I Live in Fear (生きものの記録, Akira Kurosawa, 1955)

Which of us is “crazy”, the man who lives in fear or the rest of us who live in its denial? By 1955, a decade had passed since the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even if the world seemed “peaceful” it was only superficial. The Korean War had “ended” in an uneasy truce only two years earlier and the world was already mired in a cold war which daily threatened to turn hot with both sides in possession of a nuclear deterrent. Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (生きものの記録, Ikimono no Kiroku) asks us if we can really say a man is “insane” if his life is ruled by a rational anxiety and if it is our refusal to accept the threat he sees which eventually drives him out of his mind. 

Our guide is gentle dentist Harada (Takashi Shimura) who has a sideline as a mediator at the family court. The case he has been called in on one particular afternoon is that of the Nakajima family which is attempting to have the ageing patriarch, Kiichi (a near unrecognisable Toshiro Mifune), declared legally incompetent on account of his increasing paranoia about nuclear attack and latent radioactivity. A wealthy self-made man and foundry owner, Kiichi has frittered away vast sums on harebrained schemes to keep himself and his family safe but after a plan to build a bunker in a remote area had to be abandoned, he’s set his heart on moving everyone to Brazil where he believes they will be safer. 

The problem is partly one of changing times as Kiichi, “despotic and selfish” as his son describes him, attempts to railroad his family into a safety they do not want or need. His two legitimate sons now operate the foundry and their lives are dependent on it, which is not to say that they are dependent on Kiichi, but if he goes through with selling the the foundry to finance his new life it will leave them all high and dry. It would be, to a certain way of thinking, the ultimate paternal betrayal but in Kiichi’s mind all he’s trying to do is “save” his family from an invisible threat. 

That family, meanwhile, is one he’s already undermined through patriarchal selfishness in fathering a series of illegitimate children he is also supporting financially but has never legally acknowledged. The parents of the illegitimate kids are worried that if the family succeeds in having Kiichi declared legally incompetent, his wife will get her hands on the purse strings and they’ll be left out in the cold. Kiichi, meanwhile, has an old-fashioned view of filial relations and never considers that the other kids might not want to come with him either even if it’s unexpectedly nice of him to include them, or that inviting your two mistresses to live in the same house as your legal wife might be awkward for all concerned. 

On the face of it, the case is open and shut. If a man causes his family to suffer through frittering money away on drink or pachinko, they would approve the motion to give another family member legal control over his finances. So why is it taking them so long to decide if Kiichi is a liability to his family or not? The problem is, his fear is entirely rational. It’s only its extent which is the problem. It’s perfectly understandable to be afraid of the ebola virus or brain-eating amoeba, but we can’t afford to spend every minute of every day consumed by fear and so they retreat into the background anxiety of our lives while we try to go on living. Yet, could it be that Kiichi has it right and we’re merely living in denial, sleepwalking into a preventable disaster while he alone has a plan for survival? 

“No place is safe” Kiichi’s son-in-law exasperatedly explains to him after he has taken drastic and somewhat ironic action, a kind of scorched earth policy designed to force his sons to follow him into a new world of safety. Pushed over the edge, Kiichi gets a rude awakening, realising that it was perhaps selfish of him only to think of salvation for his immediate family when his actions will essentially throw his workforce under the bus. Belatedly, he promises to find a way to take them to Brazil too, never realising that people have their own lives that aren’t so easily uprooted. He thinks Brazil is safer because the currents of the world seem to blow ill winds over Japan, but there are already more than enough nuclear bombs lying in warehouses to destroy the planet several times over. 

In any case, Kiichi has already destroyed his family through his various transgressions. They don’t want to go in part because they don’t particularly like him, are sick of his gruff authoritarianism, and resent his tendency to make unilateral decisions on their behalf. Strapped for cash he tries asking the illegitimate kids to return some of the money he gave them, but they too are insecure in their positions and cannot trust that they will continue to be provided for if Kiichi is deposed. Meanwhile, when Kiichi falls ill the legitimate children are only too quick to start discussing the inheritance in the absence of a will. Perhaps Kiichi isn’t much more to them than a walking wallet, all of which lends a rather poignant quality to his continual attempts to protect his family from the nuclear apocalypse in fulfilment of his fatherly duty even as he wagers their economic security to do so. 

