Blogathons, Films I Love, Japanese Cinema

The Non English Language Blogathon: Sisters Of The Gion(1936)

cthd_languageblogathon2Catherine over at Thoughts All Sorts is hosting this blogathon about Foreign Language films. Be sure to visit her site to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself.

I had to take part in this blogathon because I adore foreign language films. I love many of them not only for being excellent films, but also because they provide me with a glimpse into other cultures and different ways of living life. 

I think that anyone who only watches films and series from their native country is seriously missing out, there are so many film and TV gems to be found from around the world. My favourite country for foreign language films is Japan.

There are three great masters of Japanese cinema in my opinion. The first one is Akira Kurosawa. He made some truly epic masterpieces. He was also responsible for helping to bring Japanese films to the attention of Western audiences. 

The second one is Yasujiro Ozu. His films were all about characters and emotions, he told very human stories which appeal to audiences the world over. His films also gave us the enchanting Setsuko Hara, the actress who was Ozu’s screen muse. 

The third one is Kenji Mizoguchi. Kenji Mizoguchi’s films uniquely often focused upon the struggles and hardships that women faced in society at the time his films were made.   

For this blogathon I’ve decided to write about the 1936 Japanese film Sisters Of The Gion. This film is directed by one of my favourite film directors of all time, Kenji Mizoguchi. I love Kenji Mizoguchi’s work because his films are very realistic, gritty, and because they also focus much more on the characters rather than on the visuals and the mood of the film.

I also love Kenji’s films so much because they deal very frankly with subjects and issues that most other films of this period didn’t focus on all that much. I love that his films focus primarily on women and on the way they are treated. His films focus on the things that women have to do to survive, and they also show the strength and determination of women who are enduring tough and bad times in their life. 

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Umekichi and Omocha take a walk together. Screenshot by me.

Sisters Of The Gion is one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s finest films in my opinion. It is a real character piece and it feels very modern when viewed today because of the strong feminist attitudes present in the film.

The film tells the story of two very different sisters. There is the outgoing, modern and rebellious Omocha(Isuzu Yamada), and the older, much more traditional and submissive Umekichi(Yoko Umemura). 

The sisters both work as geishas in a district of Kyoto. They do the same job, but each woman holds  very different opinions about what they do and how they are viewed and treated. Omocha hates men and just views them as a means to get money and nice things. She feels that men use women (especially geishas)for their own desires and then abandon them when they are through. She is also better educated and far more wordly than her older sister is.

Omocha is also very modern in her views and she mostly wears modern Western clothes, instead of always wearing more traditional Japanese attire. Omocha also has no hesitation about playing with the feelings of her male clients in order to get something that she wants from them. The way she sees it, if the men can use the women, then why can’t the women play them at their own game?

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Omocha sweet-talks her patron. Screenshot by me.

Umekichi on the other hand is dutiful and passive, she also seems to genuinely enjoy her role as a companion and source of pleasure for male clients. She also feels that things are not as black and white as her younger sister makes them out to be.

Umekichi knows that there are some men who are not all bad and are not out to use the geishas and abandon them when they are finished with them.

Despite their many differences, the two sisters love each other very much and they always look out for each other no matter what. Umekichi is deeply in love with her patron Shimbei Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya)and she offers him help when he goes bankrupt. Omocha plays with the hearts of two men in order to get gifts and money from them; the first man she toys with is a young store clerk who loves her, the second man is his much older boss who is persuaded to become her new patron.

I think that the two sisters represent the two different types of women who have always existed throughout history. One represents women who accept their lot in life, and who are accepting and uncomplaining when their man treats them badly. The other represents women who fight for equality, for protection from abuse and for the ability to be away from the control of men.

 I also like that the film shows how strong women can be in times of hardship and pain, the spirit of these women may break, they may be beaten and tossed aside, but they endure and struggle on and they never give up and wilt away.  Mizoguchi’s films often focus on women and show the appalling ways that many women of this time period were treated, but his films also clearly highlight the courage and internal strength of the women and looks at how they try and make the best of what life throws at them. The film also shows us that society often lets men get away with sleeping around, being abusive and using women for no other reason than that they are men. If a woman did the same things as men, then she would find herself being punished and judged for sleeping around. Double standards much?

