The gentle beholder of brutal scenes

The Films of Akira Kurosawa
June 28, 1996

From the 1940s to the 1970s, there was a wonderful flowering of cinema as an art: new movies could be discussed with the same degree of excitement and seriousness as new novels, poetry, plays, paintings, dance and music. No longer. The masters have stopped creating: many of them, such as Renoir, Ray, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Ozu, Bu$uel, Ford and Welles have died; only Bergman and Antonioni are still with us - along with Akira Kurosawa.

Kurosawa, now in his mid-eighties, with a film career spanning more than half a century, is today admired more widely than perhaps any other director in the century of cinema. Directors as diverse as Ray, Fellini and Ford have all paid tribute to him; even Bergman, the most European of directors, admitted Kurosawa to the pantheon in his autobiography. At a popular level, in Hollywood, Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) was remade as a successful western, The Magnificent Seven, Rashomon (1950) was remade as The Outrage, and in 1964, Sergio Leone pirated Yojimbo (1961) as A Fistful of Dollars, thereby launching both the "spaghetti western" and Clint Eastwood's acting career as The Man With No Name. In the 1980s and 1990s, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have all helped finance Kurosawa; Martin Scorsese even acted as the painter van Gogh in one of Kurosawa's Dreams (1990). In 1989 the Hollywood Academy gave Kurosawa an Oscar for his life achievement.

Seven Samurai, Kurosawa's greatest film (and his own favourite) seems to contain the whole of human experience in the relationships that develop between a village and some samurai hired by the villagers to defend themselves from pillage by ruthless robbers. It is an action picture to end all action pictures, a hymn to movement, but it is also profound philosophy. Plot and psychology are here in a perfect balance never quite achieved by Kurosawa again. The closing scene distils all that has gone before: the courage of the samurai has won the battle, but the surviving samurai know that it is the meek, not to say weak villagers who will win the peace. The richness and intensity of the film is that of a tragedy by Shakespeare, whose Macbeth and King Lear Kurosawa later adapted as Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985).

Donald Richie is the leading authority on Kurosawa. American by birth, Richie has lived extensively in Japan, speaks Japanese and has translated Japanese literature into English; he has also known Kurosawa's work and Kurosawa himself for most of the director's career, including his "golden period" that began with Rashomon. As important, Richie regards film as an art and responds accordingly.

When his book, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, first appeared in 1965, it set a new standard for books about the cinema. Not only was the format and design generous and clear, so that the lavish use of film stills could be properly appreciated, the book's structure was original and appropriate: each film was analysed in sections, generally starting with a discussion of the source and its attraction to Kurosawa, continuing with a detailed synopsis of the story (with quotations from the script), a discussion of the mise en scene, the story of the film's production and, finally, how the film was received, both in Japan and abroad (often very differently). Throughout the intelligent, detailed, readable, jargon-free text, penetrating quotations from Kurosawa, his collaborators and actors were intercut to lively effect.

At the end of the book was a fascinating section on "Method, technique and style", with copious quotations from Kurosawa, and an exhaustive filmography. The only real omission was some of Kurosawa's own drawings for his films (he is a consummate and prolific artist, drawing all his sets, costumes and characters), though one might also have wished for some colour. These features were all kept in the second edition, published in 1984 (though, oddly, two of the later films were covered by the critic Joan Mellen), and the same goes for the latest, third edition. All that is new here, essentially, is four sections, all by Richie, on Ran (1985), Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991) and Madadayo (1993).

Needless to say, the new edition is absolutely indispensable to lovers of Kurosawa's work. But it cannot avoid dealing with a somewhat depressing fact: Kurosawa's power has been in decline since the late 1960s, after Red Beard (1965) - in 1971 he even attempted suicide - and this has been particularly evident in the last four films. With the exception of Dersu Uzala (1975) (which won an Oscar for best foreign language picture), Kurosawa has made nothing to match the classics of the 1950s and Yojimbo.

Technically, Kurosawa has remained at the height of his skills - for instance, in the great battle scenes in Ran, Kurosawa's Lear - but artistically, in these later films he has allowed the moralist to take precedence over the artist. "Like Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, a film it much resembles, Ran can be seen as one long lesson," writes Richie. "Its didactic message is that there is no hope and that life is indeed the tragedy we have sometimes suspected it of being. This is enough. We do not need to be freed of this truth (as, to an extent, we are in Lear because we are purged of emotions, having been made to experience them), because it is eternal and we must live with it forever. Consequently, we do not need to experience Hidetora's [Lear's] agony. All we need to do is watch it." I must admit, I walked out of Ran, precisely because I was tired of watching endless mayhem without feeling in the least moved - an unthinkable reaction to Seven Samurai.

