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Ever since I first learned about Mikio Naruse—I remember very well: during my senior year in college, I happened upon an archived review of 1955’s Floating Clouds, which Vincent Canby of the New York Times described as the work of one of Japan’s best directors—I’ve been disheartened by the general lack of exposure this man’s films have received in the United States and the even scarcer availability of information pertaining to his life and legacy. As of the time of this writing, a mere six films have acquired stateside DVD releases; ten more are available through Criterion, but only in streaming format; and the number of comprehensive, book-length studies published in English on the director can be counted on a single finger. And while my efforts in writing about Naruse over the last couple of years have been primarily out of pleasure, there has always been a certain (perhaps naïve) hope in the back of my mind that my writing about a lesser-known artist might encourage readers of this site to track down a few of his films or, at the very least, explore what Japanese cinema has to offer outside of Godzilla. I know not how successful my efforts have been, but surely to acknowledge these films for even a modicum of interested parties is of greater service than to not acknowledge them at all.
It is similarly for this reason that I took it upon myself to put together a guide on Naruse’s lost movies. (After all, if the extant films struggle to find an audience, how can interest in the non-surviving ones develop without someone shedding light on them?) Naruse directed eighty-nine pictures between 1930 and 1967. Of those eighty-nine, twenty-one have vanished. Nineteen herald from his brisk period of directing silent cinema, and the remaining two preceded what is generally acknowledged as his peak in the 1950s. All were part of a great director’s oeuvre and, as such, are worthy of investigation. This was my sentiment in researching and writing this article. I only hope my efforts will provide, at the very least, a good idea of what the missing films were about and what the experience of watching them might’ve been like. I also took great care to detail historical context—the circumstances under which the films were made and how some of them came to be lost—and hope this will be of interest as well.
And now, to extend my thanks to the authors and film historians whose individual research efforts into the lost films of Mikio Naruse made all of this possible. What you are about to read consists of data collected from various sources published in various countries—amassed and put together into a single document for easy accessibility. Everything is, unless directly quoted, my own words, but let it be known the truly hard work was carried out—decades ago, in most cases—by people far more authoritative than myself. First and foremost, there’s Audie Bock, who, along with Catherine Russell, has done more to share information about Naruse with western audiences than any other American critic; her French language book on the director, simply titled Mikio Naruse, offered not only a guide as to the order and release dates of his films but also presented a window into how Japanese film critics responded to them at the time of their release. Russell’s colossal study on Naruse, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, detailed the various career stages in which these films were made and was, in its own way, equally valuable. Another French book, Jean Narboni’s Mikio Naruse: The Uncertain Times, provided the backbone for almost all of the plot descriptions. I’ve praised, on many past occasions, Kyoko Hirano’s excellent Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the Occupation, and I praise it once more, as her findings remained useful in contextualizing the Japanese film industry as it existed in the 1940s. Major credit goes to Peter B. High’s The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 for the lush information on 1945’s Until Victory Day, the one Toho film covered here. High’s book was an unexpected treasure in that it was not something I initially intended to use for this article; it just happened to be what I was reading in evenings before bed; and yet, it ended up containing the most information on the one film that, frankly, justifies this article’s presence here on Toho Kingdom in the first place. (A happy coincidence this happened to be my “for-fun” book at the same time I was conducting research.) A smattering of other resources were used to fill in certain details and are noted where applied.
Last but most certainly not least, I wish to thank my friend and colleague Erik Homenick, webmaster of akiraifukube.org, whose expertise on the French language provided authoritative translations of the more difficult material in the Bock and Narboni texts regarding the films Hard Times (1930), Until Victory Day (1945), and Delinquent Girl (1949).
Mikio Naruse came to P.C.L. (Photo Chemical Laboratories—the antecedent of Toho) in 1934, after a suffocating fourteen-year stint at rival film studio Shochiku, where he’d received less than stellar treatment. And right away, excitement began to build as people in both the creative and critical fields eagerly awaited his next project. For Naruse, pleasure came in realizing that his joining P.C.L. came with a nice bump in pay and that his producers had taken the liberty of acquiring for him the rights to a novel by esteemed author Yasunari Kawabata (which would serve as the basis for his 1935 film Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts). Also in Naruse’s favor and especially of interest to the critics was the fact that his changing studios also signified his transition from silent cinema to sound cinema. The director had never been given the chance to work with sound during his time at Shochiku, but he would work exclusively in this medium from here on out. He would also remain loyal to this studio, staying with them through their fateful August 1937 merge (in which P.C.L. joined with other filmmaking subsidiaries, the amalgamation christened Toho) and directed almost every single one of his subsequent movies under their banner. Though he occasionally made films for other companies such as Daiei and Shin-Toho, with one very slight exception in 1950*, he would never again return to the production house where his career had started; and in articulating the record, one can easily see why.
Examining the behind-the-scenes narrative of Naruse’s early career is both frustrating and fascinating. On the fascinating side, here was a director who, pretty early on, started leaving notable footprints within his industry. For one thing, he practically made a star out of actress Sumiko Mizukubo, introducing her to audiences with his 1932 film Moth-eaten Spring, itself chosen by Kinema Jumpo magazine as the sixth best Japanese film of the year**. In 1933, two more films—Every-Night Dreams and Apart from You—respectively occupied the #3 and #4 rankings on the same publication’s “Best Ten” list. Critics championed his rhythm and sensitivity. He befriended and was openly supported by colleagues at Shochiku. Later films saw him adapting respected novels; and in time, he was directing young starlets such as Kinuyo Tanaka and Sumiko Kurishima.
And yet—swinging to the frustrating side of the equation—despite all of the above mentioned accolades, he remained coldly regarded by the front office: an attitude which had seemingly and mercilessly been geared at him from the beginning. Naruse came to Shochiku in 1920 at a time when most employees at this particular studio could rise to director’s status within a few years (Yoshinobu Ikeda, for instance, made his first movie after a single year’s employment). But Naruse himself didn’t receive his sought-after promotion for, literally, a full decade. For ten agonizing years, he was confined, first to the prop department and later as an assistant (often to people who had joined the studio long after him), the stress of waiting while his colleagues continually advanced past him proving so unbearable that he came within inches of tendering his resignation. And when, at last, he moved into the director’s chair, it was at the insistence that he film a script written by studio boss Shiro Kido, the man solely responsible for stalling his promotion in the first place.
Ginza Cosmetics (1951) screenwriter Matsuo Kishi once voiced his suspicion that the head of the studio simply disliked Naruse on a personal level and that he may have intentionally made professional life difficult for him on this basis alone. And while no account in my recollection has ever proven genuine hostility, Kido certainly didn’t refrain from dismissing Naruse’s storytelling, labeling him a second-string Yasujiro Ozu (“We don’t need two Ozus,” he famously said). Unsurprisingly, and perhaps because of this, Kido regularly assigned Naruse material for which he was ill-suited; he shelved two completed films for months at a time; and, in what placed the proverbial final straw that broke the camel’s back, the studio boss declined Naruse’s request to adapt a Fumiko Hayashi novel he very much wanted to film. Add to all of this the fact that Naruse spent his entire tenure at Shochiku on a miserable pay grade of less than ¥100 a month*** and one can easily understand his wish to move to a company where his intelligence and talents might be respected. Or, at the very least, where he might be able to earn a decent living.
Having said that, it’s strangely—for lack of a better word—“expected” that the majority of Naruse’s missing films should come from his rather unhappy years directing at Shochiku.
The five silent Naruse movies that Criterion released in 2011 as part of their Eclipse series are the only such films of his which survive; the other nineteen he made fell victim to a cinematic holocaust that wiped out—it is estimated—96% of all Japanese silent films. Between poor preservation systems, catastrophic damage brought down upon the studios during the second world war, and additional factors****, the legacies of vintage Japanese cinema and the people who made it possible suffered irreparable harm. (As Donald Richie so eloquently wrote in The Japan Times in 2000, “Even in a medium where two-thirds of all silent cinema is lost […] the destruction of early Japanese cinema is extraordinary.”) As such, all that remains of the films under discussion are critical reviews, plot details, behind-the-scenes factoids, and the occasional comment from the director himself.
Mr. and Mrs. Swordplay
Release date: January 15, 1930
Running time: 21 min
Chaos momentarily erupts at the home of Hachiro Momogawa (Hisao Yoshitani) when a café waitress named Eiko (Nobuko Wakaba) shows up at the front door and asks to speak with his wife (Mitsuko Yoshikawa). Rash assumptions are forged and the two women engage in an intense scuffle. The trouble ends with Eiko reveals she merely came to collect the debt Hachiro still owes to the café. Hachiro’s wife, suddenly relieved, pays the money, and Hachiro himself settles his nerves by going to the movies. (The movie he sees, incidentally, is The Husband’s Fight, an actual Shochiku movie from the same time period.)
This burlesque comedy, set during the Japanese New Year, comes from a screenplay credited to Haruo Akaho (the penname of studio boss Shiro Kido). Naruse cast the actors immediately after receiving the script, scouted out locations the following day, and then proceeded to shoot the entire thing nonstop over a period of thirty-six hours, after which he promptly collapsed from exhaustion; editing was completed by his friend and mentor, Heinosuke Gosho. In his review for Kinema Jumpo, film critic Akira Okamura expressed reservations with the script but otherwise championed Mr. and Mrs. Swordplay as a very promising directorial debut.
Release date: February 14, 1930
Running time: 45 min
Otsuta Takeda (Mitsuko Takao) spends her days toiling in the fields near the small mountain town where her impoverished family resides. A routine existence…until the day the local teacher comes forward with his belief that Otsuta’s brother Keichi (Shoichi Kofujita) is a very bright student who should continue his studies after primary school. Unfortunately, the Takeda family is in such poor financial shape they cannot afford to pay for tuition. This doesn’t deter Otsuta, who takes it upon herself to move to the capital, where she can get a better job and start saving money for her brother’s schooling; also, she’s been harboring a desire to become a city-dweller like her childhood friend (Hatsuko Tsukioka), so this is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Keichi insists he’s fine with the status quo, but Otsuta’s made up her mind. The film ends with the sister boarding a train destined for Tokyo.
Naruse mentioned in a 1960 interview that this medium-length picture, released on Valentine’s Day thirty years earlier, exhibited a mature style comparable to that of his later work. His colleague, Yasujiro Ozu, was greatly impressed with Pure Love, proclaiming: “Someone who can do that well on only his second film has real directorial strength.”
Release date: May 2, 1930
Running time: 26 min
A man (Tatsuo Saito) and his son (Tomio Aoki) are out for a walk with their dog, Poochie, when the father starts contemplating whether their four-legged friend might be able to help them make some money. During their walk, they stumble upon an advertisement for dogs, and the father comes up with the idea of stealing and reselling other peoples’ pets for gain. They attempt to steal a puppy from an affluent home, only to get caught by the young girl of the family (Hiroko Kawasaki). The girl’s father (Takeshi Sakamoto) arrives on the scene and agrees to give the would-be crooks money if they leave them alone. After being reprimanded by his son, the father returns the cash, and the duo continues their journey down the street, penniless once more.
A Record of Shameless Newlyweds
Release date: August 29, 1930
Running time: 37min
In the late 1920s, a new comedic genre exploded within Japanese film. As Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson write in their book The Japanese Film – Art and Industry, “nonsense” comedies featured “little to no sense whatever, amusing happenings, one thing tacked onto the other, something ludicrous—though not often slapstick—for its own sake” and “[t]he characters cavorted and chased each other across the screen with very little regard for plot, characterization, or motive.” The genre instantly gained an audience thanks to “the vast number of naughtily erotic or purposely frivolous novels […] which, if it could not make full-scale tragedy out of the most minute of personal experiences, could at least create a comedy out of nothing at all.” In other words, these films capitalized on a taste already provoked by other forms of media.
Richie and Anderson categorize, in that same book, A Record of Shameless Newlyweds as a “nonsense sex comedy.” The story concerns Sabuko (Hisao Yoshitani), a blue-collar worker in a textile factory who falls in love with a woman named Aiko (Midori Matsuba). Too shy to confess his feelings, he asks his friend Yuji (Teruo Mori) to arrange a double-date with Aiko and one of her friends (Mariko Aoyama). While the group is out together, Yuji finds himself alone with Aiko and reveals to her his friend’s secret longing. But then, Aiko confesses she’s in love, too, but not with Sabuko; the man she loves is, in fact, Yuji. Upon learning the girl of his desires is infatuated with his friend, Sabuko runs away.
A Record of Shameless Newlyweds was actually the third movie Naruse directed—he shot it after Pure Love—but the studio withheld it from release for several months. Naruse himself considered it a failure and took full blame for ruining what he described as a very good script by Tadao Ikeda.
Love is Strength
Release date: August 29, 1930
Running time: 65min
Toshio (Ichiro Yuki), the son of a sensonarikin (a person of affluence who earned their fortune during wartime), is to marry Teruko (Hiroko Kawasaki) of the wealthy Yanagida family, their forthcoming matrimony having been arranged by their kin and not by affection for one another. Toshio leads a reckless and frivolous life, his spare time eaten up by booze, parties, and games. That is, until he happens to visit Café Showa and meets one of its waitresses, a pretty orphan named Chiyoko (Shizue Tatsuta). Smitten, he becomes inspired to take up a job in his father’s business and start leading a responsible life. A happy ending’s achieved when the Yanagida family agrees to adopt Chiyoko. She and Toshio are then permitted to marry, and Teruko weds her true love (Shin’ichiro Izawa).
Released on the same day as A Record of Shameless Newlyweds, this melodrama had also been shelved for some time, though it’s not clear whether Naruse started working on it before or after Hard Times. The picture opened to mixed and negative reviews.
Now, Do Not Get Excited!
Release date: February 7, 1931
Running time: 15min
The title is in reference to one of the main characters: a sailor with a tendency to faint whenever he becomes nervous or excited. One day, when his ship is at port, our agitation-prone hero, Yokoyama (Tomio Yokoo), and his fellow mariner Sano (Eiran Yoshikawa) take leave and disembark into town. During their stopover, they witness a man purloining a woman’s handbag. Yokoyama chases after the thief while Sano stays behind to comfort—and seduce—the victim, quickly winning her over. Having failed to catch the thief, Yokoyama returns to the scene of the crime, whereupon he suddenly becomes agitated—envy to the core over his friend’s way with the ladies—and faints. Sano abandons his friend in favor of accompanying the woman to the bar where she works. Yokoyama regains consciousness and follows, running into the purse-snatcher along the way. After winning a scuffle with the thief, the victorious sailor finds himself surrounded by a plethora of women applauding his heroics…and he faints again. Sano puts his friend in a rickshaw and they return to the port, only to discover they overstayed their leave—the ship is leaving without them! The film ends with the two sailors hopping into a rowboat and frantically paddling after their ship.
Kinema Jumpo’s Jun’ichiro Tomota, who had given a mixed review to Love is Strength, labeled this offering one of the best-made “nonsense” comedies. In his review, Tomota further suggested the filmmakers might’ve been influenced by Hollywood comedies starring Sammy Cohen and Ted McNamara.
Screams from the Second Floor
Release date: May 29, 1931
Running time: 30min
In writing this picture (the first time he was allowed to shoot one of his own scripts*****), Naruse drew from his own experiences. At the time, he was living with a family of sushi proprietors, occupying the second floor over their shop (and, some years down the road, he would return to live with them, after the collapse of his first marriage). The protagonist of this picture is an unemployed man named Yagi (Isamu Yamaguchi), who resides on the second floor of a family somewhat better off than him. Because he has no money, Yagi earns his keep performing mundane chores: shopping, babysitting, etc. Eventually, he finds work and leaves the house but is quickly begged to come back after Mr. Hosokawa (Hisao Yoshitani) receives a letter of dismissal from his company. Much of the story focuses on tension between Yagi and Hosokawa’s wife (Nobuko Wakaba), who doesn’t want a non-paying guest in the house.
Flunky! Work Hard, released August 8, 1931. The earliest surviving Naruse film.