If Kiichi is a Cassandra prophesying the end of the world, we won’t be here to be sorry we didn’t listen, but Harada and other more rational minds are shaken by the intensity of his vision. They cannot say that he is “mad” even if his anxiety has consumed his life, but nor can they allow him free rein to pursue his plans because they do not concern only himself but greatly affect the lives of others. They are forced to wonder if it isn’t we who are “insane”, quietly living our lives while all these preventable threats hover in the background, ignored. Kiichi’s mistake was perhaps that he wanted only to be “safe” in an unsafe world, not to cure it of its dangers. Few us are actively trying to eliminate ebola or brain-eating amoebas, just as few actively opposed an increasingly nuclear society, powerless as we are and were in the face of a greater threat. Perhaps Kiichi was the sanest one of all, retreating into a world of madness and infinite safety in a delusional bubble of survival in an otherwise crazy world.


I Live in Fear screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 6th & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Ikiru (生きる, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

The Japanese economy may have embarked on a path towards recovery thanks to the stimulus of the Korean War, but in the early 1950s many might have thought it too soon to ask if survival in itself was enough yet this is exactly what disillusioned civil servant Kenji Watanabe finds himself asking after receiving the devastating news that he has advanced stomach cancer and year at most to live. “To live” is apt translation of Akira Kurosawa’s intensely moving existential melodrama, Ikiru (生きる), which tackles the compromises of the salaryman dream head on along with those of the contradictions of the sometimes dehumanising post-war society. 

As the opening voice over reveals to to us, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is man who died long ago or perhaps has never truly been alive. In some senses, he is nothing more than an embodiment of the seal he uses to stamp documents day in day out, a mere piston in an ever turning machine of relentless bureaucracy. A young woman, Miss Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), working in the Public Affairs department loudly reads out a joke someone has written about their boss, Watanabe, who has taken not a single day’s holiday in 30 years suggesting that it’s less that he fears city hall will grind to a halt without him than they’ll suddenly figure out city hall has no need of him at all. The irony is city hall does indeed grind to a halt in Watanabe’s absence as he, unthinkably, fails to turn up for work for days on end as the papers pile ever higher on his desk. “Nothing moves here without his seal” one of the workers admits, bewildered by this sudden break with protocol while salivating over its implications in the possibility that Watanabe’s chair may soon be empty. 

Yet Watanabe’s crisis is that he’s realised he’s wasted his life on a pointless bureaucratic career that’s done little more than keep a roof over his head. Even the roof is a fairly modest one and it’s clear that his grown up son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) considers him to be a stingy old miser, unable to understand why he’s never spent so much as a penny on himself and lives in a kind of self-imposed austerity. Perhaps to Watanabe this is what constitutes properness. He’s done everything he was supposed to do, got a steady job at city hall and eventually became the head of department, but now he feels foolish and lonely. Mitsuo and his wife seem to resent him and talk openly about their plans to use their inheritance, along with Watanabe’s retirement bonus, for a downpayment on a “modern” home the polar opposite of the pre-war townhouse where the family continue to live. 

Mitsuo and Kazue (Kyoko Seki) are perhaps emblems of the increasingly empty consumerism of the post-war era, emotionally disconnected from Watanabe and seeking only the flashy and new. Miss Odagiri, the young woman from work, immediately says that she’d love to live in a home like Watanabe’s rather than the crowded multiple occupancy flat she currently inhabits with her family. Cheerful and outgoing, Odagiri is on the other hand a symbol of a new generation that wants something more out of life than simple material comfort and might even be willing to trade it for a small amount of happiness. Having worked at city hall for all of 18 months, she decides that she just can’t take it anymore and is quitting to get a job in a factory making toy rabbits that she says allow her to feel as if she’s making friends with all the babies in Japan. 

