold of a weapon).

Misako, the ultimate femme fatale, seems as much an angel of death as the Snow Witch in Kwaidan and is the butterfly that blinds Hanada’s perfect aim. But she’s also associated with the decayed remnants of a natural world that has otherwise been entirely exiled from the world of apartment buildings and ruined institutional monstrosities. When he’s in a particularly dire place, Hanada showers dead humus on his head, weeping for Misako, desperate for some return to that natural world. When Hanada meets Misako, she’s driving in the rain with her convertible open to the elements, utterly soaked. When she comes to his apartment, Mami becomes upset, so Hanada throws the naked Mami out into the rain where she claws despairingly at the window, as electric an image as any in the cinema of illogical emotion. The tables are turned as Hanada’s increasingly hysterical, unwound machismo grapples with the impossibility of penetrating Misako’s psyche.

As a pervert and a thug, Hanada is hardly a figure fit for heroic identification. And yet his situation compels in the urgency of his attempts to avoid being consumed. Hitman films usually are commentaries on the relationship between the individual and conformity. Branded to Kill makes the observation that to be a perfect killer is to essentially lose individuality and become a force of total nihilism: the compromise of the human existence, and the pleasures of that existence, is to accept weakness. The relentless striving to reach the top, to triumph in this rattiest of rat races, is skewered. The actual point to the business—the diamond-smuggling concern—is far less important than the mutual use and abuse of human beings.

Hanada is at the mercy of a hierarchical designation that seems almost deistically ordained. His struggle is with pure fate as much as it is with a concrete opponent. Fate ruins Hanada when the butterfly ruins his shot, and No 1 will unquestionably kill Hanada and destroy him mentally before doing it physically. Or at least that’s what No 1 thinks: Hanada eventually resolves to try and outwit No .1 and claim that post for himself. That he succeeds, but destroys himself and Misako at the same time, confirms that Hanada is good, but not quite good enough: to become No. 1 is to become a force of pure nihilism. This is a philosophical statement, but also a vicious joke on the desire to climb that corporate ladder, leading to the ultimate version of the cliché that it’s lonely at the top. Although Hanada finally beats No. 1, he’s still reduced to dancing around as bullets whiz about him, just like Kasuga, and the competition finally lays everything waste.

Parsing the substance of Branded to Kill is secondary nonetheless to simply absorbing its delirious visuals. Suzuki stages some excellent, uniquely terse action sequences, especially in Hanada’s battle on the breakwater pier, where he uses a pulley to drag his car over him as a shield that allows him to get close enough to take out his enemies. Other, more humdrum sequences are just as inventive. When Hanada and Kasuga believe they’re being followed, they pull over suddenly, and the pursuing car passes them by. Suzuki cuts to close-ups of clapping hands and laughing mouths accompanied by blaring music to indicate it’s just a car full of rowdy teens in a fusion of unique visual technique and aural cues. Another is the scene where Mami scratches on the glass in the rain, her fingernails squeaking excruciatingly to her face is a mask of pure woe. The only real clanger in the film is an overwrought moment where Hanada drifts in a delirium while being assaulted by animated butterflies. Suzuki’s direction is aided immeasurably by Kazue Nagatsuka’s startling, deep-focus cinematography by which even the smallest aspect in a frame can become a point of necessary attention. The film’s sound effects deserve accolades, too, and the way Suzuki uses imposing edifices and ruins to emphasise labyrinthine mystery in a genuinely dreamlike realm.

Branded to Kill is one of the best films of the ’60s.