Fickleness Gets on the Train
Release date: August 15, 1931
Running time: 32min
Struggling with creative block and unable to find work, a painter named Murayama (Isamu Yamaguchi) decides to take his wife (Tomoki Naniwa) and their son (Masao Hayama) on a trip. Their destination: the fishing village where his in-laws live. On the train ride over, they run into an office worker and his wife. Engaging in conversation, Murayama and his spouse conjure up a fantasy, bragging about an affluent lifestyle they do not have, trying to impress their fellow passengers. Unbeknownst to them at the time, their companions, in telling their own “story,” are doing the same thing. The couples exchange lies, making one another envious of luxuries that, in reality, none of them possess. By chance, they meet again in the aforementioned fishing village, whereupon everyone realizes the fickleness of everyone’s dishonesty. And then, as though karma’s seeking to rub salt in the wound, Murayama’s turned away by his in-laws as they already have a tenant and cannot accommodate any other guests at the time. Dejected and disappointed, the painter and his family hop on the first train back to Tokyo.
The Strength of a Mustache
Release date: October 16, 1931
Running time: 32min
Naruse’s penultimate film of 1931 bears certain similarities to Ozu’s The Lady and the Beard from the same year in that the narrative comically focuses on facial hair and how it affects one’s social image and relation to others. In this case, Kato (Ken’ichi Miyajima) is a working class father who boasts a very fine mustache—an adornment which draws admiration from his son and envy from his boss (Reiko Tani). After his employer fails to grow comparably chic facial hair, Kato’s ordered to shave or else lose his job—and then he loses his job anyway after his son gets into a fight with the boss’s son. To remedy the situation, Kato strips his upper lip of hair and presents to the boss a “miracle lotion.” With this, the boss succeeds in growing some nice whiskers, and Kato gets his job back—though his son no longer reveres him like he used to.
According to Audie Bock’s book on Naruse, the script originally called for a different ending. As initially penned, the boss was to return the “miracle lotion” to Kato rather than accepting it. No explanation is given as to why the studio opted to change this denouement, though Kinema Jumpo reviewer Shigeru Wadayama felt it lessened the impact of the ending (he otherwise championed the film, comparing it to Flunky! Work Hard).
Under the Neighbor’s Roof
Release date: November 28, 1931
Running time: 34min
Another “nonsense” comedy, this time about mutual assumptions of adultery between a married couple. After catching her husband buying a shawl, Hamako (Tomoko Naniwa) assumes the item being purchased is for her spouse’s pretty secretary (Masako Kiyokawa) and moves out in a huff. In turn, the husband, Aoyama (Shigeru Ogura), suspects his wife’s up to some philandering of her own, as the apartment building she moves into is the same one occupied by his colleague, Machida (Kan Ikki); he even climbs onto the roof of the building to keep an eye on them. In the end, the couple reconciles and Hamako returns home.
Ladies, Be Careful of Your Sleeves
Release date: January 29, 1932
Running time: 28min
An unmarried office worker named Tabe (Kenji Oyama), who’s a little on the hefty side, has a habit of slipping love letters into the sleeves of women he finds attractive. But sometimes the letters end up in the hands of people for whom they were not intended, leading to hysterical results. Tabe’s antics take a turn for the humiliating when one of the letters finds its way into his boss’s daughter’s purse. Immediately fearful of losing his job, he makes a vain effort to get the letter back, crashing into a statue in the process. Giving up, he goes home, only to find a woman waiting for him. But instead of the boss’s pretty daughter, it’s an unsightly typist (Shizue Heito); she, too, accidentally received one of his love letters, and now she’s moved into his apartment. The film ends with Tabe envisioning the years ahead, right up to his funeral.
Eiga Hyoron magazine critic Shun’ichi Sugimoto described this film as one of the best of the “nonsense” genre.
Crying to the Blue Sky
Release date: March 10, 1932
Running time: 53min
Reuniting with the screenwriter of Pure Love (Ayame Mizushima), Naruse once again tells a story about a bond between brother and sister, albeit this one concludes with a tragic finish. Kikue (Mitsuko Takao) and her younger brother Eiichi (Hideo Sugawara) have lived with their uncle (Shoichi Nodera) since the death of their parents. One day, Kikue decides to leave for Tokyo to find work. Eiichi asks his elder sister to bring him back a gift: a toy airplane. She agrees. Some time after his sister’s departure, Eiichi falls into the river while fighting with another boy and comes down with a deadly case of pneumonia. In Tokyo, Kikue receives a telegram that her brother’s prognosis is not good; she quickly buys the model airplane he asked for and hurries home—but it’s too late. With her brother dead and her heart broken, the dejected sister somberly walks to the river, sets the toy upon the water’s surface, and watches as it’s carried away by the current.
Release date: April 15, 1932
Running time: 39min
Yamano (Shigeru Ogura) is a poor office worker who cannot afford to buy his son the toy kite he wants. One day, he and his wife (Tomoko Naniwa) receive an unexpected visit from a couple who’ve invited themselves over for dinner. To get them to leave, they lie, claiming to be in the process of housecleaning—and scramble to cancel the food they’d asked be delivered to their address. Later on, their son, Shin’ichi, is pushed into a puddle by another boy. While cleaning his clothes, the parents think back to much happier times: when they were newlyweds, frolicking on the beach, dragging sand between their fingers. (All they have now is cold ash in the stove—perhaps a crude metaphor for the way poverty has diminished their passion.) The film ends with the couple encouraging their son to become someone important—someone great!—and thereby avoid a life in poverty.
Naruse compared this to his earlier Flunky! Work Hard. Shigeru Wadayama, writing in Kinema Jumpo, showered the film with glowing comments, describing it as a “psychological nonsense film” done to perfection. Less enthusiastic was Eiga Hyoron’s Shun’ichi Sugimoto, who deemed the movie too similar to Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932). The box office was in this film’s favor, and Naruse moved on to direct what just might’ve been the first great movie of his career.
Release date: May 27, 1932
Running time: 103min
After the success of Be Great!, Naruse was entrusted to adapt a novel by respected author Kan Kikuchi and, with this promotion, scored a number of career milestones. In addition to being able to adapt something by an esteemed writer, he was permitted for the first time to shoot a picture of feature length (everything he’d made up to this point consisted of shorts and medium-length productions). And the film—in what was also a first for the director—was saluted by Kinema Jumpo in their annual “Best Ten” list, ranking at #6. Printed some months earlier in the same magazine was a review by Fuyuhiko Kitagawa, who applauded Naruse’s success with a “difficult adaptation,” his capturing the psychology of the young bourgeois, the Soviet-influenced editing, and the direction of the actors.
Speaking of which, Moth-eaten Spring also marked the screen debut and essentially made a star of Sumiko Mizukubo, an actress whose career spanned a mere three years but which nonetheless granted her the opportunity to work with a number of Japan’s finest directors. In addition to three more collaborations with Naruse, she acted under the guidance of such people as Hiroshi Shimizu, Yasujiro Shimazu, Heinosuke Gosho, Hiroshi Inagaki, and Yoshinobu Ikeda. She also had a sizable role in Ozu’s excellent Dragnet Girl (1933), as the record store girl of whom the shadier characters are universally enamored. (Image of Mizukubo, in the Ozu film, seen to the left.)
In Moth-eaten Spring, Mizukubo plays the youngest of three sisters in a family saddled with an uncertain future. The father’s poor business practices have wrecked their financial stability, and his attempt to bribe an official results in him becoming incarcerated and, later, committing suicide. The loss of their parent affects the three daughters in different ways. Kazuko (Kinuko Wakamizu), the eldest, calls off her engagement in order to assume responsibility for the entire family. The middle daughter, Kumiko (Yumeko Aizome), sinks into a state of depression when her fiancé hears of the suicide and breaks up with her. As for Kasumi (Sumiko Mizukubo), the youngest, she takes a job to help make ends meet and later becomes engaged to the nephew of a businessman. Learning about her sibling’s engagement exacerbates Kasumi’s state of mind and she attempts to seduce Kazuko’s former lover. But the young man, still in love with Kazuko, rejects her advances.
Release date: August 26, 1932
Running time: 56min
Based on an award-winning novel by Ryuji Nagami (who also penned the screenplay), this project was brought to Naruse’s attention by Kogo Noda, Ozu’s regular co-screenwriter. The director described it as a combination of the various genres he’d worked with and furthermore labeled the finished product his best film up to that point. In terms of a narrative, it certainly shares much in common with Naruse’s best-known movies: divides between upper and lower classes, issues pertaining to money, a denouement in which the main character doesn’t receive the happiness she wanted but tries to endure life all the same, etc.
Sumiko Mizukubo, who’d exploded into popularity after the release of Moth-eaten Spring, is promoted to lead. Here, she plays Mieko, a young woman whose life changes after she’s invited to accompany rich student Mizushima (Koji Kaga) to an upper class party. At the get-together, Mieko proves a rousing success with the boys and a source of jealousy for the other girls. The next day, two of the girls show up at Mieko’s workplace, sneering at her—and on their way out, they leave her a tip (a practice virtually unheard of in Japan, even to this day—and which can be interpreted as an insult). Mieko later learns Mizushima is to wed a girl his father has chosen for him; and when she gets home that night, her mother and uncle announce they’ve arranged a match for her as well. Surrendering to their will and giving up the man she loves, Mieko allows time and society to take their course. The film ends with her boarding a Tokyo-bound train, her hair now arranged in the marumage (the knotted hairstyle identified with married women in Japan).
Kinema Jumpo’s Shigeru Wadayama praised Naruse’s editing and his sympathy for the lower class, though he was turned off by the “excessive sadness” of the picture’s finale.
The second extant silent Naruse film, No Blood Relation, released December 16, 1932.
The Scenery of Tokyo with Cake
Release date: 1932
Running time: Unknown
Little is known about this advertisement film other than it was produced for the still-extant snack food company Meiji Seika. Whether Naruse used crew and equipment from Shochiku or if Meiji Seika provided everything for him remains unknown.
Apart from You (released April 1, 1933) and Every-Night Dreams (June 8, 1933) which placed at #4 and #3, respectively, on Kinema Jumpo’s “Best Ten” list for that year. Naruse collaborated with Sumiko Mizukubo once again on the former and the latter paired him up with Sumiko Kurishima, often described as the first Japanese female movie star. Both of these films survive today.
My Bride’s Hairstyle
Release date: September 21, 1933
Running time: 75min
A light comedy written for Sumiko Mizukubo, My Bride’s Hairstyle was met with approval from studio head Shiro Kido, who deemed it one of Naruse’s “greatest achievements.” A rare compliment, and one perhaps explainable in that this particular movie seemed to possess little in the way of semblance to Naruse’s last few films. The happy ending, for instance, is completely unlike the sad—even tragic—denouements found in Every-Night Dreams and Chocolate Girl. In any case, the studio boss’s affinity was not shared by Naruse himself. To him, My Bride’s Hairstyle was a big wad of mediocrity and not something he looked back on very fondly. Kinema Jumpo’s Tadahisa Murakami reciprocated this sentiment when he panned the film, blaming Kido for relegating a poor subject to such a talented and capable (and proven) director.
Mizukubo plays Toshiko, the love interest of Matsui (Mitsugu Fujii), who has been infatuated with her since they were children and who finds himself close to her again when he becomes employed at her workplace. Unfortunately for him, the boss of the company also has designs on Toshiko. Because their employer has been deliberately making things difficult for Matsui, both he and Toshiko agree to quit the company together. But love and roses ever after has not been ascertained yet: Toshiko’s parents want her to return home and marry a suitor of their choice. While on a picnic, Matsui notices Toshiko’s styled her hair in the marumage: seemingly a sign he’s going to lose her. In the end, though, he lands a good job and is permitted to marry the woman of his dreams. Matsui and Toshiko live happily ever after.
Release date: December 7, 1933
Running time: 107min
Now in the twilight of his Shochiku years, Naruse was granted the chance to work with Kinuyo Tanaka (already one of the major stars of Japanese cinema). Given his feelings that the project was not his kind of film and much closer to the melodramas Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu specialized in, Naruse tried to make it stand out by employing techniques influenced by veteran craftsman Hotei Nomura. (Shiro Kido labeled Two Eyes a “big film.”)
Yoshiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Naeko (Yumeko Aizome), the daughters of political rivals, have maintained their friendship in spite of the bad blood between their fathers—and in spite of the fact that they’re in love with the same man. Both women are infatuated with Sunaga (Joji Oka), but since they don’t want to jeopardize their friendship, they mutually agree not to pursue him. That is, until the day Naeko discovers that Sunaga has romantic feelings for Yoshiko—at which point she conjures up a story that her friend’s already betrothed. Meantime, Yoshiko’s father is ordered to pay a fine for attempted bribery and, lacking the capital, instructs his daughter to marry the son of a rich family. Unwilling to take the fall for her father’s lawbreaking, Yoshiko leaves home, taking a job in sales—at the same company, it so happens, where Sunaga works. Both of them are chosen to model for a pretend wedding at the store and are subsequently spotted by Naeko, who confuses the mock ceremony for the real thing. Yoshiko learns her father has been jailed, and the daughter reluctantly agrees to marry the rich suitor in order to spare her father of prison time. But when she returns home, she discovers Naeko has already married the young man, leaving her and Sunaga free to be together.
The film was based on a novel by Masao Kume, which Kinema Jumpo’s Fuyuhiko Kitagawa deemed well beneath the author’s usual standards and certainly beneath Naruse’s, as he expressed in his vicious, hostility-laden review. The critic wasn’t enthused with Naruse’s Nomura-inspired techniques, either, passing off bits of frantic camera movement intended to emphasize emotion. In the end, Kitagawa only commended the performances by Tanaka and Oka and offered his hope that Naruse would return to filming original scripts and find something closer in quality to Apart from You and Every-Night Dreams.
Happy New Year!
Release date: December 21, 1933
Running time: Unknown
Naruse’s penultimate silent film, of which there seems to be no extant information.
On April 26 of the following year, the director released his last picture for Shochiku, the dull and mediocre Street without End (1934), which survives today (a screen-cap can be seen above). Filmed from a script that no one at the studio dared touch, the project had been accepted by Naruse on the condition that he would be allowed to make whatever he wanted for his next movie. Alas—and not unexpectedly—Shiro Kido didn’t uphold his end of the bargain, denying Naruse the chance to adapt Fumiko Hayashi’s novel Fallen Woman, and the director made his fateful move to P.C.L. that same year. Interviewed decades later on the subject by Audie Bock, Kido denied having ever held any personal grudge against Naruse and even admitted he shouldn’t have let him leave the studio—though he nonetheless claimed he’d never cared much for Naruse’s aesthetic.
Film censorship had played a role in Japan since the early 20th century; although, in the beginning, it was mostly implemented in policing foreign imports (and usually to gauge respect for the Imperial House). The prime example of this practice concerns the French film The Reign of King Louis XVI (1905) and what needed to be done to get it shown in Japanese theaters. When the picture came to Japan in 1908, it was initially banned due to a key scene in which the common people rose up in arms against their king. Even though the sequence depicted French townsfolk rebelling against French monarchs, authorities in Japan did not like the idea of popular entertainment showing rebellion against royalty of any kind; what if such a scene inspired radicals to attempt something similar against the Emperor? In the end, due to pressure from exhibitors to show the film in some capacity, reworked dialogue (read aloud by benshi******) and a new title—The Curious Story of North America: The Cave King—sufficiently changed things up so that the French monarchs became American bandits and the film was passed for distribution. The domineering interest, in these days, was to preserve a very pure image of Japan and avoid provoking subversive thinking. And it was this sort of censorship that was maintained and then expanded when, on April 15, 1939, the government set the Film Law loose on the motion picture industry.
Provoked by the Sino-Japan Incident of 1937 and modeled after the Spitzenorganisation der Filmwirstchaft program of Nazi Germany, the Film Law set out not only to keep the Emperor’s image pure but to also “promote the quality of film and the sound development of the film industry so that films can contribute to the nation’s cultural development.” Essentially outlawed was anything that “might hamper the enlightenment and propaganda basic to the exercise of national policy.”
Conditions intensified with the rise of World War II; and in 1940, the Ministry of Affairs implemented a new set of censorship rules. Slice-of-life films promoting individual happiness were banned, to be replaced by stories embodying feudalistic values (read: absolute loyalty to the government). Movies showcasing industrial productivity fell into favor. Comedians and satirists received instructions to tone down their act. And, most notably, the government sought to advocate the making of “national movies of healthy entertainment value with themes showing persons ready to serve.” From this came a slew of jingoistic national policy films, including Yutaka Abe’s Flaming Sky (1940), Eiichi Koishi’s Soaring Passion (1941), Kajiro Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942), and Kunio Watanabe’s Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky (1943). Films which essentially came to represent Japanese populist cinema in the early 1940s due to their sheer quantity and the profits they reaped.*******
Of course, movies on other subjects were still possible, provided they operated within certain parameters. In regards to Naruse, he for the most part managed to avoid making propaganda, though some of his films in the late 1930s and early ‘40s contained little glimpses of Japan’s political climate. His 1939 film Sincerity concludes with one of the characters receiving a draft notice. In A Face from the Past (1941), parents recognize their son as one of the soldiers in a military newsreel. More overt politicization appeared in Shanghai Moon (1941), a film which still exists (albeit in fragmented form) and stars Isuzu Yamada as a terrorist who infiltrates a pro-Japan propaganda radio station, cannot bring herself to kill its occupants, and is done away with by her fellow terrorists.
