Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood [Kumonosu-jo (Spider Web Castle)], 1957.

Akira Kurosawa, Ran (Chaos), 1985.

Samurais in Subtitles: Akira Kurosawa’s Films at His Centenary

Akira Kurosawa, The Hidden Fortress [Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress)], 1958.

Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon, 1950.

Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon, 1950.

Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo, 1961.

Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai), 1954.

Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon, 1950.

 

 

By STEVE SHAPIRO

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, before the light sabers of Star Wars, the Man with No Name character played by Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti Westerns, and the violent (and violently hip) search for the last fabled Hanz? sword depicted in the two Kill Bill films, there strode across Japanese sets, many built to illuminate Japan’s fierce past, samurais wielding their swords in fights to the death. Long ago, before Sony was the one name most associated with Japan for many Americans, the samurai held quite a few younger Americans, particularly those in film schools, in thrall. Without the seminal samurai works of Akira Kurosawa — whose one hundredth birthday, this March 23, is being celebrated — directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino, and Clint Eastwood might never have made a crime family saga or a Sci-fi epic or a postmodern mashup of all things cinematic, because so many of the influences would never have existed.

Kurosawa’s place, as Leonardo DiCaprio recently told a Japanese audience, is secure; Leo threw out the figure of “a thousand years from now,” in predicting Kurosawa’s lasting power. However odd it may seem, for an American actor born ten years after Kurosawa’s greatest films, to be explaining a native son’s genius to the Japanese, many creative artists have been spurned in their homelands, from Ingmar Bergman in Sweden to Robert Altman in America. Kurosawa’s standing at home is different from that abroad: there, his oeuvre is that of a working director, similar to Howard Hawks in Hollywood, making film after film, whatever kind of film it was. Yet, to moviegoers and movie directors around the world, Kurosawa’s vision of his Japanese past is as distinct as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russia or Bernardo Bertolucci’s Italy. Stereotypes exist — indeed, as with some of the Chinese directors of the 1970s such as Zhang Yimou, some critics view Kurosawa as too Western; but without the stereotypes, neither would there be the influences.

Ernest Hemingway’s comment that he happened to grow up at the right time in the right place is every creative artist’s secret motto. Too many young artists assume their talent is a privilege; too many think their ideas are original — or if not, then it does not matter, anyway. Originality is geography, in certain ways. Kurosawa’s early film career, writing scripts for Toho Studio (the equivalent of UFA in Germany, or Ealing in England), in 1936, was serendipitous. Toho was part of a larger conglomerate — apart from its long run of Kurosawa releases, it is best known for the Godzilla franchise — but small enough to be hands-on for Kurosawa, whose childhood (related in his 1982 memoir Something Like an Autobiography) was at once artistic and militaristic. His father, a former military instructor-turned-high school physical education innovator (he was said to have installed the first indoor swimming pool in Japan), ignored young Akira until he embraced martial arts; so long as he continued his training, the elder Kurosawa permitted him to attend the cinema. Within a year at Toho, Kurosawa was ready to direct. One considers the long TV apprenticeship of Altman, who might never have broken out of the rut.

Kurosawa’s career, like all gifted oeuvres, now appears as a trajectory from luck to genius. What matters, though, is how he drew together his personal life (his early training with swords, yet he was a painter fond of van Gogh; his elder idolized brother was a suicide three years before Kurosawa’s career began, while he attempted the same fate when his later career seemed over) and his professional life (he referred to himself as a “sunflower,” though others referred to him as “The Emperor” because of his strict manner).

The range of his 30 films, especially the ones made between 1949 and 1961 — his core oeuvre that includes the defining Stray Dog, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Bad Sleep Well, and Yojimbo— are, of course, not all samurai: Kurosawa was as intrigued by Shakespeare (Throne of Blood is his take on Macbeth; Ran is his version of the familial discord in King Lear) as by police procedurals and Hawks’s and John Ford’s Westerns. The final showdown between the two samurai in Sanjuro is every bit like the two gunslingers in Shane or A Fistful of Dollars. From there, it is a short leap to Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader battling it out.

The influences in these diverse pictures and subjects are, however invisibly, very much technical. As much as his fascination with Western themes, Kurosawa’s interest in the Western moviemaking aspect was essential to his movies’ successes. George Lucas took the wipes and dissolves seen throughout his Star Wars films from Kurosawa, and perhaps the notion of the epic, as well. When we think of Kurosawa, our first image is of Toshiro Mifune, the iconic alter-ego who acted in almost half of Kurosawa’s movies; but as an action director Kurosawa used the screen like a painting: a 3D painting, full of landscapes in which men on horseback suddenly appear in the distance, or the violence is contained to a single frame or two (without the now stereotypical speed-editing), or, as in the mysterious fable The Hidden Fortress, the famous rock-sliding sequence where the two peasant characters attempt to ascend a mountain made of loose rocks and pebbles. He used widescreen like Michelangelo used the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, to get at everything in his story in every way.

Storytelling is, indeed, Kurosawa’s stock-in-trade. He hewed to the tradition not only of Hollywood from the 1930s and 1940s with its bracing plotlines and dialogue, but to theatre and literature (in his adaptations of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky). In Stuart Galbraith IV’s dual biography of Kurosawa and Mifune, The Emperor and the Wolf, the director is quoted as being surprised when, late in his career, he was invited to make a movie in America and his sparsely written script had none of the usual directions for the camera.

Yet, like Hitchcock or Bergman, his scripts were fully realized, first. The rich characterization is not something that can be improvised; Galbraith notes that Kurosawa gave his actors their costumes weeks before they were to go before the camera, so they would feel — not merely look — lived-in. Kurosawa’s characters, whether given depth like the patriarch in Ran or purposely sketchy like Mifune’s wandering samurais, give off heat: there are no catchphrases, but rather involved and totally involving plots with acute psychological portraits. At times, when he is able to bring together the implicit and the explicit, as in the scene of several samurai on horseback riding through intense fog in Throne of Blood, the fullness of the director’s intention comes through perfectly realized.

Kurosawa’s legacy (he died in 1998) is that of a unique career in the East made possible by the West (and vice-versa). When lined up beside other great Japanese directors of his generation such as Ozu, Ichikawa, Imamura, and Mizoguchi, Kurosawa’s movies are much more of a piece: his samurai philosophy of the individual against the world is a presence in his films, in person if not in spirit. His films feel carved out of a mountainside instead of made out of an exquisite vase, as Ozu’s intimately transcendent dramas do, for example. It is precisely those contrasts, of East and West, of the one against the many, of man versus Nature, of the past onscreen and the present behind the camera, that shaped Kurosawa, and continue to shape film directors who have as little to do with Japan’s modernizing Meiji Period as they do with Hollywood’s silent era. You can kill Bill, but you cannot keep a good samurai down.

Akira Kurosawa, Ran (Chaos), 1985.

Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood [Kumonosu-jo (Spider Web Castle)], 1957.