Akira Kurosawa

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Jay Leyda (review date October-December 1954)

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SOURCE: "The Films of Kurosawa," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 24, No. 2, October-December, 1954, pp. 74-78, 112.

[In the following review, Leyda traces the development of Kurosawa's art, from his earliest films to the ones made after the successful Western debut of Rashomon.]

The surprise of the entire film world at the appearance of Rashomon at the 1951 Venice Festival will surely be a dramatic paragraph in all future international film histories. That film made such a powerful impression outside commercial film channels that we have all been compelled to make room, though a small one, for Rashomon, for its director, Kurosawa, and for Japanese pictures in general. This victory makes one hope that no new film by Kurosawa will ever again be neglected, or restricted to an audience of his countrymen.

If Kurosawa's stature as an artist is to be measured, it will be necessary to reach behind Rashomon to the pictures produced during his first eight years of film-making—the "occupation period" of his work—and especially to that film rated by critics in Japan as his masterpiece, Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi). This film (little known outside Japan) involuntarily played a very practical role in Kurosawa's career, for it is to Drunken Angel that we owe the Venice entry of Rashomon. Although so acute and sensitive a film observer as the late Joseph Burstyn was sufficiently impressed by one screening of Drunken Angel to advise the festival organisers to spare no efforts in obtaining any new film by its maker, the raw fierceness of Drunken Angel made Burstyn hesitate to show it to American audiences, and at the time of his death this was one of the films waiting in storage for his decision. Further to delay his decision, Burstyn's advisors had detected too disturbing an anti-American note in some sequences of the film. When Kurosawa was denied admission to the United States (with a Japanese film delegation in 1952), Drunken Angel was doomed to wait longer for its American audience.

What was the ground in which the talent of Kurosawa could develop and produce such astonishing films as Drunken Angel and Rashomon? Film production conditions in Tokyo arc no less hampering and narrow than at Culver City or Pinewood, and can be more restrictive and hardened against originality or unorthodoxy. Styles and methods were imitatively modeled on foreign film successes—even today, modern subjects in Japanese films are stylistically indistinguishable, with rare exceptions, from French screen melodrama or American genre comedy. Subjects drawn from Japan's history or her rich literature of fantasy, often employing the actors or effects of the Kabuki theater, were pressed into shapes that a Murnau or a Sternberg would have required. I have seen extremely handsome Japanese films of history and fairytale that the makers of Faust and The Scarlet Empress would have envied for the reproduction of their own peculiar gloss and sheen. The large Japanese film public is so fond of foreign films that imitations of an admired import are usually assured of popular success.

Outside the studios, especially since the war, there has been the counter-balance of a vigorous, independent, even amateur film movement, with its usual partner—an articulate and critical minority within the popular audience. This movement puts film-making in many non-commercial hands; strong trade unions and political parties (including the Communist) produce films, and find audiences for them. All this makes for a tussle of ideas, talk, opinions that furnishes encouragement to restless professionals, and creates an atmosphere in which a responsible, conscientious artist cannot be glib, no matter how this might ease his career...

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and income.

This, then, is the ground—ideal but unexpected—for a filmmaker who is able to pick up the keen edge of Vigo and the poetic tension of Dovzhenko where those masters left them, and mold these qualities to his own temerity.

Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo on March 23rd, 1910. On completing his schooling he tried the career of a painter, but gave that up when he decided he was not talented enough. He entered the film industry in 1936 as an assistant director at the Toho company, where he became first assistant to the director Kajiro Yamamoto—collaborating on Yamamoto's scripts and entering scripts of his own in contests conducted by film studios and magazines. The first Yamamoto film to which Kurosawa made a noticed contribution as writer and as assistant director was The Horse (Uma) in 1940. Ten years later a New York Times interviewer summarised his work during the war years that followed: "The war period was professionally miserable for Mr. Kurosawa. After five years as an assistant director and script writer, he had just attained his majority with the Toho Motion Picture Company, his home studio, when strict censorship placed him in a vice. He shot only two stories during the war, one in two parts." This two-part film was the first to be written and directed by Kurosawa alone, the latter part (1945) being a necessary sequel to the unusual success of the first part (1943), a melodrama about a judo champion, Sugata Sanshiro. Between these two war-time successes he made The Most Beautiful (Ichiban Utsukushiku, 1944), whose subject—women employed in a war-plant making optical machinery—presages the social subjects of his post-war films.

Kurosawa's first post-war film was co-directed with Yamamoto. This film, with its hopeful title People Who Make Tomorrow (Asu o Tsukuru Hitobito), had a theme that, regardless of the film's artistic quality, makes me regret my inability to see it for the purposes of this article: it showed the democratisation of a motion picture studio. Such a subject must have contained not only a picture of studio conditions in the last war years and initial occupation days of 1945 and 1946, but must also have embodied Kurosawa's and Yarnamoto's specific hopes for their function as filmmakers in a democratic Japan.

The five pre-Rashomon films by Kurosawa that I have seen, though uniformly "well-made," are not all credits to his reputation. They alternate so exactly, in being superb or commonplace, that the explanation for this phenomenon—too curious to dismiss as "uneven"—may lie outside Kurosawa's talents: I'm inclined to think that the ordinary films are the prices he has paid to the studios for letting him risk his best films. Georges Sadoul's essay on Japanese film economics (in Cahiers du Cinéma. November, 1953) postulates a shakiness in both fiscal structure and studio policies there that would seem to justify Kurosawa's frequent shifts from studio to studio. Another grain of evidence to support this "bargaining" theory of Kurosawa's production history is in the gossip that Rashomon was his proof that he could make an effective film without using one of his "dangerous" subjects. (What lies beneath the "undangerous" surface of Rashomon is, of course, another matter—and not one that would interest the front office of the Daiei Company or the film's American distributor. R.K.O.) Japanese with whom I've discussed this quid pro quo theory do not agree with me; they feel that Kurosawa puts his full force into every film, with varying success.

The earliest Kurosawa film I've seen was Youth Feels No Regret (Waga Seishun ni Kui Nashi), released at the end of 1946. Its subject is academic freedom, as reflected in the dilemma of an ageing university professor (in the Japan of the 1930's), who is pressured at last into supporting the government's militarist ambitions, but is backed in his fight by the students and his daughter. This was a natural subject for such an abruptly transitional period as Japan's in 1946—and though Kurosawa handled the film with style and passion, it remained "a lesson of the past," a thematically bold gesture by an artist who had not yet found his sure foot.

Kurosawa's next film (that, to my regret, I have not yet seen, and for which I am dependent on two synopses) sounds like wryly realist observation of an urban Daphnis and Chloë. In Wonderful Sunday (Subarashiki Nichiyobi, 1947) a poor couple, in love, spend a Sunday together, a Sunday that ends when, in search of an announced free concert, they find an empty hall. "Their cheerful disposition makes their ears fill with beautiful music." In his next and seventh film, Drunken Angel, Kurosawa fused all the elements tested in his previous works—violence, analysis, idyll—to make his masterpiece.

     The rites are forgotten,      Vice rots the remnant      Defiling the women,      And from their corruption      Comes mixing of castes:      The curse of confusion      Degrades the victims      And damns the destroyers….      The ancient, the sacred,      Is broken, forgotten.      Such is the doom      Of the lost, without caste-rites:      Darkness and doubting      And hell for ever.

This passage from the introductory book of the Bhagavad-Gita (as translated by Christopher Isherwood and S. Prabhavanda) could stand as a statement of the opening situation of Drunken Angel (possibly of Bicycle Thieves, too)—and the film's faith in the goodness of men, despite the "darkness and doubting," could be Kurosawa's personal translation of the divine solution offered by the Gita.

The story of Drunken Angel circles around a slum doctor who tries to force health and a happy future on a man who wants neither, who isn't sure what he wants: before the war this man had been a petty but powerful gangster—now he is confused, embittered, desperate, a tubercular victim of war. His attempts to ignore the present and restore the past are watched with pity and understanding by the doctor, who seeks an escape of his own in liquor and in his humble professional duties. This story is developed not so much in plot, but in a series of tangents, jutting away from (yet always returning to) these two central lives; a street encounter, a new patient, a bowl of rice, a song—each trifle serves to lift the film and its story to a more painful level. The increasing stress of this gradual, steady ascent makes reality so feverish that a nightmare looks real, and a real fight seems a nightmare. Though the photography is as piercing as a needle's point, the script structure is as fluid and circling as a meditation. And Kurosawa told the Times interviewer that he seeks "simplification"!

True—the nightmare in the film is a simple one: alongside the doomed gangster a coffin opens—out comes another image of himself to race after him along an endless shore-line, not quite catching him even though his dead self can run many times faster than his live self. Perhaps it is the "simplicity" of this dream that makes it so frightening. The knife-fight, too, is a simple fight to the death—yet how do we happen to find ourselves in the midst of that mess of blood and wet paint and steel and straining bodies! Some explanation may be found in Kurosawa's co-ordination of his composition scheme to the needs of each sequence—which any viewer of Rashomon can well believe. His shots are, always and primarily, compositions in movement; these can be the slashing movement-compositions of the fight, or they can be as delicately unexpected as a half-screened composition by Utamaro, as in one of the conversations of Drunken Angel: into an empty and flat grey space (a piece of paper wall) a head finally intrudes, to make its delayed answer to the question of the previous shot.

"Range" is a word that any Kurosawa film evokes, and Drunken Angel shows his range to be as wide as the Kabuki theater's—from a pastel pianissimo to a high-pitched fortissimo (climbing aloft on every sense), leaving the spectator gasping who is used only to the two middle octaves of the "normal" film. The appeal to all the senses is a conscious one, too, and a stronger appeal than we expect from a black-and-white film: the sense of colour in the smeared blood and paint of the knife-fight might have been less powerful in colour.

The women of Drunken Angel show another range: the older woman of the slyly servile past, attending to forgotten rites; the adolescent guarded by tradition; the new black-market woman (goal for black-market man); the working girl who says what she thinks; the very young girl (the future?) who speaks the film's final words as she carries the X-ray negatives that show her lungs free from disease.

Though the film's idea springs from one artist's attitude to the corruption and degradation among a defeated people, Drunken Angel is not a slumming experience to be added to other exotic dips into alien poverty. Kurosawa's disgust and anger—and hope—bring the film's so very foreign-looking material close to home. The ugliness of the night-club and juke-box scenes strikes a different note of Kurosawa's anger; without showing a single American soldier, the film makes his trace perceptible.

As the title, Drunken Angel, reflects the top, physical layer of this significant film, a friend has suggested, for the film's eventual American and European release, a title that fits the basic layer of the film—Fallen Angel.

Drunken Angel was followed by a step backwards: The Silent Duel (Shizukanaru Ketto, 1949) is based on an absurdly unscientific and theatrical novel about venereal disease, filmed as a stock subject (perhaps an assignment?) with the tightly-bound structure of a Scribe play—a shock after the completely original film structure of Drunken Angel. The Silent Duel is full of moments that could only have been invented and controlled by a genuine film artist: but here such moments are mere ornaments to a hollow story not worth this artist's attention.

Working again at his old studio, Toho, Kurosawa made another brilliant film, Stray Dog (Nora Inu, 1949). Lacking the penetration of Drunken Angel, Stray Dog has all the excitement of contrasting locales and atmospheres, the torrent of vividly glimpsed personalities, that a skilful detective story writer such as Raymond Chandler employs to keep his reader nervous and unsatisfied until the end. Stray Dog looks like a detective film, and its two chief characters are detectives, but its substance is far more rewarding to the spectator than this form usually provides. The revolver of a rookie detective is stolen in a crowded tram, and his career is threatened if he cannot recover the weapon. With its recovery as motive, the search begins in the slums and rich villas of Tokyo—and back into memories of his war service—but, before his search is successful, the motive has been broadened to reveal something of the nature of criminals and those who control them. The chase has become many-layered, and to our fascination with the clues and details of the hunt, Kurosawa adds both emotion and intellectual curiosity.

For the Shochiku Company Kurosawa then made a clever but superficial film called Scandal (Shubun, 1950), about the petty brutalities of big city Bohemian life, the circle of painters' studios and journalists' offices. A far more ambitious project at Shochiku was his translation of Dostoevski's The Idiot (Hakuchi) into terms of modern Japanese life. From the New York Times: "It ran three hours in the projection room. The Shochiku Company insisted on cutting it to conventional, commercial length. The director argued that if butchered it would really live up to its title, and the audience would be baffled. Management won and Kurosawa left Shochiku …", reminding us that we once had a film-making talent as rich as Kurosawa's—a director who tried to please himself and his employers alternately, and ended by pleasing nobody. We may feel sure that the débâcle of The Idiot film will not figure in Kurosawa's career as Greed figured in our loss of Stroheim.

For soon after came his great stroke of fortune: Rashomon entered the Venice Festival and won its grand prize. I have mentioned the slight circumstances that led to a Kurosawa film being invited there—but what if any other of his works had happened to be sent there and then? Would that audience and those judges have had the same stomach for the talent of Kurosawa in, say, the nearly unprecedented form and uncompromising modern subject of Drunken Angel, or the first film made after Rashomon—Living, with its bureaucrat hero dying of cancer? Would a comparison of these films with Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. have helped or hurt them? Did the novel physical beauty of Rashomon make Kurosawa's originality seem more acceptable in this than in any of his other films? It serves to recall that the director's most admiring critics in Japan found Rashomon "European" in style, in contrast to the Japanese style of his modern subjects, and asserted that the social viewpoint distinguishing all his previous films was missing. But I have heard no Japanese comment on the greatest advantage of Rashomon to Kurosawa's career; that its dramatically acquired fame abroad has given him a new freedom of choice at home, at a moment when that freedom was most threatened and when his development most needed it.

Beyond Rashomon little interest abroad, either commercially or critically, has been expressed in Kurosawa and his other films. The first American reference to his work appeared in The Sewanee Review (Winter, 1950, issue). Donald Richie, a reporter on the Nippon Times, has written knowingly about Japanese film audiences (in Theater Arts, March, 1954), and must be better acquainted with Kurosawa's films than this one article indicates. In his Cahiers du Cinéma essay, Sadoul's comment on Kurosawa appears to derive wholly from a Japanese informant. In a survey of Japanese films, a Soviet journalist (in New Times, May 6th, 1953) gives the only non-Japanese criticism of Kurosawa that I know, but he sums up his career so schematically ("threatened by the reactionaries, baited by the bourgeois press and faced with the prospect of dismissal from the Toho studios, he withdrew from the progressive movement and began to make pictures steeped in gloomy mysticism and frustration") that it is difficult to guess whether the writer has actually seen Kurosawa's films, especially when he refers to the "morbid relativism and studied formalism" (I am quoting an English translation) of Rashomon. Though I have not seen the films made by Kurosawa since Rashomon, what I have heard about them gives me confidence to disagree with this journalist when he predicts that Kurosawa's road leads "down into the swamp of reaction where true creative art withers and dies." No, it will be very difficult to defeat the artist who made Living (Ikiru), a film released early in 1952.

Living was written by Kurosawa in collaboration with Shinobu Hashimoto (collaborator on the Rashomon script) and Hisaka Aijiro (collaborator on The Idiot adaptation). Its setting is "this minute" in Tokyo, and its central figure is a petty bureaucrat, the branch manager of the Welfare Department in one of the city boroughs, and a model of upright and sober behaviour. As he is introduced to us, he has just faced the realisation that his doctor is concealing from him the fact of his approaching death by cancer. Compelled to look anew at his remaining months, he suffers a succession of jolts and makes a series of decisions. He overhears a brutally revealing conversation about himself (and his money) between his son and daughter-in-law, and all the love and respect he felt assured him is suddenly seen as a life-long sham. He reviews other shams and self-deceits of his life—and tries to repair them. The money he has saved for his son will now be spent on joys he never allowed himself to taste. He shares his new pleasures with a young girl in his office—who seems the very essence of the life he is leaving. Together they enter territories that have always been barred to him. His reputation in the office has been that of a rubber-stamp, mechanically affixing a signature to a never-lessening stack of documents on his desk. For the first time in his spotless bureaucratic career, he risks reading the papers he has been blindly signing. In the current pile he finds an appeal from some slum mothers for a playground; this seems to him a superlatively legitimate request, and, instead of sending it on through channels, he decides to take it through himself, to make sure it does not die on the way. (My informant tells me that the following sequence is a biting observation of bureaucracy "at work.") He wins the playground for the slum children, and on the evening before its opening makes sure that all the apparatus is in order; alone in the playground at dusk, he sits on a swing, singing a little song, and dies.

Imagine my astonishment when I was told that this concludes only the first third of the film! The last two-thirds are consumed by the bureaucrat's funeral, where each of the mourners remembers the ended life as he or she saw it; among these "versions" of a single life (reminiscent of the contradictory reports in Rashomon) are those by the son, the daughter-in-law, the office-girl, other office associates, and the mothers who asked for a playground.

I've given this lengthy synopsis of a film I haven't seen because it seems a high point in that element of Kurosawa's films that will keep them alive—their pity and humanity. It is this that sets them apart from the glossiest and cleverest of his country's films, and from most of the world's film product. Directors in several countries make films akin to Kurosawa's, and these we often group as "neo-realism," an unsatisfactory term for the work of de Sica as well as for Kurosawa. Both men look at their world with personal attitudes that are too sharply defined to fit into any "school," and both have shaped precise artistic forms to embody their views of the world. There is a Japanese term, Ukiyoye—pictures of the passing world (including both colour print and naturalistic cinema), that comes closer to Kurosawa's conscious aim.

Kurosawa has not been unaware that it was the exotic beauty of Rashomon that provided its passport to the world, and for the past year and a half he has been completing another bid (more deliberate this time) for the approbation of that world. That a Japanese film studio would permit such an extravagant expenditure of time is an indication of Kurosawa's past-Rashomon status. The new film is entitled Seven Samurai, but it is not an adaptation from Japanese literature or theater. It is based on an original idea, set in a long-past time: seven warriors, unattached to the retinue of any lord, offer themselves to right wrongs done to peasants and the poor. This may be Kurosawa's boldest effort, uniting the moral strength of his social films with the physical beauty that he and his colleagues apply so richly to the Japanese past. The writer-director, trained as a painter, should show his most dazzling "Japanese style" in this film.

That he sees the new film as a natural step in his artistic growth is indicated by his continued use of his acting stock company. Both Shimura and Mifune have roles in Seven Samurai, but not necessarily chief roles, for Kurosawa prefers to the star system the more flexible methods of a good repertory company. From the time he first assembled this "stock company," and though moving himself and it from studio to studio, Kurosawa has turned from it in only one film, Wonderful Sunday, although he has always enjoyed mixing new faces with his old reliables. His cameraman, too, is part of his company, although for Rashomon he used a cameraman at the Daiei studio skilled in the "beautiful" photography of the Sternberg imitations; this widened the photographic range usually employed by Kurosawa, but also opened the film to the Japanese critics' comments on its "European" style.

An element lacking in Living (as in Wonderful Sunday) is the climax of purgative violence that has its place in every other impressive Kurosawa film—the clash between students and police in Youth Feels No Regret, the knife-fight of Drunken Angel, the struggle in the underbrush of Stray Dog (when detective and gunman grow too exhausted to go on fighting!) and the several versions of Rashomon's rape and sword-fight. A full artistic satisfaction—for spectator as for maker—seemed impossible in a Kurosawa film except after such an explosion; I had begun to feel that this was a basic feature of Kurosawa's Japan. The lack of such a climactic episode in Living shows perhaps a new willingness on his part to place greater reliance on the fundamental ideas and attitudes of each film. Fortune again may have been just to Kurosawa, for Living is the first of his "modern" subjects that may reach Western audiences, after gaining some attention (under the distorting title of Doomed!) at this year's film festival in Western Berlin. But perhaps we too need to be shocked before we accept original film talent—and we'll have to wait for Drunken Angel after all.


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Akira Kurosawa 1910–1998

Japanese director and screenwriter.

For further information on Kurosawa's life and career, see CLC, Volume 16.

In a career that spanned fifty years and produced thirty films, Kurosawa established himself as a major force in international cinema. Kurosawa made nine films before his talent gained widespread recognition outside Japan. His tenth film Rashomon (1950) was entered in the Venice Film Festival and look lop honors. Set in medieval Japan, Rashomon relates the story of a rape and murder in four conflicting versions, each telling as much about the narrator as the events. Kurosawa's examination of larger questions such as the subjectivity of truth and perception helped to give his films their universal appeal. He borrowed freely from Western film and literature, writing and directing Japanese versions of Shakespeare's Macbeth (as Throne of Blood; 1956), and King Lear (as Ran; 1985), Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths, Fedor Dostoevsky's The Idiot, and Ed McBain's King's Ransom. This cross-cultural stimulation proved to be a two-way street. John Sturgess' The Magnificent Seven, Martin Ritt's The Outrage, Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, Walter Hill's Last Man Standing, and George Lucas' Star Wars are all based on Kurosawa films. Kurosawa's early work is noted for the technical virtuosity of his action sequences, including high-speed tracking shots and elaborate battle scenes. He frequently employed the use of multiple cameras, getting the scene with all its cuts in one take. But these one-take filmings came after many hours, and sometimes days, of rehearsal, giving Kurosawa the reputation of a difficult perfectionist. His early training in painting gave him a strong sense of visual composition which he used in filming. Kurosawa frequently filmed through a telephoto lens, the optics of which compress depth, giving scenes the two-dimensional flatness of classic Japanese scroll paintings. He also incorporated aspects of Noh theater (which uses standardized masks to convey the character and emotions of the actors) by having his actors' makeup applied in replication of these masks. His work is criticized by some as too Eastern and others as too Western, but many reviewers see it as a successful melding of the different arts and cultures. In response, Kurosawa would refer to his personal art collection. "I collect old Japanese lacquerware as well as antique French and Dutch glassware. In short, the Western and the Japanese live side by side in my mind naturally, without the least bit of conflict."

Charles Higham (essay date Autumn 1965)

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SOURCE: "Kurosawa's Humanism," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XXVII. No. 4, Autumn, 1965, pp. 737-42.

[In this essay, Higham examines the central thesis of basic human dignity in Kurosawa's films.]

It is fourteen years now since Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashomon burst on the world, evoking reactions ranging from waspish—"slow, complacent, Louvre-conscious, waiting-for-prizes" (Manny Farber in The Nation)—to ecstatic—"It is a rare cinema treat" (Philip T. Hartung). Today, Kurosawa's reputation, refueled by annual chefs-d'oeuvre, shows no signs of flagging, and no one would raise an eyebrow at the statement that he is a towering figure of the film. What does surprise many people in the West is his enormous popularity in his native country. The Japanese public has a habit of bandying directors' names that is unthinkable almost anywhere else. It is as though British or American fans were to swap encomiums not only for Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and The Beatles but for George Stevens, David Lean, and John Frankenheimer. Kurosawa is a national presence despite the fact that he has unhesitatingly dealt in themes not usually thought "popular": corruption in bureaucracy, the futility of the military system, the absurdity of Japanese face-saving and self-deception, the pomposity of the Kabuki Theater. In the West, only that supreme entertainer and supplier of vicarious thrills, Hitchcock, is known to the mass audience. If a new philosopher and poet of Kurosawa's caliber were to emerge in the Western cinema, it is unlikely that he would go recognized beyond a minority of specialists.

Kurosawa is extremely reticent, unwilling to discuss his films on the ground that "if I could have said it in words I would have—then I wouldn't have needed to make the picture" ("Kurosawa on Kurosawa" by Donald Richie; Sight and Sound, Summer 1964). He is a quiet, reserved man who saves all his energy for his work. Totally committed to his role as Japan's foremost film artist, he has no time for interviewers and has granted only a handful in his career. He dislikes discussing techniques of film and will not speak in detail of other directors' work. He has, however, expressed admiration for Ford, Stevens, and Wyler, and in general he thinks American movies far superior to his own.

The facts known about Kurosawa's life are, not surprisingly, meager. He was born in 1910 and was taught the visual arts while only in the second year of his schooling (by the gifted advocate of art education for children, Tachikawa). Kurosawa's early paintings were exhibited by an art society, and he decided to become a painter. Despite family opposition, he took a job at a photochemical laboratory which was the forerunner of the Toho Studio outfit where he now works.

This combination of artistic and technical experience gave Kurosawa his extraordinary early grasp of the resources of the cinema. When he took over sequences in The Horse (1941), a film directed by the veteran Kajiro Yamamoto, his flair and dynamism were immediately apparent. Yamamoto later wrote, "Kurosawa was more tough, more exacting than I" (Cinema, August 1963). And from the beginning the young director displayed an authoritarian sternness toward his technicians, exacting from them the utmost they could give.

These facts—plus the one that his wife is an actress—are all that have appeared in English about Kurosawa's early career. Even Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson in their definitive book, The Japanese Film, give no satisfactory clue to Kurosawa's private personality, although Richie's forthcoming biography of the director promises to fill out the picture. Seen at work on the set, he is—though rather asthenic of build, with long, narrow limbs—a dynamo whose word is law and who obviously lives every moment of a film as he is creating it. Beyond that, he seems to slip away into a private life whose obscure grayness is not unusual among film directors throughout the world.

Yet Kurosawa is not wholly an enigma. The central characters in many of his films clearly reflect his own personality. He has told stories of heroes and evil men, lovers and clowns; and yet, like El Greco in "The Burial of Count Orgaz" (if, as I think, Aldous Huxley's interpretation of the painting is to be accepted), he has put his own spirit—by turns dour, fanatical, witty, savage—into every one of his figures.

The Tokyo audiences that went back again and again to see the famous train sequence in Kurosawa's kidnaping story, High and Low—money flung from an express to waiting bandits in a scene directed with the utmost virtuosity and vitality—were responding not only to an exciting thriller but to the director's overpoweringly immediate and sensuous handling of the medium. His genius is concerned with the physical rather than the spiritual or intellectual; he has said that he looks on life as a "natural man," that he is excited by violent extremes of human and phenomenal nature because they express "what is most alive." He deals with the most primitive human emotions: greed, fear, lust, the desire to kill and hunt; the world of abstract ideas interests him little. One sees why he admires Ford so deeply, and why he has been influenced by him: Ford's love of nature, of the wilderness, of rain and snow and blazing heat, of extremes of courage and cowardice and of the coarse humor of men of action are reflected and enlarged in Kurosawa's totally created cinematic world.

He is concerned with the reasons for man's unhappiness in the world and with man's tragic repetition of his past mistakes, but he does not attempt facile solutions. His mastery of the cinema's technical resources is used to support an austere and rigorous examination of human weaknesses and aspirations. Appropriately, his style is severely disciplined: the sound track is never a mere accompaniment to the images, but is woven in with them to form a kinesthetic pattern of the utmost severity and purity. This discipline is no less strikingly displayed in the breath-taking virtuoso chase sequences of High and Low than it is in the almost actionless, almost static The Lower Depths. Like George Stevens, Kurosawa shoots each scene from several different viewpoints, selecting the most effective shot later, and building the film's rhythm through a succession of these shots rearranged and re-emphasized in the editing. Like Ford, he uses a stock company, led by the magnificent Toshiro Mifune. Whereas he has learned his handling of mass action, of the complexities of location shooting, from Ford, he has learned the concentrated use of interiors from Stevens and from his other idol, Wyler.

Rashomon, his first film to be shown in the West, immediately launched the spectator into an imaginary world created by a poet of the sun, of rain, wind, and sexual desire. Critics have tended to discuss the film in purely literary terms, analyzing its story of a murder and rape recounted by several witnesses simply as a moral fable, and ignoring all but its most superficial technical aspects—its smooth editing, its accomplished tracking shots through woods. But the overpowering impression it gives is of a commitment to the splendor of the body, and of the phenomenal world: the austere beauty of rain sweeping down from the gunmetal sky above Kyoto on the torii where men take shelter in the opening sequence; of leaves glittering in the sun; of the shining pebbles of an enclosure where a medium whirls in fluttering drapery; of the bunched muscles of the rapist's back as he is overcome by desire; and of the delicate body of the raped wife in its virginal white. Showing—through the differing accounts of the crime—that truth itself is never absolute, Kurosawa also shows that no judgment of the rapist-killer can be made. With that freedom from sexual remorse which is totally Japanese, he is content to suggest to us that all men are forgivably weak when their desires are aroused, and that in their cruelty and passion there is often an animal beauty.

In his first film, Judo Saga, made in the early 1940s, Kurosawa broke at once into a hymn to youth, life, and strength. From the beautiful opening image (of a somber gentleman carrying an umbrella in a street of the Meiji period) through the judo champion hero's immersion in a lilypadded pool to the superb judo fight in a field of tall grass, a wind tearing through the blades under a storm-clouded sky, the film is a poem dedicated to virility and the glory of nature. In Walkers on Tigers' Tails (1944), confined to one set and a backdrop, Kurosawa turned a Kabuki-style, stiffly haughty drama upside down by making it the object of a monkey-like clown's mockery. The tiny, darting, fooling figure of the comedian clearly represents Kurosawa's good-humored plea for ordinary human values in a Japan ruled by stiff traditions, and the film's "Kabuki" approach, totally theatrical and devoid of visual interest, is itself a very amusing joke. In Wonderful Sunday (1946), suggested by an early D. W. Griffith romance, Kurosawa delicately evokes the beauty of young love, rising above a drab, wet Tokyo day and a series of mishaps (including the loss of an all-important concert ticket); very American-silent in style, fluent, beautifully acted by the young people playing the leading roles, the film only falls down in the last two reels, when a Griffith-like sentimentality takes over and the couple, in a deserted music-bowl, listens to the imaginary sounds of the orchestra they had missed echoing through the park.

Stray Dog (1949), a rather sketchy roman policier and a mere blueprint for the far more inventive High and Low, does conclude with a memorable image, fully expressive of Kurosawa's philosophy: pursuer and criminal pursued are seen covered in mud at the end of an inconclusive battle, indistinguishable from each other. And Drunken Angel, made the year before, about a tippling doctor and a tubercular criminal patient, is full of a similar humanistic irony, showing that each man is weak but that neither is less worthy of love than the other. The socially accepted and the socially rejected are both, in the last analysis, human beings, calling for our friendship and compassion.

