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)

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.

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)

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.

One Wonderful Sunday (素晴らしき日曜日, Akira Kurosawa, 1947)

A young couple attempt to have a nice day out in Tokyo for only 35 yen but eventually discover something much more valuable in Akira Kurosawa’s surprisingly upbeat voyage through the backstreets of the post-war city, One Wonderful Sunday (素晴らしき日曜日, Subarashiki Nichiyobi). Though it may begin with frustration and progress to abject despair, the film allows its dejected heroes to find renewed hope for the future in the ashes of their defeat if only through the power of make-believe. 

Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita) are a young(ish) couple who’ve been together since before the war but are unable to marry because their precarious financial situation prevents them from finding a home in which they can live together. Though they are each in full employment, Masako currently lives with her sister and Yuzo with a friend. They can only spend Sundays together, but this particular Sunday Yuzo is fulled with frustration and resentment. He has only 15 yen, not much of a date as he tells Masako with irritation explaining that she’s had a wasted journey. She reveals that she has 20, but Yuzo has his male pride and is reluctant to take “a woman’s money” while internally humiliated not to be able to take her out on the town. Just before she had arrived, Yuzo had stared at an abandoned cigarette butt on the pavement. His desire soon overcame his shame. He picked it up and smoked it, only for Masako to bat it out of his hand as if insisting that he’s better than that. 

For her part, Masako is defiantly upbeat. Perhaps she’s putting on a brave face for Yuzo, but does her best to buoy his spirits so they can have a nice day together. It may be her only nice day all week. While she looks forward, he cannot move beyond the dissatisfying present. Masako begins by suggesting they check out a show home advertised on a billboard as a new kind of residence which is cheaper to build and available for only 100,000 yen for the first 100 buyers. She imagines how their life might be together in this space, while Yuzo merely sulks in the corner and points out the shoddiness of the build amid declining modern standards. It’s advertised as affordable, but they can’t afford it. Meanwhile, another man wanders in with a woman who is clearly his mistress. She exclaims that the place is a dump, “I hate matchbox houses”, while he agrees that it’s cheap for a reason and you get what you pay for. Presumably he already owns a home where his wife and family live and is about to drop a small fortune on a discreet love nest while his mistress, not unreasonably, attempts to haggle her way up to something a bit more fancy. Yuzo knows he won’t ever be able to afford even this “inexpensive” home that a wealthy man disdains as not worthy of his bit on the side. They’ve just come from seeing a crummy flat a few streets away which Masako asks directions to only to be put off by the doorman who warns them that the flat isn’t even really habitable and the landlord is heartless but they couldn’t afford that either even on the assumption they would both keep working (which depending on Masako’s job might not possible once she marries).

The landscape around them is in ruins. Yuzo and Masako wander through a bombed out city not yet ready for reconstruction looking for somewhere to stay out of the cold without eating into their 35 yen. He wants to give up and go home, but she convinces him to attend a concert of the music they heard on their first date before the war only when they get there all the cheaper tickets have been bought up by touts who sell them on at 50% markup. Beaten up for challenging the touts’ uncompromising cynicism, Yuzo hits rock bottom returning to his flat in a rundown tenement where a woman mopping the corridor gives Masako serious side eye. Frustrated, he tries to pressure her into premarital sex, her rock bottom coming a few minutes later when she firstly leaves in outrage and then returns as if admitting that their situation will never improve. 

“The war destroyed that dream” Yuzo had said of Masako’s attempt to rekindle his hopes for the future in the plan they made to open a cafe together after they married, but the reality of their mutual defeat finally seems to inspire defiance in the face of the world’s hostility. On their journey through the city, they’d encountered a ragged street kid who thought them fools after they refused his offer of ten yen for one of their rice balls and simply gave it to him out of human kindness. Yuzo felt himself a fool after trying to visit an old friend who’s done well for himself with a swanky cabaret bar only to be rebuffed and see his own image reflected in a mirror with his threadbare overcoat and battered hat juxtaposed with the image of a fine young couple eyeing him with disdain and suspicion. In the end Masako can only appeal to us, breaking the fourth wall in a moment reminiscent of Peter Pan asking us to clap if we believe in fairies as she tries to revive Yuzo’s sense of naive possibility to conduct an unfinished symphony of their imagined life together in a happier future of post-war Japan. Refusing to give in to their baser instincts, to become cynical and selfish or else simply to give up, this wonderful Sunday does seem to have given them a childish sense of hope that better days are on their way and until then there’s always next week. 


