1940s

Lost: Akira Kurosawa Noir

Stray Dog Movie Film

Akira Kurosawa’s 1948 gangster drama Drunken Angel stars Toshiro Mifune as a crook suffering from tuberculosis. Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular, plays a doctor who tries to convince the gangster to change his hard-living ways before the disease takes his life. Set in a particularly run-down section of Tokyo, Kurosawa draws a connection between the degradation of the environment and the moral rot that infects its denizens, made manifest both by the tuberculosis suffered by Mifune’s character, and the film’s visual refrain: shots that linger over a brackish, fetid pool of water, polluted with trash and festering with disease. The disgusting water becomes a chorus, Kurosawa’s constant reminder to the audience that a place and its inhabitants move as one — what afflicts one will afflict the other. Fifteen years later, Kurosawa would borrow Drunken Angel’s defining image for High and Low (1963), adding a class dimension to the framing. The camera trains its critical eye on another fetid, polluted body of water, littered with trash. However, the water also reveals a shimmering reflection — a mansion high above the city of Yokohama, a luxurious villa on a hill that seems almost to mock the people below by the magnitude of its contrast. Though Kurosawa is undoubtedly associated with the lasting legacy of his towering samurai pictures, he made a number of different types of movies, including dabbling, as did many postwar directors, in film noir. In Stray Dog (1949), The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and High and Low, Kurosawa’s career-long obsession with the theme of loss highlights the prevalence of that same theme in noir. 

Noir is notoriously difficult to identify, with various critical camps divided over exactly what the term means and where, if such a thing exists, it might be found in different film texts. Whether noir is a genre or a style, whether it is made up of around 30 films or hundreds, whether it is an American phenomenon or an international one — it almost doesn’t matter. Noir is a useful idea, a concept that serves a greater purpose than identifying a detective film based on a pulp fiction novel made in 1944, or describing a visual style that relies heavily on chiaroscuro lighting. At its core, noir, befitting the darkness suggested by its English translation, is about loss. Though there are numerous exceptions, as a cinematic phenomenon, noir began to thrive in the aftermath of World War II, which is undoubtedly one of the most important events in film history — the impact of this global conflict cannot be overstated. The way the war is taught in schools and the way it lives in cultural memory, especially in the United States (it’s “the good war”), can obscure the scale of the unimaginable tragedy. As many as 85 million people died worldwide, many in combat, of course, but millions were also exterminated in the death camps by the genocidal Nazi regime, the most depraved act of state-led terror in the modern era. Countless civilians across Europe and Asia were killed in bombing raids, all of which culminated in the twin tragedies that brought the war to a close — the dropping of two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States, inaugurating a new era of nuclear-age horror. The devastation left by the atomic bombs, both visible and invisible, pervades Japanese cinema: there is the obvious manifestation of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954), a radioactive monster come to stomp Tokyo into oblivion, but also the sudden illness and death of the mother in Yasujiro Ozu’s family drama Tokyo Story (1953), which carries with it the implication of radiation sickness. Kurosawa was no doubt thinking about the aftermath of the war and the bombs when he concocted the defining image of Drunken Angel; the brackish pool of water, a metaphor for the decaying lungs of the gangster at the center of the story — here are a world and a people poisoned, unable to arrest the decline. 

Kurosawa’s films are consumed by the impact of loss, and each seems like an exercise in coming to terms with the unimaginable grief that only a filmmaker who came of age during a cataclysm like World War II can truly understand. The ordinary men of Rashomon (1950) find their moral vision of the world shattered by a horrific rape and murder, and sit motionless in the ruins of a gate that recalls the devastation of the bombs; a bureaucrat reckons with a wasted life upon receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis in Ikiru (1952); a family man loses his grip on his sanity and severs his relationships with his loved ones because of his fear that the bomb will come again in I Live in Fear (1955); a thief loses his identity when he is asked to impersonate a dying lord in feudal Japan in Kagemusha (1980); a king loses his kingdom to the selfishness of his own children in Ran (1985). These are just some of Kurosawa’s dramas, each concerned with the consequences of loss. In his noir films, Kurosawa finds his inclination towards stories about loss paired with a film style that allows that inclination to flourish. His characters are destroyed by loss, as are the worlds they inhabit.

