Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 15/03/2002.
The tenth anniversary of Akira Kurosawa's death is fast approaching, and there are a number of events on the way to commemorate that. Here in ThatLondon, the Barbican is holding one of their Directorspective seasons on Sundays between May 4th and June 1st 2008, featuring Rashomon, Throne Of Blood, Seven Samurai, Dersu Uzala and Kagemusha. In July, BFI Southbank will be showing a collection of classic Japanese films by Kurosawa and others, whose centrepiece will be a revival of Ikiru.
Meanwhile, as our temporary Japanese correspondent can testify, Kurosawa's death is also being marked in his home country. NHK TV are showing an extended Kurosawa season over the next few months, while The Last Princess (a new remake of The Hidden Fortress) opens in Japanese cinemas on May 10th.
Peter Greenaway said in a recent interview that cinema is dead. Okay, it was during an interview to promote his new movie, so we can take that with several handfuls of salt. But in a sense, he has a point. Where are the great filmmakers nowadays, the ones who leave you with the sense that they're assembling a coherent body of work? Who's out there who's producing a collection of movies as diversely brilliant as (to take a name purely at random) Akira Kurosawa did in his lifetime?
I mentioned during the 2001 London Film Festival just how much of a debt I owe to Kurosawa, who directed the first subtitled film I ever saw at the cinema (Throne Of Blood) and was responsible for what I consider to be one of the greatest movies of all time (The Seven Samurai). During January and February 2002 the National Film Theatre in London ran a complete retrospective of his work: and during that period (when I'm prepared to admit I didn't update this site as frequently as I should) I saw thirteen of them, including half a dozen I'd never seen before. At the time of writing, selected highlights from that retrospective are touring UK cinemas, and the British Film Institute's video label is planning to make more of them available for home viewing: so I think a look back at Kurosawa's illustrious career is entirely justified here.
The NFT season went all the way back to Kurosawa's earliest films, but I chose to start with a couple from the late forties: particularly as all my previous experience of his movies is limited to historical dramas, and I'd never seen anything of his that addressed contemporary Japan. Drunken Angel (1948) was notable for being the first film in which Kurosawa collaborated with actor Toshiro Mifune, a partnership that was to result in a whole series of classic movies over a period of nearly twenty years. In fact, Mifune steals this film from under the nose of nominal lead Takashi Shimura, another favourite actor of Kurosawa's. Shimura plays the alcoholic doctor of the title, who strikes up a friendship with tubercular young hoodlum Mifune, and tries to get his life back on the right path before it's too late. Even at this early stage, many of Kurosawa's trademarks are fully visible: the effective use of visual metaphor, as the repeated closeups of the town cesspit emphasise the physical and moral decay present: the clever use of music, notably a mournful theme that's played repeatedly in the background by a passing guitarist: and the interplay between Shimura's quiet dignity and Mifune's swaggering cool. That interplay was nicely developed in Stray Dog (1949): Mifune as the hot-headed young cop who loses his gun, and Shimura as the boss who helps him descend into the criminal depths to find it, played out against a beautifully recreated humid atmosphere.
For Western audiences, however, their introduction to Kurosawa came with Rashomon (1950), which was in essence the West's introduction to Japanese cinema, period. The storytelling approach here - a rape and murder seen from the conflicting viewpoints of all concerned - has been subsequently imitated many times, most notable in the straight Hollywood remake, The Outrage. But so much of this must have seemed astonishingly unfamiliar to Western viewers at the time, and so this is where the popular conception of Kurosawa's work comes from: the moral ambiguity, the sure touch with physical action, the inevitable glimmer of hope even after a fearful descent into utter hopelessness. And it provided Mifune with the first in a series of Irascible Shouty Rogue characters that he would come to make his own.
I mentioned Takashi Shimura earlier: he collaborated with Kurosawa on even more films than Mifune, but he never lodged in the Western consciousness to quite the same degree. Ikiru (1952) sees Shimura take centre stage, and to stunning effect: this was probably the biggest surprise out of all the films I saw in this retrospective, as I simply wasn't expecting it to be this brilliant. In massively reductive terms, it's a cancer movie: civil servant Kanji Watanabe (Shimura) is given six months to live, and finds a way to make his last days on earth count. But it's the style of storytelling that makes all the impact. It opens with an X-ray of Watanabe's tumour, and a cynical narrator virtually berating him for the uselessness of his life. As the film progresses, Watanabe develops into the typical flawed Kurosawa hero, aware of his limitations but struggling to transcend them. But at the exact point where he decides what his final project will be - using his power to get a new children's playground built in a run-down area - we suddenly leap ahead in time to after his death. In a brilliant structural coup, the final third of the movie takes place at Watanabe's wake, as his friends and family discuss his heroic efforts to get the playground built. Other directors would have made this a race-against-time story, wringing easy sentimentality from the fear that Watanabe may die before his work's completed. Kurosawa isn't interested in that. He tells you up front that Watanabe succeeded, and instead asks you to marvel at what people are capable of when the chips are down. The final shots of Watanabe are positively heartbreaking, but by that stage the film has completely earned the right to that emotion.
