Monday, October 16, 2006
Koichi Nishi played by Toshiro Mifune
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Or The Bad Sleep Well for the English translation. Akira Kurosawa's approach to Hamlet (in TohoVision!) reminds me of the quip Eric Morcambe once made to Andre Previn during a Christmas spectacular. "I'm playing all the right notes. Just not necessarily in the right order." Which isn't to say that in this admirable film anything is in the wrong order. Rather than slavishly following the beats of Shakespeare's story, Kurosawa reconfigures the icons, so that the Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude, Horatio, Laertes and Polonius become apparent as does the deployment of a ghost, as is the motivation for the Hamlet figure Koichi Nishi's revenge. The approach is refreshing, since although I loved both Throne of Blood and Ran, its good to be in the territory of influence rather than retelling.
For me, the film has more in common with old Hollywood than the bard. The opening has hints of the early Frank Capra films written by Robert Riskin, a gaggle of newsmen following and commenting on the police investigation into the company that stands for this retelling's Elsinore. As the story proceeds the framing of shots and the cold anti-hero status of Toshiro Mifune's Nishi who will stop at nothing, even reducing his identity to a shadow smacks of film noir and the gangster films of the forties and fifties, particularly the work of John Huston and Fritz Lang, both of whom revelled in the darker edges of society. Lang in particular often featured a female character with some kind of disfigurement similar to Keiko (Ophelia)'s lame foot. Nishi is complex rather than sympathetic, his methods only vaguely different from those that wronged him.
Oddly enough, my favourite moment is early in the film when Tatsuo Iwabuchi (Laertes) gives his wedding speech. He's played by Tatsuya Mihashi who was the genial lead overdubbed in Woody Allen's What's Up Tiger Lily? to become Phil Moscowitz and initially he seems to confer that geniality here. The opening of the speech is fairly natural best man stuff, a few jokes, and then from nowhere he notes that if Nishi doesn't treat his sister correctly he'll kill him. This is not a joke. He's deadly serious. But cleverly, Kurosawa films him from behind allowing us to see the reaction of the congregation for whom this threat is as unexpected as it is for us. Joe Pesci's Funny How from the overrated Goodfellas is a fair comparison. Only the intervention of an elder who congratulates his passion allows the proceedings to continue.
Chuck Stephens has written an excellent essay on the film, The Higher Depths.