It is only the inhuman that Kurosawa condemns. In Living (1952), perhaps his masterpiece and certainly his most powerfully argued film, he is devastatingly explicit. The opening shot—a physician pointing out a cancerous spot on an X-ray—immediately establishes the uncompromisingly honest tone of the rest: the director is going to conceal nothing of life; he is going straight to the bone. In this story of a little bureaucrat who knows he is going to die, realizes his life has been futile, and tries desperately to push through a children's playground scheme to show he has lived at all, Kurosawa calmly and unsparingly discloses the realities of contemporary urban existence, its compromises, corruptions, and stupidities. The method is the opposite of Capra's: the bureaucrats who oppose the dying man's scheme are not caricatures but ordinary men caught in a web of red tape neither they nor any other human being can control. The jazz-mad night city of Tokyo, the heartless offices of the giant government services, the dusty streets by day: Kurosawa creates a world at once totally recognizable and illuminated by the vision of a genius. In the final shot, the clerk dying on a swing in the playground he has succeeded in getting built, Kurosawa makes his final statement about life: human will for good must win through, no matter how it is impeded.

The Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), and The Lower Depths (1957) seem to me more of interest for their technical virtuosity than for their power in advancing Kurosawa's vision of life: the first a massive, involved (and heavily cut for the West) reiteration of the point driven home at the end of Stray Dog (that enemies are the same under the skin); the second a mannered, strained version of Macbeth, relieved by a brilliantly orchestrated sound-track and some striking individual images; the third a set-bound, talky, but marvelously acted reworking of Gorki's play in terms of the Japanese underprivileged. All, I would say, were surpassed by Kurosawa's first major triumph since Living, The Bad Sleep Well (1960).

This was the first production made by Kurosawa with his own company, and it displays a striking freedom and fluency in execution. Distantly related to Hamlet in theme, it tells a story of bribery and corruption in big business: a young executive tracks down the killers of his father, only to be himself destroyed by the system. The opening is wonderfully managed: a giant wedding cake shaped like an office building carried into the reception for the executive and his bride, a rose marking the window where the groom's father was pushed to his death. And later, as the desperate Hamlet-figure attempts to prod the consciences of the killers, pursuing a victim up the crumbling side of a volcano or disguising one of the murderers as a ghost to frighten the rest, Kurosawa formidably displays the full range of his visual and aural skills. The final shot of an official calmly reporting to his superior that the hero has been "taken care of" is a marvelously offhand comment on the power of big business.

After two engaging but less significant samurai pictures based on his theme that enemies are really the same, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Kurosawa returned to full-scale drama in his last film but one. High and Low (1963). The first 65 minutes are austere, all emotion suppressed below the surface as a shoe manufacturer, on the point of clinching a new deal, learns that his chauffeur's son has been kidnaped in mistake for his own, and that he must use as ransom the fortune he needs to secure the contract. The action is confined to one set (the manufacturer's penthouse) and the visual style is strictly geometric, the characters rearranged over and over again in a series of abstract patterns within the CinemaScope frame. Then, just when the tension induced by this technique threatens to become unbearable, Kurosawa cuts to the train from which the ransom money is to be thrown. Suddenly the camera, virtually floor-bound before, takes off on one of the most breath-taking flights in screen history, darting down the narrow train compartment, taking in the kidnapers on two knolls alongside the railroad tracks, hurtling around the heads of the frantically arguing father and his companions, freezing with the swift shots taken by the police photographers of the two abductors. The details of the chase are dazzlingly caught: when the child is finally retrieved, his account of the events of the previous days is cut into the action, most notably when a crude picture he has drawn of a remote beach dissolves into a beautiful image of a sea-swept strand. But brilliant as the first two-thirds of the film have been, they pale beside the final sequences, when the bespectacled kidnaper is tracked down in the dives of Yokohama. As he enters a dance hall, the camera pans slowly along the oblong mirrors on top of the bar, huge fans whirling, bodies jigging in orgasmic frenzy, the sound-track throbbing to the rock 'n' roll blare of a giant juke box. And in the kidnaper's glasses a whole chiaroscuro of sweating flesh is reflected; in a series of images which carries the whole realistic weight of a Zola novel, Kurosawa exposes a microcosm of modern Japan, its amoral abandon, its cruelty, viciousness, and overpowering animal sensuality.

Kurosawa's latest film at the time of writing, Red Beard, a return to the medical setting of Drunken Angel, has not yet been widely shown outside Japan. Meanwhile, he continues to plan new films, new expressions of his belief in man's fundamental decency. Now that the American film he so admires has collapsed into mindless inanition, he is left to carry on a tradition its greatest practitioners once held sacred: a tradition of humanism and optimism, of the courage of people who fight for goodness in the midst of a cynical world.

Principal Works

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Sanshiro Sugata (film) 1943The Most Beautiful (film) 1944Sanshiro Sugata, Part II (film) 1945No Regrets for Our Youth (film) 1946One Wonderful Sunday (film) 1947Drunken Angel (film) 1948The Quiet Duel (film) 1949Stray Dog (film) 1949Rashomon (film) 1950Scandal (film) 1950The Idiot (film) 1951Ikiru (film) 1952The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (film) 1952Seven Samurai (film) 1954Record of a Living Being (film) 1955The Lower Depths (film) 1957Throne of Blood (film) 1957The Hidden Fortress (film) 1958The Bad Sleep Well (film) 1960Yojimbo (film) 1961Sanjuro (film) 1962High and Low (film) 1963Red Beard (film) 1965Dodeskaden (film) 1970Dersu Uzala (film) 1975Kagemusha (film) 1980Ran (film) 1985Dreams (film) 1990Rhapsody in August (film) 1990Madadayo (film) 1993


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Rick Lyman (obituary date 7 September 1998)

SOURCE: "Akira Kurasawa, Director of Rashomon and Seven Samurai, Dies at 88," in New York Times, September 7, 1998, p. A1.

[In the following obituary, Lyman summarizes Kurosawa's life and career.]

Akira Kurosawa, who personified Japanese movies to most of the world and who grew into one of the handful of truly important directors that the cinema has produced, died yesterday at his home in Tokyo. He was 88.

The cause was a stroke, his family said.

Mr. Kurosawa, the son of a military institute's athletic instructor, stumbled into filmmaking after failing as a painter and became one of the colossal figures in film history—an autocratic perfectionist with a painter's eye for composition, a dancer's sense of movement and a humanist's quiet sensibility. Dozens of directors spanning two generations have acknowledged his enduring influence.

When Mr. Kurosawa's Rashomon reached Western audiences in 1951, little was known outside Japan about the country's cinema. That changed overnight with Rashomon, a compelling study of ambiguity and deception that provides four contradictory accounts of a medieval rape and murder recalled by a bandit, a noblewoman, the ghost of her slain husband and a woodcutter. The characters, Mr. Kurosawa said, have a "sinful need for flattering falsehood" and "cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are."

Mr. Kurosawa's calculated blend of Japanese folklore with Western acting styles and storytelling techniques provided a link between the two worlds, reintroducing Japanese culture to a postwar global audience and leading to an amazingly fertile decade that saw him produce several films that have widely been acclaimed as among the finest ever made, including Seven Samurai, Ikiru and Yojimbo.

"I suppose all of my films have a common theme," Mr. Kurosawa once told the film scholar Donald Richie. "If I think about it, though, the only theme I can think of is really a question: Why can't people be happier together?"

Tall and large-boned, Mr. Kurosawa mixed a workingman's thick, powerful hands with the face of a professor, sometimes a very stern professor. He was known by colleagues, not always affectionately, as "the Emperor."

Mr. Kurosawa's ecumenical interests in Western literature, Japanese folk tales and American westerns led him to source material as diverse as Gorky's Lower Depths, Shakespeare's Macbeth and Ed McBain's King's Ransom.

He was a master of both of the most popular Japanese film genres of his era, the jidai-geki (a costume-action film involving medieval samurai) and the gendai-geki (a more realistic, often domestic drama rooted in contemporary Japanese life).

In her introduction to Voices from the Japanese Cinema (1975), Joan Mellen wrote: "It is possible to draw a line from Kurosawa's finest film, 'Seven Samurai,' which Donald Richie has called the greatest Japanese film ever made, back to Daisuke Ito's 'Man-Slashing, Horse-Piercing Sword' in 1930. But if Ito created the genre of jidai-geki, Kurosawa perfected the form and gave it so deep a historical resonance that each of his jidai-geki has contained within it the entire progress of Japan from feudal to modern times."

Mr. Kurosawa chafed when Japanese critics described his work as too Western: "I collect old Japanese lacquerware as well as antique French and Dutch glassware," he said. "In short, the Western and the Japanese live side by side in my mind naturally, without the least bit of conflict."

Seeking Perfection With Real Arrows

Stories of his perfectionism are plentiful. He once halted production to reconstruct a hugely expensive medieval set because he noticed a nail head was barely visible in one shot. For the climax of Throne of Blood, his 1957 samurai version of Macbeth, he insisted that his star, Toshiro Mifune, wear a protective vest and perform the scene while being shot with real arrows.

On the set, where he rarely brooked dissent, Mr. Kurosawa developed his own technique for filmmaking that allowed him to edit each day's scenes that night and be finished with a rough draft of the film within hours of shooting the final scene.

He rehearsed all of the scenes meticulously, sometimes for weeks, then shot them from beginning to end, using three cameras positioned at strategic points. "I put the A camera in the most orthodox positions, use the B camera for quick, decisive shots and the C camera as a kind of guerrilla unit," he said.

This is quite different from the way films arc normally made, beginning with a "master shot" that is then augmented with close-ups and reverse-angle shots that are pieced together into a final version. Mr. Kurosawa wanted his scenes to be a record of a single performance.

"The editing stage is really, for me, a breeze," he said. "Every day, I edit the rushes together, so that by the time I am finished shooting, what is called the initial assembly is already completed. It's not all that bad. I just stay for maybe an hour or an hour and a half after everyone has left. That's all it takes me."

While he was quite strict with his technical crew, Mr. Kurosawa was more patient with actors.

"It is really strange," said Shiro Miroya, one of Mr. Kurosawa's assistant directors. "Kurosawa, who can be a real demon at times, when he'll scream out, 'The rain isn't falling like I want it to,' or 'That damn wind isn't blowing the dust right,' is always so terribly gentle with actors."

Mr. Kurosawa described his approach this way: "Unless you can see, as an actor, what the director is trying to express simply by how he looks and acts himself, you are going to miss the finer points. When my cast and I are on location, we always eat together, sleep in the same rooms, are constantly talking together. As you might say, here is where I direct."

The approach paid off with an intense loyalty. Kyoko Kagawa, who starred in The Lower Depths (1957) and the contemporary thriller The Bad Sleep Well (1960), told an interviewer, "It is only when I work with the Kurosawa group that I feel fulfilled as an actress—and coupled with that is the feeling of relief that I know when I see that Kurosawa is satisfied."

Perhaps the greatest loyalty was between Mr. Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, his most famous star. Mr. Kurosawa made 17 films between 1948 and 1965, and all but one of them starred Mifune. But the director and his top star had a falling out following the making of Red Beard (1965), partly because of Mifune's desire to mount his own productions and partly due to his annoyance over what he saw as Mr. Kurosawa's growing perfectionism. They never worked together again; Mr. Mifune died last year.

World Famous, But a Homebody

Though internationally renowned, Mr. Kurosawa was not much of a globe-trotter. He spent most of his time, when not working at his Tokyo studio, at the nearby home that he shared with his wife, Yoko Yaguchi, a former actress, who died in 1984. They had one son, Hisao, and one daughter, Kuzuko, both of whom survive him.

His global fame was not always matched by popularity at home, and Japanese audiences seemed to tire of his costume epics. Financial reversals following the release of Dodeskaden in 1970 combined with a persistent and painful ailment (later diagnosed as gallstones) led him to attempt suicide in 1971. Though he recovered, he seemed changed. After having made 19 films between 1946 and 1965, he made only 6 in the 28 years following Dodeskaden, although two of them are considered among his finest works: the historical epics Kagemusha (1980), centered on a thief in feudal Japan who assumes a dead man's identity and becomes heroic, and Ran (1985).

His final films, Rhapsody in August (1990) and Madadayo (1993), were poorly received and struck many as containing a new, strident note of Japanese nationalism. But his influence on American filmmakers continued unabated.

In 1960, Mr. Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was remade by the director John Sturges as The Magnificent Seven. In 1964, Rashomon was remade by Martin Ritt as The Outrage. In 1964, Yojimbo was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars, then remade again in 1996 by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing.

And George Lucas has acknowledged The Hidden Fortress, a 1958 adventure by Mr. Kurosawa in which a princess is escorted to freedom with the help of two bickering peasants, as one of the inspirations for his Star Wars series, in which he replaced the peasants with two bickering robots.

Western Interests Of a Strict Father

Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo on March 23, 1910. His father was a former military officer who had become an athletic instructor at the Imperial Army's Toyama Academy. His mother had come from a well-to-do merchant family. "My mother was a very gentle woman," Mr. Kurosawa said, "But my father was quite severe."

Mr. Kurosawa's father was also a movie fan with a passion for other Western pasttimes. He organized one of the first baseball teams in Japan and built the country's first athletic swimming pool.

The Kurosawa family had once been in the feudal nobility, tracing its lineage to a legendary 11th-century samurai, Abe Sadato. But they had been living in Tokyo for four generations by the time Akira was born and no longer had wealth or status.

Akira was the youngest of four sisters and four brothers. In the book he wrote about the first decades of his life, Something Like an Autobiography, he remembered himself as "a crybaby and a real little operator." He also suffered from periodic seizures caused by a form of epilepsy.

While Mr. Kurosawa was in his second year of primary school, the family moved to the neighborhood of Edogawa and he entered the Kuroda School, where a charismatic teacher inspired an interest in painting. Mr. Kurosawa's father encouraged this, but the family often did not have enough money to buy art supplies. Later, Akira moved on to a more militaristic middle school and gravitated toward a brother, Heigo, who shared his interest in art. Heigo, who was four years older than Akira, did not get along with their father and no longer lived at home.

Without his father's knowledge, Akira spent much of his time with Heigo during his teen-age years. Heigo was very interested in a traditional form of storytelling known as kodan, which featured tales of samurai and often involved intricate, stylized swordplay.

But what Akira remembered most about those years was going to the movies with his brother, who had taken a job as a benshi, or silent-film narrator. "We would go to the movies, particularly silent movies, and then discuss them all day," Mr. Kurosawa later wrote. "I began to love to read books, especially Dostoyevsky, and I can remember when we went to see Abel Gance's 'La Roue' and it was the first film that really influenced me and made me think of wanting to become a filmmaker."

When sound came to films, Heigo lost his livelihood. Shortly thereafter, with what at the time seemed to Akira to be no warning, Heigo went on a trip to the mountains outside Tokyo and killed himself.

"I clearly remember the day before he committed suicide," Mr. Kurosawa wrote. "He had taken me to a movie in the Yamate district and afterward said that that was all for today, that I should go home. We parted at Shin Okubo station. He started up the stairs and I had started to walk off, then he stopped and called me back. He looked at me, looked into my eyes, and then we parted. I know now what he must have been feeling."

Akira enrolled in the Doshusha School of Western Painting in 1927 and tried to supplement the family's income with his work, but was never able to make much money. Finally, he postponed his hopes of becoming a serious artist and took piecework for magazines and cookbook publishers.

In 1936, desperate for cash, he noticed a small advertisement for Tokyo's P.C.L. Studios, which later became the Toho Film Production Company. It was looking for a half-dozen young men interested in becoming apprentice assistant directors.

All applicants—there were 500 of them—were asked to present themselves for an interview and to bring along an essay they had written on "The Basic Defects of the Japanese Film Industry." Armed with his own essay, a 26-year-old Mr. Kurosawa found himself facing Kajiro Yamamoto, then the most prominent film director in Japan. Yamamoto later remembered the young Mr. Kurosawa as extremely intelligent and refreshingly honest. He recommended that Mr. Kurosawa be hired and, shortly afterward, took the young man under his wing.

Mr. Kurosawa worked as Yamamoto's assistant for seven years. Finally, in 1943, he was given the chance to direct his first film, Sanshiro Sugata, a slick judo adventure aimed at the popular market. It was a box-office smash in wartime Tokyo. Mr. Kurosawa followed it with The Most Beautiful, a blending of documentary and dramatic scenes about Japanese women working in factories, and Sanshiro Sugata, Part II, another huge hit. He also made The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail at that time, but it was not released until 1952.

"During the war, I hungered for the beautiful," Mr. Kurosawa said. "I therefore drowned myself in the world of Japanese traditional beauty. I perhaps wanted to flee from reality, but through these experiences I learned and absorbed more than I could ever express."

After the war, Mr. Kurosawa found traditional, stylized storytelling too confining and hungered for realism and the kind of film-making he saw in the works of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica.

In 1946, Mr. Kurosawa directed No Regrets for Our Youth, about persecutions in postwar Tokyo by elements in the Japanese right wing. "It was the first film in which I had something to say and in which my feelings were used," Mr. Kurosawa said.

Two years later, he made Drunken Angel, a crusading drama about an alcoholic doctor in the Tokyo slums. The film made his critical reputation in Japan.

In 1950, Mr. Kurosawa released Rashomon in Tokyo. The Japanese critics thought it a commendable though not exemplary work, nowhere near the director's best. Nevertheless, the film won the Venice Film Festival's grand prize and an Academy Award as best foreign-language movie. Its success made Mr. Kurosawa Japan's most famous and popular filmmaker.

"For the Japanese people, who had lost the war as well as their pride, this meant immeasurable encouragement and hope," Mr. Kurosawa said.

His next film, a strange adaptation of The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, was poorly received. But he followed it, in 1952, with Ikiru, which some consider his finest work. Ikiru, which means "to live," is entirely unlike the later samurai epics that would cement his international reputation. Set in contemporary Tokyo, it follows a joyless, dying bureaucrat, memorably played by Takashi Shimura, who decides to help slum parents build a playground. The film was immediately recognized as a great work, both in Japan and abroad. But it was soon overshadowed.

Lifting Restrictions Fans Artistic Flames

In 1953, the Allied occupation forces rescinded the restrictions on the making of films and the freedom stirred an amazing burst of creativity. In that one year alone, Yasujiro Ozu made The Tokyo Story, Kenji Mizoguchi made Ugetsu, Kon Ichikawa made Mr. Pu, and Akira Kurosawa made Seven Samurai. It was the high water mark of Japanese filmmaking.

Mr. Kurosawa's four-hour epic, often referred to as among the greatest action films ever made, tells the story of down-on-their-luck samurai who agree to defend a small village from bandits. What Mr. Kurosawa did in Seven Samurai is often compared with what John Ford did in Stagecoach: take an otherwise formulaic genre and inject it with vivid imagery and complex characters. He took the same kind of characters he had been featuring in his neo-realist films and put them into a jidai-geki.

Following the commercial disappointment of Red Beard in 1965, Mr. Kurosawa found it harder to find backing. He was hired by 20th Century Fox to direct the Japanese sequences in Tora! Tora! Tora!, its 1970 epic about Pearl Harbor, but he left the production shortly after shooting began.

Mr. Kurosawa was said to have thrown tantrums on the set and demanded levels of perfection that caused a mutiny among the crew. His supporters said that he was angry when he discovered that the American sequences would be filmed by Richard Fleischer, not David Lean, as he had been told, and that he had staged the tantrums to force Fox to fire him.

Whichever was the case, it further undermined his flagging reputation. In response, Mr. Kurosawa became more withdrawn, at times traveling around Tokyo with a retinue of bodyguards, like a Yakuza kingpin.

Though he had a major international success in 1974 with Dersu Uzala, a Soviet production about the friendship between a Russian explorer and a Manchurian hunter, he remained elusive and incommunicative. It won the 1975 Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

Even in 1980, at the premiere of Kagemusha at the New York Film Festival, Mr. Kurosawa struck many as cold and distant, even hostile. To some, he seemed to shrug off the film, saying he would rather have made Ran, an epic version of King Lear. But the success of Kagemusha made Ran possible.

When he returned to the New York Film Festival in 1985 with Ran, he seemed a changed man: friendlier, more relaxed, even granting a handful of interviews.

"As my son frequently says to me now," Mr. Kurosawa said in one of those interviews, "'Dad, you have changed completely. You are a much more relaxed, open person than you were.' I am not sure why this is. It is simply a greater degree of relaxation and peace with myself, not having the tension that I had before."

Even his sets had become happier places.

In The New York Times, Vincent Canby described Ran as "almost a religious experience—an epiphany" that "stands above all other 1985–1986 movies with the implacable presence of a force of nature."

His subsequent films, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams in 1990, which harked back to his early years as a painter, Rhapsody in August and Madadayo never reached the critical or popular success of Ran.

Though he often diverted the conversation when asked about his approach to filmmaking, Mr. Kurosawa frequently described his attitude toward art in similar terms. "To be an artist," he once said, "means never to avert one's eyes."

Mr. Kurosawa also once described a trip he made with his brother, Heigo, through the ruins of Tokyo after a massive earthquake in 1923. More than 140,000 people died in the fires that followed the quake. But as the pair moved through the ruins, Mr. Kurosawa said, his brother insisted that the young Akira look closely at the charred corpses.

"If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened," Akira remembered Heigo telling him. "If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of."

Kevin Thomas (obituary date 7 September 1998)

SOURCE: "Kurosawa Brought Japan—and Inspiration—to West," in Los Angeles Times, September 7, 1998, pp. Al, All.

[In the following obituary, Thomas praises the achievements of Kurosawa's career.]

At the time of his death Sunday of a stroke at his Tokyo home, Akira Kurosawa, who was 88, was widely regarded as the greatest director still living and one of the most influential filmmakers of any era.

His 1950 Rashomon, a period tale in which a bandit's assault on an aristocratic woman traveling through a forest is told from four different viewpoints, is one of the key films in the history of Japanese cinema and spawned many imitators. When it took the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. Japanese films were virtually unknown in the West, but it went on to win a special Oscar as the best foreign film of the year. A Hong Kong broadcast today declared that "Kurosawa was one of the few Asians to whom Hollywood paid attention."

Director Steven Spielberg, in France to promote Saving Private Ryan, described Kurosawa on Sunday as "the visual Shakespeare of our time."

"I am deeply saddened by Kurosawa's death," Spielberg told reporters. "But what encourages me is that he … is the only director who right until the end of his life continued to make films that were recognized as, or will be recognized as, classics."

In Japan, Kurosawa's death was front-page news in every paper today. Tokyo film critic Yoshio Shirai said: "Before Rashomon, the outside world's image of Japan was Mt. Fuji, geisha and cherry blossoms. After the movie, it changed to Kurosawa, Sony and Honda, in that order."

Kurosawa thus became a source of national pride to a people who had only recently suffered a devastating defeat in World War II, director Yoji Yamada said.

"When Rashomon won the grand prize [in Venice] Japanese, who were still living in the aftermath of the war, were greatly encouraged that Japanese art was recognized by the world," Yamada said.

Often described as the "most Western" of Japanese directors, Kurosawa—a bold, innovative stylist and master storyteller—admired the films of John Ford and other Hollywood directors. It's not hard to see the impact of the Western on one of his most celebrated films, Seven Samurai (1954), in which a small village, regularly attacked by bandits, hires a group of swordsmen to defend it. So popular was this saga that Hollywood remade it in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven.

The late Sergio Leone freely admitted pirating one of Kurosawa's most popular, and amusing, films, Yojimbo (1960). Leone called his version A Fistful of Dollars, and it gave rise to the spaghetti western and established Clint Eastwood as a major star. George Lucas has acknowledged The Hidden Fortress (1958), one of Kurosawa's liveliest samurai epics, as a key inspiration for Star Wars. Fay and Michael Kanin turned Rashomon into a successful Broadway play, and Martin Rill turned it into The Outrage, starring Paul Newman.

For 50 years, Kurosawa created images that stick permanently in the memory—the swift tracking shots through the forest in Rashomon; the shot in Ikiru ("To Live," 1952) of the great character actor Takashi Shimura as a petty bureaucrat sitting in a swing under softly falling snow, dying but content in his belief that he has succeeded in giving his life meaning; the shocked expression of Toshiro Mifune's Macbeth-like monarch in Throne of Blood (1957) as he realizes that he has been fatally impaled by a flurry of arrows.

Although his films were routinely described by critics and scholars alike as being profoundly humanistic, Kurosawa remained modest about his work.

"I just make up stories and film them," he said in 1985 after he introduced Ran, his period epic version of King Lear. "When I am lucky, the stories have a lifelike quality that makes them appealing to people, and the film is successful."

Born in Tokyo, Kurosawa was the youngest of seven children of an army officer turned athletic instructor. Young Akira first showed talent in art and at 17 enrolled in the Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts to study painting. Unsuccessful as a commercial artist, he answered an advertisement for assistant directors in 1936 and joined what was to become Toho Film Co., one of Japan's major studios.

To his surprise, Kurosawa not only got the job but soon found that film was his true art form. He made his directing debut in 1943 with Judo Saga, stressing the spiritual side of martial arts at the very moment Japanese filmmakers were expected to be at their most militaristic. Chafing at wartime censorship, he made only two more films during World War II—The Most Beautiful (1944), about women's everyday lives on the home front, and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, parodying samurai ideology in 1945.

The refreshingly natural actress who starred in The Most Beautiful, Yoko Yaguchi, retired from acting and married Kurosawa, becoming his personal support system until her death in 1985. The couple had a son, Hisao, and a daughter, Kazuko. She and her son were with him at his death.

After the war, Kurosawa won recognition as the best Japanese director of the year in 1947 for his love story One Wonderful Sunday. His next film, Drunken Angel, began his long association with actor Mifune, who played a tuberculosis-stricken gangster aided by a slum doctor in postwar Tokyo. "In this picture," Kurosawa later said, "I finally discovered myself."

Mifune, who died in December at 77, was the star of many of Kurosawa's finest films, including Rashomon. During their 17-year collaboration, Kurosawa transformed the fledgling film actor into Japan's most internationally renowned star.

As the '60s and '70s wore on, Kurosawa made fewer and fewer films. Kagemusha (1980) would most likely never have been made at all had not two of his fans, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, stepped in as executive producers, persuading 20th Century Fox to buy the international distribution rights. Lucas later commented that for Kurosawa not to have been able to make Kagemusha would have been "like telling Michelangelo, 'All right, you're 70, and we're not letting you paint anymore.'"

In person, the 6-foot Kurosawa was a commanding figure. Sometimes he would be in a mood for an interview, sometimes not, but he was always cordial, speaking through his U.S. interpreter, film historian Audie Bock. In a 1980 interview, he said, "I have never made a film someone has ordered me to make."

Kurosawa was in a jovial mood while in Los Angeles on his 80th birthday, March 23, 1990—three days before he was to receive another honorary Oscar, this one for lifetime achievement. "I sure don't feel like I'm 80," he said in his Beverly Hills hotel suite. "To be honest, I feel like behaving like a total fool, but I can't do it because my producers are here!" he exclaimed, indicating his son and his nephew Mike Y. Inoue.

Kurosawa had rarely been seen in public in recent years. Three years ago, he broke his leg and spine in a fall at an inn in Kyoto, and afterward he spent most of his time in bed, but he was still doing rehabilitation exercises at the time of his death, his son said at a news conference Sunday.

His condition worsened two weeks ago, however—although he was able to have conversations until the end, Hisao said.

A private funeral for the family will be held Tuesday, and there will be a public farewell service Sunday at the Kurosawa Film Studio in Yokohama, which is headed by his son.

His children reported that Kurosawa's passing was "as peaceful as if he were going to sleep."

"He did not utter any last words," Hisao said. "But his films were his testament."

Benito Ortolani (essay date 2 October 1965)

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SOURCE: "The Films and Faces of Akira Kurosawa," in America, Vol. 113, No. 14, October 2, 1965, pp. 368-71.

[Father Benito Ortolani, an Italian Jesuit at the Sophia University in Tokyo, has made extensive study of Noh Theater and Japanese films. In the following essay, he examines the recurring spiritual themes in Kurosawa's films.]

By the novelty of its circumstances, it was the first of my meetings with Akira Kurosawa that imprinted on my mind the most vivid impression of the man and his work.

Kurosawa's motion picture crews were on location one beautifully cold December day on one of the vast back lots of the Toho Company in the outskirts of Tokyo. Most of the shooting of a prolonged and difficult schedule had already been accomplished over a period of months, but these sequences because of their difficulty had been postponed almost to the last.

The film in production, which will shortly be appearing on American screens, was Red Beard (Aka Hige), in which Toshiro Mifune, Japan's leading male actor, plays the title role.

Those who have seen the film, or see it in the future, will not easily forget the sequences in which Onaka (Miyuki Kuwano) emerges from the smoky ruins of a village that has just been destroyed by earthquake and is now burning fiercely. As she stumbles forth, the sun peers through the smoke like a red, malevolent eye, giving the screen a blinding, washed-out quality that helps to express her bewilderment and the miracle of her escape.

Months of planning and construction had preceded the actual shooting of the difficult scenes, and it was this shooting that I was witnessing. In the finished movie, the scenes flow together as continuous action, but they were necessarily made as separate segments of the camera and location schedules.

The camera crews were not at all certain that all the scheduled scenes would be made that day, but they were excitedly hopeful. They knew that the director, Kurosawa, had gone just a few months before to Niigata to observe the manner in which the full force of an earthquake had despoiled a whole city, and that he would be trying to incorporate the lessons so vividly and freshly learned. Anyone who has worked under him or has seen him at work in the score or more of his film productions knows of the care and precision, the authenticity and almost impossible perfection, he demands.

Motion picture crews everywhere—and the Japanese are certainly no exception—often seem busiest when they are marking time and not really working at all. Now they jiggled with light meters, tape measures, dolly tracks, reflectors and all the clutter of paraphernalia that makes film work seem to the uninitiated like organized madness. They were changing lights up and down, moving pedestals, checking apertures and film loads, repairing the actors' and actresses' make-up, remeasuring camera distances, confirming all the angles and movements and apertures and distances that did not need to be confirmed at all right now. It was such a cold day on the outside lot that one could almost detach one's mind from the infuriating delays and attend to the single business of keeping warm.

Meanwhile Kurosawa, the perfectionist, seemed to have forgotten for the moment that the camera crews and the electricians and grips and actors and actresses existed, or that time schedules and payrolls had to be met for every exacted move or minute.

I watched him on a little hillock as he prepared to shoot the segment in which Onaka would pick her way out of the ruins onto the clear but deep-fissured grounds. The fissures had been artificed with great care, but Kurosawa was insisting on his last personal touch. He carried a short-handled, makeshift broom of denuded branches, and he was going to and fro among the fissures, dusting the ground here and there like a housewife for the twentieth time preparing the parlor for soon-to-arrive guests.

