The Silent Duel (静かなる決闘, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Amid the labour strikes crippling Toho in the late ‘40s, Akira Kurosawa formed an association with other directors and film professionals and began working with different studios, the first being Daiei on a loose adaptation of a popular play in which an idealistic doctor struggles with his repressed desires while watching others wilfully embrace post-war selfishness and cynicism. Like many of Kurosawa’s films from this period, The Silent Duel (静かなる決闘, Shizukanaru Ketto) is essentially a meditation on post-war moral decline and what’s needed to correct it but also if somewhat accidentally the destructive effects of secret keeping and miscommunication. 

Kurosawa opens the film in 1944 with exhausted field medic Kyoji (Toshiro Mifune) operating on a badly wounded solider, Nakata (Kenjiro Uemura). Distracted by the constant dripping of a leaky roof, the adverse weather conditions outside, and the general stressfulness of the situation, Kyoji makes the fateful decision to remove his gloves to better accomplish the fiddly operation he is performing only to drop a scalpel and cut himself. He continues with the surgery, but realises that Nakata is likely infected with syphilis which he may have contracted through the wound on his finger. Kyoji tells Nakata, otherwise recovering well, that he should make sure to seek treatment but overhears him boasting that his injuries may soon save him from the battlefield. Kyoji continues to serve but is unable to treat the infection effectively with the limited resources available to him as a frontline medic allowing the disease to continue its progression largely unmitigated.

Taking a job at his father’s obstetrics clinic on his return to Japan, Kyoji breaks off his longstanding engagement to pre-war girlfriend Misao (Miki Sanjo) who has been waiting for him the last six years but refuses to explain to her why he cannot go through with their marriage. She assumes it must in some way be related to his war trauma, and in a way it is. The syphilis is an obvious metaphor for the corruptions of militarism. He declines to explain, he claims, because he is certain that Misao would vow to go on waiting for him until the disease is cured which would take at least three to five years assuming it can be cured at all. As she is already 27, he would be taking away Misao’s opportunity to make a happy marriage and have children with another man. In any case, he makes her decision for her which ironically conflicts with his later statement that she should be free to seek happiness on her own, not least because it seems she has been pressured into an arranged marriage by her financially troubled father. The act of childbirth is symbolically relevant though he does not seem to consider the idea of a platonic marriage perhaps uncertain that he could go on repressing his desires as a married man. So morally upright is he, that he also refuses to lie, saying nothing rather than allowing Misao to believe that he has fallen out of love with her, met someone else, or has another war-related issue that prevents his marrying her. Nor does he seem to consider telling her that he has syphilis and allowing her to come to the same conclusion as everyone else, that he contracted it through sleeping with sex workers during his military service which is most likely how Nakata became infected. 

The stigma associated with the disease adds a further dimension to Kyoji’s frustration given that he describes himself as having wilfully sublimated his physical desires in order to be able to return to a “peaceful marriage” with Misao whereas as Nakata who satisfied himself without a second thought returned home symptomless, married, and is soon to be a father. Re-encountering him by chance, Nakata who seems to have become wealthy doing something that is likely immoral if not illegal, tells Kyoji that his sickness is cured but does eventually bring his wife in for a free checkup to discover that he has passed the disease to her and to their unborn child. Yet even confronted with the truth, Nakata lies again and suggests that Kyoji has made all this up as revenge for something that happened in the war keeping the fact that he infected him from his wife. He blames Kyoji for destroying his family rather than accept his own responsibility and sees nothing wrong in his actions until directly confronted with the body of his stillborn child apparently so deformed and monstrous that they wouldn’t let the mother see it. 

The two men have clearly taken different paths, Kyoji certain that he must put others before himself and suppressing his own desires to ensure he cannot pass the disease on while Nakata buries his head in the sand and ignores it. It is a kind of metaphor for the post-war future, those like Kyoji acknowledging that the legacy of wartime trauma is something that must be acknowledged and actively healed before happiness is possible while those like Nakata simply plow on like nothing ever happened with no thought or consideration for those around them. Yet it is also Kyoji who lies by omission even in his selflessness just Nakata lied to his wife while the truth is only discovered by accident, firstly by reluctant nurse Minegishi (Noriko Sengoku) who walks in on him injecting the remedy for syphilis, she in turn then overheard by Kyoji’s father (Takashi Shimura) while Minegishi then overhears the explanation Kyoji gives him. She in a sense completes the cycle when she asks Misao to apologise to Kyoji on her behalf as she is too embarrassed to do so herself after realising that she got him wrong having resolved to turn her life around after learning of the depths of his selflessness. 

Minegishi had been a nightclub dancer who tried to take her own life after becoming pregnant by a man who abandoned her but was saved by Kyoji who gave her a job at the clinic and convinced her to raise the child. It’s this child, at first unwanted but later loved and embraced by all despite the stigma of his being born out of wedlock, that offers the clearest path towards a healthier future suggesting that the solution lies in accepting the past with a willingness to make something new out of it rather than in wilful denial and resentful self-interest. Yet Kyoji is also human and privately resentful. “If I’d known it would happen to me I would’ve done things differently” he sneers petulantly suggesting that his properness may be an affectation rather than deeply felt conviction but equally frustrated in feeling his fate is unjust and that he’s suffering for someone else’s sin. 

