31
Jan
2011
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Akira Kurosawa
Jordan
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"The greatest living example of all that an author of the cinema should be."-Federico Fellini, on Akira Kurosawa

"One thing that distinguishes him is that he didn't make one masterpiece or two masterpieces. He made, you know, eight masterpieces." -Francis Ford Coppola, on Kurosawa

Perhaps the most difficult thing about writing this column is coming up against the greats in cinema history and trying to condense their legendary status into 2,000 words and one or a few topics. There is no way to possibly do justice to a cinematic legacy as rich and diverse as that of Akira Kurosawa. And yet, here I am, trying anyway. Kurosawa made films for 50 years, starting directly after the end of World War II and continuing until shortly before his death in 1998 at 88 years old. Cinema was his one driving passion, so much so that when his wife of 45 years died during the filming of Ran, his last epic, he stopped production for one day to mourn and then just kept shooting. Over the course of his career he brought Japanese cinema to the rest of the world, becoming so critically lauded that his movies were seen the world over. Throughout his career, Kurosawa took pains to document and translate aspects of Japanese culture to audiences all around the world, and thus to give people insight into the country's history and its reactions to the destruction of World War II.

In 1950, Kurosawa burst onto the international scene with Rashomon, an examination of the subjective nature of experience, a look into the darkest aspects of man's soul, and a refutation of objective truth. The film examines the rape of a woman (Machiko Kyo) and the murder of her husband (Masayuki Mori) by a bandit (Toshiro Mifune, a longtime Kurosawa collaborator), and examines the efforts of first a magistrate, and later three peasants (including Takashi Shimura, another longtime collaborator as a woodcutter who witnessed the encounter) to determine what actually occurred. The story is relayed from the point of view of each character and comes across in wildly different ways. The film offers the simple message that each person has an agenda and their version of the events is bound to be colored by it, but it also examines the class structure and sexual politics of samurai era Japan in-depth. The woman, in varying accounts, is so shamed by the rape that she demands her husband kill the bandit, or the bandit kill her husband, so that it can still be said that she has only been with one man. The woodcutter would seem to have the definitive account until his position as the unbiased witness is compromised. Yet an act of seemingly pure kindness (which is likely still motivated by guilt), the film ends on the idea that people can do good, especially if their motives aren't examined too carefully.



Two years later, Kurosawa examined modern Japan, the postwar bureaucracy, and the need for life to have meaning in the beautiful, inspirational Ikiru, which follows Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura, in perhaps his best performance), an aging and widowed bureaucrat with a son and daughter in law that seem to care only about their inheritance. When he discovers that he has a terminal case of stomach cancer and less than a year to live, he determines to live it to the fullest, attempting to immerse himself in the Japanese nightlife and trying to learn how to live joyously from a raucous young co-worker before finally deciding to overcome to bureaucracy and spend his last months building a park for the children of his community. Uplifting, gorgeous, and completely inspirational, Ikiru criticizes the Japanese postwar bureaucracy, sure, but more importantly exists as a testament to the indomitable spirit of man, who tirelessly attempts to find happiness and meaning in a life that often seems devoid of both.



In 1954 Kurosawa made easily his most famous film, Seven Samurai, an epic following the efforts of a poor village to survive an attack by bandits by hiring the eponymous warriors to defend them. One of the first films to ever show a team being assembled and developing a strategy before undertaking their mission (a structure that has been aped by everything from the western remake The Magnificent Seven to The Dirty Dozen and even Ocean's Eleven), the film examines samurai culture and looks again at the class structure of feudal Japan. As the film nears its conclusion, the samurai muse that even if they win the battle, the true victor will be the farmers, whose work will survive untold generations while the samurai's traditions will disappear.



Following that, Kurosawa took on the postwar fears of his people directly in I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being, which follows an elderly man (Toshiro Mifune) so terrified of nuclear annihilation that he tries to convince his family to move to Brazil where he believes they will escape the fallout. In response, his family takes him to court to have him declared incompetent so he can't spend their inheritance moving them to South America. The doctor who evaluates the man (Takashi Shimura) at first believes he is incompetent, but then begins to question whether the man makes sense in a world gone mad. The film questions attitudes toward the elderly, the Japanese court system, and examines the postwar nihilism that afflicted so many in Japan.

Kurosawa next took on Shakespearean lore, adapting Macbeth into a tale of samurai ambition in 1957's Throne of Blood. The film follows Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), a loyal soldier who is told by a spirit in the woods that he will soon be Lord of the Forest Castle, which, along with the ambitious machinations of his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) drives Washizu on a murderous rampage to claim what's rightfully his. An exercise in combining a narrative well known to the west with the style of Japan, Kurosawa's Throne of Blood has often been called the most successful film adaptation of Macbeth to date.



In 1958 Kurosawa released The Hidden Fortress, a film that would go on to inspire the structure (and many of the story beats) of Star Wars: A New Hope nearly twenty years later. The film follows two bickering peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who escape from a battle and find themselves traveling with a battle hardened general (Toshiro Mifune) who aims to transport a defeated Princess (Misa Uehara) and what remains of her fortune to safe territory. Together they transport the Princess through enemy territory, hoping to get her to a place where she can rebuild her armies and retake her land. Sound familiar?



Kurosawa spent much of the 1960's making financial failures (though a few critical successes, most notably 1965's Red Beard, his last collaboration with Toshiro Mifune) and by the late 1970's, was forced to look abroad for financing to make his next films. His last great epic, 1985's Ran went back to the Shakespearean well and adapted King Lear, again set against a samurai backdrop. Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), a fierce warrior who has defeated many enemies and created a large empire, decides to abdicate his throne and divide his kingdom among his three sons. What results is a tragic battle for power in which Hidetora is driven out of all the places he once called home and goes mad from isolation while his sons, and eventually his former enemies are embroiled in a seemingly endless war for land and power.



His next film, 1990's Dreams, is arguably the director's most personal effort, documenting a series of recurring dreams that Kurosawa had throughout his life. From the childlike wonder of "The Peach Orchard" to the fear of death in "The Blizzard," to the survivors guilt of "The Tunnel," to the artistic celebration of "Crows" (which notably features Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh), to the nuclear terror of "The Demon Weeps" and finally to the tranquil peace of "The Village of the Watermills" the film feels like a step into the director's head, and an examination of what made Kurosawa tick.







So vast is Kurosawa's technical influence that I would be remiss if I didn't discuss some of his most important flourished. He was known for use of the axial cut, in which the camera moves closer to or farther from the subject not through tracking but through a series of matched jump cuts that give the scene the feeling of increased detachment. Kurosawa was also known for his tendency to cut on motion, cutting during an action so that it is completed in two shots instead of the standard one. Finally, Kurosawa was a huge proponent of the wipe, in which action cuts from one scene to another by "wiping away the image" (a technique often used by George Lucas, who we will discuss in the next installment).



Akira Kurosawa directed 30 films over a 50 year career. He wrote or co-wrote the screenplay for every single film he directed, and also edited all of them (only taking on screen credit for some). In addition to this, he was instrumental in location scouting, costume design, cinematography, and directly coached each actor on the specifics of their performance, even going so far as to tell leach of the samurai in Seven Samurai how their characters might tie their shoes. Each moment in a Kurosawa film is engineered exactly as the director wanted, written to his specifications, performed as he envisioned, shot where and how he wanted, and edited to have the exact sense of pace an motion he desired. Perhaps more than any director we have yet covered, Kurosawa ensured that each and every work he released was wholly and completely his own.


Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

2/13: George Lucas

2/27: Quentin Tarantino

3/13: Hal Ashby

3/27: Michael Bay
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