Kurosawa, Akira (Vol. 16)
Akira Kurosawa 1910–
(Also Kurasawa) Japanese director and scriptwriter.
Until 1951 when Kurosawa's Rashomon won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival, virtually no Japanese films were seen in the United States. The popularity of Kurosawa's film opened the way for Japanese masters like Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.
Kurosawa began as a painter, studying at the Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts. It was by chance that he became a director. Answering a newspaper advertisement, he was hired by Toho Studios. Kurosawa worked under Kajiro Yamamoto, who taught him not only directing but scriptwriting. Fully expecting to leave the industry and go back to painting, Kurosawa was surprised to find that he loved directing.
Kurosawa has professed a taste for Western art which is evident in his films. While this has made him readily popular in the West, he has been criticized in Japan for the occidental flavor of his films. Still, he has managed to bridge the gap between the oriental and occidental tastes and address himself to subjects that are universal: the futility of a selfish life (Ikiru and Red Beard), the subjective quality of truth (Rashomon), the power and beauty of love (One Wonderful Sunday and No Regrets for Our Youth). Yet each of his films is a multifaceted gem which defies classification by any one theme.
Kurosawa has directed many chambara (or sword-fight) films which are immensely popular. Often considered the best of these is The Seven Samurai. This film also boasts a fine performance by Tashiro Mifune. Mifune and Kurosawa have done some of their best work together and have become associated in the minds of many critics and film buffs.
Although some critics find Kurosawa's films overly emotional or stilted, it is to his credit that he has established a name for himself in countries whose philosophies and life-styles differ so much from his own. Audie Bock has written in her Japanese Film Directors: "If Kurosawa can begin making films in Japan that speak to the underlying spiritual needs of an overeducated, overfed nation—and he is one of the very few who have the potential for spiritual and intellectual leadership—not only will his own work be revitalized, but its international currency will be, if anything, reinforced."
Rashomon is a symphony of sight, sound, light, and shadow, in celluloid. It is an extraordinary motion picture combination: a rarely beautiful film that forms a memorable visual setting for an absorbing drama—as brilliant in its multifaceted plot as a cut gem, as fascinating in the variety of its engrossing complexities as a chess problem, and as penetrating in its study of theoretical logic, human behavior, and playwright-plotting as any picture within recall. (p. 37)
Which story tells the truth—or even part of the truth—is left to the audience. The priest, who listens in silence to the astonishing tale on the steps of a towering, dilapidated gateway leading to the ancient capital of Kyoto, sits in a driving rain, seeking for the secret of what truly goes on in men's hearts. The priest believes that Truth—as the ultimate good that is in all men—will out. For, truly, men are, at heart, not evil; since evil is only a part—but not the whole part—of man's nature. The relating of this dramatic epic is exquisitely sensitive, cast in impressive cadences. Indeed the film itself is innately poetic, swinging in singing rhythms of mood, movement, music, and speech—merging time, space, and the eternal verities into graceful, measured, ineffably lovely photographic images. (p. 38)
Jesse Zunser, "Reviews: 'Rashomon'," in Cue (copyright © Cue Publications, Inc., 1951; reprinted...
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[Rashomon is a] torpid, stylish Japanese study in human frailty, like nothing so much as a tiny aquarium in which a few fish and a lot of plants have delicately been tinkered with by someone raised in Western art-cinema theaters and art galleries. Five characters, two unfrequented real-life sets—a ruined temple and a forest—and a script which is probably the first to describe a highly contrived sword-fight-and-seduction through the biased eyes of four different people. The villain is a conceited, slothful, bug-ridden bandit …—a type now familiar in Hollywood adventure-comedies about Mexico—who has a hard time pulling himself away from a good nap to ravish the wife of a traveling samurai. Makes its play for posterity with such carefully engineered actions as one in which the dozing barbarian scratches his crotch while the sword across his knees somehow rises (Maya Deren-fashion) as though it had just had a big meal of sex hormones. Rashomon is supposed to get down to the bedrock of such emotions as lust, fear, and selfishness, but actually it is a smooth and somewhat empty film whose most tiresome aspect is the slow, complacent, Louvre-conscious, waiting-for-prizes attitude of everyone who worked on it.
Manny Farber, "Reviews: 'Rashomon'," in The Nation (copyright 1952 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 174, No. 3, January 19, 1952 (and reprinted in Focus on "Rashomon," edited...
