The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa

My experience of the films of Akira Kurosawa before I started this journey through international cinema was limited. I’d seen ‘Rashomon’, bits of ‘Seven Samurai’ and, because of the film’s connection with ‘Star Wars’, the beginning of ‘The Hidden Fortress’. As with Andrei Tarkovsy, it took a few films to adjust my expectations to what the director was trying to express and to his style. Where Kurosawa differs from similarly monolithic auteur directors such as Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini is in the cultural and mythic difference between Northern and Western history and that of Japan. Watching a Japanese historical or fantasy movie for the first time makes it clear how much of a distinction there is between the two parts of the world. However, in other respects the films of Kurosawa invite a Western audience in. ‘Stray Dog’, for example, takes its inspiration from American movies, whilst the Samurai films use (and in many ways create) the kinetic tropes of the modern action genre. The one thing that struck me about many of these films, from ‘Stray Dog’ to ‘Yojimbo’, and including the quieter and more meditative ‘Ikiru’, is how much the Second World War and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Kurosawa’s approach to his stories. ‘I Live in Fear’ is perhaps the ur-text for this preoccupation: a film about a man so afraid of the bomb that he is prepared to abandon Japan. Kurosawa plays out this national trauma through his films and through a range of settings and styles, whether it’s the urban thriller of ‘Stray Dog’, the Ozu-like meditation of ‘Ikiru’, the Shakespeare adaptations ‘Throne of Blood’ and ‘Ran’ or his Japanese ‘Westerns’: ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Yojimbo’ and ‘Sanjuro’. Each movie has at its core the fear the some new technology will come along and destroy the world. Kurosawa doesn’t just make beautiful action movies, his films are apocalyptic in the truest sense of the word.

Stray Dog (1949)

“Bad luck can make a man or destroy a man.”

‘Stray Dog’, written and directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1949, is a noirish police-procedural set in a sweltering heatwave in 1940s Tokyo. Murakami, played by Toshiro Mifune, is a cop who has his gun stolen and used in a murder. Together with his partner, played by Takashi Shimura, he digs into the underworld of the city to stop the thief from killing again. It struck me watching this film that this and the Ozu’s 1953 ‘Tokyo Story’, give two very different depictions of the after-effects on Japanese culture of the Second World War and American occupation. Ozu’s movie takes a cue from traditional Japanese culture presenting a minimalist, meditative study of family life, Kurosawa, by contrast, fully embraces western culture both in the genre and documentary style of the film, but also in his use of locations and set-pieces such as the hunt for the killer at a baseball match. These seem to highlight the tensions in Japanese society at the time between the pre-war traditions and the post-war, westernised reconstruction. Both movies are also tied up with the role of the man in Japanese society: of fathers and grandfather, and, in ‘Stray Dog’ of the surrogate-paternal relationship between the two main characters. As much as you can see the western influence on Kurosawa however, you can also see how aspects of this movie, and other Kurosawa films such as ‘Seven Samurai’ translated back into American culture. The depiction of a young, impulsive cop and his world weary, family driven partner became such a staple of the genre that it almost becomes a cliché. In this film I can see the beginnings of a narrative device that shaped films such as ‘Lethal Weapon’ and ‘Seven’. Highlights are the baseball scene, shot with a long lens both to give the actors some distance from the camera and to enhance the realist, documentary look of the film. I was also struck by the climax: Murakami and the killer, the ‘stray dog’ of the title, fight in the mud following a cathartic thunderstorm. Gradually it becomes impossible to see which is which – and it is clear that this is the intention: to blur the line between the killer and the cop. It’s a powerful commentary on a how generation copes with returning from a war to find their whole country, it’s culture and tradition, has changed.

Ikiru (1952)

“I have less than a year to live. When I found that out… somehow I was drawn to you. Once when I was a child, I almost drowned. It’s just like that feeling. Darkness everywhere, and nothing for me to hold onto, no matter how hard I try. There’s just you.”

‘Ikiru’, directed in 1952, is an unlikely feel good movie about an aging bureaucrat ensnared by the pointless mundanity of his work who discovers he has stomach cancer and only six months to live. The film follows his final days as he races to discover the life he’s missed and to uncover his zest for life. He drinks, parties, spends money and finally discovers that the key to his final salvation is to force a noble building project through the red tape of his office. His final moments, showing him covered in snow, sat on a swing in the playground he helped build is poignant and strangely peaceful. There are so many carefully crafted aspects of this movie, all of which complement each other. The framing and editing, the tightly structured narrative and the subtext, the, at times eccentric, performances and the personalities all coalesce to support the main theme of reconstruction and the vagaries of age. It’s tempting to read the movie in the wake of the Second World War and the effects of the atomic bomb: certainly the focus on the rebuilding of cities and lives, and the central carcinogenic trauma suggest that direction.

