Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Centennial Tributes: Akira Kurosawa

By Edward Copeland
When Akira Kurosawa received his honorary Academy Award at the ceremony 20 years ago, nearly blind, he said in his acceptance speech that he still had a lot to learn about cinema. Imagine the reaction of myself and a friend who were watching as this master of the medium, then 80 years old, said he was still a student while two 21-year-olds who still harbored movie dreams had yet to film a frame of anything. Originally setting out to be a painter, frequent visits to Western movies with his father turned Kurosawa's thoughts to cinema. Today, Kurosawa would have turned 100 and he left behind an amazing body of work, such a prolific body of work that try as I may, I certainly haven't seen it all, but I'll try to provide a tour of as many of them as I can. I wanted to watch what is available of his work, but I simply ran out of time, so the only one from the 1940s I've seen is Stray Dog (which didn't even reach the U.S. until 1963). I also didn't get to revisit all of his films that I wanted to or attempt to see the versions made in other countries such as The Magnificent Seven or based on one of his screenplays such as 1985's Runaway Train.


You know if you've seen Stray Dog simply from the unforgettable image that Kurosawa places beneath the opening credits: a panting dog, tongue lapping furiously to indicate the heat of the day as Toshiro Mifune's police detective character does his best imitation of hard-boiled voiceover narration to begin this tale of a cop in search of his weapon, stolen from him while riding a streetcar. In addition to the striking opening shot, it also has Kurosawa using the image he loved so much in his next film, Rashomon, aiming the camera directly at the sun, a shot that wowed Robert Altman so much he tried to copy it in his early TV work. The film has many things you don't expect in a Kurosawa film: dancing girls, baseball games. There is a great suspense sequence involving a hotel pay phone, a phonograph and two locations. It's slightly silly how they keep counting down the bullets left in the stolen gun as if no new ammunition could be obtained, but otherwise it's a fairly suspenseful, unusual film of the Kurosawa canon.


The first Kurosawa feature to really make a splash in the U.S. asks a basic question, "What is truth?" In an introduction to the Criterion Collection DVD, Robert Altman calls the film "the most interesting of Kurosawa's films" along with Throne of Blood and a big influence on his own career. As Dr. Gregory House is fond of saying, "Everybody lies" and in Rashomon, everything is true and nothing is true at the same time as a man seeking respite from the rain hears the many versions of the truth behind a samurai's brutal death and the sexual assault of his wife. Even by film's end, we don't know for certain what happened, but Kurosawa still manages in his small way to reassure us of faith in mankind. The film also is fleet and efficient, quite a departure from the epic lengths that will mark most of the rest of Kurosawa's filmography. Since the Oscars hadn't established a foreign language category yet, the board of governors voted it an honorary Oscar.


Unlike Kurosawa's later takes on Shakespeare tales, where he transfers them to feudal times in Japan, he adapts Dostoyevsky's novel to post-war Japan and makes the title character a convicted war criminal who got a reprieve from a U.S. death sentence but because of terrible shock and what he calls "epileptic dementia," becomes an "idiot." While, as you would expect from Kurosawa, there are some striking images, it hardly ranks as one of his most successful films. In the beginning, it is literal exposition — written on the screen, explaining that goodness and idiocy are often equated and this story tells of the destruction of a pure soul by a faithless world. So, if you didn't know the basics of the tale, you'd have to wade through nearly three hours of uneven pacing and often over-the-top acting to get to the finish. It all comes off very mannered, sapping the tale of the humanity it desperately needs.


When I compiled my top 100 films of all time back in 2007, I ended up having two films titled To Live on it: Zhang Yimou's and Kurosawa's, which is better known by its Japanese name, Ikiru. Perhaps it's my own more frequent focus on mortality, but each time I watch Ikiru, I find that it becomes closer to being my favorite Kurosawa over the more rousing Seven Samurai. Takashi Shimura gives a touching performance as Watanabe, the sad, beaten bureaucrat who finds new purpose when he learns he's dying of stomach cancer and chooses not to leave this world without leaving a positive mark on it. It's an uphill struggle, exemplified by a wonderful sequence as citizens trying to solve a cesspool problem get shuffled from department to department without any answers or resolution. Watanabe tries to fight his illness to overcome the roadblocks, uncaring children and the world in general to renew his faith in life before there's none of his left. He's wonderful and so is the film.