In this film all the male characters we see have control over women, and they also have a controlling position in their own life in some way, such as their job or their wealth for example. It seems like the women in this time only have three options in life; the first choice is to marry and bear children, the second is to become a geisha or prostitute, the third is to try and live an independent life which will earn them disapproval and alienation from a very traditional society. 

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The two sisters represent two very different types of women. Screenshot by me.

If women of this time didn’t conform to traditions they suffered. If they did conform to traditions, many would suffer emotionally because they didn’t love the man they were married to, or because deep down they hated themselves for selling their bodies for money. 

By the end of this film, both Omocha and Umekichi will discover just how they are actually perceived and valued by men. The ending is quite bleak and I really like that it doesn’t sugar coat the life endured by many women the world over at this point in history. 

The performances are all very good and the film really draws you in. The only downsides to the film are that it is very short, it clocks in at just one hour and nine minutes long. I would also have liked more scenes between the two sisters. While the film gives us a good sense of their respective personalities and views, I don’t really get a good enough sense of what their sisterly relationship was like, a few more scenes of them interacting on a day to day basis would have been welcome.  

This is an early gem from Kenji Mizoguchi, and it is a film which feels very modern due to the feminist views found within it, and also because of its visual depiction and condemnation of the way women were treated by some men.

I highly recommend it. I think that this film could also serve as a good gateway film to Kenji Mizoguchi’s work and to Japanese cinema in general. If you haven’t ventured outside your country for films and series before, then I would say to you be brave, go and check some foreign language films out. Once you get accustomed to subtitles these films and series are very easy to get into.

What do you think of this film?

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Drama, Japanese Cinema, Romance

Cruel Story Of Youth (1960)

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Kiyoshi and Mokoto walk into town. Screenshot by me.

I love Japanese cinema so much.My favourite decades of Japanese cinema are the 1940’s and 1950’s. The great Kenji Mizoguchi is my favourite Japanese film director.

I have long wanted to check out some of the Japanese New Wave films(these films began to appear in the late 50’s and went on into the 70’s).Of these New Wave films, Cruel Story Of Youth is the one that I have been most desperate to see for quite a while now. Last night I finally got to watch it, and all I can say is wow! It wasn’t what I expected at all, and it has an ending that comes out of nowhere packing quite a punch in the process.

I’m so used to seeing the rather static cinematography present in classic era Japanese films, that I really wasn’t sure about how this film visually flicks between moments in the couples life very quickly. As the film went on I became much more used to this style and quite enjoyed it actually, even though I strongly feel that the use of static shots allows you to focus more intently on the actors during scenes.  

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Kiyoshi and Mokoto ride around on a motorbike. Screenshot by me.

The film has an almost documentary look about it which adds a great amount of realism to what we see unfolding on screen.The film was also shot in colour and on location. The impressive cinematography is by Takashi Kawamata. This film is also about as far away from the visual style of classic era Japanese directors as you can get. 

The director of Cruel Story Of Youth is Nagisa Oshima, he was one of the most revolutionary film directors in Japanese film history, and his films would often feature content that was guaranteed to shock audiences. He would later go on to make the sexually explicit In The Realm Of The Senses.  

Cruel Story Of Youth focuses on the rebellious teenagers of the swinging sixties who are going against the traditions, restrictions and sexual repression endured by their parents and grandparents. The Japan we see in Oshima’s film is a country where people are now very open about what they feel, think and desire. The film even depicts students protesting against the real life Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.  

The film is also very violent and it depicts gang violence and even violence in the relationship of the main couple. The film also shows us characters who are doing what they have to in order to get by in life, even if what they are doing is in actuality criminal and morally wrong. Everyone has it tough in some way in this film, with women in particular getting the roughest treatment of all. Female characters are quite often shown being used by men and not being valued for who they are as individuals, and not having their feelings considered by men, these aspects of the film do make for difficult viewing. 

The film begins with teenage Makoto (Miyuki Kawano, an actress whose work I am now desperate to see more of)accepting a lift at night with a middle aged man. The driver takes them to a hotel, and when Makoto tries to run away from him he attempts to molest her. She is rescued by passing tough guy, Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu)who beats the man up and takes her away from him.