Flick. Flick. As he walked, with his characteristic stoop, he flicked the broom spasmodically near the fissures, clearing away more imaginary than actual debris. His cap down over his forehead, behind his dark, square-shaped glasses he seemed immune from any other thought, abstracted from the real world and living totally in the world of his own creation.

Finally, with a last approving glance, he laid aside the broom tidily out of camera range and seized a small tin bucket and went around making careful little deposits of ashes, which later, while his smoke machines were churning, his battery of wind machines were to swirl into blinding clouds of dust.

Homework done, he was now ready again for his actress. He sketched out one last briefing, and then began the ten or more rehearsals, preparatory and exploratory, that finally led to a "take."

Red Beard, by special invitation, was Toho's entry in the 1965 Moscow International Film Festival and was recently shown in the New York Film Festival, as well. It has been called a summary of all the previous films Kurosawa has directed.

Critics, faced with the problem of meeting deadlines and having something pertinent, timely or rousing to say, are always comparing Kurosawa to Fellini, Bergman, John Ford or George Stevens. These comparisons are for the most part as obscuring as the dust clouds I saw Kurosawa preparing on the hillock that December afternoon.

Basically, the constant theme that runs through much of Kurosawa's later and better work is a kind of Sermon on the Mount, but a Sermon on the Mount limned against time and not eternity. Although he is not a Christian by any professed creed, as he grows older his greater films—some think—are making the most Christian statement about man and his world to come from the screen today. In a world of many paradoxes, this is paradox indeed.

If his statements on poverty and justice, peace and honor, and man's dignity are not totally Christian, they are at least shot through with Christianity, almost as if they had been borrowed from Pope John XXIII's Pacem in Terris—though elsewhere it is obvious Pacem in Terris is not his script.

Like Fellini and Bergman, Kurosawa is always stumbling toward a statement of what is man, what is his world, what are his problems and what ought he to do about them. Of them all, Kurosawa is perhaps the least ambiguous.

Allowance has to be made here for perhaps too facile simplification or too generous overstatement. It has to be said at the outset that Kurosawa is of the earth earthy. Unlike Fellini or Bergman, he has not been purified by the anguish over what happens to man when death overtakes him. The Japanese director does not project or prolong his problems against the backdrop of eternity. He does not deal in the supernatural. His total preoccupation is with man here and now in his existential involvement. In this respect, his films are typical of modern Japanese expression in both art and literature.

Since Kurosawa forgoes the problem of the relationship of this life with an afterlife, he perhaps can afford a greater compression. From his "height of eye," he has a foreshortened horizon, but what he says has a natural and vivid honesty. His concern is with man living in the society that he has made and that he is capable of changing for the better or the worse. The mystical and the supernatural never enter in, although sometimes the superstitious is an awkward intruder.

For Kurosawa there is preoccupative mystery enough in why man, with so much to do on this "groveling earth," is not busier doing it. Man ought to be better, his films seem to argue, for purely natural and social reasons. This appears to be the source of Kurosawa's ferment and protest and unrest. In analysis, he is concerned with the problem of "fallen man," but he does not see him as fallen or try to explain him against a theology of original sin. In essence, though, he is struggling with the problem of good and evil—and especially with the persistence of evil, even in a good society.

In many of his films, Kurosawa seems to say, like Sartre, that man is living in an earthly hell from which there is no exit. But Kurosawa goes farther than Sartre by implying, in his pictorial drama at least, that it is the burden of every man to do something about his neighborhood and his world by a more generous fellow feeling, a wider compassion, a clearer vision.

An underlying optimism appears in Kurosawa that is totally absent in Sartre. Kurosawa would never state that life is a "useless passion." His problem is not the existential problem of a search for identity. Rather, he sees that man is clearly identified with the earth and is of earth's mould. Man can be good and frequently enough is, but he urgently ought to be better.

Kurosawa's film Ikiru (the word is the infinitive of the Japanese word for to live, hence is translated by some into the English title Living) poses an apt illustration. The tragic hero, Watanabe, even with death approaching, still has the vision to recognize that his past life has been useless but can yet be mended. He wants "redemption" for his many sins and omissions, and he discovers that this earthly redemption still can be obtained by a huge movement of his flaccid will. Kurosawa seems to place the channel of redemption in love of one's neighbor.

Kurosawa is not a deep philosopher, nor does he call upon the insights of metaphysics or the cogent arguments of ethics for his answers. But he does insist on a dignity for man, freedom from poverty and oppression, and a chance for each to work out his earthly destiny in an atmosphere of peace and justice. There is a place for courage and bravery, a place for compassion, for skill, for mercy, for hope, for the full and rich texture of life.

Never does he make his statements more explicit than in some of the episodes of Red Beard. Like many of the Japanese who assimilate the best in Western civilization, he does not go to the deepest spiritual sources for the doctrine that he none the less teaches. His Sermon on the Mount, if not Christless, is a-Christic. Many Japanese have admittedly taken much of the quintessence of Western philosophy and Judeo-Christian teaching, with an exasperating unconcern for the sources. Nevertheless, Kurosawa, along with many of his fellow Japanese, might not be pleased by any attempt to force upon him a recognition of this quite obvious paradox. To go even farther, he probably would not see it as a paradox. For many Japanese, the approach to life is pragmatic. Their realism is too concrete, too cosmic, and needs the lift that only a doctrine like that of the Mystical Body can bring.

On a more positive note, Kurosawa, big in physical frame (he is six feet tall), towers over his contemporary film-makers in the loftiness of his statements about life and man, statements that emerge from his films with increasing clarity.

He neither strives to please the crowds with the cheap and shoddy, work-a-day formula of easy sex and clinical realism (there are things in his films that are not for the young and untutored, but they are not there as "easy inserts of commercial juice"), nor is he cocking a constant eye at the sensational. He takes himself and his art in deadly earnest, and he does not care for the fashion of the moment.

When production began on Red Beard, he told his crews:

The Japanese motion picture industry is said to be facing a crisis, which, I believe, can only be surmounted by the courage and sincerity of those who make the films.

I expect the utmost effort from everyone in my newest production. I also intend to probe the ultimate possibilities of motion pictures.

These are some of the reasons why he can command the best writers and actors, and why they will submit with patience and respect to the constant torture of himself and others out of which his films are born. On the sets where he works, he prides himself on the rapport that he achieves, and he makes it a practice, while shooting, to cat with his crews in an easy democracy that gives them his ear and him theirs.

Although Kurosawa is a born artist, it is quite by accident that he is identified with the world of motion pictures. Born, in 1910, into a world becoming increasingly violent, the youngest of seven children, he was led by a chance advertisement and need of a job to apply for work as an assistant film director.

He confesses that several times he was ready to abandon films in order to return to more congenial work (there was a time when he trifled more or less seriously with the idea of becoming a painter). But he is a person of deep commitment. Once he was involved in film expression and film techniques, he did his homework well. Much as he has been criticized, there are none who deny that he knows the resources of camera technique, the imposition of pace and tension by editing, and the rich expression that can be obtained by an interweaving of word and silence.

The chief reason he remained in film work is that he met Kajiro Yamamoto, an important director of the 1920's and 1930's, who showed him both the challenge and the vocabulary of film art.

Kurosawa is not reluctant to confess his debt to Yamamoto's inspiration and patient tutoring. He served an apprenticeship in many of the allied crafts before he was entrusted with top directorial posts. Unlike many directors, he does not dismiss a film and start another project (or a vacation) once the cameras have stopped turning. Instead, he virtually edits the picture himself, experimenting with many devices to heighten tension and achieve the best combination of pace and movement.

He is no pinchpenny director. According to publicity released by Toho headquarters in Tokyo, Red Beard took longest to complete of any Japanese feature motion picture. The first draft of the screenplay was completed in May, 1963, but it was almost two years before Kurosawa had a finished product for final viewing—a film more than three hours long.

Kurosawa uses a multiple camera technique and believes in covering every sequence with a rich, if sometimes wasteful, amplitude that since the advent of TV production has long since disappeared on many lots. He has now acquired a popularity and respect that permit him to continue doing this, although he is by no means beyond criticism in this respect.

The Japanese motion picture industry, which had to rebuild after World War II, has its own batch of problems, not the least of which is the popularity of imported films. According to a survey made by the newspaper Asahi (5 million copies daily), one of out every three residents of Tokyo prefers imported films to the native product.

Perhaps the most frequent and most unjust criticism heard about Kurosawa—and this criticism is voiced especially in his native Japan—is that he is "not Japanese." In contradistinction to this criticism, I think it is necessary to make the point that he is actually among the best living exponents of the vital traditions of Japanese culture and art and beauty. Eventually, it is to be hoped, even his most disparaging critics will recognize that he has given the Japanese a bridge from a thoroughly vital past to an invigorating and promising future in film art.

Why is this so? In cryptic form, it could be said that Kurosawa has put motion into the frozen Noh masks of his own and Japan's long past.

His tremendous preoccupation with the intensity and the mobility, and the violent or transparent beauty, of the human face is obvious to all who see his work. It is a high part of Kurosawa's genius to deploy the human face in its myriad expressions and moods.

Some, in writing of Kurosawa, have tried to identify him with the traditions of the Kabuki theater, but while I do not deny that there is some evidence of its influence, it rather appears that the heart of the intensity he can capture on the screen is Noh in its deepest and purest, if unmeditated, formulation.

The Noh masks of the 15th and 16th centuries are the highest expression of dramatic typification reached by man in the long, anticipatory periods of his multifaceted cultures. These masks, with their frozen infinity of potential statements, contain in themselves and in their dramaturgic economy a unique richness, and Kurosawa has imbibed this richness from his Japanese culture, whether wittingly or unwittingly. It is a richness that he not only has not forgotten, but has amplified. For Kurosawa, the human face is the bright or darkling mirror of the soul—the soul not merely in motion, but on pilgrimage.

Another criticism of Kurosawa that is frequently heard, and in no muted fashion, is that he is a confirmed "moralist." "He is like Aesop," one Japanese film critic has complained. Still other critics voice the charge that all his films are "message films," and hence, they reason by some obscure or lax logic, not free. Naturally, Red Beard, the latest, has not been spared.

Since it concerns the story of a famous Japanese surgeon, Kyojo Niide (Red Beard), and a group of young doctors, the criticism is heard that the new film is no better or worse than a string of "Ben Casey episodes pieced together." That hall-truth carries a sting, at a time when the Toho Company is advertising the film in global release as "a monument to the good in man."

It is true that although Kurosawa has experimented widely while perfecting his film techniques, and has radically changed his style of expression many times, he none the less leaves a distinguishing "thumbprint" on all that he does. He is deeply concerned with the world as it is and people as they are. In his humanistic approach, he not only expresses wonder that people are not better than they are but also invites them to be better; and his heroes show the way.

Answering the charge that he is always repeating himself in his movies, Kurosawa admits that "every film-maker says only one thing." It is obvious to any student of Kurosawa's art that the statement he makes from the screen these days is richer and stronger and better, for all its reiteration.

In Japan, some of his very first films are still considered his best, and some of the critics keep expressing the wish that he would return to the style of Sugata Sanshiro, which he made in the throes of war, in 1943. But outside Japan his best-known films are Rashomon, made in 1950, which won the Grand Prix at Venice the following year and gave a new status to Japanese films; Ikiru, produced in 1952 and winner of the Silver Prize at Berlin in 1954; and Seven Samurai, produced in 1954, which won the Silver Lion of San Marco at Venice that same year.

Kurosawa has declared himself tired of being pronounced "pro-Western," and he complains: "I haven't read one review from abroad that hasn't read false meanings into my pictures."

Is it dangerous, then, to attempt to find in this gifted Japanese artist an underlying philosophy, a supportive humanism, that can be captured in a sentence or two?

Having watched Kurosawa on his hill that afternoon, sweeping painstakingly with his makeshift broom. I think that Kurosawa from his deepest heart is asking for a tidy and tidier world.

John F. Kennedy once gave this advice: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Born in the same century and tempered by the same conflicts, Kurosawa seems to be proffering the same wisdom. His statement might be phrased: "Man! Don't ask what the world can do for you. Ask what you can do for the world of man."

In one of the touching scenes of Ikiru, Watanabe, who is close to despair now that he knows he must relinquish life, asks a simple girl: "What is your secret? Why are you so happy?"

"Me? Well, I've nothing special …" the girl replies, surprised.

But Watanabe insists that she tell him how she can be so radiant. What could he do to become as she is?

She shows him one of the little toy rabbits that she has been making from wood in the small factory where she is employed. She tells him that while she is making these toys she has the feeling that the little children all over Japan are becoming her friends.

Then she says: "Well, if you would try to build something also …"

Her simple wisdom smites Watanabe's heart with a clarifying blow. He sees now that with the remaining months of his life he can push the construction of a playground, long and unnecessarily delayed, through the tangle of bureaucracy. This he will do to give a meaning to his remaining months of life. In fact, the generous act will set a period to the whole and give the whole a flourish. Watanabe's face lights up and settles, like a Noh mask, into an imperishable smile.

In Red Beard, the same smile comes at the end when the young doctor realizes that his role, also, is to build a better world with the talents and the opportunity and the challenge granted him. The framework would be familiar to St. Paul. He called it "redeeming the time."


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Akira Kurosawa with Kyoko Hirano (interview date 1986)

SOURCE: "Making Films for All the People," in Cineaste, Vol. XIV, No. 4, 1986, pp. 23-25.

[In the following interview, Kurosawa discusses Ran, his role as a filmmaker, and critics.]

His nomination this year for an Academy Award as Best Director seemed an official, if belated, recognition of the fact that Akira Kurosawa, Japan's greatest living film director, is also one of the world's greatest directors. Ran, Kurosawa's long-dreamed-of adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, is his 27th film and the culmination of a remarkable career. During Kurosawa's visit to New York last fall in conjunction with the screening of Ran at the New York Film Festival, he was interviewed for Cineaste by Kyoko Hirano who also translated their discussion from Japanese.

[Hirano:] You mentioned in an interview in a Japanese magazine that in Ran you wanted to depict man's karma from a "heavenly" viewpoint. Will you elaborate?

[Kurosawa:] I did not exactly say that. Japanese reporters always misunderstand or conveniently summarize what I really say. What I meant was that some of the essential scenes of this film are based on my wondering how God and Buddha, if they actually exist, perceive this human life, this mankind stuck in the same absurd behavior patterns. Kagemusha is made from the viewpoint of one Kagemusha [shadow warrior—ed.] who sees the specific battles which he is involved in, and moreover the civil war period in general, from a very circumscribed point of view. This time, in Ran, I wanted to suggest a larger viewpoint … more objectively. I did not mean that I wanted to see through the eyes of a heavenly being.

What kind of audience did Ran attract in Japan?

A very wide audience. Of course, it includes longtime fans of my films. Somehow, this time, many women went to see it, and I do not know exactly why. I know some rather old ladies who are working as caddies at golf courses near Mt. Fuji, where part of the film was shot, and who went to see Ran in Tokyo. They liked the film very much and asked me to make another.

You used to make films depicting political and social concerns more directly, for example Scandal (1950) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Recently, your films tend to be set in the past, and seem to have become more philosophical.

I believe that the world would not change even if I made a direct statement: do this and do that. Moreover, the world will not change unless we steadily change human nature itself and our very way of thinking. We have to exorcise the essential evil in human nature, rather than presenting concrete solutions to problems or directly depicting social problems. Therefore, my films might have become more philosophical.

Did you think this way when you were young?

No. I did not think so when I was young and this is why I was making such films. I have realized, however, that it does not work. The world would not change. This is not a matter of simply moving things from right to left. I have been tackling problems which transcend specific periods. I am confident that I am saying what I should say in my films. However, I don't think that the messages of my films are very obvious. Rather, they are the end products of my reflection. I am not trying to teach or convey a particular message, because the audience does not like it. They are sensitive to such things and shrink from them. People go to see films to enjoy themselves. I think that I have made them aware of problems without having to learn about them consciously.

Critics may be affecting today's audience negatively: they see films here [pointing to his head—ed.] No! I want to tell them to see films here [pointing to his heart—ed.] because I make films thinking that way. I do not want them to try to reason everything. The people who pay to sec films will see a film as it is. Furthermore, I do not believe that film is simplistic, but multifaceted. Ideally, a film should be spherical. This is physically impossible; however, it is possible to approach such a shape. A film should appeal to sophisticated, profound-thinking people, while at the same time entertaining simplistic people. Even if a small circle of people enjoy a film, it will not do. A film should satisfy a wide range of people, all the people.

Were you subjected to any political pressures when your films dealt more directly with political problems?

At the end of Ikiru, for example, after the funeral, everything goes bureaucratic again at the protagonist's office. The vice president of the film company told me that we had criticized bureaucracy enough before that scene and we did not need that last scene. I answered, "You are welcome to cut this scene out; but in that case, please cut all the scenes from this film as well." The company was at a loss, so they finally told me that the film would be all right as it was.

The film companies have tried to suppress such potentially problematic parts when I try to make straightforward statements, although I have not succumbed to such pressures. You mentioned that I have not made films about contemporary themes. I suspect that if I chose contemporary problems as my subjects, no film company would dare to distribute such films. If no company would distribute such films, I would have no reason to make them.

In the last scene of The Bad Sleep Well, everyone in the audience must have deduced that it must be the then Premier Kishi who is the ultimate source of corruption and who is talking at the other end of the telephone. This is why the company has never released the film, although everybody has been anxious to see it again. Francis Ford Coppola said that it is his favorite film. The company would not have distributed it if this unidentified character had been identified. I intended to be obvious, although the film executives had not been able to understand it when they had read the script. That is why they approved the script and invested their money. Film executives arc the people who understand films least.

Are they worse than film critics?

No question about it. We write scripts cleverly and we submit them. The film executives really do not understand. As for critics, there arc all kinds. Many Japanese film critics are strange. They write reviews as if there are certain rules among them—like, "This time, I will write a good review, so you will write a bad one." It depends on who pays them, not on their own will or their own opinions.

Recently in Japan, some film criticism has become intellectualized as academics have begun to write about films, employing such new disciplines as structuralism. Do you believe this has helped upgrade the quality of film criticism?

They use extremely pedantic terminology. I do not believe in such rationalization or jargon. Film should be more related to human feelings, more candidly. For example, what about "perpendicular thought in film"? They want to indulge in such jargon, but I really do not understand what it means. It is particularly so in music criticism, too. Toru Takemitsu and others have been saying that these critics do not understand anything, wondering what they mean by this jargon.

Mr. Hideo Kobayashi [a famous art critic-ed.] once said that after writing so many critiques, he concluded that the only ones he approved of, after all, were those which praised the works in question. He believed that the role of critics is to encourage artists by finding the good points in their works: to point out bad points is merely absurd. It's better to shut up. Even if you criticize harshly, the work will not improve. If you really hate it, just ignore it. That's what he said.

Artists and critics will never get along. Artists want to be praised. Whether or not they deserve it. Moreover, the worst thing is for a critic to write a negative review to spite the rave reviews by others, doing so not because he believes what he writes but because he wants to stand out. Also, critics are free to criticize and say bad things. What I will not tolerate is to attack me with hatred, calling me foolish and stupid. I really do not understand what I have done to this guy to deserve this. Criticism should be done out of affection, not out of hatred.

The critics in Japan say incomprehensible things. This time, for example, they claimed that I made Ran to make money, not to depict human beings. It I had wanted to make money, I would have made an easier film. This film was too difficult to make. Well, I am used to slanders. It would be a lie to say that I don't mind. I ignore everything.

Once you said that the most important thing for young people aspiring to become directors was to read world classic. Do you still believe so?

Definitely. To read everything is almost impossible, so you must find writers that you like. Then, to find favorite works of these writers, and read them again and again. Therefore, your understanding of the characters in these works is deepened. One's level of understanding after reading a work once, and after reading it ten times, is naturally different. It is important for actors as well to understand the characters they are going to play.

The best thing is to write screenplays. This is basic to filmmaking, because an excellent screenplay can become an excellent film even in the hands of a third-rate director; a bad screenplay, however, could never become an excellent film even if made by a first-rate director. Therefore, you have to realize the importance of screenplays. Also, when you want to study filmmaking, using film stock and constructing sets cost a lot of money and usually you are not given such opportunities. To write a screenplay, however, you need only paper and pencils. Especially in Japan, television needs many good screenplays, and in films, they are desperately looking for good ones. If you write a good screenplay, it means immediate money. I have always told young people to write screenplays, but they don't.

Balzac once said that the most important thing for novelists is to put up with the boring labor of writing line after line of the letters of the alphabet. These young people are not patient enough to put up with it. Furthermore, they don't want to make the effort even to read novels. Though they believe themselves talented, they have nothing to show for it. This time, with Ran, I solicited young, aspiring assistant directors. I chose three, out of many applicants, based on their proposed screenplays. I have been trying to encourage young talent. There was a young Italian man who became an assistant director for Ran, too. He learned how to speak and write Japanese.

Reading and writing should become habitual; otherwise, it is difficult. Nowadays, young assistant directors do not write screenplays, claiming that they are too busy. I used to write all the time. On location, a chief assistant director's work was extremely hard and busy, so I used to write at midnight, in bed. I could easily sell such screenplays, and make more than my assistant director's salary. It meant that I could drink more. Therefore, I wrote, and I drank, then, when I got broke, I wrote again. My friends were waiting for me to write screenplays and make money for drinking. When we went to drink, we talked about films all the time. Some of these talks became part of the next projects. Even now, when we drink together with actors and crew after the day's work at locations, we talk about our work, and sometimes these are the most important talks we have.

The large screen at Lincoln Center makes Ran look surprisingly dramatic, compared with the small screens at press screening rooms.

In Paris, Ran was shown in 70mm. The battle scenes looked particularly magnificent. With a six-channel stereo system, it was really exciting. The people who could not get into the theater were making a lot of noise outside, however, which was heard in the theater. On the other hand, very delicate, psychological scenes may not work in such a theater. I sometimes feel that these scenes are more suitable for rather modest and quiet theaters. There are not many 70mm theaters. In Tokyo, there must be only two. It also costs a lot to produce a film in 70mm. I believe that the best 70mm films are Wyler's Ben Hur and Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. In particular, the chariot race scene in the former film would not have been so exciting if it had not been shown in 70mm.

Keiko I. McDonald (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: "Light and Darkness in Rashomon," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 2, 1982, pp. 120-29.

[In the following essay, McDonald examines the symbolic representations of man's nature in Rashomon.]

Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, the winner of both the 1951 Venice Festival Grand Prize and the 1952 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, has been examined from many perspectives. One Japanese critic points to the non-Japanese qualities of Rashomon and Kurosawa's other major films, and another comments on its fine filmic style. On the other hand, a number of Western critics explore the moral, psychological and social implications of the murder and its consequence. Once asked what Rashomon is about, Kurosawa simply states that the film is about rape and that is all. This statement of his encourages us to read the film in any possible way that will satisfy our critical propensity. No critic has yet approached Rashomon from the vantage point of symbolism, and in my view, this perspective offers a key insight into the central problem of this difficult film: "What is man's nature?"

Rashomon is pervaded by a dialectic of symbols of light and darkness. The murder takes place in a dense, dark forest. The main actions of the priest, the woodcutter and the commoner are set against the pouring rain. The half-ruined gate standing in the torrent gives the film a gloomy setting. In sharp contrast to these dark images are impressionistically filmed images of sunlight. The blazing sun piercing the clouds dominates the police station. Sunlight coming through the trees flickers on the woodcutter's ax. When the wife yields to the bandit, she looks up at the sun glittering through the branches. At the conclusion of the film the woodcutter walks into the sunlight after the rainstorm is over. The juxtaposition of these symbols serves as a most important, basic constituent, which contributes to a unified vision of the film.

Rashomon opens with ten rapid shots of a half-ruined gate, the Rashomon, in the midst of a downpour. These shots are followed by the subtitle, which reads: "Kyoto, in the twelfth century when famines and civil wars had devastated the ancient capital." In the following scene, the gloom these natural and manmade calamities connote is intensified by the priest's remark: "Wars, earthquakes, great winds, fires, famines, plague—each new year is full of disaster." So it was in the twelfth century, which marked Japan's transition from aristocracy to feudalism; it was a period characterized by political turmoil. Moreover, Buddhist religious thinkers of that century believed that they were witnessing the final degenerate phase of the world, soon to end in apocalypse. Disasters like those mentioned by the priest were taken as signs of the world's approaching end.

It is thus clear why the movie starts with a keen awareness of the fragmented state of the world. Both the ruined state of the Rashomon gate, once the splendid southern entrance to the capital, and the violent rain symbolize the chaos prevailing in the world. Yet, two major components of the gate—the gargoyle and the sign-board—appear intact amid the devastation. The integrity of these two religious symbols implies that religion has not been completely destroyed but in fact, holds out a potential for restoration of order.

Immediately after the second close-up of the signboard, which bears the characters, "Rashomon," the woodcutter begins to recount his discovery of the murdered samurai. A flashback swiftly takes the viewer to the forest where the murder took place. When his story ends, the dark forest suddenly yields to the sun-lit police station where the priest, the woodcutter, the wife and the thief are brought out. First, the priest offers his version of what happened. Then the thief, Tajomaru, provides his version of the story, which we are shown taking place in the forest. When he finishes, the forest suddenly vanishes as we return first to the police station, then swiftly again to the half-ruined Rashomon gate. This same pattern of transitions is repeated as the wife tells her version and her husband tells his version of the story. The tight architectonics of the flashback has a great importance for three reasons. First, each time the scene is cut back to the gate where the film started, the debate over man's nature between the priest and the commoner becomes more intense. Second, the flashback molds Kurosawa's basic design of the dual symbolism: from the darkness of the forest to the light of the police station and back again to the darkness in the gate. Third, the three repetitive geographical changes make a smooth transition to the woodcutter's nature that has occupied the priest and the commoner.

When Tajomaru has explained how the rape took place, the commoner, the woodcutter and the priest start discussing the reliability of his testimony. The woodcutter simply states that Tajomaru's confession is "a lie." By so doing, he functions as an instigator increasing the intensity of argument between the priest and the commoner. The other two explain their own reasons for rejecting Tajomaru's version. Both the commoner and the priest agree that man is by nature a liar. However, this very agreement reveals their radically different perspectives on human nature. The commoner is realistic; he assumes that man is innately an impulsive and selfish creature. He further claims that it is thus impossible to avoid lies especially in difficult times like the present. On the other hand, the priest is idealistic; he assumes that man is basically a rational creature. He argues that deception is a part of an illusion that man rationalizes as a necessary tool in confronting the hostile reality of life. The two scenes at the gate, which follow the woman's and the husband's (through the medium's mouth) narrations respectively, clarify these two antithetical perspectives on man's nature. In response to the woodcutter's insistence that their stories are equally untruthful, the priest says: "I must not believe that men are so sinful." Conversely, the commoner says: "After all, who's honest nowadays? Look, every one wants to forget unpleasant things, so they make up stories."

From the above, the central problem of the film is evident: 'Is man's nature essentially rational or impulsive, good or bad?' The film presents three basic answers in response. A rationalistic answer is presented by the priest. A primitivistic answer is represented by the commoner. A melioristic response emerges in the final part of the film. This final answer, given through the woodcutter, is a synthesis of the previous two stances. It claims that man's character includes a separation between reason and impulse, but that man is good to the extent that he tries to reduce this separation. From this perspective, the different versions of the murder in the forest can be taken all together as an answer to the central problem. Kurosawa seems to say we must probe the question of man's nature by playing the various accounts of the murder against one another. The existence of the incongruous stories implies that if man is put through the ordeal of life, the way he acts will reveal his inner nature.

This philosophic concern with man's inner nature as revealed through his behavior is also a feature of Kurosawa's samurai films such as The Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai. In The Throne of Blood Washizu, the Japanese Macbeth, swept by his "bolting ambition" into the turmoil of civil war, is trapped in an intellectual maze that causes his destruction. The seven samurai are initially motivated by a desire to satisfy their hunger and agree to help the seemingly hopeless farmers; however, through their battles with bandits, they gradually become altruists. It is not their words but their actions which illuminates their inner nature. The theme of the revelation of man's inner reality is also explored in such naturalistic novels as The Heart of Darkness, which evolves around a man's metaphysical journey into the depths of his heart. These films and literary works present man as a combination of an outer self and an inner self; the outer self, donning a social mask, is controlled by reason which affiliates itself with existing ethical norms. On the other hand, the inner self is controlled by impulses.

The implications of light and darkness are rather opaque in Rashomon. On one level, the dichotomy of light and darkness, then, can be considered as an archetypical representation of this bifurcation of man's nature: light represents reason, while darkness represents impulses. Significantly, darkness is treated as negative until the final sequence of the film because Kurosawa presents impulses as deviation from man's moral consciousness. Then at the second level, light represents good in man while darkness represents evil.

When the woodcutter goes into the dark woods at the beginning of Rashomon, the sun is flickering upon his ax through the bushes. This glinting sun, which most critics cite as a prime example of Kurosawa's impressionism, symbolizes the exertion of man's moral consciousness over his impulsive action. As the woodcutter continues on into the forest, the sky is again visible through the branches of the trees overhead. The repeated juxtaposition of light and darkness keeps reminding the viewer of the bifurcation of man's nature. The woodcutter first finds a woman's hat with a veil on a branch of a tree. Then he finds a man's hat at his feet, and then a piece of rope. Finally he comes upon an amulet case lying on the leaves. Kurosawa films them all in close-up, calling our attention to their symbolic significance. The hats are important social symbols of the station of the samurai and his wife. The amulet case represents man's adherence to religion. Combined with the sense of liberation implied by the torn rope, the abandoned social adornments symbolize the elimination of layers of the social mask, hence, the outer self.

Thus, what happened to the woodcutter, the samurai, his wife, and the thief in the forest is, on a symbolic level, a centripetal regression into the inner self. The apparently incongruous stories given by these four, however, lead us to believe that each person's self image is radically different from the image he conveys to the others. The woodcutter confesses that he has not seen the dagger that penetrated the husband's chest; and therefore, he is innocent of its theft. The commoner claims, however, that there is an ample ground for us to believe that he stole it. While the wife, Masago, insists that she was raped, the stories given by her husband and Tajomaru affirm that she enjoyed the sexual encounter. The woodcutter's story and Masago's describe the husband as lacking in physical strength and devoid of compassion. On the contrary, the husband's version asserts that he was true to the samurai code. In his confession Tajomaru stresses his bravery and skill at swordsmanship. However, in the woodcutter's story, the duel between Tajomaru and the samurai, in which they "crossed swords over twenty times" is the very antithesis of the ideal samurai duel. Tajomaru is described as an equal match only because the samurai is a weak, poor swordsman.