However, no matter how much I love Ikiru, once I see Seven Samurai again, I'm instantly back in its camp. All films this long should be able to hold their length as this rollicking adventure tale does. Each time I see it, it transfixes me from beginning to end. Hacks such as Michael Bay should look to a film such as Seven Samurai and see how much more important character is to a great action-adventure film than stunts, explosions and special effects. It's amazing that with such a large cast, not just of the title samurai but of the farmers they are defending as well, the actors and Kurosawa develop so many distinct and worthy portraits. Granted, the running time helps, but the characters are established rather quickly from Takashi Shimura (unrecognizable from his role as the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru) as the lead samurai organizing the mission to the great Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, a reckless samurai haunted by his past as a farmer's son. There is even Kamatari Fujiwara as Manzo, one of the farmers, and Fujiwara has a mug that was made for movies. Full of action, humor, sadness, a bit of romance and plenty of heart, its influence on so many films that have come since is incalculable. Mifune and Shimura both received British Academy Award nominations as did the film and the movie picked up the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.


Kurosawa's interest in the literature of the West finally led him to The Bard in this Japanese take on MacBeth. The story adheres fairly closely to the outlines of the Scottish play with Mifune taking the role of Washizu, a lord's faithful warrior who takes a spirit's prophecy and the evil prodding of his wife Asaji (a frightening performance by Isuzu Yamada) to ignore his inner morality and begin a bloody rise to power. Mifune gives another great, distinct performance and the images are striking as the forest surrounding the fortress to bring about Washizu's inevitable downfall. On his intro to Rashomon, Altman said this was his other favorite Kurosawa and while I wouldn't go that far, it is a great one.


It isn't that often that you can compare the takes of two masters of the cinema on the same classic work, in this case Russian author Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths. The original play told of the Russian underclass seeking refuge in a shelter during a harsh winter and a better spring, trying to deceive themselves as to the bleakness of their lives and doing what needs to be done to survive, engaging in romantic nonsense and other play while avoiding the upper class who find them a nuisance. The great French director Jean Renoir brought the play to the screen first in 1936, changing the setting to France and starring the great Jean Gabin. While not as awe inspiring as Renoir's greatest works, it's still good. Two other film versions were made before Kurosawa tackled the play in a 1957 version, moving the story to mid-19th century Japan and placing Mifune in the Gabin role. While I've not seen the original Gorky play, what I've read seems to indicate that Kurosawa's version seems more faithful to the play but as films, I did prefer the Renoir version. The Criterion Collection did film buffs an invaluable service by packaging both directors' versions in a single DVD set, so you may judge for yourself.


Certainly, most film buffs already know that the inspiration for C-3PO and R2-D2 can be found here, not as droids, but as bumbling would-be thieves in this fun Kurosawa lark that George Lucas freely credits as a major inspiration for Star Wars. A princess is trapped in enemy territory and dependent on these two unlikely heroes and a renowned general to make it back to safe ground to restore her shattered clan. Jonathan plans to write on this film in more depth later this year, so I'm being skimpy here but it's worth noting that this was Kurosawa's first film in widescreen.


The Bad Sleep Well, like many Kurosawa efforts, is too long, but it is quite good telling the story of a man (Toshiro Mifune) determined to bring down corrupt bureaucrats and corporate bosses for reasons that aren't spelled out initially. It's always interesting to see a Kurosawa film that is set in the time in which it was released, and The Bad Sleep Well is a good example of a non-period piece from him, even if it's not quite up to the level of something truly great like Ikiru. It wouldn't be fair to delve too much into the story for those who may want to see it eventually, but then this film aspires to being much more than just a simple revenge tale, exploring various issues of guilt, justice and the risk of becoming what you hate in the single-minded pursuit of vengeance. The Criterion print (the only way to see it: Beware bad prints with awful subtitle translations) presents the film in crisp, clear images, showing some of Kurosawa's best technical work and cinematography.


