January 28, 2009

Red Beard

1965 film. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni. Based on the novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, and the novel THE INSULTED AND THE INJURED by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Related Reviews:

Noboru Yasumoto is a bit of a prick. A hot young doctor who just finished studying European styles of medicine, he thinks he's been sent to Edo to be the new physician for the local Shogunate. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself at a rundown old clinic that caters to the poor ... for free!

I'm sure you can see where this goes. Yasumoto starts out snide and uncaring, but a series of circumstances bring him to realize his gifts can benefit all of humanity. It's a classic hero's journey and Kurosawa never once strays from the well-worn path, but his execution is just so sharp that it almost feels new.

Yuzo Kayama is wonderful in the lead role. As Yasumoto initially rebels by refusing to treat patients or don the standard uniform, Kayama keeps us from hating the character by playing up his suspicions when the head of the clinic constantly asks to see his notes. They are filled with new, special medical knowledge, skills he payed and trained hard to learn. It's understandable that he would see this as some plot to rob him of that info. But then he inevitable gets put in his place when, as he finds himself unable to watch an old man die, or passes out in the midst of a violent surgery, Yasumoto learns that all his knowledge is nothing without experience in the field.

It's a bit strange to see Toshiro Mifune take a supporting role in his last film with Kurosawa (especially in a part that would have typically been played by veteran actor Takashi Shimura), but he's wonderful as Kyojo Niide, the head of the clinic who's often nicknamed Red Beard because ... well, because he has a thick reddish beard. He initially seems like a stern, tyrannical taskmaster, but there's a kindness to his method that slowly draws the unwilling into acceptance. Even Yasumoto.

The first half of the film is the basic mentor/pupil story as Yasumoto earns his education. Through the various episodes of patient after patient, he not only goes through a series of lessons, but we get wonderful glimpses into a world familiar to Kurosawa fans: a time when bloated, constipated bureaucrats do nothing but consume while people work and toil for an uncertain future and children beg or steal for food.

The second half takes a sudden twist as Red Beard drops into the background so Yasumoto can take on his first full-time patient. Borrowing heavily from the Nellie subplot in Dostoevsky's The Insulted and the Injured, sometimes adapting the material almost word for word, Yasumoto finds a 12-year-old girl (skilfully played by young Terumi Niki) trapped in a brothel, frees her, and sets about doing his best to repair both her physical and emotional damage. Just as in the book, it's a beautiful story where the two sometimes switch roles in terms of who's taking care of who as both use one another to support their own broken hearts. The novel threw in an extra, unnecessary twist that spoiled the whole thing for me, but Kurosawa writes that bit out and allows the characters to grow in ways Dostoevsky was too pessimistic to allow.

I'm not sure how the rest of the story lives up to Yamamoto's original novel, as I couldn't find an English translation, but I don't doubt that Kurosawa has made it his own, as he has time and time again. Though the film runs just over three hours in length, there was never a moment where I wasn't captivated by this story, these characters, this world. There is a bit of a shadow over the picture, yes, what with it marking the end of a remarkable era in Kurosawa's work, but I couldn't imagine that time ending on a richer note than this.


For more information about this film, check out its IMDB and Wikipedia pages. It can be purchased as a special edition DVD, or as a bare-bones DVD in a boxset of 25 Kurosawa films.

January 21, 2009

The Insulted and the Injured

1861 novel
written by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A few years ago, young Ivan "Vanya" Petrovich published his first novel, which was quite a rousing success. In the time since, he's been struggling to piece together what he can of a followup as he finds his attentions constantly drawn elsewhere. You see, he's desperately in love with his childhood sweetheart Natasha Nikolayevna, but her parents are uncertain about the financial future of a novelist, so they convince the two to hold off their marriage until Vanya is a bit more stable. During that break, Natasha meets and falls for Alyosha, the kind yet flighty son of a wealthy Prince. Vanya, desiring Natasha's happiness above all else, finds himself the supporting player to the unfolding affair between the passionate woman, the apologetically unfaithful new man in her life, and their respective parents who are in the midst of a harsh economic feud.

I know all of this sounds a bit melodramatic and bland, but I was surprised at the energetic humor Dostoevsky layers throughout the material as our hapless young hero, Vanya, finds himself yanked every which way. At first, he's a bit unsympathetic and weak and you just want to smack the dude and tell him to stand up for himself, but there's a clever twist part way through were we realize he's far more perceptive than the rest and sees a wicked crash in their future that he's trying to blanket them all for.

So, yes, it really is quite an interesting read, but the most gripping part of the story is a largely unrelated subplot. Vanya's apartment once belonged to an old man our hero used to observe, who would walk into the same restaurant every night, a mangy dog at his side, and just sit and stare before leaving. When an incident leads to that man dying in the author's arms, Vanya can't help but start wondering at the mystery of this man's life. Hence, he rents the dude's apartment and starts going through his stuff.