Assimilating the stories related by these four characters, we can make a reasonable deduction that each succumbed to his inner nature in a precarious situation. The woodcutter, a victim of his greed, loses the power to curb his urge to steal the dagger. The film's visual action presents the woodcutter flabbergasted, dropping his glittering ax upon encountering the samurai's corpse. This gesture externalizes his loss of control.

Likewise, Massago yielded to passion, though initially reason tried to suppress her impulse. Kurosawa elaborately cinematizes her moral dilemma through the juxtaposition of light and darkness. When the bandit starts kissing her, she looks straight up into the sunlight. The swift cross-cutting between Masago staring up at the sun and the dazzling sunlight penetrating the branches culminates in a slow fade-out of the sun. The fade-out is immediately succeeded by a close-up of Masago closing her eyes—a gesture emblematic of her loss of reason. As she lets go of her outer nature, she lets go of her dagger, the means of protection that a samurai's wife characteristically carried. The camera slowly tracks up towards Tajomaru and Masago and catches her fingers in a medium shot as her grip on Tajomaru becomes gradually tighter.

In the depths of the forest, the samurai has disclosed his fear, cowardice and selfishness, completely contrary to his outwardly stern bushido nature. As the woodcutter describes, when the samurai frees himself from the rope, he tells Tajomaru, nervously retreating from the bandit: "Stop! I refuse to risk my life for such a woman." Rather than protecting his wife from the bandit, he tries to protect himself. When the samurai and the bandit eventually do start to fight after Masago's provocative remarks that both of them should prove themselves to be real men by fighting, the samurai's action betrays his weakness and ineptitude. Kurosawa's elaborate camera work helps to visualize the samurai's cowardice. By persistently employing a medium shot deploying both the samurai and Tajomaru along an almost horizontal line, Kurosawa emphasizes not only the samurai's consciousness of Tajomaru as an equal match but also his timorousness. Another device Kurosawa uses is the frequent presentation of the samurai's physiognomy in a medium shot. This is an effective device for drawing our attention to the samurai's emotion even as it keeps us from becoming too much involved in it. For example, when the samurai slowly advances towards Tajomaru, the medium shot of his face reveals terror. Consequently, as we expected, he fails to meet the opponent's challenge as a samurai and screams: "I don't want to die! I don't want to die!"

More surprisingly, Tajomaru, whom the commoner describes as "worse than all the other bandits in Kyoto," has yielded to cowardice in the forest. During the battle, as narrated by the woodcutter, Kurosawa pervasively resorts to a medium shot of Tajomaru's face full of his fear and anxiety. Kurosawa also takes care in the visual alignment of Tajomaru and the samurai. In Tajomaru's own story, he lets the bandit's back dominate the screen while placing the samurai at the further end. Conversely, in the woodcutter's version, a medium shot of Tajomaru and the samurai aligned on a horizontal line across the screen forms the basic composition. This ironic contrast plays down the bandit's powerfulness and conveys to us the emptiness of his bravado. Consequently, when the samurai advances, Tajomaru's arms start shaking violently. Tajomaru approaches the samurai slowly and fearfully. Finally, when Masago runs into the woods, he collapses on the ground.

Exposed to the sunlight at the police station, the woodcutter, the samurai, Masago and Tajomaru all tell their stories, faithful to their own illusions of what they should be. The sunlight over their heads symbolizes their return to reason. They don their social masks and confess in a manner that will protect their self images and will sanctify their moral justice. In contrast to the earlier scenes of the forest, the police station scene is dominated by Kurosawa's more restrictive camera movement and visual composition. The priest, the woodcutter, the wife and the bandit all sit in a line across the screen, and they are shot from the eye-level of the policeman taking their testimony. The camera angle elevates us to the position of the police, the objective judge. The fact that each person is avoiding the eyes of the camera, as if afraid of the judgement, encourages us to search beyond the surface in order to distinguish reality from appearance. Interestingly, in the forest scenes Kurosawa pervasively used the point-of-view shot to emphasize each narrator's view on the others involved in the murder. However, the shift in his camera work does not necessarily correspond to the shift in our perspective from identification to detachment. Rather, this change in the camera work augments our sense of detachment, i.e. outside view, which is necessary for a coherent reading of the film.

At this stage the conflicting narrations may yield a tentative acceptance of the commoner's view of man's nature; man is an impulsive creature when confronted with the fragmented world. However, the final interaction of the wood-cutter, the priest and the commoner not only clarifies the three views of man's nature more fully but also asserts the stance represented by the woodcutter. When the woodcutter's second story finally ends the series of stories, Kurosawa brings us back to the Rashomon gate, to the realist and idealist, the commoner and the priest. It is still raining. The commoner says: "The world we live in is a hell." None of the testimony has moved him an inch from his "realistic" view of human existence as a matter of dog-eat-dog. As if to emphasize the point, he starts tearing wood off the sacred gate to make a fire. He steals the foundling's clothes. Significantly his attire itself symbolically affirms his stance. At the beginning of the film, he takes off his shirt and is filmed half-naked, that is to say, without his social mask.

Similarly, the priest reasserts his idealistic view that man is capable of good; that even when he lies, he lies through recourse to reason, even if a purely selfish reason like self-defense. The priest's rather decent robes symbolically correspond to the stance that man assumes many layers of social mask.

With the introduction of the image of the baby, the film's action takes a radical turn. It moves from the static to the dynamic. Turning away from their debate over man's nature, the priest, the commoner and the woodcutter now act out their respective views. The subsequent scenes mark the beginning of the final answer to the hitherto sustained central problem. When the commoner sees the baby, his reaction is to kneel over it and strip it of the clothes. He acts out his view that man is impulsive. At the same time his action is presented as negative because the baby is a symbol of fertility and future, and the theft of its clothes constitutes the extermination of hope for a better society. On the other hand, both the priest and the woodcutter respond to the situation rationally. They rush towards the baby, and the priest holds it protectively. The woodcutter, who has been verbally inexpressive of his own view of man's nature, now shows his opinion through action; he tries to support the priest's view and defend goodness, which he thinks still remains within man. The woodcutter accuses the commoner of being evil and selfish, and calls his conduct atrocious.

Earlier Kurosawa introduced the abandoned amulet case, but this time he introduces an amulet case fastened to the baby. This amulet case makes us aware of the possibility of future religious salvation in this fragmented world. In response to the woodcutter's accusation, the commoner says: "And what's wrong with it? That's the way we are, the way we live. Look, half of us envy the lives that dogs lead. You just can't live unless you're what you call selfish."

The subsequent cinematic action portrays a struggle between the woodcutter and the commoner in the rain. The scene is symbolically crucial in that it externalizes the tension between the primitivism asserted by the commoner and the rationalism asserted by the priest and now tentatively assumed by the woodcutter. The destructive rain, in which the battle is set, symbolizes the social milieu which places these two metaphysical positions in conflict. Their battle ends when the commoner accuses the woodcutter of stealing the dagger. The woodcutter's defense of the priest's rationalism thus quickly gives way to the commoner's primitivism. The woodcutter says: "All men are selfish and dishonest." Yet, unlike the commoner, he tries to justify man's inclination towards primitivism on the ground of social determinism. He says: "They all have excuses, the bandit, the husband …" Deeply affected by the commoner's statement that he "may have fooled the police," his conviction that man is rational and good has now become totally shaken.

In order to dramatize the ascendancy of primitivism over rationalism, which ensues from the conflict between the woodcutter and the commoner, Kurosawa plays upon contrasting physiognomy: the commoner's triumphant, smiling face and the woodcutter's sad, guilty face, both taken in close-up. The commoner continues to push the woodcutter towards the priest, who has been watching the struggle between the two. The commoner's accusation continues: "And so where is that dagger? Did the earth open up and swallow it? Or did someone steal it? Am I right? It would seem so. Now there is a really selfish action for you." And Kurosawa swiftly cuts from a medium shot of the commoner slapping the woodcutter to a close-up of the priest holding the baby.

The following long shot, which is focused on the three men under the half-ruined gate, once again imposes a distancing effect upon us, and encourages us to contemplate the three possible views of man's nature. The commoner disappears into the rain, leaving the other two under the gate. By associating the commoner with the torrent, Kurosawa seems to equate the primitive with the destructive side of man's nature and thus to discourage us from accepting this view. The next long shot shows the half-ruined gate, looming above the two men who seem extremely small, intensifying the sense of man's hopelessness in coping with environmental forces.

The three shots following the commoner's disappearance into the rain are thematically significant in three respects. First, these shots, each terminated by a dissolve, mark a radical transition from darkness to light. Second, the dialectic of the two perspectives on man's nature now assumed by the woodcutter and the priest is kept in a tension that will later yield to resolution. A long shot of the priest and the commoner standing under the gate is quickly taken over by a medium shot of both men. At precisely this moment the sound of the rain ceases. Another medium shot of the two remains to be presented while the raindrops thin. Next, a close-up of the priest and the woodcutter under the gate is projected, and the silence is suddenly broken by the baby's cry. The rhetorical stance imposed upon the audience is detachment, since the succession of the simultaneous shots of these two men keeps the audience from identifying with either of them. Again Kurosawa visualizes the polar views through physiognomy; while the priest's face is almost impassive, the woodcutter's face is full of remorse, guilt and compassion.

Referring to the dissolve, which terminates each of the three shots, Donald Richie states that this technique usually means time passing, that it is at the same time a formal gesture, "a gesture which makes us look, makes us feel. "Thus, the final important function of the three shots is that the dissolve emphasizes the lapse of psychological time, during which the woodcutter's mind goes through a radical transformation—a transformation which might have escaped the audience attention had a simple cut been used. The guilt and remorse over what he did in the forest awaken compassion for the foundling. Precisely at this juncture, reason and impulse join in harmony in the woodcutter's mind. Compassion, a most important Buddhist principle becomes the root of his moral consciousness: it is what society would have him act upon. The transition from rain into sunlight clearly corresponds to the woodcutter's psychological change.

The following scene reveals that the priest's hitherto unshaken assumption that man is rational and benign has been somewhat affected by what he has thus far witnessed. When the woodcutter tries to take the baby, the priest recoils. The woodcutter humbly responds: "I have six children of my own. One more wouldn't make it any more difficult." The priest apologizes for having suspected the woodcutter's motive: "No. I'm grateful to you. Because, thanks to you, I think I will be able to keep my faith in men."

After the finale of traditional Japanese music, the woodcutter leaves the gale into the sunlight, with the infant in his arms. It is clear, from what we have observed, that the symbolic transition from darkness to light signifies that altruism offers a potential for harmony even in the fragmented world of Rashomon. At the same time this transition signifies that man's nature is melioristic as found in the woodcutter's behavior.

However, the last two shots significantly modify this critical deduction. First, Kurosawa presents a long shot from behind the woodcutter as he walks into the sunlight in vivid contrast to the shadow over the gate. Then the camera swiftly moves to a long shot of the woodcutter from the opposite angle. As he walks towards the camera, he stops and bows to the priest, beaming with happiness. However, despite the woodcutter's magnificent display of optimism, we are visually deluded, for now we are given the impression that the woodcutter is walking into the shadow while the whole gate and the clear sky come into frame behind him.

This reversal of the light and darkness, the shadow and sunlight, which has hitherto been neglected by Kurosawa's critics, seems to deny the optimistic tone with which most viewers see the film end. Rather, it stresses the difficulty of maintaining melioristic stance in the fragmented world. Concerning the ending of Rashomon, Kurosawa himself says that he wanted to present gigantic columns of clouds (cumulo nimbus) above the gate, but they never appeared during the shooting of the final scene. The image of cumulo nimbus predicting approaching rain, though an external datum, serves as another justification for supporting the relativity of man's nature as the film's final implication.

David Desser (essay date Fall 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5448

SOURCE: "Kurosawa's Eastern 'Western': Sanjuro and the Influence of Shane," in Film Criticism, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Fall 1983, pp. 54-65.

[Dresser is a noted writer on the subject of Japanese cinema. In the following essay, he details the structural similarities and thematic differences between Sanjuro and Shane.]

If we understand Donald Richie and Noël Burch to occupy a kind 'of co-chairmanship of Japanese film criticism in America and Europe, they share their chair uneasily. Richie stands 'for a kind of international humanism in which he seeks to understand the Japanese film from an archetypical, psycho-cultural point of view. Burch represents the side of formalism and materialism, finding the Japanese cinema to be Hollywood's "other. "Yet their respective programs converge in a significant way: they each use "Japaneseness" as a criterion of value. Films and filmmakers which manifest uniquely Japanese modes and points of view are valued above those which do not. "Japaneseness," of course, is defined differently for both men, yet it occupies a central position in their criticism.

The idea of Japaneseness has led both men to undervalue or misread one of the Japanese cinema's most important films: Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro. Noël Burch is able to dismiss Sanjuro with an annoying condescension, telling us that the film has only a "slight interest," and saying it is nothing more than a "passing concession to popular taste. "Burch is able to dismiss Sanjuro because, like Yojimbo, it must be "nothing more than a fusion of the latter-day chambera [sic] tradition with the Hollywood Western…." For Burch, the mainstream Hollywood cinema cannot, by definition, be politically progressive. Therefore, any filmmaker working in that mode is first of all to be castigated and second of all, cast out from the pantheon of Japaneseness. The possibility that Japanese filmmakers can utilize the classic Hollywood patterns for their own particular ends has escaped Burch. This has led to his dismissal of such a crucial film as Sanjuro.

Richie, on the other hand, has nothing but praise for Sanjuro. He sees it as a consummate example of a film which satirizes and ridicules the standard chambara formula. For Richie. Sanjuro addresses the corruption and hollowness of so much of contemporary Bushido and how the code has been turned into an empty set of clichés. For Richie, then, Sanjuro is a uniquely Japanese film. He says that Sanjuro is "stylistically … based upon only two factors: Yojimbo and the ordinary Japanese jidai-geki" (emphasis added). Paradoxically, Richie has missed the Western influences upon Sanjuro, while Burch has missed its essential Japaneseness. Who is right?

Actually, both men are wrong in that they have missed Kurosawa's essential technical strategy. Kurosawa has chosen to work in a dialectical mode of narrative and formal construction. In his very style he examines the relationship between Japanese and Western (American) film. This combinatory mode can best be seen in Sanjuro, which in many ways is basically a remake of George Stevens' Shane. To show this I will demonstrate, using Will Wright's Sixguns and Society as a standard of generic functions, the ways in which Sanjuro can be seen as a classic Western. I will then go on to show the ways in which Sanjuro diverges from Shane. Sanjuro is obviously not a Western, but it is not a Western in specifically and significantly Japanese ways. The significance of the film thus rests in its deliberate conjunction of certain Western motifs and structures in order to create a work both meaningful to the Japanese and specific to the notion of Japaneseness. Sanjuro poses issues in cross-cultural adaptation and influence that are central not only to an understanding of Kurosawa's ovevre but to the Americanization of Japan.

Although the relevant criticism of Will Wright's program in the Western film is not being ignored here, his morphology of the classic Western is strong enough, I feel, to underwrite my comparison of Shane and Sanjuro. Of course, I will be elucidating similarities that go beyond Wright, for the connections between Shane and Sanjuro are extremely strong.

According to Wright, Shane is a Western of the "classical" type, a type defined by some sixteen "functions" (a syntactical feature Wright adopts from Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale). Wright's listing of functions comprises a virtual plot synopsis of Shane. With regard to other classical Westerns, Wright says that "not all the functions will apply to all the films," but that basically all the films share a similarity: "Each film is the story of a hero who is somehow estranged from his society but on whose ability rests the fate of that society. "This basic description fits Sanjuro as well. More importantly (for this description fits literally hundreds of other films within and without the Western genre), Sanjuro manifests some thirteen of the sixteen functions which define the classical Western:

1) The hero enters a social group.

2) The hero is unknown to the society.

3) The hero is revealed to have an exceptional ability.

4) The society recognizes a difference between themselves and the hero; the hero is given a special status.

5) The society does not completely accept the hero.

6) There is a conflict of interests between the villains and the society.

7) The villains are stronger than the society; the society is weak.

8) There is a strong friendship or respect between the hero and a villain.

9) The villains threaten the society.

12) The hero fights the villain.

13) The hero defeats the villain.

14) The society is safe.

15) The society accepts the hero.

(Missing from this list are the following functions: 10) The hero avoids involvement in the conflict; 11) The villains endanger a friend of the hero; and 16) The hero loses or give up his special status.) More detailed analysis of Sanjuro and Shane will show similarities beyond this morphological level.

If we understand Shane, for all its formal brilliance, to have an essentially child-like appeal (a film willing to ignore its own subtleties by displacing the metaphysics and ethics onto character), so, too Sanjuro has this same phenomenological base. Both utilize children's point of view in their narrative, thereby imbuing the films with something of the nature of a folk tale. Sanjuro and Shane use children (or youths) as structuring principles to create heroic/mythic images out of their main characters. Both films work a dialectic between history and myth to comment upon the importance and meaning of myth in today's world. (The ways in which the treatment of myth differs separate the two films.)

Shane is first seen by little Joey Starrett framed between the antlers of a deer out on the horizon. Thus, Shane is immediately associated with nature. His links with the wilderness, further emphasized by his costume, make him a kind of autochthonous being in the mythic sense. The hero's arrival, seemingly from out of nowhere or from the very spot he inhabits, is duplicated in Sanjuro. The eponymous hero is introduced through the mediation of youngsters and is first heard and seen from their point of view. A disembodied laugh and an entrance from out of the shadows of a room mark the appearance of Sanjuro. It is significant that Sanjuro spring forth from this room, this civilized interior, for the film will take place primarily in and around such rooms as he then inhabits. Thus Shane, which is about the transformation of nature into culture, has a hero born of nature, while Sanjuro, which is about the return to culture, has a hero associated with it.

Both the characters of Shane and Sanjuro take on the role of mentor/teacher to the respective youths in the films. This teacher/disciple device is common to many Westerns, both classical and otherwise (e.g., Red River, The Searchers, The Tin Star, Ride the High Country), and it is also characteristic of many samurai films. But it is more particularly associated, as Richard Tucker has perceptively pointed out, with Kurosawa's cinema (e.g., Sanshiro Sugata, Stray Dog, Seven Samurai, Red Beard). Teacher/disciple relationships characterize much of traditional Japanese culture, of course, so that I am by no means claiming that its appearance in Sanjuro is a function of its relationship to Shane. However, the quality of the relationship in Sanjuro differs from the "feudalistic" forms it takes in Kurosawa's other films, and this, I am claiming, is a function of its relationship to Shane. This role of mentor/teacher endows each hero with an added stature when the audience sees them through the eyes of youth.

In their roles as mentors, both Shane and Sanjuro become juxtaposed against father figures, functioning as alternative father-figures to the young protagonists. Shane is constantly compared to Joe Starrett by little Joey. For instance, Joey wonders which of the two adults is the better fighter, or which can shoot faster. Little Joey undeniably finds Shane a more attractive model than the more prosaic Joe Starrett (which duplicates the audience's perceptions, partly a function of the casting of Van Hefliln opposite Alan Ladd). Similarly, Iiro (Yuzo Kayama), the leader of the young samurai in Sanjuro, is quickly won over by the dynamic hero and by the end of the film is ready to forsake his family to accompany the ronin-hero. (We do not actually see the father-figure of Sanjuro, the clan Chamberlain and Iiro's uncle, until very late in the film. At that time, however, much is made of the physical disparity between the Chamberlain and Sanjuro. The latter, of course, is played by Toshiro Mifune, and Japan hardly has a more dynamic actor.) Of equal importance is the fact that both Shane and Sanjuro have a healthy respect for the father-figures against whom they are juxtaposed. Shane agrees to work for Joe Starrett because he admires him and respects what he is trying to accomplish. By working together, for instance, the two men are able to uproot a tree trunk that has been plaguing the Starrett farm. At the climax, Shane risks his life to battle the gunman, Wilson, even though Joe insists that he be the one to face him. Sanjuro, too, joins the cause of the young samurai because, even though he has never yet met the Chamberlain, he likes the man based upon his reputation. Sanjuro and the Chamberlain, although they do not initially know it, work together (albeit separately) to defeat the villains, the Chamberlain stalling for time and Sanjuro through more active measures.

The decision by Shane and Sanjuro to leave the society after they defeat the villains is similarly based on their respect for the father-figures. Each man knows he has no place in the society he has helped bring about and does not wish to act as a reminder to the father of his heroism. Both Shane and Sanjuro know that the youths admire and look up to them. They know that the fathers cannot compete with their heroic image. They leave because by so doing, they restore the father-figure to his rightful place. There is a scene in Sanjuro in which all this is made explicit. The Chamberlain expresses to his wife, daughter, and to Iiro how he is grateful that Sanjuro left. Such a man, he says, would have been too much for him. It is not that Sanjuro would literally have been too much, for Sanjuro would hardly rebel against the Chamberlain whom he likes, but that the image of Sanjuro would overwhelm that of the Chamberlain. This scene, the penultimate one of Sanjuro, redresses this missing scene in Shane. It fills in for the Starretts' reaction to learning from little Joey that Shane will not be coming back (a reaction which must take place after the film is over). Marion, who loves Shane (but who loves her husband no less), must be relieved, at least, at Shane's departure.

Both Shane and Sanjuro, as heroic characters, take on importance and stature not only in juxtaposition with father-figures, but against outlaw or villain-figures. Both films introduce an antagonist who is related thematically and structurally to the hero. In Shane, this character is Wilson (Jack Palance); in Sanjuro, it is Muroto Hanbei (Tatsuya Nakadai). If Starrett is actually opposed to Ryker, the rancher, then Shane is opposed to Wilson, Ryker's hired gun. Similarly, the Chamberlain is opposed to Kikui, the crooked magistrate, and Sanjuro is opposed to Hanbei, the magistrate's hired work. These relationships may be schematized thusly

Shane: Joe Starrett :: Sanjuro : Chamberlain

Shane: Wilson :: Sanjuro : Hanbei

The outlaw-villains of Shane and Sanjuro share a kind of kinship with the outlaw-heroes. Shane is certainly aware of Wilson by reputation, while it is likely (if a trifle unclear) that Wilson has heard of Shane. Hanbei recognizes in Sanjuro a kindred spirit. Shane knows that Joe Starrett is no match for Wilson. Sanjuro's respect for Hanbei is so great, in fact, that he even tries to talk his way out of their duel. It is not that Sanjuro is afraid to die (even if he really is unsure as to what the outcome will be), but rather that the death of one of them would be a tragedy—there are so few real samurai left in the world.

It is significant that the final, inevitable confrontations between hero and opposed villain be witnessed by the youth. Little Joey is thrilled when Shane kills Wilson, as well as the two Ryker brothers. The impressive impact of this final fight stems from Shane's being outnumbered. The final fight in Sanjuro, similarly witnessed by the youth, is impressive for the fountain of blood Sanjuro brings forth out of Hanbei. It both cases, the youths are awestruck (and so is the audience of Sanjuro). Following the fights, the youngster wants either to have the hero return home with him (Shane) or to accompany the hero on his journey (Sanjuro). In both cases, the request is denied. The hero sends the youngsters back home. The hero then, watched by the youngsters, heads off into the sunset.

The story pattern and plot structure of Sanjuro thus may be seen to fit rather neatly into the pattern of the classical Western. Wright also sees his plot types as possessing a number of basic oppositions apparent in an analysis of the symbolic roles of the different characters (heroes, villains, society's members). The oppositions he isolates in the classical Western are: inside/outside; good/bad; strong/weak; and the fourth, wilderness/civilization, being "perhaps the typically American aspect of the Western. "Wright sees the inside/outside opposition as related to, but not identical with, the wilderness/civilization dichotomy. It seems to me that the link between the two oppositions would be strengthened by introducing a third binary pair, namely nomad/settler. This seems to embody both the idea of outside/inside and wilderness/civilization. This dichotomy characterizes both Shane and Sanjuro. They both clearly are outsiders and both are nomads. Shane's links to the wilderness have already been touched upon. Sanjuro's links to the wilderness are more subtle. His introductory associations are with civilization and the whole of the film is concerned with such forces. However, as an outsider, a nomad, Sanjuro, from a Japanese point of view, is clearly not as "civilized" as the rest of society, and much is made of this point (more about this later).

Wright sees the good/bad opposition in Shane from the point of view of normative values. The societal insiders possess social, progressive ideals, whereas the outsiders, the villains, hold to selfish economic gain. This good/bad dichotomy is reproduced in Sanjuro where the Chamberlain, the insider, represents harmonious social relations, while the villains seek mere economic gain. This is made explicit when Hanbei tells Sanjuro that once he is in control he will eliminate Kikui and reap the rewards. Shane and Sanjuro are both initially mistrusted by the members of society whom they wish to aid because they are both outsiders. With no moral stake in the formation or maintenance of the community, their motives are suspect.

The strong/weak opposition, according to Wright, aligns the heroes and villains on one side and the society on the other. I have already elucidated the relationship between Sanjuro and Hanbei, which structurally duplicates that between Shane and Wilson. And if the young samurai in Sanjuro are somewhat more admirable than the bulk of the farmers in Shane in their willingness to fight for their own cause, it does not disguise the fact that without Sanjuro's help they would easily have gone down in quick defeat.

The opposition wilderness/civilization might seem to break down the structural similarities between Shane and Sanjuro. If we accept Wright's contention that civilization is "a concern with the money, tools, and products of American culture," then it does indeed end this portion of our discussion. But if we alter the terms of the definition slightly by placing the opposition in the realm of character (which is where both films essentially operate), the similarities are again crucial. Shane's "natural" or wilderness attributes are typically noted in discussions of the film. Less frequently commented upon are his cultural attributes. For instances, in the first dinner Shane shares with the Starretts, Marion lays out their best china. Shane thus is understood by Marion to have an understanding of the finer things in (civilized) life. More obviously, at the Fourth of July dance (which is also, appropriately enough, the Starrett's wedding anniversary), it is Shane who dances with Marion. Too, Shane's comment to Marion that a gun is merely a tool makes explicit Shane's recognition of culture's ability to tame nature. Shane, like many a Western hero, contains attributes of both the wilderness and civilization within himself. The subversion of his wild side—either by hanging up his gun, by leaving the valley, or by dying—characterizes the typical Western hero.

Sanjuro also balances the forces of nature and culture, as we have seen. In a sense, the samurai sword marks one of civilization's highest achievements, being the finest sword ever forged by man. And if the society in Shane marks the struggle between nature, in the form of the rancher Ryker, and culture, in the form of the farmers, the issue in Sanjuro is one of too much culture. Although, like Sanjuro, the young samurai wear swords, they really cannot use them. They have been taught to use them, but have never used them in real action. It takes the natural man, Sanjuro, one closer to his roots as a warrior, to rescue the civilized, would-be fighters. And since Sanjuro is unable, or unwilling, to put aside his wild ways, he, too, must leave the new, or rebuilt, society.

It is clear by now, I hope, that by Wright's standards and the ones I have elaborated, Sanjuro is something of a remake of Shane, a transposition of it in much the same way that The Magnificent Seven transposes Seven Samurai or A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Yojimbo. Yet the question still remains, is Sanjuro a classical Western? By a kind of oral telling, or a written plot synopsis, the two films are almost indistinguishable. Yet Sanjuro is not a Western; to say this is almost to say nothing on one level, for Sanjuro is obviously not a Western. Simply put, it does not take place in the American West (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). "The element that most clearly defines the Western is the symbolic landscape in which it takes place and the influence this landscape has on the characters and actions of the hero. "The Western film is defined as much by John Ford's fabulous vistas of Monument Valley, Anthony Mann's majestic mountains, and Budd Boetticher's barren landscapes as the narrative patterns and character relationships Wright utilizes. Sanjuro, to put it simply, cannot be a Western because it does not look like one. Kurosawa is well aware of this fact, however, and puts it to creative use. He places his "Western" in a landscape at the thematic opposite of the wide-open spaces of the West. Sanjuro, despite the CinemaScope framing (Shane was shot in the then-standard Academy aperture), is Kurosawa's most visually restricted film. Much of it takes place indoors; outdoor locales are almost entirely relegated to spaces defined by buildings—alleys, gardens, streets. Stevens revels in the open spaces of the Grand Tetons, and makes much symbolic use of Marion Starrett's garden (which encapsulates the thematic opposition of wilderness/civilization, of course). Kurosawa revels in the closed spaces of his film. A river, which for Stevens would be a part of the natural landscape, becomes, in Sanjuro, a stream connecting two mansions. Landscape is symbolic in Sanjuro, but since the landscape is different, so, too, is its metaphoric significance.

It is, in fact, at the level of metaphor and of aesthetics as a sign system that Sanjuro diverges from Shane and enters into that realm uniquely Japanese which should be prized by Burch. Sanjuro manifests the kind of aesthetic foregrounding and intertextuality which Burch prizes so highly, but he has undervalued the film's essentially dialectical construction. We can see the kind of metaphorical and aesthetic foregrounding and the dialectical nature of Kurosawa's strategy by examining a number of codes at work in the two texts.

The first code to be examined is that of names. The titles of both films are also the names of the central characters. This eponymous characterization indicates that the central thrust of both narratives will be on character, on the person so named who gives his name to the film. The names of the characters, as names, already perform a mythicizing function. In the contexts of the films, both "Shane" and "Sanjuro" strengthen the characters' autochthony. When asked his name, the reply is "Call me Shane." (This scene is humorously echoed in The Magnificent Seven. Steve McQueen's character, when asked his name, replies, "Make it Vin.") Similarly, Sanjuro, when asked his name, ponders for a moment before, implausibly, arriving at "Sanjuro Tsubaki." But it is this very implausibility of Sanjuro's name versus the quite plausible, although clearly different (i.e., slightly out of the ordinary) name of Shane which points up a subtle difference between the two films. For we must recognize that the two names, Shane and Sanjuro, belong to two different discursive orders. Shane, as a name, has a metonymic quality. It could be a first name, a last name, or a nickname, but it is a name, and it is only a name. It isn't something else. The word Sanjuro, on the other hand, actually means "thirty years old;" tsubaki means "camellias. "This is not a translation of the Japanese characters for the lead character's name. It is as if Shane, when asked his name, replied, "Call me Camellias, thirty years old!" Thus, if "Shane" is metonymic, "Sanjuro" is metaphoric. This is to say that Sanjuro, in calling himself something, brings to bear another realm of discourse. (This is an echo from Yojimbo, where Mifune's character calls himself "Kuwabatake Sanjuro"—mulberry field, thirty years old. Considering the importance of names in Japanese society, Sanjuro, in making up a name for himself, already positions himself outside of culture. But the specific name establishes links with nature on two metaphoric levels [tsubaki, plus the self-creation.] Thus, the selection of names for the heroes of the films is one index of the greater sophistication of Sanjuro and the manner in which codes of the Western are transposed.

