Kurosawa is often defined as a filmmaker by his compassion. Not only is he considered to be one of cinema’s great humanists but he is often given credit for single handedly re-humanizing the Japanese to the west. This is an awful lot of semantic baggage for any career to carry around, and the fact that Kurosawa’s does hold up to such weight speaks considerably about his skill as an artist. However, like any great filmmaker who is turned into a symbol, Kurosawa’s message has been simplified to better ease consumption of it. After all why complicate things by bringing up the likes of The Magic Flute or Smiles On A Summer Night when the image of brooding Bergman is so ready made. For that matter why muddy the waters with Fellini’s roots in Neo Realism, when everyone is ready to except him as the court jester of great cinema. Someone who has only heard of Kurosawa’s work could be forgiven for thinking that the sum total of his oeuvre could be summed up as “Why can’t we just get along.” With a side “People are great.” With a few swordfights thrown in for flavor. Needless to say this is not so.
I believe at the heart of this misperception is Kurosawa’s vaunted humanism, at the core of which is Kurosawa’s compassion and empathy. The simplifying of these idea’s core to Kurosawa’s cinema have had a ripple effect, simplifying the few of the rest of his films as well. Rewatching the films this time out I found his view of compassion and empathy to be rich and complex, much more shaded with grey then I remembered. While it was true that the villains of a Kurosawa film, whether they where individuals (The young doctor in High and Low) or groups (The faceless villagers in No Regrets For Our Youth) are almost always defined by their lack of feeling towards there fellow human beings, the inverse was not always true. In other words while I am sure that Kurosawa is saying a dearth of compassion is a curse, I’m not so sure that he’s saying a great amount is a boon either. As Richie puts it,
“It is this better nature which does the Kurosawa hero in. In Stray Dog it is Mifune’s compassion and understanding, his acknowledging the identity of a cop and robber which almost paralyzes him. Kurosawa seems to be saying, in this film as in all his others, that the better nature is not only the truly but is also too good for this world.”
After all, though an absence of compassion drives the young doctor in High and Low, to prey on his fellow humans in the slums with a terrifying impersonality and costs The Lord Of Spiderweb castle to lose his kingdom. Compassion costs the hero of I Live In Fear his sanity and Kameda in The Idiot everything. In these films, compassion seems a kind of cosmic joke, there is nothing to be gained from it, Kurosawa seems to be stating that in the world we inhabit it is nothing short of insanity to allow yourself to care.
How do we reconcile these conflicting ideas? Not only with themselves but with films like Red Beard, Ikiru, and Drunken Angel? Perhaps the best way to start is with a character who embodies all the contradictions and conflicts.
Yojimbo is ruthless in its simplicity. A Ronin comes to a town run by two gangs, by the time he leaves, there are no gangs and he has a lot of money. Sanjuro never lets us inside his head, he has no name, no past, no destination, he appears to run on nothing but self interest and greed, he has no qualms about killing and he’s the hero. He’s less a person then a force of nature, he’s not punishing the gangs for their evil, or avenging some past wrong, he’s as random and implacable as the direction that a twirling stick lands in. Indeed Sanjuro’s ruthlessness is not just a trait, it’s the trait, in short it is his very lack of compassion that allows him to triumph. He simply is. How does the image of the great humanist fit in with that?
Well more comfortably then you might suspect. Yojimbo stacks the deck in some interesting ways and not only in the two moments where Kurosawa does allow Sanjuro’s mask to slip. Yojimbo is more or less a very well made and entertaining misanthropic cartoon As Richie puts it, rather then decrying the evil of the gangsters and the townspeople he instead says, “Look how dreadful they are, and then smiles.” Kurosawa alleviates the audience of it’s guilt and the protagonist of his moral duty by making sure we understand in no uncertain terms that the people Sanjuro is stacking like cordwood are scum, both families share no love, for either themselves (Witness the matriarch of one gang who upon recovering her son asks why he didn’t spare them the trouble and kill himself), their “bodyguards” or curiously even their profits (for all the effort they take in securing them Kurosawa never allows us to see the villains enjoying their ill gotten gains). Both in action, and in appearance the villains are never anything other then caricature (Indeed with their exaggerated appearance, and host of tricks and gimmicks I’ve often wondered if Yojimbo was not one of the forerunners of anime), not merely bad people but sub people. There is never any doubt that Sanjuro has anything less then a God given right, neigh a moral imperative to kill them. Indeed the villains are so vile and Sanjuro so swift, that it’s tempting to read the entire film as Kurosawa’s revenge on the compassionless.
