Movies: Dora-heita

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2007-05-05 22:28:22 No comments

Dora-heita wastes two things, both hard to come by: a potentially great story and a truly great performance. The truly great performance is by Kōji Yakusho, one of Japan’s most dependable male actors, nominally called upon by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa to embody that country’s anonymous Everysalaryman. Here, he’s anything but anonymous: he’s a rakish, singing, dancing, swordfighting life-of-the-party samurai, quick with his wit and just as fast with his weapon when the moment demands it. He also happens to be a magistrate appointed with the very serious mission of cleaning up a deeply corrupt province, and is prepared to wade through who knows how much muck to do the job.

That’s the potentially great story, and what’s even more mind-boggling is the sheer level of pedigree behind it. Dora-heita was derived from a screenplay co-written by four of Japan’s greatest directors—Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Masaki Kobayashi—and directed by Ichikawa himself decades after the script had been completed. I was primed to eat this movie up ever since I’d heard about it almost six years ago. Then I began watching it, and my heart started to sink and sink, and what should have been a resurrection of bracing, funny samurai-classic filmmaking like Yojimbo turned into a stunning bore. It’s the wrong story, told the wrong way, and to entirely the wrong effect.

Magistrate-elect Mochizuki has a master plan: hide behind a veil of sin and vice
while secretly engineering an end run around the corrupt power structure.

Mochizuki (Yakusho) is the latest in a whole string of magistrates who have been sent from Edo to tidy up corruption in a town. The other magistrates tried to do their job and soon ran afoul of a corrupt power structure that thrived on all the local crime and iniquity. Mochizuki’s approach is simple: Come on to everyone involved like a complete profligate and wastrel (dora-heita means “alley cat”), and they won’t think twice about getting in your way. Heck, they’ll probably welcome you with open arms, and make it all the easier for you to undermine their operations!

Now, if you were making this film, which would you elect to do? A) Structure the film in such a way that Mochizuki’s real motives are concealed from the audience as long as possible, so that everything he does could be read multiple ways and generate tension, both comedic and dramatic, or B) have Mochizuki describe his whole strategy in the first ten minutes, thus making everything else that happens into little more than a foregone conclusion? Not B), if you’ve made more than two movies in your lifetime.

First step: get in tight with the criminals in town, earn their trust,
then turn around and set them all against each other as soon as possible.

But that’s exactly what Ichikawa has done here, and I searched in vain for a reason why other than sheer simple-mindedness or creative senility. In one of the very first scenes, Mochizuki sits around with one of his cohorts and tells him (and us) exactly what he’s up to. And then in each succeeding scene he goes and does all of it, and we are left in the unenviable position of trying to goad ourselves into being surprised by things that we can see eight miles down the road. The worst part is that Ichikawa doesn’t give us much of anything else to be surprised, or worried, or dismayed about. It’s no fun to be in on the joke that early, and there is really no other joke here. The film’s central premise is handled so amateurishly and with so little zest there barely seems to be a movie at all.

Part of the reason I’m so bothered by this is because it’s exactly the kind of lockstep, on-the-nose plotting that Ichikawa and his cohorts used to go out of their way to avoid. And he not only does it once with Mochizuki at the start, but drops the ball again and again throughout the whole movie in every other possible way. At one point Mochizuki’s cornered by these three other do-gooder samurai types who’ve formed a kind of mini-militia to get rid of him and the scourge he represents. What happens? Mochizuki tells them what he’s up to, and that’s essentially the end of it. They’re not brought back later on except to communicate a plot point that doesn’t really require them, and they’re never used to engineer any kind of genuine comic situations. The same goes with the bad guys, whom Mochizuki cozzens right up to with an amazing lack of difficulty or even resistance.

Complications include self-appointed do-gooders, an old flame of his,
and a propensity for the movie to deflat all of its dramatic tension.

The closest the movie gets to anything like real storytelling ingenuity is when an old flame of Mochizuki’s shows up and is determined to drag him back home, duty or no duty, and quickly gets in over her head. The scenes between the two of them have at least some crackle, but they’re quickly smothered by the movie’s constant falling back on the most shamelessly old-fashioned, closed-ended storytelling imaginable. There isn’t a single scene where I felt like anything was truly at risk, or where Mochizuki’s plans looked like they were coming apart on him. What’s the fun of observing someone like him at work when he never seems to be pushing all that hard against anything in the first place?

That feeling bothered me, like a head cold, until I realized where it was coming from. Dora-heita was reminding me by negative example of another samurai movie I’d seen where absolutely nothing was predictable, nothing was telegraphed, and everything was as delirious a surprise for the characters as it was for the audience. That movie was Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill!, and if they had taken Dora-heita’s premise and re-worked it so that it had a sliver of that movie’s spry anarchy and uninhibited storytelling vigor, they would have had at the very least a far more functionally entertaining movie and maybe even a classic. Watch the two side-by-side and you’ll see what I mean: compared to Kill!, Dora-heita is about as dramatic (and funny, and enthralling) as watching a photocopier at work.

Yakusho's performance (and, for that matter, most everyone else's) makes the movie worthwhile,
but outside of that it's alarming how it adds up to so little.

And yet in the middle of all this there’s a fantastically fun performance by Kōji Yakusho as Mochizuki—one made all the more enjoyable, I suspect, because it stands in such stark contrast to his more modulated roles in movies like Shall we dance? and Cure. He pours all this feisty, conniving spirit out onto the screen, so much so that it cries out to be in a movie that can live up to it. We both deserved better, him and the audience.

Tags: Akira Kurosawa Japan Keisuke Kinoshita Kon Ichikawa Kōji Yakusho Masaki Kobayashi movies review samurai

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