Yet there are some lovely, stirring scenes in these later Kurosawa movies. In Rhapsody in August, at a memorial service for the bomb victims of Nagasaki, while the Buddhist sutras are chanted, a small boy is distracted by a purposeful line of ants. As the chanting continues, the camera leaves the human world and follows the insects. "We follow the ants deeper and deeper into the forest, into nature itself, and then watch them climb higher and higher. Into the frame comes one crimson petal, then another. It is a rose that the ants are climbing towards, a full-blown brilliantly red rose, while on the soundtrack the sutra still sounds." And Dreams, eight independent episodes from its maker's dreams (financed with the help of Spielberg), for all its simplistic ideas and unsubtle acting (unsubtle by Kurosawa's earlier great standards), does indeed "leave behind a residue of beauty", as Richie says. "It is beautiful despite itself because the beauty lies in the attitude of the director. This is indicated not only in the didactic intent but in the slowness of everything, in the amount of respect intended, and in the enormous and brazen sincerity of the work. That a director in 1990 could be this steadfast, this serious, this moral, and this hopeful is beautiful in its own right."

How profoundly apt, then, that Satyajit Ray, Kurosawa's great Asian contemporary, should be one of the directors admired by him. "Not to have seen the cinema of Ray is like living in the world without seeing the sun or the moon," Kurosawa memorably said in 1975, while making Dersu Uzala (with its sublime homage to the setting sun over the bare Siberian taiga). In a letter to me about Ray, he said, "The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly. Mr Ray is a wonderful and respectful man. I feel that he is a 'giant' of the movie industry."

Richie does not mention Kurosawa's respect for Ray, nor, surprisingly, the perceptive and appreciative review of his first edition written by Ray in 1966 and printed in his book Our Films Their Films. And this, along with some other, even more significant omissions, is a clue to the chief weakness of Richie's book as a portrait of Kurosawa himself, as opposed to a study of his films. He states that Kurosawa is "an extraordinarily complicated person", and asserts that "The only way to understand [him] is to understand his pictures." But this is an untenable exaggeration, given Kurosawa's own memoir, published in English translation in 1982 as Something Like an Autobiography. This honest, humane and wise book, inspired by meeting Jean Renoir and reading his autobiography, is undoubtedly one of the best books written by a film director, even though it stops at Rashomon in 1950 and despite Kurosawa's closing remark that "There is nothing that says more about the creator than the work itself."

Yet Richie, with a touch of what appears to be hubris, made insufficient use of the autobiography in his second (and third) edition. His decision is particularly unfortunate in respect of the intriguing contrast, even contradiction, between Kurosawa's preoccupation with extreme violence in most of his films (though not all; Ikiru (1952) and Dersu Uzala being obvious exceptions) and his generally gentle, even humble behaviour in life. For his autobiography contains many revealing passages about this dichotomy. There is Kurosawa's reaction to the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, which reduced two thirds of Tokyo, his home city, to ashes, for instance. When the holocaust abated, a strong-willed elder brother took the 13-year-old Akira on a day-long tour of the blasted and lifeless city. "I saw corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at an intersection". Involuntarily he looked away, but his brother insisted that he look carefully. Back home that night he slept like a log, dreamlessly. This seemed so strange that he asked his brother how it could happen. He told Akira: "If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of."

Richie does not mention this. Nor does he mention Kurosawa's description of the end of the war when all Japan was contemplating the Honourable Death of the Hundred Million. On August 15 1945, walking to the film studio to hear Emperor Hirohito's historic broadcast, Kurosawa saw the streets fully prepared for mass suicide; there were even shopowners staring at the bare blades of their unsheathed swords. On the way back, the very same people were bustling about with cheerful faces as if preparing for a festival the next day. "I don't know if this represents Japanese adaptability or Japanese imbecility," he wrote in his autobiography. "In either case, I have to recognise that both these facets exist in the Japanese personality. Both facets exist within my own personality as well."

Perhaps such insights from the man himself only to go show how "extraordinarily complicated" Kurosawa is, as Richie says. Without doubt, he is a remarkably private man, who dislikes the press. He may never have spoken of such formative experiences as the earthquake before he recorded them at the age of 70. At any rate, they remind us of the difficulty of writing the biography of genius. But I hope that some competent writer will now give us a life of Kurosawa, connecting the man and the work, to set beside Richie's admirable and enduring study of his magnificent films.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES, is the author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye.

The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Author - Donald Richie
ISBN - 0 520 20026 8
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £15.99
Pages - 5

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