To that extent, Watanabe is himself also a baby craving Odagiri’s company admitting that he envies her youth and vitality in realising he squandered his own and will never get it back. How uncomfortable it must be for her, their final meeting in a restaurant sandwiched between a loving couple and teenage girl’s birthday party as Watanabe, gaunt and shrunken, claws at the air and begs her to help him live. Yet even within the grotesquery the tone is ironic, the strains of “Happy Birthday” accompanying Watanabe down the stairs as a the high school climbs up to meet her friends signalling his (re)birth as a man with purpose and determination. Just as Odagiri had found meaning in the rabbit, Watanabe finds it deciding to get a playground built over a post-war swamp in the slums filled with raw sewage and mosquitos that left the local children ill. 

Yet children’s parks aren’t particularly profitable which is presumably why the petition to build one had been kicked all round city hall in the infernal wheel of bureaucracy in which Watanabe too is trapped. “You call this democracy?” one of the women bringing the petition asks, taking the clerk to task complaining that all they do is fob them off insisting it’s someone else’s responsibility to help while determined only to guard their own turf. “You’re not supposed to do anything at city hall” someone ironically adds, “the best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all”. Watanabe did nothing at all for 30 years and it got him nowhere, his dedication to his job disrupting his relationship with his son though Watanabe is ironically one of the most emotional men and engaged fathers seen on screen in the post-war era. 

After his death, in the park he helped build for which the deputy mayor has taken credit, his colleagues put him on trial at the wake trying to work out why he did it and whether or not he even knew he was dying seeing as he told no one close him not even the son whom he felt he could no longer trust. They deny his role while both praising and condemning his passion as somehow improper, disrupting the dispassionate rhythms of the bureaucratic machine with human emotion. It was only coincidence, they say. The deputy mayor wanted an election and the yakuza wanted to turn the swamp into a red light district. “Did he think he could just build a park?” someone adds, bemused by his effrontery as a man from Public Affairs straying into the Parks Department’s territory. You have to protect your turf after all. Finally moved by Watanabe’s last ditch bid to make his life mean something, to feel alive and know he has lived, the the drunken salarymen, all but one who retreats to look at Watanabe’s photo above the altar, swear to follow his example. 

But of course the bureaucratic wheel keeps turning, another dangerous sewage problem diverted to another department continuing the literal pollution of the capitalistic post-war society. A kind of ghost story, Kurosawa lights Shimura from below, shadows cast across his gaunt face even by his “rakish” new hat while his huge eyes have a somehow haunted, grotesque quality filled with hungry desperation. Yet it’s to childhood that Watanabe eventually returns, “perfectly happy” sitting on a swing singing a song from his youth about the price age while surrounded by snow and at last painfully, absurdly alive. 


Ikiru screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 4th & 15th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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.

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)

The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Mikio Naruse, 1960)

For a small boy in post-war Japan, childhood’s summer is already over in Mikio Naruse’s at times uncharacteristically cheerful The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Aki Tachinu) . In truth, the Japanese title is the slightly more depressing “autumn has begun” echoing the dismal circumstances that the hero eventually finds himself in while working his way towards an understanding of the disappointments and loneliness of adulthood. Abandoned by his mother he remains alone, in a sense homeless, trapped between the new Japan and the old in a liminal space shrinking by the hour as the construction of modernity encroaches all around him. 

The amazement on Hideo’s (Kenzaburo Osawa) face is palpable as he exits a train station in the middle of Tokyo peering up at the high rise buildings amid busy city streets. He and his mother Shigeko (Nobuko Otowa) have travelled by train from rural Nagano following the death of his father intending to stay with his mother’s brother (Kamatari Fujiwara) who owns an old-fashioned grocery store in Ginza. What Shigeko has not really explained to her son is that they will not be living there together as she has taken a job as a live-in hostess at a nearby inn. 

