One cut that really gets under the skin


December 15, 2000

During the 1950s, four film directors emerged from outside the established film-making nations, each with such a strong vision that they became synonymous with their respective cultures: Ingmar Bergman from Sweden, Satyajit Ray from India, Andrzej Wajda from Poland and Akira Kurosawa from Japan. Kurosawa became the most influential film-maker of the second half of the 20th century.

Consider how his work fed the films of others: Seven Samurai inspired John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven , Yojimbo Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars , Stray Dog Don Siegel's Dirty Harry , Hidden Fortress George Lucas's first Star Wars , and Rashomon Martin Ritt's The Outrage . More formally, his action sequences and use of slow motion were taken up by Walter Hill and Sam Peckinpah to choreograph violence, mayhem and death. On yet others, his singular world had a more complex effect. Bergman, who is notoriously unwilling to admit the influence of other directors, criticised his own film The Virgin Spring for being "touristic, a lousy imitation of Kurosawa". More obliquely, John Boorman, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese (who acted the painter Van Gogh for Kurosawa) and Steven Spielberg acknowledge his influence. Maybe what was most compelling about Kurosawa was that he took on Hollywood and made popular films to equal or rival it, but without manipulation or condescension, and with his artistic integrity intact.

Kurosawa is an auteur. The auteur theory is very problematic for certain sections within film studies. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, the author of this new book on Kurosawa, acknowledges this. For semioticians, the text of any film or work of art has so many impersonal forces (class, ideology, gender, ethnicity and so forth) working on and within it that the individual artist has no function in any substantial sense. Yet semioticians perversely focus on the work of outstanding artists, generally regarded as auteurs. In Peter Wollen's words: "The structure is associated with a single director, an individual, not because he has played the role of the artist, expressing himself or his own vision in the film, but because it is through the force of his preoccupation that an unconscious, unintended meaning can be decoded in the film, usually to the surprise of the individual involved."

I would say, on the contrary, that this "unconscious" meaning is evidence of the presence of an individual artist who, though not autonomous, is responsible - in one way or another and with the assistance of others - for organising a film with a distinct personality. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the unconscious to think that its effect is unintended: the unconscious knows where it is going. This is why, in Kurosawa's case, he relished discussing the making and the craft of his films but had a strong aversion for talking about "meaning". "You either like my films, in which case there is no point in talking about it. Or, you don't like my films, in which case there is no point in talking about it," he told me.

It is difficult to convey Kurosawa's impact in the 1950s and early 1960s to a world awash with the products of Japanese engineering and design, in which Japanese cinema too is held in high esteem. In 1951, when Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Japanese cinema was hardly known, and Japan was a source of cheap and shoddy goods. Rashomon , which was actually Kurosawa's 11th film, was immediately considered a masterpiece: it opened western eyes to Japanese cinema. The story of a rape and a murder, as told by the murderer and rapist, the rape victim, her murdered husband (through a medium) and a woodcutter who supposedly witnessed the incidents, it shows how the truth of an event becomes progressively more elusive. The film introduced to the rest of the world three of Japan's greatest screen actors, Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Machiko Kyo, and displayed Kurosawa's mature style.

Kurosawa gets under the skin and into the bloodstream, rather like Dostoevsky, of whom it has been said that one does not so much read him as become infected with him. No element in Kurosawa's work is passive or neutral. Nature, for example, is alive; never a background to the action but an integral part of it. The physical world is intense: heat is hotter, cold is colder, rain wetter (thanks to the Tokyo Fire Service), dryness drier and light more dazzling (he was the first to shoot his light sources directly, and to show the diaphragm of the lens) - than in other directors' work. Men move like panthers or are stiller than statues; they express the strongest emotions or are stoical beyond endurance. And this zest for extremes sustains a complex emotional and intellectual world.