Stray Dog might be Kurosawa’s first postwar masterpiece; the legacy of the war itself hangs over the entirety of the film, as it will for many of Kurosawa’s other works. It stars Mifune as Murakami, a rookie homicide detective who has his police-issued pistol stolen from him while riding to the precinct on a trolley car. The theft brings Murakami shame and dishonor, but he is given a chance by his superior officers to find the gun. He descends into the underbelly of his city, navigating a world of pickpockets and prostitutes and black marketeers in an effort to locate his stolen pistol. When the gun is used in a series of crimes, including a murder, Murakami is paired with Sato (Takashi Shimura), a veteran detective with a much more jaded worldview than the tightly wound neophyte. The city environment is undoubtedly of a piece with American noir’s tendency to focus on urban spaces, with cities most often rendered in noir movies of the 1940s and 1950s as fallen worlds populated by the morally dubious. In a nearly wordless montage early in the film, Kurosawa follows Murakami through the city as he tries to locate his purloined weapon, placing the camera in the back alleys and looking out through storefront windows. The world Murakami must traverse is cluttered with wayward people, noise and structures; Kurosawa likewise clutters the frame, staging Murakami behind conspicuously placed objects in the foreground. Murakami is an intruder in this place, and the environment will not bend for him. 

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Stray Dog Movie Film

Stylistically, however, much of Stray Dog takes place during the day and outdoors, which prevents Kurosawa from relying on the visual signifiers of noir that defines many American films. There are few opportunities, say, to cast light through horizontal blinds, the near-cliché noir look that carries so many implications of inevitability and imprisonment. Given the chaos caused by the aftermath of the war, it is unclear how familiar Kurosawa might have been with the American noir films that the French saw in the late 1940s when he was making Stray Dog; and yet, he need have no awareness of them at all to arrive at a similar feeling. For all of their stylistic signifiers, American noir films are, even in the absence of chiaroscuro lighting, defined by their tendency towards despair. The overwhelming sense of loss that suffuses them is present in their narratives and themes, but also in their stylistic construction. Thematically, many noir films are about loss — anti-heroes deviate from the moral path, losing themselves along the road to sex and wealth. Other noir characters reckon with tangible losses, seeking to find out what happened to ill-fated partners and war buddies and wives, all dead by foul play. But this sense of loss likewise dominates the stylistic choices of these films; non-linear structures, common in the 1940s, invest each noir film that uses them with the air of inevitability. As the events of the past are narrated in voice over, given life in images, the film moves inexorably towards its conclusion — what is shown cannot be changed, only reflected upon, regretted, lamented. The opportunity to make a different choice has passed, the chance to save oneself already gone. There is little left but the feeling of loss, a life abandoned somewhere on the road, drawn onto a new path by the whiff of temptation. 

Murakami has lost his gun, not through any particular fault of his own — pickpockets and thieves are everywhere is his jurisdiction — but the ramifications of that loss reverberate, leading him to burden himself with more guilt with each minute the wayward pistol is not recovered. Narratively, Stray Dog follows the semi-documentary approach of a police procedural, if not quite to the degree as Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948), then at least in its almost neorealist survey of the streets and locations where the story takes place. And yet, despite the apparent formulaic approach of the film’s story, there are numerous detours — with Kurosawa at the helm, the film is hardly about recovering the gun at all. Instead, it is about how Murakami, with Sato’s help, learns to lose the part of himself that feels anything at all. Sato is world-weary, in the manner of a number of subsequent veteran police officers in films around the world, a stark contrast to the wide-eyed Murakami, who lives like he has an open wound. Sato has built a callus where his heart ought to be, a defense mechanism against the world he must police; Murakami hasn’t found the strength to do the same — yet. Murakami’s instinct is to sympathize with the suspect, making excuses for his crimes (whether they are rooted in his wartime service or poverty), while shouldering the blame himself. If the suspect hadn’t gotten Murakami’s gun, he reasons to Sato, then he couldn’t have committed the crimes. Sato is quick to point out, “If it hadn’t been a Colt, it would have been another gun.” Sato’s fatalism, his refusal to believe that the world can get better, protects him from being hurt by it; and yet, he has lost the part of himself that ties him to humanity. 