Yeah, yeah, it all sounds a bit creepy, but Dostoevsky gives Vanya enough innocence to make it work. Especially when, one day, a 13-year-old girl named Nellie walks through his front door and asks where her grandfather is. After a few clipped meetings that all end with Nellie running away, Vanya tracks her to a filthy boarding house where the girl is forced into prostitution to repay her late mother's debts. Vanya is just as horrified at this revelation as we are and uses some friends with underworld connections to free the girl into his care ... only to find himself stuck in a cramped apartment with a tragically damaged girl he knows next to nothing about.

Right there, in the scenes between these two, are where the true depths of the novel lie as they find themselves in a relationship that's innocent yet uncomfortable, childish yet complex. Sadly, Dostoevsky somewhat fumbles around, introduces an out-of-left-field fatal illness, and never pays off half of what he sets up.

In fact, much of the novel suffers from coincidence, the chance meetings of random people who nonetheless are revealed to have ridiculous connections, not the least of which is a paternity issue raised in the final chapter that's meant to be shocking, but I dismissed it early on as a possibility because it was just too contrived. And Dostoevsky didn't prove me wrong.

I don't have enough experience with Dostoevsky to say where this fits into his larger body of work, but I see it was the first novel written after a long, painful exile that included time in a labor camp and an execution that turned out to be a horrendous practical joke. By the time THE IDIOT came around eight years after this, he was much deeper and tighter as an author, so I'm guessing most of the problems here are just signs of inexperience which would smooth out down the road.

And, problematic as it can be at times, with plotting that does occasionally stretch credibility, it is an interesting read filled with colorful, human characters, some damned compelling relationships, and wonderful insights into a time where death was all-too-common and no-one was a mere phone call away.


(my review of the 1965 film adaptation, RED BEARD)

January 7, 2009

High and Low

1963 film. Aka HEAVEN AND HELL. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni. Based on the novel 87TH PRECINCT: KING'S RANSOM by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter).

Related Reviews:
- The 1959 novel 87TH PRECINCT: KING'S RANSOM.

In a bold move to surpass his rivals at National Shoes, executive Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) mortgages off everything he owns so he can control enough stock to name himself president, thus preventing the company from selling out and producing cheap knock-offs. Just as he writes out the check for the final deal, he gets a call. His son has been kidnapped. The ransom is more than enough to financially destroy his future, but he'll pay it. He has to. This is his child, after all.

But then his boy walks into the room and everyone realizes that the wrong kid, the son of Gondo's lowly chauffeur, has been snatched by mistake and the certainty of whether or not the executive will ruin himself for the life of another man's child is up in the air.

I'll be honest, I had my concerns about the film right up front. While it initially follows the novel quite closely, there's a sudden change that I don't entirely buy at first, and Kurosawa's love of dynamic shot set-ups leaves much of the sequence feeling too forced and stagy, which isn't helped by setting it in a single room.

But then we hit the hour mark and everything explodes into brilliance as Kurosawa leaves the idea of an adaptation behind, resolving the kidnapping less than half way through the film in a way that allows him to offer his own spin on the story. Suddenly that questionable change makes sense as we see the financial and public consequences of Gondo's act, and the confined set of a living room cuts away to an entire city with undercover cops drifting among the populace, trying to find the identities of the culprits before they can get away with their crime. This is where Kurosawa shines, digging deep into the dedication of the police force as they find stray little threads that start to intertwine into a wonderful web of evidence, while also showing us the sometimes hellish sights of poverty and despair, all looming beneath the mountain on which Gondo's wealthy estate resides.

And this division in the film marks an interesting change-over of leads. We, of course, get Mifune up front, ably pulling off the ethical conflict within Gondo. In the second half, he steps back and Kurosawa's new rising star, Tatsuya Nakadai takes the lead as Chief Inspector Tokura. He does a fabulous job of conveying a professional cop who, despite lacking much personal depth, naturally stands out as leader among the dozens of officers (many of whom are Kurosawa regulars) reporting to him on their varied investigations.

If you can make it through the heavy-handed moments of the still-watchable first hour, you'll find one hell of a rich procedural thriller from a director still on the high end of his career peak. Definitely worth a watch.


For more information about the film, visit its IMDB and Wikipedia pages. The flim can be purchased as a special edition DVD, or as a bare-bones DVD in a boxset of 25 Kurosawa films.

January 6, 2009

87th Precinct: King's Ransom

1959 novel
written by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter)

(my review of the 1959 film adaptation, HIGH AND LOW)

We all know the lengths a person would go to reclaim a kidnapped child. Anything and everything would be on the table. But what if it's not your kid? What if you got the call to give up your own property to save the life of someone else's child? Would you do it?