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Kiyoshi and Makoto at the beach. Screenshot by me.

Makoto and Kiyoshi meet up a few days later and it is clear to us that he fancies her, but that she is inexperienced sexually and just wants to be around him as a friend.

The pair take a motorboat ride out on a river, and while resting on some floating logs tied together in a bay, their relationship becomes physical. I was quite taken aback by this shocking sequence because it quite is sadistic and because Kiyoshi forces himself on Makoto! Despite this scene though it is undeniable that there is undoubtedly some sort of connection between the two characters, and despite this incident they genuinely do fall for one another.

The pair move in together and the rest of the film depicts their relationship and how they try and get by on little money. To make some money they decide to reconstruct the way they first met, and Makoto will ask for lifts from older men and then Kiyoshi will beat them up and take their money. The pair also have to deal with a violent gang who Kiyoshi has got on the wrong side of. 

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The sisters have a talk. Screenshot by me.

Makoto and Kiyoshi’s relationship is both passionate and mutually destructive. It is painful and fascinating to watch their relationship change and develop as the film goes on.I quite like how we also get to see that Makoto’s older (and less rebellious) sister, Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga)once went through what her sister is going through now, and how she wisely tells her this relationship is no good and won’t last.  The sisters sadly become estranged as Makoto falls more and more for Kiyoshi much to the dismay of Yuki. 

The film features material that was very risque for audiences of the time. The film contains sexual violence, abortion, sex outside of marriage, gang violence, extortion, robbery and murder. I found the content of this film to be very shocking even when compared with what we see on our screens today, so I can only imagine how much this must have stunned the audiences who saw this back in 1960. 

Yusuke and Miyuki are two of the most natural and expressive actors I’ve ever seen and they both do a terrific job of conveying the passion, the rage, the vulnerability and the awkwardness of their respective characters. 

Yusuke is so intense and he very skillfully conveys how Kiyoshi is an angry young man consumed with a great rage, who is rebelling against everything and looking after himself first. Yusuke does a brilliant job of getting us to see just how much Kiyoshi is completely thrown when Makoto comes into his life, and how he develops genuine feelings for her and doesn’t really know how to deal with those feelings or with her constant presence in his life. 

Miyuki conveys the innocence, the gentle nature and the naivety of her character so well. I also like how she conveys the great emotional change this woman is going through and how she becomes stronger, more confident and rebellious as the film goes on. She shows us that Makoto is in love not only with Kiyoshi, but also with how he represents a freedom from rules and restrictions. 

My favourite scenes are the following.  Makoto practicing standing by the window and practicing smoking. The couple relaxing at the beach on a sunny day. Kiyoshi saving Makoto from the gang at the bar. Makoto getting questioned by her sister and dad. The evening motorbike ride ending at the beach. The ending. 

This is a very powerful and important film which depicted a generation rebelling against the traditions of its past. I’d love to get your thoughts on this film.

Drama, Films I Love, Japanese Cinema

Rashomon (1950)

I’m writing today about my second favourite Akira Kurosawa film. My all time favourite film from Kurosawa is Ikiru. Coming in a close second though is Rashomon. This is a film that I think you can have a great deal of fun analysing and discussing. The film is so expertly put together and it looks stunning from a visual perspective too. The cast are also all at their very best playing characters who are all very hard to forget. 

Rashomon poster

Long before films like The Innocents, L’ Avventura, and Picnic At Hanging Rock left us to decide for ourselves the truth of what we had just watched; long before Quentin Tarantino played around with making films in a non linear style, and long before this type of filmmaking was even appreciated by film audiences and critics, there was Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon

Kurosawa directed the film and also co-wrote the screenplay with Shinobu Hashimoto. The film is based upon the short story, In A Grove,which was written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Several Japanese studios turned this film down. Eventually Kurosawa was allowed to make it at Daiei Studios. Kurosawa chose the legendary cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa to work with him on the film. Miyagawa would go on to work on a lot of Kenji Mizoguchi’s films, and he would also work with Ozu, and would work again with Kurosawa on Yojimbo and Kagemusha. I think Miyagawa’s cinematography on Rashomon is among his very best work in my opinion.

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The light in the trees looks like a cross. Screenshot by me.

