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Kurosawa and Noir

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    lawless

    Rather than limit this topic to Drunken Angel, I’m throwing it open to a discussion of all of Kurosawa’s films, though it probably only applies to black and white films set in present-day Japan. Looking at Wikipedia’s entry on the topic, what makes a film noir is somewhat vague. I thought it required a story involving crimes and not just criminals, and hence wasn’t sure Drunken Angel would qualify (Stray Dog definitely does), but it seems to be as much a style and an attitude as a type of story.

    So what do you think noir is and which of Kurosawa’s movies would quality?

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    Ugetsu

    Well, funnily enough i was thinking about this over the weekend when I saw the new print of Scorseses Taxi Driver in my local cinema. Not a noir, of course, but it has a lot of noir-ish elements. It struck me that there were a lot of scenes in the film (including the famous ending (not fully shown in that clip – Bickle glances at a blank rear view mirror), which reminded me a lot of High and Low, in particular the constant use of reflections in objects to observe a city. In fact, the more I think about it, I think the ending of Taxi Driver may well have been directly influenced by the ending of High and Low, but thats a matter for discussion for another day.

    I don’t think there is a universally agreed definition of noir, but I’ve seen High and Low, Drunken Angel and Stray Dog mentioned quite frequently in books and articles on the topic, in particular the former, although other articles I’ve seen quite expressly leave out non American or European films unless those films are explicit homages to classic noir.

    An important point about film noir I think is that most of those films were not made by people thinking ‘lets make a film noir’ – the term only really became commonly used from the 1950’s on I think, when most of the great noir films had already been made to retrospectively label a sub-type of the crime genre as film noir.

    My feeling about the Kurosawa films where the term noir can be applied is that what they have in common with classic Hollywood noir is that they have the same basic sources – German expressionist style mixed with classic American hard boiled pulp fiction. Kurosawa I think loved both, so I think what we see (at least with the earlier Kurosawa films), is what biologists would call parallel evolution, rather than direct homage or influence.

    I think the obvious four Kurosawa films to which the term film noir can be applied – Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low, all have strong noir characteristics, but all lack other ‘defining’ ones. In particular, they tend to lack the classic femme fatale and cynical dry wit that would typify the best of those films.

    I think if you were to use another evolutionary biological term to apply to Kurosawa’s crime films, cladistics, Drunken Angel would be seen as an isolated evolutionary branch of early film noir in Japan, mainly as Kurosawa uses expressionistic and neo-realist techniques he’s seen in European films to apply to a crime film, and the criminals in that film owed much of their style to American criminals, so it is a marsupial among film noirs. Stray Dog I think is a more direct branch, coming directly as it does from French/Belgian/Italian influences. I think High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well are more complex cases, in that I would think Kurosawa by this time was more directly influenced in in making these by classic Hollywood crime drama he would have seen, but in turn I think those two films were incredibly influential on 1970’s and later US crime dramas, via Coppola and Scorsese. So I would see the latter two as part of the film noir family tree, while Drunken Angel and Stray Dog are, well, strays.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – It’s true that the designation “film noir” wasn’t coined until the era of film noir was almost over. I”m not sure the presence of a femme fatale is a requirement, but I hear you about the cynical dry wit that typifies most noir.

    I wonder, though: what is it that makes Drunken Angel noir or neo-noir as compared to, say, Stray Dog? In some ways, Drunken Angel feels like a more mainstream movie — gangsters are more easily understandable, I think, than the random crimes of the ex-soldier in Stray Dog — but on the other hand, the sentiments of Stray Dog, particularly Takeshi Shimura’s detective, seem more conventional than those of Sanada in Drunken Angel.

    And other than its setting, Yojimbo seems very noir to me. In particular, it has the cynical attitude and dry wit. Moreover, it was almost certainly inspired in part by Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, as discussed in a thread here I’m too lazy to look for and link at the moment.

