Just look at how young Toshiro Mifune is in this one.
It is a hot and quiet night in the city, with the only sounds being the bubbling pond and that guy playing his guitar again.
A man named Matsunaga enters the office of a neighborhood doctor named Sanada, claiming that he got a nail from a door lodged in his hand. Sanada extracts the nail, which looks suspiciously like a bullet. It turns out that Matsunaga is a Yakuza captain who presides over the territory at the Station Market. Sanada has, apparently, looked after his guys when they got injured or sick.
Matsunaga tries to engage in cool chit chat, but Sanada is not having it, ignoring Matsunaga and asking someone he calls “Grandma” for mosquito repellant. He sticks a bunch of scissors in Matsunaga’s hand without any painkillers. With Matsunaga in pain and unable to move, Sanada tells him that his services can be pricey for deadbeats. Eventually, Sanada patches him up and lets him stay as he recovers.
Matsunaga requests some medicine for his cold, but Sanada guesses that he probably contracted tuberculosis. Sanada checks his stethoscope, though telling him that this procedure is mostly for show. He notices a hole and tells Matsunage to get an X-ray. Matsunaga calls Sanada a liar and assaults him, stopping only when Nurse Miyo arrives. Matsunaga sheepishly walks out, barely responding when Sanada throws something at his back and calls him an idiot. Not exactly doing no harm, is he?
Miyo asks what is going on. Sanada says that Matsunaga is at least worrying that he has TB, which is a start. Meanwhile Matsunaga storms off with two minions bugging him about the nurse.
The next morning Sanada yells at a bunch of boys playing in the pond, warning that they could get typhus. They say that they are not scared of typhus and call him a drunk, so he chases them away. One boy returns, perhaps because his hat fell off. Sanada recognizes him as a patient from a few days ago and gives him his hat back, repeating his warning about the water.
Sanada goes to the Market, which is quite crowded. He walks by a bar, but the owner waves him in, even though Sanada claims that his sake is more gasoline than alcohol. Sanada asks about Matsunaga, and the bartender Gin says that he is probably at the dancehall. Sanada asks Gin if she is into Matsunaga, and she denies it.
Matsunaga is indeed in the dancehall in the middle of the day, dancing with his girlfriend Nanae. He keeps his bandaged hand in his jacket pocket, and gets annoyed when Nanae jokingly slaps it. They sit at a table and Nanae notices that he is different today, like he is wasting away. His minions arrive and tell him that the doc wants to see him.
Matsunaga meets with Sanada outside the club and warns him against blackmail. Sanada counters that he had walked out without paying the bill, but is willing to settle for less if Matsunaga buys him a drink. After more back and forth, Matsunaga has Sanada walk with him through the market. Everyone clears a path, bowing to Matsunaga as he walks past. He even takes a flower from a flower shop without paying and the workers just bow to him as well.
Matsunaga and Sanada go to a bar and everyone else clears out. Matsunaga goes behind the bar and gives Sanada a drink as a peace offering. Without apologizing, he tries to explain his behavior last night, and says that that woman who arrived looked familiar. Sanada tells Matsunaga to leave her alone. Matsunaga presses further, and attempts to take back the bottle, but Sanada changes the subject, saying that Matsunaga should not drink with that hole inside him. The conversation turns south quickly and an enraged Matsunaga throws Sanada out of the bar.
Sanada goes back to his office to wash up, angry about being attacked again. Miyo helps to tend to his cuts, and notes that this is not the first time that Sanada has been unable to stop fussing over a patient. She says that he is too blunt with his patients. He admits that she is right, but he is too old to change his nature. He could have been a society doctor with a big practice like with his former med school classmate Takahama, had he only behaved properly instead of spending all of his money at brothels. Instead, he sees a bit of himself in Matsunaga, and that tuberculosis is not that man’s only problem. That his tough guy swagger is just a cover for his loneliness and guilty conscience. Sanada can see that he is not truly evil, not yet.
Speaking of evil, though, Sanada changes the topic to someone named Okada. Miyo goes quiet and looks away. Okada has been locked up for three years and eight months, so it is probably almost time for his release. Sanada tries to assure Miyo that Okada will not find her if she stays here, but she still worries that he will track her down, particularly since this was Okada’s territory. Sanada says that it should be okay as long as she is serious about having left that life behind. Miyo says that she hates Okada for having stolen her life away from her.
Miyo seems to change her tune a bit during dinner with Sanada and Grandma, wondering whether she should see Okada once after he gets out. Perhaps prison has changed him. Sanada yells at her, reminding her that Okada had abused her and given her a venereal disease before abandoning her. She starts crying. Neither of them can finish dinner.