Such a low environment, pervaded as it is by crime and vice, would undoubtedly inspire a rationalist like Sato to build emotional defenses against its inevitable disappointments. In The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa turns his attention to the boardrooms of high finance, crafting a noir story that borrows its basic premise from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Unlike Kurosawa’s other, more direct Shakespeare adaptations, including Throne of Blood (1957), which is based on Macbeth, and Ran, which is based on King Lear, The Bad Sleep Well lifts only lightly from the story of the Danish prince seeking revenge against his uncle, the man who murdered his father. Ran is splashed with color, but Throne of Blood’s stark black-and-white photography makes it a kind of samurai-noir, befitting its source material. In its stage form, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is pure noir — the ambitious anti-hero who is both a war veteran and driven by his insecurities; the femme fatale who tempts the protagonist to reach beyond his grasp; the brutal violence that comes to haunt the central character; the witches’ prophecies which, though the story is told in a linear fashion, lend it the air of inevitability that non-linear narration often provides; and above all, the dread expressed in Macbeth’s most famous monologue, that all his sins are for not, and that life is little more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Kurosawa leans on some of these tactics in The Bad Sleep Well, which tells the story of Nishi (Mifune again), a rising star in the Public Corporation, who marries into the family business by exchanging vows with the company Vice President’s daughter. What the Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) and his lieutenants Moriyama (Takashi Shimura) and Shirai (Ko Nishimura) do not know is that Nishi is a sleeper agent, a man driven by desire to avenge the death of his father — a suicide years before, he threw himself from the seventh-floor window of the Public Corporation’s offices at the behest of the company’s brain trust, a sacrifice to conceal financial malfeasance. The film’s widescreen photography takes it far from the gritty underworld of Stray Dog, giving the proceedings a grandiosity captured well in its opening sequence, a wedding reception for Nishi and his new bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa). Kurosawa borrows only a few elements from Hamlet, but one of them comes in this wedding scene — a mysterious cake is delivered to the reception hall, a rose protruding from the seventh floor window from which Nishi’s father fell. Just as Hamlet uses the play-within-the-play to force his uncle Claudius, now the king, to betray his guilt, Nishi watches closely as the executives react in horror to the arrival of the cake. 

The Bad Sleep Well is dominated by ghosts, which is another of Kurosawa’s lifts from Shakespeare’s story. Though Nishi’s father is long dead, his presence inhabits the film, kept alive through Nishi’s remembrances of him and the increasing paranoia of the surviving executives, who scramble to cover up their involvement in the crime before consequences visit them. Nishi intervenes to stop the company-ordered suicide of an accountant, Wada (Katamari Fujiwara), but allows his bosses to believe Wada has died anyway, and then uses his apparently spectral appearance to drive Shirai, the company’s weak link, out of his mind. Nishi’s stagecraft takes place on Shirai’s darkened street, with Wada appearing like a phantom in the headlights of a passing car, and then vanishing into the dark. Shirai, struck dumb by what he has seen, collapses on the street in a pool of light from a streetlamp overhead, a typical noir image that shows how much the style of overseas films might have, by 1960, had an influence on Kurosawa’s work. The daytime, exterior settings of Stray Dog give way to nighttime streets and shadowy office buildings throughout The Bad Sleep Well, which looks more like noir. 