Such is the question raised in this novel as businessman Douglas King gets a call from kidnappers who think they just snatched his boy, but got the son of his chauffeur instead. Regardless of this error, they push on and demand $500,000 dollars from the man, a sum that would cripple him as he struggles for a position of control against corporate rivals. It's a fascinating dilemma and Hunter takes an unexpectedly stubborn, though still perfect for the character, twist in the middle that heightens the debate without preaching any easy answers.

No, like most crime novels, the people involved exist in a gray zone. Douglas King is a gentle lion at home, a loving father and husband, but he's absolutely ruthless when it comes to business. Charles Reynolds, the chauffeur father of the kidnapped boy, would seem to be a sympathetic victim, but he's painted as a snivelling coward deserving of his low social position. The kidnappers feature a husband and wife pair, eager to escape the poverty that fills their life, who find themselves driven down this dark road by a sociopath who expects everyone to give him a break while he does whatever the fuck he can get away with. Even the broader public gets such an examination as people call in possible sighting or offer donations for the ransom, while others seek attention or pull cons for a profit.

I'm not much for episodic police procedurals, so I'm not sure how well I'd do with the 87TH PRECINCT series as a whole, but this was a gripping, intelligent thriller with a complex cast of characters and social commentary as sharp today as it was 50 years ago. And it's all told with crisp, dialogue-heavy prose so light on description it reads like a screenplay.

If I have one complaint, it's that the recurring cast of cops felt a little underdeveloped in the face of the stand-alone story. Granted, this being a series, one has to expect their development to be spread out among numerous volumes, so I shouldn't complain without giving the entire series a read, but it just felt like more could be done to personally tie them into events. Just a bit.


January 2, 2009


1962 film. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni. Based on the novel PEACEFUL DAYS by Shugoro Yamamoto, and material created by Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima.

Related Reviews:
- The 1961 film YOJIMBO.

Worried about a vein of corruption in the leadership of their clan, a group of nine young samurai meet and discuss their attempts to warn trusted superiors. Unfortunately, they naively put their faith in Kikui, the secret ringleader of the corruption, and he staged this very meeting so the samurai would fall victim to his quietly surrounding forces.

Thankfully for the samurai, the temple in which they meet houses another guest: the dishevelled, wandering ronin Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune). With a scratch of his stubbled chin, the leer of his tired gaze, and the barking of the word "Idiot!", he's on the case, helping the samurai to escape and leading them in their quest to prevent the overthrow of a genuinely good leader.

Let me start off by saying what I don't like.

A) the villains were pretty bleh, especially when compared to the colorful batch of characters in YOJIMBO. Even with great Kurosawa vets like Masao Shimizu, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kamatari Fujiwara, and Takashi Shimura, they just didn't have any qualities that made them particularly memorable.

And B) after a rip-snorting opening, the first half felt a little slow at times, the good stuff occasionally dragging over too much focus on politics and a tired joke about a sweet little old woman who wishes these boys wouldn't kill so many people. After that, though, things really pick up for a second half filled with clever intrigue, some impressive scale, solid action, and a surprising amount of screwball antics.

That right there is the biggest surprise of this film, its humor. While the bits with the little old lady don't work, there's a great recurring gag about a helpful enemy stored in a closet, the wonderful score is like a leisurely, tooting stroll, and the nine samurai themselves are just hilarious. Not only does their clean-cut naivete beautifully clash with the tattered, world-weary knowledge of Sanjuro, but I love how Kurosawa often paints them as a collective mind, moving with such uniformity that they're berated for acting like a centipede.

Toshiro Mifune is, once again, brilliant as Sanjuro. Just as he did in YOJIMBO, he uses his brains and sly manipulation to forward his goals, only resorting to blunt violence when absolutely necessary. Here, though, is where we get my third and final qualm with the film. My aforementioned problem with the little old woman's complaints against violence was mostly because Sanjuro immediately took them to heart, starting an underdeveloped meditation on killing. Instead of building an amusing contrast between the two characters that would leave a nice air of ambiguity hanging over the issue, Kurosawa seems to declare, especially with his surprise ending, that all violence is bad, which I found a little hollow and one-sided.

That said, I still very much enjoyed this film. Mifune was great, Kurosawa handled his camera and editing like the pro he was, the story was exciting, engaging, and funny as hell. What more do I need?

Now all I can do is regret that the relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune tore apart after just two more movies, because I could definitely picture them bringing out the character of Sanjuro at least one or two more times had the partnership continued.


For more information about the film, visit its IMDB and Wikipedia pages. The film is available as a special edition DVD which can be perchased alone or packaged with YOJIMBO, as a bare-bones DVD in a boxset of 25 Kurosawa films, or as a special edition Blu-Ray which can also be perchased alone or packaged with YOJIMBO.