Yet another case of unambiguous propaganda appeared in Naruse’s Until Victory Day, his last movie before the surrender of Japan to the Allied Powers; the only film in his Toho repertoire which, it seems, has vanished from the face of the earth.
Until Victory Day
Release date: January 25, 1945
Running time: 59min
Well before the release of this film, it had become unmistakably clear Japan would end up on the losing side of the war. A reality that was steadily making itself felt within the entertainment industry. Film stock was running short on supply. Nearly one thousand movie theaters either ceased operation, converted into facilities for other uses, or perished completely in the Allied air raids. Studio structures endured damage, sound stages reduced in number, budgets shrank, and it wasn’t unheard of for editors to drop what they were doing in the sudden arrival of an attack and rush to the shelter with all the footage they could carry. So rather than turn out huge, special effects-laden projects like The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, the studios, still under the control of the government, opted to make small-scale movies with nationalistic and jingoistic themes. (Akira Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful, about patriots employed in a war factory, functioned as a replacement project for a fighter pilot movie which had recently fallen through.) In addition, comedians were still welcome to employ restricted doses of their personalities for the screen—especially in feel-good entertainments that supported the military, or movies designed specifically to entertain soldiers. Films of the latter category could sometimes attain funding from the militarists themselves, as was the case with Mikio Naruse’s Until Victory Day.
Described by its director as a project utterly lacking narrative coherency and made for the purpose of amusing troops on the front, this comedy venture had been funded by the Imperial Japanese Navy, allowing Toho to take a breather in terms of expenses. The sheer ridiculousness of the plot was described in Nihon Eiga magazine: “A scientist invents an ‘entertainment bomb.’ When it explodes, various kinds of acts and comedy routines come popping out. The ‘bomb’ is detonated in front of soldiers and sailors on a lonely South Sea island, bringing unexpected joy to their hearts.” Originally, the film was to be directed by Tadashi Imai, but a conscription notice and a summons to the front prevented him from taking the job (one wonders, therefore, if he was among the soldiers who saw this movie while on duty overseas).
Perhaps to give the target audience a sense of home, Toho went the distance in cramming Until Victory Day with recognizable faces. In addition to comedians Ken’ichi Enomoto (better known by his stage name, Enoken) and Roppa Furukawa, the entertainers who came out of the rocket included well-known actresses such as Isuzu Yamada, Setsuko Hara, Hideko Takamine, and Yukiko Todokori. Another familiar presence was former benshi Musei Tokugawa, who reflected the general attitude toward the picture in an interview many years later: “[Y]ou could actually feel the approach of [Japan’s] inevitable defeat in the utter imbecility of the storyline. The fact that it had been directly commissioned by the navy made it all the more pathetic.”
The circumstances under which Until Victory Day and many other Japanese national policy films became lost were as diverse as they were devastating. A sizable number vanished in the same poor preservation systems and the same firebombing raids responsible for whittling down Japan’s silent cinema legacy. Others were confiscated and subsequently destroyed by the victorious Allied Forces. Still others were lost when film studios, perhaps anticipating censorship from the Americans, exterminated copies of various films in their possession. Toho, for example, burned every last trace of the 1945 film I Believe I Am Being Followed. Unless a copy was hidden in secret and has yet to turn up, this particular film is gone forever, wiped away by its own creators.
Of course, not every nationalistic film extant in Japan at the time was obliterated. In some cases, the Americans chose to collect certain films rather than destroy them and send them to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. for study and preservation. In other cases, studio staffers stowed away copies until such a time when the films could be shown again. (Toho’s studio boss, Iwao Mori, assigned a select few employees to bury prints of eight national policy films until the Americans vacated. The interred reels were never discovered by the occupying forces, and the films survived to be run again.) But it appears such favorable circumstances did not befall Until Victory Day. It remains classified as a lost film. Over the years, I’ve come across scant rumors on the internet claiming about fifteen minutes of the picture still exist today; but these sources, lacking corroboration, don’t offer much in the way of hope or credibility.
The final missing film in Naruse’s oeuvre comes from an era in which Toho was experiencing intense political unrest. In the early years of the occupation, when the Americans first set out to “westernize” and “democratize” the Land of the Rising Sun, organized labor was heartily encouraged to the Japanese (the hope being that encouraging working class people to demand better perks from their employers would help weed out allegiance-oriented sentiments prevalent during the war—see my article on Kurosawa’s Those Who Make Tomorrow for more detail). And seeing as how Toho possessed the strongest labor union among the studios, theirs was naturally the one which took the most noteworthy actions.
Between the years of 1946 and 1948, the unionists at Toho conducted a total of three strikes, resulting in a few positive changes (such as increased wages) and a vast quantity of negative consequences. Over the course of these events, most of the major stars under contact left the studio, alternate unions came into existence, the short-lived and incompetently managed Shin-Toho was formed, fewer Toho movies were produced, and in what constituted the third and final strike, the studio shut down completely for 134 days. For more than a third of the year, unionists occupied the studio grounds, holding off their employers and the police with, among other things, barbed wire and firehoses. In the end, it required the presence of the United States military—a dispatch of troops, three aircraft, and seven tanks—to coerce the unionists to yield.
Naruse’s participation in this tumultuous chapter seems to have been minimal. He did join an “Artist’s Group” demanding the resignation of Toho’s anticommunist executives but apart from that kept a low profile, became an independent director, and took work wherever he could find it. He made no movies in 1948, instead directing for the stage, and the few films he directed shortly thereafter were produced by other production companies. One of those companies was Toyoko Eiga, for whom he made the last movie under discussion.
Studio: Toyoko Eiga
Release date: March 29, 1949
Running time: 72min
The story concerns a pair of schoolgirls, Eiko (Yoshiko Kuga) and Tamie (Michiko Aizome). Tamie, the daughter of an English teacher, passes her exams and takes a job in an insurance company; Eiko, the daughter of a single parent, flunks out and begins the life of a delinquent, hanging around bars with a dubious class of people. Tamie, whose life has become dull and drab, feels a surge of envy for her schoolmate’s newfound lifestyle. Both girls experience an assortment of troubles related to men and money, and by the end, Tamie realizes her “boring” life wasn’t so bad after all.
This was Naruse’s only movie released in 1949. Despite attaining commercial success, the film was panned by film critics. Naruse himself knew from the start that his talents were not suited for this kind of film; he’d taken the job for the money. Audie Bock’s book on the director contains the following remark: “Certainly, nobody would have been able to make a good film based on a vulgar erotic novel like [Tajiro] Tamura’s.”
After Delinquent Girl, Naruse took on the assignment of Conduct Report on Professor Ishinaka (1950), which he made for Shin-Toho, before coming back to Toho that same year with The Angry Street. And despite the occasional future job for another production house, he was more or less back to being a company man. A great many of his best films—Repast (1951), Sound of the Mountain (1954), Floating Clouds (1955), Sudden Rain (1956), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), Lonely Lane (1962), Yearning (1964), Two in the Shadow (1967), etc.—would be produced by Toho and, thankfully, none of these pictures have been obliterated by forces of any kind. One does not have to settle for plot synopses and reviews in trying to understand these later pictures; each and every one survives to be sought out and analyzed—and enjoyed—today.
** To achieve a ranking on this publication’s annual “Best Ten” list was considered a major accomplishment. Most prestigious was the #1 ranking, also known as the “Best One.” As Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson wrote in The Japanese Film – Art and Industry: “There is nothing quite like it in the West. Japanese critics poll to select the ten best films of the year and their choice has the greatest influence, not only in critical circles but also among the public and within the industry itself. It is an award relatively untouched by commercial consideration and is, therefore, highly respected.” During his lifetime, fourteen of Naruse’s films appeared on the magazine’s “Best Ten” list, and two of them—Wife! Be Like a Rose (1935) and Floating Clouds (1955)—garnered the coveted “Best One” prize.
**** Even though Naruse’s directing career began after this event and was not directly affected by it, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 played a major role in the destruction of vintage Japanese cinema.
***** In the ten years prior to becoming a director, Naruse continually wrote and submitted screenplays to the front office, knowing Shiro Kido usually determined promotions according to scriptwriting. Unsurprisingly, none of these early scripts of his were approved. Screenwriter Matsuo Kishi speculated Kido might not have even bothered to read them due to (he suspected) a personal disliking of Naruse.
****** In the days of silent film in Japan, movies—domestic and foreign imports alike—were very often narrated live by performers called benshi. Many of these performers became famous and, in a sense, became the starring attractions, more so than the on-camera actors, the directors, and sometimes even the movies themselves.
******* The prime example is Kajiro Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, which cost a whopping $380,000 to produce, featured an infamous recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor (with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya), quickly recouped its costs, and was saluted by Kinema Jumpo as the “Best One” in their annual “Best Ten” list. Its success resulted in Yamamoto later directing Colonel Kato’s Falcon Squadron, itself the first big hit of 1944.General // December 3, 2018
It was a few weeks ago from the time of this writing that I had the opportunity to see Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) in a theater; and at the risk of stating the obvious, it was an experience I am certain I’ll never forget. Of course, I had seen this remarkable motion picture several times before, enjoying it on Blu-ray and DVD in the comfort of my own home; but this was my first time seeing Kurosawa’s masterpiece the way it was meant (and frankly deserves) to be seen. So amazing was the experience that, when it was over, I was mighty tempted to rush on home and start drumming up a comprehensive review for the site. Though I ended up dropping that notion for fear of producing a hollow imitation of what greater minds have said. Seven Samurai is arguably one of the most carefully scrutinized films in the annals of 20th century art; like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s been the subject of videos, essays, even full-length books—meticulously analyzed by people far more intuitive and knowledgeable than myself. (What could I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before?) As much as I enjoyed seeing one of my all-time favorite movies on the big screen, there won’t be a Seven Samurai review coming anytime in the foreseeable future.
There was, however, a second idea for an article which came into my head recently—and this one I was determined to write from the start. As is common with such things, the screening I attended began with an introduction: our host for the evening stepped up to the front of the auditorium and rattled off, for our entertainment, some “fun facts” about the making of Seven Samurai and the extent of its legacy. Or, perhaps better put, he spewed an entirely predictable assortment of factoids which had no doubt been culled from the movie’s Trivia page on IMDb. By this point, I’d already learned a great deal about Akira Kurosawa (and from sources more prestigious and reliable than the Internet Movie Database), so I just sat back and waited for the lights to go down. But then, a certain “factoid” came up and nabbed my attention. Our host (who shall remain nameless) told a rather dubious story which I’d also heard before—because it’s become disturbingly widespread among fans of Japanese cinema. A story my younger self once took for granted. A story which has, for years, been reiterated on websites, on podcasts, and in discourse—despite the sheer lack of evidence to support it and the volumes of information indicative of the contrary.
A story which claims, to use the words uttered that night: “Toho spent so much money making Seven Samurai and a little movie called Godzilla that the studio almost went bankrupt.”
I remained civil, of course, and kept my mouth shut; there was no point in making a scene. But deep within the random archives that is my mind, gears were turning. It was time. Time to raise some important questions no one else seemed to be asking.
A disclaimer before we continue. While I am about to describe in great detail the many things leery about this supposed “bankruptcy” story, I cannot, for the time being, definitively prove it a myth. Despite my best efforts to trace its origin, it’s never turned up in any book, magazine, interview, documentary, etc. in my recollection. On top of that, the websites recapitulating it consistently fail to offer citations; thus, I have no original source to track down and analyze.
That said, there’s plenty of evidence—from plenty of resources—strongly suggesting it’s not true.
Figurative Figures and Actual Figures
As mentioned before, the story goes that the makings of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) ate up so much money that they nearly put Toho out of business, and that the studio only survived because both pictures became hits at the box office. Right away, there are problems with that statement.
Let’s begin with what’s accurate. It is absolutely, undeniably true that both Seven Samurai and Godzilla required budgets quite exorbitant for Japanese features of their day. And with context kept in mind, it’s not the least bit difficult to imagine why. Godzilla utilized a variety of then-untested special effects techniques, namely the process now known as “suitmation,” in which stunt actors donned thick, cumbersome monster costumes and were turned loose on intricately detailed miniature city sets. A production this lavish naturally demanded more funding than what was typically allotted to a Japanese movie. And while the screenplay of Seven Samurai (which included no special effects sequences) probably could’ve been filmed in a miserly manner by the average studio director, Kurosawa’s working methods and his insistence on capturing the exact image in his head ultimately prolonged the shoot to just under a year (filming of Godzilla, by contrast, finished in about three months). Time is money, as they say, and the studio was famously unhappy as Kurosawa continued sacrificing his already large budget at the altar of perfectionism.
These were costly products to make. Of that there is no question. Both films also earned their keep, securing rankings on Kinema Jumpo’s list of the year’s most successful movies as well as attaining further profits in their (edited) overseas editions. Of that there is no question, either. So, where do the problems start showing up?
First off, contrary to what has been reported in some venues, Godzilla was not the more expensive of the two pictures. All costs accounted for—including advertising and printing—disbursements on Honda’s monster movie came to roughly $275,000. Seven Samurai, by contrast, was the most expensive Japanese feature ever made up to that point, with an end budget hovering somewhere between $560,000-580,000 (blown up from an original allocation of $150,000-200,000). Secondly, even if these two movies had come close to sinking the studio, they wouldn’t have been alone in doing so. For there was a third “culprit”—another über-exorbitant Toho picture from 1954—whom repeaters of this urban legend seem curiously unaware of.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) was a gigantic production featuring hundreds of fully costumed actors and considerable location work. Director Hiroshi Inagaki was no rampant perfectionist—more a highly skilled journeyman—and he didn’t have hordes of special effects on which to deliver, but the mechanics of this picture nonetheless resulted in a higher-than-average budget. He furthermore was instructed to photograph it in color, resulting in lengthier filming and more expensive lab work. As assistant director Jun Fukuda recalled, “There were something like 210 warriors on horseback, and 800 samurai extras. […] Filming it in Eastman Color took longer to shoot than black and white […] it took six months to shoot the film.” Inagaki’s picture ended up with a rough budget of $500,000, not too far beneath that of Kurosawa’s movie. As claimed by the press at the time, it was “the second most expensive motion picture to be produced in Japan.”
(Before we continue, sources for those who desire them: Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa and The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.)
So even if Godzilla had been a factor in some near-bankruptcy gamble, it would’ve played second—no, third—fiddle to two notably more expensive features made that same year. (So, why no ubiquitous cyberspace story about a duo of Toho-produced samurai movies threatening to derail the studio?) Now, switching back to the main topic at hand, all three movies required a great deal to get made; but did they pose any actual threat to the studio in the long run? The overwhelming lack of evidence would suggest no.
Let us address that now.
Oh Evidence! Where Art Thou?
To reiterate from my disclaimer: I have yet to come across any reliable source even suggesting the rumor in question is true. In fact, in my experience, it’s been consistently absent in every serious study done on Japanese cinema of this time period.
Consider, for instance, Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson’s The Japanese Film – Art and Industry, first published in 1959. Perhaps the single greatest study on cinema from the Land of the Rising Sun, Richie and Anderson’s book covers, among other things, all the major Japanese studios in existence at the time—detailing their origins, their histories, their personnel, their politics, their strengths, their shortcomings, even their respective close encounters with bankruptcy. Having said that, the authors address and articulate, at various points and with great detail, the many roadblocks Toho had endured up to that point (for instance: the postwar labor strikes of the 1940s, which set the studio back in more ways than one until producer Iwao Mori stepped in and put the company back on its “financial feet”). And yet, nowhere in the text, in any chapter, is there mention of the studio nearly foundering in 1954—for any reason at all, let alone because of the simultaneous shooting of Godzilla and Seven Samurai. Both films are (separately) covered and credited for the revolutions they spawned (the rise of the Japanese science fiction picture, then a recent thing, receives some page space), but never are they paired together as culprits of anything greater than that. Nor are the expenses incurred by Inagaki’s samurai movie blamed for any kind of short or long-term suffering within the studio.