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In The Seven Samurai …, and in the light it throws back on Rashomon, Kurosawa's method and personality emerge clearly. He is, above everything else, an exact psychological observer, a keen analyst of behaviour—in a fundamentally detached way. His handling of the young lovers is typical of this. He notes and traces with precision and truth their first, half-terrified awareness of each other sexually, the growth of mutual attraction, the boy's gauche admiration, the girl's aching and almost frantic abandonment; what he fails to do is to convey any feeling for, or identification with, the individuals themselves. He strives for this, he uses other images to heighten their scenes—the flower-covered hillside, the sun filtering through the tops of trees (an echo of its more successful use as an orgasm metaphor in Rashomon), the dappled light swarming like insects over them as they lie together in a bamboo hut—but somehow these remain perfunctory, a little cold, lacking in real poetry.
In this it is not unrewarding to compare Kurosawa with [John] Ford—by whom, report has it, he claims to have been influenced. There are many superficial resemblances—the reliance on traditional values, the use of folk ceremonies and rituals, the comic horseplay—to Ford in particular and to the Western in general. The fast, vivid handling of the action sequences, the staccato cutting, the variety of angles, the shooting...
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The real threat [to the postwar Japanese film] was the suffocation of new or rebellious artistic tendencies … by the tight, successful patterns of the pre-war "sword films," a form precisely as unbending and as satisfying as our "western." This danger was heightened in recent years by an almost uncritical acceptance of any films made on this pattern exported to America and Europe. This is partly explained by the superficial resemblance of these sword films to the richness and movement of the great Japanese theatre forms; we were grateful for any tokens of that beauty….
With such blocks it is clear that the greatest blessing to the postwar Japanese film is the imagination and courage of Akira Kurosawa. (p. 3)
[Kurosawa looks] at the raw material of the sword film with the same humanity and immediacy that he brought to his modern subjects. He says that he had dreamed of this since the beginning of his film career and now that he had his opportunity, he took a whole careful year of filming to realize his dream. The result, The Magnificent Seven, is as easily distinguished from the "normal" sword-swinging theatricalities as is Stagecoach from the usual run-of-the-ranch affairs. In the process of freshening and humanizing the sword film, Kurosawa performed another needed miracle: he has made this material more exciting, more dynamic, more dramatic than the patterns had ever permitted or hinted....
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It is hard for an Occidental to look at Throne of Blood, the Japanese version of Macbeth, with complete impartiality….
Finding a familiar story within a new context often renders its motives curiously naked. Ambition, treachery, greed—in Throne of Blood these become freed of subtlety, unwrapped from the poetry that gave them orientation. And just as poetry, philosophy, even humour, are lost, so tragedy slides into melodrama. The tersest, the most pungent and violent of all Shakespeare's tragedies, Macbeth is made credible by its poetry; raw savagery rarely lifts Throne of Blood above hysteria. Yet if the film lacks the inevitability of tragedy, at least events follow their own grim logic. (p. 22)
In an article in The Times …, Kurosawa is quoted as saying that his aim is "to give people strength to live and to face life; to help them live more powerfully and happily." Only a fool would quarrel with such unexceptionable sentiments. Kurosawa has a moralist's approach, the only approach worthy of a serious artist. Yet in Throne of Blood—to a Western eye, at any rate—it is the absence of such a background that makes the drama meaningless. Shakespeare's play worked because its poetry evoked a world outside the wings of the theatre, a world whose values gave this pattern of events its significance. At this level Throne of Blood fails, a victim, oddly enough,...
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JOSEPH L. ANDERSON and DONALD RICHIE
[In 1952 Kurosawa] made one of his finest films, Living (Ikiru)—known as Doomed in America—which the Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television has called "one of the greatest films of our time." In it Kurosawa explored almost every potentiality of the film medium in illustrating his relatively simple story…. In this film Kurosawa's humanism was at its height. This discursive film is long and varied; it winds and unwinds; it shifts from mood to mood, from present to past, from silence to a deafening roar—and all in the most unabashed and absorbing fashion. Its greatest success may be in its revitalization of film technique. It, together with Kinoshita's A Japanese Tragedy (Nihon no Higeki) and Carmen's Pure Love (Karumen Junjosu), shows that when it wants to, Japanese film technique can be among the most dynamic in the world. The film's fault is perhaps that Kurosawa's genius flows unchecked and that sometimes he carries things too far. (pp. 187-88)
Kurosawa's 1950 film, the now world-famous Rashomon, which, though classified as a period-film since it is set in the early Heian period, is in actuality just about as far away from the standard Japanese period-film as one can get. It was a highly adventurous undertaking, extremely advanced for its audience, and quite experimental in its technique. Those in the West who instantly concluded that all Japanese films were "like Rashomon"...