One Wonderful Sunday screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 3rd & 15th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

No Regrets for Our Youth (わが青春に悔なし, Akira Kurosawa, 1946)

“Freedom is something you have to fight for” a young woman is ironically reminded by her progressively-minded father as she finds herself torn between the conservatism of her upbringing as an upper middle class daughter of an academic family and a bid for independence in the freedoms of the post-war society. In part a lament for a lost generation whose resistance towards rising militarism had been all but forgotten, No Regrets for Our Youth (わが青春に悔なし, Waga Seishun ni Kuinashi), is also the story of a post-war woman seeking new directions which in this case eventually send her back to the land.

Then again, there’s no denying that Yukie’s (Setsuko Hara) dilemma is framed as romantic, torn between a dynamic communist and a spineless conservative while otherwise in her youth fairly vacuous. As the film opens, she frolics with some of her father’s students at a local mountain that overlooks Kyoto University. Caught on a stepping stone she awaits help from either the charismatic Noge (Susumu Fujita) or the diffident Itokawa (Akitake Kono) before Noge boldly dashes forward and carries her to the bank. Seeing Itokawa looking sheepish and embarrassed, she tugs on his student cap as if she hasn’t quite yet made up her mind which path she will take. “If I married you, my life would be calm and peaceful,” Yukie later reveals to Itokawa, “but it would also be a bit boring”, whereas if she married Noge “my life would burn so brightly that I might be blinded.” 

Even so, her outlook as the professor’s daughter leans towards the conservative. During the picnic on the mountain, the students suddenly hear the sound of cadets training with firearms Yukie exclaiming that it makes her heart race before ominously discovering the body of a wounded solider in the overgrowth. She declares that she hates “leftists” and that her father is a “liberal” not a “red” but will any case eventually be vindicated. Though attracted to Noge’s passionate nature, she seems to find him dull company, “boring” in his constant conversation about the rise of fascism while visibly bristling when he all but calls her a vacuous socialite and says she needs a “slap in the face to grow up” which is in a sense what he’s just given her. Her life had been that of a privileged upperclass girl cosseted from the world, engaging with refined pursuits such as playing the piano and learning traditional flower arrangement. Her epiphany seems to come when she realises she’s been doing as she’s told, reminded that flower arrangement is a means of self-expression suddenly tearing the heads off chrysanthemums and crafting something truly avant-garde that is in its own way quietly shocking. Notably her flower arrangements while living with Noge are much more harmonious. 

Still she wavers, wondering if she should give in to the quiet life she’d have with a man like Itokawa, a man with no ideology who sides with the militarists and becomes a prosecutor because it is expedient to do so, or continue to wait for Noge who by this point has been in prison and ostensibly renounced his socialist beliefs to join the army. What she chooses independence, breaking with the conventional life her mother wanted for her to support herself with a job at a trading company in Tokyo. Running into Itokawa in the city, he strongly hints to her that Noge is, from his point of view, up to no good running a kind of think tank as an expert on China. 

When Yukie chooses Noge she implies it’s because she wants “something I can throw myself into body and soul”, hoping to join him in his new cause prepared as her father had warned her to make sacrifices in the struggle for freedom. In the one sense, it’s Yukie making up her own mind to abandon her privileged background to live her life with no regrets, but it’s also impossible to ignore that the cause she dedicates herself to is that of her husband. Committed to making Noge’s parents, both peasant farmers, understand that he was not an “ungrateful” son but a man who did his best to oppose the war and fight for peace and prosperity in Japan, she commits herself to the land and wins them over with the strength of her resolve. The hands that once played piano are now rough with work and it is in this she has found her purpose. Yet it’s difficult to say if the austerity of her new life represents ultimate freedom or only further constraint in the imperative of her continued suffering. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, if as she says she has no regrets for her youth as she joins hands with the peasant farmers leaving her privileged upbringing behind her even as her mother remarks that with her father reinstated at the university it’s as if nothing had changed. There is then something quite poignant as she sits by the stream and sees the students file past her singing their song of protest that in the end went unheeded while she prepares to reject modernity in its entirety and return to the simplicity of the land.


No Regrets for Our Youth screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Great White Tower (白い巨塔, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1966)

“It’s about the right thing to do, it’s about conscience, and Prof. Zaizen lacks conscience” according to a star witness at the conclusion of a medical malpractice trial in Satsuo Yamamoto’s adaptation of the novel by Toyoko Yamasaki, The Great White Tower (白い巨塔, Shiroi Kyoto). One of a series of films heavily critical of the medical system in the midst of rising economic prosperity, Yamamoto’s tense political drama presents the succession intrigue at a university hospital as an allegory for the nation as a whole implying that lingering feudalistic and authoritarian thinking has poisoned the contemporary society. 