If Sanjuro's use of metaphor exceeds that of Shane's, it is in the realm of aesthetics, or the foregrounding of a code of aesthetics, where the two films diverge almost completely. Codes, such as "The Code of the West," or "Bushido," characterize the ideals encapsulated by Westerns and samurai films. Richie, as I have mentioned, prizes Sanjuro for the way in which it points up so much of the hollowness of Bushido as practiced in the ordinary jidai-geki. But that is not exactly what Sanjuro does. Rather, it finds humor in the disjunction between the code in theory and the lack of the code in practice. It is not Bushido, or the Code of the West, that comes in for attack. It is the force of such a code in operation which Kurosawa examines, the manner in which subscription to a code, to, that is, a set of significations, causes human misunderstandings.

The young samurai in Sanjuro always have a basic mistrust of the hero, even while they follow and admire him. Sanjuro is a ronin, an unemployed samurai, which offends their sense of order. Further, he is dirty, grubby, ill-mannered, and gruff. The youngsters see Sanjuro's clothes and apparent attitude as an objective correlative, which indeed it is, but his actions do not correlate to what they infer.

The lack of trust on the part of the young samurai becomes a constant source of humor and tension in the film. Their misunderstanding (misreading) of Sanjuro leads almost to the defeat of their plans. Their reliance on an objective code of behavior and aesthetics prevents them from seeing the true nature of their would-be rescuer.

The difference in nature between Sanjuro and the youngsters is wittily shown by Kurosawa, not only by words and deeds, but by his framing strategies. Kurosawa uses the 'Scope frame to juxtapose the horizontality of Sanjuro with the verticality of the samurai. Whereas they always sit upright in true samurai posture, Sanjuro likes to sprawl out across the tatami. One montage sequence reveals this quite clearly. Some of the samurai have been sent out as scouts to see what is happening. Sanjuro and the rest of them await their reports. As the scouts come in, the young samurai sitting upright listen carefully; in the background, or in the foreground (but never in the middleground), Sanjuro lies horizontally across the frame, typically yawning and scratching. The difference in posture, emphasized through the framing, is the perfect metaphor for the disjunction between social codes, between deeds and meanings.

There is one person in the film who does, instinctively, understand Sanjuro, and understand the disjunction between social/aesthetic codes, and that is the Chamberlain's wife. When Sanjuro rescues her from her captors, she is distressed to learn that he has had to kill two of them. Sanjuro is nonplussed at her criticism, but accepts it mutely (for him). Then, in order to escape from their compound, they must climb a stone wall. The woman is unable to jump to the top, so Sanjuro offers to act as a footstool. The old woman refuses, claiming it would be "impolite." Indeed it would be impolite, but the invocation of such a social code under the circumstances is a bit absurd. Sanjuro understands her, however, and so reminds her that unless she accepts his offer he will have to kill again. This prospect inspires her to place one aesthetic value before another and over the wall she goes, apologizing all the while for her rudeness.

On the other hand, the old lady's sense of aesthetics is not without a certain legitimacy. We see this in a number of ways. One of them is during the celebration over the discovery of the Chamberlain's place of imprisonment. In the midst of their jumping about, the young samurai notice that their prisoner, who has been kept in a closet, is leaping for joy along with them. When asked why he did not run away, he says it is because the old lady, who had untied his bonds, never thought that he would. At this time they also notice that he is wearing Iiro's best kimono. He tells them the old lady gave it to him because his was dirty.

The Chamberlain's wife introduces into the film the Zen paradox of the "undrawn sword." She reminds Sanjuro that the very best swords remain in their scabbards. She compares him to a drawn sword and would prefer that he were not that way. Such a paradox, that of the best swordsman who never uses his sword, abounds in the Zen annals. The paradox underwrites the film precisely to the extent that an undrawn sword is impossible, both on the narrative level and on the generic level. The swordplay film (chambara), however much it pays homage to the aesthetics of Zen, is impossible to conceive of minus swordplay. Kurosawa understands this very well—hence the spectacular "fountain of blood" at the climax.

The Chamberlain's wife at one extreme and Sanjuro at the other represent the linked dichotomy that structures Sanjuro. The film is thus to be understood not, like Shane, as an inevitable clash between the forces of nature and the forces of culture, but as a struggle between aesthetic and moral systems. At the level of shot composition, narrative conflict, and verbal exchanges, this opposition is elaborated upon. This aesthetic tension replaces the most significant absence in the transition from Shane to Sanjuro: romantic, or sexual, tension. In both films the father-figures are married. But in Shane, Marion Starrett (Jean Arthur) is a sexual being. Much is made, subtly, of the sexual attraction between Shane and Marion. At the end of the film Marion tells Shane not to face up to Wilson if he is doing it for her. Similarly, Joe Starrett says to Shane that if he (Joe) goes against Wilson and loses, he knows Shane will take care of Marion and little Joey. But in Sanjuro there is no such comparable sexual triangle. Joan Mellen notes how Sanjuro "introduces a woman who is … a match for the ronin hero … But she is merely a peripheral character, and Kurosawa gives her no name. She is also a woman of late middle age, having long passed the time when she could use her sexuality against men." Although Mellen is wrong about the woman's peripheral status, she is quite right about her lack of sexuality. However, it is not that Kurosawa is anti-romantic (there is sexual by-play between Iiro and the Chamberlain's daughter); rather, that his focus is on aesthetics as a system of beliefs. The Chamberlains wife may be seen as the dialectical opposite of Sanjuro (much as the Chamberlain himself for whom she stands in during the bulk of the film). If he represents action, she is stasis; he is violent, she, passive. The woman is thus peripheral to the action of Sanjuro, but central to its structure. Shane leaves so that the sexual triangle he has caused may he broken; Sanjuro leaves because he is a drawn sword in an age of peaceful fighters.

Stevens concludes Shane without ambiguities. Shane leaves to keep the family unit whole; the gunfighter has no place in a civilized society; he is a mythological being who returns to the earth whence he was born. Kurosawa concludes Sanjuro with ambiguities aplenty. Sanjuro does not disrupt the family unit, only the aesthetic system. But is such a system viable? Sanjuro is a mythological being, but he is not born out of the earth, so his wanderings are more complex than Shane's. Stevens is careful to orchestrate the whole tone of Shane so that it reaches a tearful end. Shane, wounded, rides off into the majestic mountains beyond as little Joey calls after him, "Shane … come back Shane … we love you, Shane … Shane." Sanjuro, having sliced open his opponent, is congratulated by the young samurai. The audience, momentarily breathless, is brought to a different mood when Sanjuro says, "Watch out, I'm in a bad mood!" A few moments later, as the young men bow before him, he breaks into a small smile and waves a jaunty, "bye," and saunters (Chaplinesque?) down the road.

Shane was an extremely popular film in Japan. But the narrative and structural patterns in Shane are neither unique nor original to it. Shane may very well be an archetypal Western, but it is hardly the first. Similarly, Kurosawa need not have seen Shane to be familiar with both earlier Westerns and earlier jidai-geki influenced by Westerns. Kurosawa's affinity for the films of John Ford and his own claim to have been influenced by the works of Hawks and Stevens should not make common connections too surprising. The popular appeal of Shane in Japan and America, and the popularity of Sanjuro in America and Japan demonstrate the appeal of their mythic content to both cultures. But the differences between the films may be said to rest precisely on Sanjuro's Japaneseness, on the manner in which Kurosawa could structure a film around the clash of aesthetic systems. That Sanjuro could seem merely a Western to a critic as perceptive as Noël Burch, or could seem simply a spoof of chambara films to a writer as knowledgeable as Donald Richie, demonstrates the work needed to be done to bring theoretical and critical specificity to notions of "Eastern" and "Western."

Jack J. Jorgens (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3628

SOURCE: "Kurosawa's Throne of Blood: Washizu and Miki Meet the Forest Spirit," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. XI, No. 3, 1983, pp. 167-73.

[In the following essay, Jorgens explains the psychological differences between Macbeth and Throne of Blood with a detailed analysis of the opening sequences of the film.]

Macbeth's first line in Shakespeare's play, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen," announces the theme of moral ambiguity and confusion in time of war, and initiates a scene from which the play's whole action flows. On the way home from battle, Macbeth and Banquo (who, we have learned, have both fought bravely for King Duncan against traitorous rebels) encounter an unholy trinity who are themselves ambiguous. They "look not like th'inhabitants o' th' earth / And yet are on't." They "should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so." They riddle in three voices of royal futures and then vanish. This brief but pregnant encounter provides the raw material for the most remarkable scene of Akira Kurosawa's adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood (1957). Kurosawa is one of the few film-makers to adapt Shakespeare, whose screen images have the density and power of Shakespeare's poetic images, who understands his task is translation both into a new culture and into a new medium. In seventy shots full of lyrical motion, beautiful compositions, and dramatic power, Kurosawa initiates the major themes and conflicts of the film, and offers an interesting Japanese reinterpretation of Shakespeare's vision of the supernatural.

Scenes in other films usually develop from the principle of climax (e.g., the shower murder in Hitchcock's Psycho, Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain, Boeldieu's death in Grand Illusion). Kurosawa in this sequence uses anti-climax. While returning home from battle, Washizu (Macbeth) and Miki (Banquo) have become lost in a tangled, foggy, labyrinthine forest. Twice in their ride through the forest on magnificent horses, they stop in bewilderment: first (shot 2) to notice the paradoxical weather consisting of sun and rain, daylight and darkness, and second (shot 18) to discover they are riding in their own footprints, that without realizing it they have ridden in circles. When Washizu fires an arrow up into the trees (to get a sense of direction? suspecting sorcery?) a flash of lightning, a crack of thunder, and hideous echoing laughter reveal that "an evil spirit of the forest" holds them there. Miki says that with his spear he will fight his way free, and the two spur their horses into a violent gallop—Miki slashing the air with his spear, Washizu firing arrows ahead of them, both men howling savagely in response to the spirit's macabre laughter—the very image of Man attempting to forge his own fate through action. A telephoto lens pans with them, blurring the background and exaggerating their motion. The fluid movements of the men on their horses and the camera tracking with them give us a feeling of exhilaration, tremendous forward momentum, making escape or some form of climactic event seem inevitable.

But Throne of Blood is a film in the ironic mode. This is true in the beginning of the film, when the titles appear over stills of the tangled forest and a chorus chants of the story of Washizu's ambition as the camera shows fog rolling over the hills, and ruins where long ago the mighty Forest Castle stood. And it is true here. No matter how furiously Washizu and Miki ride, they are framed by and viewed through the forest branches. Direction becomes confused as Kurosawa shows them riding first one way, then another, now toward the camera, now away from it. We don't know whether they are fleeing or attacking, and neither do they. Suddenly in shot 40 Washizu and Miki are stopped dead in their tracks. Violent, purposeful action dwindles into stunned bewilderment as they come upon a stick hut in a brightly lit clearing. Here, in the eye of the storm, everything is suddenly quiet—no rain, no thunder and lighting, only a low chant from behind a tree that stands before the hut.

This anti-climax is extremely striking because Kurosawa shifts styles in mid-scene. Throne of Blood is often praised as the most cinematic screen adaptation of Shakespeare. True, the first half of this scene is pure cinema—imagery and fluid motion taking precedence over the spoken word, the meaning of the scene embodied in setting and human action. From shot 40 on, however, the scene is analogous to pure theater (analogous because the fragmenting of space and time through editing and the absence of live performers make literal duplication of the theater impossible). No one would attempt the ride through the forest in a theater, but the second half could easily be played out on a stage. The Forest Spirit and hut upstage center with trees around the clearing, Washizu and Miki moving around from side to front during the confrontation, a trap door for the Spirit's disappearance, some dry-ice fog, and strategic shifts in lighting to make heaps of bones appear—one can imagine it in the theater easily.

This theatrical feel is all the more pronounced for Japanese audiences, for Kurosawa borrows several elements from traditional Noh drama: among them the white mask (associated with ghosts and spirits), the flute and drum music, poetic chant, and the symbolic stick hut. But even without those associations, the shock of the scene results not only from the sudden halt of their violent ride, but from the feeling that two film characters have suddenly been thrust from their "realistic" world of woods and rain onto a brightly lit stage, where their horses are useless, their armor and weapons mere costume, their prosaic language inappropriate, and their roles uncertain. This shift (which reverses the pattern used by Laurence Olivier in Henry V where we move from the Globe Theater to realistic battlefields) moves the men from a literal space to a figurative one, from their world to the Spirit's.

Washizu's downfall results not so much from fear or moral weakness as from a failure of imagination (the aesthetic equivalent of courage and moral strength). He meets in the Forest Spirit a supernatural being who bewitches and controls him just as a different kind of spirit, Lady Wakasa, does to Genjuro in Mizoguchi's Ugetsu. Washizu is like a primitive tribesman attending a lecture on physics. To him, the Spirit is opaque, utterly foreign, a being whom he will never understand. With a cosmic sense of humor, the Spirit takes a form completely opposite to the samurai warrior's. This man who is the terror of the battlefield is frightened and rendered impotent by an old woman winding thread in a stick hut.

Against the incredible strength and energy conveyed by Toshiro Mifune, who sometimes seems capable of tearing holes in the screen, is set a passive, kneeling presence played by Chieko Naniwa. A ruthless, phallic samurai warrior wielding spears and arrows meets a figure aged into sexual neutrality, a grotesque teaser and mocker of male virility. As Noel Burch points out, it is a Japanese ideal not to squander energy or hurry, but to quietly gather one's forces and then strike suddenly in one focused, violent outburst. Washizu moves in violent spasms, his body tense and his face contorted; but his actions are wasted. Twice he draws the arrow in his bow without releasing it. The Spirit sits still, with body relaxed, slowly, evenly winding thread from a large spool to a small one, its face a calm white mask. Washizu is heavily armed with weapons, metal and leather armor, his horse, and his companion Miki. The Spirit, by contrast, seems tantalizingly defenseless. It wears a soft robe and sits alone in a flimsy stick hut seemingly held together by spider's webs, armed only with words, laughter, and unshakeable self-possession. The mortals are rooted in the present. They glare at this apparition, are puzzled by its indifference to threats, strive to make sense of it. The immortal does not establish eye contact with the mortals, but rather ignores the present in order to peer into the future. She docs not need to look at them, because there is nothing there she has not seen before. The human condition never changes. Man never learns.

Everything about Washizu bespeaks brevity, discontinuity, and fragmentation. Everything about the Spirit bespeaks continuity and wholeness. Washizu's questions ("Are you human or a spirit?") and threats come to nothing. He betrays a terrible literalness of mind, moving from one place to another as if the Spirit would make more sense seen from different distances and angles. The Spirit ignores Washizu's questions and makes no threats, only predictions. She has no need to move because she sees everything from where she is sitting. Washizu's bow and the half-moon on his helmet are fragments of a circle, indicating his inability to see the whole. The spirit's thread, spun with hypnotic regularity, is unbroken, and the wheels inscribe whole circles, the small one turning faster and connoting small cycles, the large one turning more slowly (like Miki's fate) and connoting large cycles.

Next to the Spirit's capacity for irony and paradox, human singleness of purpose and vision seems comically limited. Like the Devil, the Spirit deceives by equivocating, or speaking truth in a way that it will not be believed. In a curious double voice (a low "male" vocal groan underlying the "female" singing voice) she fills the men with visions of power while at the same time chanting of human vanity, mortality, the lack of an afterlife, and the hollowness of ambition. "Death will reign; man dies in vain." Washizu and Miki laugh when they realize that they have become lost in a maze intended to protect their Lord from his enemies, but they miss the joke—they are his enemies. The Spirit's stick hut is a wonderful parody of the massive timber fortresses built by men to protect themselves against their own mortality. (The Japanese title of the film may be literally translated as The Castle of the Spider's Web). Resembling the Greek Fate Clotho, one of the three mythological ladies who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life, the Spirit holds the men's lives in her hands, and they don't even know it. No wonder mankind amuses her. From her godlike perspective, Washizu and Miki in their armor with fluttering banners (displaying the emblems of the rabbit and the centipede) look like insects.

The final irony is that the Forest Spirit is not only outside Washizu; it is also inside him. On the whiteness of the Spirit's robe, he projects his own fantasies. "You humans! Never will I comprehend you. You are afraid of your desires. You try to hide them." Some students of Shakespeare suspect that Macbeth hallucinates the Witches. In an atmosphere of civil war, where ordinary life is suspended, morality dissolves, and murder becomes an everyday occurrence (cf, Apocalypse Now), he is afflicted with "horrible imaginings," and finally acts to make the world conform to his nightmares. Throne of Blood is also acted out on a mental landscape. As J. Blumenthal put it, "For Washizu this first encounter with the forest is nothing less than a headlong plunge into the self." Many things in the forest can be related to things in Washizu's own mind. Miki is a kind of dream-double who represents the choice to wait rather than kill and seize power. The Forest Spirit closely resembles Washizu's wife, Asaji. Washizu's disorientation, fear, and obsession with death are expressed in fog drifting through tangled branches. His loss of sense of time and place is expressed in a blocked-out sun and paths folding back on themselves. Like characters in Conrad, Washizu is doing battle against his own unconscious. He may hide in man-made fortresses, and cling to the illusions of safety, harmony, and rationality offered by systems of morality, but the forest will come to him, and his own arrows will return to kill him.

This scene of frustration ends with a final frustration. The Forest Spirit rises and blows away in wind and demonic laughter. When Washizu and Miki step into and through the hut, the camera follows them; but when it pulls back a moment later, the hut has disappeared. The warriors are left in a graveyard with fog and eerie music playing around heaps of the bones and pieces of armor. Beyond the house of the Spirit lies death. Two integrated human forms occupy the same frame as the bones of warriors from past battles. The present confronts its own future.

In Shakespeare, killing the king breaks all bonds of kinship and humanity. It is a violation of nature spreading fear, distrust, and sexual perversion, and leading to the slaughter of children, cannibalistic panic among horses, eclipses. There is a ritualistic quality to the play, a scapegoat pattern showing a nation heaping the sins of the community on one figure, killing him, and restoring order by crowning a new king. The witches and Macbeth's horrible imaginings are evil according to the Christian scheme, contrary to nature. All men are vulnerable to these powers, but there is hope in the fact that in conquering them, men become stronger. Nature in Throne of Blood is neither benign nor harmonious, but amorphous, changing shape, sex, and tone. It is indifferent, both encouraging human ambition and mocking it. The forest breeds growth, but also confusion and futility. The Forest Spirit seems an embodiment of an ironic, amoral Nature, whose even-handed law is the destruction of fortresses, and the reduction of all individuals to indiscriminate heaps of bones. The last shots say it all: men dissolve to fog, to primal nothingness.

At the end of the sequence, Kurosawa returns from theater to cinema. In narrative terms, Washizu and Miki again become lost in the forest, but this time they find their way out. The visual strategy is remarkable for its formal beauty and rigor. As Noel Burch describes it,

Twelve times the horsemen advance towards the camera, turn and ride away, in twelve shots that are materially separate but identical, apparently, in the space that they frame—gray, misty, almost entirely abstract…. Kurosawa … builds one of the most sustained variational structures in narrative cinema, combining in never-repeated order three or four well-defined stages chosen from the range provided by each and all of the principal parameters of the action: the distance from the camera at which the approaching horses pause, the duration of their turn and the radius of the are described, their distance from the camera when the shot begins and ends. At times they ride into view out of the mist or disappear into it; at others the shot begins when they are already in sight, or it ends before they have vanished. From the eighth to the eleventh shot, re-enter unexpectedly in close-up, etc.

In the last shot, Washizu and Miki sit on the ground—the Lord's fortress in the distance dividing them visually—discussing the prophecies of the Forest Spirit.

In a sense the entire previous scene has been a preparation for this concluding shot. In groups of similar shots in the first half of the scene, Kurosawa equates Washizu and Miki visually (shots 4-6, 11-15, 19-21, 30-31, 34-36, 38-40). Kurosawa violates the conventions of editing (which dictate a significant change in angle, size of subject, motion, color, or physical position so as to prevent confusion), to indicate that the two are so closely allied they are virtually the same man. Then, when Washizu and Miki arrive at the clearing in shot 40, a new compositional pattern is introduced, a symmetrical one with the warriors at the sides of the frame divided by the Forest Spirit and stick hut (shots 40-42, 45, 47, 50, 54, 58, 61, 63, 67), a heap of bones (shot 69), and in the next scene the Lord's fortress which they will eventually fight over.

This symmetry—characteristic of the film as a whole, which is framed by a prologue and epilogue—has several dimensions to it. As in poetry, any rigorous pattern (rhyme, meter) lends emphasis to moments which break it. Asymmetrical shots gain a power they would not have ordinarily: this is true in shot 24, in which Miki laughingly comments on the labyrinth which is not matched by an expected balancing shot of Washizu. And it is true in shot 26, an unusually severe, low angle shot up through the rain as sunlight streams past a dark jagged branch looming on the right. The larger point made by this symmetry, however, is that the universe is a closed circle. Donald Richie writes,

It is perhaps because he is here exclusively concerned with limitation, negation, death, that Kurosawa—for the first time—created a formal film. He himself has called it an "experiment" and in it has created balance, a roundness, a unity, compactness, which one cannot help but admire even knowing just what this finished aspect means to Kurosawa. It is a finished film with no loose ends. The characters have no future. Cause and effect is the only law. Freedom does not exist.

Richie notes that "the formal, closed, ritual, limited quality of the Noh is … associated with the two women in the picture," Asaji and the Forest Spirit. The compositions place the Forest Spirit in the center not only to divide men, but to give it a position of absolute power. Shots centering on ordinary mortals in Throne become ironic; the human beings enjoy only momentary power and importance.

Kurosawa is extremely sparing in the use of close-ups in Throne of Blood, reflecting the film's detachment from the hero and heroine, and a non-psychological narrative mode. But those few close-ups he does use are very strong. In shot 42 Washizu moves toward the camera into a tight close-up as he fits an arrow to his bow and draws it, a terrifying grimace on his face. With devastating force in shot 70, the close-up of the heap of skulls, bones and armor comments on human striving capturing in an image the futility described in the Forest Spirit's chant.

An important variable in film scenes is how much we know compared to how much the characters know. In scenes like Groucho's proposal in Animal Crackers, the actress' tragic story of her youth in Hiroshima Mon Amour, and the pre-credit sequence in Persona, we are given no sense of superiority at all—quite the contrary. The invincible Groucho, the actress, and the unnamed consciousness behind the stream of images in Bergman's film know far more than we do—they cause or narrate what happens as it happens. In Jerry Lewis' encounter with the statue in The Bellboy, Charlie Chaplin's rebellion on the assembly line in Modern Times. and Gene Kelly's prance through the puddles in Singin' in the Rain, we know about as much as the fictional characters. But in each case the situation is complicated by the presence of the director on camera, by the doubleness of the character/performer. The death of Boeldieu in Grand Illusion at the hands of his fellow aristocrat Von Rauffenstein is a more straightforward example of characters whose knowledge is on a par with our own. They see the truth for their class, but not the truth for Marechal and Rosenthal who escape the prison camp.

Sometimes the dramatic irony of a scene is literal. Genjuro does not know he is in the hands of a demonic seductress in Ugetsu; André Jurieu is hopelessly innocent and ignorant all through Rules of the Game, right up until the moment when he is shot. He never knew what hit him. Sometimes it is more figurative, as in the lovers' happy meeting in Jules and Jim and the idyllic snowy scene from Kane's boyhood in Citizen Kane, the irony being that youth and innocence never last. Sometimes the whole basis for a scene is a sharp change in what we and the characters know. We think we know what is happening in the opening of The Searchers and the shots leading up to the shower murder in Psycho, but we don't, and it comes as a rude shock when we and the characters find out. At the end of Late Spring, Noriko comes to an understanding of what her father and we have known for a long time, and it is satisfying to have our view confirmed.

Seldom, however, is there such a chasm of understanding between characters as in the meeting of Washizu and Miki with the Forest Spirit. Washizu and Miki think they are riding back to their Lord after fighting valiantly for him. Instead the Spirit, sitting like a spider at the center of a web, mocks them, confuses them, obscures their vision, entangles them in fear and ambition. Kurosawa seems closely allied to the Spirit. He too enmeshes his characters in a formal pattern so rigid that it becomes an aesthetic equivalent of Fate. The Spirit's turning wheels, which resemble reels of film at an editing table, seem to inscribe the circles followed by Washizu and Miki as they ride in circles in the forest, and are caught up in the cycles of war, fear, and ambition that give the illusion of movement in this futile form of feudalism. Welles makes the past seem an illusory irretrievable dream, and Resnais makes a fading story of pain lose its truth in the telling. Kurosawa, however, tells his entire story in flashback, framed by fog and the barren hills where the proud Forest Castle once stood. This emptiness, which is perhaps what the Buddhist Spirit is contemplating as she chants to the mortals in the forest, makes the human strivings of the story seem meaningless. Kurosawa makes these strivings seem even more meaningless by trapping the characters in severe patterns of symmetry, repeated action, anti-climactic movement, and stage artifice.

Further Reading

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Casebier, Allan. "Turning Back the Clock in Japanese Cinema Studies: Kurosawa, Keiko McDonald, and Tadoa Sato." Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Spring 1985): 166-69.

Examines three books on the cited writers/directors, including Kurosawa's Something Like an Autobiography.

Gow, Gordon. A review of The Hidden Ḟortress, by Akira Kurosawa. Films and Filming 7, No. 8 (May 1961): 27.

Although a generally unfavorable review, the writer finds much to praise in the film.

Marciano, Emma P. "Envisioning Spaces: Akira Kurosawa's Adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot." Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 23, No. 3 (September 1996): 765-74.

Examines the cultural differences which affect the adaptation of the novel.

Medine, David. "Law and Kurosawa's Rashomon." Literature/Film Quarterly 20, No. 1 (1992): 55-60.

Examines the legal concepts of hearsay, bias, credibility, and impeachment in the film Rashomon.

Parshall, Peter F. "East Meets West: Casablanca vs. The Seven Samurai." Literature/Film Quarterly 17, No. 4 (1989): 274-80.

Examines the question of individual versus group needs in Eastern and Western cultures, using the two films as prototypes.

Bert Cardullo (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: "The Circumstance of the East, The Fate of the West: Notes, Mostly on The Seven Samurai," in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1985, pp. 112-17.

[In the following essay, Cardullo uses The Seven Samurai to illustrate the difference between Fate and Circumstance.]

    I must categorize the films of the     world into three distinct types.     European films are based upon human     psychology, American films upon     action and the struggles of human beings,     and Japanese films uponcircumstance. Japanese films are     interested in what surrounds the     human being.                                      —Masahiro Shinoda

Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) is such a film, one which portrays the power of circumstance over its characters' lives. The major "circumstance" in the film is this: with the invention of the gun and the development of the horse as an instrument of warfare, the samurai have been rendered obsolete as the warrior or fighter figures in Japanese society (Sengoku Period, 1534–1615). Whereas it is the samurai swordsmen who once would have raided the peasant village for rice and women, it is now the gun-toting bandits on horseback who do so. This places the peasants in a unique position: they can hire the samurai to defend them for the price of a meal (three meals a day, actually). But it also places them in a precarious position: the samurai will teach them to defend themselves, too, something the peasants have never done before. "Circumstance" has forced a new role on them. They are farmers by nature, fighters by chance (and necessity). "Circumstance" forces dignified samurai to go about in shabby clothing and even chop wood for a meal; it forces them to work for the very class of people they once had the most contempt for. "Circumstance" gives the gun to anyone who can pay for it (Unlike the sword, which takes a master to wield it, the gun can be mastered—especially at close range—by almost anyone), and thus turns the petty thief into the roving, deadly, greedy bandit, part of a larger robber band or "army." "Circumstance" then dictates that three guns—all the bandits have—are not enough against the expertise of the samurai combined with the numbers of the peasants. The day will come when all the bandits have guns, and that day will spell the end of the samurai for good and the rise of the military, and later the "police," to protect the people.

The "force of circumstance" is clearly at work throughout The Seven Samurai. But the film is hardly a treatise on man's helplessness before circumstance, his dwarfing by it. The art of the film, for me, is in man's playing out his destiny before circumstance, at the same time circumstance seems to engulf him. The farmers fight and die for their freedom. The samurai defend the farmers no differently than they would defend themselves: nobly and fiercely. The bandits fight to the last man, against in the end unbeatable odds, apparently forgetting that their initial objective in storming the village was to seize the farmers' crops: it is their own honor and fighting ability that have become the question. We see the ironies in the situation, but the farmers, the samurai, and the bandits do not, or they do only in passing. They act, and in action are ennobled. That, perhaps, is the sense in which this is truly an "action" or "epic" film: action does not occur for its own sake, or for the sake of mere spectacle; instead, it ennobles. The different protagonists act, no matter what they think or do not think. If they are aware of "circumstance," they forget it, and, again, act. The concentration is thus always on the human struggle more than on the existential dilemma. What matters is the present and the human more than the historical and the circumstantial. In this sense, the human transcends the circumstantial: those dead at the hands of circumstance are not mourned (farmers, samurai) or rejoiced over (bandits) at the end of the film; the living go on living—the farmers plant rice, the surviving samurai move on, unhailed—the dead are dead (the final shot of the burial mounds).