“Because of the blood of a shameless guy, my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure” he complains, hinting at a metaphor for his wartime contamination dragged into a conflict by forces outside of his control. The roles he plays are ironic, firstly a healer in a place of death and destruction and then as a deliverer of life at his father’s obstetrics clinic though he fears he will never have children of his own. He is in a sense trapped by his past as shown in the repeated visual metaphor of the closed gates outside the clinic on which the flowers that represent his relationship with Misao and hope for the future gradually wither. Minegishi tells him she’s in love with him and is willing to accept the risk of his disease to alleviate his desire, but he once again chooses to say nothing, immediately returning to business. As his father points out, he has (for the most part) resolved to channel his resentment into helping those less happy than himself but if he had been happy he may have become a snob, indifferent to the suffering of others. In some ways his problem is the familiar giri/ninjo conflict as he fights a silent duel within himself between his natural desires and his better nature but it’s also a battle against the slow poison of the wartime legacy through compassion and selflessness that may, like his inescapable illness, eventually drive him into madness.


The Silent Duel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 11th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

A gruff yet well intentioned doctor does his best to cure the ills of post-war Japan in a rundown slum on the edge of a fetid swamp in Akira Kurosawa’s noir tragedy, Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Yoidore Tenshi). The doctor is most obviously the drunken angel of the title though it could equally apply to the unhappy yakuza he tries so hard to redeem whom most agree is not suited to that kind of life and trapped by the feudalistic thinking of the pre-war past.

Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is the big man around town, but jaded physician Sanada (Takashi Shimura) sees straight through him. “He acts tough and swaggers around but I know in his heart he’s incredibly lonely,” Sanada tells his assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), a young woman he took in to help her escape the clutches of the violent yakuza ex who left her with syphilis. Miyo bemoans Sanada’s terrible bedside manner and tendency to bully his patients but praises his dedication and remarks that few doctors go as far for those under their care as he does especially ones like these who don’t often have the money to pay. This is a little ironic given Matsunaga’s original objection that he doesn’t trust doctors because it’s not in their best interests to cure you, something which Sanada jokingly acknowledges while expressing the futility he feels in the face of the mass sickness that confronts him. 

When Matsunaga first comes into his office, Sanada remarks that’s its not just his lungs that are sick, he’s sick to the core. But still he seems to think that Matsunaga can be saved, not just physically but spiritually redeemed if only he can coax him away from the yakuza underworld. Matsunaga is suffering from tuberculosis, a common disease of the post-war era and closely linked to the squalid conditions in which he lives which are themselves symbolised by the swamp in the centre of town onto which Sanada’s clinic backs. Sanada tries to warn the local children not to play in it because of the risk of typhus not to mention the mosquitos it attracts but the kids don’t really listen to him and shout back that he’s “just a drunk”. Yet the swamp represents a world upside-down, the neon sign for the No. 1 cabaret bar constantly reflected in its bubbling waters while as the film opens we see a trio of sex workers preparing to head into the red light district and a pair of petty thugs fighting while a young man plays Spanish guitar on the ruins of a bomb damaged building. 

It’s as if it were this world that is slowly consuming Matsunaga, an old-school yakuza who insists “we still believe in things like honour and loyalty” certain that the big boss will side with him against the returned upstart Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto), Miyo’s yakuza ex, even as Sanada tells him it’s money that matters and Matsunaga no longer makes any. Everyone tells him that he already looks like a ghost, his appearance increasingly gaunt in his parallel decline as the illness takes hold and he begins to lose his status to Okada only to overhear his boss call him an “amateur” that he was only keeping around as a potential sacrifice. In the end, Matsunaga is too good for this world. Naively believing in things like honour and loyalty which no longer mean anything in the dog-eat-dog post-war society he is left with nothing other than a nihilistic bid for vengeance and a desire to repay Sanada’s faith in him if only in the most ironic of ways. 

Like Matsunaga, Sanada sometimes says the opposite of what he means claiming that he doesn’t care what happens to Matsunaga but is determined to wipe out the TB inside him to stop it spreading it to others. He’s on a mission to “sterilise this contaminated town” by eradicating the twin threats of disease and the yakuza, calling Matsunaga a coward for failing to face his fear and loneliness succumbing to the quick fixes of his hedonistic yakuza lifestyle. He’s not perfect either, a doctor who drinks his medical ethanol supplies and berates his patients when he them catches out them out drinking when he told them not to, but is also very at home with who he is and doing his best with it. His disappointment in Matsunaga is mainly in his swagger, the false bravado that masks his human frailty and unwillingness to face his fear of death which manifests itself in a hauntingly expressionistic dream sequence. Using silent cinema composition and canted angles Kurosawa conjures a world of constant uncertainty amid the vagaries of the post-war society in which the only sign of salvation is a drunken doctor and his “rational approach” to the sickness of the age.


Drunken Angel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Stray Dog (野良犬, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

“And, yes, I think the world’s not right. But it’s worse to take it out on the world” the conflicted policeman at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora Inu) explains as he struggles to reacquire his sense of authority while weighing up its limits and his own right to pass judgement on what is right or wrong or merely illegal. He must ask himself how he can enforce the law while faced with the reality that the man he chases is an echo of himself, the him that took another path amid the chaos, confusion, and despair that followed in the wake of defeat and occupation even as his well-meaning mentor insists that some people are good and others bad and he won’t be able to do his job if he gives it much more thought than that.

The policeman, Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is perhaps the stray dog of the title who can only follow the straight path towards his missing gun taken from him on a sweltering bus in the middle of summer while he was distracted not only by the heat but by exhaustion having been up all night on a stakeout. As we later discover, Murakami is a rookie cop and recently demobbed soldier trying to make a life for himself in the post-war society. In this he is quite lucky. Many men returned home and struggled to find employment leaving them unable to marry or support families, a whole pack of stray dogs lost in an ever changing landscape. This must have weighed quite heavily on his mind as he made the decision to resign from the police force to take responsibility for the laxity that led to the gun possibly ending up in the wrong hands only to discover his superiors don’t regard it as seriously as he does. His boss tears up the letter and tells him to turn his defeat into something more positive by trying to do something about it, which might in its own way be a metaphor for the new post-war society. 