1940s, Famous Firsts, Foreign, Japanese cinema

Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

aka Judo Story


Director/Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa

By Roderick Heath

Before he made Sanshiro Sugata, Akira Kurosawa worked for years as an assistant director and screenwriter. He worked on several projects where, he later reported, he had been left to his own devices in getting them completed. We could consider that he essentially directed these films—including Uma (1941)—himself. Nevertheless, Sanshiro Sugata was the first completed feature film to carry the credit “Directed by Akira Kurosawa.” Sanshiro Sugata has a compact energy and sense of form that establishes a cinematic intelligence far above the ordinary. It portrays, in an immature and limited fashion, the images, ideas, and emotions that will recur in complex and nuanced ways throughout Kurosawa’s career. Released when WWII was still raging, it was edited by nearly 20 minutes after the occupation, and the excised sequences only exist in very ragged form. Based on a popular novel by Tsuneo Tomita that would have a half-dozen other adaptations in the next 50 years, Sanshiro Sugata feels like a foundation text not just for Kurosawa’s career, but also for the whole genre of Asian martial arts movies. You know the drill—impulsive student learns from stern master how to master himself, as the means by which he transcends from try-hard to great warrior. A vast swathe of genre filmmaking, from Star Wars to The Karate Kid, owes a big something to this film.


The film is set in the 1890s. Sanshiro, embodied by the appealingly average-looking Susumu Fujita, wants to become a martial arts master. He comes to the seedy Jujutsu school run by Monma, who lounges about with his indolent, aggressive students, incensed by the rumored superiority of the new fighting style of Shudokan Judo practised by Sensei Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi). Monma leads his students to attack Yano on the street. Cornering him on the bank of the canal, the students all end up pitched into the water, and Monma finishes up pinioned and ashamed. Worshipful of a new hero, Sanshiro volunteers to wheel Yano to his school in a deserted rickshaw.


Time passes, and we rediscover Sanshiro showing off his new Judo skills, beating up street toughs and Sumo wrestlers. Yano is angry at this thuggish display, Sanshiro, now shamed, throws himself into the muddy pond next to Yano’s house, angrily declaring his intention to die. “Go ahead and die, then!” Yano shouts. Sanshiro spends the rest of the night clinging to a rotten stake in the centre of the pond, where, in studying a flower, he realises the fragile nature of human existence and essence of a transcendental world-view, which gives him the self-insight to abase himself before Yano.

That’s the kind of pseudo-mystic jive we’re so familiar with in the genre and that Kurosawa portrays vividly, even though it’s cornball. Kurosawa would entirely toss out such claptrap from his later films. Kurosawa’s heroes usually have utterly corporeal talents, mixed with large dashes of guile; they generally prevail against enemies because they’re smarter. More typical of Kurosawa is the subsequent development of Sanshiro becoming a great, but reluctant warrior. When he is let back in from the cold of Yano’s displeasure, he is chosen to fight in an exhibition match between his school and Monma’s, with future employment in training police officers at stake. He throws Monma against a wall, killing him and causing Monma’s daughter to attempt to stab him later. Such prowess attracts the dour attention of the Ryoi Shinto School, in the shape of star student Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), a dapper, gimlet-eyed gent who, as one student says, resembles a large snake. Higaki is eager to fight Sanshiro. But Sanshiro’s next fight is to be against Higaki’s sensei, the recovering alcoholic Murai, played by an actor who would become one of Kurosawa’s fondest faces, Takashi Shimura. Standing amidst this fraught trio is Murai’s pious daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), scared of the obnoxiously attentive Higaki, protective of her dissolute father, and attracted to Sanshiro. Sanshiro is tortured by the idea that he might kill Murai.

It’s here that the film’s only note of wartime propaganda is struck, when the school’s priest (Kokuten Kodo) admonishes Sanshiro for his reluctance, reminding him that his duty to the school demands he fight Murai and that this will be a truly selfless act. This “duty, right or wrong” moment conflicts with the texture of the film and with Kurosawa’s oeuvre, but then he only made Sanshiro Sugata after having several projects knocked back by the wartime censors. Sanshiro is, however, one of Kurosawa’s familiar, conscientious, all-too-human heroes. In combat with Murai, Sanshiro is nearly brought down by the elder sensei’s skill, but finally he gains the upper hand, the valiant older man rising agonisingly to his feet repeatedly only to suffer another violent toss, before conceding.