Of course, not everybody took to Kurosawa. Andre Bazin, the French critic and historian, compared Seven Samurai to a "John Ford western on a feudal theme" and criticised Kurosawa's "compromises with the rhetoric of western cinema". Later he modified his position, but nonetheless he and other French critics compared Kurosawa unfavourably with Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, who became known internationally as a result of Kurosawa. Ever since, there has been a futile game of beating Kurosawa with the other two great Japanese directors. Many Japanese have also condemned him for his lack of authenticity and purity. He was passionately interested in western literature (he adapted Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Gorki) and western classical music (the main theme of Rashomon mimics Ravel's Bolero and the samurais' theme in Seven Samurai is not too far from Sibelius's En Saga ). He also spoke with admiration of John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein, Abel Gance and Jean Renoir. But did he learn from these masters, or capitulate to them? In my view, there is no sense whatsoever of Shakespeare's domination in Throne of Blood , Kurosawa's re-working of Macbeth . Indeed, the criticism has been that, as an adaptation of Shakespeare, it is a travesty. I doubt it would have existed without the original, but it transcends it, and becomes an original work. One has no doubt that Kurosawa learnt much from western cinema, but his best films have a distinction all their own.

In any case, the critics' pursuit of the authentic and the pure is highly questionable. It can be a defensive stance against accepting anything strange and different. The pose adopted by Parisian film critics, who know little about Japan, admonishing Kurosawa for not being Japanese enough, is absurd. For the Japanese, however, the issue of authenticity was an immediate one. Japan had been defeated, occupied by US forces and its sense of identity undermined. Perhaps the best part of Yoshimoto's book is his fascinating account of the effects of the occupation. The Americans supported democratic forces and, at the same time, controlled publishing and film and theatre production. Swordplay in films and performances of Kabuki theatre were banned: the former because it could encourage militaristic tendencies, the latter because it could legitimise feudal values. In such a climate, Japanese critics must have been particularly sensitive to anything that smacked of cultural capitulation.

Unfortunately, Yoshimoto does not shed much light on Japanese hostility specific to Kurosawa (though with reference to the uniquely guttural way in which actors speak in Kurosawa's films, he does cite a Japanese critic who commented tartly that audiences in the West, if not in Japan, could understand his films because they could read the subtitles). Yoshimoto reiterates that Kurosawa was considered Japan's most westernised director, but he does not say what the Japanese critics actually charged him with.

His primary concern, as an academic working in the United States, is with western criticism of Japanese cinema as it moved from humanism to structuralism, to post-structuralism and to postmodernism. His erudite and near-comprehensive book is about what we non-Japanese understand in the work of Kurosawa. He finds much of our understanding tainted because it views Japan and Japanese cinema in an exotic light. He refers approvingly to Edward Said's Orientalism and finds stereotypes, false assumptions, condescension and unsustainable generalisations in almost every western text. The implicit assumption remains the centrality and hegemony of European and western culture; it is still the critical reference point. (There is a problem even with Kurosawa's name. In Japanese he is Kurosawa Akira, and this is how he is referred to by Yoshimoto. I cannot help feeling it would have been an affectation for me to have followed him, not least because the director himself filled the title page of my copy of Donald Richie's ground-breaking The Films of Akira Kurosawa with the signature "Akira Kurosawa".) Yoshimoto's aim is to build up a detailed case that westerners do not understand Kurosawa. If we think we do, he implies, we are wrong, because we know so little of Japanese culture. Long before the end of a long book, one realises that Yoshimoto is disappointed in us.

He tries to help us by giving a full account of the context in which Kurosawa worked and in which his films were made. It is something of a crash course: cinema, theatre, society, politics, history and so on. His knowledge is encyclopaedic and his scholarship impressive. But does this information, interesting and fascinating as it is, change one's experience , or as Yoshimoto would put, one's reading, of Kurosawa's films? For this reviewer, the answer is, not much. The information in the book runs alongside the films but does not meet or penetrate them. It remains a mystery why millions of us, who know little or nothing of Japanese culture, should feel that we understand Japanese films, whether by Kurosawa, Ozu or Mizoguchi. In much the same way that we feel that people of other cultures are both exactly like us and very different, so it is with Kurosawa's films. Although Yoshimoto pours scorn on the humanist critics' view that cinema has a universal quality, he does not propose a convincing alternative. I certainly sympathise with the view of Jacques Rivette, French critic and director, that mise en scéne is what makes film a universal language, and that Kurosawa's choreography, his mise en scéne , is unlike that of any other director's - but I do not understand from Yoshimoto precisely what is so Japanese about it.