So closely does Murakami identify himself with his gun that on hearing it has been used in a violent robbery it’s almost as if he has committed the crime and is responsible for anything it might do. There is an essential irony in the fact that this weapon that was supposed to prevent crime is being subverted and used in its service as if mirroring the paths of the two men who both returned to a changed Japan and had their knapsacks stolen on their way back home. Murakami has chosen the law, while the thief Yusa (Isao Kimura) is thrown into nihilistic despair unable to make a life for himself. Murakami’s sense of guilt is further compounded on realising that he may have frustrated Yusa’s attempt to turn back, returning the gun to the underground pistol brokers who make their living through selling illegal weapons stolen from police or bought from occupation forces.

As he admits, Murakami could have ended up committing a robbery but realised he was at a dangerous crossroads and made a deliberate choice to join the police instead. He literally finds himself walking the other man’s path when he’s told by a pickpocket, Ogin (Noriko Sengoku), that the underworld pistol dealers will find him if he walks around downtown looking like he’s at the end of his rope. Ogin, the woman reeking of cheap perfume who stood next to him on the bus, was once known for her fancy kimonos but is now in western dress, signalling perhaps a further decline. In this age of privation, only kimonos and rice have held their value and it’s not unreasonable to assume that she’s sold all of hers and joined the modern generation. Ogin doesn’t have anything to do with the theft, but seems to take pity on Murakami seeing him as naive and essentially unable to understand the way things work on the ground. His mentor, Sato (Takashi Shimura), seems to understand too well, on one level looking down on those like Ogin as simply bad but otherwise happy in her company knowing exactly how to get what he wants through their oddly flirtatious conversation as they suck ice lollies and smoke illicit cigarettes in the interview room. 

Dressed in a ragged military uniform, Murakami wanders around the backstreets of contemporary Tokyo past street kids and sex workers and groups of men just hanging around. Kurosawa employs montage and superimposition to reflect the endless drudgery and maddening circularity his of passage under the stifling heat of summer in the city that allows him a better understanding of what it is to live in this world. Even so, the boy who eventually makes contact seems to see through him pointing out that he looks too physically robust to pass for a desperate drifter. Yusa meanwhile is wiry and hollow, a frightened man who uses Murakami’s gun to affect an authority he does not own which might explain why both of his victims are women. Sato emphasises the worthiness of their victimhood, explaining that the first was robbed of the money she’d saved over three years for her wedding meaning she might have to wait even longer at which point there would be no point getting married at all, while the second woman was killed at home alone and defenceless. We’re also told that her body was nude when discovered which raises the question of whether she might have been assaulted before she died which would cast quite a different light on Yusa’s crimes no longer an accidental killer but a crazed rapist well beyond salvation. 

Yet the accidental nature of Yusa’s fall does seem to be key. The trigger seems to have been a childhood friend he’d fallen in love with gazing at a dress he could never afford to buy for her, pushed into a corner by his wounded masculinity and taking drastic action to reclaim it in much the same way Murakami later does in searching for his missing gun. In their final confrontation they grapple violently in existential struggle in a small grove behind some posh houses where a woman plays a charming parlour tune on the piano pausing only for a few moments to peer out of the window on hearing gunshots. Murakami retrieves his gun and the pair fall to the ground side by side to be met by the sound of children singing, provoking a wail of absolute despair from a defeated Yusa suddenly hit by the full weight of his transgressions. He too was a stray dog heading straight in one direction driven out of mainstream society by the unfairness of the post-war world. Sato tells Murakami that he’ll eventually forget all about Yusa, that he’ll become “less sentimental” and accept the world is full of bad guys and those who fall victim to them, but Murakami doesn’t seem too convinced, for the moment at least unable to forget that Yusa was man much like himself only less lucky or perhaps simply less naive.


Stray Dog screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 1st & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

“Your kindness will harm you” a well-meaning retainer advises his charge, but in the end it is her kindness which saves her along with numerous others in Akira Kurosawa’s Sengoku-era epic, The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Kakushi Toride no San Akunin). Largely told from the point of view of two bumbling peasants trying to get rich quick by exploiting the hierarchal fluidity of a time of war, the film nevertheless cuts against the grain of the democratic era in advocating not so much the destruction of the class-bound feudal order as benevolent authority. 

This can quite clearly be seen in the dynamic figure of displaced princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the successor of her routed clan protected by a hidden fortress in the mountains which she must eventually leave. Her female servant laments that her father raised her as a boy which has given her a haughty and dominant manner at odds with the polite submissiveness usually expected of upperclass women. While often exerting her authority, she is otherwise uncomfortable with the uncritical servitude of her retainers, chief among them the talented general Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who sacrificed the life of his own sister, allowing her to be executed in Yuki’s place buying them some time. “Kofuyu was 16. I am 16. What difference is there in our souls?” she asks, yet even if she believes their souls are equal she is not quite so egalitarian as to forget her position or the power and privilege that comes with it. 

Nevertheless, hers is an authority that is tempered by compassion and in the end chosen. Her salvation comes in speaking her mind to an enemy retainer, Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who has been savagely beaten by his own lord for losing a duel with Makabe who, to the mind of some, humiliated him with kindness in refusing to take his life leaving him to live in defeat. Yuki says she doesn’t know who is stupider, Tadokoro or his lord, for never would she punish a man in such a way simply for losing to an enemy. She tells him that there is another way, and that he need not serve a lord who does not serve him leading Tadokoro to defect and choose to follow her instead. 