But Murai doesn’t die. As he recovers, he gets Sayo to invite Sanshiro to their house, and Sanshiro becomes a friend. When Higaki finds him at their house, he promptly challenges Sanshiro to a duel to the death. Their confrontation is staged on a reed-clad hillside during a strong windstorm. Higaki nearly topples Sanshiro, but Sanshiro, remembering the flower (flower power!), resurges and defeats Higaki. A brief coda follows, where Yano and the priest discuss the fact that Higaki has reformed and forgiven Sanshiro, and that Sanshiro has decided to travel. On the train leaving town, Sanshiro promises Sayo that he will return.

Although the story of Sanshiro Sugata is generic and familiar, it’s a vivid experience—swift and entertaining. Many debut films suffer from imbalance as budding directorial talents test out their ideas without much thought for the overall texture of the film, but Kurosawa barely puts a foot wrong. As in his later work, his close-ups are carefully thought out and sparingly employed. Perhaps the most memorable shot in the film is of Munmo’s daughter, having just seen her father die, staring implacably at the camera, her grief and madness registering as the tiniest muscular twitches. Kurosawa’s background as a landscape painter is always apparent in the way he frames his actors in relationship to the environment, interested not just in their faces but in the behaviour of their whole bodies. The core action scenes are developed in a continuum of intensity. The poise of his camera makes Yano’s early victory over Munmo’s jujutsu brats look effortless; to Sanshiro’s eye, there is no indication of the draining physical and spiritual force required. Later, Sanshiro’s fight with Murai is filled with close-ups of their sweating brows as they engage in a deathly dance, each balanced on a knife-edge between defeat and loss. Finally, when Sanshiro and Higaki battle, the whole earth seems to explode into fractious elements.

Kurosawa’s intense, almost pantheistic relationship to nature as a reflector and counterbalance to humanity is strikingly nascent. As he would do so often later, atmospheric touches overtly or subtly set the tone of scenes—from the insects incessantly chirping in the background when Yano castigates Sanshiro, to the breeze that underscores the hollow-hearted, alien Higaki’s entry into Murai’s house, and finally, to the epic winds and racing clouds of the final elemental clash of the two men—not between good and evil, exactly, but between the humbled, humane, and responsible, and the dictatorial, arrogant, and grasping.


Kurosawa would rarely offer hissable villains like Higaki. His villains tend to be either foolish, or so collectively ill-defined as to be nearly abstract symbols of tribulation, or shaded reflections of the heroes. Higaki is the man in himself Sanshiro has defeated. Higaki’s introduction is so utterly splendid—his umbrella handle enters the film before him, tapping Sanshiro’s shoulder—that his eventual unmasking as a cardboard-thin opponent emphasises the limitations of straight genre for Kurosawa’s strength of style. It’s another possible indicator of when it was made that Higaki dresses like an English gentleman, complete with bowler hat, where Sanshiro wears traditional dress.


In many regards the later film that best displays Kurosawa’s growth from this point is Sanjuro (1965), one his few straight genre films of later years, a funnier, but also angrier film than Sanshiro Sugata. Toshiro Mifune’s title character and Tatsuya Nakadai’s villain represent a similar conflict, virtually separate to the rest of the plot—that of men who see too much of themselves in each other. Mifune’s victory releases not joy, but a sickening welter of blood and the ronin’s self-disgust and disavowal of a violent path. Such dark duality is also a consistent motif, particularly in female characters, clearly present here in the mirror of Munmo’s burning-eyed daughter and Sayo, and Sanshiro’s fear that he will turn one into the other if he kills her father, too.

Kurosawa’s distrust of violence—concurrent with his fascination with it—and love of humanity is ultimately confirmed by the sentiment of Sanshiro and Murai’s friendship and Higaki’s late alteration. Sanshiro is defined as much as the Seven Samurai by his learned determination to use his gifts to fight for a value, and for other people, rather than for self-aggrandisement. And it work for Sanshiro, as he apparently converts Higaki. Although naïve, it’s still a fascinating message for a Japanese film of 1943.