While Kurosawa was influenced greatly by the West, he probably sent as much inspiration the other way and this incredibly entertaining tale provides ample evidence of that as Mifune plays a nameless samurai who comes to a town terrorized by two feuding criminal gangs and plays them against each other to make it a place worth living again. Sergio Leone transferred the tale to American West in A Fistful of Dollars and transformed Mifune's samurai into Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name. Mifune is an absolute stoic riot as the town's rescuer and while Leone's trilogy is fantastic, it's hard not to love the Japanese version even more. Mifune received a well-deserved best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival.


Yojimbo was such a success that it spawned a sequel, Sanjuro. While Mifune and the movie is great fun, it isn't the equal of the original. Also, while Yojimbo and Leone's Fistful of Dollars shared many similarities, Leone's No Name Trilogy went in its own direction and Sanjuro and For a Few Dollars More have next to nothing in common (and there isn't a third Kurosawa in the series). This time, Mifune's samurai is caught between sparring officials instead of brawling criminal gangs. For fans of gore, the film's climax is a must-see in terms of blood-splattering goodness, but pay attention to the lengthy shot of stillness and silence that precedes it as well.


Of all his ventures into "modern" crime and suspense tales, High and Low by far is his most successful and compelling as far as I'm concerned, deftly combining the worlds of corporate intrigue and family life with deeper moral questions. Again, he turns to Mifune as a successful executive who finally has achieved the means to buy out a company at the same time kidnappers snatch his son, demanding a ransom roughly equal to the same amount needed for his business deal. However, there is an even bigger hitch: the kidnappers took the wrong boy, grabbing the son of Mifune's chauffeur instead. Everything clicks here, from the police procedural to the internal conflicts and office politics. It's a wonder.


It isn't unusual to find a lengthy Akira Kurosawa film, but it is unusual to find one (for me at least) that I didn't find myself compelled to finish. Given that, under normal circumstances, I would have left it out as one of his works that I failed to see, but since it is such a pivotal work in his career, its presence demands remarks. It was the last time, after 16 films spanning from 1948 to 1965, that Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune worked together. There have been many great actor-director teams in the history of film: John Ford and John Wayne, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, James Stewart with Anthony Mann or Frank Capra or Alfred Hitchcock. Still, I'd argue that none match the achievements or output that came out of the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration. It spawned time periods, genres and most always proved a success. Red Beard, with Mifune as an honorable older doctor at a charity hospital in the 19th century teaching a young doctor life lessons, for me at least, didn't end the team on a high note, but it didn't diminish the Kurosawa/Mifune team's greatness either. For their last teaming, Mifune and Kurosawa each received separate awards at Venice. I wish time and circumstances had allowed me to revisit this film again to its conclusion.


Following the release of Red Beard in 1965, Kurosawa had completed 23 films in roughly 22 years and earned international acclaim. Unfortunately, his career as a filmmaker was about to hit some real bumps in the road. Having felt he'd accomplished all he wanted to in black and white, Kurosawa was ready to film in color and produced the script for The Runaway Train, which he envisioned as a 70mm, Technicolor action extravaganza filmed in America. He secured American investors, but disagreements over the approach eventually scuttled the plans for the film. The script was eventually filmed by Andrei Konchalovsky in 1985 and earned Jon Voight and Eric Roberts both Oscar nominations. Next, Kurosawa was lured into helming the Japanese half of the planned U.S.-Japanese co-production on World War II, Tora! Tora! Tora! Despite the building of some amazing sets, Kurosawa was a bit at sea without the aid of his usual crew and communication problems with the crew he was given eventually led to his dismissal from the project. To make matters worse, rumors spread through tabloids that Kurosawa had suffered a nervous breakdown, putting future work in jeopardy. He had to get a new project off the ground, finished on time and fast. A little acclaim wouldn't hurt either.