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    Vili Maunula

    Another important component of classic noir I think was its reaction to the atrocities of the second world war. I think that many of the noir films were either written or directed by European film makers who had been forced to flee to the US during the war, and it has been argued I think that they used the film medium to deal with what they had experienced. There is something similar going on in Kurosawa’s immediate post-war works.

    But I wouldn’t say that any of Kurosawa’s films really are film noir as Hollywood understands it, but the four that Ugetsu lists could still be labelled as noir films, or at least sharing some of the aesthetic ground with them. Yojimbo could very easily also qualify. Perhaps also Rashomon.

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    lawless

    So what is the Hollywood definition of noir? Does a movie have to be a Hollywood product to be traditional noir, as opposed to noirish, neo-noir, or noir influenced? If not, would Fritz Lang‘s M (another favorite of mine) qualify as noir, or is it just straight-out German expressionism of the type that influenced and led to the invention of the noir style? Does any of this matter? (Possibly not other than as a matter of semantics, I’m afraid.)

    I know that The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice,. and The Big Sleep (of which I’ve only seen the last) all qualify as noir. Body Heat strikes me as an example of a later neo-noir or a noir-influenced Hollywood film.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Another important component of classic noir I think was its reaction to the atrocities of the second world war. I think that many of the noir films were either written or directed by European film makers who had been forced to flee to the US during the war, and it has been argued I think that they used the film medium to deal with what they had experienced.

    But didn’t film noir start in the pre-war period? I’ve always thought of the Maltese Falcon as a ‘perfect’ film noir – but then again, I’ve just looked at wikipedias list of film noir and its not there. But I suppose that since it flowered in the immediate post war period then the general angst of the time must have been a big influence.

    Lawless

    So what is the Hollywood definition of noir? Does a movie have to be a Hollywood product to be traditional noir, as opposed to noirish, neo-noir, or noir influenced?

    I think there are as many definitions as there are films! I suppose if you take one of the more precise definitions then you can’t have a Japanese film noir any more than you could have an Italian chanbura. They would qualify as ‘tributes’ to the genre more than parts of that genre. But I think its more interesting to look at the roots of film noir, and see how they extended outwards and influenced all sorts of films around the world. I would prefer to see Kurosawa’s post war contemporary film as specifically Japanese films, but soaked in technique and style picked up from European and US roots. I think this would distinguish them from some of the new wave 1960’s Japanese gangster films which were also very Japanese but explicitly took their influences from US film noir.

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    Vili Maunula

    Defining “film noir” seems just as slippery as the other things we have recently been trying to define. 🙂 You can define it by content, style or a number of other variables. I think lawless is right in asking whether the definition really matters, as long as we can more or less be on the same page about these things.

    Anyway, I have lived my short life under the assumption that the golden age of noir by and large corresponds with the war and the post-war world. When I mentioned people who escaped the war in Europe, I also meant those who left as early as the late 30s, and would therefore have been part of making films already at the turn of the 1940s. I would consider the 1941 The Maltese Falcon by John Huston a noir film, Ugetsu. I haven’t seen the 1931 film, so if you were referring to that, I can’t comment on it.

    I would agree with Ugetsu in that while Kurosawa’s films have stylistic connections with noir, they don’t really fully fit the definition. Or at least the definition that I have in my head as an abstract and largely unverbalised entity.

    For what it’s worth though, the They Shot Dark Pictures, Didn’t They? list considers Drunken Angel, High and Low and Stray Dog as noir films. They don’t make the top 250, though.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    I would consider the 1941 The Maltese Falcon by John Huston a noir film, Ugetsu.

    ooops, yes, sorry, I should have checked before posting, I thought the John Huston version was late 1930’s, although in American terms 1941 is, I guess, still sort of pre-war…

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    lawless

    For what it’s worth, according to Wikipedia, the first acknowledged film noirs were released in 1940 and films in the genre continued to be made through the end of the 1950s.

    Not surprisingly, M and The Blue Angel are listed as proto-noir.

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