Then there’s the violence itself, this is not Kagemusha which follows it’s moments of violence with protracted shots of suffering, for all the talk of it’s violence, Yojimbo is a surprisingly sanitized film. A quick flash of metal and the antagonist is lying on the ground dead and already forgotten. Even when the aftermath of violence is shown, such as with the famous dog shot, it’s played for laughs. The only other acceptation to this rule is the vicious beating that Sanjuro himself takes, but this only proves the rule. The violence is happening to him, not only showing what a badass he is, but continuing to illustrate, what cackling morlocks his oppressors are.
Ah but what of the event that led to that beating? Sanjuro’s freeing of a family that had been split apart and held captive by one of the warring families. Here and in one other case, when he spares the life of a foolish farmer’s son he encountered in the beginning of the film, Sanjuro allows his mask to drop and commits an act that is truly selfless. Of course the great irony is it is one moment of human kindness and frailty that allows him to be discovered and nearly killed, not his dozen moments of guile. And though this irony seems to sour any nobility the moment had, it is here that the frazzled humanist searching for compassion in this pitiless film can take refuge. It is this uncharacteristic scene in this uncharacteristic film that we perhaps find the key to Kurosawa’s view. Yes, compassion can cost us a great deal, but it is in our very nature as humans and sometimes especially with someone like Sanjuro who is just as brutal as the enemies he fights, it’s all that separates us from the animals who surround us.
But I’m not quite ready to leave this scene, it’s a very interesting one, especially when it is compared to the corresponding one in it’s remake (Kurosawa eventually sued, a fair but somewhat disingenuous action considering that Kurosawa himself took the story wholesale from Dashell Hammet’s Red Harvest), A Fistful Of Dollars, it gives an interesting window into a differing standard of morality in the east and west. In Yojimbo this vignette, plays very late in the film, and seems very random. It would be fair that is as much a deus ex machina, used to allow Sanjuro’s treachery to be uncovered, as it is a character building moment. In A Fistful Of Dollars the seeds for this event are almost the very first thing we see. The Man With No Name rides into town, and immediately witnesses the boy try to see his mother only to beaten and driven away by a grotesque hired gun. Only then does Clint settle in find out about the gangs and go to work. It is suggested that if it had not been for Clint witnessing the situation, he might have happily ridden right through town. In short the situation with the family can be seen as his primary motivation for what he does, further underlined by the fact that when the father of the reunited family asks why Clint is doing this, Clint answers with a long speech suggesting that the same thing happened to him and there was nobody to help. When the father in Yojimbo poses the same question and then tries to thank Sanjuro, Sanjuro calls them idiots and tells them “To get the hell out of there.” And then threatens to kill them.
While the events in Fistful are used to give it’s protagonist a noble reason for killing everyone and riding out of town with the loot, Sanjuro’s act is simply a spur of the moment act brought on by a latent sense of decency, it is not the cause of his rampage, just a happy side effect. (If one wants to dig a little deeper and examine the difference between European and American morality, it is worth examining the American TV version of Fistful where this motivation was not just cause and Monte Helleman was brought in to film a prologue in which a Judge orders Clint to go to the town and kill everyone. Remember kid’s murder and profiteering is fine as long as authority figure says it’s OK).
It is also worth noting that Kurosawa took a similar route when he returned to the character in Sanjuro, suggesting that even he was somewhat unnerved by his character’s blaise approach to slaughter. In Sanjuro Kurosawa to gave “Tsubaki” the benefit of an inciting incident. Rather then simply stumbling into the chaos of the upper rank Samurai and hacking away, “Tsubaki” is brought into the fold in an effort to save a group of young Samurai from themselves. As in a Fistful there is the insinuation that “Tsubaki” himself was once in a similar situation, and now helps the callow youths from repeating his own mistakes. It even underlines this fact by making it “Tsubaki’s” plan to pose as a mercenary out for a score. In other words to play act what he actually did in the last film.