So, this became Kurosawa's first color film. It's also the only film I watched for the first time while preparing this piece. Based on a series of short stories, Dodes'ka-den is unlike any other Kurosawa film I can think of. In a way, it reminded me of his version of Robert Altman's Short Cuts, only 23 years before that film's birth, only instead of taking place in Los Angeles, it's set among the denizens of an urban shantytown. Some characters' paths cross, others don't. The film doesn't add up to a lot, but it's fascinating to watch. It did receive an Oscar nomination as best foreign language film, but it still took another five years for Kurosawa to get a film made and this time he had to go to Russia to do it.


It seems weird to think that a Kurosawa film took an Oscar for foreign language film for the Soviet Union and was shot in the Russian language, but that's where Dersu Uzala was filmed and where Kurosawa had to go to get a film made. I wish I could say I enjoyed the film as much as the Academy did. It tells the tale of the title character, who lives in the Mongolian/Siberian countryside, when he comes across a Russian exploration party and regales them with tales of his life and his hunting skills, even saving a captain's life at one point. The grateful captain takes Dersu Uzala back to the city, but metropolitan life isn't for him and he eventually returns to the frontier he knows so well. The film has its moments, but much of it bored me.


Another five years pass. As Kurosawa was entering the winter of his filmmaking career and his eyesight began to fail, financing still was difficult to achieve. An international group of financiers, including Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, got together and helped him launch Kagemusha, an epic in the spirit of some of his most famous, only with the added twist of glorious color images. The film tells the story of a three-way civil war where the head of one of the clans is slain and, in an effort to keep his death a secret, his lieutenants recruit a lookalike thief to masquerade as the fallen man. While there are many great sequences and touches, this almost seems as if it's a rough draft for what's to come next in the Kurosawa canon, a film that will turn out to be his greatest in decades. Kagemusha did mark the world community wrapping its arms around the filmmaker. It earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for foreign language film, Kurosawa won best director at the BAFTAs, won foreign film at France's Cesar awards and took the Golden Palm at Cannes in addition to many other accolades around the planet.


Many great Shakespearean stage actors, when they reach a certain age, feel it's time for them to tackle King Lear. As a film director, Kurosawa felt similarly, though Ran was, as would be expected, a decidedly Japanese take on The Bard's classic. It also proved to be Kurosawa's late-inning epic masterpiece and the first time I ever had the opportunity to see a Kurosawa film in a commercial movie theater. Despite its length, it was a spellbinding experience. Rewatching it now, it remains one. Of course, some changes had to be made for the Japanese version. Instead of Lear's three daughters, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) has three sons, two of whom are more than eager to betray him when he announces his attention to abdicate and let the next generation run the show. Kurosawa even tosses in a little bit of Lady MacBeth in the form of Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), an evil, manipulative wife of one of the sons who is so bad she'd make the worst femme fatale in any film noir quake in her heels. This beautiful film boasts vibrant colors, vivid images and luscious costumes. Due to the always messy rules for the Oscar for foreign language film, it was ineligible, but it did win for costumes and earned nominations for art direction and cinematography and gave Kurosawa his only Oscar nomination for best director ever. Among his competition was John Huston, nominated for his penultimate film, Prizzi's Honor. With two of the greatest film directors of all time in the Oscar audience (this is back when the broadcast acknowledged and honored film history), the Academy wasn't about to waste the opportunity to put them on stage to present an award. They even added the non-nominated Billy Wilder and the trio of master filmmakers presented the award for best picture. Those were the days of Oscar shows that were about film, not ratings and teenyboppers.


To me, whether it be by multiple filmmakers or a singular genius such as Kurosawa, a film made up of vignettes always ends up being a crapshoot. Inevitably, some segments will turn out to be more compelling than others and as a result, the film will fail to end up forming a satisfying, cohesive unit and that's what happened here, despite some truly striking images and the odd fun of seeing Martin Scorsese pop up portraying Vincent van Gogh.