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The Bad Sleep Well Movie Film

In order to facilitate his infiltration of the Public Corporation, Nishi has swapped identities with his friend Itakura (Takeshi Kato), whose parents were killed in the war. Itakura is Nishi’s co-conspirator (Horatio-like), working to help Nishi exact his revenge against the men who are responsible for his father’s death. After their efforts marginalize Shirai and leave him institutionalized, they apprehend Moriyama and hold him hostage in the ruins of an old munitions factory, bombed out during the war. The Bad Sleep Well was released and is presumably set in 1960, 15 years after the conclusion of the fighting, and yet, the footprint of the war on the landscape is still plainly visible. As the plan moves forward, Nishi, who is hell-bent on murdering each of the three men who forced his father to commit suicide, begins to soften. Counseled by Wada not to lose his sense of morality, Nishi’s murderous rage gives way to a desire to bring the executives to justice instead, using their corporate machinations against them in a court of law. Thus, they hold Moriyama in the basement, locking him up and withholding food from him until he turns over the location of stolen money and incriminating documents that will prove Public Corporation’s wrongdoing. Nishi’s efforts to involve the law are praised by Wada, a reluctant participant, and eventually Yoshiko, who began as a pawn in Nishi’s game, but has become a true wife with whom he has fallen in love. Like so many noir protagonists, however, one wrong step has set Nishi on a new path that, in retrospect, seems entirely inevitable. He is ambushed by his father-in-law’s men before he can carry out his plan and killed, his death made to look like a drunk driving accident — his car is smashed by an oncoming train. Kurosawa’s use of railway imagery is laden with noir import. “Straight down the line,” goes the refrain between Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944); the characters’ repetition of the phrase ties them together, bound up in the conspiracy to murder Phyllis’s husband for the insurance money, but also underlines the film’s inevitable conclusion: both participants reach the final stop on the line — the cemetery. However, beyond the presence of Double Indemnity, the railway murder scene in The Bad Sleep Well (the killing takes place off screen, with only the smashed car, stained with Nishi’s blood, offered as visual evidence) also recalls Stray Dog. While Sato and Murakami ride a commuter train during the course of their investigation, Murakami expresses hope that the suspect might abandon his crime spree, but Sato knows better. In keeping with his fatalistic worldview, he says, “This is the make-or-break point. He’s killed someone. A killer’s like a mad dog. Do you know how a mad dog walks? There’s an old ditty that’s disturbingly close to home. ‘A mad dog only sees straight paths.’” Kurosawa then cuts to a shot from the front of the train, the tracks laid out ahead into the distance — straight down the line.

The low settings of Stray Dog and the high settings of The Bad Sleep Well, mostly kept confined to each respective film, are reconciled in the bifurcated structure of High and Low, which brings the conflict between the rich upper world and poor underclass of Japan into sharp focus. Based on an American crime novel by Ed McBain called King’s Ransom, High and Low’s first half is primarily set in the aforementioned mansion on a hill, owned by successful shoe tycoon Kingo Gondo (Mifune yet again). On the cusp of using a highly leveraged loan to conduct a hostile takeover of the shoe company, Gondo’s plans are interrupted when he receives a call from a kidnapper who claims to have made off with Gondo’s son and demands ransom payment in exchange for the boy’s life. Gondo’s dilemma grows more complex, however, when he discovers that the kidnapper has mistakenly abducted his chauffeur’s son instead. Torn between paying a 30 million yen ransom for a boy who is not his own and using the money to stave off certain financial ruin, Gondo must reckon with the certainty of some kind of loss — either the boy’s life or the livelihood he has worked his entire life to build. That Kurosawa reached to American crime fiction for this story should not be surprising; one of his most iconic films, the samurai action movie Yojimbo (1961), is an unacknowledged adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, itself a kind of origin text for much of film noir, with its criminal underworld setting, hard-boiled dialogue and pervasive violence. The scenes in Gondo’s mansion, high above Yokohama below, are stately and highly stagebound — this section of High and Low would work brilliantly as a theatrical production — but the second half of the film, in keeping with its title, descends into the city streets as the police, led by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), try to apprehend the kidnapper by following a series of small clues. 