Absence of proof is of course not proof of absence, but this was a comprehensive study made just a few years after the supposed “bankruptcy debacle.” The fact that Richie and Anderson omitted such an event from their book—and that it remained omitted in updated editions; and that no other Japanese film historian, to my knowledge, has ever published a single word on it—could very well indicate it never happened at all, that the studio experienced no serious financial peril that year.
Not So Dangerous Financial Danger
In preparing for this article, I sought insight from film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, author of such books as Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! and The Toho Studios Story. When I asked for his opinion on whether Toho nearly collapsed shooting Godzilla and Seven Samurai, he told me:
“I found no evidence of that at all, and there’s probably no truth to it, either. Seven Samurai did go over budget, but I’d doubt the final cost of the two films combined was even 7-8% of the total negative cost of the studio’s annual slate that year. So, no, it wouldn’t have bankrupted them, even if the films had flopped.”
That, too, makes imminent sense in context. As expensive as these films were and as miffed as the Toho execs would’ve surely been had one or all of them flopped, the studio was holding up very well on a financial level and more than likely would’ve survived. At the time, the Japanese film industry was in full force, cranking out—literally—hundreds of films each year. While Toho’s bastard child Shin-Toho (formed during the unrest of the earlier mentioned labor strikes) was struggling along due to poor management and insufficient bookings, the parent company was thriving, spawning an average annual output of 60-100 pictures, with a total of 68 Toho-produced films released in 1954 (hence the 7-8% negative cost estimate Galbraith suggests above). Very few of these smaller pictures shot in 1954 would’ve had budgets even remotely comparable to that spent on Seven Samurai or even Godzilla; but with an overall quantity that huge produced in a single year, the combined costs would’ve greatly outdistanced the two films under discussion, and then some. On top of that, Toho, then as now, owned many of its own theaters, meaning they could keep a greater percentage of the profits.
And profits there were. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 1958, the average Japanese citizen at the time attended up to twelve movies a year; and for Tokyo residents, the number metastasized to twenty. That, in turn, was reflected in the often claustrophobic packing of movie houses. As Richie and Anderson write in their book, contemporary theaters in Japan were typically jam-packed with audiences, to the point where every available inch of space was used to fit another body. “The aisles at the sides and down the middle are full of people. Some even sit on the edge of the stage while others stand outside the exit doors looking into the auditorium.” The movies were there, and so were the audiences.
This is not to say, of course, that Japanese films made in the 1950s never flopped or that Seven Samurai and Godzilla were incapable of flopping; but the truth of the matter is that the industry and the studio were, by and large, in good shape. Had the two movies (and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto–don’t forget about that one!) bombed, the studio likely could’ve afforded to go on due to the omnipresent audiences and the vast multitude of other pictures they were simultaneously cranking out and profiting from. (In short, it would’ve taken more than two or three flops to put the Toho of 1954 in any kind of dire straits.)
That alone makes this Godzilla + Seven Samurai = Bankruptcy “factoid”—questionable and unlikely from the beginning—seem all the more dubious in the end.General // October 2, 2018
Of the many stories which have been said about Akira Ifukube, one of the most widespread and admittedly endearing examples concerns the manner in which the composer supposedly rejected the opportunity to score 1984’s The Return of Godzilla. As the tale goes, Ifukube, after receiving Toho’s offer to write music for the aforementioned 30th anniversary reboot, expressed displeasure with some of the changes being made to the titular character, namely the decision to increase Godzilla’s height from 50 to 80 meters; and in refusing the assignment, he’s reported to have said: “I do not write music for 80-meter monsters.”
A wonderful anecdote, one that’s been reiterated in numerous books, magazines, web articles, forums, etc. over the last thirty-some years—and one I seriously question in terms of its validity. Now, I personally love stories about artists turning down work via snark-laden comments (I’m rather fond of Noël Coward allegedly refusing the eponymous part in Dr. No with, “Dr. No? No! No! No!”), but this putative statement of Ifukube’s strikes me as little more than an urban legend, something fun to share in jest, but not to be taken serious. It’s been my stance for a long time now that if Ifukube uttered these words at all, he used them ironically; and my guts compel me to believe he never used them in the first place. I cannot claim expertise on Ifukube’s life and career, but I have read/watched a sizable number of post-1984 interviews featuring him—not one of which contain quibbles on his part with Godzilla’s stature here or in the later Heisei movies, in which Godzilla became even bigger. Also: having never come across the supposed quotation in any Japanese source, I’ve been inclined to believe its propagation occurred predominately here in the west. And considering it was believed for many decades on this side of the Pacific that Godzilla emerged victorious in the Japanese ending of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), my willingness to accept yet another unsubstantiated rumor regarding this franchise resides about three notches beneath the tier labeled “dubious.”
And so, in the interest of research, I thought it would be fun to get to the bottom of this “I do not write music for 80-meter monsters!” yarn: pinpoint its origins, consult with people with more knowledge on the matter than I possess, and try and figure out what’s what.
In carrying out my detective work, I first amassed every English language book, magazine, etc. in my collection that contains the infamous Akira Ifukube “quote,” going through each of them for reference. I also scoured the world wide web for additional clues. From there, it was a matter of locating mentions that came with citations and bibliographies, and searching through my archives for what I hoped would end up being the very first instance of this quote appearing in the English-speaking world. Following a session of backtracking citations, I arrived at Issue #7 of Ed Godziszewski’s magazine Japanese Giants.
And now, I would also like to make clear something else: Godziszewski’s magazine may have been the first time this anecdote was shared stateside, but it was not the avenue through which the story in question came to be passed off as “the truth.” Please pay close attention to the exact verbiage in which this ostensible collection of words was initially reported. In detailing preproduction of the 1984 Godzilla movie, Godziszewski specified that Ifukube was offered the chance to score the film but turned it down and that (again, please read this verbatim) “upon learning that changes were being made to the Godzilla legend such as increasing Godzilla’s height from 50 to 80 meters, Ifukube was rumored to have said, ‘I do not write music for 80 meter monsters.’”
Notice that key word. “…rumored to have said…”
And it doesn’t end there. When I started planning this Urban Legends article, I reached out to Godziszewski for further details as to where he heard the story and what he’s gathered on it in the thirty-some years since. His response:
“[The quote] was something that I had heard from a couple of friends in Japan during my visit there in January 1985, to see the new Godzilla film. This was well before I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Ifukube, so it was not something I got first-hand. When I used it, I qualified it as something he was rumored to have said. It was certainly an amusing way to explain his absence from this film. Not having met him at the time, I couldn’t say if he had a wry sense of humor and said this as a way to dismiss the endless badgering from Toho’s people who were asking him to work on Godzilla again. It seemed believable in that vein, but I never took that statement terribly seriously. By chance, during a recent trip to Japan, I happened to run into one of the people who I heard this from, and he told me that “it was just a joke.” Given the way this rumor has sort of morphed into something quoted as fact in some circles, I now regret that I used it at all in the article.”
For even though Ed Godziszewski clarified the status of “I do not write music for 80-meter monsters!” as a rumor in Issue #7 of Japanese Giants, some of us who’ve passed it along in the decades since have forgotten to repeat his use of that wonderful word “rumored” (or at least utilize members of its kin, such as “alleged”). Alas, the subsequent circulation of this infamous quote merely exemplifies what sometimes happens in distributing the research of others, especially when the finding in question sounds so juicy: a rumor initially clarified as a rumor, eventually repeated and repeated and repeated until it began transmuting into a “fact.” A mistake on our part since the “fact” ended up being “just a joke.”
As for Ifukube’s not taking part in the 1984 film: that, too, can be explained with postulations far more plausible than an upsurge in Godzilla’s height. To gain insight into what Ifukube was up to at the time of this film, I consulted Erik Homenick, webmaster of akiraifukube.org, who explicated with the following:
“I supposed that the refusal comment attributed to Ifukube had to be false because, in the 1980s, he did not compose any film music at all—not for Godzilla, not for anything. Ifukube had retired from the world of film music and at the time was focused on his career as a professor of composition at the Tokyo College of Music. Even his concert output in the 1980s was comparatively meager; his overriding priorities were in education. Long story short, Akira Ifukube did not compose music for The Return of Godzilla not because of any objection to Godzilla’s size, but because he was funneling his energies elsewhere.”
As history demonstrates, Akira Ifukube eventually returned to the franchise, scoring 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, a film in which the radioactive behemoth’s height was increased further still, to a whopping—and utterly ridiculous—100 meters. In his 1996 interview with Steve Ryfle, Ifukube cited familial persuasion and Toho’s use of his music in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) as the factors behind his return. “I did not accept the assignment for Godzilla vs. Biollante, but after the film was released, my daughter pointed out they had used some of my music in the film. Also, they had made some of my music into a rock theme, and I did not like that! So, my daughter encouraged me to accept the next Godzilla movie so I would have some control over how my music was used.”
When all’s said and done, the claim of Ifukube commenting “I do not write music for 80-meter monsters!” certainly makes for a humorous conversation piece, but it doesn’t appear to be true at all. And with that, another dubious story bites the dust.General // September 1, 2018
On September 6, 1998, veteran screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto was visiting his daughter at a lodge in Kita-Karuizawa when he received some dismaying news: one of his colleagues—someone whose name he will forever be associated with—had just passed away. That colleague being none other than the internationally acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa. Hashimoto had collaborated with Kurosawa (always one to participate in the writing of his films’ scripts) a total of eight times, their combined efforts leading to classics such as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), and Throne of Blood (1957). And upon learning of his associate’s death, Hashimoto realized he was the sole surviving member of a once-prominent team of storytellers. All the other writers who’d participated in crafting Kurosawa’s movies—Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, etc.—had already passed on. Hashimoto, then a physically decrepit man of 80, was unable to attend the farewell gathering due to poor health, so he sent the following in a condolence telegram: “I want to ask a favor of our leader, Mr. Kurosawa. Tell everyone ‘Hashimoto’ll be here soon.’ Leave some space for me to sit with my legs crossed. It will probably be only a little while, so until then, Mr. Kurosawa, from Kita-Karuizawa […] goodbye.”
Hashimoto ended up waiting nearly twenty years to join his senior: pneumonia claimed his life on July 19, 2018, three months after his 100th birthday. An incredibly long time to be alive—especially for someone who’d suffered through an assortment of grueling health issues from a relatively young age. He was a twenty-year-old soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army when tuberculosis landed him in a sanitarium, where he remained for four years. In his early thirties, a herniated disc left him temporarily bedridden and proved so painful that mere vibrations generated by another person walking across the floor racked him with agony. A skiing accident in 1957 injured his neck and cost him a scriptwriting assignment. He went in and out of hospitals throughout much of his later life, and his 2006 memoir Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I contains a passage near the end in which the screenwriter once again predicted his days were running out. And yet, he endured: twelve years past that book’s publication and two decades after his previous self-determined prognosis that he was close to dying. That, in and of itself, is remarkable.
And that’s to speak nothing of his incredible body of work, both for and apart from Kurosawa.
Hashimoto’s attachment to writing began in the late 1930s, when he was a patient in the Okayama Disabled Veteran’s Rehabilitation Facility. Bored and restless, he spent many hours of many days staring at the ceiling until a fellow patient offered to loan him a copy of a film magazine. In it, Hashimoto happened upon a published film script, of which he proclaimed: “I’m surprised it’s so simple. [E]ven I could do better.” Confident in his abilities, he wrote a scenario of his own and mailed it to Mansaku Itami, the most celebrated Japanese screenwriter of his age. Much to his surprise, Itami wrote back with suggestions on how to improve and subsequently became his mentor. Hashimoto recovered from his illness and took a job in a munitions company, continuing to write until Daiei greenlit his adaptation of a Ryunosuke Akutagawa short story called In a Grove. When Kurosawa joined the project, they beefed up the script together, integrating a second Akutagawa story to increase the picture’s length; from that, Kurosawa proceeded to revise the amalgamation on his own (due to Hashimoto becoming bedridden) and created the world-renowned masterpiece Rashomon (1950).
Over the next twenty years, the duo collaborated on seven other projects, their working methods constantly evolving. Hashimoto’s health had improved to where he could now remain active throughout the entire screenwriting process; and to enhance what was already a sensational team, Kurosawa recruited a third man, Hideo Oguni, to serve as their “navigator”: to tell them when an idea was no good or when the story was straying off course. (As noted by the late film historian Donald Richie, the great artistic success of the 50s-60s films stemmed from the virtues of teamwork: of multiple artists playing to each other’s strengths.) In writing Ikiru and Seven Samurai, Hashimoto penned the initial draft himself and then extensively rewrote it with Kurosawa; the more experienced Oguni, meanwhile, sat off to the side and merely looked over their progress, handing back anything in need of further revisions.
Beginning with I Live in Fear (1955), Kurosawa introduced the “straight to final draft” technique, in which everyone simultaneously wrote their own version of an individual scene and critiqued each other’s work to get the best results. Hashimoto’s involvement during this particular phase wavered—he joined the production of The Bad Sleep Well (1960) late in the game and claimed never to have watched the finished product, for instance—always with a certitude that the previous method had been better.
After a brief return to partnership with 1970’s Dodes’kaden, Hashimoto ceased writing for Kurosawa; though he did remain, in two fleeting instances, present in the director’s later life. He helped shop around the script for Kagemusha (1980), personally convening with producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to help secure partial funding for the picture, before 20th Century Fox supplied the balance; and his final encounter with the director occurred in 1990, at the premiere of Dreams, a picture Hashimoto described in his memoir as the Kurosawa film he liked best. Even though Kurosawa made two more features before his passing, Hashimoto deliberately avoided seeing them, holding to his conviction that Dreams embodied a perfect and most personal closure for his associate’s career. And he forever held onto his last memory of them together, at the premiere: “He seemed honestly happy. It had been more than forty years since Mr. Kurosawa and I had met, but this was the first time I’d ever seen him with such an untroubled, happy smile.”
Of course, those eight assignments with Kurosawa made up only a small portion of Shinobu Hashimoto’s career, not to mention his ideas on the cinematic medium. In discussing his screenplay for Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (1962), Hashimoto stated “those of us who make movies feel differently than those who watch them” and asserted the anti-feudalism themes of the aforementioned picture had been applied by filmgoers and critics and was not his intent as the writer. He might’ve been onto something: history’s full of artists who scoffed at interpretations of their work. On the other hand, one cannot help but recognize a certain (perhaps subconscious) leeriness toward authority figures as well as militarist traditions that imbues some of Hashimoto’s scripts. His other Kobayashi-directed project, the outstanding Samurai Rebellion (1959), shows members of a family standing against cruel demands imposed by their superiors. And I recently saw a picture he co-wrote for Tadashi Imai called Broken Drum (1958), about a samurai who discovers his wife slept with another man during one of his journeys—at a time when adultery was punishable by death. It was only because of his (regular) long absences, demanded by the shogun, that his wife, under tremendous pressure as revealed in a series of flashbacks, did what she did; he knows this, and yet he morosely insists she take her own life for the sake of an unfair tradition—especially since others in their village, including men in authority, are aware of it. The characters don’t rebel as in Kobayashi’s pictures, but their abhorrence for the dark side of Japan’s feudalistic social structure and reluctance to follow codes of “duty” and “honor” comes through nonetheless.
Other notable credits in Hashimoto’s résumé. Three of Kihachi Okamoto’s most popular films: Sword of Doom (1966), Samurai Assassin (1965), and Japan’s Longest Day (1967). Miki Hirate (1951), the second script of his to be produced, based on a historical figure who, like Hashimoto, suffered from tuberculosis. Mikio Naruse’s first color picture, Summer Clouds (1958). For Shiro Moritani, he penned the original Submersion of Japan (1973), likely the most intelligent and thoughtful disaster movie ever made.
And, in discussing Hashimoto’s career, it would be remiss to overlook I Want to Be a Shellfish, a Tetsutaro Kato novel he adapted first as a teleplay in 1958 and then again, for the big screen, the following year, for which he also assumed directorial responsibilities. (Of the two, the fleshed out theatrical version is the superior effort.)
