Samurai who was never satisfied

The Films of Akira Kurosawa
May 28, 1999

When the third edition of this study of the films of Akira Kurosawa appeared in 1996, I wrote a lengthy review in The THES . This follow-up is justified by the death of Kurosawa last year at the age of 88, and the appearance of a further edition of Donald Richie's classic, with a two-page "epilogue".

It contains a description of the film on which Kurosawa was working in his final years, which would have been his 31st. Despite his immobility following a hip injury, the director continued to refine the script, costumes, hair styles, make-up and presentation of the actors, almost until the last. "The next picture, whatever this was, was Kurosawa's life. When there was no next picture life had little meaning."

Richie also comments on Kurosawa's funeral. "He always said that he made films only for Japanese, for young Japanese, and some thirty thousand of these turned up for the final rites along with over five thousand people from the film industry itself." A remarkable response to an artist who for decades had suffered from fierce criticism by the Japanese press, public and film industry; indeed since his death Kurosawa's films have been given unique prominence in Japan.

No doubt there were many reasons for the hostility, including, it has to be admitted, the disappointing quality of Kurosawa's films after Dersu Uzala in 1975. But the chief reason is surely the one that Richie, who knew Kurosawa personally for nearly half a century, puts his finger on: "Though the director himself once said he had not read any evaluations of his pictures (including presumably those in this volume) which satisfied him, perhaps Kurosawa's salient quality was that he was never to be satisfied."

In my own experience of Kurosawa's great Asian contemporary, Satyajit Ray, the same was true; maybe perpetual dissatisfaction with one's work is a defining quality of great artists.

As Kurosawa said to the assistant directors on probably his most famous film, Rashomon , "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing... You say that you can't understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it."

To quote the parting words of Richie, Kurosawa's total body of work is "the superb attempt of a single man to be honest with himself". We shall not see his like again.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES .

The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Author - Donald Richie
ISBN - 0 520 22037 4
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 3

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