The next day, a teenage girl comes to the office and shows Sanada her X-ray. She has been suffering from TB, but is doing much better. He is a lot…less blunt with her than he has been with Matsunaga, and she gently tells him to stop treating her like she is a little kid, which kind of throws him for a loop. As she leaves, she promises that she will be even better the next time, betting a sweet on it.
And in comes Matsunaga, smoking a cigarette. Sanada asks what kind of symptoms he has, but Matsunaga claims that he is fine, and only wanted to have a drink. Sanada says that he is just scared, and Matsunaga gets in his face. Sanada says that he is not mocking Matsunaga, and that having fears is human. But…then he pretty much mocks Matsunaga for his tough guy act. And Matsunaga tries to stay cool until Sanada compares him unfavorably to the teenage girl who has been taking her TB seriously. Then Matsunaga starts throwing Sanada around and Miyo has to come in and get in between them. Matsunaga leaves and Sanada throws a bunch of tiny bottles at him. He even almost throws his bottle of booze.
They observe Matsunaga walking outside, alone and less aggressively than the first time that he left.
A few days later, Sanada has a chance meeting with Doctor Takahama. As a sign of the gap in finances, they are both going in the same direction, but Sanada was going to walk there, while Takahama is riding in a company car. Sanada claims that taxis are too hot for him and Takahama pretends to believe him. Takahama asks whether Sanada was visited by a man named Matsunaga. Apparently, Matsunaga did go to get an X-ray. When Sanada asks for it, Takahama says that Matsunaga was supposed to show him. Takahama had figured that Sanada was an expert on his type, perhaps not realizing that the two men already have a rather complicated relationship.
That evening, Sanada waits outside of the dancehall and manages to confront Matsunaga alone. Sanada scolds him for endangering his health, and refers to himself as a kind of angel looking out for Matsunaga, which Matsunaga does not appreciate. Matsunaga is about to go back into the dancehall when Sanada yells at him for not showing him the X-ray. Matsunaga stops still; he has no response to that; not even violence. Sanada tells him to stop by the office later and walks away.
Matsunaga does stop by, so drunk that it is amazing that he even managed to get there in the first place. Sanada scolds him for being too cowardly to come sober. He and Miyo bring him into the house, to Grandma’s disapproval. Matsunaga stares at Miyo, certain that he knows her from somewhere. He then suggests that Sanada and Takahama are in cahoots to scam him. Sanada demands the X-ray, but Matsunaga claims that he tore it up, and that he is not afraid of dying. And then he pretty much passes out. Miyo gets a blanket and notices an X-ray in Matsunaga’s jacket. Sanada looks at it. He does not say that it is bad, but it is bad.
The guitar player starts up again, and Matsunaga sort of wakes up. Sanada points to the hole in the X-ray and Matsunaga says that it is good for ventilation. Sanada offers him a cup of water, which he eventually drinks…sort of…and then he breaks the cup. Matsunaga asks whether he will get better, and Sanada says yes, as long as Matsunaga follows his instructions. Matsunaga scoffs at that, once again denying that he is afraid to die, as he is going to die anyways. And it seems like he passes out again.
Meanwhile, a man outside interrupts the guitar-player and takes the guitar. He then plays it himself. Miyo recognizes the piece as Okada’s favorite song. So Okada is free, he has returned to the place that was his territory, and he is very close by. Uh oh.
While Akira Kurosawa was writer and editor on Snow Trail, Toshiro Mifune’s first film that was released the previous year, this movie is considered their first true collaboration. I am not sure if this was his breakout role, but he seems ready to just break out of the screen and go on a rampage as Matsunaga. Takashi Shimura had been a Kurosawa staple since his directorial debut in 1943 and was also in Snow Trail. His Sanada is the unstoppable force to the immoveable object that is Matsunaga. Or maybe it is the other way around.
Apparently, this film was subject to a lot of censorship from the American occupation, by the both a civilian board and the military. The issues were less about sexual content or violence, but more socio-political implications, presentations of occupying forces, or depictions of Japan in ruins. 1948 was a particularly strict year, which may or may not have been why he did not make another film that year. He was ultimately allowed to release his movie despite a few violations, like showing English writing. There are a few odd decisions that could I suppose could be chalked up to meddling, but I cannot say how the movie would have been if Kurosawa had full creative control. Would it have been significantly different? I know the basics of the original ending, which was definitely not what we got. I am not sure how that would have fit into the story, so it may have been for the better.