I Want to Be a Shellfish’s narrative is set during and immediately after the events of World War II. It begins with a civilian barber named Toyomatsu Shimizu (played in both versions by Frankie Sakai) radiantly voicing support for the war, happily asking customers to wait while he steps outside to wish luck to disembarking troops…until he receives a conscription notice with his name on it, at which point his mood swiftly changes to the dejected. The tendency to read anti-authority themes in Hashimoto’s work becomes somewhat justified at this point. In the Imperial Army, Shimizu’s verbally admonished by his superiors, chastised for taking too long to report to his bunker after doing officers’ laundry, instructed to pop the blisters on his feet by walking long patrols at night (during an air raid). Worse still, after two American planes are shot down over Japanese soil, our protagonist and one of his comrades are ordered by a bloodthirsty captain to stab the pilots (who are already dead and strapped to trees) for the sake of boosting morale. Years later, Shimizu’s arrested and tried by the Americans for the “crime,” at which point he explains his actions and why he had no choice in the matter. In the Imperial Army, disobedience to a superior officer was equivalent to disobedience to Emperor Hirohito himself and, thus, punishable by death. Here we have a man whose rapturous love for the military has already been proven naïve, who was berated and disrespected by his higher-ups, who wanted nothing to do with the barbaric act he’s on trial for, and who only did so because of the consequences of failing to follow orders. And though he was one of two soldiers convicted for the dual “executions” of that day, only Shimizu receives the death sentence (his former comrade gets twenty-five years’ imprisonment). The implication is the Americans are looking for someone to take the fall, especially since the captain who gave the order in the first place committed suicide.
Given that the film channels a negative connotation in its portrayal of both Japanese wartime figures and postwar western authorities, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to suspect an anti-authority undercurrent in common with what’s been perceived in some of Hashimoto’s other work. I imagine the screenwriter would’ve dismissed such an allegation; he probably viewed I Want to Be a Shellfish as nothing more than the story of an ordinary man thrown into an extraordinary circumstance under the universally despised canopy of war. But, intended or not, it’s fun to speculate in context with the rest of his career, and it’s certainly food for thought. If it exists at all, however, it plays second fiddle to the picture’s blatantly stated, domineering antiwar theme, which sounds unambiguously in the conclusion. Shimizu, hours away from his execution, pens his wish that, should he be reincarnated, he return not as a person or an ox or a horse but, rather, as a shellfish at the bottom of the sea, away from war and poverty and the other miseries of human existence. Hashimoto would return to this narrative a third time, writing the script for Katsuo Fuzukawa’s 2008 adaptation. It also marked the closing film assignment in his long, prodigious career.
When film historian Stuart Galbraith IV interviewed Hashimoto in 1999, the screenwriter’s health was, in a word, ghastly. “He was so frail then,” Galbraith recalled. “Drool kept running down the sides of his mouth, his black shoe polish-dyed hair was stringy and half grown back to white, and he was wrapped in about five blankets. My interpreter, Yukari Fujii, and I kept trying to cut it short, given his condition, but he insisted we do the full interview, which lasted maybe four hours.” For Hashimoto, the stories of his experiences working with Kurosawa were worth telling, health and comfort be damned. “On the cab ride back to the station,” Galbraith continued, “I told Yukari how glad I was that we caught him in time, that he surely wouldn’t last another month. Instead, he outlived virtually all of his contemporaries, nearly twenty years after that interview, and was productive during some of that time.” If that isn’t an account of an admirable person, I don’t know what is. An intelligent storyteller as well as a man with an interesting (if somewhat unenviable) life, Shinobu Hashimoto was one of the truly great film artists of his day; and when he passed away at age 100 last month, what little remains of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema suffered yet another crushing loss.General // August 16, 2018
At her interview at this year’s G-Fest, actress Megumi Odaka was presented with a question which always seems to turn up whenever a former kaiju eiga performer speaks before a live audience: Would you ever want to be in another Godzilla movie? And, in what also seems to be tradition with such Q&As, Odaka answered by turning toward the audience and exclaiming—in English—two words: “Of course!” The response throughout the ballroom was unanimous applause, and I was right there with the audience, pounding the palms of my hands together with great vigor. Though I get the feeling my enthusiasm was unlike most everyone else’s in that it was tinted with bittersweet hope. Hope this formerly omnipresent actress would one day be blessed with an opportunity to show fans what she can really do. An opportunity she never had working in the Godzilla series.
As a Godzilla fan growing up in the early 2000s, Megumi Odaka and her character of the psychic girl Miki Saegusa were ubiquitous elements in my movie-going youth; and to this day, she remains one of the faces I immediately think of when contemplating post-Showa talent in this long-running franchise. I’m certainly more inclined to salute her over the vast majority of her contemporaries. Looking back on the problematic Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), Odaka is pretty much the only cast member under the age of 40 in that film who leaves any impression on me whatsoever. While her early performances tended to be nondescript and even wooden at times, she became increasingly expressive as she neared the end of her film career, more comfortable and natural before the camera; and by the time we reached her 1995 swan song, she was genuinely good. (Here was an actress who grew as she went.)
On the other hand, good performances frequently appear in movies unworthy of them. And just as my feelings for most of the Heisei movies have taken a severe plunge over the years, so has my enthusiasm for the character this actress is associated with. I like Megumi Odaka, but with all due respect, it’s probably not unfair to speculate the reason she remains a name with fans all these years later is simply because she played the same character six times in a row—and not because of anything said character accomplished in any of those movies. In describing Miki Saegusa, I’m tempted to conjure up two words: missed potential.
After introducing Miki Saegusa in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), writer/director Kazuki Omori charged his new character with the task of alerting everyone (including the audience) when something eerie was afoot: when a spiritual voice was in the “air,” when a voracious plant-monster hybrid was in the process of materializing, when Godzilla was about to poke his head out of the ocean.
Though it would develop into a problem later on, this simplistic approach wasn’t a major issue in the beginning. By initially presenting limited insight into Miki and what she’s capable of, Omori adds an extra layer of mystery and unpredictability to his film—which is fine, as the narrative’s told primarily from the perspective of the non-psychic characters who, very often, have to try and guess what the young woman might be thinking and, more importantly, what she might be sensing. This comes through especially well in scenes such as: Miki stepping out into the night after a heavy rainstorm, clearly troubled by something beyond our perception, not uttering a word as she races toward the coast; the other characters, completely unaware of what’s about to happen, follow; Miki comes to a stop in a grassy field, glances upward, and the audience joins the cast in watching Biollante’s particles come down from the heavens. There are other captivating bits heavy on visuals, such as Miki using her ESP in an attempt to delay Godzilla’s next attack, only to collapse from exhaustion, the monster’s advance unhalted. Little moments like these go a long way, and though Miki never alters the film’s outcome, she contributes to the eerie atmosphere imbuing this picture. Omori certainly could’ve gone the distance and rendered a more three-dimensional person, but his use of the psychic girl works well enough the first time around and does not detract from the experience of watching the movie.
In Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), also written and directed by Omori, the mystery element is deemphasized, and Miki becomes a loquacious, communicable team member. It is here where the issues regarding use of her character begin. In bringing back a person whose initial appeal revolved around behavior and ability, it’s pretty much essential on the part of the filmmakers to take the next step: regardless of whether Miki remains abstruse or becomes more “sociable,” provide her with new challenges, expand on what she’s capable of…and thereby make her more interesting. That is not what happens in this film. Omori instead focuses his energy on his jarring mess of a plot and a set of colorful new characters, all the while relegating Miki to her previous assignment of simply voicing an alarm now and then. Even though she joins the mission to remove Godzilla from history, her participation amounts to merely going along for the ride—her ESP, her one distinguishing quality, doesn’t come into play outside of a throwaway line confirming the Lagos Island dinosaur will one day become Godzilla. (As if anyone needed her to deduce that….)
Omori abdicated the director’s chair for Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), staying on only as screenwriter, and proceeded to render his original creation even more superfluous. Minus a tiny iota of a scene of Miki helping locate the Cosmos in Tokyo, the character maintains her status as a one-trick pony. “Godzilla’s coming.” Cut to Godzilla stomping out of Mt. Fuji. Of all Miki Saegusa’s appearances, this is the most vapid and unimpressionable.
The Not-So-Dramatic Turn
Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993), penned by new screenwriter Wataru Mimura, marks a transition point and a brief moment where Miki seemed to be destined for better things. The first half of the picture showcases nothing new in terms of behavior: a look of concern crosses her face, the camera gets up close, she announces Godzilla’s arrival. The second half, however, presents Miki experiencing a change of heart on whether man should continue waging war with Godzilla. A pivotal conversion that ensues in the remaining few films. The reason for her change of heart we are told—rather than shown—is Baby Godzilla: an herbivorous relative of the King of the Monsters. Baby’s egg was discovered on the remote Adonoa Island and flown back to Japan, where it hatches, the fledgling dinosaur mistaking the first creature it comes in contact with for its mother. (In this case, a human.) From this the filmmakers nobly strive to erect an interesting relationship between a monster and a person.
Also to Mimura’s credit, he incorporates Miki into the plot in a more proactive way than anything Omori had ever done. This time, Miki’s presence actually has some moderate influence on the story. Her psychic powers allow G-Force to enact its objective in destroying Godzilla’s second brain and without Miki, Baby Godzilla wouldn’t have gone into the sea with Godzilla after the final battle.
On the debit side, these ideas, nifty as they seem on paper, nevertheless come up short, failing to manifest in a particularly engaging manner. Context kept in mind, preserving Miki’s stature as a secondary character rather than more logically advancing her to the role of female lead was the big mistake. Considering this is the film where she starts sympathizing with the monsters and considering Baby Godzilla serves as the pivot upon which the story turns, it would’ve only made sense for Miki to assume the dramatic lead. Have Miki travel to Adonoa Island and discover the egg. Write the script so that Miki’s voice is the voice Baby Godzilla hears. Structure it so Miki is present when the egg breaks open. Allow Miki to develop parental feelings for the infant reptile. Show an on-screen bondage developing between Miki and Baby Godzilla, and thus exhibit why she no longer wishes to fight Godzilla. All of this would’ve consequentially led to a more devastating denouement when Miki sends Baby away.
But, no. Instead, Baby becomes attached to a scientist’s assistant named Azusa (blandly acted by Ryoko Sano), someone who never turns up again in the remainder of the Heisei series. And when Miki uses her telepathy to convince Baby to leave with Godzilla, it’s at the request of Azusa, not her own discretion.
In a scene deleted from the final cut, Miki visited Baby Godzilla’s pen, the dinosaur playfully using its tail to dishevel her hair. I imagine it was removed for the sake of pacing, but even had it remained, it would’ve been too little too late in making us care about the “relationship” between these two. As with many things in Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II, there’s something wonderful struggling to claw its way out of some rough ideas here, but the character of Miki Saegusa, four movies in, remains clenched in the fists of unrealized potential.
In 1994’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, written by Hiroshi Kashiwabara, Miki’s finally promoted to lead, with mixed results. To begin on a positive note, Kashiwabara starts the film off placing Miki at center stage. As the picture opens, Miki’s approached by members of G-Force who have developed a technique with the potential of controlling Godzilla (implanting a special transmitter into the back of the monster’s neck and feeding him commands via telepathy). None of the other psychics are strong enough to even attempt the mission; Miki’s the only one who might be able to pull it off. She’s leery about doing so. However, most people in Japan still want to see Godzilla dead. Unless the King of the Monsters can be contained, G-Force will continue developing new weapons such as MOGUERA and, just maybe, succeed in killing him. On top of that, if Miki refuses to take part in the telepathy mission, the team will resort to recruiting one of the other psychics, unprepared as they are. If she abstains, someone—human or monster—will suffer. Right from the start, Miki’s placed in a dramatic position, pressed with making a tough choice.
This thread continues when the Cosmos inform Miki a violent space monster is en route to Earth and that nothing will be able to stop it if Godzilla’s killed. Now the existence of the planet is in jeopardy. Backed into a metaphorical corner, Miki reluctantly decides between the lesser of two evils, agreeing to attempt to control the creature she’s come to respect. For all the awkward things that exist within the screenplay of Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Kashiwabara scores a right note finding an approach for the lead that 1) makes sense given Miki’s history 2) catapults her to the core of the narrative.
Until the subplot of telepathically manipulating Godzilla abruptly vanishes halfway through.
The filmmakers make up for this lapse somewhat by expanding on Miki’s powers. In this case, she discovers how to use telekinesis to levitate objects, which comes in handy when aiding her human companions at two points in the film. (A nice change of pace from simply touching her temple and declaring a monster’s on its way.) Also added is a romance between Miki and a G-Force soldier (Jun Hashizume) which doesn’t so much influence the plot as it feeds into the picture’s peculiar Make Love, Not War theme. But for all the positives implemented here, so much more still could’ve been done to flesh out Miki and her role within the Heisei universe. Dropping her key narrative purpose halfway in also delivers a heavy blow to the story.
Failing to follow up on that also opens the window for one of the most baffling lines of dialogue in the history of the franchise. After SpaceGodzilla has been defeated (thanks to the efforts of Godzilla and the MOGUERA crew), the Cosmos reappear before Miki and thank her for “saving the planet,” even though her participation in the climax consisted entirely of watching from a distance and using telekinesis to free Yuki (Akira Emoto) from a hatch door closed around his foot. Since she herself faced no peril whatsoever, even the most undiscerning audience member is bound to scratch their head at this line and beg the obvious question: How did she save the planet?
Swinging back to the positive side of things, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla is a step up in the sense that it features the first truly energized performance Megumi Odaka has given thus far. I know not what changed between movies, but I suspect it might have something to do with her collaborators. Kazuki Omori and Takao Okawara (director of Godzilla vs. Mothra and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II) are respectively hit-and-miss and helpless when it comes to directing actors; so in regards to the 1994 film, it might’ve been that the less experienced Kensho Yamashita was nonetheless more conscious of what it takes to evoke a strong performance from his cast. At the aforementioned G-Fest panel, Odaka revealed that while filming the sunset-staged quarrel in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, she and co-star Jun Hashizume were continually failing to deliver a mood that matched the director’s expectations. To solve the problem, Yamashita brought in a large speaker and played a fight song to rev up the tension until the performers reached an intensity he was satisfied with. Perhaps that cleverness filtered throughout the entire production; some directors know how to work with actors better than others. Perhaps there were other factors involved: Odaka might’ve garnered some tips from co-star Akira Emoto, one of Japan’s finest acting talents. But whatever the reason, Odaka is in much finer form here than she had been previous; and moving forward, she would only get better.
The Disappointing Sendoff
Odaka cites Godzilla vs. Destoroyah as the film containing her best genre performance, and she is absolutely correct in doing so. Of her six times playing Miki Saegusa, this exhibits the most convincing and well-rounded piece of acting by her. She’s up to the task, even if the people behind the typewriter are not.
Returning screenwriter Kazuki Omori spits up a number of interesting ideas and does little to nothing with most of them. Godzilla Junior has apparently turned into a killer, slaughtering whales by the dozen and leaving their bloodied carcasses in his wake. The cute plant-eating critter which helped Miki realize humanity can co-exist with monsters is now dangerous. Or so we’re told in a very brief throwaway scene that could’ve easily been axed with no indication it had been there in the first place. One can only imagine how suspenseful the film might’ve been had that scene been extended into a fully developed subplot: scenes of Miki trying to justify keeping Junior alive; scenes of her trying to decipher what turned a gentle infant into a threat. What if the military saw the results of Junior’s handiwork, leapt to the assumption he would target humans next, and set out to kill him? How would Miki dissuade them? How would her personal history with the creature be interwoven into the story?
Alas, Junior’s mean streak vanishes as quickly as it appeared and the next time we see him, he’s as harmless and peaceful as ever, strolling past a beach full of people, on his way back to Adonoa Island. What could’ve been genuinely intense drama actively utilizing the past history of two recurring characters is swept under the proverbial rug.
But the criminal mistake—the most egregious bit of missed potential in this character’s six-part spectrum—is, without a doubt: introducing the concept of the psychic girl losing her powers and squandering it on a couple lines of dialogue. Miki’s steadily being deprived of what was, frankly, her only standout trait from the beginning; and the filmmakers, startlingly, infuriatingly, do nothing with it. Did it ever occur to Omori to write a scenario in which we see Miki’s slackening extrasensory abilities? Not just one or two moments where she’s flying in a helicopter, touching her forehead, and Junior fails to appear? How about a scene where she tries to do something with her mind, fails, and realizes, along with the audience, that her gift’s gone forever? (Imagine what Megumi Odaka could’ve done enacting such a revelation!) How about comparing her situation to that of Meru Ozawa (Sayaka Osawa), a fellow psychic who actually wants to lose her powers and lead a normal life? Speaking of which, what has not leading a normal life meant to Miki after all these years? What has she lost? What has she gained? Ever since Miki’s induction, there have been other psychics (adults and children) in the background; what does it mean to them? All of these intriguing ideas present themselves and then vanish into the woodwork mere minutes later, and the film suffers as a result.