Seven Samurai (1954)

“Oh, it’s you, is it? I remember your head. You had the nerve to ask me if I was a samurai. Didn’t you? I never forget a face. Look, though I’m dressed in rags, I’m a real samurai, all right.”

‘Seven Samurai’, directed in 1954, is a true epic. The story of a besieged farming village in sixteenth century Japan, the farmers recruit seven military specialists to fortify the village, train the residents and then lead them in the defence. It’s an epic, not in terms of geographical scope or even action, although the action scenes are masterfully constructed, beautifully shot and intensely thrilling. ‘Seven Samurai’ is an epic in terms of character. Each samurai has a distinct personality and these offer a balance in the movie between the bleak desperation of the situation, the tension of the defence, and the need for a comic relief. Most characters also have small stories that define them, incidents that happen through the movie suggest pasts for the characters and reasons why they act as they do. The stand-out performances are Toshiro Mifune (the lead in ‘Throne of Blood’) who plays the wild and unpredictable Kikuchiyo and Takashi Shimura (the lead in ‘Ikiru’), who plays the charismatic but reserved leader Kambei Shimada. Mifune is clearly having fun and his performance is reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies: overblown and hyperbolic, clearly largely improvised. Shimura has the harder job, playing a dour and serious role, but his expressive face that worked so brilliantly in showing the world-weariness of Kanji Watanabe in ‘Ikiru’, here offers a slightly sardonic, slightly mocking dimension to the character. The highlights of the movie are clearly the action sequences. Kurosawa, as in ‘Throne of Blood’, uses the elements (rain, mist, mud, dust) to add extra movement to the scenes and his fast-paced editing is extraordinary. He really is the midwife of the modern action genre. There’s also a strange sense of apocalypse in this film. The characters are all following archaic social roles and the weaponry and customs appear almost ritualistic. It’s only when you hear a gunshot during the battle scenes that you realise these characters exist on the precipice of modernity.

I Live in Fear (1955)

“Human beings share the same common problems. A film can only be understood if it depicts these properly.”

‘I Live in Fear’, directed in 1955, is a drama set in contemporary Japan. A factory owner, Nakajima played by Toshiro Mifune, is terrified of nuclear war and is pressuring his family to move to Brazil. His family resists and the subsequent fight for control of the family money and authority sends Nakajima mad. It’s a stark snapshot of the anxieties of post-war Japan, particularly following the nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1950s. This seems to me to be a common theme in Kurosawa’s movies, from ‘Stray Dog’, even including his historical films such as ‘Seven Samurai’. In all these films, the bomb hangs heavily, whether the reference is a literal one, as in this film, or a metaphorical one, for example the shocking appearance and effect of a firearm in a medieval village. ‘I Live in Fear’ is a neat parable, but it is also a tragic portrait of an affluent factory owner. This focus on the elderly is also a common theme in films of the time, but Nakajima’s journey into insanity is the flipside of the measured and stoic presentation of the same generation in Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’. Mifune’s performance as an elderly man, a year after playing the young and impetuous Kikuchiyo in ‘Seven Samurai’, is incredible and utterly believable. Similarly, Takashi Shimura’s performance as a character who is almost persuaded by Nakajima is a fascinating reversal of their roles in Kurosawa’s earlier film. ‘I Live in Fear’ doesn’t have the epic sweep of Kurosawa’s historical movies, but it contains a condensation of all the themes and visual stylings that make his films so distinctive.

Throne of Blood (1957)

“Ambition is false fame and will fall, death will reign, man falls in vain”

‘Throne of Blood’, directed in 1957, is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ transplanted to the Japanese middle ages. It’s difficult to judge this mainly because the source text and the effect Kurosawa had on filmmakers who followed him is so familiar. This makes it easy to under-appreciate the ground-breaking framing and camera movements – the perfect and controlled matching of the action in front of the camera with the inventiveness behind the camera. Moments that stand out include a frantic horse-ride through the forest, the incredibly eerie, alabaster ghost effect, the weird sight of trees shifting through the mist and the hail of arrows that kill Washizu in the end. I can see hints of this film in David Lynch and most action movies – but it is more than just influential. It’s possibly the most satisfying screen adaptation of ‘Macbeth’ without even using Shakespeare’s dialogue.