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[The Hidden Fortress has an] air of wild cogent invention, of visual shock and of abrupt outrage. Grandiose, raw, implausible (yet conventional in a sense), [the film] recapitulates and enlarges, in more than "aspect-ratio" terms, virtually every feature of the so-called entertainment film, as we know it, from the Fairbanks genre to Treasure of the Sierra Madre, while incorporating stylistic vestiges of the older Soviet masters and from a host of samurai-films…. Kurasawa re-affirms his already manifest command of the witness point and of its collaborative art, editing…. (p. 270)
Kurasawa's modes of action are seemingly inexhaustible, his bravura editing tireless…. Better than anyone now working in film, perhaps, he knows when to hold his camera position and exploit wide-screen, not simply as a theater tableau but as a magnitude wherein movement is never absent and space is viable…. Throughout the action, mainly unified by the trek of four characters bearing gold concealed in bundles of firewood, Kurasawa's sense of the exact faltering gasp and shift of weight, the side-steps of momentum and recovery, is infallible. Which makes more astonishing the information that he once envied [Shiro] Toyoda for that director's physiological emphasis. All the evidence we have defines Kurasawa as perhaps the most physical director in the history of the movies!
This, alone, may be...
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The thing which distinguishes Akira Kurosawa from other Japanese directors—I would go so far as to call it his great achievement—is precisely that he is first and foremost a director of ideas. Kurosawa is fond of insisting that every artist has, ultimately, only one theme. In his own case, he says, it is the question of why men cannot live together more happily and with greater good will than they do. Of course, one should be wary of swallowing whole such self-revelations by artists, since the artist is prone to self-delusion and self-misinterpretation in peculiarly complex and involved forms. Nevertheless, Kurosawa's remark can be taken at its face value insofar as it suggests that all his works are born, originally, of an idea. Whereas Japanese film directors in the past have leaned heavily toward naturalism, basing their work on a narrow, personalized experience, Kurosawa's style is intellectual, and his emergence after the war marked the appearance of an utterly unfamiliar element in the Japanese film world.
The fact that his favorite author is Dostoevski is in itself enough to suggest his style. Most of his films have a theme expressible in one line, or even one word: good, evil, happiness, unhappiness, the beauty of love—problems that boil down in essence to the problems of the existence of man, its meaning and its forms. (p. 26)
Kurosawa is a research worker who places man in a test tube, provides certain...
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[Kurosawa's] interest is in a certain kind of character. Since all men have much the same reasons for action, their only differentiation can be in how they act. The Kurosawa hero is a very special sort of person and since he (from film to film) shows the same characteristics, it is well to examine the first of the line.
Sugata [in Kurosawa's first film, Sanshiro Sugata] seems to be average in all ways. His only difference is that he wants to be different from what he is. It is he who searches for a teacher and, having found one, persists in learning. The path to inner wisdom, according to Kurosawa, is a very difficult one, so difficult indeed that very few are those who even manage its beginnings—and no one, of course, ever discovers its ending. Yet, difficult though it is, the Kurosawa hero is distinguished by his perseverance, by his refusal to be defeated…. [The] struggle is always an inner one…. This effort is spiritual—and all of Kurosawa's films have as their turning point a spiritual crisis. It is here—in the mind—that resolution takes place. The action which follows is usually the outcome of this resolution. It is, again, the practical aspect of the theoretical. (pp. 17-18)
[Kurosawa often prefers his villains.] His preference, however, should be understood in a particular way. The hero is man actively engaged in becoming himself—never a very reassuring sight. The villain, on the other...
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Few [directors] have succeeded in reflecting a world-view which encompasses an entire society, an achievement that writers like Fielding and Tolstoy managed so well for the novel. The films of Akira Kurosawa have been seriously ignored by critics who favor more simplistically avant-garde directors like Fellini, Godard, Antonioni and Resnais. Even Luis Bunuel has called Kurosawa's work "superficial." Yet in the contemporary film only Kurosawa, in the tradition of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, has treated the epic as a dynamic, modern form. The epic appropriate to our time, as Brecht defines it, is a work centered around a human being who "is alterable and able to alter," whose thought has been determined by social being, and which appeals to the spectator only to "arouse his capacity for action" and "force him to take decisions" by "facing something." Kurosawa's conception of the epic comes close to Brecht's.
If Kurosawa's films seem more old-fashioned than Godard's, it is because he employs a more conventional narrative mode and because he is concerned with man's capacity to perform moral acts. Ironically more than any other major director, he resembles Bunuel. Bunuel tests the devotion of his people to moral principles by placing them in a world made grotesque by greed and rapacity. The paradigms of his hero are Nazarin and Viridiana, who are both finally defeated in their attempts to devote their lives to a suffering humanity. Their...