Plunged into this unfamiliar world all alone, Hideo cannot help but feel awkward in the house of relatives he has never before met. His grown-up cousins playfully argue in front of him about having to share a room, while he makes a point of not eating too much at dinner though as Harue (Hisako Hara) jokes perhaps he doesn’t like the food seeing as his penny pinching uncle mainly feeds the family on fruit and veg from the store that’s gone past its best. Meanwhile, he struggles to make friends with the local children who mock his country bumpkin accent and use him as a scapegoat when it looks like they might get in trouble. His only companion is the precocious daughter of the owner of the inn where his mother works, Junko (Futaba Hitotsugi), who instantly takes to him and even goes so far as to beg her mother to adopt Hideo as an older brother. 

Junko is in a similarly liminal position herself as we later find out. Her mother (Murasaki Fujima) is the mistress of a wealthy businessman who only visits them every so often and appears to be well aware of the precarity of her position. Junko’s father, awkwardly inviting her out on a playdate with his other two children born to his legal wife who apparently knows everything and at least pretends to be alright with it, urges her mother to take advantage of rocketing Ginza land prices and sell the inn to buy a fancy new apartment but she is understandably wary. Running an inn is all she knows how to do and should he die or simply decide to drop her she’d be in trouble fairly quickly. Hideo’s cousins similarly nag their father to sell the shop, reminding him that with the increasing gentrification of the area there is no longer sufficient footfall to support it, and suggesting they use the money to buy larger premises in suburbia. Both Hideo and Junko are in a sense orphans of these liminal spaces, relics of a disappearing Japan soon to be eclipsed by endless office buildings symbols of the nation’s increasing economic prosperity. 

All of the sites on which the children play are earmarked for construction, Junko later explaining that the docks where they eventually head looking for the sea are built on reclaimed land big enough to build a baseball field. Like Hideo she longs for the country with clean air and unpolluted rivers though as Hideo points out it’s all the same to him, his mother isn’t in either place and so neither has any meaning for him. Her strange idea of adopting Hideo is in a way an attempt to anchor herself with family, assuring her mother that she’s old enough to understand but struggling to parse her family circumstances while deeply hurt on discovering she does have siblings after all only they don’t want to know her. She is looked down upon because of the choices her mother has made, as is Hideo especially after his mother leaves abruptly with a customer from the inn (Daisuke Kato) abandoning him with his uncle in search of romantic fulfilment which it seems she probably did not find considering a later telegram explaining she’s working as a maid at a hotel in the resort town of Atami. 

Shigeko is made out to be the villain, but she too is only chasing safety in a changing society hoping to find it in the arms of a reliable man be he a husband or not. Hideo may be an obstacle to that, but her anxiety is mostly maternal, unwilling to rely on her brother’s goodwill and knowing she will need to find a way to support her son even if she is not with him. Hideo’s cousins meanwhile are the youth of the new society. Harue has rejected the old-fashioned family grocers and now works in a department store while her former student protestor boyfriend is certain of getting a salaryman job seeing as there’s a massive labour shortage. Shotaro (Yosuke Natsuki), who is always kind to Hideo, runs around town on his scooter ferrying girls to the beach sometimes forgetting his melancholy cousin in favour of transitory pleasures. He envisages taking over the store and selling it to open up somewhere new, reassuring Hideo that there will always be a place for him there even while letting him down in the present. 

In the end, Hideo’s only friend is a beetle packaged in a box of apples from his grandma in the country which his uncle selfishly claims for the shop under the rationale that he can’t eat them all himself. A symbol of an older, rural Japan as well of the idyllic childhood for which Hideo’s longs, the beetle is as out of place in central Tokyo as he is the pair of them looking down on the sprawling city and out towards the barely visible sea from the roof of a department store which holds no sense of promise for them. Despite the bleakness of the ending, Naruse’s depiction of an ordinary childhood is deceptively cheerful perhaps implying that Hideo is merely enduring a period of adjustment only to leave him with the crushing weight of impossibility, trapped between the new society and the old with no home to go to. 


