The two central characters are an aged, weary, alcoholic doctor, played remarkably by the great actor Takashi Shimura and a young, alcoholic, tubercular gangster, played remarkably by the great actor Toshiro Mifune. It is the first collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune, and between Mifune and composer Fumio Hayasaka. The doctor is committed to the combat against disease, the constany of the combat guaranteeing no great profit, the gangster to the morally valueless profit gained from criminal power and human misery. Their relationship is generated as much by similarities of preoccupation as by complementaries of approach to one another. The doctor regards the gangster as a disease, and the gangster regards the doctor as an elemental pawn of power.
The film’s central image is of a polluted, miasmic swamp in the midst of a ramshackle neighbourhood in a postwar city. The swamp may a bomb crater, and the neighbourhood shows the signs of the then American occupation of Japan. It is a cistern of sewage, garbage, and typhus. It is like the hole in the gangster’s tubercular lung.
The film is a compelling presentation of our common futility, camouflaged by the selection of a convenient code of honour. It depicts our warring contradictions in an environment that has been polluted by war and occupation. The futility and its environment extend beyond the narrative to its immediate present to its antecedent, irrefutable, historical context, which goes beyond Japan to humanity’s inhumanity to itself.
The Japanese demonstrated much battlefield malice and cruelty in war; but, in essence, their imperialism was of the same kind practised by the Americans, as long ago as the near extirpation of native peoples, their numbers already decimated by up to 90% of the estimated 18 millions of natives in North America through diseases introduced by Europeans, through the policy of forced assimilation devised first by George Washington. European colonialism, rampant from Columbus on, peaked in the early 20th century, through the cultural depredations of Britain, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands; including the carving up of almost all of Africa with the subsequent shipping of slaves from there to the new world. The Europeans, with their idolization of their monarchies, whether hereditary or Napoleonic, did not in their perspective differ from Japanese adulation of the emperor; nor, American insistence on the purity of the republic, civil war notwithstanding, in both countries.
After annihilating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and destroying Tokyo, the USA occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952. Tokyo was bombed incessantly from November, 1944, to August, 1945, and the air raid 9-10 March, 1945, the Night of the Black Snow, levelled, with cluster bombs of napalm and incendiary bombs of gasoline and white phosphorus, 16 square miles of the city and killed at least 100,000 people, wounded 125,000, destroyed nearly 300,000 buildings and dwellings, and made one million civilians homeless, in the most destructive bombing raid in human history, greater than Dresden, Hamburg, and the two atomic conflagrations.
The doctor believes that it is through the actuation of willpower that we, as individuals, may prevail against what evil and destruction we have wrought; and the gangster, lacking this willpower, dreams of what he could be in an oceanside fantasy in which his dead self pursues his living, and succeeds in reaching him. This dream sequence has been criticized as an error of interpolation, but it is representative, forcefully, of the constant conflict in the human being, just as the sea and the land contend with one another, and when recognition, as it sometimes does, arrives, it becomes a turning point, which is its purpose within the film.
A second criticism of the film is the inclusion of the nightclub scene in which Shizuko Kasagi sings “Jungle Boogie.” The music is by Hayasaka and the lyrics by Kurosawa. It is a satire; and a bitter one, on American music and the American presence. Kasagi, originally a star of the Takarazuka Girls Opera Company, founded in 1914, which presented stylistic pastiches that blended European and American influences with Japanese dramatic and dance traditions, became, during the Occupation, an enormous star when she was influenced by American popular music. The satire is thus doubled. The accompanying choreography is also stylized pastiche, and is the dreamland backdrop to the mockery of Kasagi’s singing. The conquered mimic the victor, and the satire is redoubled. The inevitability of our duality goes on until the end of the set piece we have created for ourselves.