Sanjuro is a much gentler film then Yojimbo, playing out most of it’s runtime as a comedy of manners. In which the young Samurai are continually appalled by “Tsubaki’s” actions despite the fact that these actions are what allow him to survive, while they surely would have been dead for along time without his aid. “Tsubaki” though has mellowed somewhat since Yojimbo, the most famous scene in Sanjuro comes when “Tsubaki” attempts to talk his way out a climatic duel with one of the corrupt superintendents men. The Man insists upon the fight, and “Tsubaki” obliges quickly killing him. However, unlike his careless disregard for the lives he has taken previously, “Tsubaki” actually rebukes the young Samurai for cheering his victory. He states that the mercenary “Hanbei” was “Exactly like him.” And has caused “Tsubaki” to examine his ways. Though “Tsubaki” once again leaves in a random direction one senses that he might not fight with such reckless abandon again. Kurosawa seems obliged to have the character make some growth. It is as if he cannot stand to have created such a mad dog of a character, and allow him to run without at least a bit of a muzzle.
If looked at with conjunction with Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well seems an even bleaker film. If Yojimbo portrayed a man without compassion successfully toppling the heartless society that surrounded him, The Bad Sleep Well shows what happens when a “moral” man tries to do the same thing. In short he’s devoured by what he tries to combat, and he’ digested without even the slightest burp of indigestion. In this way, The Bad Sleep Well can also be seen as the mirror version of Ikiru, with the bureaucracy rolling right along despite the heroes attempt to stop it. It is perhaps Kurosawa’s darkest movie, where the audience soon finds itself choking on the dark laughter offered by it’s blackly farcical opening wedding scene, the smiles gradually become rictuses.
The Bad Sleep Well can be read of as Kurosawa’s linking of world of modern corporate Japan with wartime Japan. In both cases Kurosawa watched his fellow citizens being used as grist for the mill, which ground them up while silencing any protest. As Chuck Stephens writes in his essay for Criterion “ [Kurosawa’s Cinema] came to describe a world world in which heroes weren’t allowed and the more one struggled towards righteousness the farther one would inevitably fall.”
As in Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well depicts an outsider who infiltrates a corrupt system to destroy it. Unlike in Yojimbo, our protagonist Nishi fails miserably. Kurosawa again uses compassion as a kind of Achilles heel, it is not Nishi’s machinations that kill him, but his eventual growing feelings for the daughter of his target, whom he married as a cats paw and then became foolish enough to actually care about. Unlike Yojimbo Nishi is not able to stoically mask his compassion admitting defeat he references this saying “I guess I don’t hate them enough.” As Richie notes “The hero is torn apart by the thought that he might be evil.” This act human kindness and weakness is all it takes for the Corporation to mount a counter attack, and unlike Sanjuro, Nishi is unable to escape. Denied even the dignity of an on screen death.
However, lest we begin to be tempted to believe that maybe Kurosawa’s message was simply “Compassion is for suckers.” It is worth noting that the corporate culture that Kurosawa potrays in The Bad Sleep Well, seems to be Kurosawa’s endgame for a world without compassion. The antagonists in Yojimbo, were too broad and comical to serve as credible avatars of this sort of evil. In The Bad Sleep Well Kurosawa is dead serious about what his protagonist is going up against. The corporate culture he potrays is a nightmare sterile world, powered by free floating malice. As Richie puts it “They sleep well because their consciences are so bad that they are serene. The implication seems to be that they are so thoroughly bad.” ( But it is not as simple as the people running it have no compassion. They don’t control the beast anymore Kurosawa argues that in this world we have, to borrow the hoary old line “Created a monster.” And it is far far beyond our control, and it simply doesn’t have room for compassion. An absence of compassion such as this literally creates a hell on earth, spreading to the film and it’s subtly expressionistic settings itself. In Kurosawa’s mind, this lack of compassion eventually twists morality itself, as the Dalai Lama says, “An Intelligent person can make anything sound plausible.” (Lama 77) or as Richie puts it “ He (Mori) has a sound moral reason for everything that he does. That his morality is different from ours does not disturb him. He has tested his time and again.” The corporate world and it’s “flexible morality” would not be so effectively skewered again until the advent of Gilliam’s Brazil and the presumably very well rested Jack.