The one dramatically effective element to arise from all this is Miki diverting Junior’s course toward Destoroyah, resulting in the young monster’s demise. The same person who swore to protect the monsters has indirectly caused the death of one. If only this had been the consequence of some lengthy beforehand tension, as expounded on above. Megumi Odaka’s performance is solid from start to finish, but the actress is not helped along to true greatness due to the severe limitations of the script.
And with that, Miki Saegusa—ever promising, ever tingling with potential—vanishes into the annals of the genre with a well-acted whimper.
Same Concept, Superior Execution
In examining the Heisei series, I am forced to conclude Miki Saegusa was a prime example of a missed opportunity: an admittedly likable character who was never utilized to a particularly compelling degree. And in comparing her part in the later Heisei movies to something similar from a superior product, I cannot help but salute Shusuke Kaneko’s magnificent Gamera trilogy from 1995-1999. The qualitative difference is astonishing. Each film in this trio featured one or more characters with extrasensory powers as well as the concept of humans linked to monsters—except, unlike the makers of the ‘90s Godzilla movies, Kaneko seized hold of the idea with both hands and ran with it.
I could examine the whole trilogy in making my point, but for the sake of discussion, let’s dissect just the first film, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). Early on, we’re introduced to Asagi Kusanagi (wonderfully acted by Ayako Fujitani). First off, Kaneko inaugurates his psychic character in an infinitely more imaginative way than Omori ever did. Rather than introducing her within some kind of established universe (with voiceover narration clarifying who and what she is), the director shows us a seemingly ordinary person with an ordinary life. Things take a turn for the extraordinary when her father investigates a drifting atoll (which later turns out to be Gamera); this leads to her obtaining one of the comma-shaped beads littered on the rock’s surface; this leads to the deduction the beads are made of material produced by a long-gone advanced civilization; this leads to Asagi becoming psychically linked to Gamera. The audience learns, right alongside the character herself, that a seemingly normal teenager is destined for something special. An infinitely more intoxicating chain of events than the Toho method of: This is Miki, she has ESP.
In a somewhat similar vein to Miki, Asagi follows Gamera around. But her following him amounts to more than determining his destination. (The scenes of her doing so also stand superior entertainment-wise, as she often has to improvise on how to keep up with him; it’s not until the very end that she’s granted one of those JSDF helicopters Miki had at her disposal.) During the Mt. Fuji scene, Gamera’s arm is sliced wide open by Gyaos’ beam—and blood simultaneously pours down Asagi’s arm. Previously, we’d seen signs of wounds on Asagi’s wrists (following Gamera suffering a similar injury), and now we have an explanation. The filmmakers deliver this on a purely visual level, which makes it all the more fun. And to render an already interesting dynamic even more interesting, they introduce Asagi’s ability to channel some of her own energy to Gamera, allowing him to escape. Asagi doesn’t simply stand off to the side during the action; her being there influences the outcome! How many times can such a compliment be paid to Miki? Remove Miki Saegusa from her movies and almost none of them change. Remove Asagi Kusanagi from Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and the story turns out drastically different.
Again, one could discuss the subsequent two chapters in the trilogy, but that first movie, by itself, even when examining one particular element, perfectly demonstrates how much better the Gamera pictures of the 1990s were compared to their Toho counterparts. Shusuke Kaneko and screenwriter Kazunori Ito took the same idea—a psychic person who can feel the monsters—and went much further with it in one movie than Toho managed six times out.
The moment in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah that made me realize just how much Megumi Odaka had grown as an actress was her reaction to being told Junior’s course would be changed with or without her assistance. In one of their better visual choices, Takao Okawara and cinematographer Yoshinori Sekiguchi maintain a long shot on Miki as Meru vanishes through a door in the background. The shot remains locked down as Miki silently decides what to do, the wheels in her head visibly turning, making another “lesser of two evils” decisions, before quickly wheeling around and following her companion. Her expression reads a consummate blend of frustration and regret. This was the final film in Odaka’s acting career (though she did continue to perform on the stage, later transitioning into an assortment of other jobs in other industries) and it’s somewhat saddening to think her time in movies stopped just when she seemed to be getting a firm grip on her craft. I hope someone involved in the Godzilla franchise is at least aware of her willingness to participate in future entries. With good fortune, should her return to the silver screen manifest into reality, the studio will uphold their end of the bargain by providing her with a script worthy of her talent.
Despite all the dramatic shortcomings and missed opportunities, would I be interested in seeing the return of Miki Saegusa?
To quote Miss Odaka: “Of course!”General // August 6, 2018
In regards to one opinion on the late Japanese special effects director Koichi Kawakita there is no disagreement: he was a man of repetition. He started directing effects for television and feature-length motion pictures in the early-to-mid 1970s and following the departure of Teruyoshi Nakano about a decade later became Toho’s go-to man for visual effects. It did not take him long to adequately declare his style. A style that continues to draw a fair amount of criticism. Simply put: some feel Kawakita was too redundant in the way he would stage and dramatize effects sequences.
It’s a fair criticism. No matter my personal affection for the man’s work, I will not deny Kawakita liked to fall back on the same tricks again and again. The depiction of giant monsters who, for the most part, discarded physical combat in favor of constantly spraying animated rays at one another—beam wars—did feel superfluous toward the end of the Heisei series. And as much as it played into the fantasy element, one does wonder if the effects team was capable of dramatizing a film without one or more of the monsters changing shape and form: something that happened, without exception, in all six of Kawakita’s Godzilla movies as well as the first two Rebirth of Mothra films. (The trend continued in 1998’s Rebirth of Mothra III under the care of former assistant Kenji Suzuki.)
I will concede Kawakita was repetitive to a fault. However, there were instances in his films where I’d argue returning to familiar territory was not only welcome but, in a sense, justified. For Kawakita had the capacity to improve his technique with practice. Sometimes a second attempt at a particular effects trick or scenario would completely dominate and make up for a disappointing first try.
Sometimes being repetitive paid off.
1. Volcanic Eruptions
Godzilla’s grand appearance out of an erupting volcano in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) is a prime example. The pyrotechnics in this scene are efficient but could have done more. The eruption, which is supposed to have been set off by terrorist-planted explosives, produces little more than sparks and a couple localized columns of flame. (Teruyoshi Nakano would have insisted on more dynamic explosions and lighting.) As is, much of the scene’s effectiveness stems from the impressive appearance and filming of the monster costume in action, aided by the inclusion of Akira Ifukube‘s classic Godzilla theme on the soundtrack. It is a very good sequence overall, but one which probably should have upped the spectacle.
A great display of special effects, one that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Kawakita’s second chance came three years later with Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), and this time he did not disappoint. Seen on the above image on the right, the mid-movie eruption, with Godzilla emerging from the famous Mount Fuji, is a masterful tour de force of camerawork, lighting, and pyrotechnics. All coming together and forming a genuine highlight. By staging the scene at night (as opposed to its daytime counterpart in Godzilla vs. Biollante), Kawakita could take full advantage of dynamic, colorful lights. The crimson glow cast upon—sometimes silhouetting—Godzilla makes for sheer eye candy that would not have been possible under a sunny sky. Compositional tricks come into play as well. At key points, the camera shakes—not to distort the imagery but to enhance the illusion of the earth undergoing a tumultuous eruption. And the combination of explosions, smoke, and fountains of sparks outshine any previous volcano-set scene in the franchise; the brilliant touch of electrical disturbances (a phenomenon caused by volcanic activity in real life) makes the scene even more amazing to behold. There also comes a shot in which Kawakita succeeds where many other special effects directors have struggled: filming the Godzilla costume from a high angle without losing the sense of scale.
2. Godzilla’s Nuclear Pulse
This second point concerns not so much the physical (or optical) execution of special effects but rather the editing of them. Editing is an absolutely fundamental part of filmmaking, so I feel it is very much worth drawing attention to. Let’s consider another first attempt in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). It is during the final battle of this film that we are introduced to Godzilla’s nuclear pulse: when the monster attempts to charge his atomic breath as something wraps around his neck or torso and he discharges all the energy outward from his body in the form of a shock wave, devastating anything within close proximity. It’s a brilliant concept and something new for the monster’s arsenal. It’s also plausible, in the parameters of this universe, that something preventing Godzilla from discharging his heat-ray would result in a chain reaction.
However, in Godzilla vs. Biollante, the editing of this special effect feels rushed and incomplete. All due to a single truncated shot. The key shot of one of Biollante’s tendrils constricting around Godzilla’s torso cuts off much too early for its own good. And the good of what happens next. Had the camera been allowed to linger long enough for us to see the tendril complete its motion and tighten its grip around Godzilla’s body (giving us some visual emphasis), the illusion would have been better sustained. But since the most important shot ends before it can really make its point, it all comes across more as a clumsy moment than a breathtaking battle technique.
But Kawakita learned from his mistake and made sure not to repeat it when he returned to the nuclear pulse in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). During the first battle sequence, a fallen King Ghidorah lunges up from the ground, collides head-on into a perplexed Godzilla, and coils his middle neck around the adversary’s neck like a giant golden python. Godzilla writhes his head about and futilely claws at Ghidorah in wide shots, unable to break free. A little later, foam starts bubbling from his maw, accompanied by agonized gurgles. The extended amount of time spent on this buildup and the brilliant use of Foley allows the audience to viscerally feel and understand that Godzilla is unable to breathe or use his heat ray.
What’s more: by drawing things out, Kawakita builds suspense. For the second time in the course of this battle, Godzilla appears to be on the losing end. And it is therefore all the more spectacular—and dramatic—when Godzilla’s body starts emitting patches of blue light and the shock wave casts outward, tearing King Ghidorah away and hurling the dragon-like monster onto its back with a thunderous crash. The payoff is heightened thanks to the tension.
In future entries, Kawakita employed the nuclear pulse mostly for aesthetics. (Godzilla used it without something cutting off his energy charge; although it could be argued the regular use of the nuclear pulse in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995) reflects his constantly increasing power.) Nonetheless, in Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, Kawakita makes sure the shock waves occur in well-paced and unobstructed wide shots so that the audience is not left scratching their heads, wondering what just happened.
Very much like the films they appeared in, Kawakita’s effects are often credited with eradicating monster anthropomorphization: no longer did the skyscraper-sized beasts toss rocks at each other, perform bounding dances of victory, homage Yuzo Kayama with nose-scratches, etc. Kawakita’s 90s effects helped prove Japanese monsters could be straight-forward again; they also proved, however, that improvements in technology did not always yield improvements in believability.
As certain effects in Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) vividly demonstrated.
The Mothra larvae in the 1992 box office smash leaves a lot to be desired. Despite retaining a segmented exoskeleton, the creature, when in motion, mostly slides across the ground rather than undulating the various parts of its body like a real caterpillar would. There is very little sense of it moving under its own power. (Too many close-ups revealing its completely inert legs only amplify the damage.) There is some mobility in the head while it “crawls,” but not enough to 1) maintain the illusion and 2) believably match the speed at which the model is moving. And this is a significant downgrade considering the degree of fluctuating movement Eiji Tsuburaya and Sadamasa Arikawa evoked from their Mothra larvae all through the 1960s. In spite of the resources, Kawakita’s attempt was a step down.
That is, until he took another stab at the character.
For the prop utilized in the first Rebirth of Mothra (1996) is not only a vast upgrade; it is arguably the best depiction of Mothra’s infant stage to date. Equipped with far superior capacities for movement, the prop undulates in a completely smooth and lifelike manner that surpasses even the work of Tsuburaya. A nice touch: as the larvae crawls, the rounded segments of its exoskeleton separate very slightly, organic tissue underneath.
Kawakita further redeems himself by pulling off other complicated tricks. At one point in the mid-movie battle with Desghidorah, the larvae is hurled against the ground, lands partially on its side, rights itself, and proceeds to crawl for cover. The performance is superb, conveying intelligence and survival instincts; and each movement—the fall, the regaining of balance, the escape—is carried out immaculately. Kawakita has once again proven his ability to improve with a second try.
The same can be said to a somewhat lesser degree about his adult Mothra puppetry. Kawakita never fully mastered winged monsters; although, to his credit, very few special effects directors since the Tsuburaya years have been able to pull off this illusion in a convincing manner; and the imago Mothra in Godzilla vs. Mothra suffered similar problems as its larval stage. Stiff movement. The wings rarely flapped enough to make the audience believe it could really fly, and until the end of the final battle, its six legs did nothing more than hang in a fixed position from the body. Another significant downgrade, performance-wise, from Eiji Tsuburaya’s absolutely masterful work several decades prior.
However, returning to Rebirth of Mothra, even though Kawakita still failed to match his former master, he did display some moments of personal growth. There are numerous shots of Mothra flying in which her legs are flexing—helping convey the impression this is, in fact, a living creature. Excellent close-ups of the head, antennae constantly twitching, enhance the realism even further. And even though the giant insect’s wings still move a little too stiffly, a boost in creativity shines in the wirework. In one beautifully composed wide shot, Mothra is hit by one of Desghidorah’s energy bolts, and the puppet visibly jitters, struggling to stay in the air. This too is an improvement over Kawakita’s previous adaptation of the character, who seemed to take every ray fired by Godzilla and Battra without much of a physical reaction.
And then comes one of the milestones in Kawakita’s career—in which his best Mothra larvae prop and his best Mothra imago prop were both used to their utmost potential.
Unable to defeat Desghidorah, the dying adult Mothra plucks her offspring from the ground and carries it to safety out in the middle of the ocean before losing her stamina and crashing into the water, where she eventually drowns. The special effects director’s ability to generate a performance out of inanimate objects comes through in this highly emotional sequence. As she gradually loses her ability to stay airborne, the adult Mothra reels back and forth. She allows her child to land in the water, knowing it can swim, and tries again to keep herself in the air—to no avail. After its mother crashes into the sea, the larvae rushes to her aid. Mothra tries again and again to rise up, the water weighing her down and plunging her deeper; the larvae frantically tries to support her. Eventually, Mothra’s exhaustion, old age, and injuries prove too much; and her lifeless form sounds into the depths. The devastating emotional impact triumphs due to the sublime coordination and performance of the special effects. Kawakita improved his technique and, more importantly, he instilled his creations with personality, with life, with feeling, and evoked an empathetic reaction from the audience.
And that in and of itself is a true accomplishment.General // August 1, 2016
I started introducing myself to the films of Akira Kurosawa in middle school, when I happened upon a chance to see his much-acclaimed 1950 motion picture Rashomon: a film which is credited alongside Teinosuke Kinugasa’s excellent Gate of Hell (1953) for creating western interest in Japanese cinema. In the years before this prefatory screening, I’d read a good deal about the film’s director, namely his reputation as one of the major film artists of the 20th century; so personal expectations for my first Kurosawa film were extremely high. And, as you can imagine—or maybe even relate—I was absolutely delighted when those soaring expectations of mine were quickly met and surpassed by eighty-eight minutes of crisp, poetic storytelling. I promptly labeled the film a masterpiece (a statement I stand by to this day) and kept my eyes open for other pictures by this remarkably gifted director.
Between that first screening of Rashomon and a little over a month ago, I jumped at every opportunity to see a Kurosawa film, and now I can happily proclaim that I have seen—and own—all thirty of his feature-length productions. To address the rhetorical question, I most certainly agree with the prevailing opinion that this Japanese filmmaker was one of the towering geniuses of his profession; so many of his films, such as Seven Samurai (1954) and High and Low (1963), not only capture and maintain my interest but leave me flooded with that wonderful and uplifting sensation that only the experience of seeing a truly great film can provide. Now, was every Kurosawa film on the level of a groundbreaking masterpiece? No. Did the man direct any duds in his time? A few, yes. But I would argue the vast majority of Kurosawa’s films ranged between very good and excellent, with heavy emphasis on the latter. The man was a genuine visionary, and I have no shame in calling him one of my favorite directors.
And since his entire career is so fresh in my mind at the moment, I feel now would be as good enough a time as any to do an analytical retrospective. In the course of this article, I’ll be articulating the style and subject matter of Kurosawa’s films and hopefully provide some insight as to why they have meant so much to me over the years.
