Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

For a director of such worldwide importance, Akira Kurosawa hasn't always been well served by the international market. Not only does Madadayo, his final film, remain unseen in this country seven years after its completion, but a number of his earlier works have never received proper video release, an oversight this reissue of three Kurosawa social-issue dramas goes a long way toward correcting. Kurosawa considered 1948's Drunken Angel the film in which he came into his own as a director. It's probably no coincidence that it's also his first collaboration with Toshirô Mifune, the actor who would spend much of the next two decades playing John Wayne to Kurosawa's John Ford. Set in a dilapidated Tokyo neighborhood nowhere near recovered from WWII, Angel stars Mifune as a bullying gangster who, wounded in a scuffle, seeks the care of a kindhearted, hard-drinking physician (Ikiru star Takashi Shimura). Once Shimura diagnoses him with tuberculosis, their lives, and the life of the neighborhood, begin to undergo a great upheaval. A none-too-subtle allegory of post-war Japan—it's not above recruiting a smiling teen as a symbol of optimism—Angel finds both Kurosawa and Mifune still harnessing their talents. Even so, it's effective in its own right and a fascinating preview of films to come, featuring themes and elements (a dedicated physician, a neighborhood with a disease-ridden swamp) that Kurosawa would later revisit. Tuberculosis, in fact, pops up again almost immediately, playing a crucial role in 1950's Scandal, made just prior to the director's breakthrough masterpiece Rashomon. In Scandal, Mifune plays an artist whose friendly gesture toward a pop singer makes him the focus of an exploitative tabloid story. Deciding to take action, he hires a good-natured attorney (Shimura) whose financial problems and TB-afflicted daughter make him an easily corrupted target of the opposing side. In his memoir, Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa writes of Drunken Angel, "I wanted to take a scalpel and dissect the yakuza." It's easy to get the sense with Scandal that he felt a similar hatred toward the tabloids. But what's remarkable about both films, and perhaps most prescient of future efforts, is the tremendous sympathy he directs toward his morally conflicted characters. Mifune's yakuza lieutenant in Angel and Shimura's corrupt lawyer in Scandal eventually turn the films into battles for their souls. By the time Kurosawa made 1955's I Live In Fear, he'd earned fame and critical accolades, neither of which won the film much of an audience outside Japan. One of Kurosawa's oddest works, it arrived on the heels of The Seven Samurai, one of his most immediately accessible. Mifune, almost unrecognizable under layers of make-up, stars as a graying patriarch whose fear of nuclear annihilation leads him to make plans to move his large family to a farm in Brazil. Thinking his fears irrational, and expressing grave concern over the dispensation of his estate, they take him to court and, like a good judge, Kurosawa lets both sides exhaust themselves without drawing a premature judgement. Perhaps a bit too loose and leisurely to be entirely effective, Fear still offers a hugely compelling glimpse at the post-war Japanese mindset, and at the Cold War mindset in general. It's also a fine showcase for Kurosawa's nearly unparalleled visual style, and, like its companions in this set, a must-see for the director's admirers even if it's not quite among the very best entries in his formidable filmography.

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