This movie is, supposedly, one of the first, if not the first movie depicting modern Yakuza. There had been earlier movies depicting 19th century Yakuza and earlier, but not that much of the modern variety. Yakuza depictions in film became rarer once the government turned Nationalist and definitely during World War II. I guess that the American occupiers had fewer problems with it. Or, maybe like with the movie mentioning venereal diseases, showing sex workers, filming nasty water, having English writing on signs, and giving the film a title that the censors deemed to be blasphemous, this was something that Kurosawa was able to get away with. I don’t know.
No, Kurosawa did not show any Americans the way that he would in later films like High and Low, but he did heavily imply their presence. The sex workers were known to service…uh…American servicemen. English signage and Jazz did exist in Japan prior to the occupation, but the signage is everywhere in the Market and Jazz blares out in celebration of the rather toothless Imperial ban having been lifted.
Being an early depiction of the modern Yakuza, there are few of the tropes associated with the genres. And the ones that are there are not really taken seriously. Whether it was due to morality police within the censorship bureaus or his own feelings, Kurosawa seems to portray the gangsters rather negatively here. Talk of honor and loyalty is just that: talk. The swagger is fake and egos are fragile. Their power comes from sheer obnoxiousness and willingness to hurt others, but respect is not there. There is little style to their posturing, little glamour to their violence.
This lack of respect is most prominent in the main Yakuza character of Matsunaga. Prior to Okada’s return, he is the big boss of the market. Everyone clears a path for him, bows before him, and lets him have the run of the place. But his girlfriend seems to have no problem teasing him in front of others, and continuing to do so after he had told her to stop. And then, of course, there is his relationship with Sanada.
Disgraced and relegated to a poorer section of the city, Sanada has gained a reputation for being the doctor. And he hates it. Both because the Yakuza sucks and he sort of recognizes that it is probably more likely that he could have gone that route than become an actual respectable doctor at a respectable hospital. But he had wasted away a promising future on sex and booze. And while he may have cooled it down with the sex by the time he hit his forties, he has not slowed down on the alcohol, even drinking up the alcohol meant to treat patients. He is not a troubled genius, he is just a drunk who happens to be the only hope for of the poor and downtrodden in this area of a postwar city, where there is no escape from the heat, the mosquitos, or the pollution.
The gangsters do not intimidate Sanada, and he gives as good as he gets. It is not that does not fear death, or does not believe that they could kill him. Partly because he is drunken foolishness, but also has force of will and will not let them get the better of him. Besides, he has seen them at their weakest, their sickest, their most vulnerable; and he probably could have theoretically killed a few of them and gotten away with it. Perhaps some of the them respect him for that, even if no one else does. Here is a guy who stands up to them when no one else does. He says Matsunaga’s first attack was the worst that he had experienced up to that point. Of course, that was before the second attack…or third.
While Sanada has no regard for the Yakuza, he seems to notice something in Matsunaga, at least after their first encounter. He can see that Matsunaga’s posturing is just that. Sanada is, of course, upset when Matsunaga attacks him, and tries to retaliate. But he sees Matsunaga leave ashamed and defeated, puffing back up only when his minions see him. Sure, it would be easy for him to just let this guy go and eventually die. After all, he attacked him and was a terrible patient. It would be easy to focus on more cooperative patients like that teenage girl who actually followed his instructions. But life is more than just easy victories. He cannot rid the world of gangsters like Okada anymore than he can clean up the polluted pond that makes the community sick. But maybe Matsunaga is not so far gone. So, if he saves Matsunaga, either physically or spiritually, then it is like he saves himself. That is why he searches for him again, confronts him again, and risks getting attacked again. And again. Besides, being difficult is his specialty. Swimming against the disgusting polluted tide.
The pond is a metaphor.
Matsunaga tries to put up a front with Sanada, but it never works. He threatens Sanada with violence, and attacks him. That does not work either. Sanada still haunts him with warnings of his impending doom. Sanada can see the real him, and does not hide that he can see it. And the real him is terrified, sad, lonely, ashamed. He may have thought that his lifestyle would end with a bullet or a blade, but an illness? Matsunaga cannot admit it openly, but he knows that Sanada is right. But what good does that do him? To show vulnerability would be to show weakness to enemies and liability to allies, which would definitely result in a bullet or blade. Sanada and his little group are the only exceptions. He could be himself in front of them, if only he knew who he really could be outside of a gangster.
Perfect or flawed, this movie was the start of something. The start of true postwar Japanese cinema, the start of the Kurosawa-Mifune era, the start of the modern Yakuza film. This movie may not have quite been what Kurosawa had wanted, but it is very good in its own right.
WTF 156: The Story of Qiu Ju (China: 1992, approx. 100 minutes)
WTF 157: Unbowed (South Korea: 2011, approx. 102 minutes)