This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

17Oct/19

SHITAMACHI: TALES OF DOWNTOWN TOKYO

Yasuki Chiba

Yasuki Chiba’s Shitamachi is part of Film Forum series focusing on the popular downtown area of Tokyo

Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
Series runs October 18 - November 2
212-727-8110
filmforum.org

Tokyo’s downtown area known as Shitamachi, which means “low town,” has been a popular setting for movies since cinema began. Southeast of the Imperial Palace, it consists of small neighborhoods going back to the Edo period, filled with traditional Japanese culture particularly for the lower classes. You can explore its many facets in the Film Forum series “Shitamachi: Tales of Downtown Tokyo,” twenty-five films that take place in the geographical area seemingly invented for the movies. Running October 18 to November 7, the festival features a wide range of films, from Yasujirô Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman and Shôhei Imamura’s Eijanaika to Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons and Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s Reason, from Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame and Nami Iguchi’s The Cat Leaves Home to Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro and Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla. The series is copresented with the Japan Foundation and programmed by Aiko Masubuchi, who will introduce screenings of Tadashi Imai’s Still I Live On and Satsuo Yamamoto’s The Street without Sun, while Steve Sterner will play live piano accompaniment to Ozu’s Woman of Tokyo. Japanese master Akira Kurosawa was drawn to Shitamachi for several of his tales about class struggle, and Film Forum will be showing four of them, highlighted below.

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune star in Kurosawa noir DRUNKEN ANGEL

Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune star in Akira Kurosawa noir Drunken Angel

DRUNKEN ANGEL (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)
Friday, October 18, 12:30, 4:50
Saturday, October 19, 5:10, 9:40
Wednesday, October 23, 4:20, 10:15
Friday, November 1, 9:30
filmforum.org

The first film that Akira Kurosawa had total control over, Drunken Angel tells the story of a young Yakuza member, Matsunaga (Toshirô Mifune), who shows up late one night at the office of the neighborhood doctor, Sanada (Takashi Shimura), to have a bullet removed from his hand. Sanada, an expert on tuberculosis, immediately diagnoses Matsunaga with the disease, but the gangster is too proud to admit there is anything wrong with him. Sanada sees a lot of himself in the young man, remembering a time when his life was full of choices — he could have been a gangster or a successful big-city doctor. When Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto) returns from prison, searching for Sanada’s nurse, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), the film turns into a classic noir, with marvelous touches of German expressionism thrown in. The terrible incidental music lapses into melodramatic mush, preventing the film from reaching its full potential greatness, but that’s just a minor quibble.

STRAY DOG

Takashi Shimura and Toshirō Mifune team up as detectives tracking a stolen gun in Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog

STRAY DOG (野良犬) (NORA INU) (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)
Friday, October 18, 2:30, 8:20
Saturday, October 19, 1:20, 7:10
Thursday, October 24, 12:30, 9:45
filmforum.org

Akira Kurosawa’s thrilling police procedural, Stray Dog, is one of the all-time-great film noirs. When newbie detective Murakami (Toshirō Mifune) gets his Colt lifted on a trolley, he fears he’ll be fired if he does not get it back. But as he searches for the weapon, he discovers that it is being used in a series of robberies and murders — for which he feels responsible. Teamed with seasoned veteran Sato (Takashi Shimura), Murakami risks his career — and his life — as he tries desperately to track down his gun before it is used again. Kurosawa makes audiences sweat, showing postwar Japan in the midst of a brutal heat wave, with Murakami, Sato, dancer Harumi Namiki (Keiko Awaji), and others constantly mopping their brows — the heat is so palpable, you can practically see it dripping off the screen. (You’ll find yourself feeling relieved when Sato hits a button on a desk fan, causing it to turn toward his face.) In his third of sixteen films made with Kurosawa, Mifune plays Murakami with a stalwart vulnerability, working beautifully with Shimura’s cool, calm cop who has seen it all and knows how to handle just about every situation. (Shimura was another Kurosawa favorite, appearing in twenty-one of his films.)

STRAY DOG

Rookie detective Murakami (Toshirō Mifune) often finds himself in the shadows in STRAY DOG

Mifune is often seen through horizontal or vertical gates, bars, curtains, shadows, window frames, and wire, as if he’s psychologically and physically caged in by his dilemma — and as time goes on, the similarities between him and the murderer grow until they’re almost one and the same person, dealing ever-so-slightly differently with the wake of the destruction wrought on Japan in WWII. Inspired by the novels of Georges Simenon and Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, Stray Dog is a dark, intense drama shot in creepy black and white by Asakazu Nakai and featuring a jazzy soundtrack by Fumio Hayasaka that unfortunately grows melodramatic in a few key moments — and oh, if only that final scene had been left on the cutting-room floor. It also includes an early look at Japanese professional baseball. Kurosawa would soon become the most famous Japanese auteur in the world, going on to make Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, The Bad Sleep Well, The Lower Depths, and I Live in Fear in the next decade alone.

Takashi Shimura does a stellar job with a rare leading role in Kurosawa’s captivating melodrama IKIRU

Takashi Shimura does a stellar job with a rare leading role in Akira Kurosawa’s captivating melodrama Ikiru

IKIRU (TO LIVE) (DOOMED) (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)
Sunday, October 20, 1:20
Thursday, October 24, 4:50
filmforum.org

In Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 gem, Ikiru, winner of a special prize at the 1954 Berlin International Film Festival, the great Takashi Shimura is outstanding as simple-minded petty bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe, a paper-pushing section chief who has not taken a day off in thirty years. But when he suddenly finds out that he is dying of stomach cancer, he finally decides that there might be more to life than he thought after meeting up with an oddball novelist (Yunosuke Ito). While his son, Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko), and coworkers wonder just what is going on with him — he has chosen not to tell anyone about his illness — he begins cavorting with Kimura (Shinichi Himori), a young woman filled with a zest for life. Although the plot sounds somewhat predictable, Kurosawa’s intuitive direction, a smart script (cowritten with Hideo Oguni), and a marvelously slow-paced performance by Shimura (Stray Dog, Scandal, Seven Samurai) make this one of the director’s best melodramas.

The Lower Depths is another masterful tour de force from Akira Kurosawa

The Lower Depths is another masterful tour de force from Akira Kurosawa

THE LOWER DEPTHS (DONZOKO) (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
Saturday, November 2, 12:50, 8:40
filmforum.org

Loosely adapted from Maxim Gorky’s social realist play, The Lower Depths is a staggering achievement, yet another masterpiece from Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa. Set in an immensely dark and dingy ramshackle skid-row tenement during the Edo period, the claustrophobic film examines the rich and the poor, gambling and prostitution, life and death, and everything in between through the eyes of impoverished characters who have nothing. The motley crew includes the suspicious landlord, Rokubei (Ganjiro Nakamura), and his much younger wife, Osugi (Isuzu Yamada); Osugi’s sister, Okayo (Kyôko Kagawa); the thief Sutekichi (Toshirō Mifune), who gets involved in a love triangle with a noir murder angle; and Kahei (Bokuzen Hidari), an elderly newcomer who might be more than just a grandfatherly observer. Despite the brutal conditions they live in, the inhabitants soldier on, some dreaming of their better past, others still hoping for a promising future. Kurosawa infuses the gripping film with a wry sense of humor, not allowing anyone to wallow away in self-pity. The play had previously been turned into a film in 1936 by Jean Renoir, starring Jean Gabin as the thief.

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