The point must be made again, for the sake of contrast: The Seven Samurai is a film about circumstance, or about man and his relationship, at his best, to circumstance; it is not a film about fate. In tragedy, man acts, often stupidly if inevitably, and then reflects on his actions, wisely. In the work of circumstance, man acts wisely in the face of the stupidity and unpredictability of circumstance. Tragedy focuses, in a way, unnaturally on man and his deeds. It presumes the authenticity and absolute rule of "fate," and then sets man happily against it, or against himself (in whom fate may reside). The work of circumstance focuses, more naturally, on the vagaries of circumstance and man's often instinctive response to them. The foolishness is in the universe; the wiseness, if not the temperance or caution, is in man. Man assumes a more modest position and, in my estimation, comes off the better for it. Circumstance is the real enemy, the real force lurking at all times in the background of our lives. "Fate" is the straw man in tragedy: one senses, often, that it has been created or invented merely for the display of man's vanity, his self-obsession. "Fate" seems dominant in tragedy, but man outside fate is the real star ("Look at me!"). "Fate" is something man has invented to explain away his own obsessions and inadequacies. Circumstance is real or tangible; man is most often defeated by it. At his best, he meets it (the adverse kind, that is) on equal ground, and if he does not triumph, he does not lose, either. He distinguishes himself in the fight. That is all, and that is enough. Of the three groups of characters in The Seven Samurai—the farmers, the samurai, and the bandits—this can be said with almost tactile sureness.

The work of circumstance is interested in what surrounds the human being, and how he reacts to it, under stress. Tragedy is interested in what is immutable (it thinks) in each human being, and the world, and how this leads to man's (noble) destruction. It is interested, in short, in man above all else, and in all, his flaw. Circumstance places man more squarely in the world; "fate" pushes him back into himself. The one art looks out, the other in. It is the difference between East and West, self and other. Appropriately, tragedy focuses on one character; the work of circumstance, on several or many. The Seven Samurai is not about the seven samurai themselves, it is about the characteristics of samurai—courage, honor, dignity—that circumstance conspires to bring out in others. Remember, for example, that it is the farmers who first decide to fight the bandits; only then do they think to hire samurai to help them.

One small example, distinguishing between Western tragedy and the Eastern "work of circumstance": Near the end of the film, circumstance presents the young woman Shino with a difficult choice. By now she is in love with the samurai initiate Katsushiro; she must go with him, a man of a higher class, or stay behind in her native village. She chooses to stay behind. Even though she loves Katsushiro, it is a wise choice. She will forget him in time—indeed, she seems to forget him immediately—and marry a man of her own class. She will suffer momentarily, prosper in the long run. Shino suppresses self for "other," for her relationship to her family, village, and the world she has known since birth.

What would have happened in a tragedy, given a similar situation? This would have been the basis for the entire film. Shino would have been irresistibly drawn to Katsushiro and would have planned to run off with him. Her parents would have disapproved of the relationship (if they had known about it; it is kept secret from them until the end). Shino's love for Katsushiro would have been true, but doomed by its own very intensity, and the intensity of Katsushiro's love as well, and the lovers' consequent willingness to go to any lengths to marry. Shino and Katsushiro would both end up committing suicide, in other words, paradoxically a form of self-endorsement: if he class, be joined. We are in the world of Romeo and Juliet, where foolish, if sincere and inevitable, action on the part of the protagonists leads to the wisdom of reconciliation between their long-feuding families. Romeo and Juliet choose self-fulfillment before duty to family, and pay for it with their lives. To a Westerner, it is a noble sacrifice; to one such as Kurosawa, a senseless one—senseless, because it is the very intensity, if not obsessiveness, of Romeo's love for Juliet that causes him to kill himself upon finding her "dead." Even as Romeo was irresistibly drawn to Juliet, despite the serious feud between their families, so too is he compelled to commit suicide without investigating the circumstances of her "death." Romeo does not sacrifice himself for Juliet; he sacrifices himself to his own ideal of romantic love. [….] He places himself before the other members of his family and community, and it is this absorption with himself, this retreat into self, that makes him commit suicide when he finds Juliet's body. He is finally all alone, with no reference outside himself with Juliet "dead," and therefore he fancies suicide the only way to remain "alone" without suffering. He cannot think of anyone but himself, and that is what kills him: he exhausts his powers of reason and measure.

Clearly, I am not trying to say that characters in Japanese films do not commit suicide or otherwise come to ruin. Think only of Shinoda's own Double Suicide (1969) and his recent Ballad of Orin (1978). But there is a great deal of difference between lovers' deliberately choosing suicide as a means of escape from society's strictures—killing themselves, in a sense, so as not to rend the fabric of society, or because they cannot fathom society's harsh workings—and Romeo's (or Juliet's) killing himself in an hysterical moment of grief, because he thinks his Juliet dead. Romeo and Juliet's suicide is an accident. It would never have happened but for the intervention of Friar Laurence. It is a "tragic" accident, in the sense that it was inevitable that Juliet, in her consuming love, would go to such extremes to be with Romeo, and in the sense that her family will not relent in its feud with the Montagues; but is an accident nonetheless. Keep in mind that the reason for Juliet's taking the potion in the first place is to appear dead to her family, so that she will be buried and then freed from her tomb by Friar Laurence, to run away with Romeo. She rejects her family and city, that is, for Romeo.

Shakespeare, then, devotes a whole play to the actions of Romeo and Juliet. Kurosawa makes the relationship of his Shino and Katsushiro a small part of a work devoted to illustrating commitment to "other" before self and to depicting sure and noble action in the face of unfavorable circumstance. Shino is one of many in The Seven Samurai who choose duty to "other" before self, and I think observers of the film have largely missed this aspect of it. Some of the samurai, for instance, at first resist the idea of joining up with Kambei to defend the village for two basic reasons: there is not enough monetary reward in it, and there is no honor in defending farmers. But they come around, primarily because of their attraction to Kambei, their desire to ally with him as samurai, to help his cause. The individual, vagrant samurai cohere into a single-minded fighting unit. The young Katsushiro himself becomes Kambei's disciple, against Kambei's wishes at first. He suppresses self, that is, for devotion to a master. And the few farmers outside the village proper want to save themselves, not the village as a whole, but they, too, after some coercion by the samurai, forget self and fight for "other." The same goes for the bandits. Every one of them sacrifices self to "other": every one of them is killed in the battle with samurai and farmers. No one runs, for fear of death at the hands of his chief (the chief says, pointing to a dead bandit, "Remember! Every coward here will get the same treatment"); no one runs, despite one bandit's remark, "The whole thing is back to front. Now we're burnt out and hungrier than they are."

Circumstance unites man: the farmers with one another, just so the samurai, just so the bandits. It "unites" man further: it turns farmer into near samurai-like in his courage and pride in fighting to the end; it makes samurai farmer-like in his desire to keep the rice crop from the bandits (it is this crop that the samurai, too, now shares, whereas once he had been bandit-like in its seizing).

Tragedy divides and isolates man. The knowledge that its protagonists derive from suffering is not common knowledge; it is knowledge that can only be had from profound suffering. So the message of tragedy is that man will suffer again. The calm at the end of tragedy is the calm before another storm. Man is steady and united in his facing circumstances it draws him outside himself, and gives him an experience common to many. He is unsettled and alone in the face of tragedy, or his own fate. This is the message of tragedy, but beneath it is buried a more important message, hinted at earlier in this essay: that it is precisely this excessive emphasis on the individual in the West, and in the tragic literature of the West, that condemns man to further suffering. It is the total fascination and absorption with self, in other words, in art as in life, that leads to continued self-destruction. "Fate" in literature or film becomes almost beside the point. Individual deeds leading to isolation and suffering become almost beside the point. The point is that when man lacks a reference outside himself, when he is devoted to nothing but self-fulfillment and self-glorification, he will suffer, grandly. He will break down. Tragic heroes in the West are, then, condemned to defeat before they ever step onto the page, the screen, or the stage. The very way of life, or world view, that has produced them, condemns them. This is not "fate" as it is applied to individuals in works of art ("It was Oedipus' peculiar fate to … etc," for example). It is life as applied to Western man generally.

David Boyd (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Rashomon: From Akutagawa to Kurosawa," in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1987, pp. 155-58.

[Below, Boyd explores the development of Rashomon from two stories by Akutagawa.]

Kurosawa's Rashomon (or "The Great Rashomon Murder Mystery," as Donald Richie once dubbed it with the director's apparent approval) involves, like more conventional murder mysteries, two distinct narrative lines: the story, or stories, of a crime (the various contradictory accounts of the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife) and the story of an investigation (the attempt of the characters at the Rashomon gate to sort through these contradictions and determine what really happened). In the case of Rashomon, though, these two narrative lines actually originated in two separate literary sources, and the union of the two, according to Kurosawa himself, was essentially a marriage of convenience:

When I had finished Scandal for the Shochiku studios, Daiei asked me if I wouldn't direct one more film for them. As I cast about for what to film, I suddenly remembered a script based on the short story "Yabu no naku" ("In a Grove") by Akutagawa Ryanosuke…. It was a very well-written piece, but not long enough to make into a feature film.

… At the same time I recalled that "In a Grove" is made up of three stories, and realized that if I added one more, the whole would be just the right length for a feature film. Then I remembered the Akutagawa story "Rashomon." Like "In a Grove," it was set in the Heian period (794-1184). The film Rashomon took shape in my mind.

"In a Grove," then, apparently provided Kurosawa with the story of a crime; "Rashomon" with the story of its investigation.

These two Akutagawa stories have nothing obviously in common beyond the fact that both are in turn derived from episodes in Konjoku Monogatari ("Tales of a Time Now Past"), a vast twelfth-century collection of stories drawn from diverse sources. "In a Grove" is ultimately based on a simple tale of a bandit who captures a samurai and his wife through trickery, rapes the wife, then goes on his way, leaving the mutually embittered couple to continue their journey. Akutagawa alters the actual narrative line by having the husband killed and the bandit captured, but transforms the story much more radically by having it presented through the testimony of a series of witnesses questioned by a police commissioner. These accounts are presented to the reader directly, without an explanatory narrative frame of any kind, and as they progress from the corroborative testimony of the disinterested bystanders (a woodcutter, a priest, a policeman) through to the blatantly contradictory versions of the bandit, the wife, and the husband (whose ghost testifies through a medium), it becomes increasingly clear that Akutagawa is less interested in the contested facts of the crime itself than in the difficulty, or impossibility, of determining them. The medieval anecdote is transformed into a peculiarly modern meditation on the relativity of truth.

Akutagawa's concerns in "Rashomon," on the other hand, are less epistemological than ethical. Set in a much more concrete and detailed version of late Heian society than "In a Grove," the story concerns an unemployed samurai's servant who has been reduced to a choice between starvation and a life of crime. Taking refuge from the rain in the ruins of the Rashomon gate, he comes upon an old hag stealing hair from corpses to make wigs. When the morally repelled servant indignantly intervenes, the hag protests in her own defense that the woman whose corpse she was robbing had been no better than herself (she had made her living by selling snake flesh as dried fish), but that neither woman had any choice, that any conduct is justified by self-interest and the need to survive. The servant ironically acknowledges the cogency of her argument by promptly turning it against her; concluding that he has no choice either, he proceeds to rob her of her own clothes. Essentially a study in moral psychology the story focuses consistently on the ethical waverings of its protagonist, as he progresses from "Helpless incoherent thoughts protesting an inexorable fate," through "a consuming antipathy against all evil," to his final commitment to survival at all cost.

Kurosawa's indebtedness to these apparently unrelated stories is as radically dissimilar as the stories themselves. The influence of "In a Grove" on the scenes in the woods and in the magistrate's courtyard in Rashomon is patently obvious. Kurosawa treats it with scrupulous fidelity, not only in fundamental matters of technique (in both story and film, for instance, the witnesses' testimony is delivered in response to implied, but unheard, questions from the investigator), but even in seemingly inconsequential narrative details. As Donald Richie points out, for instance, there is "no reason at all for the bandit to be discovered by the police agent near a small bridge (seen in the film) except that this is where Akutagawa says it happened." If Kurosawa's indebtedness to "In a Grove" is too obvious to miss, it seems unlikely, in contrast, that anyone would ever even have suspected the influence of Akutagawa's "Rashomon" were it not explicitly acknowledged in the title of the film. The critical consensus is that "the title story has little in it that Kurosawa used, except the general description of the ruined gate, the conversation about the devastation of Kyoto during the period of civil war and the atmosphere of complete desolation," to which we might add the notion of the theft of clothing from a defenceless victim.

The most significant influence of "Rashomon" on Kurosawa's film, however, is not direct and narrative, like that of "In a Grove," but rather oblique and thematic. And an appreciation of that influence serves to illuminate the real nature and function of the frame sequence. For, despite Kurosawa's account of the film's origins, the events at the gate are not merely narrative padding, and the woodcutter, the priest, and the commoner do a good deal more than provide narrative exposition and a bit of sententious choreic commentary. The drama in which they participate constitutes, rather, a sort of interpretive re-enactment of the earlier drama, and it is on the parallel between these two dramas that the thematic coherence of the film as a whole is based. As the bandit, the wife, and the ghost of the husband offer contradictory accounts of what happened in the woods, so the second trio of characters offer equally contradictory responses to those accounts. Where the woodcutter responds to the situation with bewilderment and the priest with growing disillusionment, the commoner greets it with complacent cynicism.

Both of these narrative strands function, in different ways, to translate an epistemological dilemma, the viewer's inability to determine with any certainty what actually happened in the woods, into ethical terms. One aspect of the interrelationship of ethics and epistemology in the film has been widely recognized, the role of egoism in motivating the contradictory accounts of the crime. The film goes beyond relativism, as Stanley Kauffmann says, to reveal "the element that generates the relativism: the element of ego, of self." In fact, it is "not so much about the relativity of truth," in Bruce Kawin's view, "as it is about selfishness, from the ego-supportive fictions of the narrators to the outrages they commit." Kurosawa's addition of a fourth version of the events in the woods to those provided in "In a Grove," the woodcutter's eyewitness report, reinforces this emphasis on egoism in two different ways: first, the woodcutter's farcically ignoble version of the crime exposes the full extent of the self-aggrandizement involved in the earlier accounts; and second, the commoner's subsequent accusation that the woodcutter himself has lied in concealing his theft of the dagger extend the realm of self-interest and deceit within the world of the film even further.

It is not only the manner in which the witnesses tell their tales that has to be seen in a moral context, however, but also the manner in which the characters at the gate respond. If the events in the woods reveal the motive that generates the relativism of the courtyard, the events at the gate remind us of its potential consequences. And it is Akutagawa's "Rashomon" which provides the model for the central point made by Kurosawa in the framing sequence of the film, its exposure of the way in which our judgments of the behaviour of others serve to license our own. "In a Grove" emphasizes the necessary arbitrariness of epistemological choice (the story gives us even less reason to trust one version of the crime more than the others, in fact, than does the film); "Rashomon" stresses the inevitability of moral choice. Where the former insists on the impossibility of certainty, the latter insists just as strenuously on the need, even in the absence of certainty, to make a commitment. The intersection of these opposing thematic emphases in the film results in a particularly clear instance of what Naomi Schor has described as the "hermeneutic double-bind" characteristic of modernist narratives focusing on the interpretive process, in which "the absolute necessity to interpret goes hand in hand with the total impossibility to validate interpretation."

The central interpretive decision faced by both the figures at the gate and the viewers in the audience, of course, is to determine, not which of the contradictory stories to prefer, but rather the significance of the contradictions themselves. And it is the final episode of the film, the incident of the abandoned baby, which points up the real importance of this decision. Interestingly, though, if there is a single matter on which the film's critics are largely in accord, it is their condemnation of this incident. Dismissing it as "false and gratuitous," in Joan Mellen's words, they generally feel relieved of any need to discuss it further. Even the few defences that have been offered tend to be curiously left-handed, like Stanley Kauffmann's suggestion, for instance, that "one can argue that Kurosawa felt the very arbitrariness of this incident would make the central story's ambiguity resonate more closely." The one critic to accord the episode the attention it deserves is Keiko McDonald, who sees its effect as ultimately subverted, however, by the darkening of the closing shot of the film, which serves, she contends, "as another justification for supporting the relativity of man's nature as the film's final implication."

But this is scarcely the implication of the episode as a whole, for the behaviour of the commoner in robbing the baby of its clothing serves precisely to expose the connection between epistemological relativism and moral anarchy. Interpreting the stories he has heard from the woodcutter and the priest as further evidence that the world is shaped and governed solely by the demands of the ego, he accepts the implications of his interpretation and proceeds to act upon them. Conversely, the woodcutter's decision to adopt the baby is not merely a sentimental afterthought on Kurosawa's part, but rather, in effect, an unintentional contribution to the debate, a refutation of the commoner's cynicism through an actual demonstration of the possibility of selflessness, an assertion of something beyond ego.

If the behaviour of the commoner makes essentially the same point as the ironic conclusion of Akutagawa's story, then, the behavior of the woodcutter makes a very different point. And if that point has been lost on those of the film's critics who continue to see it as a demonstration, sometimes even as a celebration, of relativism, its force is clearly appreciated by the third figure at the gate, the priest. Misunderstanding the woodcutter's intentions in picking up the baby, assuming that they are no better than the commoner's, the priest initially concludes that the commoner's cynicism was apparently justified, after all; but the realization of his error enables him, as he tells the woodcutter, to regain his faith in humanity and in the possibility of a morally meaningful universe. With the action of the woodcutter, Kurosawa's Rashomon permits the priest, and its viewers, a way out, an existential escape from moral relativism, denied the readers of Akutagawa's "Rashomon."

Frances M. Malpezzi and William M. Clements (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "The Double and the Theme of Selflessness in Kagemusha," in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1989, pp. 202-06.

[In the following essay, Malpezzi and Clements examine the different value placed on selflessness in the East, as explored in Kurosawa's film Kagemusha.]

In Something Like an Autobiography, which covers his childhood, youth, and early professional career, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa writes:

I like unformed characters. This may be because, no matter how old I get, I am still unformed myself, in any case, it is in watching someone unformed enter the path to perfection that my fascination knows no bounds. For this reason, beginners often appear as main characters in my films…. Now, when I say I like unformed people; I don't mean I'm interested in someone who even if polished will not become a jewel.

Though he is thinking particularly of characters in his first film, Sanshiro Sugatu (1943), this statement relates to other Kurosawa characters. Most certainly it pertains to the nameless thief who serves as protagonist of Kagemusha. An action film set in the disintegrating feudal society of sixteenth-century Japan, Kagemusha centers thematically on character formation, for the protagonist's growth into a social role that has been defined for him provides the film's unifying focus. However, unlike many narratives of character formation, Kagemusha is not a tale of the awakening of individual identity. Instead, the thief's gradual dedication to a role that has been forced upon him ultimately destroys his individuality and replaces it with a wholehearted devotion to the social group.

Kagemusha opens on a council of the leaders of the Takeda clan, one of the rival factions struggling for political hegemony in Japan of the 1500s. Nobukado, younger brother of the clan leader Shingen, has conceived a plan for ensuring both ubiquity and immortality for his brother. He has located a petty thief, about to be crucified for his crimes, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Shingen. In fact, he is his exact double. Nobukado, another Shingen look-alike, has been doubling for his brother on occasions when it is efficacious for the clan leader to be in two places simultaneously. Shingen is intrigued by the thief's possibilities, for the criminal resembles him much more closely than his brother does. Moreover, the clan leader believes that his own presence is vital to the Takeda fortunes and would like a hedge against the disarray that might result should he die unexpectedly. His goals, to which he is willing to sacrifice even his own personal concerns, involve unification of Japan and an end to war and bloodshed. He shares this vision with his subordinates, and they view the thief as a potential tool for its realization. Shortly after encountering the thief, Shingen is wounded by a sniper while besieging an enemy's castle. He avers that if he lives, his immediate aim is to capture the city of Kyoto, but if he dies, his death must be concealed for three years while his troops consolidate their position. When the wound proves fatal, it becomes the thief's part to assume the clan leader's place, to submerge his own identity in the social role.

The film depicts the thief's assumption of the role as he struggles with self-doubts and with the tests he must pass to avoid exposure as an imposter. By treating the role of double from the thief's point of view, the film also provides a fresh perspective on what for Western viewers is a familiar narrative concept. Both ideas, that of character formation and that of the double, offer structures to Kurosawa upon which to develop what he perceives as the characteristic Japanese ethic—that of unselfishness. In his autobiography, Kurosawa remarks, "The Japanese see self-assertion as immoral and self-sacrifice as the sensible course to take in life".

In John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, the protagonist, Christy Mahon, is mistakenly perceived as a heroic figure by the habitues of Michael Flaherty's pub in the west of Ireland. Really a meek, timid lad, Christy is far removed in character from the brawling, brawny figure he is assumed to be, at least at the beginning of the play. But before the action concludes, Christy becomes a heroic figure in reality, an athletic champion, a genuine playboy. He has grown into the role which others have defined for him. He has had "greatness thrust upon him." Like Christy, the thief in Kagemusha develops into an externally defined role. He too becomes great. But his greatness accords with the Japanese ethic of unselfishness.

The thief's inner development, his journey toward the heroic and unselfish ideal, is more clearly delineated when it is seen in the context of three other characters in the film—Shingen, the clan leader; Nobukado, Shingen's brother; and Katsuyori, Shingen's son. Both Shingen and Nobukado as previous players of the thief's part have already characterized his role for him. Shingen as leader of the Takeda clan and Nobukado as his brother's double have sacrificed concerns of self to the part which they must play in the general clan welfare. The film's setting in a period of civil conflict, a bloody era of territorial consolidation in Japan, requires a special kind of selflessness. For example, Shingen has exiled and killed close relatives in order to reach his goals of national unity and cessation of warfare. For him, personal relationships become secondary to public responsibility. That his actions against his relations were not merely a move to attain personal power becomes clear from Shingen's willingness to entertain the idea of a double. His own personality is submerged in the social role, for he insists that the role and the goals which are associated with it must persist in an uninterrupted continuum even after his death.

Nobukado serves as a behavioral model for the thief; he has previously served as his lord's double and shares his values. Moreover, because he has been the double, he has insights into the difficulties of that role and compassion for the thief, recognizing, as the thief does not, both the problems of the role and the pain that will ensue with the inevitable cessation of the role. Reflecting on his own experience, Nobakado acknowledges that it is not easy to suppress one's self to become another. There were times he wanted to be himself and be free of the restraints of the role. But he recognizes the selfishness of that desire and quells it. For Nobukado the needs of society transcend those of the individual. Clearly he achieved oneness with the role he played, identity with his brother/lord; he asserts, "The shadow of a man can never desert that man." After his brother's death, after he no longer plays the role, he feels he is nothing. In repressing his own individuality, his need for freedom, his personal desires, Nobukado has sacrificed personal identity for his clan. He became his brother, internalized his goals, and assumed another identity for the social good. In relinquishing selfhood he exemplifies what Milton termed the "better fortitude / Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom." We see, in him, the kind of hero the thief is on the way to becoming.

Katsuyori, on the other hand, is a foil for the thief. Because he consistently places self above the group, he eventually brings about the downfall of the Takeda Clan. Katsuyori so resents his father, so bristles at living in the shadow of the great man that we know he could never—like Nobukado and the thief—be his shadow. He wants to assert himself, to manifest his prowess, his greatness. In hiding Shingen's death, the clan leaders realize Katsuyori will be their biggest problem. Ambitious, envious, and petty, Katsuyori has never smiled since Shingen chose Katsuyori's son Takemaru as heir rather than him. As a victor in numerous battles, he feels the slight of being guardian and is revolted at having to call a thief his father. When the generals, respected warriors themselves, remind him they must also acknowledge a thief as their lord, they speak of the necessity of putting aside personal feelings because "we must all be united." The generals share Shingen's goals of unifying the country and ending bloodshed and are willing to put aside personal feelings and sacrifice their pride. Katsuyori is never able to accomplish this. After his father's death, he goes into battle on his own—without a clan conference and expressly against his father's dying words. Later when the thief as double is exposed, Katsuyori assumes control of the entire clan and again leads the men into battle. When the generals interpret a rainbow as a sign from his late father reminding him of his instructions not to attack, but to stay and guard the domain, Katsuyori disregards them and pridefully leads the troops into what Shingen before his death prophesied as their doom.

The thief's development in the film is toward the ideal of unselfishness and social responsibility manifested in Shingen and Nobukado, his predecessors in the clan leader role, and antithetically exemplified by Katsuyori, his successor as clan leader. At the beginning of Kagemusha, the thief is about to die because of crimes committed against society. As a petty thief, he has habitually placed the needs and desires of self before even the slightest social concerns. The only motive for his entertaining the idea of becoming Shingen's double at this point is his selfish desire to escape execution. He does not share—has not even considered—the social goals articulated by the clan leader and his associates.

The thief's sense of responsibility beyond that to self begins to emerge only after Shingen's death, but even then his commitment wavers. He learns of the clan leader's death while engaging in his accustomed pursuit, thievery. The thief breaks into an enormous lacquered urn, expecting to find treasure, only to discover Shingen's body awaiting burial. His cries of fright summon Nobukado and other leaders of the clan, who confront the thief with the fact that he must begin playing Shingen's part immediately. He categorically refuses to do so, his social sense still in abeyance before his selfish concerns. Apparently defeated, Nobukado releases the thief and plans to bury Shingen's body in a secrecy that will continue until the clan leaders decide how to break the news of the lord's death to the clan. They transport the burial urn to fog-enshrouded Lake Suwa, where Shingen had wanted to be buried. As they lower the urn into the lake, spies from enemy clans observe the proceedings from the shelter of a ruined building. The spies, though, are observed by the thief, for he has followed the funeral party to its destination. When the spies depart with their news, the thief rushes to Nobukado to warn him. When he realizes that the enemy clans will learn of Shingen's death anyway shortly, the thief understands that the only way for the ideals of Shingen to survive requires his assumption of the double role. The thief's confrontation of the inevitability of his own mortality has served as an initial turning point in his character formation. The dead face, that of the dead king whom he resembles so much, which stares at him from the broken urn is his own face. Donald Richie notes that "having seen the reality of death of the lord, he now begins to understand that he can really be Shingen." His sense of relationship with the person who is submerged in Lake Suwa influences the thief to submerge his own individuality. That individuality submerged, then his social responsibility can emerge.

A second turning point for the thief occurs during the first battle in which Katsuyori rashly leads his troops. Though he has acted arrogantly and not sought clan approval, though his abrogation of authority jeopardizes the fiction that Shingen lives, the clan leaders feel compelled to send troops to protect him. The thief, in the role of Shingen, stands behind Katsuyori and his men in battle. Instructed by Nobukado not to move, the thief becomes Shingen's spirit, the immovable mountain (a Takeda clan symbol represented on their banner by a Chinese character) whose obdurate strength, constancy, and towering presence inspire the men and frighten the enemy. Katsuyori is incensed at the thief's presence at his battle. Though he knows the figure is the thief, he feels as if Shingen's image continues to haunt him and preside over him as it had in life. He is angered at being treated as a child, at being dominated by the greater warrior, his father. As the thief functions in this scene, he has become Shingen. He remains steadfast through the horrors of the battle, even as his bodyguards are killed about him. And his presence creates the same impact for Katsuyori, for the troops, and for the enemy that Shingen's actual presence would have. After the enemy retreat, after the Takeda clan return home, we see the thief has a new confidence in himself, that he behaves "as if the late lord were inside of him." In fact, he is so at one with his role that he undertakes to ride Shingen's horse, a beast that would tolerate no rider other than the lord himself. When the thief is thrown and Shingen's mistresses rush to assist him and check for injuries, they realize he does not have the scar Shingen had received in battle long ago. The imposter is unmasked.

However, it is when the disguise is gone, when the externals of his role are stripped away, that the thief most conforms to that role. Once again in the clothes of a thief, driven from the premises, the thief most exemplifies the essential characteristics of his lord. Unlike the thief of old, he is unconcerned with the money a servant conveys from Nobukado. He is no longer motivated by selfish interests. As Marsha Kinder in her review of the film has argued:

It is precisely when Kagemusha is forced to resume his persona as thief that Shingen's influence on him receives its harshest test. We see that the Shadow Warrior has internalized the role; he has grown to love the heir; has come to feel a fierce loyalty to the clan, even though its members now reject him; and no longer wants to renounce his identification with the Lord. In the climactic battle that follows, he is even willing to sacrifice his life. The Shadow has become a man of substance.

In that battle we see the sharp contrast between Katsuyori and the thief. When the imposter is exposed, Katsuyori makes the most of his opportunity and seizes the leadership of the Takeda Clan, determined that once more he will attack the enemy in defiance of his father's dying command. Nobanaga, the leader of a rival clan, pronounces their doom: "Takeda will be no more. The mountain has moved." Through the assertion of his personal desires for glory and ambition, Katsuyori places his own needs above the clan's and brings a bloody end to the social group. The thief, on the other hand, having watched the massacre of the Takeda Clan, grabs a spear and runs through the dead toward the enemy until he is shot. Bleeding, he falls into the water and his corpse floats by a partially submerged Takeda banner. This image captures the submerging of his individual identity by his sense of social responsibility. The thief is one with the clan even if it means his death, and he joins Shingen in a watery grave: The two are gone in the "final apotheosis of impersonator into lord." We see in Katsuyori the destructive nature of selfishness and in the thief the heroic ideal of unselfishness.

C. F. Keppler argues, "Every second-self story, so far as the first self is concerned is to one degree or another a story of shaping, a Bildungsroman." Such is Kurosawa's Kagemusha, a narrative of character formation; however, the end product is singularly different from what we might expect in a Western tradition. As Claire Rosenfield notes, "the novelist who consciously or unconsciously exploits psychological Doubles may either juxtapose or duplicate two characters; the one representing the socially acceptable or conventional personality, the other externalizing the free, uninhibited, often criminal self." In many fictional treatments of the double, the reader descends into the conventional personality to discover there the potential for evil, the criminal self which lurks within. Rosenfield comments: "In Conrad's The Secret Sharer and Heart of Darkness, a bodily Double is present whose outlaw freedom is evidence for the narrator and the reader that even the most rational man possesses a dual nature, that no man is above the threat of the irrational." But in Kurosawa's Kagemusha we look into the criminal self and see there the potential for good as the thief transcends his petty and personal desires and places the needs of the social group above his own. The figure of the second self is usually but not always evil as Keppler shows in his analysis of that entity as savior. And it is this less conventional model—at least from a Western perspective—which Kurosawa's film approximates. When we look into the thief's heart of darkness, we find planted there the seed that grows and blossoms into the ideal, the ethic of selflessness which Shingen has demonstrated.