The Visual Virtuoso
In starting off this essay, I would like to draw some attention to an interesting—even revealing—bit of trivia about the director under discussion: before he entered the film making industry, Kurosawa trained to be a painter. Why do I make mention of this, and what relevance does it have to the man’s eventual long-term career?
First: due to the nature of the mediums, it is practically impossible to discuss either a filmmaker or a painter without drawing at least some level of attention to their visual style. Films may make use of other mediums such as music and of course a good screenplay is a must-have, but predominately, a director is defined by what he does with his camera.
Second: Kurosawa’s method of composing shots vividly reflects his background as a painter; his shots are very much like paintings given mobile life. (And, in a sense, they are: when story boarding, Kurosawa preferred to create full-fledged paintings as opposed to sketches.) When studying a Kurosawa shot, one can see a deep interest in maintaining visual interest within multiple dimensions: the foreground, the background, the physical features of the set, and so on.
Hundreds of shots could be offered as examples, but let’s just consider a handful of images photographed at different points in the man’s career.
This still shot, taken from the opening of Kagemusha (1980), could pass for a painting. There is very little in terms of physical action: three seemingly identical men are seated; two of them are scrutinizing the other; the third man, swelling with aggravation, refuses to meet their gaze; the man in the center is situated on a podium and beneath an emblem, indicating his status. Also note the symbolism. The man in the middle is a warlord and has three shadows, so to speak: his own, projected on the wall, and the two lookalikes around him. Even with the absence of dialogue, there is enough visual information in this shot to give the audience an idea of what is happening, the subtext is rich, and the vibrant use of color makes it simply enamoring to look at.
In this shot, from the underrated The Quiet Duel, produced by Daiei in 1949, we see the director utilizing movement in both the foreground and the background for heightened tension. The surgeon and his assistants are busily moving in the background as they attempt to save the life of a wounded soldier; and in the foreground, there is a ceaseless downpour of rain which not only keeps the frame lively but also adds to the somber nature of the scene. The environment (remember what I said earlier about Kurosawa employing interest in various dimensions of a single composition?) adds to the emotions the characters are going through.
Here’s another instance—this one from that great masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954)—where Kurosawa invigorates a shot in which not much physical activity seems to be occurring. Notice the dirt visibly stirred up by the wind. But like the warlord’s shadow in the Kagemusha shot from earlier, the plumes of dirt are not merely something interesting to look at; it fits thematically with what is happening in the story. The characters are mourning for the death of one of the eponymous samurai, who lost his life not to a sword, not to an arrow, not to a spear—not to any kind of weapon samurai are accustomed to dealing with—but to a musket. A firearm. A new breed of weapon gradually replacing the old. Like the plumes of dirt blowing across the hill, the samurai and his ways have been swept away by the proverbial winds of time.
Kurosawa possessed an instinct for creating great images, but if I were to salute another, perhaps more domineering reason why I adore his style, it would be this: he invites me into the creative process of visual storytelling. In making this point, I would like to go back to the beginning. The literal beginning: the very first shot in his debut, Sanshiro Sugata (1943). As the film opens, the camera is pointed into the heavens, a few rooftops just barely visible toward the bottom of the composition; the camera starts tracking forward, tilting down as it goes, those buildings rising higher into view, and suddenly we’re in the midst of a small 19th century community. A short while later, the camera turns left into an alleyway. Up ahead is a cluster of chattering women. Then, at the sound of an off-screen voice, the women turn toward us. (The shot ends with the camera still in motion.) But the fourth wall has not been broken; for at that moment, Kurosawa cuts to a reverse angle, revealing that the long opening shot was, in fact, the point of view of our wandering protagonist. (To cement this impression, Kurosawa begins the second shot with the character taking a few final steps forward.) It’s the very beginning of the film, and already the director has invited the viewer into sharing his creative process.
Kurosawa edited his own films, and sometimes a sequence can be identified as his by its editing style. His habit of shooting with multiple cameras allowed him to capture every essential detail and action—no matter the size or placement within the set—in numerous shots and strip them together in a stimulating manner. In keeping the sense of relation from one composition to the next, Kurosawa would oftentimes cut on a physical action. So if a character starts running in one shot, the cut occurs mid-stride and we see the movement finish at the beginning of the next shot. (Cutting on motion may be the only major visual technique Kurosawa shared with Yasujiro Ozu.)
Kurosawa is frequently credited with popularizing the “wipe” transition, which he utilized constantly in his black-and-white career and, for reasons unknown to me, seemed to abandon by the time he started shooting in color. Much could be theorized (and undoubtedly has been) about why Kurosawa used the wipe so much, but one thing is for certain: the effect does kept the pace going while simultaneously moving from scene to scene in a unique manner. Though he often used it to shift between scenes and settings, Kurosawa would sometimes use the wipe to divide up individual sequences and the result could be even humorous. (A scene in Ikiru (1952), where a group of women unsuccessfully try to appeal to a slew of bureaucrats—the wipe serving as transition from one unenthusiastic or mawkish face to the next—springs to mind.)
When it comes to dramatic moments, a good many directors like to have their camera zoom or track in upon a subject; and indeed, Kurosawa was no stranger to this himself—he made especially good use of forward motion in the musical climax of his second postwar film One Wonderful Sunday (1947) where the camera dashed in upon actress Chieko Nakakita in correlation to Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
However, even though he made use of this more familiar method, Kurosawa generally preferred to heighten a dramatic moment not with physical camera movement—but rather, movement enacted by editing. This was accomplished with axial cuts: stationary shots divided by jump cuts with each edit placing the camera closer to the subject. In Sanshiro Sugata (1943), our hero kills an opponent in a match, and Kurosawa uses the axial cut to emphasize the reaction of a woman in the audience (the defeated man’s daughter). The shock of seeing her father slain and the thirst for revenge swelling in her eyes remains the same for her but feels more and more impactful for the audience each time the camera cuts a few meters forward. While a tracking shot would’ve been efficient, Kurosawa’s axial cuts convey all feelings needed and present the scene in a distinctive way. This sequence can be seen to the right.
Another technique in editing is deciding when to let a scene or a significant part of a scene run on in a single shot. Sometimes Kurosawa’s one-shots moved around: forming different kinds of compositions, finding new angles to explore without making any actual cuts in the film. But in other instances, the camera would remain completely stationary for long, long stretches of time.
Compare these two frames from the 1944 film The Most Beautiful and Ikiru (1952). In terms of composition and subject matter, they are very much alike: the camera is completely stationary and situated extremely close to a single character, and both shots focus upon a sad and lonely person struggling to hold back their tears in the wake of a devastating realization. The two shots are also similar in that they continue for a long time and allow the emotional power to resonate from the performance. (An irony: in both films, the character who receives this long unbroken close-up is named Watanabe.)
Connecting Images to Themes and Emotions
When analyzing those previously cited shots from Kagemusha (1980) and Seven Samurai (1954), I found myself inevitably describing examples of Kurosawa’s visual symbolism: compositions that are fun to look at and fun to think about in terms of what they mean. Here are a few more examples. After the final battle in Seven Samurai, that sword-decorated burial mound from earlier is joined by three others; and, just like before, wind lashes at the terrain, stirring dirt into the air as a symbol for the changing times. The screenplay provides some to-the-point dialogue (one of the surviving ronin proclaims that the villagers are the true victors and the samurai, even those left alive, have suffered defeat) and lets the emotion and the theme resonate from the images.
In a scene from No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), a young salary man moonlighting as a political activist enunciates a long speech about the dangers of leading a double life; as he goes into his monologue, he gradually steps out of the shot and positions himself so that his shadow (a symbol for his double life) is blatantly cast on the wall.
Two films later in Kurosawa’s career. One of the most frequently visited images in Drunken Angel (1948) is that of a pollutant-infested sump in a postwar suburb. The sump has real-life relevance, but artistically, Kurosawa is using it to represent the physical and moral decline of the individual (or many individuals). At one point, a tubercular yakuza (Toshiro Mifune—his first role in a Kurosawa film) stands next to the swamp-like water, fully aware that if he continues to embellish in his current lifestyle (drinking, smoking, visiting the brothels—side-effects of his involvement in organized crime), he will only push himself into an early grave. As he contemplates his own mortality, he holds a flower: a symbol for a chance at a new life. A little later, in one of the most saddening scenes in the film, the yakuza tosses the flower—and what it represents—into the sump. Kurosawa had once before used a flower for symbolizing rebirth, except in the case of Sanshiro Sugata (1943), the character made a wiser choice. A reckless judo student, chastised for using his strength and training as a means of bullying people, throws himself into a pond and remains there until nightfall. The moment of him discovering his humility occurs when he watches a lotus flower bloom in the glow of the full moon. The student, calling for his instructor, scrambles out of the water—a new man.
And while we’re on visual metaphors, we might as well address Kurosawa’s frequent use of weather and elements of the set for heightening an emotion. Here are just a few.And how about this scene from Ikiru (1952)? Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a bureaucrat dying of gastric cancer, and Toyo Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), a lower-class woman employed in a toy factory, are seated on a balcony opposite some upper-class twenty-somethings; the latter are preparing a birthday party for a friend who has not yet arrived. Note the differences in attire—part of what distinguishes class—between Toyo and the people on the other side. (Their being situated on opposite balconies further emphasizes their different places in society.) This is fascinating and relevant material, but it’s not the primary drama of the scene. The mortally ill Watanabe is desperate to live—to accomplish something meaningful and enduring before his early demise. He’s been captivated by Toyo’s vigorous love for life and wants to learn to be like her—to live like her—if only once. Toyo shows him a toy rabbit she made at her job; Watanabe becomes filled with inspiration; he takes the small toy in his hands and hustles off. Then comes the scene’s highlight and some of the most emotional material I’ve ever seen, from any director. Watanabe starts rushing down the stairs just as the upper-class kids rush to the balcony edge and start singing, “Happy birthday to you!” Kurosawa holds his camera in place long enough for Watanabe, gleaming with ambition, to step out of frame and the song’s true dedicatee (the just-arriving friend) to enter view and run up the stairs. Of course, the plot’s excuse is that the kids are singing for their friend, but we the audience know that, metaphorically, the song represents Watanabe’s rebirth—his chance at a new life. After nearly an hour and a half of watching our protagonist moping over his oncoming death and lack of past accomplishment, seeing the same man suddenly inspired is truly uplifting. But Kurosawa hasn’t forgotten about Toyo. He returns to a shot with the young lower-class woman in the foreground and the celebrating kids in the background: reminding us of their separate social statuses one more time before the fade to black. Brilliantly emotional material, rich with symbolism, handled with flawless execution.
Sanshiro Sugata (1943): The final duel takes place in a windstorm. It’s visually striking, but the director’s underlying intent is to represent the confusion and turmoil our characters are going through via the environment.
Seven Samurai (1954): The final battle sequence takes place in a torrential downpour. In scenes previous, several characters have already perished; others have lost friends and family members; the relationship between a father and his daughter has been shattered; and everyone realizes they too just might meet their end in the oncoming fight. The climax of this revolutionary epic is not a giddy, feel-good action extravaganza; it’s rather sad, and Kurosawa’s use of the rain makes it all the more sorrowful.
Rashomon (1950): Much of this moody story, in which characters recall the death of a man and the possible rape of his wife, takes place in a rainstorm. But when the optimistic ending arrives, the clouds (literally) clear, and the sun shines once more.
Awareness of Society and the Human Condition
I could go on and on about visual symbolism, but now I’d like to examine yet another one of Kurosawa’s admirable qualities as an artist: his humanism.
Let’s begin with his cynical outlook on violence. Kurosawa directed a good many violent films in his career, but only on occasion would he present bloodshed in a way that was glorious or giddy. The duel presented at end of Rashomon (1950) features its contestants frantically waving their swords around—mostly in an effort to keep their opponent at bay—fearing death and injury at every second. (This finale is a total opposite of the more honorable depiction of the fight—in which both parties fought bravely and vigorously to the end—presented earlier, from the point of view of its boastful survivor.) The Hidden Fortress (1958), one of the most delightfully entertaining adventure movies I’ve ever seen, functions mostly as a fun—and funny—saga but it also manages to tackle consequences of war such as poverty, not to mention it presents the bondage between respectable leaders and their subjects. And in pictures such as Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), crime leaves a lingering impact on individual characters and later filters out to affect entire societies.
Of course, there were instances where Kurosawa presented bloodshed in a manner that was light and even comical, best exemplified by Yojimbo (1961), in which Toshiro Mifune‘s laconic ronin spends most of the movie slicing up villains without remorse, sometimes murmuring an ironic joke in the wake of a kill. None of the ronin’s opponents are made out to be sympathetic, and the film does little in the way of exposing the consequences of violence. It’s riveting and entertaining, but it doesn’t send the audience out mulling over real life. This lightweight outlook didn’t last too terribly long, though; not even for Mifune’s character. In the sequel, Sanjuro(1962), the ronin comes to lament his ways and becomes overwhelmed with anger whenever he is forced to draw his sword on another man.
The director’s pessimistic outlook on violence points to a question he asked throughout his career: Why must human beings continually kill each other and bring about their own demise year after year, generation after generation? And the older Kurosawa became—the more he asked this question—the more layers he brought to it in his art. Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) feature third-act battle sequences in which charging men armed with swords and spears are cut down in hordes by musket fire. No hand-to-hand combat. New breeds of technology have become the preferred tool of war. Of course, both Kagemusha and Ran are period pieces, but the use of firearms in the context of their stories can be read as a reflection of man’s ongoing persistence in finding even more efficient means of killing each other—something everyone in the world was keenly aware of in the last months of World War II. (How fitting that a Japanese director chose to comment on this.)
In the early chapters of his career, Kurosawa would oftentimes end a sad and tragic story with a glimmer of hope. In Drunken Angel (1948), the tubercular yakuza’s pride ultimately brings about his own undoing; but at the end of the movie, the dead man’s doctor is treating a younger tuberculosis patient (who is showing great signs of recovery) to ice cream in postwar Tokyo. In 1950’s Rashomon, an abandoned baby is discovered inside a temple, and an impoverished woodcutter (who is guilty of not reporting his having witnessed a killing to the authorities as well as taking the dead man’s dagger for profit) offers to adopt the abandoned child. Lesser-known postwar Kurosawa films presented similar attitudes. No Regrets for Our Youth (1946): the middle-class heroine has lost her husband but continues to stand for his cause and helps out her in-laws on their farm. One Wonderful Sunday (1947): a young married couple end up broke but still hold out hope for future success. The Quiet Duel (1949): a doctor sick with syphilis has forced himself to give up his fiancée but refuses to stop serving those in need. In all of these films, the director is willing to hold out hope that, in spite of all that has transpired, good things might be waiting for humankind in the future. (Bear in mind: this era in Kurosawa’s career took place when Japan was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II, when disparity was amok and optimism would’ve been much-needed. Even though Kurosawa originally intended a darker ending for The Quiet Duel, the film’s bittersweet but still fairly positive resolution is another example of the director ending his story with a wish for the best out of humanity.)
Kurosawa didn’t remain so optimistic, though. His three Shakespearian films—Throne of Blood (1957), an adaptation of Macbeth; The Bad Sleep Well (1960), inspired by Hamlet; and Ran (1985), based in part on King Lear—all end on a downbeat and depressing note. No one comes out of these stories satisfied, except sometimes the villains, and the films’ protagonists, such as they are, meet undignified ends. Ran is perhaps the defining example. The majority of the characters in this 2 hour 42 minute samurai epic have dark shades to them, but there are two youthful characters (a blinded heir to a kingdom and his devotedly religious sister) clearly representing glimmers of humanity in a dark and sinister world. And, unexpectedly, at the end, the sister is beheaded and her sibling left to stand on a precipice. Had this film been made in the late 40s or early 50s, I feel Kurosawa might have permitted these two characters at least a hopeful ending. I don’t claim to know why he chose to sacrifice them as well, but if I were to venture a guess, it would be that Kurosawa, whose life was filled with plenty of hardships (including a suicide attempt), came to the belief that to truly resonate a message of man’s dark side was to tell a story in which no one, not even the innocent, comes out with a happy ending. The only character to achieve any real success is Lade Kaede (Mieko Harada). At the end of the film, this cold and calculating femme fatale dies comforted in the knowledge that the castle of the man who murdered her family will be soon burned to the ground.