Before we lose all hope and judge Kurosawa, a nihilist let’s move onto The Seven Samurai. After all this is the kind of film that Kurosawa developed his reputation as a champion as a champion of compassion with right? A film filled with selfless acts, where a group of Samurai fight the faceless predatory hoard that decends upon an innocent villiage, risking there lives for a mere handful of rice a day to defend them. A film filled with selfless acts from, the youngest Samurai giving the hapless villagers the money to hire the seven after they are robbed, to Mifune’s daring rescue of an infant orphaned in the battle. Well yes and no, as in the other two films Kurosawa’s views are far from simple.
The Samurai are portrayed as compassionate and selfless (aside from a lone killing machine characterized by his lack of compassion), time and time risking their lives for the villagers. Indeed it is perhaps in Shimura’s character that we find the heart of Kurosawa’s world weary humanism, as Richie says, “All a man can do he seems to say, is his best. If he does his best for himself that is one thing; but it is better to do your best for others.” However, the conflict between the villagers and bandit’s is not as black and white as it appears. As in No Regrets For Our Youth, the common folk are not the simplified merry proletariat that they are in many such films. Instead they are portrayed as stupid, cruel and easily swept up in passion. They turn on the samurai based on their own prejudice before they even arrive, it is later revealed that they cheerfully murder any wounded Samurai that crosses their path, they go from terrified peasants to a bloodthirsty mob when a lone bandit is unlucky enough to fall into their clutches, and commit wanton acts of cruelty towards their own family. For a humanist Kurosawa is surprisingly open with his question of whether or not these people even deserve saving. Even having one of the samurai openly admit that he would happily kill everyone in the village.
And yet it is this very quality that allows the Samurai’s actions to matter. If they where saving storybook helpless innocents, the Samurai’s compassion would be unremarkable. Instead Kurosawa uses a genre situation to illustrate the real world strength that compassion takes. We would all like to help “good” people, but the world we live in does not often afford us such clear cut choices, It is our compassion towards those that we do not like, those who are not perfect that matter. For compassion is at it’s heart empathy, and empathy rooted in understanding, to feel pity for and to try to help those who we do not comprehend easily is where compassion serves us. If it’s not difficult to do it scarcely matters. If one may turn to the Western definition of compassion for a moment, the thinking in Seven Samurai fits in quite nicely with the teachings of Christ.
“If you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Even the tax collectors do as much as that. If you greet only your brothers, what is there extraordinary abou that? Even the heathens do as much. There must be no limit to your goodness as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.” (Matthew 5:43-48)\
Or to find a corollary in the east from the Compendium of Practices by Shantideva, “If you cannot practice compassion toward your enemy then toward who can you practice it?” (48, Lama)
What Kurosawa is arguing is actually deeply compassionate, while the cartoonish villains in Yojimbo, and the corporate entity in The Bad Sleep Well made for easy targets, here in The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa asks us to see the humanity in all of its characters, even the grotesque mocking boarding house gamblers who spend the first third of the films as a scornful Greek chorus, are allowed to show themselves as people. Even the bandits for all their injustice and violence, are carefully shown to be in a situation as dire as the peasants. Their motivation is not greed, as it is for the crime bosses in Yojimbo, or the corporation in The Bad Sleep Well, but simple survival. Kurosawa underlines this in one of the films most famous sequences in which Mifune tries to make the other Samurai understand.
“What do you think of farmers? You think they're saints? Hah! They're foxy beasts! They say, "We've got no rice, we've no wheat. We've got nothing!" But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You'll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they've got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They're nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all! But then who made them such beasts? You did! You samurai did it! You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labour! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! So what should farmers do?”
In comparison it is easy for the Samurai to be good, they are if not in positions of wealth, positions of survival. The peasants are helpless. These two themes, the difficulty of compassion, and the moral superiority that a life of ease brings would come to full fruition in next two films.