Anyone who watches this film will usually be full of praise afterwards for the photography. I especially love the photography in the sequence where the medium relays the dead husband’s version of events to the court.

My favourite piece of cinematography in the entire film has to be the shot of the wife sitting in the forest. In the trees behind her there is a patch of light shining through the leaves and it looks like a cross. This shot is so beautiful.    

This film tells the same event from the different perspectives of the three characters involved within it, and also from the perspective of a woodcutter who claims to have witnessed some of it. We as the viewer are left to decide which of the depictions (if any of them are to believed at all)is actually the truth. I love the approach Kurosawa took with this film, it makes us think about whether or not we should take the characters memories to be facts.

The film also makes you wonder if you can trust what the camera is showing you. The film also makes you question everything you are seeing and hearing leaving you to makeup your own mind about the characters and their experiences. I even wonder if there is actually any proof to show that the entire story we are following is actually real. After all, everything we see begins with a story uttered by the woodcutter, but is he just making the whole thing up? Or is he simply telling a folktale or ghost story to help himself and the other two men pass the time? Are the flashbacks a reality in the film, or nothing more than an intriguing fantasy or story?

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The three men ponder the different versions of events. Screenshot by me.

I also have a theory that the film is making us the judge and jury of the film. The courtroom sequence is like no court you’ve ever seen. The witnesses give their testimony directly to the camera (therefore directly to us). We serve as the judge, the lawyers, the members of the public in the gallery etc.

This court sequence is also a memory (or fabrication)from the mind of the woodcutter, it is not presented to us in the typical way such a scene would have been had it been depicting a reality on the screen. Kurosawa is showing us right from the beginning that we are to make up our own minds about what is actually going on here. 

I like how the film also toys with our perceptions of the characters. For example if you believe the bandit raped the wife and killed the husband, then something in you must look at him and see him as a rough, despicable stereotype capable of that act to accept that story. If you believe that the woman was a victim, then you accept her story because you don’t believe her capable of lying about it. 

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The wife watches. Screenshot by me.

If you believe that the woman made the bandit kill the husband, then you believe that you shouldn’t take things at face value, instead you should look a little deeper at everyone involved and dig deeper into all the accounts of events.  The film clearly shows us that no two people will ever see the same event in exactly the same way, everyone has such different perceptions of something that they witness. 

It’s like the film is showing us that everyone is more complicated inside than they might appear on the outside. Life is full of good and bad occurences. Life is full of events that often happen without a reason. People can end up doing unexpected things. Life is shocking, weird and very frightening at times, yet there is always good around if you look for it.  

The non linear style of the film and story was very new to audiences at the time. Some people found it (and still find it)infuriating that they didn’t get obvious and easy answers to what exactly happened in that forest. If done correctly (as in this case)such infuriating films can often end up being brilliant and thought provoking.  

This film was also responsible for bringing Japanese cinema to the attention of Western audiences. The film won an award at The Venice Film Festival, and it also won an honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Kurosawa’s name was to become well known in the west once this film arrived there. Soon, the names of other Japanese directors like Mizoguchi and Ozu would be as well known and respected as Kurosawa’s outside of Japan. 

The film is set in eleventh century Japan. The film begins with three men; one is a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), one is a Priest (Minoru Chiaki), and the other is a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda). The men are taking shelter from a rainstorm under the decaying Rashomon Gate, this gate actually existed, although it was more of a building than the type of gate we would know of today).While they wait out the storm, the woodcutter tells the other two men the story of a murder. He claims to have found the body of a murdered man (Masayuki Mori)in the woods. A bandit was later captured and arrested for the crime. We then see in flashback the different versions of the events that led to the murder of the dead man.  

The first depicts the bandit (Toshiro Mifune)forcing himself upon the dead man’s wife (Machiko Kyo). At first she resists him, but then she gives herself to him, and then convinces him to kill her husband (who the bandit has tied up, thereby forcing him to watch what the bandit was doing to his wife).

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The bandit. Screenshot by me.

The second shows the wife get raped. After the attack her husband wants nothing to do with her. She passes out from the shock of what has happened. When she wakes up she discovers that her husband is dead. 

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The wife. Screenshot by me.

