It’s not every day you get to see a film focusing on the medical response to syphilis and the emotional torment of one of the disease’s sufferers.
I can’t say this particular absence in my film viewing habits to date particularly irks me. There’s only so much a spectator can tolerate when submitted to endless studies of a pent-up and remorseful Toshiro Mifune (infected with syphilis) pining in sexual frustration over his (spotless, timid, frail, i.e. stereotyped) wife to never be. I couldn’t take more than about 10 minutes of this at a time, and had to return to the picture on several different occasions to finally get over the line. I know that might sound like an admission of weakness or, worse, Philistinism, but this really did seem to me an extremely lightweight picture from Kurosawa, whose resolute fixity to the issue at hand brings the material rather too close to an HBO disease-of-the-week flick.
On the plus side, there is are some lovely, if spare, idyllic moments to savour. Some recurring exterior conversation scenes between Mifune and Sanjo (as his jilted lover) set against an iron fence and cherry blossom are a little plastic in detail but carefully arranged to help express the ironies and torment of their doomed relationship. The sombre stillness of Takashi Shimura, cast as Mifune’s humble and level-headed father, works yet again (Drunken Angel, Seven Samurai) as an excellent foil to Mifune’s wild man posturing and antics. Chieko Nakakita, who is given the plum role here as possibly the only character to undergo some sort of positive change in the picture, offers another compelling motivation to persevere.
The picture rarely breaks out from the tight and dank confines of a hospital; its foyer, kitchen, offices, operating chambers, recovery rooms, and exterior garden, with only a couple of brief excursions to a lounge bar interrupting the dreary, oppressive atmosphere. Even in the bar we’re still offered little more than low contrast tones of grey, with only a few compositional highlights keeping things exciting. (I’m thinking here especially of the shot frontally framing Mifune’s face on the right of frame and, oddly, the feet of the original syphilis patient on the left, as the latter reclines on a sofa while Mifune sits in an adjacent chair and reveals his dark secret.)
Take a deep breath before committing to this one, unless of course you’re searching for that elusive downer.