French release trailer (French subtitles only)

The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Tai Kato, 1973)

After joining the studio in the mid-1950s, Tai Kato quickly made a reputation for himself with Toei’s key brand of ninkyo eiga yakuza movies set in the chivalrous world of pre-war gangsterdom. By the early 70s, however, the genre was already played out and Kato began to work more frequently with other studios and in various genres but 1973’s The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Nihon kyoka den), produced for Toho the studio which he had first joined at the beginning of his career in 1937, takes him back to his ninkyo roots if less directly in a politicised tale revolving around the 1918 rice riots

The film opens, however, a few years earlier with the heroine, Mine (Hiroko Maki), attempting to sell children’s educational picture books aboard a train (an activity strictly prohibited). As she explains, they are in the middle of a recession and times are hard for everyone though as we discover the reason for Mine’s journey is that she is in the process of eloping with the mild-mannered Minoru (Kunio Murai), the son of a wealthy family with literary dreams, who is prevented from marrying her because of the class difference between them. The couple are doing well enough evading detection, but are caught out when accidentally implicated in the murder of a treacherous politician by left-wing agitator/noble gangster Seijiro (Tetsuya Watari) who fatefully locks eyes with Mine while trying to escape forever binding their fates together. 

Epic in length the film was originally released in two parts with an interval in-between, this first half focussing on Mine’s doomed romance which is thwarted in part by the outdated social codes of the early Taisho society and the moral cowardice of her lover who finds himself unable to resist them. The pair are thrown in prison as possible co-conspirators and beaten by the police, Mine striking up a friendship with a woman, Tsuru (Junko Toda), imprisoned for distributing pamphlets as a labour activist who later helps her to get a waitressing job and teaches her rudimentary writing while Minoru lounges around in their home sort of writing a novel. Tsuru seems to be touched by their cross-class romance, “where love is concerned to hell with social status!” she insists berating Minoru for giving in so easily when the pair are finally tracked down by his austere mother. Her socialist activism may not directly rub off on Mine but does perhaps inform her later actions after discovering the depths of Minoru’s spinelessness, rescued after a failed bid at double suicide by a truly good man, Kinzo (Meicho Soganoya), who also happens to be a traditional yakuza heading a harbour gang in Kobe. 

After becoming his wife, Mine comes to witness the persistent unfairness and exploitation all around her as mediated by the outcry surrounding the fluctuation of rice prices in the late 1910s caused by attempts at profiteering and the necessity of supplying the military forces then participating in the war in Europe. Meanwhile, would be local dictator and amoral yakuza Kishimoto (Toru Abe) is intent on squeezing the Osada gang out of the harbour further pushing up rice prices while in cahoots with corrupt local authorities. Seijiro re-enters her life when dispatched to assassinate Kinzo on the orders of Kishimoto but stabbing him as carefully as possible to make sure he doesn’t die, thereafter switching sides to fight for the rights of the poor who he warns face even greater oppression should a man like Kishimoto be allowed to dominate the harbour. 

With Kinzo out of action, Mine assumes her natural destiny as a local leader doing her best to stand up to Kishimoto and the corrupt authorities but still faces difficulty getting her voice heard without a man standing next to her. On taking Kinzo’s place at a meeting of local bosses, she is dismissed as “just a woman” before a sympathetic naval officer decides to hand her a lucrative job shifting rice intended for sailors overseas because of her knowledge of current affairs undercutting Kishimoto’s attempts to game the system. It’s the trust the navy have in her that later saves her again when she is arrested and brutally tortured by corrupt policemen working with Kishimoto intent on tracking down Seijiro for the murder on the train all those years previously. Mine’s rise is also in a sense Seijiro’s redemption as he atones for the attack on Kinzo, rejects his association with Kishimoto to re-embrace his socialist beliefs, and fulfils the romantic destiny sparked when their eyes met on the train. 

Drawing a direct line between burgeoning militarism and gangsterdom along with the amoral exploitations of an increasingly capitalist society, Kato makes his intentions clear by dropping a ninkyo eiga hero into a world of infinite corruptions in which he eventually becomes a defender of the poor. Kato’s striking composition and use of colour along with expressionistic imagery lend the air of legend implied by the title as Mine fights her way through the oppressions of her era as a figurehead for justice in an increasingly unjust society.


Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)