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High and Low Movie Film

As in The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa once again relies on widescreen photography, which invests the scenes in Gondo’s villa a sense of high drama. Kurosawa was always a master of staging, using his highly mobile camera and sharp placement of the actors to create a delicate dance of movement; his work goes round-for-round with the long takes of Otto Preminger, whose film noirs at 20th Century Fox remain some of the style’s greatest entries, like Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945) and Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950). In High and Low, this staging leads Kurosawa to use extremely long takes that almost make the scenes into small plays, with actors carefully blocked within the frame. As his chauffeur Aoki (Yutaka Sada) vacillates between pleading with Gondo to save his son’s life and insisting that he refuses to put his boss in such financial difficulty, Mifune moves through the frame, reluctant to even look at his employee. Tokura and his fellow officers, meanwhile, avoid eye contact with Gondo, looking down at the ground during the tycoon’s impassioned speeches about why he refuses to pay the ransom. In Kurosawa’s hands, these images of precisely staged actors and the high emotions running through them become like enormous frescoes, the closed drapes simultaneously making the space feel enormous and closed-in. Though Kurosawa’s film comes to sympathize with Gondo after he decides to pay the ransom, consumed by a sudden desire to do the right thing, his mise-en-scène makes the mansion into a prison; its modern furniture and non-existent decorations make it feel like a hospital waiting room, a sanitized space inhabited by a man who has little reason for living beyond his capitalist ambitions. No wonder the villa becomes an object of hate for the kidnapper, a denizen of the low world at the foot of the hill.

When Tokura takes over the film in the second half after Gondo pays the money and the chauffeur’s boy is returned, and the police fan out through the city’s underworld, Kurosawa returns to the immersive visual approach that served him well in similar sequences of Stray Dog. The mise-en-scène becomes more crowded, as the frames are cluttered with people and structures, a stark contrast to Gondo’s spacious mansion. The rich have the room to move around, finding their place to stand even in moments of terrible crisis; the poor can’t blink without bumping into someone else. Even the police are aligned with the working class; their briefing room is crowded with officers packed together, with little room to breathe. One of Tokura’s men, Bos’n Taguchi (Kenjiro Ishiyama), initially despises Gondo on these very grounds — skeptical of the rich man’s wealth and privilege. Taguchi echoes Stray Dog’s Sato, with his hard exterior; Tokura is much more Murakami, a younger man who hardly bothers to hide his emotional attachment to the case and his sympathy for Gondo. Having secured the return of the chauffeur’s boy, the police could fairly easily move on from the case, leaving Gondo to deal with the financial fallout, but led by Tokura, they continue to pursue the kidnapper. Here, High and Low shares the police procedural structure of Stray Dog, made popular by The Naked City and reproduced in countless noir-adjacent films and television shows since. Kurosawa follows the methodical investigation, as a team of officers slowly identifies the kidnapper’s accomplices and then his eventual location, before finally tracking him down in a tense sequence of cat-and-mouse that comes near the end of the film. The neorealist approach that dominates Kurosawa’s street-level photography in the second half of High and Low is given a propulsive, montage-like structure as the film’s narration becomes multifaceted. Each group of officers reports in to Tokura, their efforts offered in voice over and then supported by visual evidence of them checking phone booths and interviewing witnesses. The structure of these sequences is reminiscent of a noir forerunner, Fritz Lang’s M (1931); in that film, the German police and its organized crime figures both take bureaucratic approaches to bringing the child murderer terrorizing Berlin to justice. Lang’s incisive critical eye reveals the degree to which these hierarchies operate similarly, a feat he achieves through juxtaposition.