From this point, there was no stopping Kurosawa: his next project was The Seven Samurai (1954), which has been in my all-time top ten ever since I saw it some 20 years ago (even in a butchered international version with an hour removed). Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, discussing a proposed remake, recently called it "the mother of all guys-on-a-mission movies", and films as diverse as The Magnificent Seven and A Bug's Life have pilfered its structure. But it's fabulous to observe the economical storytelling of the original. Scene One: bandits are observed looking down on a village, and vowing to come back in a few months to pillage their crops. Scene Two: the villagers decide to hire samurai to defend the town, but have no money to pay them, leading to the village elder's sage advice: "find hungry samurai". The whole plot has been set up in a couple of minutes. You know the rest (and if you don't, you bloody well should). Shouty Mifune in excelsis: some masterfully choreographed battles (like all the best action directors, Kurosawa makes sure you know exactly what's happening at any given moment, and doesn't use confusion as a substitute for excitement): the blistering last stand in the rain: and the dream-like finale, which wraps up everything in a bitter-sweet mix of emotions.
Throne Of Blood (1957) is one of the centrepieces of the BFI's Kurosawa retrospective and tour, showing in a rather fine-looking print which is only marred by a couple of glitches in the subtitling (for example, failing to title the closing repetition of the opening chorus). Transferring the plot of Macbeth to samurai-era Japan works beautifully, and Kurosawa even manages to improve a bit on Shakespeare's original: there's a much stronger sense of the irony in the self-fulfilling prophecies that drive Taketori Washizu (Mifune playing the Macbeth role) to his doom. It's ravishingly shot in high-contrast black and white, with any shades of grey being cunningly held back for the supernatural scenes to add extra spookiness. And Taketori's last scene has justly become one of the iconic images of world cinema, which can satisfyingly still get an "ewwwwwwwww!" out of an audience some 45 years after that final arrow was shot.
The other centrepiece of the BFI collection is The Hidden Fortress (1958), a welcome piece of sheer entertainment after the intensity of the previous year's Throne Of Blood. But it shouldn't be dismissed as a mere genre movie (cited by George Lucas as part-inspiration for Star Wars): this is a genre movie made by a group of people at the absolute peak of their powers. The elements are virtually those of a fairy-tale: a princess struggling to reclaim her empire, a brave and reckless adventurer at her side, a cargo of gold to be transported, and a pair of bumbling greedy peasants to provide R2-D2/C-3PO-style comic relief. But they're mixed together at high speed in an action-adventure which has that remorseless one-damn-thing-after-another momentum that characterises the best of the genre. And Kurosawa never forgets to give us great characters amidst all the twists and reversals of the plot. The peasants Tahei and Matakishi (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) have a sweetly-drawn relationship: endlessly moaning about their lot and each other, but their deep mutual affection is never in doubt. Misa Uehara plays a fabulously spunky princess, and Mifune is inevitably a worthy champion for her.
There was more Mifune roguery to follow in a pair of movies featuring him as the renegade sword-for-hire, Sanjuro. (At least, that's the name he gives when asked, though it's actually a Japanese reference to him being a thirtysomething.) Yojimbo (1961) is best known for being remade in the West as A Fistful Of Dollars, and thus inventing a whole string of charismatic amoral anti-heroes who don't really care about anything apart from where the next meal comes from. Sergio Leone didn't change much of the story: a mysterious character comes into a town where two rival gangs are fighting each other, and offers his services as a killer to each side in turn until everyone's dead. Mifune is at his most watchable here: from the opening credits his character is instantly defined by his slouching walk, repeated scratching and clothes-fiddling, accompanied by a musical theme that combines Eastern pomp and Western cockiness. In the sequel, Sanjuro (1962), the dark mordant comedy of the first film is replaced by more upfront gags, as Sanjuro acquires a gang of clumsy associates. As a result, it's sometimes considered to be a lesser film, an analysis I'd totally disagree with. Despite the comic scenes, there's a darker edge to Sanjuro's character as he starts to consider the consequences of his violent life, acting "like a drawn sword... good swords are kept in their sheaths". Happily, Kurosawa has no qualms about having his cake and eating it, and ends the movie with a spectacularly violent confrontation: probably the greatest swordfight in the history of the movies, and it's all over in a couple of dozen frames.