She also inspires confidence in a young woman she insists on redeeming after discovering that she is a former member of the Akizuka clan sold into sexual slavery after being taken prisoner by the Yamane. Kurosawa presents the girl with a dilemma on realising that the mysterious woman who saved her is the fugitive princess, knowing that she could betray her and pocket the gold, but finds her resolving to serve Yuki all the more. In a moment of irony, we learn that the girl was bought for five silver coins, the same amount of money a wealthy traveller offers for Makabe’s horse, but displeases her master in refusing to speak or serve customers. For Yuki he offers gold, though withdraws on being told that she is mute. Knowing that she would be unable to disguise her speech or accent which would instantly give her away as a haughty princess, Makabe convinces her to stay silent though as she tells him he cannot make her heart mute too. 

Even the peasants, oblivious to her true identity, view Yuki as part of the spoils insisting that they should be entitled to a third of her too and at one point preparing to rape her only to be fought off by the rescued girl. “We can rely on their greed” Makabe had said, knowing that their material desires make them easy to manipulate and that their loyalties are otherwise fickle. Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and his friend Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) sold their houses in their village to buy armour in the hope of achieving social mobility through distinguishing themselves in war, but have largely been humiliated, robbed of their armour, mistaken for captured members of the enemy, and forced to dig the graves of others. They pledge eternal friendship but their bond is continually disrupted by the promise of monetary gain. They fall out over a moral quandary, one willing to plunder the body of a fallen soldier and the other not, while even on reuniting squabbling about how to divide the money first deciding it should be equal and immediately disagreeing as soon as they get their hands on it. At the film’s conclusion it rests on Yuki to play mother, telling them that they must be good and share the boon she’s given them equally without complaint each then too only quick to be generous insisting that the other can keep it. 

The implication is still, however, that Matashichi and Tahei should return to their village to live as peasants while Yuki assumes her place in a castle no longer hidden as its ruler. Order has returned and the old system remains in place, all that changes is that this is now a compassionate autocracy ruled by a benevolent lord who views her subjects lives as equal to her own yet not perhaps their status. Where it might prompt Tadokoro to conclude that he need serve no lord at all for there should be no leaders only equals, the film concludes that a leader should be just and if they are not they should not be followed. Then again, the disagreement between firm friends Matashichi and Tahei is ended when they each have enough and no longer find themselves fighting for a bigger slice of the pie content in the validation of their equality. As Makabe puts it, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Yuki’s suffering is in the responsibility of rebuilding her clan though she does so with compassion and empathy ruling with respect rather than fear or austerity. Kurosawa utilises the novel scope format to hint at the wide open vistas that extend ahead of the peasants as they make their way towards the castle in search of gold only to leave with something that while more valuable may also shine so brightly as to blind them to the inherent inequalities of the feudal order. 


The Hidden Fortress screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 20th & 27th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Lower Depths (どん底, Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

“How can you go to hell if you’re already there?” quips a stoical gangster, perhaps the only denizen of a rundown tenement block no longer looking for escape in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of the Gorky play The Lower Depths (どん底, Donzoko). In general, much of Kurosawa’s post-war work decries deliberate falsehood but paradoxically suggests that some degree of self-delusion is essential for surviving an otherwise hopeless world. The wandering pilgrim who arrives like some kind of emissary from the land above says as much as he offers what may turn out to be false promises of a better world to come, but as one of his charges points out he does so “out of pity for those beyond hope.”

Then again, perhaps spirituality won’t save you either. As the film opens, it’s two monks who are seen throwing leaves over a cliff describing the settlement below as “just an old rubbish dump”, which in a sense it is if that were not such a cruel thing to say. In any case, the people who live here are all those who have already fallen into desperation, exiled from mainstream society and caught between a fierce desire to claw their way back up and the despair of knowing that in all likelihood they never will. A man who claims to be a former samurai waxes on his illustrious past, while a melancholy sex worker meditates on the lost love that reduced her to current position, and a stage actor laments his failing memory his mind now fogged by years of alcohol abuse that he says have already poisoned his “bitol organs”. A tinker secretly thinks he’s better than those around him. He’s only been here six months and insists that he’s a skilled craftsman who can continue working, but blames his desperate circumstances on the sickly wife whose death he quietly awaits assuming it will free him of this burden and thereafter this place.

It doesn’t, of course. He sells his tools to pay for her funeral, and otherwise appears lost no longer a husband to a dying wife. In essence the film revolves around a confrontation between the pilgrim who offers what may well be an illusion of salvation and the thief Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune) who challenges him but begins to believe that it really may be possible for him to leave this place and take the woman he loves, Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa), with him or else fall further and remain trapped in this mortal hellscape. The problem there is that Sutekichi had previously been having an affair with the landlord’s wife Osugi (Isuzu Yamada) who is Okayo’s sister. Though Osugi, whose hope of escape through romance is dashed, first takes against her sister, she later offers to surrender her to Sutekichi if only he will assist her by killing her greedy husband Rokubei (Ganjiro Nakamura). 

In this cold and austere place which is in effect a living hell, there is a sense that many of the residents are already dead. Rokubei’s face is the palest of them all, suggesting that he is already too far gone ever to be saved and most likely doesn’t want to be anyway for in this terrible place he is in effect the king. Osugi is the queen, but often framed behind bars now a prisoner already too corrupt to leave the tenement behind. Her uncle, Deputy Shimazo (Kichijiro Ueda), has a largely illusionary sense of power in his position in a policeman which he prosecutes selectively and mostly at the service of the landlord. In the climactic closing scenes, his policeman’s baton is stolen by the drunkard Unokichi (Yu Fujiki) who dances through the streets with it demonstrating just how little authority he actually wields finally losing his position when the landlord is deposed and his familial connections become irrelevant. He inherits the landlord’s residence, but is reduced to the husband of the sweet seller Otaki (Nijiko Kiyokawa) whose status as a working woman is perhaps higher than his. 