This is in part reflected in the way in which major hospitals are often run as large family businesses where succession is a dynastic matter. In this case, however, the scene is a prominent university hospital in Osaka at which the head of the surgical department, Azuma (Eijiro Tono), is about to retire. Generally, one of his assistant professors would simply move up after being approved by a board comprised of other department heads but the problem is no one, and especially not Azuma, is particularly happy with the most likely candidate, Zaizen (Jiro Tamiya). The issue between them seems to be one of ambition and authority. Zaizen is regarded by all as an excellent doctor with a stellar track record but he is also cold and arrogant with no regard for departmental protocol all of which of course offends Azuma as does his background and person. The son of a country teacher, Zaizen prospered through the dedicated labour of his widowed mother along with family connections before marrying into the extraordinarily wealthy and influential Zaizen family who run a large obstetrics clinic. Consequently, he is free to pursue his interests and lacks the economic anxiety that might make another employee wary of pushing his luck. 

His humble background might have placed a chip on Zaizen’s shoulder but it’s also clear he’s part of a new generation that does things differently from the last, apparently keen to build a public media brand appearing in a glossy magazine which brands him “the magic scalpel” thanks to his success in treating pancreatic cancer. While they might not be able to argue with his track record, other doctors worry that Zaizen has developed a god complex and is slapdash with his practice often timing his operations and smugly pleased with himself when hitting a new record. Azuma first picks him up on this in the case of elderly patient, questioning his treatment decisions in accusing him of neglecting to fully consider the patient’s post-op wellbeing. This then becomes something of a recurring theme as good doctor Satomi (Takahiro Tamura) is minded to bring Zaizen in on the tricky case of a man, Sasaki (Nobuo Minamikata), he suspects may have pancreatic cancer but has been repeatedly diagnosed with chronic gastritis. 

Though it’s political intrigue that in some senses leads him to Zaizen, Satomi is otherwise depicted as the responsible physician who deeply cares for his patients’ wellbeing and not much at all for interoffice politics. Thus he continues to investigate Sasaki’s case even when other doctors tell him he’s wasting too much time on one patient and should just leave it at gastritis. Zaizen, meanwhile, is the exact opposite taking one look at the X-rays and deciding it is pancreatic cancer after all but thereafter ignoring Satomi’s advice after taking over the case refusing to run a CT scan to verify that the cancer hasn’t spread to the lungs as Satomi fears it might have. 

For Zaizen Sasaki ceases to matter, to him the human body is no different to a machine and he perhaps more engineer than doctor even as he proclaims medicine more art than science in insisting that he just knows the early signs of pancreatic cancer while others are unable to detect them. After the first operation we see him perform, a grateful wife stops to thank him profusely for saving her husband’s life though he treats her coldly and implies it’s all part of the job before going outside to celebrate his private glory in his record-breaking feat. It’s then a minor irony that he finds himself later slapped with a malpractice suit by Sasaki’s wife upset that he was unavailable as her husband was dying because he was preoccupied with the ongoing elections for Azuma’s successor.

The implication is that the dehumanisation of the health industry has reduced it to the status of any other company, the head doctors no better than ambitious salarymen whose lives are defined by their job titles. The various department heads eventually descend into factions with Azuma plumping for an external candidate, Kikukawa (Eiji Funakoshi), while others line up behind Zaizen or his internal rival Kasai (Koichi Ito). Influence is brokered largely by outright bribery or industry manipulation by external influential players including Zaizen’s wealthy father-in-law and a professor in Tokyo who can offer monetary perks, access to funding, and potential promotions to those willing to vote for their chosen candidate. The main argument against Zaizen is his bad character, yet the fact he has been carrying on an affair with a bar hostess is never used against him even as they prepare to smear a rival candidate with his mistress even suggesting they hire a hitman to take him out completely. Zaizen’s minions meanwhile make an ill-advised visit to Kikukawa to ask him to withdraw bizarrely stating the importance of maintaining “democracy” even as they themselves deliberately undermine it for their own gain.  

It’s this sense of feudalistic, fascistic authoritarian chumminess that Azuma’s daughter Saeko (Shiho Fujimura) later decries in asking her father why he did nothing to change such a destructive system while he himself had the power to do so the implication being that he saw no need because he continued benefit from it. Only she and Satomi present any kind of challenge to the hypocrisy that pervades the medical system but eventually discover that there is no place for integrity in the contemporary society. Zaizen miraculously falls upwards every time because his success is more expedient that his failure. Even the Tokyo professor brought in as an expert witness during the malpractice suit declares that Zaizen is unfit to be a physician because of his arrogance and total lack of human feeling but pulls back from testifying that he caused the death of his patient through negligence later explaining to a colleague that if a university professor were to be found guilty of malpractice it would undermine public faith in the medical system. 