Kurosawa's final feature to receive a timely release in the United States had a subject matter that should have made it a riveting, personal tale, dealing with the lingering effects of Japanese families after the dropping of the atomic bombs that ended World War II. However, the product turned out muddled and was not helped in the least by the insertion of Richard Gere as a half-Japanese American seeking out his Japanese relatives for the first time. It could have been something great and I imagine it's something that Kurosawa had long wanted to tackle (it had been previewed in a way in one of the segments of his previous film Dreams), but the aging master and his failing eyesight couldn't pull this one off.


Originally released in 1993, it didn't show in the U.S. until 1998 and didn't get a theatrical release, albeit a cursory one, until 2000, two years after the legendary director had died. While it does have nice moments and visuals you'd expect from Kurosawa, this quiet but overlong film plays like most of his post-Ran movies: As a lesser effort. When compared to Kurosawa's past works, it's definitely a more forgettable effort. The simple tale begins with the retirement of a much-loved professor (Tatsuo Matsumura) who quits teaching to concentrate on writing during the middle of World War II, only to see his home destroyed during a bombing raid. His ever-faithful students set out to celebrate the man's birthday each year with a special event where he always shouts back, "Madadayo," which translates to "Not yet," meaning he wasn't ready to die. It's hard not to read Kurosawa's own thoughts on mortality into that aspect of the story, but unfortunately there isn't much more to the film, including a sequence that seems to go on forever concerning the professor's lost cat. As director's swan songs go, Madadayo doesn't really cut it and you're best sticking to the master's earlier films.

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Great write-up. I saw my first Kurosawa on the big screen, Yojimbo, last week, as the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto is having a Kurosawa Film Festival. I'm hoping to catch Ran as well, because I can't imagine a better film to watch in a theater.
“Dodes’kaden” by Akira Kurosawa (1970) depicts and examines the conditions of life and of the human soul in today’s urban civilization. Kurosawa is not too interested in the polished city individuals monotonously rushing for work and back and living an artificial life of prescribed goals and standardized interests and tastes. Real heroes of DDSKD are semi-homeless paupers living on the giant dump in surrealistic decorations instead of houses, with a background of, as if, expressionistic painting. By these aesthetic analogies between the given and the created Kurosawa emphasizes a surrealistic condition of people’s life and expressionistic condition of their imagination. People’s way of life and their feelings, described in DDSKD, reflect the basic psychological archetypes constituting the existential legacy of humankind. Each character represents a certain anthropological model of life and certain way of the perception of the world.

Kurosawa questions the expediency of technological orientation of today’s civilization which condemns human life to fruitless nomadism and neurotic restlessness and makes human dreams escapist and mentally disturbed. It is as if human beings, instead of learning how to live and how to improve the conditions of their lives, tried to avoid real life through pursuing mirages and vain and absurd goals. Question of being becomes a question of how to detour being. Real problems of human life are systematically put aside, postponed into future and never resolved and, as a result, they crystallized into morbid but majestically narcissistic characters of DDSKD living their lives amidst picturesque garbage on a waste land. It is human history itself (together with human nature) that has become the waste product of a sterile world of urbanistic post-modernism.

DDSKD, Kurosawa’s first color film, starts and ends with multicolored drawings of streetcars – the favorite occupation of children of various nations, which are so unnaturally bright in the moving lights of street traffic that it is as if all the importance, all substance of life has gone to these drawings, leaving people depressed, apathetic, senile, abandoned, wretched, tragically comic, irresistible and unforgettable.

The film provides an elaborate criticism of Western and Eastern cultural traditions in which rational and superstitious and prejudicial ingredients are fused together and together in one decide the destiny of humankind.

The music of Toru Takemitsu is so expressive and so “Dodes’kaden” that, paradoxically, it has its own independent value from the film and makes the composer an equal partner of the revered auteur Kurosawa in his creation of this exceptional work of art. The acting is simultaneously realistic and epic, emotionally involving and scholarly articulate.

By Victor Enyutin
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