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"Dodes'ka-den" is Kurosawa's first color film, and he has adjusted his color to suit each vignette, from the childlike brightness of the streetcar motorman's fantasy, to the dull monochromes of the ragpicker's obsession, to the unreal abstract-expressionist behind the wrecked-car home of the beggar and his boy. In their dreams and their fate, this last pair defines the farthest imaginative reach of the movie, belonging more to the conventions of art than of life—and to an art that exhibits all the emotional and, indeed, the intellectual range of a wide-eyed child painted by Keane.
The beggar's is perhaps the saddest—and the most ludicrous—life in "Dodes'ka-den," but it is not much more gratuitous or suffocatingly sentimental than anything else in the film—which succeeds in little but the painful recall of better works in its type. I have in mind the lovely community-life films of Yasujiro Ozu or the great "Lower Depths" of Jean Renoir—but not the "Lower Depths" of Kurosawa.
For without a sustaining fiction or traditional fictional matter (as in "Rasho-Mon," 1951, or "Throne of Blood," 1961, or any of the samurai films), Kurosawa is thrown upon the resources of his own inventive vision, and those resources show themselves to be nothing much. The humor is strained, the ironies are easy and mostly unearned, and even the director's celebrated humanism seems artificially produced, to be hauled out as if for...
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With his central metaphor of snow—the towering drifts that turn streets and houses into blind burrows where dark, scurrying figures, blanketed by the snow that never seems to stop falling, seek and momentarily find each other—Kurosawa instantly captures the essence of Dostoievsky's novel [The Idiot]: that sense of people as isolated units, reaching helplessly out with their sympathies but unable to tear down the barriers of understanding and intention which separate them from peace of the soul…. [Although Kurosawa simplifies the story, he] manages to convey the interlocking despair of human relationships, quite magnificently, through a simple stylistic device: the triangular grouping in which, usually in monologue, one person explains, one listens intently, and the third, marginally excluded, is baffled by the spellbinding emotional waves he cannot quite grasp. Used repeatedly, this geometrical composition leads almost mathematically to the extraordinary climax of the ice carnival—in itself an extraordinary visual conception with its swirling movement, torches flickering in the darkness and grotesque painted masks, all dominated by the huge ice sculpture of a brooding demon—where all the characters, as though summoned by demonic invocation, converge tangentially, at different moments, upon the fixed point of the Idiot. Yet for all its formality, The Idiot seems to lie outside the Japanese visual tradition; indeed, it has been...
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Alan P. Barr
Kurosawa, as obsessively as any other artist, [explores] the nature and possibility of heroic action in a world that is basically corrupt, corrupt almost as a consequence of its human-ness. What likelihood for humanitarian commitment remains and what is its inexorable cost in such a society? Is man doomed to a kind of intellectualizing impotency, or can action be redemptive and rejuvenating? Is action necessarily violent? Film after film elaborates these conundra, using telephoto lenses to show us the minutia of faces and expressions far away, sharp (often perpendicular) angles and harshly contrasting lighting to accentuate the harshness of existence and the brittleness of human relations, and wide angle lenses to juxtapose opposing camps. Just as we see characters literally wiped out with a spectacular gesture of the sword, so does Kurosawa make the wipe one of his most characteristic camera transitions. (p. 158)
Despite its seeming simplicity,… Kurosawa's Yojimbo has remained an intractably large film…. The action and figures give the impression of being in the distance, and yet we get to know their looks intimately. Individual movements seem to be jerky and staccato-like, but the total impression of the movie is similar to that of a highly choreographed modern ballet. All of these perspectives or insights are correct enough, but none—nor all together—is adequate to account for the film's effect. In fact, the more...
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[In Kagemusha the] screen is awash with one brilliant canvas after another, and all the Kurosawa obsessions are present, too: the stormy, psychological expressionism, the inner torment, the lordly absolution of mere mortals from their indecision. Drawn toward the tapestry of the Shakespearian chronicle plays and the Fordian cavalry westerns, Kurosawa dazzles the viewer's eye even when he is disorienting the viewer's sense of the plot….
The central plot concerns a legendary leader who conceals his "double" until after his death so that the clan can survive without its enemies becoming aware of his passing…. I must confess that at one point in Kagemusha I thought that Kurosawa was priming himself to attain a Mizoguchian nobility. It is the scene in which the double unexpectedly provides an uncanny imitation of the leader. But I should have known better. Had I not written years ago that Mizoguchi was to Kurosawa as Sophocles was to Euripides? It would follow, therefore, that Kurosawa would not allow the double to become the leader in heroic fashion, but, rather, call into question the illusions of leadership itself. The film deals consequently with a comparatively incoherent spectacle of slaughter and madness, yet it never loses the gravity and sobriety associated with a major talent.
Andrew Sarris, "Cannes: A Last Hurrah," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission...
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