All of that said, there isn’t much more of the dramatic and character richness of Kurosawa’s later work. Sayo is a regulation, radiantly submissive female far from the pithy heroines of The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro, although it might be fair to say she anticipates the cosmically forgiving Lady Sué of Ran. Yano is a stock, wise Yoda figure. Higaki a bad guy for barely any more reason than the fact that he acts creepy.

More superficially, familiar stylistic flourishes are present. When Sanshiro is showing off on the streets, Kurosawa likewise shows off, with a series of mirroring crane shots descending down to the street level, showing crowds back away from the attacking Sanshiro as he races forward and picks out men to beat up. This kind of physical-force camera work would later have a profound effect on directors like Godard and Scorsese; likewise, his small dash of slow motion—when Munmo dies, a panel falls like a gentle petal from the wall onto the dead man’s back. Like the device’s similar use in the early stages of The Seven Samurai, it emphasises a sudden, sad realisation of the nature of death in what has been, up until now, a game. Sanshiro Sugata is a truly enlightening sketch of so much that was to come.


1950s, 1960s, Foreign, Japanese cinema

The Hidden Fortress (1958) / Red Beard (1965)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

By Roderick Heath

There’s always a slight aesthetic shock in watching a Kurosawa film. His films, even entertainments like The Hidden Fortress, are so sensually alive, so hard, so unpretty but beautiful, that you practically smell the blossoms, the rancid flesh, the fresh blood, the horse dung. They look, feel, sound so modern compared with Hollywood films of the time. The Hidden Fortress, a comedy-action epic made as a favor to Toho Studios for taking so many risks for him, is in some ways the ultimate Kurosawa film if you think of him as a director of hugely entertaining samurai epics. It treats playfully themes that Kurosawa could turn into the grimmest of anatomizations of human nature.

The world in The Hidden Fortress has fallen apart. Without preliminaries, we’re thrown in with Taihei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakichi (Kanutari Fujiwara), a pair fit for Beckett, two peasants walking and bickering in a desolate plain. Having sold their farms to buy arms and make a fortune plundering as members of the army of the Akizuki clan, Taihei and Matakishi were captured following a great battle the Akizukis lost to the rival Yanama clan. They escape and reach the border to their own peaceful province of Hayakawa, only to find it guarded by Yanama troops. Taihei and Matakishi are swiftly recaptured and are put to work digging with thousands of filthy, starving prisoners, in the ruins of the Akizuki’s castle by Yanama troops to find a buried store of gold. There’s a revolt, a slaughter of rioters, and Taihei and Matakishi escape again. Wandering in the wilderness, they accidentally discover a piece of gold hidden in a dead tree branch. Frantically smashing every branch they find, Taihei and Matakishi encounter a mysterious, ferocious-looking man (Toshiro Mifune) who they take to be a bandit. The stranger claims to have the rest of the gold and offers them a share if they can find a way to get it to Hayakawa. Taihei and Matakishi already have a plan for that; they’ll go through Yanama province itself, thus skirting most of the enemy army. This idea tickles the stranger, who gives his name as Rokoruta Makabe. Taihei and Matakishi are incredulous, as Rokoruta is a great general.

Mifune, of course, really is the general, charged with transporting the clan’s fortune and its surviving heir, Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), from their hideaway in the mountains to the safety of Hayakawa. There’s a tragic tension between Rokurota and Yuki; Rokoruta’s sister surrendered herself, claiming to be Yuki, and was beheaded. The ferociously proud, tomboyish Yuki weeps angrily for this, as Rokoruta maintains calm for the dangerous mission ahead. Soon, Yuki and Rokoruta depart, accompanied by the peasant pair. On the road, they battle enemy soldiers, slip through checkpoints, and, at Yuki’s insistence, rescue a girl who has been taken from a former Akizuki farm and bought as a sex slave. The girl repays Yuki’s kindness by fending off Taihei’s and Matakishi’s attempts to ravish the sleeping princess, making these awesome losers cower as she threatens them with a log.

