Last night I watched Akira Kurosawa’s film noir High and Low (1963), which was based on Ed McBain’s detective novel, King’s Ransom. The first part of the film is concerned with setting up the kidnapping and moral dilemma faced by the main protagonist Kingo Gondo. After the ransom has been paid, the rest of the film is devoted to the detective work that will bring the criminal to justice. In this sense, it is similar to Stray Dog in that it shows Kurosawa’s fascination with the intricacies of police work as we move step by step with the police as they draw closer to the capture of the kidnapper/murderer. However, since this is Kurosawa, there is more at play than a simple who dunnit. High and Low refers to the class status of the victim and criminal, Gondo lives high up on a bluff overlooking Yokohoma, while the under class toils in the valley below trapped in sweltering heat, while Gondo enjoys the high life in his air conditioned villa high above the city. But there is a distinction between Gondo and the other executives who force him out of his job, Gondo make the right moral decision to save the boy who is not his son and garners the respect of the public, furthermore, he is a craftsman who is drive to work and create quality shoes useful to society. The murderer is driven by a sense of outrage-why does Gondo get to live high above the bluff while he must toil away as a an intern in the valley below. We are never given the back story of the criminal who request to speak with Gondo before he is executed at he end-Kurosawa uses a sort of mirror technique in the window to show that their fates are intertwined as a sort of doppelganger like Yusa, the criminal, and Murakami, the cop, in Stray Dog. Gondo also came from humble beginnings and built himself up, but could have become resentful and negative like Takeguchi. In addition, it was interesting to see the use of heroin in the henchmen who Takeguchi kills by giving them pure heroin so that they overdose saving his alibi; this is where the film goes even lower. The café where the score takes place is a jazz joint full of foreigners-it is sort of shocking to see such a modern setting for a Kurosawa film since I have been watching so many period pieces in the last year. This criterion collection DVD has no special features, just a new transfer. Minor Kurosawa, but still interesting to watch.
The same week I rented Dead Or Alive, I also got Dolls by Takeshi Kitano. It was a film filled great images of beauty and sadness, but dragged a bit. His trademark bursts of violence were missing from this film. It comprised three tales of devotion. In the first a young man breaks off his engagement with a young woman to marry his boss’ daughter. But on the day of the wedding his former fiancé tries to commit suicide but survives with mental damage. He devotes his life to taking care of her and ties a sash between them (because she is given to wandering), and they wander the countryside known as the “Bound Beggars.” The second story concerns a couple who meet every Saturday and the woman brings two bento boxes, one for the man who abandons the ritual when he becomes a yakuza boss. Later he returns to the park in a wave of nostalgia and finds the old woman continuing the ritual. The third story is about a pop star that is disfigured by an accident possibly caused by a daydreaming fan, who later makes a great sacrifice for her. All stories contian elemants of tragedy, but I won't give those away. Overall, quite beautiful and lyrical, Kitano has a pencahnt for impressive locations and bold colors. However, it’s a bit long at almost two hours.
Sunday I saw Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, which is a continuation to an excellent film he made in 1995 with the leads Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply, Before Sunrise. The first film took place in Vienna and this film takes place in Paris. It’s definitely one of the best films of 2004 in my opinion, and one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen. I think this is because there was still a compelling story to be told. It wasn’t made just to cash in on a hit, I’m sure the first film was a modest success, if it made any money at all. Like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset is a sort of "talking heads" film in that it is essentially an extended conversation, but it resonates because of the back-story, the acting, and the quality of the writing. The two characters were supposed to meet six months after their initial encounter in Vienna, but they didn’t happen and they meet 9 years later during Jesse’s (Hawke) book tour in Paris, which Celine (Deply) attends. So they have to resolve the issue of why they didn’t meet up, or rather what went wrong, since one of them made the trip. Jesse has to be on a flight in the evening and the conversations they have goes straight to the bone, there’s little small talk as they talk about their lives since the last meeting, sex, religion, politics, and romantic disillusionment. Perhaps that was the most interesting aspect of their encounter for me. They look back and realize how naïve or romantic they were in their youth. Life has taught them that soul mates, or people that you connect easily with don’t come around so often and these people are to be cherished. They both have had their share of heartbreak and disappointment and they are more at home with their disappointments in life, but that doesn’t make them any less painful or significant. I feel really connected to this film in that I saw the original version almost 10 years ago in 1994, and seeing this film almost 10 years later brings my life around full-circle with the characters-I can relate to what they have gone through and how they feel now. I would guess people older could recognize the moment in their lives when they’ve lost their romantic ideals or have had to make compromises because of life. But perhaps younger people won’t be able to identify with these characters. I guess I see their situation as being pretty specific, but maybe not-has anyone else seen this film yet? I like how this film ends ambiguously like its predecessor. I think it’s a test of whether you are a romantic or realist, when you make predictions about what will happen to Jesse and Celine when the film ends.