This signals another important difference in Kurosawa's treatment of the double. In twentieth-century Western fiction, as Rosenfield notes, the double usually signifies "the constant menace of personal disintegration which apparently threatens us all." And David Desser suggests, "Even the temporary loss of one's actual identity … is a major trauma to the Western hero." Kagemusha, however, is not concerned with the disintegration of self, but with the integration of the whole, the unifying of the social body. Loss of personal identity is not a threat or a menace here, but an ideal. Dresser avers, "The thief in Kurosawa's Japanese film becomes admirable precisely for this ability to deny his true self and redefine it." The real threat to the Takeda Clan is in Katsuyori's assertion of his own identity, his unwillingness to remain in the shadow of his father. Those who give over their identities to their social role—Shingen, Nobukado, and eventually the thief—are heroic exemplars. After he learns of Shingen's death, his enemy Nobanaga mourns that leader with a ritualized song and dance in which he comments on the evanescence, the transience of human life: "Life is but a dream, a vision, an illusion. Life, once given, cannot last forever." The song seems to underscore Kurosawa's theme in this narrative of character formation which challenges the traditional Western use of the double: the mutable, ephemeral individual must subordinate himself to the larger social group. When selflessness was the ruling ethic in the Takeda clan, the clan, like their ruler, possessed the endurance of the immovable mountain. When selfishness, through Katsuyori, took hold, the mountain crumbled to dust.

Stephen Prince (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: "Memory and Nostalgia in Kurosawa's Dream World," in Post Script, Vol. 11, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 28-39.

[Below, Prince gives a detailed summary of the progression of themes in Kurosawa's film career. He shows how the sequences in the film Dreams revisits the subjects of earlier works and reflects changes in Kurosawa's philosophy.]

Dreams is Kurosawa's twenty-eighth film and is, in every respect, a work of the director's late period. It represents a last and perhaps final permutation of his visual style, offers an exploration of the moral, psychological, and social significance of the dream-work, and marks a turning point in the five-year production cycles that have marked Kurosawa's most recent films. Consistent with every film since Red Beard (1965), Dreams was in gestation for a period of four to five years, with Kurosawa beginning work on the screenplay in 1986. Now, however, Kurosawa has already embarked upon his next film, Rhapsody in August, dealing with a grandmother, who has been asked to travel to Hawaii to visit a long lost brother who left Japan after the bombing of Nagasaki and is now seriously ill. This is the first time since 1965 that Kurosawa has been engaged on two productions back to back. (Furthermore, Rhapsody in August is the first Kurosawa production to be financed entirely by a Japanese film studio since Dodes'ka-den, 1970.)

Dreams is not a narrative but a collection of eight episodes which visualize and dramatize a series of dreams that Kurosawa claims to have had since youth, and the film continues the revisionist project of his late works. Beginning with Dodes'ka-den in 1970, each of Kurosawa's last five films has stood as a reconsideration and critique of the politically and socially committed earlier works. The cultural, social, and personal imperatives for an engaged mode of filmmaking which animated Kurosawa's career up through Red Beard (1965) have been progressively dismantled by these subsequent films. The dialectic between the rebellious individual and society has collapsed as have Kurosawa's hopes for the future. Before exploring Dreams in detail, it will be helpful to clarify how and why this revisionist project developed and the ways that it has skewed the formal and ideological emphasis of the earlier work.

As in the work of his favored author, Dostoevsky, Kurosawa has long been fascinated with the role that fantasy and hallucination play in human life, especially in helping bind the threads of lives torn by hopelessness, despair, and poverty. In One Wonderful Sunday (1947), for example, the despair of a young couple wandering amid the rubble of post-war Japan is alleviated by their dreams of opening, one day, a coffee shop of their own. At the end of the film, Kurosawa invests their fantasies with his own fervid conviction in their emotional and psychological integrity. To amuse his depressed girlfriend, the young man conjures the first movement of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. As he conducts an imaginary orchestra, the symphony itself is heard on the soundtrack as the young man's fantasies inflect, and are validated by, the very forms of the film. In Scandal (1950), the tubercular daughter of the corrupt lawyer Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) alleviates her suffering by escaping into a dream world where she is healthy. Kurosawa's most elaborate and extensive exploration of the world of dreams, of course, occurs in The Lower Depths (1957) and Dodes'ka-den. Both films focus upon the bleak lives of slum dwellers living as outcasts. Excluded from society, the slum denizens escape into a heated mental world that is viewed ambivalently, as a course of comfort, balm for the ravaged spirit, and as a means of escape that leads to suicide or, alternatively, madness.

The blandishments and seductive power of dreams were carefully contextualized and limited by Kurosawa's insistence that his protagonists resolutely face the bleakness and oppression of social reality and, by facing it, struggle to reverse and overcome it. Watanabe, the dying hero of Ikiru (1952), attempts to escape into the world of liquor and sensory pleasure during one hallucinatory night on the town, but he must reject these forms of escape on his journey toward enlightenment and social commitment. Kurosawa shared with Dostoevsky a sensitivity to the ambiguous gifts of the dream world, springing as they did from the ruminations of the isolated consciousness. Dostoevsky had written, "Frequently reality produces an onerous impression, one hostile to the dreamer's heart, and he hastens to withdraw into his own inviolable golden noon…. Imperceptibly the talent for real life begins to be deadened within him." In this passage, Dostoevsky clearly indicates both the charm of the dream world and its relationship to onerous reality, its function as an escape from the unbearable. Throughout much of his career, Kurosawa certainly shared this ambivalence because he never permitted his heroes to indulge in the comforts of fantasy. Instead, a sober and clear-eyed confrontation with social ills is the ethical prescription for post-war Japan dramatized by the narratives of Kurosawa's mature films, but especially by that period of intense post-war political and social commitment begun with No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and lasting until Ikiru, including in the interval One Wonderful Sunday, Drunken Angel (1948), The Quiet Duel (1949), Stray Dog (1949), and Scandal.

Kurosawa's previous ambivalence about the dream world is most apparent in the central political and artistic metaphor that recurs throughout his earlier films. This metaphor is a reworking of a commandment that Kurosawa received from his brother Heigo in 1923, following the Great Kanto Earthquake. Viewing the destruction, confronted with huge mountains of decaying corpses, Kurosawa recalls being profoundly disturbed and terrified. His brother Heigo, however, offered him a more enlightened attitude and one which was to stay with him for the remainder of his life. Heigo told Kurosawa, "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." Throughout the autobiography, Heigo functions as an enlightened master for Akira, assuming the role of a spiritual guide and teacher. It is clear that Kurosawa was deeply impressed by his brother's unconventional manner of living, one that seemed to burst the bounds of normal social life. Indeed, his brother may be a source for all of the Kurosawa heroes who do the same. Heigo's commandment was internalized by Kurosawa and emerged in the films as an important center of visual and narrative meaning. In Drunken Angel, the doctor Sanada operates upon the gangster Matsunaga without anesthetic. Brutally clamping open the wound in Matsunaga's hand, Sanada forcibly extracts a bullet, refusing to give Matsunaga an anesthetic despite his entreaties. In Red Beard, the older doctor Niide forces the young intern Yasumoto to witness a particularly bloody operation and, later in the film, compels him to watch a dying man's last moments. In both cases, Yasumoto is explicitly forbidden to look away. In The Bad Sleep Well (1960), the avenger Nishi carries with him a photograph of his father's bloody and battered corpse at which he regularly forces himself to look in order to stoke his hatred against his father's killers. Kurosawa himself has remarked that being an artist means never averting one's eyes, and this has been the central behavioral code for all of his heroes, as well as his general prescription for post-war Japan: a direct confrontation with social illness and oppression and the fortitude necessary to work it through. The linear narratives of his films embody a model of commitment, setting his heroes upon spiritual and personal journeys ending in confrontations with social ills such as crime, poverty, disease, class injustice, corporate corruption, and state nuclear terror. The dream world was allocated as a privilege for the peripheral characters, not the heroes, as a balm for those for whom the heroic quest was forever inaccessible. Foreclosed from following the heroic example, the peripheral characters were permitted, instead, the escape into hallucinatory reverie.

The dream world, then, stood in dialectical tension to the heroic narratives of Kurosawa's finest work and to the general social commitment that informed his film-making until 1965. That commitment was tied inextricably to the challenges of the immediate post-war years, to the general economic and social collapse and the political models of individualism and democracy which the Occupation authorities were emphasizing. Kurosawa's post-war films are explicit attempts to dramatize the cultural and psychological dilemmas that the country faced in the aftermath of militarism. As critic Tadao Sato notes, Kurosawa's work suggested that "Japan's recovery from defeat did not have to be only an economic one." Kurosawa himself has remarked upon his conviction that social reform must be predicated upon a new mode of living and a new social self, a more individualized one than existed in traditional culture. "I believed at that time [immediately following the Second World War] that for Japan to recover it was necessary to place a high value on the self. I still believe this." In his autobiography, Kurosawa reiterated his commitment. "I felt that without the establishment of the self as a positive value there could be no freedom and no democracy."

For Kurosawa, then, the strong, rebellious individual existing in a critical and oppositional relationship with society would provide the vehicle for social analysis and political filmmaking and could function as a symbolic example for generations of post-war Japanese for whom Kurosawa has always insisted he primarily makes his films. The development of Kurosawa's career from the late 1940s onward is an attempt to apply this model of social analysis to the challenges of post-war cultural development. Eventually, however, beset by ideological and social contradictions issuing from Kurosawa's dogged insistence upon applying an individualistic mode of analysis to social problems that are structural in nature and not really susceptible to the solutions of an individual hero (e.g., corporate corruption as treated in The Bad Steep Well, disparities of wealth and class antagonism as treated in High and Low (1963), the problems of nuclear weapons production as treated in Record of a Living Being (1955), Kurosawa's ethically and politically committed cinematic project steadily broke apart until, finally, in Red Beard Kurosawa sought refuge in an ahistorical and transcendental model of history and time. Red Beard marks both the end of Kurosawa's mature period of committed filmmaking and the pivotal moment at which that structure of commitment turns into the renunciation of politics and the modern world characteristic of the films that followed.

As the dialectic to the heroic mode of Kurosawa's cinema and its underlying social engagement, the world of dreams and illusions accordingly emerged with great power and prominence in the films that came after Red Beard. As noted, in Dodes'ka-den, Kurosawa explicitly details the fantasies and hopeful delusions which keep alive the spark of humanity in the slum dwellers. In Dersu Uzala (1975), the enlightened master Dersu exists only in the nostalgic ruminations of the explorer Arseniev because Dersu is already dead when the film's narrative commences. In Kagemusha (1980), Kurosawa studies the commitment of the Takeda clan to sustaining the illusion that their leader still lives. This illusion is necessary for the perpetuation of the clan itself and, with the revelation of the death of Takeda Shingen, the clan marches to its own extinction. Now, with Dreams, Kurosawa for the first time gives the dream world such prominence that it completely overwhelms narrative itself and becomes the sole and only focus of an entire film. This renewed emphasis must be seen as a symptom of Kurosawa's own intensifying renunciation of politics, of the possibility for social reform, and of the willful and impetuous commitment to social and cultural progress exemplified by his earlier film heroes.

Following his production of Ran (1985), a work of unrelieved pessimism in which Kurosawa emphasized, as he did in Throne of Blood (1957), the inevitability of social disintegration and human annihilation, Kurosawa explicitly indicated his shift away from a politically engaged focus to a more contemplative if not philosophical one. "I believe that the world would not change even if I made a direct statement: do this and do that. Moreover, the world will not change unless we steadily change human nature itself and our very way of thinking. We have to exorcize the essential evil in human nature, rather than presenting concrete solutions to problems or directly depicting social problems." He added that he didn't think in these terms when he was younger and that is why he could make such films then. "I have realized, however, that it does not work. The world would not change." In place of a vanished politics, Kurosawa now emphasizes the transcendental and ahistorical creativity of dreams. Dreams, he now believes, are well-springs to the genius that lies within the brain and the heart of all human beings. A dream, he says now, "is the fruit of pure and earnest human desire. I believe that a dream is an event created in the uninhibited brain of a sleeping person, emanating from an earnest desire which is hidden in the bottom of his heart while awake…. A human is a genius while dreaming."

As a transcription and adaptation of recurring dream memories, the emphasis upon nostalgia and reverie entails a renewed exploration of the isolated consciousness. The problem now, however, is that this isolated consciousness is Kurosawa's own. The isolation is certainly a product, in part, of the production problems that have plagued his recent career, but it stems more deeply from his own pessimism over the state of contemporary Japan and the modern world. The embrace of the past, the celebration of traditional cultural virtues, and the renunciation of the modern age are at their strongest in this film.

The first dream, "Sunshine Through the Rain," is an adaptation of a story that his mother used to tell him about fox weddings that occur in dense forests during a rainstorm while the sun is out. Kurosawa remarks, "I really believed that there were these fox weddings in that kind of weather. My mother told me that if I ever saw one something terrible would happen to me." In his screenplay, Kurosawa identifies the setting of this dream as his own home and the boy in the dream as himself. "Now I have become a little child. As a boy of five, I stand beneath the roof of the traditional Japanese gate in front of our house watching the rain." The set in the opening scene is an exact reproduction of the house in which Kurosawa lived as a child, with the family nameplate drawn by the artist Shusetsu Imai. Before he goes out to play, he is warned by his mother about how dangerous it can be if he discovers a fox wedding in the woods. Naturally, the boy goes to the woods where he discovers a procession of foxes. He is seen by them and runs away. Returning home, he is told by his mother that she cannot let him in until he goes and begs forgiveness from the foxes, lest they harm him. The dream ends with the boy setting out on a journey, looking for the foxes. In the final image, he is walking away from the camera through a field of brilliantly colored flowers beneath a huge rainbow.

Visually, the sequence draws upon some familiar features of Kurosawa's cinematic style. He continues to rely upon his favored telephoto lenses so that the compositions all have the familiar flattened and compressed space which have given Kurosawa's films such a unique look. As the boy stands beneath the gate of his house, it is also the familiar Kurosawa rainfall—torrential, relentless, and loud. Perfect continuity is maintained when Kurosawa cuts from the boy to shots of his mother by the use of multiple cameras. As in his earlier films, Kurosawa is using two or more cameras so that the cuts preserve a seamless flow of dramatic and temporal relationships.

In this episode, as in the others, however, Kurosawa avoids the marked visual angularity that has characterized his best work. In previous films, for example, such as Drunken Angel, or most notably Yojimbo (1961), and The Lower Depths, Kurosawa favored compositions stressing linear tension. He liked to place the camera at a ninety-degree angle to the axis of a character's movement or to the wall of a building. Only once in Dreams does Kurosawa emphasize this kind of angularity, and it occurs in the first episode. When the mother refuses to allow the boy back into the house after his return from the forest, Kurosawa sets his camera up so that its axis of view forms a perpendicular with the wall of the gate in front of which the boy stands. The result is a composition of marked frontality and foreshortening, both of which are qualities familiar with Kurosawa's past work, and the extreme formalism of this particular composition recalls the earlier shot in Sanshiro Suoata, Part II (1945), where Kurosawa framed Sanshiro and a brutal American sailor tormenting a rickshaw boy as they stood parallel to a brick wall directly behind them. Placing the camera at a right angle to the scene created a composition of marked frontality and depth compression. While, in his earlier work, such compositions worked in tandem with the telephoto lens to emphasize frontality and linearity as fundamental attributes of Kurosawa's style, in Dreams only the emphasis upon the telephoto lens remains as a consistent feature. Compositional angularity, which functioned in the earlier films as a signifier of visual and dramatic tension, of the opposition between the reformist impulses of the hero and the resistance of the social order, has been discarded in favor of more balanced and harmonious, static frames.

Montage cutting, too, has been largely discarded in Kurosawa's late films but, as with the angular composition, some of the earlier style remains, as a kind of atrophying appendage. In earlier films, Kurosawa's cutting was highly disjunctive. The shots would clash and bang together, making Kurosawa, as Noël Burch has pointed out, the true heir of Eisenstein. The cutting in Dreams, though, is considerably more placid. The images are joined with an emphasis upon smoothness and harmony rather than rupture. As the young boy sets off on his journey to find the foxes, however, Kurosawa cuts suddenly to a field of brilliant flowers, creating a montage of color in the editing. The transition is not as disruptive and striking as his earlier methods of cutting have been, but the effect is nonetheless similar, though isolated.

Finally, the other major attribute of Kurosawa's style, camera movement, is also greatly minimized. In films such as Throne of Blood, Rashomon (1950), and Seven Samurai (1954), Kurosawa executed tracking shots of a fluidity, grace, speed, and power unequaled by any other director in the world cinema. As he has grown older, however, and his film style more contemplative, the camera has tracked infrequently. As the young boy spies on the foxes in the forest, Kurosawa moves the camera slightly to reframe his movements, but, rather than developing an extended tracking sequence as in other films, here he repeatedly interrupts the track by cutting to new camera set-ups. The result, consistent with his late film style, is a marked de-emphasis upon movement in favor of the static frame.

These formal features typify the other dream episodes as well. The next, tilled "The Peach Orchard," deals with the young Kurosawa surrogate following a girl to the back fields where a large group of china dolls in the form of human beings are gathered upon a three-tiered hillside. The dolls tell the boy that they will never again visit his home because his family has cut down all of the peach trees. Confronted by the 60 human dolls consisting of five pairs of emperors and empresses, ladies-in-waiting, musicians, courtiers, and servants, the young boy objects that he loved the orchard in bloom and begins to cry because he will see it no more. Moved by his tears, the dolls, who have introduced themselves as the spirits of the peach blossom, begin to dance and to conjure the orchard for him once again in all of its beauty.

Filming the confrontation of the boy and the dolls, Kurosawa employs a telephoto lens so that the three-tiered hillside becomes flattened into a single plane of space, and he intercuts shots of the boy and the dolls using his familiar reverse-field cutting method, in which he crosses the 180-degree axis of action so that the visual field of each shot is the precise reverse of the one that preceded. Eventually, however, the dance ends, the vision disappears, and the boy is left standing in a desolate field surrounded by the mangled stumps of the peach trees. The boy wanders through the field until he finds a single remaining bush. Its pretty blossoms are a nostalgic reminder of the beauty lost forever from his life, as Kurosawa ends with a freeze frame of the boy's face.

The qualities of isolation and loneliness are very strong in these first two dreams. "Sunshine Through the Rain" ends with the young boy expelled from his home, setting out on a magical and perhaps endless journey for forgiveness and atonement. In the second, the young boy is left alone in a world bereft of traditional beauty because of the sins of ancestors. This sense that the world has been deformed by preceding generations becomes even more explicitly marked in later dreams dealing with the terrors of pollution and nuclear disaster.

The desolation and loss which are developed implicitly in the first two dreams are realized explicitly in the third, titled "The Blizzard." This dream deals with a four-man mountaineering team lost in a deadly blizzard. As they try to make their way back to camp, the howling winds and driving snows begin to overwhelm them, and they succumb to fatigue and despair. As his three companions collapse beneath the snow, their leader, the adult Kurosawa surrogate (played here and in the remaining episodes by Akira Terao, who played Taro Takatora in Ran), animated by a vestige of the willful individualism of Kurosawa's earlier heroes, pleads with them not to give up hope, to continue on, and, above all, not to sink down into the snow and sleep because there lies death. He, too, becomes fatigued, however, and, as he collapses into the snow, a snow fairy descends and wraps him in a glittering blanket. As she does, Kurosawa switches to slow motion and eliminates all naturalistic sound, replacing it with a vocal solo. It is apparent that the snow fairy represents death wrapping him in her shroud, as this dream visualizes the extinction of the self in an icy and empty world. This death or extinction of self, however, is not yet to be, for the character struggles to rise even as the snow fairy grips him firmly and attempts to hold him down. At last, however, she flies off and he gets to his feet as the storm breaks, and he discovers that they are merely yards away from their base camp. The loneliness and isolation of the first two dreams have given way to the death imagery of the third, which is chillingly conjured even if it is refused at the last moment.

This preoccupation with death is placed into a historical and an artistic context in the next two dreams. "The Tunnel" presents the adult Kurosawa surrogate as a survivor of World War II. Walking through a dark, expressionist tunnel, he is greeted by another of those nasty Kurosawa dogs, the kind that trotted out of the town in Yojimbo with a human hand in its mouth. Here, the dog has a pack of hand grenades on its back and barks the sound of gunfire. Bypassing the dog, the character emerges at the other end of the tunnel only to be greeted by the ghosts of the Third Platoon which he commanded during the war. After a tearful confrontation, he urges them to return to the past and to rest in peace.

This episode presents the war as a nightmarish experience that will not die and that has violently wrenched the individual from the moorings of family, friends, and society. One of the privates, Noguchi (Yoshitaka Zushi, who played Chobo in Red Beard and Rokuchan in Dodes'kaden) looks at a light gleaming in the distance and murmurs that this is the home of his parents. He knows they are even now awaiting his return, and he is overwhelmed with despair at his isolation as a spirit from the world of home and family. The episode is not, strictly speaking, an autobiographical one. Kurosawa did not serve as a commander during the war. In fact, he did not see active service at the front at all. However, in his films and memoirs, the war is experienced and portrayed very much as it is in this dream sequence, as a lingering national trauma. The war and its aftermath haunts the landscapes and the characters of No Regrets for Our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel, and Stray Dog. Kurosawa has repeatedly referred to Japan's period of militarism as a dark age, and he has written about his own experiences as a filmmaker during that time with intense bitterness. He has described the Japanese censors as "sniffing Dobermans" and as "beasts that exceed the power of the imagination to conceive." He has likened life in Japan during the war as being like the inside of a jail cell. "Being young in those times consisted of suppressing the sound of one's breathing in the jail cell that was called the 'home front.'" With these perspectives in mind, this episode may perhaps be understood as an anxiety dream about what might have happened had Kurosawa been conscripted and sent to the front and as yet another indicator of the continuing legacy of the war for Kurosawa and his cinema.

The death imagery that animates "The Tunnel" is placed in an aesthetic context in the following episode, "Crows." Here, the surrogate wanders inside the paintings of Kurosawa's favored artist, Vincent van Gogh, most notably, in van Gogh's painting "Wheat Field with Crows." This was the final painting van Gogh completed before committing suicide, and, as such, it apparently resonates with Kurosawa's own personal traumas, as when an earlier crisis in his life and art drove Kurosawa to attempt suicide. When the surrogate encounters van Gogh (played by director Martin Scorsese) inside the painting, he meets an artist totally committed to his work and consumed by the will to create, much as Kurosawa is himself. Echoing the words of Watanabe in Ikiru, anticipating his imminent death, van Gogh remarks, "I have to hurry, time is running out, so little time for me to paint." He tells the Kurosawa surrogate, "I can't stand here wasting my time talking to you," and he hurries off across the wheat field beyond an ascending flock of crows. It is well known that Kurosawa, although training as a painter and maintaining throughout his life an interest in painting, does not consider himself an especially talented one. As a young man, he was able to make the transition to filmmaking, in part, because of this conviction that his painting would always remain quite limited. There is something of this attitude in van Gogh's abrupt dismissal of the Kurosawa surrogate. When van Gogh departs, the Kurosawa surrogate is left to wander through the landscapes of van Gogh's paintings (in a sequence that features the special effects work of George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic). Clutching his painting tools and wearing Kurosawa's trademark hat, the surrogate is trapped inside the images of this master painter. Beyond the way it makes explicit Kurosawa's reverence and respect for van Gogh, this episode clearly implies that, had he not elected the cinema as his chosen forum, Kurosawa might have been lost as a minor talent in mediums not his own and that were already claimed by true giants.

The remaining three dreams are all of a piece and are animated by Kurosawa's anxieties about cultural and technological modernization. One of the most useful ways of understanding Kurosawa's dialectical, conflict-ridden film style is as a visualization and symbolization of profound cultural anxieties that were formative for Kurosawa and his generation. Born at the tail end of the Meiji period and growing up during the succeeding Taisho era, Kurosawa has visualized in his work the dilemmas and challenges of these periods, namely, the problem of whether it was possible "to transplant Western industry and technology without adopting the whole socio-political structure and value system of the West." Anxieties about whether Japan could modernize while still remaining essentially Japan helped produce a cultural perception of modernity in ambivalent and, at times, negative terms. Carol Gluck, for example, maintains that, "the late Meiji rendition of modernity" as a potentially negative and divisive condition, threatening to established traditions and social orders (e.g., breeding labor unrest, threatening the peasantry's ties to the land) "was, until 1945, the authoritative one." Marius Jansen has pointed to the ambiguities of modernization, noting that along with an abundance of material goods and an improvement in living standards come other developments that are not strictly directed toward "progress in the sense of better and happier lives…. Violence, uneasiness, and unhappiness have everywhere been the companions of modernization processes. Everywhere there is a consciousness of a loss of values, a search for reintegration with new groups."

In Kurosawa's films of the immediate post-war years, modernity brought with it the political values of democracy and individualism, but it was also experienced through the imagery of ghettoes, endemic poverty, nightclubs blaring raucous Western jazz, through corporate corruption and the eclipse of the warrior ideal. In Dodes'ka-den, the wild, expressionistic color design evokes not just a world of material and spiritual poverty, but also the terrors of pollution and a poisoned environment. Dersu Uzala turns to the early part of the century to study the natural man who exists outside of urban culture. Kagemusha and Ran both look back into Japan's past and away from the modern period which Kurosawa finds so distressing.

In "Mt. Fuji in Red" Kurosawa evokes the disaster of a nuclear holocaust, as he had done in rather different terms in Record of a Living Being. In this dream, a series of nuclear power plant explosions cause even Mt. Fuji to begin a meltdown, and, as the terrified populace of Japan flees to the sea, poisonous radioactive gases sweep over the tiny island nation. As one character remarks, however, Japan is very small, and, bordered by the ocean, there is nowhere to escape. The dream ends with the complete annihilation of the Japanese except for a few remaining characters, including the Kurosawa surrogate who is last seen, as the dream ends, futilely trying to beat back the advancing poisonous gases. In this dream, Kurosawa employs the visual rhetoric of his friend Ishiro Honda, who served as a creative consultant on the film and who is better known for his own series of Japanese science fiction films, such as Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra. The process photography and the shots of fleeing crowds recall similar sequences in Honda's films, lending this dream a source of perhaps self-conscious visual humor.

The didactic tone of "Mt. Fuji in Red" carries over into the next dream, "The Weeping Demon," which is the weakest and most embarrassing of the entire film. This is a post-apocalyptic dream in which the end of the world has apparently come, leaving only the Kurosawa surrogate to survive. He wanders in search of the living, coping with loneliness, and encounters a single-horned demon who takes him to a colony of dreams. They are writhing in pain in a pit filled with bones and blood-red water. It transpires that the demons were all government, officials or millionaires in previous lives, and they are now suffering through a kind of purgatory or hell. The demon complains to the Kurosawa surrogate that nature has vanished from the earth, that man has poisoned the environment with pollution and radioactivity, and the disfigurement of the various demons is meant somehow as a reflection and embodiment of this destruction of the earth. The camerawork is flat and uninteresting, and the images of giant, brightly-colored, monstrous dandelions dotting the hillside, as well as the horned demons themselves, are an insufficient visualization of the didactically expressed despair over the problems of pollution and economic corruption which Kurosawa sees as inseparable from modernism.

The final dream, "The Village of the Waterfalls," evokes not the terrors of the present or the future but rather the beauty and pleasures of a timeless, bucolic village presided over by a 103-year-old man (played by Ozu-favorite Chishu Ryu). The Kurosawa surrogate wanders into the village where he learns from the old man that no one uses electricity here so that the night will remain dark as it should be, that firewood is only taken from trees that have already fallen in the forest, and that everyone lives in harmony with the natural world. The old man warns the Kurosawa surrogate that people today have lost touch with nature, and they will perish from pollution, which has dirtied both the earth and the hearts of men. As the old man speaks, the soundtrack is filled with the clean sound of running water from the stream, the rustle of leaves in the wind, and the call of birds in the trees. Elsewhere, reflecting upon the sound of his own childhood, Kurosawa has remarked that by contrast the noises of the modern world are spiritually and emotionally impoverishing" … as I sit here and write about these childhood sounds, the noises that assail my ears are the television, the heater and the sound truck offering toilet paper in exchange for old newspapers; all are electrical sounds. Children of today probably won't be able to fashion very rich memories from these sounds." In this passage from his autobiography, Kurosawa expresses his own alienation from modern Japan through the aesthetics of memory and sound.

Similar sentiments animate the final dream which is intended as an exercise in nostalgia. Kurosawa has noted, "The theme here is nostalgia—nostalgia towards the loss of Mother Nature and with it, the loss of the heart of mankind. Therefore, the images of nature in this sequence must be extremely vivid. It must be so powerful that nature's energy must burst forth from the screen." The "Village of the Watermills" is a timeless, mythical place of beneficence and beauty, but, consistent with the sense of loss and isolation that suffuses the film, the Kurosawa surrogate must leave it. As Kurosawa himself lives on through the dark age of modernity, his dream self, significantly, is not permitted to remain behind in the village. Before he goes, however, one more encounter with death must occur. The villagers celebrate a funeral with singing, dancing, and a brass band. This time, death is not a lonely, terrible trauma in an icy and hostile world but is, rather, the occasion for joy and celebration, song and dance. As the old man says, "Life here is not hard. It is good to be alive. Living in harmony with nature makes a friend even of death." At the end of this dream, the Kurosawa character leaves the village, but the camera remains behind. As the credits roll, we gaze into the clear, pure waters of the village stream. The dreamer has gone on, perhaps has even died, but the camera and the images remain in the village, in this place of memory and joy.

Dreams is, in every sense, a work from the twilight of Kurosawa's career. It is of great interest for those who know and have admired Kurosawa's work, though it is not a particularly distinguished film by comparison with the major works that have preceded it. It offers a register of Kurosawa's thoughts and emotional allegiances as he enters his eighties. The pictorialism of the static frame and the overt theatricality of song and dance have replaced the earlier montage style, and a valorization of inwardness and the imagination has overwhelmed a sophisticated aesthetic engagement with the social world. Modernity for Kurosawa in this film is more than ever a blight upon the future and upon Japan, the approach of death is keenly felt, experienced alternately with dread and relief, and, in the wake of withdrawn political and social commitments, the fidelity to one's muse remains as profound as ever. In a letter to his brother in 1888, van Gogh had written "Oh, my dear brother, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life—the power to create." When all else is gone or has been revealed as illusion, the need to create remains, unassailable as long as breath is drawn. Kurosawa now works because he must, because his life is film and without it he has no creative self. He has often remarked that he wants to die on the set while the camera is rolling, and, in this late stage of his life, he shows every indication that he may do just that. In the meantime, Dreams stands as a small coda to one man's life willingly given over to the beauties and the power of cinema.