The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo and Sanjuro all come from Kurosawa's middle period, where he preferred to shoot using the rare combination of Cinemascope framing with black and white film: High And Low (1963) is another example from that period. It's a film of two distinct halves. The first is almost entirely confined to one room, with Toshiro Mifune playing the shoe tycoon Kingo Gondo, under pressure in the middle of a corporate takeover as his chauffeur's son is kidnapped (he's been mistaken for Gondo's own son). Kurosawa gets remarkable tension out of the constricted setting, broken only by a splendid sequence on board a bullet train where the ransom handover takes place. The second half is more in keeping with the story's original source, a novel by Ed McBain: it's a taut police procedural where the cops track down the kidnapper using dogged policework and applied logic, rather than violence and lucky breaks. (Well, maybe one lucky break, celebrated here by Kurosawa's first ever use of colour.) Despite the thrills of the chase, though, we're never allowed to forget the fate of Gondo, whose life is in freefall in the aftermath of the kidnapping. It's a more mature, darker turn than we've come to expect from Mifune by this stage, and it's a shame that not too long afterwards he and Kurosawa fell out and stopped collaborating: the potential in their later years could have been enormous.
Kurosawa's own career went into a bit of a freefall at this point, as he found it harder and harder to get Japanese finance for his films. The struggle for cash led him to Russia, where he worked on a Soviet-Japanese co-production, Dersu Uzala (1974), about the true-life relationship between a Russian cartographer and his Siberian guide. There are some flashes of his old talent in the rapturous shooting of the landscape and the unusual relationship between the two men, but there isn't enough there to redeem the whole film. It would seem to the casual observer that Kurosawa's career was pretty much over. Except... in the meantime a whole generation of movie brats was coming to the fore in America, many of whom had been inspired by his early work. Two of them - George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola - met with Kurosawa and vowed to use their newly-acquired clout to help get his next film completed.
So thanks to executive producers Lucas and Coppola, we got to see Kagemusha (1980), kicking off a spectacular final phase in Kurosawa's career. Tatsuya Nakadai (who'd been popping up here and there in Kurosawa's films ever since he played the baddie in Yojimbo) takes the dual role of Singen Takeda (head of a warrior clan) and the "shadow warrior" of the title, a double used to impersonate Takeda on the battlefield while keeping the real leader out of harm's way. Inevitably, once Takeda dies, the kagemusha has to keep his impersonation going so that the enemy doesn't find out. The character's another one of those Kurosawa rogues who can draw on hidden resources when the situation calls for it: you could speculate on what Mifune would have done with the role, but Nakadai plays both sides of it splendidly. The ending is magnificent, as the final battle is only glimpsed in the horrified reactions of Nakadai: all we get to see is the utter carnage on the battlefield afterwards. Anyone who's watched the recent BBC documentary on Kurosawa, which includes archive footage of the Tokyo earthquake that Kurosawa witnessed as a child, will have a shrewd idea of how these images were inspired.
And amazingly, for all of Kagemusha's brilliance, it was really just a dry run for what was to follow. Ran (1985) sees Kurosawa taking on Shakespeare again, this time King Lear. The obvious change in the adaptation comes at the start, as Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai again) splits his kingdom between his three sons - obviously in Japan, having three daughters in power would be inconceivable. Though in compensation for losing three female roles, Kurosawa adds to the original with the fabulous machinations of Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), as she plots to become the power behind the throne with each of the brothers in turn. The subsequent collapse of Hidetora's kingdom climaxes in one of the most hellish battles Kurosawa ever put on film (though again, the use of coloured banners and precision choreography make the battles so clear to follow, you feel like a military strategist by the end of the movie). The most emotionally powerful film of Kurosawa's career, this is dark, dark, broody stuff, even more so than the original play: it's no surprise to learn that his wife of forty years died during the shooting, as that bleakness is transferred throughout the story. Characters continually bemoan the meaninglessness of life and the absence of the gods. That final glimmer of hope that illuminated, say, Rashomon has no place here.
Ran was a magnificent last hurrah for Kurosawa: as he was showered with acclaim and awards for the film, it was generally assumed he'd never work again. In fact he went on to make three more, somewhat mediocre movies: the last one, Madadayo, didn't even get a release in the UK. But when he died in 1998, his place in cinema history was utterly assured thanks to the magnificence of the work discussed here. So see it in cinemas, or watch it on video: people are working overtime to make these films as widely available as possible. And as long as these films are available to inspire future filmmakers, cinema may not be as dead as Peter Greenaway thinks. I hope so, anyway. Being a monkey, and all.
The British Film Institute are ultimately responsible for this bout of Kurosawa worship. Their Kurosawa page includes details of the NFT retrospective [dead link], info on the touring collection of films [dead link], and a series of essays and features.
The Kurosawa Database [dead link] is a splendid resource for anyone looking to find out more about the man and his films. Filmography, biography, a gallery of posters and stills, even essays from visitors to the site - it's all here. Fans will nod knowingly at the curious image on the front page.
Japan On Film [dead link] is a site set up by the University Of Michigan's Center For Japanese Studies. A whole list [dead link] of Japanese films is reviewed in some detail, including all the Kurosawas I've mentioned (and quite a few I haven't). Check out the beautiful reproductions of the original Japanese movie posters, too.
Criterion (in the US) and BFI Video (in the UK) are the main people releasing Kurosawa's work on DVD. Their sites will tell you what's currently available to buy in your country, as well as those films they plan to release soon.