The third version is conveyed to us through a medium, who contacts the dead husband and allows him to speak through her. He claims that his wife was raped, but that she then asked the bandit to kill him. The man claims he felt great shame and took his own life in a ritual suicide.  

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The husband. Screenshot by me.

The woodcutter’s version of events has the wife being raped, but then the wife encourages the two men to fight one another. During this fight her husband is then killed. An event at the end of the film restores our faith in humanity. It also restores the faith of the woodcutter, the priest, and the commoner. 

Some people think the acting in this is a bit over the top. I think Japanese cinema is all about emotions and in making the viewer really feel those emotions. Sometimes some actors performances can come across as being heightened, but I don’t see that as necessarily being a bad thing. 

Mifune’s performance can certainly be seen as being quite theatrical in this. Mifune was always a very intense and physical actor, and he really used his body and gestures quite a bit during scenes in this. He steals every second of screen time in this film, be it with his facial expressions, his body language, his laughter, or his constant swatting and squashing of flies. You can’t take your eyes off of him.

Machiko Kyo is much more subtle and natural in her performance. Her performance is all in the eyes. When she is on screen she has your attention and she makes you feel what her character is going through. 

Masayuki Mori is also quite subtle in his performance. He conveys how watchful and alert his character is very well. I also really like how defeated, depressed, and beaten he becomes in his version of events where he walks off into the forest. 

The rest of the cast are all excellent. I find Japanese actors to be more emotional and expressive than many from other countries, I think that this emotional quality and intensity works well for the film to be honest. Mifune, Shimura and Kyo would all go on to become actors well known outside of Japan thanks to their performances in this film. 

My favourite scenes are the following. The sequence with the medium, where she gets in touch with the spirit of the husband. The wife giving her version of events at court. The bandit pushing through some branches to get to the wife. The opening sequence with the three men at the Rashomon gate. The wife watching her husband and the bandit duel. The woodcutter finding the body in the woods.

What do you think of this film?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Films I Love, Japanese Cinema

Ikiru(1952)

 

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The famous swing scene. Screenshot by me.

Akira Kurosawa is one of my favourite film directors. I admire his films quite a bit. I have several favourites from amongst his work, but it is Ikiru that I consider to be my all time favourite Kurosawa film.

Ikiru is a film that really impacts  the viewer on an emotional and spiritual level.This film makes me stop and think about life every time I watch it.

The message of Ikiru is to value life and the time you have on earth. The film helps you realise that we should all stop and take in what is around us(the sky, the animals, the flowers etc), work is certainly necessary to pay the bills, but there is more to life than your job.Treasure life with all your heart. There will come a time when one day you will no longer be here to appreciate life.

Are you afraid that no one will remember you after you have left this earth? Then do something positive to help others while you’re living, that will make sure that your name and deeds are remembered after death. 

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Watanabe hears the worse news a person can receive. Screenshot by me.

Takashi Shimura gives a performance that really moves me, he makes you feel his characters pain, anguish, and also his eventual peace with his tragic and frightening situation.

Shimura is one of the most expressive actors in film history and I think that his performance here should be used in an acting masterclass. Every look, every expression speaks volumes and affects the viewer as we see the loneliness, pain, joy and fear of this man.

Kanji Watanabe(Takashi Shimura)is an office worker whose greatest pride in life is his work and his work record. He begins to suffer from terrible stomach pains and is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This news really hits him and he is adrift in life.

Watanabe’s work no longer brings him any joy, and he is desperate to find out the secret to enjoying life, he will learn that there is no such secret. He begs a young office worker(Miki Odagiri)to help him understand how to live, she is frightened by him and doesn’t understand what is driving him.

Watanabe doesn’t realise until later that enjoying life doesn’t mean laughing and going out partying; it can simply be nothing more than appreciating a sunset or sunrise, admiring the beauty of flowers, sitting and watching  what’s going on around you etc.

Life is the very world around us, the air we breathe, the snow, the rain etc. He also learns that he can leave something in this world that says he was here, he sets out to build a park for the local children. In one of the most iconic images in film history we see Watanabe sitting quietly on a swing as the snow falls around him, he is sitting quietly in that moment.

