What does a Kurosawa film sound like? Is it the metallic whoosh of swords, or the peal of temple bells. Or is it all about the music, a martial theme, or a spare and cold Toru Takemitsu soundtrack?
I’d forgotten – particularly amidst all the remembrances of the depth of his humanism, his experiment with narrative in Rashomon (1950), the magisterial sweep of his epics – how surprisingly… well, goofy, Akira Kurosawa’s sense of humor seemed to be. Take a scene in Sanjuro, the underrated companion to the undisputed 1961 classic Yojimbo. It’s no comedy, of course – its protagonist is a fairly cold-blooded killer, after all, and the vicious ending reminds the audience of that fact – but here’s the scene: the nine young and inexperienced samurai are hiding next to the corrupt Superintendent’s compound, waiting to attack. They discover their not-so-complex ruse has worked; the Superintendent has sent all his men to a faraway temple, leaving the place unprotected.
Upon finding out about the emptied compound, the young samurai uncharacteristically jump up and down like giddy little children, and Kurosawa cues this oddly jaunty trumpet music on the soundtrack to underscore the moment – until the samurai realize they might just be overheard next door, and they clam up amidst their own shushing. Even the music ends abruptly. But their glee is uncontainable, and they laugh and celebrate again – with smaller, more restrained leaps this time – and then Kurosawa plays the happy trumpet music again. But more quietly this time.
So Barb emails me and asks me for my review of Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi). There’s little I can add to what Barb has already said so well, except to note that the real highlight of the evening was culinary rather than cinematic. (Barb, let me tell you that that was the best arroz caldo I have ever had in my life, scout’s honor.)
But back to Drunken Angel. The excitement here is seeing a very young Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimizu — Mifune, in particular, looking oddly like an even more dissolute Bryan Ferry circa 1982 — gain each other’s wary trust. Shimizu is a doctor who lives in the slums not out of any commitment to the downtrodden; it’s because he is downtrodden, reeling in a drunken haze most of the day and with no one to call family except for a former gun moll / bar girl he is harboring in his house. That is, until Mifune arrives, as a similarly dissipated Yakuza gangster who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis.