The sweltering heat of summer in the big city, the atmosphere of a metropolis in a time of drastic change, an idealistic young rookie out on a quest for personal revenge...
What can I say? Every time I think I have Kurosawa figured out he again amazes me with the incredible power of story-telling that he wields. While many will praise the master of Japanese cinema for his awesoem samurai epics, this one strikes a similar chord to High and Low, spinning a tale of social commentary in post-war Japan. There are differences though. Big ones.
While High and Low (like this film) tells us a great deal about police-work and the state of Japan after World War II (and the terrible things that people may or may not have been forced to do as a result of the social upheaval), this film is more personal.
Toshiro Mifune is probably the greatest actor in Japanese history, and his early performance here struck me very hard indeed. Previously I had seen Mifune as an old man and a rascal, but never playing a serious dramatic lead as a young man (ordinary Joe). When our young protagonist loses his gun, I can feel his shame and disgrace, and feel his terrible moment of panic. As the film progresses, he continues to scan every room as if it might hold some hidden clue, and his intensity is such that it worries his superiors and outright frightens normal people who get in his way. As the film progresses we watch the tension grow, and see his mind pushed closer and closer to the edge. He isn't worried about his gun. He is obsessed. Every new crime he hears about triggers the reaction "Was it MY gun?!" By the end of the movie my eyes were glued to the screen, and few moments in movie history match the scene where he finds himself right next to the killer who has his gun, with only a simple description to go on (that matches about five or six people right in front of him). Mifune is awesome in this movie. It's worthy buying for him alone.
Of course this detective story is about more than just one person, and all of the characters are acted out supremely well. Characteristic of Kurosawa, the camera is used to perfection, the music used to wrap you into the story, and the dialog is perfectly natural. It all feels so real (or is it surreal?), you simply don't know what is going to happen next. The atmosphere is the thing that really sends this one into the stratosphere, though. It's like The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. As we are taken through seemingly every aspect of Japan's metropolis, we see people sweating up a storm, staring off into space dispassionately, struggling just to keep alive in a dangerous world. It's all metaphorical, but it's also all wildly entertaining. If you love film-noir or Kurosawa you must buy this movie immediately.