When you are in doubt and not sure what to watch from amongst the DVD collection that you have acquired over the years, and you are not willing to take chances because you are feeling miserable for whatever reason, there is no better bet than old wine. So I decided to watch three vintage Kurosawas that I had never seen before – Drunken Angel (1948), Scandal (1950) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960). I watched them over a period of three consecutive days and I must acknowledge that I immediately felt rejuvenated. Here was classic Kurosawa with all its enchantment and masterly story-telling, starring two of his favourite actors – Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.
Drunken Angel is the first feature film that Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura acted in. Mifune plays a young gangster suffering from tuberculosis and Takashi Shimura plays a small time doctor in the area who is a drunkard with a heart of gold who treats Mifune. As Mifune gradually succumbs to the deadly disease and refuses to give up his drinking binges, he gets into trouble with his one-time mentor who is released from jail and usurps his territory, and ultimately kills Mifune in a memorable knife fight in the climax.
Scandal once again features Toshiro Mifune, who plays an artist who gets acquainted with a famous singer on one of his trips in the outskirts of Tokyo where he had gone to paint landscapes. The two put up at the same hotel in a nearby town, in two different rooms. Reporters of a gossip magazine track them down and manage to shoot an innocuous photo of the two at the balcony of the hotel and blow it up as a romance between the two. An agitated Mifune decides to sue the magazine. Takashi Shimura, a down and out lawyer with a terminally ill daughter volunteers to represent Mifune. The non-existent affair and the subsequent trial become a major scandal. Takashi Shimura plays into the hands of the defendants but gradually has a change of heart at the end of the trial and owns up to his professional betrayal of his client after his daughter, just before her death, accuses him of short-changing his client. The judge passes the verdict in favour of Mifune and he and the singer emerge unscathed.
The Bad Sleep Well, the most ambitious of the three films deals with corruption in high places. Toshiro Mifune, a second hand car dealer gains the trust of the vice-president of the Public Works Department and marries his invalid daughter and becomes his personal secretary. But very soon he begins to scheme against the organization. He has a personal agenda: he is the illegitimate son of a bureaucrat who worked for his father-in-law and was driven to suicide by the vice-president five years ago to avoid the organization’s role in a major kick-back scandal. Mifune keeps his identity secret and moves his pieces with immaculate efficiency, causing tremors in the organization that could ultimately lead to its doom. But his father-in-law is a shrewd man with political ambitions. With the help of one of his trusted aids played by Takashi Shimura, he ferrets out the role of his son-in-law. Mifune escapes at the nick of the time, kidnaps Takashi Shimura and holds him at a bunker ravaged by war and dreams of a grandiose plan to expose the entire racket and then turn himself to the law. But his wily father-in-law tracks him down eventually and kills him in a well set up car accident after overpowering him and drugging him. He wins the game but loses the trust of his son and daughter who has already lost her bearings.
Of the three films I liked The Bad Sleep Well most because of its Shakespearean magnitude and contemporary relevance. The film takes your breath away by its high-voltage drama and immaculate craftsmanship. It builds up slowly, takes a long time to set up the exposition and then gradually immerses you in the diabolic game played by the protagonist against his father-in-law. Weaved in between is the underplayed love story between Mifune and his serene wife who is unaware of the sordid goings-on. The opening marriage sequence between Toshiro Mifune and his invalid bride is a sheer tour-de-force. Shot inside a huge set that replicates a famous public hall in Tokyo (the manager of the hall did not allow Kurosawa to shoot in its premises because of his reputation to over shoot), it represents the opulence and grandeur that are hallmarks of Kurosawa. Cutting on axis, from extreme long shots to close-ups and the next moment jumping the imaginary line with impunity leaves you gaping at the master’s dexterity. But you are never conscious of the camera anytime; the force of the drama hurtles you along. This kind of a craft can only be achieved by long practice and the accompanying confidence that builds up over the years.
Toshiro Mifune plays his role with a sophisticated and controlled élan that immediately marks him apart from all the other roles that he has played in all the other Kurosawa films where he was required to be more ‘physical’ and high-strung. For a long time I couldn’t make out that it was Toshiro Mifune, so underplayed was the performance. The make-up contributed to the confusion; I have never seen Mifune in spectacles and jelled hair brushed back neatly.
Drunken Angel depicts a world of ghettos and underdogs where kids play in dirty stagnant water and people get into fisticuffs and gun fights at the drop of the hat. Melancholy hangs over the air as the lone doctor tries to eradicate tuberculosis in the squalid neighbourhood. Seedy characters frequent the only nightclub in the area to gamble and hobnob with prostitutes who dance with their clients with merry abandon to rock and roll music. But the stars in the sky are reflected in the gutters while a man plays a sad tune on the guitar every night. Kurosawa weaves poetry out of filth and decadence and builds up a world where despite all the sordidness, compassion prevails. And at the end, hope raises its head in the form of a young girl who succeeds in fighting tuberculosis with her will power.
One of my favourite scenes from the film is the fight in the climax between Toshiro Mifune and his ex-mentor. Kurosawa, despite being known for his action sequences, never glorified violence in any of his films and in this particular sequence he shows it in all its gory details: The two men fight each other like demented creatures, slipping over and dragging their bodies through wet paint inside a long corridor as they fight clumsily unto death. The use of wet paint is a masterly stroke and acts as a deterrent to their graceless duel and slows down the action as if it were a slow-mo, bringing out the coarseness and futility of the entire action.
Scandal is the weakest of the three films, if I may dare to use such an expression for a master who is my GOD. The film starts off as the story of Toshiro Mifune the artist but changes track somewhere in the second act and becomes the story of the dishonest lawyer played by Takashi Shimura. The relationship between Mifune and the singer with whom he is alleged to have an affair is also not explored fully, leaving you wanting for more. Mifune’s character is constant and is reduced to reacting to situations and getting friendly with the terminally ill daughter of Takashi Shimura. Nevertheless, the film successfully depicts the overriding influence and reach of the media and its brash and unabashed power to manipulate and screw up the lives of celebrities and buy away witnesses. In today’s powerful world of television and its ‘breaking news’ and stupid reality shows that hold the entire country in enthrall, Scandal does reverberate with an authenticity that rings horribly true.