High And Low, is the epoch of the compassionless world for Kurosawa. The antagonist is Kurosawa’s greatest monster. A beast with seemingly no feeling, one who preys on children, dispatches his confederates, and in the films most stunning sequence goes hunting in the Tokyo slums. The lackadaisical way he chooses his prey is one of the most coolly terrifying things that Kurosawa has ever filmed. Walking calmly to the slums his gaze goes from victim to victim finally choosing one at random. That there is not even the comfort of human malice in this scene, as there is in his crimes against Mifune, is the most terrifying thing of all. This is the end result of living a life without compassion Kurosawa argues, there’s no difference from person to person, because there’s no humanity in them. They’re all meat for the predator. The fact that the hunter is a doctor is just another little blood thirsty irony. As Richie says, “Unable to love, he finds pleasure- as he brags in the end- of hating.”
On the other side of the conflict is Mifune, a selfless compassionate man willing to ruin himself for the sake of others. It takes him a while to come to this decision but like in the Seven Samurai it is all the more moving for it, illustrating that compassion means more when it is earned.
At least textually. Like the Seven Samurai, High And Low is much more complex in practice then in summary. The latter half of the film takes us from the upper class comfort of Mifune’s domain and plunges us into the slums that the villain has been forced to inhabit.
The film then becomes what is possibly Kurosawa’s most Marxist film, posing the villain not as a raving sociopath but as the inevitable outcome of such conditions, and implicating Mifune, for his sins of omission rather then commission. True Mifune didn’t directly cause this, just as he did nothing to directly warrant the attack on his lively hood and family. But as a capitalist, Kurosawa argues that it is the blind eye he and others like him turned that allowed this to happen, and the doctor’s attack is just a case of “The chickens coming home to roost.” Even the police note, standing in the slums where the crime took place, that from here Mifune’s house seems to be taunting them.
By the end of the film and the doctor’s description of his life, Kurosawa has revealed a rather ingenious game he’s playing with the audience. The test of compassion in this film is not truly Mifune’s, we barely see him aside from glimpses caught in the reflection of safety glass. Instead Kurosawa has put us face to face with the doctor, and tells us the test is ours. Can we find the humanity in this monster, knowing everything he’s done can we feel compassion towards him?
It is in Red Beard that all these themes gather into one, in what I consider Kurosawa’s masterpiece. It is here that Kurosawa brings fully to the foreground “The terror of compassion.” Revealing compassion to be not a pat set of platitudes that the west portrays it as, but a conscience choice that must be lived everyday at the expense of one’s self. As put by Richie, one must live with a “Rage for good.” (Richie 175)
As in High And Low the position of the doctor is something of an ironic one. In High And Low it symbolized a predator rather then a healer, and in Red Beard’s protagonist is symbolizes selfishness rather then altruism. The young doctor who is the protagonist, is not in the medical profession to help people, but instead is interested in his own status, hoping to eventually work as the Shogunate’s doctor. When he is tricked into becoming an intern at Red Beard’s clinic, it’s something of a nightmare for him. As the servant for “the Mantis” confides “It’s terrible. The patients are slum people, they’re full of fleas, they smell bad, being here makes you wonder why you ever wanted to become a doctor.”
After a brush with death courtesy of said “Mantis” the young doctor opens up and begins to heed Red Beard’s teaching. Like High And Low, though much more explicit, this section of Red Beard has been all about the building up and destroying of pre conceived notions. Red Beard himself up to this point has been seen through the young interns eyes as a gruff bullying monster, with himself as a put upon victim, the encounter with The Mantis destroys these notions revealing the wise and good man who has been behind the gruff exterior, and leave the intern a waiting student. As Goodwin underlined, quoting Kurosawa “Red Beard is the prototype of the redeemer. With all my heart I want this kind of man to stand as an example”Through a series of vignettes and one key encounter with a patient revealing his life story, we come to understand Red Beard’s philosophy as succinctly described by Richie,
“…it is only by living for others that we can live at all. He and Red Beard… have discovered the same thing. They overcome the facts of life by negating them, by refusing to believe in them. With splendid stubbornness both men act as though good really exists in the world- and they create it.” Again Kurosawa sees with the evil that exists in this world and underlines what a struggle it is to overcome it. But this is not the end of the lesson indeed it has scarcely begun.