Kurosawa wasn’t ignorant to the problems of society as a whole, either. Consider the ending of Ikiru (1952). Watanabe has succumbed to his cancer after spurring a movement to convert a cesspool into a playground for children (and thus achieving something important in his life). But credit for Watanabe’s accomplishment has been taken by a deputy mayor, and despite a (drunken) vow to follow their dead section chief’s example, his subordinates return to the same monotonous, anti-accomplishment work they’d been performing beforehand; even the most passionate of the group is too overwhelmed to do anything about it. Ikiru is an uplifting story, but at the same time, it’s not a total fairy tale with eyes closed to the imperfections of society. Another example: the 1963 masterpiece High and Low. In that film, a wealthy businessman is forced to give up his fortune to save the life of another man’s child; for his personal sacrifice, he is subsequently supported with open arms by the general public; but just when things seem to get better—when the kidnapper is taken into custody—we are reminded that if it wasn’t for social separation—and poverty—the kidnapper might’ve never become who he is, and none of these tragedies would’ve occurred. In that extraordinary film, which is one of the best film-noirs I’ve ever seen, Kurosawa showed us both sides of the coin.
Despite being a Japanese filmmaker, Kurosawa only explicitly dealt with the atom bomb on a handful of occasions: namely I Live in Fear (1955), Dreams (1990), and Rhapsody in August (1991). The first dealt with the paranoia of the nuclear arms race; the second created a horrific fantasy of what might happen if man continues to mess around with nuclear technology; the third examined how different generations reflected on the bombing of Hiroshima decades later. All three are appreciative in the sense that they don’t take mindless jabs at Japan’s wartime opponents.
In fact, ignoring the atrocious Sanshiro Sugata: Part II (1945), which contained a ‘highlight’ (meaning it merely stood out) of a judo student defeating a brutish American boxer in a match, Kurosawa generally refused to take swipes at the western world. Sometimes he would be critical of western advances (such as the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union—the patriarch in I Live in Fear is driven to anxiety-induced madness over the possibility of nuclear war erupting and the devastation eventually reaching Japan) but rarely would he paint foreigners with broad strokes. And obviously he bore the western world few grudges: he spent over a year making Dersu Uzala (1975) in and for Russia; he directed Richard Gere in Rhapsody in August (1991); and he cast Martin Scorsese in the role of Vincent Van Gogh for Dreams (1990).
Also, consider the political restraint of his second film, The Most Beautiful (1944). This picture, a propaganda piece he was coerced to make by the studio after funding for a fighter pilot story fell through, tells the tale of workers in a war factory. Wartime propaganda, by its nature, presents an opportunity for mocking or dehumanizing another nation. But, save for a single scene of the characters giving a morning pledge (in which they vow to do their part in helping destroy America and Great Britain), the propaganda focuses on boosting morale, not pointing fingers at the enemy. In a key scene, the heroine played by Yoko Yaguchi (whom Kurosawa married in real life) returns to work after-hours in search of a faulty rifle lens. But as the character clarifies, her concern—the reason why she insists on slaving away through all hours of the night—is not over the possibility that Japan’s kill count might go down a few notches; she’s distressed that, due to her mistake, one of her own countrymen might lose his life in combat. There’s a nice touch of humanism here. (And to answer an oncoming question: yes, I’m one of precious few individuals on this planet who defends The Most Beautiful as a decent little movie.)
And in No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), Kurosawa spends 110 minutes articulating and criticizing Japan’s political mentality leading into World War II. In particular, he’s looking down on the Japanese government’s former habit of silencing anyone who spoke out against the wartime effort. The characters aren’t afraid of the western world; they’re opposing the condemnation of academic freedom. In the course of this film, not once is Hiroshima and Nagasaki mentioned or shown. For the director is not discussing what other countries did to Japan during the war; he’s pointing out something Japan did to itself. And, unique for Kurosawa, it is a female protagonist who reflects on this poignant, overlooked subject.
Women in Kurosawa Films
While we’re on the subject of women in Kurosawa films, I would like to address a topic in which I must strongly—and vigorously—disagree with a popular critical consensus. The consensus being that Kurosawa was indifferent and borderline-misogynistic when it came to women in his films. Granted: the stories he told were predominately male-driven sagas. (Masters and apprentices was a favorite topic of his.) And there were some truly unsympathetic female characters in his films such as the wife in Rashomon (1950) and, for that matter, all three of Isuzu Yamada’s collaborations with Kurosawa. But I would still argue that, in total, Kurosawa gave women more attention and empathy than some critics like to admit. The earlier mentioned No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) stars Setsuko Hara, one of the greatest actresses in the history of Japanese cinema, as a young middle-class woman caught between two suitors and their opposing political viewpoints: the one who stands for freedom of speech and the one who conforms to the system in favor of personal security. By using a love triangle—with a strong female character at the center—Kurosawa could represent Japan’s divided pre-war attitude and ultimately, via the heroine’s decision, stand for the ideology he personally supported. A woman embodies the theme of the story, and the film is, in my sincere opinion, the first truly special motion picture Kurosawa made.
For the second and unfortunately final time Hara acted under Kurosawa’s direction, the renowned actress was cast completely against type. In The Idiot(1951), Hara, who is well-known to this day for playing charming characters and who was absolutely adorable in No Regrets for Our Youth, took on the role of a misanthropic and hateful mistress. A person who, in the course of her life, had been handed from man to man, traded like a piece of furniture, who never had a real friend, who grew up believing the world to be a dark and unforgiving place devoid of human kindness. Dressed entirely in black and rarely showing off that heart-warming smile of hers, Hara is almost unrecognizable in this film and looks rather sinister. But the character is not evil incarnate. Rather, she’s a product of her environment. (Like Lady Kaede inRan, she didn’t ask to be turned into what she is.) We hear tremendous detail of her disdain and distrust for the world and the people in it. And yet, Hara’s character is not incapable of showing her human side. Look at the film’s ‘birthday party’ scene. Having finally met someone who doesn’t hold her past against her, who regards her as a lovely individual tarnished by a cruel world, the character breaks down in tears, crying out her thankfulness for finally being accepted. Hara’s character may be bizarre, but she’s still sympathetic from a certain point of view.
Other instances of appealing female characters in Kurosawa films: the wife in One Wonderful Sunday (1947) exhibits optimism while her husband prefers to sulk around; Lady Sué in Ran (1985) presents faith and purity in a dark and sinister world; the fiancée in The Quiet Duel (1949) is forced to give up the love of her life in favor of what her family—and society, again—demands of her; the female clinic workers come to accept and protect a prostitute-turned-nurse in Red Beard (1965)—the way said nurse bonds with and looks after a young doctor at the clinic; the village girl in Seven Samurai (1954) who falls in love with one of the hired protectors but cannot be with him due to class separation.
Again, I consent that Kurosawa’s movies were predominately male-driven and that he didn’t regularly sympathize with women to the same degree or in the same way as Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, or Kenji Mizoguchi. Still, I cannot help but regard the criticisms of him marginalizing and mistreating female characters in his films as exaggerated and truly undeserving. There’s more humanism here, I feel, than some people take note of.
Career as a Personal Saga
As he reached the later years of his life, Kurosawa started gravitating toward elderly characters, especially ones coming to terms with their own mortality. The eponymous trapper in Dersu Uzala (1975) temporarily flees the wilderness and lives with his civilized friend when his health starts deteriorating. Ran (1985) is, among other things, the portrait of an old man acknowledging the faults of his past; he’s not initially aware of it, but death is creeping toward him.
And in the finale of Kurosawa’s swan song, Madadayo (1993), a retired professor passes out from exhaustion while attending a social gathering dedicated to him. He is rushed home and put to bed, his wife and former students sitting nervously outdoor his bedroom door. (A doctor informs them he is not at death’s door just yet; but the professor is, without question, in the twilight years of his life.) Kurosawa’s camera finds itself inside the old man’s room as he sleeps and then we dissolve to a fantasy: the professor as a child, playing with other children in a hayfield. The child becomes aware of a deep crimson light fanning across the field, stands up, and turns to face it. Then, in one of the most heart-rending pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen, Kurosawa’s camera proceeds to wander across the sky, which becomes a fantastic painting (illustrated by the director himself). All of this happens in the mind of the sleeping professor. The character, like the storyteller, may be nearing the end of his time, but he’s not prepared to quit. I personally do not consider Madadayo to be one of Kurosawa’s absolute best pictures, but I cannot think of a more perfect way for the director to end not only this story but his career in motion pictures as well. For his career is not merely a group of stories meant to pass the time; they are the saga of an artist exploring his own ideas and feelings, showing how they changed from youth to old age.
And so, Akira Kurosawa was a great many things: a superb craftsman, a poetic storyteller, and a humanist wishing for the best out of mankind. Plus, he was a man who knew how to channel all of these elements into a fine work of art. Having watched all thirty of his motion pictures in chronological order and then sitting down to write this essay, I am more keenly aware of this than ever before.
A fun note for the readership: my first draft for this essay was about a thousand words shorter than the one you are reading now; as I went over that shorter version, I found myself simply dissatisfied, eager to cover more points, to expand on ideas, to further communicate my love and appreciation for these many, many films.
Just writing about Kurosawa’s films makes me think—about the films, about what went into making the films, about society, about life, about Kurosawa himself. Much more than an elegant impresario, Akira Kurosawa was one of the true masters of the cinema; and he left an enduring legacy for us to experience, re-experience, scrutinize, and discuss. It took quite some time for me to track down and see all of his films, but in hindsight, it was well worth the effort.
In wrapping up this retrospective, I suppose a personal top ten is in order.
1. Seven Samurai (1954)
2. Rashomon (1950)
3. High and Low (1963)
4. Yojimbo (1961)
5. Ran (1985)
6. Kagemusha (1980)
7. Stray Dog (1949)
8. The Quiet Duel (1949)
9. The Idiot (1951)
10. No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)General // September 10, 2015
A little more than a year has passed since Gareth Edwards’ long-anticipated Godzilla (2014) arrived in multiplexes and was greeted with healthy box office receipts, a favorable reaction from Toho, and a generally positive response from the audience—not to mention a stream of laurels bestowed upon the film by the Godzilla fan community. Since then, there’s been a good deal of talk regarding how fans interpret the film and, even more so, what they expect—and hope—to see in the next entry in the series from Legendary Pictures. In spite of the favorable notices, there were some common criticisms even amongst the enthusiasts: the eponymous monster’s surprising lack of screen time; the sudden replacement of Bryan Cranston as the film’s primary protagonist and emotional core; the frequent cutting away at the start of what appeared to be a big action sequence; and a few other minor gripes that didn’t seem to totally wreck anyone’s enjoyment of the film.
As for my perspective in this Godzilla 2014: a year retrospective well… my feelings for the picture have changed somewhat since last year, but I still stand by my assertion that it’s an overall satisfying film experience which makes up for its lack of interesting human characters with a trio of personality-packed monsters who never flag in interest whenever they appear on-screen. Although I would have preferred Godzilla himself to have more of an impact on the narrative (especially in the first act), every single second devoted to his presence is just awe-inspiring. His opponents, the MUTOs, with their menacing appearances and apparent allegory for nuclear disarmament (they consume nuclear warheads) are a welcome addition to the franchise as far as I am concerned. And the final battle between the three of them was genuinely thrilling. Edwards and his team succeeded in regard to the monsters.
Still, there are some things in the film which I felt should have been done much better; and, ironically enough, one of my biggest criticisms ties directly into what I would like to see in the sequel. It concerns the last few minutes of the picture.
Godzilla (2014) features a double climax with the three monsters combating in San Francisco while a small team of soldiers attempts to locate a nuclear warhead (which was captured by the MUTOs after initially being used to bait them) and remove it from the city limits before it detonates. Godzilla eventually defeats the MUTOs; the warhead is loaded onto a boat and propelled out to sea. The warhead goes off in the distance. The next morning, Godzilla suddenly awakens from an exhaustion-induced slumber and starts lumbering toward the coast. People cheer and smile at him as he goes. Having achieved victory, the monster bellows into the heavens, plunges into the sea, and returns to his underwater domain. Roll credits.
What bothers me the most about this ending is the way it clumsily abandons the film’s most opportune moment to make an anti-nuke statement. Especially since, up to that point, the picture had been wagging its finger at the mushroom cloud. True, Godzilla (2014) isn’t trying to communicate its message on the same level—or in the same way—as the original Godzilla (1954) by Ishiro Honda, but it is clearly taking note of a theme common to the series: when faced with a major crisis, man turns to nuclear weapons, and it often backfires, solving nothing and making the situation worse. And again, the movie makes an admirable attempt to do this most of the way through. It’s because of manmade atomic energy that the monsters awaken; without it, the Mutos would’ve remained in hibernation, and Godzilla would’ve lingered in the deep sea. That’s good. And the movie hints that it will use that nuclear warhead in San Francisco as a means of making the grand statement. (We’ve been warned of the consequences, and soon we shall see them.) But it really doesn’t. In the wake of the explosion, we don’t see any aftermath. No radiation poisoning. No fallout. The bomb went off without, apparently, doing anything bad. For all the build-up and the chatter about its devastating power (as well as a scene hinting that San Francisco could become the next Hiroshima), the payoff is little more than a white light on the horizon which our hero can shut his eyes to. Granted, Edwards does make up for it a bit by showing the results of the monster battle: civilians being pulled out of rubble; families trying to find each other. And it could be argued that the destruction is an allegory for man’s reckless use of the bomb. Still, the movie gave itself a chance to cement its message in a way that was viscerally effective, and it elected not to.
It’s also a lapse in terms of the MUTOs. Had the film shown more in terms of the nuclear consequence, it would have made their allegory for disarmament—and their tragedy in that they were, in a sense, doing the world some good by wiping out man’s atomic arsenal—even more meaningful. But alas, the movie doesn’t take advantage of this opportunity either.
As an example of how such a climax could have been better-handled, let’s examine another film in the franchise: Koji Hashimoto‘s The Return of Godzilla from 1984. Both films feature a sequence involving an atomic weapon threatening to destroy an entire city and the military making an effort to stop it in time. In Hashimoto’s film, a nuclear missile is accidentally launched toward Tokyo. (Godzilla, meanwhile, has been knocked into submission by the Super-X’s cadmium shells.) Similar to what happens in the Edwards film, the military succeeds in stopping the missile in time: another missile is fired to meet it in the atmosphere. Also similar to the 2014 film: the explosion is far enough away that it causes no direct physical damage whatsoever to the city.
But the similarities end there. When the warhead goes off in The Return of Godzilla, we see actual consequences: the explosion disrupts communication; the fallout causes the Super-X to temporarily malfunction; and, most important of all, the radiation produces a nuclear thunderstorm which revives the fallen Godzilla. History has repeated itself. Godzilla has once more been awakened by an atomic explosion. One disaster has led to another. The Return of Godzilla presented itself with an opportunity to make a statement, and it took full advantage of it.
So how could the Gareth Edwards film have followed this example? Perhaps the best and meaningful thing to do would’ve been to show fallout descending upon San Francisco and showing us what it will do to the populace. Radiation poisoning, homes which must now be abandoned due to contamination, etc. The movie didn’t even necessarily need to go into tremendous depth with this, merely remind us that, due to our reckless use of the atomic bomb, things will not be improving for the citizens of San Francisco. It would also function better in the story in regards to Godzilla’s sudden awakening; instead of the monster just sleeping off his exhaustion, why not have the radiation replenish his strength? Or some other way of connecting him to what just happened? (And, on a side note, I would also have axed that cheesy sequence of the people in the stadium cheering in favor of a more ambiguous reaction with everyone not being sure what to make of this giant animal. The Godzilla in this film is, after all, classified an anti-hero, not a superhero. So directly connecting the explosion to this giant monster still running loose in the world would have added even more to the story and the characterization.)
So now how does all of this tie into what I would like to see explored in the sequel? Edwards and his team could easily make up for their missed opportunity in the 2014 film by detailing what the nuclear explosion did to San Francisco. This could consist of anything from the irradiated effect on marine life (maybe, calling back to the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident that inspired Honda’s original movie, the fish market is boycotted due to the fallout at sea) to the discovery that fallout had, unbeknown to us, descended over San Francisco during the night; that our characters underestimated the true range and power of their own creation; maybe civilians or some of our primary characters have become sick with radiation poisoning. These are just a few suggestions; there’s still a chance for the filmmakers to redeem themselves for this allegorical lapse, and I hope they take advantage of it next time. And if they don’t, hopefully there’ll be more of an attempt to follow through on the nuclear theme—or whatever theme they’ll be exploring next—when Godzilla 2 arrives in 2018.General // August 17, 2015