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October Obituaries: Category XV – Akira Kurosawa

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akirakurosawa

In Memoriam

23rd March 1910 – 6th September 1998

“[My films] ask a common question – ‘why can’t people be happier together?’”

If I were to exhaustively detail the ways that Akira Kurosawa influenced the entire medium of film, the binding hasn’t yet been invented that would contain an article that long in print. Certainly, I can trot out the usual highlights. He codified the action film as popular entertainment in the form we know it today. He introduced Japanese cinema en masse to the rest of the world. The western, the chanbara, the wu xia, and many other cinematic genres besides, would be unrecognisably different without his contributions. Directors like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone and John Woo have paid him tribute both implicitly (Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” the film that made Clint Eastwood a star, is a beat-for-beat retread of Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” in a transplanted setting) and explicitly. Certainly, the entire New Hollywood movement of the 1970s is deeply in his debt.

All of this is well documented, so I’d like to come at the scope of Kurosawa’s influence from a slightly different angle. His 1962 samurai film “Sanjuro” ends with an iconic duel between the title character, a scruffy and abrasive ronin played by Toshiro Mifune, and his rival, a bodyguard to a disgraced master played by Tatsuya Nakadai. The two men stare each other down for over half a minute, completely still, before simultaneously drawing their swords and slashing in a single motion. There’s a fraction of a second’s pause, then Nakadai’s torso erupts in a great gout of stage blood spraying several feet. It’s one of the most sudden and shocking acts of violence in film. Bear in mind, the rest of “Sanjuro” is bloodless – plenty of characters die from sword strokes, but the audience sees no injury detail, as was the case in all action films at that point – this sort of stylised bloodletting had not yet caught on. After “Sanjuro,” that arcing blood spray became a coveted visual trope in samurai films, being used liberally in grindhouse offerings in the 70s like the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series to give swordfights an extra, grisly punch. Quentin Tarantino incorporated it into his pastiche of Japanese revenge dramas in “Kill Bill: Volume 1” with Uma Thurman’s endless dismemberments, and Kurosawa himself revisited the image in 1985’s “Ran” with the death of Lady Kaede, one of the most picturesque executions ever staged in a movie.

It just makes it all the more remarkable that the original scene from “Sanjuro” was actually unintended. Kurosawa wanted to show blood to emphasise the climactic moment of the film, yes, but he had intended only for a short spurt. The hose in Nakadai’s clothes malfunctioned, the resulting torrent almost knocking him off his feet. Kurosawa liked the result well enough that he didn’t try for a second take.

To reiterate – one of Kurosawa’s mistakes left a more enduring legacy than the sum of the entire body of work of most artists.

Born to an old samurai family, Kurosawa’s upbringing was unorthodox with regard to his exposure to films – his father, Isamu, was open to western traditions and considered films to have educational merit, and his elder brother, Heigo, worked for a time as a silent film narrator. Akira found work in the 30s in the Photo Chemical Laboratories, the film studio that would go on to become Japan’s renowned Toho studio. He directed his first film in 1943, an action film titled “Sanshiro Sugata,” which took as its subject the initiation of a young man into judo. The film was considered a success and marked the beginning of a prosperous career.

In 1948, Kurosawa made “Drunken Angel” his first film with Toshiro Mifune, who would become his close friend and frequent collaborator. The most famous and storied period of his career began in 1951, when “Rashomon” was screened at the Venice Film Festival to rhapsodic acclaim. Audiences were captivated by the film’s unorthodox structure, which told differing, mutually exclusive accounts of the same event, as well as Kurosawa’s distinctive visual style, disciplined and deliberate in shot composition and editing but also infused with exuberance and high energy.

The following 14 years found Kurosawa at his most prolific, directing film after film, almost all regarded as classics to this day. Most well-known of these are his jidai-geki (period pieces) such as “Yojimbo,” “The Hidden Fortress” and, of course, “Seven Samurai,” although his gendai-geki (contemporary films) such as “Ikiru” were met with equal acclaim. He drew from his Japanese heritage for subject matter, of course, but also reached out to other nations for inspiration, both topical and stylistic – his adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot,” for example, or “Throne of Blood,” his take on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” He drew criticism both from domestic critics and from foreign voices such as the French filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague for allegedly being insufficiently Japanese, or for having sold out to western tastes, they citing older directors such as Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi as superior examples of Japanese cinema.