It is in the nursing back to health of the young girl that whom Red Beard has saved from the brothels, that Red Beard truly finds it’s heart. With the diligent help of Red Beard the young doctor, heals her, he himself falls ill and the girl nurses him back to health in what becomes the final stage of her recovery. It is in this Girl that we find the soul of the movie, and perhaps the soul of Kurosawa. As Richie puts it “She is very ill, physically, but more seriously she is spiritually near death.” The girl is like the villain in High and Low as a child. Someone so battered that she cannot bare to feel otherwise. It is this terror of compassion that is unbearable to her, she is so wounded that she cannot bear to feel she can feel otherwise. But as Richie says “The Bulwarks of Pride and Fear cannot stand the assault” By the time she breaks down in the market square, she has made the choice to allow herself to feel and be felt for. Here we find Kurosawa’s strongest argument that redemption is possible, and paradoxically it cannot be brought about without both the help of others, and the strength of the self. For all the power he gives evil, it to Kurosawa, “Simply the wrong choice made at the wrong time.”
It is a strangely Christian notion (or more specifically Franciscan notion) from the usually secular Kurosawa, we cannot find salvation in and of ourselves, we must help others and allow ourselves to be helped. We must hit bottom, admit our weakness and allow ourselves to be forgiven, when the characters in Red Beard weep (which they do often, and usually in recognition of their own weakness compared to Red Beard’s overwhelming good) it’s difficult not to have some Milton flit through the mind “Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is.” To those who are damaged there can be nothing more terrifying then kindness, or as Richie puts it “He has just learned something: that patience and fortitude are invincible. This is a knowledge that Mifune has with other Kurosawa heros.”
It should be noted that because of this secular feel, the Buddhist concept of compassion doesn’t help us much when Kurosawa is concerned. Religion is hardly ever given more then a passing mention, and when a character is defined by his religious status (say The Monk in Rashamon) it doesn’t give them any sort of high moral ground or deeper understanding of human nature. Let us remember that is the woodcutter, not the monk who takes responsibility for the infant at the end of the film. Unlike say Scorsese and Coppala who often use Catholism as a kind of paradise lost, a place of moral clarity, which is now unattainable for their protagonists, Kurosawa portrays his clergy as simply human, whether they be Christian or Buddhists. Its not exactly a critical view, but the message is clear salvation and damnation are the products of humans and humans alone, it comes not from above but from within.
More Tragedy follows, and more tragedy is endured, Red Beard culminates into the most powerful example I know of how to live compassionately. If in The Bad Sleep Well Kurosawa postulated that compassion was perhaps insane in the world we live in. Red Beard counters that it is any other way that holds insanity.
In the modern age a film as bracingly unironic as Red Beard, is a little hard to take. Like the wounded girl, it is our nature to be distrustful of those who present themselves without guile. The film could easily be dismissed as cloying an hokey (And indeed if there is a scene that goes after the heart strings with more unabashed. vigor then the little girl calling down for the well for her dying friend it doesn’t come to mind) if not for the primal simple power that it has. Richie puts it very well;
“We so firmly believe that “evil begets evil” that its contrary is quite dazzling. To consider such a proposition, in a cynical age, seems almost shameful.” (Richie 175)
“…Because this picture is the most open to misinterpretation of all Kurosawa’s works. It has already had more then its share. The director has been accused of making the most contrived tear-jerker since One Wonderful Sunday, of pushing do goodism past even the limit of The Quiet Duel; it has been said that Kurosawa’s famed humanism has been revealed as a weltering bathos into which even Ben Casey or The Interns would think twice before stepping. Dr. Toshiro Mifune and Doctor Lionel Barrymore have been equated. Kurosawa’s dilemma is rather similar to that of Dickens. Laconic realist though he is, he believes in good; but good is very difficult to dramatize. Difficult as it is, however, Dickens manages admirably in at least several novels. So does Griffith, a very Dickensian creator. In their best work, they affirm by refusing to sentimentalize and that is what also Kurosawa does in this picture.”
In the end I think that is this true bedrock belief, in the power of humans to be good, that has made these films of Kurosawa so dark. Kurosawa knows we have it in us to be good, and simply choose not to. I see these all films these films as his attempt to tell us that, sometimes gently sometimes with anger. You always expect more from the ones you love.