My favourite scenes are the following. Watanabe singing the song with tears in his eyes. When he discovers(before the doctors can tell him)that he is suffering from cancer, the fear and realisation in his eyes really gets to me. All the scenes between Watanabe and the young office girl. The ending showing the park being used as intended.

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Watanabe finds some joy. Screenshot by me.

Ikiru is one of the most moving films there has ever been. This film is so real to me(by that I mean I find myself connecting with Watanabe throughout)his pain and emotional journey don’t even seem like a film plot, they seem like a real experience that has been captured on film.

Shimura’s performance here is his very best in my opinion. He really was a one of a kind actor; his face is a kaleidoscope of emotion, and he really lets you see and share his characters grief, fear, and happiness. He makes me want to reach through the screen and hug his character. 

This story should be one that anyone from any country and background can enjoy, as the story is one that is so universal. This film is a human story and makes you realise how precious life is. 

Any other fans? If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it.

Detective, Films I Love, Japanese Cinema

Stray Dog(1949)

If you thought that Akira Kurosawa’s films were all historical epics, featuring swordfights and Samurai warriors, then you really need to think again. Kurosawa also made several dramas and thrillers set in the present day of his time(40’s and 50’s Japan.) Two of my favourites amongst these particular set of films, are Ikiru and The Quiet Duel. 

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Murakami gets desperate. Screenshot by me.

Stray Dog is another great favourite of mine. It is a type of film that I dearly wish Kurosawa had made more of. I really do love Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai films, but I find that his somewhat lesser known drama films have become even more special to me than his Samurai films have. It is to these more intimate drama films that I keep returning again and again.

The film is set in 1940’s Japan, and it takes place during a rather oppressive heatwave. This Noir Thriller features Kurosawa’s regular lead actor Toshiro Mifune. Toshiro delivers one of the best performances of his career in this film. He is excellent as the sweat soaked, keen, rookie detective, Murakami. When his police gun is stolen from him he doesn’t stop trying to track it down and get it back. As time goes on, Murakami finds that his gun has moved on from the pickpocket who snatched it and has been passed into the criminal underworld.

Murakami becomes guilt ridden after it is discovered his stolen gun has become linked to crimes. It is at this point that he has to ask for help in his search for the gun(and in a way help in seeking his own redemption). Murakami is helped by veteran detective Sato(Takashi Shimura, who is also at his best here, perfectly conveying wisdom and world weariness).

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Publicity still for the film. Image source IMDb

This is such a good film. It is exciting, moving and very thrilling too. There is some striking photography by Asaichi Nakai, and some strong performances from pretty much everyone in the cast. Even people who feature for a small amount of screen time make a real impression. The film is shot on location and that really adds a great deal of authenticity to the story we are watching. The film also shows us the good and bad sides of life in that country. The film also shows us a side of Japanese life which we don’t see too often on screen, that of nightclubs and dancehalls.

The film rarely lets up on its edge the seat thrills, but there are some quieter moments to be found too. A scene that always stays with me after viewing is the one where the grief stricken husband of a woman killed by Murakami’s stolen gun sits sobbing in his wife’s garden; we see (as does Murakami)the terrible impact such a crime has on the victims loved ones.

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The wise Sato. Screenshot by me.

Interestingly Sato seems quite distant in that scene, which to me shows that he has seen so many similar things in his career. Due to his experience at dealing with such crimes he has in a way become used to and hardened against such things.

Sato tries to teach Murakami that he can’t get personally involved in every case, if he did the emotions would break him apart; but the older detective also knows he can’t teach that, it is something that has to be learnt by bitter experience. Sato and Murakami’s odd couple relationship also predates the buddy detective plots which are so common in films and series today.

The finale in the field is tense and deeply moving, as we find ourselves feeling some pity for someone who we should actually hate. If the film tells us anything, it is that crime is a destroyer and waster all round, there are only losers in such a life. The lives of both the victims and perpetrators of crime are ruined and forever altered by criminal activity of one sort or another.

Strangely enough Akira Kurosawa himself never actually regarded this film very highly for some reason. I’d love to know why that was, as this really is one of his very best films. If you’re not really into Japanese cinema that much, then I think that Stray Dog would serve as a great introduction.

If you are already a fan of this flick please share your thoughts with me below.