The problem seems to be that something vital in Kurosawa is not fully explored by Yoshimoto: his bold experimentation. In his very first film, Sanshiro Sugata , made in 1943, Kurosawa used infrared film for the final confrontation between the hero and villain. It had the effect of creating high contrast, coupled with a blackening of the sky and a whitening of the clouds. Skin tone became slightly unearthly, making the eyes stand out. Thereafter, he went on extending film language. He used jump cuts, fast editing, slow motion, extraordinary camera movements, multi-camera set-ups and colour mixed with black and white. The same can be said of his use of sound, which was often unexpected. For instance, in the first few minutes of Seven Samurai , Kurosawa transforms natural sounds into musical elements: horses hooves become drums; a bird sings persistently as if to a metronome; a water wheel thuds defiantly like a bass drum. And the music itself ranges from an ancient keening and humming to a modern orchestra with full brass. It may not be pure - but it is exuberant and joyously inventive.

Even more striking than the formal experiments themselves was how little they were noticed by critics. And how little Kurosawa intended them to be noticed. Take the scene of the killing of the kidnapper in Seven Samurai . He flies out slowly through the door of the hut, apparently in slow motion. Then the child's mother rushes to the hut and we see her behind the kidnapper, who is now hovering, still slowly. But the mother moves at normal speed - which makes one think that perhaps there was no slow motion, the kidnapper just naturally moved that way. It is not that Kurosawa set out to change film language, as some of his western counterparts (for example Jean-Luc Godard) did so conspicuously a few years later. It seems that innovation for its own sake did not interest him; his formal and technical innovations arose out of the necessities of the dramaturgy.

In 1971, at the age of 61, Kurosawa attempted suicide. It was rumoured that he slashed his wrists 24 times, matching the number of films he had made. In reality, he cut himself once, luckily not too deep. He survived. But he was never the same again.

His films had begun to decline in the late 1960s. He was losing his powers - not consistently or entirely but very noticeably. The films became grander and grander, culminating in Ran, his adaptation of King Lear; yet the human element was less intimate. The consummate balance that he had attained so often between the individual and the group, between the one and the many, was beginning to elude him. He became less of a director and more of a cinematographer and designer.

Significantly, in his first film after the suicide attempt, Dersu Uzala , made in the Soviet Union, the eponymous hero is going blind. In the second film, Kagemusha (or Shadow Warrior ), which was partly financed by Fox with help from Coppola and Lucas (who thought of themselves as Kurosawa's students), the hero is a thief who doubles as a warlord. As with Dersu Uzala , Kagemusha has wonderful scenes but it does not cohere. There is a sequence where enemy spies overlook a parade of a vast army by the Kagemusha to check whether the warlord is genuine or a double. Despite his lack of horsemanship, the Kagemusha is inspired and gallops past the troops, standing on his stirrups: the army cheers. For a moment, one is back in an earlier Kurosawa film. To Kurosawa, physical daring, prowess and balance were attributes of an inner quality. Spenser's words apply: "For soul is form and doth the body make." The spies are convinced; they look at each other open-mouthed. "It is he," one of them says. And the audience too can say: "It is he. It is the original. It is Kurosawa." The spies turn and leave. But the Kagemusha cannot sustain the role. He falls off his horse.

Kurosawa made four films after Kagemusha. As his films declined, so his reputation rose. He attended celebrations in the great capitals of the world; Hollywood honoured him with a lifetime achievement award; and the Japanese critics and establishment began to accept him as a national treasure. He was writing scripts and preparing to shoot almost to the day he died two years ago, at the age of 88.

I watched one of his last films, Rhapsody in August (about the dropping of the atomic bomb), which starred Richard Gere, with a friend in Santa Monica. When we came out of the cinema, he had tears in his eyes. I was amazed that he was moved by the film. But it was not that. "I can't believe that such a great artist could fall so far and make such a poor film." Yes - but Kurosawa had given us at least half a dozen masterpieces, had introduced us to a rich culture, and had changed the course of film history.

Mamoun Hassan is dean of editing, International Film and Television School, Havana, Cuba. He presented a Movie Masterclass on Kurosawa for Channel 4, and the Japanese rights were acquired by Kurosawa Productions.

Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema

Author - Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto
ISBN - 0 8223 2483 0
Publisher - Duke University Press
Price - £44.00
Pages - 485

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