Yet the pilgrim seems to think there is still time to save Sutekichi who at heart wants to go straight but is also resentful admitting that in a world where swindlers prosper perhaps it is foolish not to be a swindler. The pilgrim promises all of them a “better place”. “As long as you believe you’ll find it, you surely will”, he explains telling the actor about a temple that can help him cure his alcoholism while simultaneously urging the tinker’s suffering wife to give in to her fate and go to Buddha’s embrace as soon as possible. Perhaps he sincerely believes these things to be true, but also seems to have a sense that even if they weren’t these hopeless people could not go on if they knew there was no way out. They all say they’ll leave, but discover there are only two means of escape, to die or fall still further in banishment from this already banished place. Only Okayo whose final whereabouts remain unknown may finally have been able to free herself. Staying almost exclusively with the claustrophobic confines of the drafty tenement as wind the whistles through it, Kurosawa frames the space of one of existential purgatory but perhaps suggests that in the absence of salvation a comforting falsehood is the only means of survival.


The Lower Depths screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th & 30th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

High and Low (天国と地獄, Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

A self-made man is landed with an unthinkable dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped in place of his own just at the moment he’s staked his entire fortune on a manoeuvre to outsmart cynical executives set on taking over his company in Kurosawa’s post-war crime film, High and Low (天国と地獄, Tengoku to Jigoku). The movie’s Japanese title, Heaven and Hell, might hint more strongly at the growing economic disparities in the era of the economic miracle but also at the dualities embodied in the hero’s choices. “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity” his wife tells him, but he still struggles with the validity of choosing his heart over his head knowing that to pay anyway even though it’s another man’s son means financial ruin, the final question being if he is really prepared to allow a child to die simply to maintain his own wealth and status. 

The problem is that Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) has attempted to mount a rebellion against the evils of consumerism, incurring the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground. Though Gondo appears sympathetic, hinting that he might be interested if there’s a good enough promotion in it, he later tells them where to go on seeing that their business plan is to start producing poor quality disposable footwear. Gondo started on the factory floor and he doesn’t want to put the company’s name on such shoddy produce nor does he think that their admittedly fair point that if the shoes are well made and last a long time no one will need to buy any is a good way to do business. He doesn’t think the boss is right either and wants to make shoes his own way which is why he’s remortgaged the sizeable mansion he owns on top of a hill overlooking the city and has pretty much run through his wife’s dowry to buy a majority stake in the company.

On top of a hill is a good place to live if you want a good vantage point to oversee the land below, but while you’re looking down others look up and not all of them kindly. Gondo is as he says a self-made man, but also out of touch with contemporary society and not so far from an ambitious courtier always after a little more. He says it isn’t about getting the top job but getting shoes made right, but it seems he too had been bitten by the consumerist bug and is otherwise unable to affirm his status without material proof. When he thinks it’s his own son that’s been kidnapped, he’d have given it all away but when it’s the driver’s boy it’s a different question. Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu) isn’t his responsibility and as he points out there are plenty of other wealthy men, why is he the only one to pay? While his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) tearfully urges him to do the right thing, his assistant (Tatsuya Mihashi) tries stop him, insisting he should take the sizeable cheque they’ve had drawn up to Osaka and the stakeholder he’s buying the shares from. 

While he vacillates, the driver, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), is humiliated and forced into servitude. Gondo seems to have the old-fashioned idea that the kidnappers would simply let Shinichi go on realising they’ve got the wrong boy and his father can’t pay, but Aoki knows there’s nothing he can do to save his son but throw himself on Gondo’s mercy. He falls to the ground and prostrates himself, but later retracts all telling Gondo it doesn’t matter, that he hadn’t realised what he was asking of him, and insisting that Shinichi is a bright boy who will look for a chance to escape on his own. Once the boy is returned he treats him harshly, interrogating him about anything he might have forgotten and later driving him around looking for the hideout where he was kept in an attempt to do something and repay the debt he now feels he owes to Gondo by helping the police retrieve the money Gondo eventually agreed to pay for him. 

In agreeing to give up the money, Gondo is in a sense unburdened knowing he has made the right choice and realising that he would never live a comfortable life in that house if cost a child’s life to keep it. Part of his rationale for not wanting to pay had been that though he had been poor before and might be again, his wife had not been and does not truly understand what it is to live in poverty much as she says her life of luxury means nothing to her. She has never wanted for anything, after all. As for the kidnapper, Ginjiro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), we know little of his motives save for his intense resentment living quite literally in the shadow of Gondo’s mansion and feeling as if it were mocking him. Then again, though his life is hard Ginjiro already had a path to success in that he would soon have completed his medical studies implying at least that he or someone else was able to cover his tuition and costs of living, that he was able to continue in education, and really had no need to take such drastic action in rebellion against the antagonistic capitalism of the post-war society. “Do you think we have to hate each other?” Gondo asks him, but Ginjiro has no answer only his intense resentment for everything he represents.

The “hell” that Gondo inhabits is a backstreet wasteland peopled by the hopeless. Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), the earnest policeman, follows him through thronging clubs and on into “dope alley” where Ginjiro picked up his accomplices so desperate to escape their suffering that they’d agree to help him kidnap a child. Though it costs him his job, Gondo decision to do the right thing makes him a national hero, the working class millionaire who mows his own lawn and can still knock up a pair of shoes should the occasion call while women across the country decide to boycott the company in protest at his treatment. Ginjiro can only howl like a caged animal while facing a death sentence for the coldblooded murder of his accomplices. The light bouncing off his mirrored sunshades gives him an eerie supernatural quality, a demon arising from depths of hell to wreak havoc in heaven but finding only infinite tragedy in the contradictions of the consumerist post-war society.


