Akira Kurosawa was always a ‘natural,’ but it took half a dozen films for him to become Kurosawa. And this is the film that did it. Takashi Shimura, already a regular, stars as a cantankerous middle-aged doctor who curses his slum clientele & dreams of a high-class trade. But he still can’t keep himself from worrying too much about his ungrateful patients, even that new TB case, a violently self-destructive local Yukuza kingpin. (Toshiro Mifune in the first of his 13 Kurosawa pics.*) While these two butt heads over treatment, Mifune’s rapid physical decline is impacting on his neighborhood clout. An old rival, fresh out of jail, is scoping out Mifune’s territory as well as a former lover, now the good doctor’s assistant. Kurosawa’s emerging style orchestrates in quick-step, with info-packed compositions and an occasional reflective moment between the skillful set pieces, leading to a fight in a narrow hallway that literally paints Mifune into a corner before climaxing with a visual epiphany accomplished by simply opening a double door. Unforgettable stuff. Don’t let a bit of corny melodrama & overstated acting (or some pat philosophizing) put you off. You’d be missing a lot, especially the star-making turn from Mifune whose glamorous, fatalistic gangster prefigures Brando & Elvis. (Check out that hair!) Shimura & Mifune would reunite next year for Kurosawa’s first flat-out masterpiece, STRAY DOG, with RASHOMON as chaser.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Technically, Kurosawa is considered the most Western-influenced of classic Japanese helmers, yet his themes often decry the rise of Western culture. Here, for example, the gangsters adopt a Western style in clothes, drink & music. True, but this ignores Mifune’s anti-hero with his über-West attitudes & look. The pic was a sensation because everyone wanted to emulate this cool cat.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: *In RED BEARD/’65, their final collaboration, Mifune more-or-less plays the wise old doctor played here by Shimura, though Kurosawa lets him kick butt to close Part I of that frustrating pic.