The Hidden Fortress was cited by George Lucas as the basis of Star Wars—chiefly in the way the story unfolds through the eyes of two comic characters. But the whole narrative, from its in medias res opening on, shows Kurosawa’s strong influence. Rokoruta recalls both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in his protective, dutiful, love-hate relationship with Yuki. There’s also the germ of everyone’s favorite bad guy when, on the road, Rokoruta encounters and duels with an old friend, Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who commands troops for Yanama. Tadokoro is defeated in the duel, but Rokoruta does not kill him. When Tadokoro turns up later, he’s been scarred across the face as punishment by the Yanama lord for losing. In the end, Yuki, claiming to have had the only good time and true life experience she’s ever had, calls the Yanama lord idiotic for treating any loyal subject, even a loser, in such a way. This act convinces Tadokoro of her essential greatness, and he saves them in the finale. Right there are many aspects of Darth Vader’s character arc. Of course, things end happily, and even Taihei and Matakishi get a reward and a measure of self-respect.

The gritty, grotesque detail that enlivens The Hidden Fortress’s texture and makes it more than a fairy tale, its pungent physicality, the opposition and intertwining of nobility and depravity, the belief in humans even when they act wretchedly, and the powerful effect displays of kindness, heroism, and decency from individuals can have on others, are also found in Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965). Red Beard was, unhappily, Kurosawa’s last film with Toshiro Mifune, who was succumbing around this time to the twin evils of alcohol and international movie-making. Mifune was the consummate star actor on whom Kurosawa could hang most any narrative because he was able to play such a wide variety of riveting variations even on the simplest heroic figure. Red Beard is one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, but one of his least appreciated. As epic as The Seven Samurai, as humanistic as Ikiru, as troubling as Rashomon, it displays all of Kurosawa’s disparate qualities working in harmony. Like many a great artist of an older breed–Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky—Kurosawa maintains uncanny balance between an unflinching, almost despairing view of humanity as well as a warmly lucid trust.

“Red Beard” is, properly, Dr. Kyujio Niide (Mifune); the nickname describes his face and excuses people from pronouncing his difficult name. He runs a state-funded clinic for the poor in late Tokugawa-era Japan, where small scraps of foreign knowledge, like Dutch medical texts, are prized. Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) has studied these at medical school in Nagasaki. He wants to put this knowledge to lucrative use by becoming the Shogun’s personal physician. He’s young, arrogant, angry over being jilted by the daughter of his mentor, who has sent him along to work at Niide’s clinic. Noboru is convinced Niide has sent him away to bury him professionally and to filch his medical knowledge. The clinic is a humming hive of activity, crammed with the dying and desperate, staffed by dedicated but unsentimental (and unsentimentalized) people—doctors who aren’t good enough to work elsewhere, overtaxed nursesm the worker women who keep the place going. Niide himself treats rich men for big fees to put toward the clinic, and is not above using the knowledge he fishes for to blackmail officials when necessary.

Red Beard is, in structure, a series of vignettes displaying the human and spiritual growth of Yasumoto, who initially refuses to work or wear the clinic’s uniform. He is rudely introduced to the savage side of life by a mad woman (Kyoko Kagawa) who lives in a house separate to the clinic, cared for by a private nurse. The woman is a fascinating sexual mystery to the men in the clinic; young and beautiful, she has been placed there after seducing three of her merchant father’s clerks and then stabbing them to death with a hairpin. One night she escapes from her house and comes across Yasumoto lying indolently in his chamber. This discovery is accompanied by the sound of gusting wind that here, and in other Kurosawa films acts, as leitmotif evoking a plain of spiritual despair. She talks of how she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her father’s clerks before she began turning the tables. Yasumoto is sympathetic, but suddenly she attempts to kill him in a scene horribly erotic and hypnotically violent. Niide rescues him, and when Yasumoto recovers, Niide asks him to watch over the slow, agonising death of , Rokosuke, a poverty-stricken man dying aloneof tuberculosis who was reputed to be an artisan. Yasumoto is called from this wretched scene to aid Niide in operating on an injured female agricultural worker. In a stunningly filmed and edited scene, Niide, Yasumotom and another assistant struggle to hold the woman’s sweating, bucking, bloody body still long enough to sew her gashed belly up.

This would be an intimidating day’s work for most professionals. Two vignettes outline for Yasumoto that behind every one of their poor, anonymous patients, there is a story, quite often tragic. For example, Rokosuke’s daughter turns up with three starving children in tow, and explains her sad, warped life. Niide performs a judicious act of blackmail to get her government assistance. Another vignette involves Sahachi (Tsutomo Yamazaki), beloved of other patients because he performs their chores and gives away his food. “He’s my idea of Buddha!” one declares when Sahachi falls deathly ill. On his deathbed, Sahachi tells Yasumoto he ought to wear the uniform so people can tell he’s from the clinic. When a landslide reveals buried bones under Sahachi’s hut, Sahachi explains they belonged to his wife; many years before, she had married him though she considered herself beholden to a rich man who had helped her poor family. She took an opportunity when an earthquake struck their town to disappear, but eventually Sahachi met her on the street; she had married the rich man. Returning to Sahachi in the middle of the night, she committed guilty seppuku by holding a blade secretly to her belly; when he came to embrace her, the blade slid home. Sahachi dies in peace, and Yasumoto begins wearing the clinic uniform.

Yasumoto and Niide go for a check-up visit to the local brothel, they find a girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), who was raised there by the vicious Madam and now finds the Madam is trying to sell her virginity. She’s so traumatised, all she can do is feverishly scrub the floor. When Niide announces his intention to take the girl to the clinic, the Madam calls the bouncers to stop him. Niide, in a cheer-along scene, uses his surgeon’s skill and knowledge of anatomy and judo expertise to snap wrists, arms, legs and knees, leaving a dozen tough guys in painfully hilarious contortions. Yasumoto takes on the job of rehabilitating Otoyo from a near-catatonic wreck, putting up with the provocations she provides is her expectation that his nice treatment will be supplanted by violent punishment. Yasumoto collapses exhausted and ill after many days of this rough treatment. The clinic’s serving women try to take Otoyo in hand, but find her so ungrateful and frustrating that they want nothing to do with her. However, Yasumoto finds when he recovers sufficiently to follow her around that Otoyo begs all day to get money to replace a vase she smashed, and later she tries to aid and adopt a boy, Chobo (Yoshitaka Zuki), whose own family is poverty-stricken.

It’s hard to do justice to the richness of plot and character in Red Beard. Suffice to say Yasumoto is converted to the creed of Niide. This was a powerful theme of Kurosawa’s, the master-pupil relationship between the young and worldly and the elder, the wise, the hero, the visionary. This underpins The Seven Samurai and is inverted in Sanjuro (1962), where Mifune’s title character angrily disdains his young cronies’ hero worship after he had committed an act of bloody slaughter. Sanjuro, though a funny entertainment, comments intriguingly on the problems of hero worship. “Red Beard” Niide also warns Yasumoto about following in his footsteps. Look, he says, I blackmail, I do favours for despicable men, I fight every day. But Niide is, in the end, a true hero, and Yasumoto knows it.

The brothel Madam is one of the few outright villains to ever appear in Kurosawa. Usually his villains are either massed, undifferentiated—the bandits in The Seven Samurai—or comic, like the corrupt officials in Sanjuro, or shaded opposites of the hero, like The Hidden Fortress’s Tadokoro or Sanjuro’s Hanbei Muroto (Tatsuyo Nakadai). The forces of entropy in Red Beard are undeniable. There are always illnesses that cannot be cured, deaths that cannot be avoided, tragedies that can’t be helped, people who are beyond redemption. Dedicating yourself to fighting against them means constantly communing with these ugly facts. Beneath the humanism of Red Beard is a conviction that humanity is doomed to darkness and savagery unless people like Niide lead and Yasumoto follow. l