High and Low screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dodes’ka-den (どですかでん, Akira Kurosawa, 1970)

By the late 1960s, Akira Kurosawa was in the midst of a creative crisis having spent two years working on the Japanese segments of the Hollywood war film Tora! Tora! Tora before he was eventually let go by the parsimonious US producers who feared he was spending too much money and making too little progress. Meanwhile, the studio system which had supported his career was collapsing and could no longer offer the kinds of budgets necessary for his personal brand of epic cinema. Teaming up with Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita, he formed the Club of the Four Knights production company but the first and only film they produced, Dodes’kaden (どですかでん), was not perhaps the kind of film many were expecting.

Inspired by a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, the film like The Lower Depths focuses on a small community living in a slum only in this case on the edge of the modern city. Shot in classical 4:3, it was also Kurosawa’s first foray into colour and makes the most of his painterly eye with its surrealist backdrops and exaggerated sunsets. Once again there is the feeling that these people are already dead or trapped in a kind of purgatory unable to escape their desperate suffering, the slum as much of a mindset as a physical place. “Life is nothing but pain to me” one man claims, stating his hope that he die as quickly as possible while relating the sad story of his life: falling into depression when his sons were killed in the war and losing his wife, business, and finally home to the Tokyo air raids. Yet he is reminded that his family live on in him as long as he does and to kill himself is to kill them too, rediscovering a desire to survive even in his suffering. 

Another man, Hei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), dresses in a soldier’s uniform and wanders around like a zombie with, as one person puts it, the eyes of a dead man. Later a woman comes to find him, but he is seemingly unable to reawaken himself and move on from his trauma, now numbed to life, an already spent force. A young woman, Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki), is little different. Never speaking she has been raised by her uncle who begins sexually abusing her while her aunt is in hospital. She says that she wants to die, stabbing the only boy who showed her kindness because she feared he’d forget her. 

These people have largely been forgotten, living almost in another era and entirely cut off from mainstream society in a kind of etherial purgatory. Like the residents of The Lower Depths, a degree of fantasy is necessary for their survival a case in point being that of a beggar and his son who live an abandoned car and fantasise about the kind of house they’d build, a vast modernist building in white with a swimming pool. Like Katsuko, the boy is let down by his father who remains the car and sends him out to beg for food, telling him off when he lights a fire to boil fish as the man at the sushi shop had told him to do insisting, with disastrous results, that as it’s pickled it doesn’t need to be cooked. The furthest out of the residents, the pair have an almost grotesque appearance, their faces tinged with a morbid green. 

But then the couples living at the centre seemed to have found an antidote to despair in a surreal process of wife swapping now unable to remember whose husband is whose despite being neatly colour coded in matching outfits. A man with a nervous tic defends his grumpy yet fiercely loyal wife, and another man raises several children who may not be biologically his but are loved all the same. The old man who acts as a kind of confidant giving out advice and settling disputes through benevolent trickery has evidently learned how to live in this world and gets by as best he can while the son of the melancholy woman who runs the tempura stall drives an imaginary train through the slum the rhythm of which gives the film its name in its slow and certain progress towards nowhere at all. Heartbreakingly there are moments where the young man can hear the train in the distance, but it remains forever out of reach. Dodes’kaden didn’t do very well at the box office or with critics, its lack of success of cited as a factor in Kurosawa’s attempt to take his own life the following year, yet had perhaps set him on a new artistic course of colour and light which would define the further direction of his later career.


Dodes’ka-den screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 15th & 16th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Idiot (白痴, Akira Kurosawa, 1951)

“He was too good for this world” a matriarch finally concedes of the pure soul at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot (白痴, Hakuchi), though like most she had found his goodness unnerving. Adapted from the Dostoyevsky novel, Kurosawa’s poetic morality play is like much of his contemporary work a meditation on the post-war future but perhaps also an admission that this “faithless world” isn’t meant for pure souls and that goodness too can be destructive in its incompatibility with a world ruled by cruelty and selfishness. 

Relocated to a wintery Hokkaido, the film opens with former soldier Kameda (Masayuki Mori) travelling north to stay with a relative after a spell in a psychiatric hospital in Okinawa. Having been sentenced to death for war crimes in what he claims was a case of mistaken identity and then unexpectedly reprieved, Kameda suffered a nervous breakdown but also describes himself as having been reborn, as if everything that had happened to him up to that point had happened to someone else. Ever since then he’s been a pure soul, selfless and ethereal but also with, as someone later puts it, an eerie power to see into people’s hearts that leaves some feeling shamed or uncomfortable in the stinging light of his goodness. 

In the outdated language of the time, he is called an “idiot” because of his epilepsy which has he says caused him epileptic dementia. In the title cards that open the film, it is said that goodness is often conflated with idiocy as if to be good is only to be naive for sophistication necessarily favours calculation over feeling. He is an outcast firstly because of the stigma surrounding his condition and secondly because of the way his goodness reflects on others, leaving them feeling exposed or perhaps judged and found wanting. 

He finds his mirror in a young woman, Taeko (Setsuko Hara), who is loved by a man he met on the train, Akama (Toshiro Mifune), but is herself an outcast because she has been the mistress of a wealthy man, Tohata (Eijiro Yanagi), since she was only 14 years old. On seeing a photograph of her in a shop window near the station he remarks that she seems very unhappy, later explaining that in her eyes he saw only long years of lonely suffering that reminded him of the eyes of a young soldier executed by firing squad who looked back at him with eyes filled with reproach that he must be sacrificed for the folly of the war. But whereas Kameda’s awakening as a pure soul has opened him up to the world, Taeko’s internalised shame has made her cold and indifferent. Kameda’s recognition of her as another pure soul grants her the courage to escape one kind of suffering in abandoning the wealthy man who has ruined her life, but only provokes further destruction in her conviction that Kameda is the one man she can never love for she will only ruin him. 

