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Kurosawa: Reporters

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    Vili Maunula

    While watching The Bad Sleep Well last weekend, I came to think of the role reporters and newspapers in general play in Kurosawa’s films. It is interesting how in this particular film the journalists — and especially the one who asks all the right questions — seem to stand for an idealised view of what the general public should be like, and how they should keep tabs on what is going on behind the walls of bureaucracy. I think that it is in fact not Nishi that the film wants us to learn from, but the reporters.

    It makes it all the more disappointing that the journalists pretty much leave the stage after the first act (or prelude, as it is called).

    Newspapermen in The Bad Sleep Well appear to be similar to the ones we have in High and Low in that they have the desire to on the one hand serve the greater public by getting to the information, while on the other hand also consciously shaping or even constructing the public moral discourse — think of the way the newspapers in High and Low decide to praise Gondo, or how the main journalist’s questions in The Bad Sleep Well are often very thinly-veiled accusations.

    I think Ikiru also has a brief appearance of the “good journalist”, while some markedly different type of journalism is at the centre of Scandal. Kurosawa clearly recognized the role that media plays in shaping our world view — not so surprising perhaps, considering that you could say that he himself was a part of that media.

    Can you think of other instances with reporters in Kurosawa’s films?

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    Ugetsu

    I’ve always been a little curious as to Kurosawas motivation to make Scandal – his anger at yellow journalism seems a little petty compared to the grand themes most of his other films tackle. I always thought there must have been something personal in his attacks (he was of course known not to like being interviewed by journalists). I think that reading between the lines he saw journalists as being potentially as powerful or even more powerful than film makers and other artists at influencing public discourse in a positive way, so he naturally became deeply angry at seeing that potential flittered away in an obsession with trivia.

    For me, one thing that links the use of journalists in The Bad Sleep Well, Ikiru and to a lesser extent High and Low is that they initially have a positive impact in harrassing people of authority, but they always fail at the last hurdle. In The Bad Sleep Well they back off under pressure – in Ikiru they seem finally to be convinced by the smooth words of the assistant Mayor. In both cases, they fail to get the real story.

    Perhaps another important theme with Kurosawas use of journalists goes back to Vili’s great analysis of the role of the ‘audience’ in Rashomon. My own little personal theory about Kurosawa is that of all the great directors, he was most conscious of directly communicating with the contemporary film-going audience in an active dialogue. The use of an audience ‘within’ the films is one way of achieving this – and journalist characters are a pretty good way of achieving this – although in High and Low the journalists are very minor, perhaps because the police detectives perform this role better.

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    NoelCT

    I definitely get the sense that Kurosawa saw journalism as a powerful force, particularly in the wake of the censorship he had to deal with in the war. I think, as cultures tend to do, post-war Japan latched onto the concept of a free media with a bit too much zest and there were publications that took things too far, to the point where they started jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions. Maybe such fabrication was a holdover from the manipulating hand of the censors. I don’t know. But we see things like this every day where a legal case happens and something we thought was wrong we suddenly learn we can legally get away with, leading people to initially toe the water so hard that they fall in too deep. I think it was this knee-jerk reaction that SCANDAL was intended to caution against.

    But through IKIRU and THE BAD SLEEP WELL, where the media seems to be the only group willing and able to stand up against bureaucracy, weeding through all their B.S. to the genuine truths hidden within, I think Kurosawa definitely acknowledges that, if used responsibly, their nuisance can be a very good thing.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I’ve always been a little curious as to Kurosawas motivation to make Scandal – his anger at yellow journalism seems a little petty compared to the grand themes most of his other films tackle. I always thought there must have been something personal in his attacks (he was of course known not to like being interviewed by journalists).

