In Which Kurosawa Class Finishes Up with High and Low, Red Beard, Dodes’ka-den, and Madadayo
Alright, I’ll admit, I’m very late getting these done. Week 20 was actually 2 weeks ago, and Week 21 was last week. Sue me, I was busy. But hey - now I’m not busy! Because I don’t have a class this month! Hooray! As such, the Grad School Adventures will be taking a short break, but I’ve got some newer movies to discuss and hopefully some other writings and updates to do, so I won’t go silent on you all month, I promise.
The first film of this group was High and Low, Kurosawa’s excellent crime drama that serves as a tense thriller, police procedural, and social commentary film all at once. I talked about how Kurosawa sets up the separation between the two halves of the film by creating a sense of confinement in the film’s first section in Kingo Gondo’s (Toshiro Mifune) hilltop residence. Until the film actually leaves his home and moves into the lower parts of the city, the audience has no expectation that the film will ever leave the home nor any reason to consider to any great extent what is happening outside his home. The film physically cuts off the outside with the creation of the set, which is surrounded by windows that are blocked by curtains, shutting out the outside, and then utilizing multi-camera shooting, which because of its very nature leaves the image constantly surrounding the action in the living room, creating a circle around the action that further contains it and excludes everything outside. It is not until the train scene that we are allowed outside of Gondo’s home, and from that point on the film is largely set in the world of the “low”, forcing us to suddenly consider this entirely different social setting and how the difference between the two places might cause someone like kidnapper Takeuchi (Tsutomo Yamazaki) to become so bitter and hateful toward Gondo and the class separations he symbolizes.
My discussion of the next film, Red Beard, also touched on High and Low's split narrative and Ikiru's split narrative, as Red Beard's two sections, created by Kurosawa's use of an intermission, function similarly to the two earlier films. In all three, the first half of the film focuses on the film's main protagonist and hero, presenting him with a dilemma (Watanabe's mortality in Ikiru, the kidnapping and ransom in High and Low, and defying the clinic or adapting to it in Red Beard). All three show some sense of moral failing (Watanabe is wasting his life in bureaucracy, Gondo is employing ruthless business tactics, and Yasumoto [Yuzo Kayama] cares about his career and position more than healing people), but by the halfway point in each film, they all come to make the correct moral decision. The second half of each film then changes the focus from the moral growth of the protagonists to showing how that growth impacts other people. In Ikiru, the film moves to Watanabe’s funeral to show his coworkers and family grappling to explain his unusual behavior in his final weeks. In High and Low, the film focuses on the police search for Takeuchi, with the police and the public inspired by Gondo’s heroism and Takeuchi frustrated by the treatment of Gondo as a martyr. In Red Beard, the change comes as Yasumoto begins to care for the young Otoyo (Terumi Niki), and shows the chain reaction that healing and helping people has as more characters are inspired to become more empathetic. In each case, Kurosawa is widening the scope of his themes and messages, first applying them to an individual and then showing how they effect society at large.
Dodes’ka-den is notably different from all of Kurosawa’s previous films, and marks a new direction in his career. Not only is it his first color film, but it’s also an ensemble film with no protagonist. The change to color is particularly interesting, as this film marks a shift in Kurosawa’s filmography from his black-and-white films, which maintained a sense of realism in the imagery, whether the film is contemporary or a period piece, and even when presenting elements of fantasy or the supernatural, such as the medium in Rashomon (Throne of Blood may be an exception to this rule, but I haven’t seen it yet so can’t speak to that). Starting with Dodes’ka-den, the imagery of his films is much more fantastic (in the literal sense, “of fantasy”) and often employs exaggerated, painterly use of color and painted backdrops that create a sense of surreality in the visuals. And yet, despite this, the films don’t become unrealistic. Instead, there is what I referred to in my discussion as “a fantastic representation of reality,” where the unreality of the imagery comments on the reality of the narrative. In Dodes’ka-den, that means that fantasy and dreams play a major part in the lives of the characters of the film, who all live in a junkyard slum and use fantasy to get through their days. In some instances, that fantasy takes a positive form, such as the boy Roku-chan (Yoshitaka Zushi) who pretends to drive a trolley all day despite being mocked as a “trolley freak” by kids from the nearby town (some have suggested that the “trolley freak” was a stand-in for Kurosawa, who at the time felt like a “film freak” in Japanese cinema), and in others it takes a negative form, such as a beggar (Noboru Mitani) who spends his days fantasizing about a dream home for him and his son even as his son is dying of food poisoning. Regardless, fantasy is the escape they have in a country that has otherwise forgotten them amid its rise to prominence (remember that Japan was in the midst of its economic miracle at the time), and they make use of it as best they can.
Madadayo was Kurosawa’s last film, which gives it an extra hint of poignancy, particularly in reference to its final scene. The film’s title means “Not yet!” and is a reference to the “Not Yet Fest” that a group of loving former students throw every year for their beloved professor Hyakken Uchida’s (Tatsuo Matsumura) birthday. At these celebrations, his students ask him in unison, “Mada kai?” (Are you ready?), to which Uchida loudly replies, “Madadayo!” (Not yet!) This is meant to be his assertion that he is not ready for death. After collapsing at his last “Not Yet Fest,” Uchida sleeps and dreams of a young boy (presumably a younger version of himself) plays hide-and-seek, hiding amongst piles of straw. As a group of children in the distance search for him, they yell “Mada kai?”, to which the boy cries out, “Not yet!” Then, a bright light begins to shine on him, bidding him out of his hiding spot, at which the camera pans away from the boy towards a beautifully painted sky, with bright colors of orange and yellow and pink and purple that are, like in Dodes’ka-den, nothing like the real sky. The suggestion is that Uchida has died in his sleep, and his dream is an interpretation of his death and his moving to “the other side.” This interpretation is particularly tempting knowing that this was Kurosawa’s last film, and a film that repeatedly references the meaning of death and life. The message seems to be that, while we should not give up on life and live to the fullest as long as we can, death itself is nothing to be scared of. While Uchida is scared of the dark in the film, death is represented by light; it is warm, comforting, inviting, peaceful. It is a poetic and hopeful look at both life and death.
This is sort of random, but according to an email that I just got from Tumblr, today is the 4th birthday of “Cade Snyder and His Movie Ramblings”. That is something I never would have figured out on my own. Also the idea that I’ve been doing this for four years seems impossible. You know how old people always talk about how kids grow up so quickly and time goes by so fast? When you’re a kid, you just think adults are being weird and making boring small talk, but then you grow up and realize OH SHIT TIME MOVES FASTER NOW BECAUSE I’M MORE COGNIZANT OF IT OR SOME PSYCHOLOGICAL CRAZY SHIT OLD PEOPLE WERE RIGHT THIS WHOLE TIME
Anyway, it’s been a great four years, and for all of you that have been with me all this time or have just discovered this blog, I’m happy that you’re here and you’ve decided to follow me, even if it makes no sense to me that anyone in the world would want to do so. The Grad School Adventures will be back in July, but I’ll keep writing for you guys throughout this month, and I’ve got a handful of new films to talk about in the next few days. Until next time, be good everyone!