I would submit, however, that Kurosawa’s films had more universal topics on their mind than representation of the culture that spawned them. Looking at his body of work, recurring motifs begin to make themselves known. Wisdom is attributed to characters who are somehow dispossessed or doomed; insight and clarity are granted only to individuals who exist outside of social normality. Kanji Watanabe in “Ikiru” is only able to overturn petty and complacent bureaucracy when he learns he is terminally ill. Toshiro Mifune’s masterless samurai in “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” is an effective strategist precisely because he is able to switch loyalties at the drop of a hat – the same quality that makes it impossible for him to find a place in the world. Human society is governed by the principles of power and self-preservation, people keeping each other at arms’ length out of mutual self-interest. For all of his formal discipline and studied style, there’s an immaculate frustration at the heart of Kurosawa’s work – the desire for co-operation and compassion amongst people, but at the same time, the realisation that this impulse runs contrary to social equilibrium. The act of putting the needs of another above one’s own put one in a compromising position, and thus the scales rebalance themselves.

I can’t claim to have any special insight into Kurosawa’s life and works – certainly there are film scholars who have studied his output and his biography closer than I could ever hope to. I can, however, refer to the words of one more qualified than myself. Roger Ebert, in his essay (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-ran-1985) on “Ran” (generally considered to be Kurosawa’s last great film, though he would go on to direct three more before his death), makes the case that the film is as much an analogy for the later years of Kurosawa’s own life as it is an adaptation of “King Lear.”

Certainly, life wasn’t a picnic for Kurosawa from 1965 onwards. Beginning with a falling out with Toshiro Mifune (the two wouldn’t reconnect until almost thirty years later, when they met at the funeral of their mutual acquaintance, “Godzilla” director Ishiro Honda), Kurosawa went on to a disastrous and abortive attempt to break into Hollywood, followed by the critical and financial failure of 1970’s “Dodesukaden.” In 1971, he attempted suicide, and although he recovered fairly quickly, his future directorial prospects seemed uncertain. Despite the success of his early career, he struggled to find funding for the projects he wished to pursue. Much like his heroes, he had become an outsider looking in.

“Ran” was Kurosawa’s final passion project, an epic tragedy which drew both on Shakespeare and on Noh theatre. The director was losing his sight when the film was being made, its visual schema based on a series of storyboards he himself had hand painted. He intended it to be the ultimate statement of his career – after trying for years to secure funding, it was finally picked up by French producer Serge Silberman.

It’s because of this film, more than anything else, that I settled on Kurosawa rather than any other subject to eulogise for this series. That Kurosawa was a great artist is disputed by no-one worth listening to. It goes without saying that he enriched the medium he worked in – but then, that claim can be made of many other filmmakers. It’s his humanism that gets me, and more than that, his commitment to humanism.

“Ran,” not to put too fine a point on it, is a bleak damn film. It tells the story, over three spectacular hours, of a kingdom that tears itself apart in a cycle of vengeance and retribution, characters digging themselves deeper in the pursuit of power. The final sequence in particular stands out though. We see a blind man standing on top of a cliff in extreme long shot. The camera gets closer to its subject in a series of jump cuts. In the nomenclature of film analysis, these are called “axial cuts” – a technique which Kurosawa was noted for using in his early career and which are inseparable from his authorial voice. The blind man inches closer to the cliff edge, and coming upon it he stumbles and drops the scroll he’s carrying. The scroll lands crumpled at the bottom of the cliff in an ashen, war-torn wasteland – it’s the image of the Buddha, a symbol of serenity and self-denial. The camera pulls back out, again in a series of axial cuts.

The significance of this sequence can’t be overstated. “Ran” was intended as Kurosawa’s magnum opus, the work that summed up his works, and this is the note it ended on – a desperate, plaintive appeal for people to put aside self-interest and embrace compassion. Framed by three hours of apocalyptic war motivated by greed and spite is the central tension, the immaculate frustration, the common question at the heart of all the director’s work – “why can’t people be happier together?” He persevered through all of the tribulations of the 60s and 70s, worked for a decade to procure funding and mounted the grandest production in the history of Japanese cinema, even in the face of his own failing health, to pose that question to his audience in the most brutal and most sincere terms possible. I can only assume he really, really wanted an answer from us.

An artist reveals himself through his art. Akira Kurosawa’s art is to be valued; because it was influential, yes, because it was made with unimpeachable skill and dedication, yes, but more than that, because it reveals a thoroughly decent human being.