Kameda, meanwhile, falls in love with the daughter of his relative, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), who is proud and largely unable to express her feelings honestly often saying the direct opposite of what she actually means. She too has her idea of goodness, breaking with her childhood sweetheart Kayama (Minoru Chiaki) when he is tempted by an offer from Tohata to enter into a sham marriage with Taeko for appearance’s sake in return for a large sum of money and guaranteed social advancement. Though Ayako originally rejects Kameda because of the shame and humiliation she would feel married to a man with a disability, she nevertheless fails in love with him but is unable to accept the equality of his love in his inability to abandon Taeko to whom he has come to represent a kind of salvation. 

Ayako later comes to believe that it was she who was truly the “idiot” in her petty jealousy lamenting that “if only we could all love without hatred” as Kameda had done though it was in the end his selfless love that sealed his fate, while for Akama it was perhaps the opposite in realising that he would never possess Taeko’s heart and that the only reason she returned to him was because she thought him to be a man of so little importance that ruining him was of no consequence and ruin him she did in the madness of his love. Guileless, Kameda is also a pauper cheated out of his inheritance by a relative and then again exploited by a duplicitous businessman, his poverty another proof of his goodness while others squabble over money. Having escaped an authoritarian father and come in to his inheritance, Akama wagers his fortune trying to buy Taeko from Tohata by gazumping Kayama who later redeems himself by letting the money burn but never really escapes the stain of his temptation. 

Kurosawa frames the tale as high gothic, filled with eerie winds and mist and fire in the midst of snow. The stove of Akama’s otherwise dark and gloomy mansion seems to flare with the intensity of confrontation as the passions of these four tortured souls rise and fall while each seeking a kind of salvation which necessarily cannot satisfy all. Originally intended to run in two parts over 265 minutes, the film was famously too big for producers at Shochiku for whom Kurosawa was working outside of his regular studio Toho. They cut 100 minutes to suit their exhibition needs, excising most of the prologue and inserting a number of clumsily placed intertitles absent from the rest of the film while undercutting the sense of mounting dread in the tragic backstories of each of these doomed romantics. But even in this compromised version, Kurosawa captures something of the gothic fatalism that surrounds Kameda, an innocent lamb in a world of wolves as Akama describes him, whose boundless, selfless love has no place in this faithless world. 


The Idiot screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 13th & 21st January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Kagemusha (影武者, Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

“The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own” a shadow warrior laments, wondering what happens to the shadow once the man is gone. Set at the tail end of the Sengoku era, Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (影武者) charts the transformation of a man reborn as someone else and discovers that he’s better at playing the role he’s been assigned than the man who was born to play it only to fall victim to his own hubris and self-delusion. 

The nameless hero (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a lowborn thief sentenced to death only to be reprieved thanks to his uncanny resemblance to the local lord, Takeda Shingen (also Tatsuya Nakadai), whose double he must play if he’s to keep his life. The shadow objects to this characterisation, outraged that a man who has killed hundreds and robbed whole domains dares to call him a scoundrel. Shingen agrees he too is morally compromised. He banished his father and killed his own son but justifies it as a necessary evil in his quest to conquer Japan hoping to unify it bringing an end to the Warring States period and ensuring peace throughout the land. 

The shadow goes along with it, but does not really realise the full implications of his decision. He tries to smash a giant urn hoping to find treasure to escape with, but is confronted by a corpse bearing his own face. Shingen has been killed by an enemy sniper in an act of hubris sneaking around a castle under siege hoping (not) to hear the sound of a flute. Before passing away, Shingen instructs his men to keep his death a secret for three years, retreating to defend their own domain rather than conquer others. But there are spies everywhere and news of his apparent demise soon travels to the allied Oda Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryu) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui), his rivals for the potential hegemony over a unified Japan. The shadow Shingen must keep up the pretence to keep the dream alive and protect the Takeda Clan from being swallowed whole by the advance of Nobunaga. 

Shingen had been the “immoveable mountain”, the solid force that anchors his troops from behind but also an implacable leader famed for his austerity. The shadow Shingen is almost caught out by the honest reaction of his grandson and heir Takemaru (Kota Yui) who immediately blurts out that this man is not his grandfather because he is no longer scary, while he’s also bucked by Shingen’s horse who in the end cannot be fooled. His retainers wisely come up with a ruse that he’s too ill to see his mistresses lest they realise the thief’s body does not bear the same scars even as everything about him from the way he talks and moves and laughs is different. Yet in his sudden conversion on witnessing Shingen’s funeral on lake Suwa and resolving that he wants to do something to serve the man who saved his life, the shadow proves an effective leader who earns the trust and affection of his immediate retainers but is equally struck by their sacrifice as they give their lives to protect him. 

Meanwhile, his illegitimate son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), skipped over in the succession, complains that he can never emerge from his father’s shadow emphasising the ways in which the feudal order disrupts genuine relationships between people and bringing a note of poignancy to the connection that emerges between the shadow Shingen and little Takemaru otherwise raised to perpetuate that same emotional austerity. Hoping to eclipse his father, Katsuyori too experiences a moment of hubris, successful in his first campaign but then over ambitious, forgetting his father’s teachings and walking straight into a trap only to be defeated by Nobunaga’s superior technology. 

Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Shingen’s brother and sometime shadow, remarks that he hardly knew who he was once his brother was gone, and wonders what will become of the shadow once the three years are up. In a sense, the thief is already dead. As Nobukado puts it, it’s as if Shingen has possessed him, his confidence in his alternate persona apparently solidified by the victory at Takatenjin castle. But the sight of so many dead seems to unnerve him in the hellish spectacle of death that is a Sengoku battlefield knowing that these men died if not quite for him than for his image. When he attempts to mount Shingen’s horse, it’s either born of hubristic self-delusion in wanting to prove that he truly has become him, or else a bid for freedom and to be relieved of his shadow persona. Either way, he becomes a kind of ghost, once again watching his men from behind but this time invisibly and powerless to do anything but watch as they are massacred by Nobunaga’s guns. 