Yojimbo (1961)

“Cooper. Two coffins… No, maybe three.”

‘Yojimbo’, directed in 1961 is a truncated and less epic, but no less effective, version of ‘Seven Samurai’. It tells the story of a lone, nameless rōnin who finds himself embroiled in a power struggle in a small town. A precursor of Sergio Leone’s trilogy of Clint Eastwood westerns, it includes all of Kurosawa’s quirks and techniques: ‘Yojimbo’ is zippliy paced and kinetic, but also surprisingly philosophical. One thing that immediately stood out for me was the presence of a single gun. This seems to be a recurring theme in the Kurosawa action movies I’ve seen so far, for example in ‘Stray Dog’ and ‘Seven Samurai’, the gun takes on a subtext all of its own: in the former as the symbol of the policeman’s guilt and in the latter as the brutal incursion of modernity. The place of the gun in ‘Yojimbo’ is similar to ‘Seven Samurai’, it acts as a full-stop to the traditions of the past, in a way a symbol of Japan’s loss of innocence. It’s not much of a stretch to see traces of the atomic bomb in this metaphor: a weapon that ends a war with the cost of both lives and tradition. This is part of what these historical movies seem to be about with their ethereal swirling mists, archaic power-struggles, eccentric characters and chivalric heroes: not nostalgia or some attempt at reframing modern social or cultural issues in a simpler setting, but about the death of history itself. It also occurs to me that when Kurosawa is able to wring all this drama and subtext out of a single gun, the heavily armed, fetishistic approach of Michael Bay and Stallone suggests a disturbing lack of self-awareness.

Sanjuro (1962)

“You’re too sharp. That’s your trouble. You’re like a drawn sword. Sharp, naked without a sheath. You cut well. But good swords are kept in their sheaths.”

‘Sanjuro’, directed in 1962, is a spiritual sequel to the director’s 1961 movie ‘Yojimbo’. Toshiro Mifune plays a charismatic ronin who comes to the aid of nine samurai who are facing political corruption in their village. As with ‘Yojimbo’, this film feels like a condensed version of ‘The Seven Samurai’ with Mifune acting as the professional killer, but this film also includes a strong vein of humour. The samurai are played incompetently for laughs, whilst the camera regularly returns to Mifune’s baffled and frustrated face. This is a Kurosawa movie, so visually it is stunning and the action sequences are kinetic and tightly filmed. The characters are also perfectly defined, often through the plot but mostly through the way they are framed. Highlights are the scenes with Mifune ‘leading’ the samurai, but also small moments stand out: the shot of camellia blossom turning a stream white as a signal for the samurai to attack for example is far more beautiful than is needed in what is essentially an action comedy. Similarly, the final showdown between Mifune’s character and the corrupt superintendant, Hanbei, is a powerful moment, played out like a western duel but with swords instead of guns. The two characters stand close to each other and at an undisclosed signal, Mifune strikes releasing a startling fountain of blood. As Hanbei lies dying on the floor, his blood is reminiscent of the camellias filling the stream.

Ran (1985)

“You spilled an ocean of blood. You showed no mercy, no pity. We too are children of this age… weaned on strife and chaos. We are your sons, yet you count on our fidelity. In my eyes, that makes you a fool. A senile old fool!”

‘Ran’, directed in 1985, is an adaptation of ‘King Lear’ relocated to medieval Japan and focusing on a warlord, Hidetora Ichimonji, played by  Tatsuya Nakadai, who abdicates and hands control to his three sons. There follows a power struggle between the three, political intrigue, the machinations of the oldest son’s wife and the decline into madness of the old warlord. As with ‘King Lear’ there’s the sense that the history of an entire nation is being told through the internal struggles and disharmonies of a family, and this sense of scale informs Kurosawa’s cinematography and staging of the movie. It’s an outside film, and the backdrop to the drama is often mountains or plains of grass or, as Hidetora’s insanity beings to bite, blackened wasteland and rock quarries. Everything is harmonised to achieve this effect from the sweeping action, the heightened performances to the weird, echoey sound effects. It’s the first time I’ve seen a Kurosawa movie in colour as well, and the director embraces this with bold flashes of red and placing the lush greens of the landscape centre stage. Highlights of the film are the siege on the third castle which is shot with minimal sound effects and the scene between the dangerous and unpredictable Lady Kaede and her late husband’s brother. But it’s the scale and the direction of armies of performers that sets this film apart. Kurosawa’s genius is in controlling huge numbers of people and framing epic events in a way that creates a real personal drama.

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