If can’t they can’t have faith in the medical system, the very people who are supposed to care for them when they are most in need, how can they have faith in anything else? As the rather bleak conclusion makes clear, the entire system is rotten to the core and no longer has any place for idealists like Satomi who are continually pushed to the margins by those jockeying for power in this infinitely corrupt society defined by hierarchy and cronyism while ordinary people, like Sasaki, continue to pay the price. Just as in his opening sequence, Yamamoto takes a scalpel to the operations of the medical industry to expose the messy viscera below but ultimately can offer no real cure in the face of such an overwhelming systemic failure. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Red Handkerchief (赤いハンカチ, Toshio Masuda, 1964)

The moral compromises of the post-war era are brought home to a trio of frustrated lovers in Toshio Masuda’s Nikkatsu “mood action”, Red Handkerchief (赤いハンカチ, Akai Handkerchief). Starring an ageing Yujiro Ishihara perhaps cast slightly against type as an ultra noble policeman choosing self-exile after accidentally shooting dead a key witness, who also happens to be the father of the woman he loved, in order to save his partner, Masuda’s noirish melodrama takes aim squarely at the radiating effects of social inequality and the moral bankruptcy of an increasingly prosperous society. 

Masuda opens, however, with an old-fashioned foot chase as cops Mikami (Yujiro Ishihara) and Ishizuka (Hideaki Nitani) attempt to run down a drug mule carrying a briefcase full of illicit substances. The suspect later gets hit by a truck and killed while the briefcase is nowhere to be found. Concluding the mule must have abandoned it at a ramen stand he ran past on the way, the cops haul in the old man running it, Hiraoka (Shin Morikawa), who seems to know more than he’s letting on but is too terrified of the gangsters to consider giving anything up. In an effort to get him to talk, Mikami pays a visit to his relentlessly cheerful factory worker daughter Reiko (Ruriko Asaoka), becoming instantly smitten with her as she quickly packs a bag of warm clothing and miso soup assuming her dad’s in for a bit of drunk and disorderly. Their romance is however not to be. Apparently feeling himself out of options, Hiraoka opts for suicide by proxy, grabbing Ishizuka’s gun and firing at police. An Olympic sharpshooter, Mikami draws his pistol to save his friend and the old man is killed. Guilty, the pair attempt to apologise to Reiko, but unsurprisingly she is not in the mood to accept it. 

Four years later, Mikami has left the force for a life of wandering doing odd jobs all over Japan while entertaining his co-workers with sad songs about lost love. Yokohama detective Tsuchiya (Nobuo Kaneko) eventually tracks him down in frosty Hokkaido, encouraging him to return with tales of Ishizuka’s wildly improbable success as a supermarket entrepreneur now apparently married to Mikami’s lost love Reiko. Tsuchiya thinks Mikami was set up and that Ishizuka is a dirty cop who’s been living the high life while Mikami has been slumming it in an unnecessary act of atonement for something that wasn’t really his fault. 

Though they were apparently good friends and loyal partners, Ishizuka flags up a potential source of tension early on in his solo interrogation of Hiraoka explaining that unlike Mikami he’s not an educated man and understands how difficult it is to be poor. Tsuchiya later posits this same sense of class conflict as one reason that Ishizuka may have betrayed him, that he felt inferior and that he would not be able to compete with his elite partner. Ishizuka later implies something similar in his dog eat dog view of the world, explaining to a newly conflicted Reiko that life is a matter of winning and losing and that Mikami is the very image of defeat. He views himself as a winner thanks to his burgeoning supermarket empire, taking full advantage of the rising consumerism of the post-war era and willing to do whatever it takes in order to achieve success even if that means crossing a line that Mikami would never cross. Yet he is also like Mikami hobbled by his love for the “beautiful”, “pure” Reiko, allowing his insecure acquisitiveness to turn violent in his determination to keep her or at least keep her from any other man. 

“Money rules everything!” Ishizuka insists, attempting to justify himself for his turn towards selfish individualism willing to sacrifice not only a “worthless” old man but even friendship in the conviction that he is “a man of great value, a winner!” and therefore entitled to move beyond conventional morality while using his ill-gotten gains to support needy orphans. Even he, however, is later undone by love, perhaps the one true form of “justice”, in realising that Reiko has chosen nobility in the form of Mikami and could never accept the man he is or the things he’s done. A romantic melodrama masquerading as a crime thriller, Red Handkerchief finds Masuda in expressionist mode, the pounding machinery at the foundry where Reiko works pulverising Mikami’s noble heart as his romantic dreams are crushed, the highway streetlights dancing across Reiko’s windscreen as she returns in confusion, and in the constant use of weather to indicate the mood, the sky suddenly brightening behind Ishizuka as his confidence returns. Echoing in The Third Man in its melancholy ending, however, even if slightly inverted, Masuda sets his battered hero adrift in the confusions of the post-war era striding into the mist guitar in hand a perpetual wanderer. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)