I just finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell; it’s a fascinating little book about how some people make extremely accurate split second decisions. On the back it suggests placing the book in the “Self Help/Psychology” section of the book store, which I find a bit perplexing, it is about psychology, but it’s nowhere near a self help book, in fact it reads like an extended New Yorker magazine article, which it might be, since Gladwell writes for the magazine. I remember reading some of his pieces before, and I’ve been recommended his web site by my friend Eric. Anyway, it is interesting why some people are able to see things in a glance that regular people can’t. I particularly found the section, 7 Seconds In The Bronx, which discusses what went wrong in the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting (he was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time and took 41 bullets for it) and what it says about people under pressure and police officers in particular was quite revealing. But all of the chapters were equally interesting and well written. I found it though provoking to evaluate how I personally used “thin-slicing” (looking at limited individual moments of time with scrutiny) in daily life.
The other night I went to a birthday party at The Hanezawa Garden. This is the bar at The Hanezawa Garden, which doesn't do justice to the beauty of the restaurant (it's a refurbished Taisho era Japanese house with Asian furnishings), but it was difficult to take a good picture since it wasn't well-lit. But this is the first time I've been indoors there, I went there last year once for a birthday party and sat outisde in the terrace, and it has one of the finest outdoor seating sections in Tokyo-you forget you're in a city, because of the impressive garden with trees all around. Furthermore, it is siuated in a residential area far from the bustling main streets.
Not long ago I ordered three Kurosawa films from Amazon.com, and recently I saw The Lower Depths 2 Disk Criterion Collection Edition. It contains Jean Renoir’s 1936 version as well as Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 version of the Maxim Gorky play of the same name. Perhaps it is interesting and easiest to compare and contrast the two films. Kurosawa was well-steeped in western culture and was a fan of Gorky and Renoir often gets inspiration from western sources and then adapts them for his purposes to make a statement about Japanese society in particular, while keeping the universal themes in tact. First off Renoir's film takes place at a flophouse in the wake of the solidarity of the leftist Popular Front, which created a new sense of solidarity with the Soviet Union. In Kurosawa’s version the film takes place in a tenement during the Edo period (which was known for prosperity). The Renoir version is more of a showcase for the two main stars, the baron (Louis Jovet) and the thief Pepel (Jean Gabin). In contrast, Kurosawa’s version is much more of an ensemble piece. However some performances do stand out, particularly Toshiro Mifune as Sutekichi the thief and Bokuzen Hidari as Kahei the pilgrim. Furthermore, Renoir makes more use of cinematic possibilities by presenting several setting changes throughout the film. In contrast, Kurosawa’s film almost takes place entirely in the tenement house or near the landlord’s house. In addition, Kurosawa had the actors rehearse extensively for the scenes, which were often extremely long takes. Renoir’s version shows the baron’s easy descent into poverty and friendship with Pepel, which may have signified the similarities between the classes, but apparently it was something missing from the original play. Even though I haven’t read the play, but I plan to in the future, both directors had to adapt the play for their times and respective cultures. For Kurosawa this meant incorporating aspects of Shintoism and Buddhism, not to mention allusions to kabuki through out the film. For example his use of the bakabayashi, a sort of comic chorus taken from Shinto shrine festival that ends the film. It is interesting to note that Renoir’s film ends on a more hopeful note than Kurosawa’s, which is more faithful to the original impression of the play according to the liner notes. I found it interesting and entertaining to compare and contrast the two different approaches-now it’s time to read the original play. Once again the good people at Criterion have put together a first rate package full of extras: an introduction tot the French film by Renoir, essays on both films, a commentary by Donald Richie, as well as a 33 minute documentary on the film.