Written by Andrew

Works:

Writer:

Stray Dog (TV Movie) (based on a script by)
2008 Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess (original screenplay)
2007 Tsubaki Sanjûrô (screenplay)
2004 Samurai 7 (TV Series) (film “Shichinin no samurai” – 26 episodes)
2002 The Sea Is Watching (original screenplay)
2000 Dora-heita (screenplay)
1999 After the Rain (screenplay)
1996 Last Man Standing (story)
1993 Madadayo (writer)
1991 Rhapsody in August
1990 Dreams (written by)
1985 Runaway Train (based on a screenplay by)
1985 Ran (screenplay)
1980 Kagemusha
1975 Dersu Uzala
1973 Nora inu (1949 screenplay)
1970 Dodes’ka-den (screenplay)
1970 Tora! Tora! Tora! (japanese sequences – uncredited)
1968 The Last Day of Hsianyang (screenplay)
1965 Sanshiro Sugata (1943 screenplay “Sugata Sanshiro” and 1945 screenplay “Zoku Sugata Sanshiro”)
1965 Red Beard (screenplay)
1964 The Outrage (screenplay “Rashomon”)
1964 A Fistful of Dollars (screenplay “Yojimbo” – uncredited)
1964 Jakoman to Tetsu (and earlier screenplay)
1963 High and Low (screenplay)
1962 Fencing Master (1950 screenplay Tateshi danpei)
1962 Sanjuro (screenplay)
1961 Yojimbo (screenplay) / (story)
1960 Play of the Week (TV Series) (teleplay – 1 episode)
– Rashomon (1960) … (teleplay)
1960 The Magnificent Seven (screenplay “Shichinin no samurai” – uncredited)
1960 The Bad Sleep Well (written by)
1959 Sengoku gunto-den (writer)
1958 The Hidden Fortress (written by)
1957 Nichiro sensô shôri no hishi: Tekichû ôdan sanbyaku-ri (earlier screenplay “Techiku odan sanbyaku ri”) / (screenplay)
1957 The Lower Depths
1957 Throne of Blood (screenplay)
1955 Sanshiro Sugata
1955 I Live in Fear (story)
1955 Asunaro monogatari (screenplay)
1955 Kieta chutai
1954 Seven Samurai (screenplay)
1953 Fukeyo haru kaze (writer)
1952 Ikiru (written by)
1952 Sengoku burai
1952 Vendetta of a Samurai
1951 Kedamono no yado
1951 The Idiot
1951 Ai to nikushimi no kanata e
1950 Tateshi Danpei
1950 Rashomon (screenplay)
1950 Jiruba Tetsu
1950 Scandal
1950 Desertion at Dawn
1949 Stray Dog (writer)
1949 Jakoman to Tetsu (writer)
1949 Jigoku no kifujin (writer)
1949 The Silent Duel (writer)
1948 The Portrait (writer)
1948 Drunken Angel (written by)
1947 Snow Trail
1947 One Wonderful Sunday
1947 Four Love Stories (segment “Hatsukoi”)
1946 No Regrets for Our Youth (uncredited)
1945 The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail
1945 Zoku Sugata Sanshirô
1945 Appare Isshin Tasuke
1944 The Most Beautiful
1944 Dohyosai
1943 Sanshiro Sugata (writer)
1942 Tsubasa no gaika
1942 Currents of Youth
1941 Uma (uncredited)

Director:

1993 Madadayo
1991 Rhapsody in August
1990 Dreams
1985 Ran
1980 Kagemusha
1975 Dersu Uzala
1970 Dodes’ka-den
1965 Red Beard
1963 High and Low
1962 Sanjuro
1961 Yojimbo
1960 The Bad Sleep Well
1958 The Hidden Fortress
1957 The Lower Depths
1957 Throne of Blood
1955 I Live in Fear
1954 Seven Samurai
1952 Ikiru
1951 The Idiot
1950 Rashomon
1950 Scandal
1949 Stray Dog
1949 The Silent Duel
1948 Drunken Angel
1947 One Wonderful Sunday
1946 No Regrets for Our Youth
1946 Those Who Make Tomorrow
1945 The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail
1945 Zoku Sugata Sanshirô
1944 The Most Beautiful
1943 Sanshiro Sugata
1941 Uma (some scenes, uncredited)