During High and Low’s first half, the kidnapper is just a voice on the telephone, his demands smugly relayed to Gondo. After the boy is returned, he becomes a real person: Ginjiro Takeuchi (Tsutomo Yamazaki), a medical intern who is animated by righteous, class-based anger at Gondo, whose house looks down on the rest of Yokohama. Ginjiro the class warrior turns out to be a sociopath who eliminates his heroin-addicted accomplices by supplying them with a hot shot that leads to an overdose. Tokura appeals to the news media’s sense of sympathy for Gondo and successfully convinces them to withhold the information about the deaths of Ginjiro’s compatriots so that the police might try to lure him out of hiding. The police contrive a letter that leads Ginjiro to believe his fellow kidnappers are still alive, and tail him as he descends into the Yokohama heroin market, in the most overtly noir sequence of the entire film. Kurosawa’s camera once again emphasizes the human and structural clutter of the poor areas of the city, as several officers in plainclothes try to blend in as Ginjiro, wearing dark sunglasses even in the dead of night, moves through the city like a ghost. There are few images in all of Kurosawa’s films that feel more like noir than a close-up on Ginjiro in his black glasses, the distorted reflection of a hopelessly addicted woman in the throes of withdrawal writhing in their frames. Kurosawa is never afraid to train his camera on human suffering — his scenes inside a house full of heroin addicts, aimlessly wandering around or lying in human piles, suggest an entire Yokohama underclass of lives brought to their most desperate point. The frankness with which Kurosawa depicts this fallen environment anticipates similar scenes in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), when the film’s protagonist Flipper (Wesley Snipes) enters a crack den to rescue his addict brother Gator (Samuel L. Jackson) at the behest of their upper class parents; in Lee’s film, the crack house becomes like the Great Barrier Reef, teeming with the fiendish movements of bodies in thrall to drugs, adding a healthy dose of noir to a movie ostensibly about an interracial romance. Lee includes three films by Kurosawa on his “95 Films Every Aspiring Director Should See” list, and though High and Low is not among them, the magnitude of his cinephilia invites the possibility that his Jungle Fever crack den scenes are, if not a direct citation, then at least under the influence.   

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High and Low Movie Film

The strictures of the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code enforced narrative conclusions that punished the guilty, whether with death or imprisonment, at the ends of noir films. Far from a limitation, this mandate gives the full expanse of noir a similar sense of fatalism — no matter what these characters do, fate comes for them. Order is seemingly restored, with the scales of justice rebalanced, but such endings, while nominally adhering to the dictates of the Production Code, linger long after the lights go up because of the deeply unsettling vision of the world they confirm. Death comes for all. Loss is inevitable. Despite the Code administration’s efforts, these endings offer little comfort because they can’t possibly offer an explanation for what’s come before. Apparently upstanding citizens, never before given to lawbreaking, are suddenly drawn into horrific murder plots, all for a little money or to satisfy forbidden sexual desire. In noir, the foundations of morality that supposedly hold society together are much weaker than we might have imagined. All it takes is a slight deviation from the path, and damnation follows. In Kurosawa’s noir films, characters struggle to move beyond loss — personal, financial and national — only to find that more loss awaits them. Murakami recovers his lost gun in Stray Dog, but nearly loses Sato, his partner, to a gunshot wound delivered by the suspect with his pistol; if he is to remain a police officer, he must kill off the part of himself that sympathizes with the social causes of crime. From his hospital bed, Sato says, “The more you arrest them, the less sentimental you’ll feel.” He adds, “Take a look out the window at the world,” suggesting that sentimentality and the realities of contemporary life are fundamentally incompatible with one another. Nishi’s fate in The Bad Sleep Well, murdered by the corporate raiders he sought to expose, their nefarious deeds unpunished — truly confirming the contention made by the film’s title — is of a piece with the vision offered by much of noir: that punishment often falls upon the undeserving, as well. The chilling final scene of High and Low reveals a similarly bleak outlook. Gondo is summoned to the prison where Ginjiro, sentenced to death, is being held. Their conversation takes place through glass and metal fencing, each’s reflection visible in the other’s close-up. The discussion between them brings little resolution for either man, with Ginjiro offering a limp defense rooted in class envy, and Gondo unable to say much at all. Ginjiro is hauled off, screaming and crying, insisting he isn’t afraid to die, but his actions belying his protests, and the film crashes to a close. Nothing has been won; there is only loss. The fleeting triumph offered by the noir plot — money, sex, escape — is cruelly withdrawn, leaving only destruction. These noir characters, whether in its American iterations or in Kurosawa’s vision, are already broken by the world.  

Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low are available to stream as part of The Criterion Channel’s 17-film Japanese Noir collection.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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