    In the Autobiography, Kurosawa writes how one day he saw in a tabloid magazine an article with the headline “Who Stole X’s Virginity?” (interestingly, he doesn’t reveal who the actress in question is), and became enraged about the article, even if he didn’t know her personally: “when I saw the sensationalistic way this headline article was presented, I couldn’t help thinking about how helpless she must feel. Outraged, I reacted as if the thing had been written about me, and I couldn’t remain silent. … Someone had to come out and fight back against this violence, I thought; there was no time for crying oneself to sleep.” (177)

    It has nevertheless been suggested that Kurosawa actually had something more personal in mind when making the film: he himself had been (and still was at the time?) romantically linked in the tabloids to actress Hideko Takamine, who had appeared in Horse, Those Who Make Tomorrow and seven other films where Kurosawa had worked as an assistant director or producer.

    So, there could be something personal behind the film, and it might not be a coincidence at all that Mifune’s character in the film is a painter.

    Ugetsu: For me, one thing that links the use of journalists in The Bad Sleep Well, Ikiru and to a lesser extent High and Low is that they initially have a positive impact in harrassing people of authority, but they always fail at the last hurdle.

    That’s a very good point, actually. Could it be that they fail so that the audience can take the last hurdle on their own?

    After all, if we are meant to relate to the reporters in some way in these films, it would be no good for the overall project if the reporters were to succeed completely. Perhaps by leaving us with endings that are rarely fully resolved or even clear as to their full meaning, Kurosawa’s films force us to engage the problems presented with far more force than were the case if everyone in the film lived happily ever after. After all, why should we do anything about problem X if character Y in the film already solved it?

    NoelCT: I think, as cultures tend to do, post-war Japan latched onto the concept of a free media with a bit too much zest and there were publications that took things too far, to the point where they started jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions.

    Indeed, suddenly finding yourself with freedom of expression is a curious thing. I think many Eastern European countries are still experimenting with what “freedom of press” really means. Here in Hungary, that question certainly pops up every now and then, perhaps most recently when one of the bigger newspapers decided to call members of the Romani population “animals” and “monkeys”.

    But Noel, going back to tabloid press and post-WW2 Japan in particular, would you say that these publications stepped the line unintentionally? I know that most if not all tabloid magazines these days budget for legal cases, knowing very well that many of their articles will get them into trouble. But as long as article X sells Y number of papers and the pending lawsuit generates free publicity for the publication, it is worth the lawsuit expenses. It’s simple maths, really.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    It has nevertheless been suggested that Kurosawa actually had something more personal in mind when making the film: he himself had been (and still was at the time?) romantically linked in the tabloids to actress Hideko Takamine, who had appeared in Horse, Those Who Make Tomorrow and seven other films where Kurosawa had worked as an assistant director or producer.

    Thats interesting, I hadn’t realised he had been involved with Takamine, the lucky dog!

    Actually, when I first read that passage you quote I found it quite odd – so much of the book is wistful and nostalgic in one way or another, and its obvious that he tactfully avoided the more ‘personal’ and touchy subjects. So the passion in that paragraph stood out – which is where I thought there had been something really personal involved. Almost a desire for revenge. I suppose if a close personal friend had been the victim, that might have been a reason. It still seems somehow out of character – I always think of Kurosawa as someone who was short tempered, but not someone who would hold grudges.

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    NoelCT

    But Noel, going back to tabloid press and post-WW2 Japan in particular, would you say that these publications stepped the line unintentionally? I know that most if not all tabloid magazines these days budget for legal cases, knowing very well that many of their articles will get them into trouble. But as long as article X sells Y number of papers and the pending lawsuit generates free publicity for the publication, it is worth the lawsuit expenses. It’s simple maths, really.

    Yeah, but that’s the type of mindset that settles in and develops after decades of experience and perfection. At the time portrayed in SCANDAL, it was still early enough that I think the tabloid gossip was a healthy mix of over-eager journalists who fired off impulsively, old pros so accustomed to putting a spin on things that they did it unconsciously, and the sharp businessmen who knew how to manipulate information for the sake of sales. And it goes without saying that there were also responsible journalists with both skill and integrity.

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