Earlier on he’d had a kind of nightmare, painted in surrealist hues by Kurosawa who conjures battlegrounds of angry reds and violent purples along with ominous rainbows, seeing himself dragged down into the water by Shingen’s ghost which he has now seemingly become. In the end all he can do is accept his fate in a final act of futility running defenceless towards the enemy line and reaching out to retrieve his banner from its watery fate only to be carried past it on a current of red. “I’m not a puppet, you can’t control me” the thief had said, but in the end just like everyone else he was powerless, another casualty of the casual cruelties and meaningless struggles of the feudal order. 


Kagemusha screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 11th & 31st January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Scandal (醜聞, Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

“Freedom of the press or harassment?” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Akira Kurosawa’s attack on the declining moral standards of the post-war society as reflected in the duplicity of the gutter press has unexpected resonance in the present day in which the media is simultaneously unwilling to challenge authority and in thrall to the populist allure of celebrity gossip with sometimes tragic results. The aptly named Scandal (醜聞) is essentially a morality tale which draws additional power from its seasonal setting and embodies the soul of the contemporary society in a conflicted lawyer consumed by internal struggle against despair and hopelessness. 

The more literal scandal however revolves around a well known singer, Miyako Saijo (Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi), and a motorcycle-riding artist, Ichiro Aoe (Toshiro Mifune), who meet by chance while staying at the same remote mountain inn. Having ironically headed to the mountains to escape the various “annoying things” that plague her in the city, Miyako has been pursued by two muckrakers from the tabloid press who take umbrage at her refusal to see them. They are then fairly delighted when they manage to snap a picture of Ichiro and Miyako standing on her balcony looking out at the mountains like a young couple in love. They deliver the photo to their seedy boss, Hori (Eitaro Ozawa), who is over the moon with excitement at his new business prospects. Suddenly Ichiro and Miyako are on posters all around the city with headlines such as “Love on a Motorcycle” and “Miyako Saijo’s secret love – revealed!”. 

Though Ichiro is a semi-public figure himself having been featured in magazine spreads as an artist on the rise, he is not a worldly man and is shocked by the idea that the press can make something up and print it with no consequences. He feels he must resist not just on a personal level angry to have been misrepresented but for the post-war future to ensure that the press is held to account and that it does not misuse its power to breach the privacy of ordinary citizens. To his mind, they only get away with it because most people just ignore them and wait for the scandal to pass, a sentiment born out by Hori who dismisses a concerned underling with the reminder that they’ve never yet been sued so they need have no fear saying whatever they like whether it’s true or not. “The kind of snobs we target think the law is beneath them” he adds, suggesting that most people prefer to think of the gutter press as something they can safely ignore and that it’s only themselves that they show up in their torrid obsession with the lives of others. 

But Hori also ironically defends his right to press freedom and quickly hits back that he’s being oppressed by those who wish to silence his right to free speech even when what he’s saying isn’t true. Lawyer Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) who offers to represent Ichiro in his lawsuit quickly identifies Hori as a duplicitous conman but also allows himself to be manipulated accidentally accepting a bribe after being led to believe that Hori has a top legal expert on retainer and the case is hopeless unless Miyako, who has so far maintained a dignified silence, can be persuaded to join as co-plaintiff. Ichiro had decided to accept Hiruta’s offer of representation largely on meeting his teenage daughter, Masako (Yoko Katsuragi), who has been bedridden with TB for the last five years. Masako is a pure soul whose isolation from the contemporary society has allowed her to maintain her innocence and humanity but it’s also true that it’s the society that made her ill in the first place.

The morality play reaches a climax on Christmas Day as Ichiro delivers a tree on his motorbike while Miyako sings carols for a radiant Masako who is at least sitting up and looking much healthier than she’s ever been before. But the more Hiruta debases himself, caught between an accidental debt to Hori, his own lack of conviction, and the frustrated desire to do right, the sicker she gets as if poisoned by post-war duplicity. Even so, Ichiro continues to defend him insisting that Hiruta isn’t a bad person just a weak one and that in the end he won’t be able to go through with betraying him but will eventually come clean and tell the truth when it counts. Ichiro’s faith is as much in the institutions of the new democratic Japan as it is in Hiruta as he explains at the trial admitting that he may have been naive in placing too much trust in the legal system thinking that he couldn’t lose because he knows he’s in the right. As the opposition lawyer points out, that’s not a very good legal argument because his client thinks he’s in the right too only he doesn’t know that Hori is both a liar and an idiot who’s staked everything on the assumption that Hiruta won’t expose him for bribery, which would at least strongly imply he can’t back up his story, because it would mean destroying himself. 

In the end it’s Hiruta who puts himself on trial, baring his soul to the court which he acknowledges he has betrayed in his negligence and wilful obstruction of justice. It’s a victory for truth and decency and a turn away from the duplicitous, capitalistic mores of men like Hori who think they can do whatever they want and only laugh at those who value fairness and compassion. “In all my 50 years I’ve never seen a more confused age” Hiruta explains speaking of post-war chaos and the forced comprises of the intervening years of despair and desperation. As he coaxes the denizens of a small bar into an early rendition of Auld Lang Syne on Christmas Day, each vowing that this time next year things really will be better, many of them breakdown in frustrated longing drowning their sorrows as they continue to yearn for better times they do not really believe will come. But then like all the best Christmas films, this is also a redemption story of a man who decided that it wasn’t too late after all and that he might have to destroy himself in order make himself anew and be the man his daughter always knew he could be even if in the end he could not save her from the ravages of the post-war society.


Scandal screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 10th & 24th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.