Tadao Sato [translated by Linda Ehrlich] (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1720

SOURCE: "The Spirit of Compassion: Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August," in Cineaste, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1992, pp. 48-49.

[Tadao Sato is one of the most noted film critics in Japan. In the following essay, he provides a plot summary of the film Dreams, and responds to the charges of some other critics that the film is anti-American.]

All of Akira Kurosawa's recent films are deeply tinged by motifs of death and destruction. Both Kagemusha and Ran are tales of the destruction of the shogun's clan during the Sengoku period, but in their repeated images of warriors endlessly facing death in meaningless battles, there is a deep-rooted despair which transcends the special nature of that age. The very darkness of these films forces us to wonder whether these dreams are not foretelling the destruction of humanity itself. As expected, in Dreams, images of the end of the world and of the downfall of humanity appear before us in concrete form. While two episodes hypothesize how the earth might be after the destruction and pollution caused by The Bomb, at the same time, in this work by a great master now past eighty, there are also several episodes of an unbelievable freshness and innocence.

The contrast between these two kinds of scenes seems strange. It may be that adults who cannot relinquish their selfish desire are doomed to self-destruction, but it seems that Kurosawa is also naively asking why people who were once such pure children become like this as adults.

In Rhapsody in August, Kurosawa once again stands firmly on the side of children, and states that there is hope if children can look reality in the face without flinching. One can't help but feel that this is an excessively naive assertion: yet this is not a platitudinous sermon, but rather a series of images replete with deep, touching emotions.

After a preview of Rhapsody in August in a leading Tokyo movie theater on March 14, 1991, Kurosawa held a press conference in a separate venue. Instead of a discussion of the film, this interview turned into a political debate. I wasn't at that gathering, but, according to some people who were, non-Japanese reporters showered the director with harsh, critical questions. Kurosawa answered each question sincerely, one by one, but the press conference ended without any sense of mutual understanding.

The story of Rhapsody in August is as follows. One summer, four Japanese children from the city go to spend the summer vacation at the home of their grandmother who lives in the country side near Nagasaki. When this woman was a little girl, her older brother had emigrated to the United States and later made his fortune in Hawaii. Suddenly a letter arrives from this brother (who has realized that his younger sister is still alive), inviting her to come visit him in Hawaii. She has no recollection of this brother and doesn't want to go to Hawaii, but she is persuaded by her sons and grandchildren to go to Hawaii after August 9th. That date is the anniversary of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, and there is a memorial service every year for victims of the bomb. The grandmother's husband died in the atomic blast, and the grandchildren tell her to convey that information to her brother in Hawaii. As soon as he hears the news, her nephew Clark (Richard Gere), the son of the older brother, comes to the village near Nagasaki. He joins his aunt at the humble memorial service at the local temple, and then returns home.

The grandchildren hear about the atomic bomb from their grandmother, and go to the elementary school grounds where their grandfather, a teacher, was killed. In this film, there is not even one scene depicting the tragic aftermath of the nuclear explosion. Only a contorted mass of steel pipes is shown, a jungle-gym twisted by the intense heat of the blast and left as a memorial. The children think their grandmother probably doesn't want to go to the States because she hates Americans; but she informs them that she used to feel such hatred, but docs no longer.

The first question put to the director by foreign journalists at that press conference was. "Why do you depict only the damage caused by the atomic bomb, but not the Japanese attack on the U.S., or Japan's military aggression which caused it?" Most of the foreign correspondents agreed with these repeated criticisms of a similar nature. Kurosawa's reply was that one film cannot depict everything.

This is actually a dispute which has gone on for a long time between Japanese and non-Japanese. Ever since the film records made immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been many documentary and feature films depicting the damage caused by the bomb. These films mainly showed what a terrifying weapon the atomic bomb is, and what a pitiful experience its victims had to endure. Scenes showing hatred of the country which dropped the bomb are rare, but Americans don't believe this. Thinking that the Japanese would hate the country which caused such damage with their bomb, the American Occupation forces severely censored Japanese films, radio broadcasts, and publications, forbidding any mention of damage caused by the bomb. The Occupation has ended and freedom of expression has become possible once again, but Japanese films about the damage caused by the bomb have roused little interest among non-Japanese. Exceptions to this rule are Shindo Kaneto's Children of the Atom Bomb (Genbaku no ko, 1952) and Imamura Shohei's Rain (Kuroi ame, 1988). Kurosawa also made Record of a Living Being (aka I Live in Fear; Ikimono no kiroku, 1955) about people terrified of the radioactive fallout from nuclear test blasts, but this is one of the least well-known abroad of any of his films.

A group of Japanese have travelled around the U.S. showing short films about the damage caused by the atomic bomb to small groups of American viewers. They were repeatedly asked by the viewers, "Didn't Japan strike the first blow?" When Imamura's Black Rain was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, it was criticized as lacking a critical examination of Japanese militarism. From the time of Japan's defeat in World War II until the present, Japanese directors have made a great many films criticizing Japan's aggressive military behavior and the spirit of militarism in that country. For Japanese this has become common knowledge; but non-Japanese don't know this. Confronted with Japanese films depicting the damage caused by the bomb, they feel that the Japanese have no grounds for bearing a grudge about that destruction; that, if the Japanese are going to talk about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they must first examine their own military aggression. This one-track response was the most noticeable aspect of the press conference following the preview showing of Rhapsody in August.

The intensity of this reaction may have been due to Kurosawa's stature as a director. For Americans, this might be an especially strong reaction because they feel that the Japanese director whom they most respect is expressing resentment toward the U.S. When Clark, played by the popular American star Richard Gere, first realizes that his uncle died in the atomic blast, he cries with the rest of the family, saying he hadn't known, and he offers his apologies. To American viewers, this line might sound like an apology to Japan for the use of the atomic bomb by the U.S. Also, there is a scene in which the grandmother, while talking about the bomb, becomes very angry over the fact that war hasn't disappeared from the world. To Americans overjoyed by the recent victory in the Persian Gulf, this might sound like criticism of the United States by the Japanese who didn't dispatch any troops to light in that war. In this way, Rhapsody in August has been exposed to harsh critical attacks.

However, Rhapsody in August, first and foremost, is a beautiful film. Even though it deals with injuries caused by the bomb, it is full of beautiful visual images: the scenery of the countryside in mid-summer; the meeting of relatives long ignorant of each other's existence. Since turning eighty, Kurosawa, who has been known for the rough, violent quality of his films, has finally reached a state of mind in which he can depict peacefulness, love, the pure heart of children, rather than aggression and destruction. This is the distinguishing quality of this new work, and of the previous film, Dreams.

An especially moving scene is the memorial service at the rural temple where the elderly gather to recite Buddhist sutras. Clark and a child who participate in this service suddenly look at the ground and see a swarm of ants form a line and farther on the petals of a rose. The camera slowly follows that line of ants; then it slowly gazes at the rose, then at Clark and the child who smile at each other. For a director like Kurosawa whose films are famous for their powerfully dramatic, confrontational scenes, this is a refreshingly quiet and unassuming scene.

One can't explain such a scene with words but, listening to the sound of the elders' sutra chanting, one feels profound respect for all life, even that of the tiny ant. Instead of showing us the pitiful form of those killed by the bomb, Kurosawa shows instead a swarm of tiny ants, thus painting for us an image of the Buddhist spirit of compassion. I feel that this spirit of compassion is itself the essence of this film. And I think this scene of the ants is of an excellence unparalleled even by the most famous scenes in earlier Kurosawa films. If nothing else, it embodies the feelings of the Japanese who, from 1945 until the present, have not once staged a military war, because of a thoroughgoing pacifism insured by the constitution. Of course, had more self-reflection on military aggression been included in the film, it might have been an even better film. No matter what one says, as long as the Japanese government continues to avoid (as much as possible) making public apologies to the countries against whom they had launched aggressive battles, or expressing self-criticism about aggressive warfare, misconceptions about the pacifism of the Japanese people will only increase.

Kathy Howlett (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: "Are You Trying to Make Me Commit Suicide? Gender, Identity, and Spatial Arrangement in Kurosawa's Ran," in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1996, pp. 360-66.

[In the following essay, Howlett examines the actions of Lady Kaede from the film Ran within the framework of Japanese gender politics.]

In Ran Kurosawa explores the space of tenuous masculine constructions of identity within the cinematic frame and the powerfully subversive oppositional imaging of female identity. Apparently representative of the Jidai Geki genre, and glorifying the bravery of the ancient samurai and his masculine code, Ran exhibits what Stephen Prince has called a "negative inversion" of the samurai code and a bursting of the cinematic frame in which that code is represented. In the film the female emerges as the means by which the samurai sign-system is restructured and ultimately broken, and the experience of space becomes the locus of the male and female struggle for identity and domination. The social structure—and cinematic space—that rigidly frame the woman become the space of her rebellion, and the silence that contains the female expression of self becomes a subversive strength. When the frame breaks, Prince suggests, we find hell. More precisely, we find a collapsed system of encoded samurai behavior effectively challenged by the women who are entrapped within it. Yet the breaking of the frame in Ran also yields new worlds outside the main site of conflict and alternative spaces of identity beyond the samurai prescriptions of self. In the opening up of the diegetic space of the cinema screen, Kurosawa explores possibilities for the expression of self outside the classical narrative.

An incident from Kurosawa's childhood memories reveals, in a particularly startling way, the strategies for spatial representation, gender, and identity that emerge in Ran. In Kurosawa's Something Like an Autobiography the director recalls a recurring dinner scene, in which his father, a man of "extreme severity," routinely chastises his wife for pointing the fishhead on the meal tray in the wrong direction. Having observed that his wife once again had failed to observe the "finer points of samurai etiquette," Kurosawa's father would berate his wife with "Idiot! Are you trying to make me commit suicide?" In remembering the passion of his father, Kurosawa attempts to understand the daily failure of his mother to appease her husband in this one simple detail:

Apparently there was a special procedure for serving the meal that precedes a ritual suicide. It seems it extended to the position of the fish on the plate. My father had worn his hair in a samurai topknot as a child, and even at the time these scoldings occurred he would frequently take a formal sitting position with his back to the art alcove and hold his sword straight up to polish the blade with abrasive powder. So it's probably quite natural that he should have been angry, but I couldn't help feeling sorry for my mother and thinking it could hardly matter that much which way the fishhead pointed. Yet my mother continued to make the same mistake over and over again. And every time the fish on his tray was pointed the wrong way, my father scolded her. As I think about it now, it could have been that my father's fault-finding was so frequent an occurrence that she became deaf to it, as the saying goes, "like a horse's ears in an east wind."

The spatial arrangement of the fishhead in the frame of the meal tray inflames Kurosawa's father to a display of samurai histrionics, and to an assertion of male identity and power before the mother's silent, unrelenting, and subversive reorganization of the objects before him. The husband asserts himself with all the privileges and power of samurai tradition and male authority, sitting in a formal samurai posture, deriding his wife, and holding "his sword straight up to polish the blade with abrasive powder." The erect sword the father rubs compensates for his sense of male vulnerability to the power of his wife, as either threatened castration or feminization. Ironically, the husband frames his own body or physical presence as spectacle, constructing masculinity as an image, with the art alcove as theatrical backdrop for his erect and formal representation of self. In the husband's articulation of the threatened self—"Are you trying to make me commit suicide?"—he formulates the nature of the threat as the oblivion of identity. The apparent insignificance of the incident itself only makes more profound the father's tenuous sense of self, so easily displaced when boundaries dissolve or objects are displaced.

In Kurosawa's narrative the mother's obedience is tacit; yet she "continued to make the same mistake over and over again." The woman's silence, like the continual "accidental" displacement of the objects on the meal tray, suggests the unspoken and subversive desires of the wife. In cinematic terms, the woman's silence becomes what one feminist film critic calls the "site of a special resistance—a strength rather than a weakness." In Kurosawa's narrative the mother's resistance is also registered in spatial terms—in the space of a mealtray—and her silence suggests the "opening up" of the space of the mother's inner life normally contained or repressed. The imagined desire of the silent wife is articulated in the husband's angry reproach—"Are you trying to make me commit suicide?"—and the silence that should suggest obedience and passivity reveals a threatening strength and resistance. As Kurosawa recalls this incident, he acknowledges that the spatial reorganization of the fishhead suggests behavior "no Japanese would ever think of" for it is the space of resistance and of imagined formulations of identity known only to one person—the mother. The scene is heavily imbued with irony, the formidable presence of the threatened husband arrayed to meet the silent and subversive challenge of his wife to restructure the space of the meal tray.

Yet as Kurosawa narrates this incident he seems curiously oblivious to the significance of the scene played before him. Kurosawa speculates that his mother's failure stemmed from ignorance of class distinctions, since she "came from an Osaka merchant family and was less sensitive" to the required forms of samurai etiquette, or (related to this charge of insensitivity) she had become numb to her husband's constant scolding. However, the son's sympathies are with his silent and oppressed mother: Kurosawa admits that he "pitied" his mother as she faced her formidable husband. The director struggles to explain a mother's behavior "no Japanese would ever think of," and to make sense of his father's demand in the little scene his parents played out daily:

when you are served a fish on a meal tray, usually its head points to the left and its belly is toward you to make it easy to reach. If you are going to commit suicide, I gather that it is served with its head pointing to the right and its belly away from you, because it would be insensitive to place a cut fish belly directly facing someone who is about to cut open his own abdomen. This is my assumption, but it is no more than an assumption.

It is suggestive that this director ponders the relevance of the direction of the fishhead and dismisses the mother's motivation; in fact, he finds the visual representation and framing of the object that instigated such extreme emotion more interesting than the quietly subversive woman who has disappeared within Kurosawa's own discourse. Her behavior, as he tells us, is un-Japanese, and thereby alien; so too the rebellion her behavior signals lies outside the bounds of the director's own narrative and representation.

In later years Kurosawa was to boast that he never used a production designer in directing his films: "It is always I who frame the shot, who design the movement." As Kurosawa learned in his childhood, how an object is framed—in the space of a meal tray or in the cinematic screen—constitutes a struggle for identity and domination within that space. Framing conditions representational practices, and allows the viewer to witness the complex exchanges that rework boundaries between masculine and feminine identity. In particular, cinematic framing is the space in which oppositional discourses can also interpret social configurations of power and desire, oppression and rebellion. Kurosawa always frames the shot and designs the movement, but he contemplates within that frame an alternate space and design, the space of oppositional discourses, of fishheads and samurai swords, of the explosive rage of the samurai and the silent and subversive power of the female.

The samurai film, as David Desser has pointed out, offers iconic archetypes which enable audience to explore the boundaries between "the permitted and the forbidden." These boundaries between "permitted" samurai representation of identity and power and the "forbidden" subversive and oppositional representation of female identity are curiously mutable in Ran. Gender distinctions blur in Lady Kaede's vindictive and predatory sexuality that links eroticism and violence, sex and politics; in Tsumuramu's effeminate posture that so effectively dramatizes the frustration and helplessness of those victimized by the samurai code; and in the sexually ambiguous presence of the Fool Kyoami. Kurosawa underscores the confusion of gender in casting "Peter," a popular transvestite star of Japanese film, in the role of the fool. He is Hidetora's guide, nurse, and companion through the ruined castles and wastes. Ironically, Kyoami's sexually ambiguous presence confirms the Great Lord's samurai identity. Early in the film we see Hidetora—greatly diminished under Taro's roof, his concubines forced aside by Lady Kaede's procession of servants and reputed within the narrow passages along the castle walls—rise up angrily and defiantly to kill the man who threatens Kyoami's life. In a close-up shot of Hidetora, we see him slowly recoil into the narrow window of the tower that now inhibits his movement. The great bow she has just used to kill a man, and the fiery expression in his eyes, belie the restraint recently urged upon him and the narrowed space of his powers. In Ran the presence of a male who descends in the gender hierarchy has none of the threatening implications of the female who attempts to ascend in the same hierarchy. The presence of Lady Kaede, on the other hand, challenges Hidetora's samurai identity as Great Lord. She repeatedly challenges Hidetora's assertion of space and, ultimately, seeks the erasure of the entire Ichimonji family. Her subversive identity is effectively concealed for some time within her studied movements reminiscent of Noh drama and in her quiet and measured speech. Ironically, her hidden desires and rebellious identity emerge in her performance of designated female tasks and in the space of the traditionally structured female identity.

Japanese theatrical practice recognizes that the relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality is an arbitrary construction and subject to sociohistorical conditions:

Although the Japanese apparently recognize two sexes and two genders, "female" gender (femininity) and "male" gender (masculinity) are not ultimately regarded as the exclusive province of anatomical females and males. Sex, gender, and sexuality may be popularly perceived as irreducibly joined, but this remains a situational, not a permanently fixed, condition.

The Kabuki theater and the Takarazuka Revue (an all-female theater founded in 1914) demonstrate that "gender ideology, like most ideologies, functions to contain differences or antinomies by setting up differences." Significantly, the Kabuki theater sets the conditions for "acceptable" transformations of gender identity. But even within the theatrical space of the Takarazuka Revue, the women who assumed male roles became alarming because they seemed to transform their roles from that of "male" gender to the stereotype of the "male" female. "For an anatomical female to assume 'male' gender is for her to rise in the gender hierarchy, which is subversive, from a patriarchal point of view." As becomes increasingly obvious to Jiro's men, Lady Kaede assumes the "male" gender in her ability to rise in the gender hierarchy, a position that ultimately demands her decapitation and erasure. In this, cinematic representation in Ran of traditional theatrical gender roles and identities—like those familiar in both Kabuki theater and the less-celebrated Takarazuka Revue—opposes the "acceptable" transvestite to the destructive and threatening "male" female.

The film's pictorial emphasis upon a coded sign-system (family crests, armor, swords, banners, and carved scabbards) establishes the icons that entrap Hidetora in a rigid system of samurai identity. The first scene reveals the formal structures and sign system of the samurai world, represented in the rectangular structure Hidetora has erected on the expansive and sprawling lava fields of Mount Fuji. John Collick calls this area a "sacred area" or enclosure, and the structure quite literally marks the dramatic space or performance area in which Hidetora will stage the formal abdication of his rule. When Hidetora falls asleep, the other sons as well as the audience "leave this 'performance space' except Hidetora—and even the camera leaves the enclosure—so that when Hidetora emerges, frantic, from the enclosure, claiming to have had a terrible dream, the viewer is already 'distanced' from this enclosure." In this scene Hidetora literally bursts outside the frame of the samurai enclosure. He does not reveal his fearful dream to his sons or the audience, but, visually, we connect his fears with the enclosure that he is in a frenzy to escape. The flapping canvas that entraps Hidetora's feeble limbs as he thrashes wildly, reinforces our visual association that it was the enclosure itself that frightened the old man.

In this scene the camera technique distances the audience from the space of the enclosure as well. In Ran, argues Stephen Prince, Kurosawa's filmic "strategy of withdrawal via the long take and the long shot" became necessary when "Cultural and historical spaces had become hostile to Kurosawa's investigation…. In its absence, montage, and the spatial analysis it proposed became demonic and suited to violence and death." The camera's assertion of space works against the presence of the samurai in the frame. As Prince recognizes, the eye of the camera is hostile to the "cultural and historical spaces" of the samurai. In this first scene the camera refuses audience participation or identification with the enclosed space of the samurai; instead, the camera reveals the singularity and isolation of the brilliantly colored rectangular enclosure staked out in the muted greenery of the expansive hillside. We are at once outside of samurai ritual and remote from it, so that the experience of the "negative inversion" of samurai ritual and form is prepared for the viewer in the First scene of the film.

Spatial arrangement in Ran, particularly in the enclosed spaces of the samurai, can be confrontational. The static and codified world of Ran's interior spaces provides the site of the rebellion of Lady Kaede as well as the site of her subordination. Claudine Hermann asserts that for women, space "is by definition a place of frustration, whether physical, moral, or cultural. It is also the place of systemization and hierarchization." The camera positions Lady Kaede within the frame of the cinema screen like the two-dimensional landscape against which she is photographed, thereby conveying subordination and inactivity. Yet within the limits of this space Lady Kaede asserts her identity, reorganizing the symbols of her containment in an experience of "negative inversion."

Lady Kaede retreats to the domestic space with which she identifies, in the reclaimed space of her family castle, like a living muenbotoke or onryo, a vengeful female spirit without living relatives. Lady Kaede's revenge against the Great Lord who has murdered her family is reminiscent of the female vengeful spirit familiar in Japanese folklore, Gregory Barrett describes the presence of the vengeful female as the "Japanese equivalent to rebellion sentiments, for the grudge borne one man could be extended to include a male-dominated society." In fact, Lady Kaede's revenge extends well beyond the Ichimonji family to the entire society that has shaped her silent and rebellious desires. She makes her hidden desires explicit when she realizes that Jiro's position as the new Great Lord may displace her from her family castle. From her silent and suppliant position before the seated Jiro she suddenly rises to defiantly close the screens of the room, laughing wildly as she does so. In the enclosed and narrowed space of that room she challenges Jiro's dominance by resisting the traditional roles assigned to women who have lost their husbands: "I won't be a widow with my hair cropped, or a nun with my head shaved! This castle was my father's. I won't leave it!" She resists the definitions thrust upon her, as widow or nun, and repositions herself within the Ichimonji family by threatening to expose Jiro's murder of his brother and then by seducing the frightened Jiro. She asserts her dominance within the domestic space that has shaped her identity, and effectively displaces Jiro's wife Sue in her struggle for that space.

Lady Kaede effectively employs the samurai codes to reorganize power within the Ichimonji family, a reorganization that sets the stage for the obliteration of the Ichimonji clan. She mounts her attack against Hidetora and his family within the reclaimed domestic space of her family castle. As Hidetora gazes from a tower of First Castle he observes the spatial reorganization of his concubines, who first freeze in position in the passageway of the castle and then move against the wall to make way for Kaede's women. Later, in private conference, Lady Kaede upbraids Taro for failing to claim the emblems of the Great Lord. She tells Taro, her head bowed and body passive, that without the Ichimonji banner "you are a shadow." She demands the signs of samurai power and restructures Hidetora's and Taro's relationship to those signs in the "family gathering" that follows. Lady Kaede and Taro invite Hidetora to a "family dinner" for the purpose of his humiliating written assignation of all power and properties to Taro. Hidetora is humiliated to sit below both Taro and his wife, and indeed, as Hidetora enters the room Taro's figure disappears off the screen, allowing a powerful and central Lady Kaede to be the focus of the camera with the bowed back of Hidetora well beneath her figure. Hidetora obliges his son and daughter-in-law in signing his retraction of authority with blood, but leaves the scene humiliated and disgusted, telling Taro, "The hen pecks the cock and makes him crow." When Hidetora leaves the room the man who has been Hidetora's companion and advisor bows low before Lady Kaede. The camera moves closer to Lady Kaede, who dominates the frame, and the bowed figure of the man nearly disappears beneath hers. She addresses him with "You have done well," and he is dismissed. In the strategic reorganization of loyalties and hierarchical space—including the prominent display of the family banner on the wall behind her—Lady Kaede appropriates the forms of samurai power and authority. The result, for both father and son, will be the obliteration of identity.

Lady Kaede quietly glories in her triumph over Hidetora and her confirmed possession of her family castle. The spatial arrangement of shots in the next few moments also confirms Lady Kaede's separateness from her husband, and her domination in the separate space that she inhabits. Both sit off-center in the frame and occupy opposite ends of their separate spaces, with the Ichimonji banner balanced in the space on the wall that separates them. For an uncomfortably long period Kurosawa focuses the camera upon the frame occupied by Lady Kaede, who sits frozen in her separate space and silent. However, in film "woman's silence helps her to define a new relation to objects." Indeed, when Lady Kaede does speak she reveals the result of her reorganization of space and repositioning of Hidetora. She is back in her family castle, she tells Taro, the castle she left to marry him. In halting and measured speech she quietly recalls Hidetora's crime: "My father and brothers, after the marriage relaxed their vigilance. Hidetora murdered them. I have longed for this day." The camera focuses upon Taro within the space of his own frame, who has passively listened to Lady Kaede's narrative. He makes a slight movement in her direction, but his torso is arrested in its slow movement as she continues her narrative, spoken almost as if it were an internal monologue, since Taro's presence is scarcely noticed or recognized. "Right there," she utters, the gaze of the camera centered on the circular floor space contained within both their individual frames, "my mother took her own life." Taro remains silent and still, the conditions for their relationship reformulated by the circular space on the floor.

The body is the site of woman's oppression, but it is also the site of the battle between Lady Kaede and the Ichimonji family. Ran dramatically represents such a battle in Lady Kaede's "seduction" of Jiro. In this scene, Kurosawa manipulates traditional cinematic coding of sexual difference, displacing and dissolving the boundaries between the passive female object of desire and constructing the male body as the site of spectacle and desire. When Lady Kaede objects to Jiro's appropriation of his dead brother's armor, Jiro strips himself of these signs of samurai power. He begins to strip off the armor before the quietly bowed figure of the woman and tells her that if she stays in the room she will see a naked man. She leaves, and the camera concentrates on the ritual by which she picks up her fan and the carefully controlled and stylized movements by which she leaves the room. However, when Jiro next appears before Lady Kaede he is stripped of his emblems of conquest. He is now only the younger brother of the dead Great Lord. In the following scene the frame registers a series of complex exchanges that continually dissolve the boundaries of sexual difference. The seated Jiro watches as Lady Kaede rises and slowly closes each of the screens that enclose them both within the narrowed space of the room. In this restricted domestic space Lady Kaede redefines the power relationships between them and, by the appropriation of symbols of masculine power, threatens Jiro's identity and existence. Lady Kaede wields the knife that threatens castration and feminization, slicing Jiro across the neck to create the "cut" that renders him passive. She also slices the sleeve of her restricting kimono, not only to threaten Jiro but to register the failure of codes of dress and behavior to contain her aggressive spirit or arrest her frustration. The seduction displaces the audience's traditional social and cultural locations, imagining new pleasures, terrors, and relationships in the reconstituted space of woman's desire and gender identity.

The camera always reveals the locus of Lady Kaede's identity and struggle within the space of her family castle. When Jiro's samurai warrior decapitates Lady Kaede with his sword, her blood splashes across the castle wall and dramatically registers her relationship with the space that has shaped her perceptions and articulated her will. However, Sue, unlike Kaede, is never limited or framed by domestic space. In fact, the small hut in which Hidetora seeks her encloses only a portrait of Buddha, but not the woman. The imaging of Sue within the camera's frame functions by what is called "indices of negativity," a withdrawal or refusal to "continue employing the objects of the world in the traditional way." The camera, in effect, "sympathizes" with the perspective of the female encoded by the samurai system, withdrawing or refusing, much like the female subject in its frame, to participate in the sacred enclosure of the samurai. Hidetora finds Sue perched on the castle wall, framed by the expanse of the sky. Sue has moved outside the home, and the camera demands a new relation between the character and her space. But, as Inez Hedges points out, such a new space in the creation of female identity "would break the frames of our normal perception." Sue and Hidetora are seated and framed against the vast nothingness of the sky, their figures within the frame suggesting an inner integrity or diegetic space outside the world of men that defines their physical space within the frame.

To break the frame is to threaten oblivion, the bursting of enclosures that hurls Hidetora outside the sacred enclosures of the samurai code into a wasteland of ruined castles and desert spaces. Perhaps this may be why critics fail to agree as to what the ending of Ran means, finding either spiritual escapism or a destructive engagement with reality in the final image of the tiny figure of the emasculated and blinded Tsumuramu before the expanse of land and sky. Is the ending optimistic, as Collick argues, or a "discourse on isolation and defeat?" Certainly Kurosawa's father only saw the reformulation of space (even in a meal tray) as inherently threatening to identity. Yet Kurosawa's film has real sympathy for the imagined space beyond the boundaries of the frame. The experience of space in this final shot of Tsumuramu perched on the edge of the abyss liberates the viewer from the decorum of classical narrative, but that experience is threatening and liberating simultaneously.

As Shakespearean adaptation, Ran's cinematic emphasis upon spatial struggle and representation is faithful to the conflict in King Lear over the charting of geographic as well as ideological space. For Lear the charting of his daughter's duty and love lies within the province of patriarchal right, the right to enclose and limit the space of female will. The decided mapping of patriarchal space and power is destroyed by Cordelia's "nothing" and by the decorous fictions of love proclaimed by Goneril and Regan, just as Sue's sad smile and Lady Kaede's guileful manipulation of samurai decorum and codes disturb Hidetora's established self. "O indistinguished space of woman's will!" Edgar utters, as he stands before the blinded Gloucester and slain Oswald, victim and instrument of the unbounded female will. Hidetora might well say the same. Hidetora, like Lear, steps outside the boundaries of the sign-system that has defined and limited him and discovers the vulnerability of his own identity.

Ran, like Shakespeare's play, also develops this realm of "indistinguished space" as the quality of love that resists patriarchal categories, definitions, and limits. Love, too, in terms of this play, represents that "indistinguished space" that cannot be categorized, defined, or enclosed. No terms can be set, no tangible essence awarded, and no boundaries known to distinguish the quality of love that Cordelia and Sue feel. The measured and bounded spaces of masculine identity are repudiated by a woman's unconditioned and hyperbolic love. The bursting of the frame might reveal a hell, as Prince suggests, but in the silence of Sue's sad smile and Cordelia's nothing we glimpse the imagining of identity beyond the limits of space and experience.

Brian Parker (essay date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: "Nature and Society in Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 3, Summer 1997, pp. 508-25.

[In the following essay, Parker contends that criticisms of Kurosawa that describe his films as "Western" and his works as cold and distant are not seeing them in the right context. In a detailed analysis of Ran and Throne of Blood, Parker shows their relationships to Noh Theater, and Japanese art and religion.]

I have never read a review of a film of mine which did not read false meanings into it. (Kurosawa)


It is important for Western audiences to establish a proper context for the films of Akira Kurosawa. He has often been called the "most Western" of Japanese film directors (and is certainly the best known of them in Europe and America), but though he freely admits influence from Western directors and painters and has based several of his films on major Western texts, he insists that his borrowings have always been adapted to the modes and aesthetics of traditional Japanese thought: so much so, in fact, he says, that "I feel that among Japanese directors today I must be the most Japanese." And in none of his work is recognition of a specific cultural context more important than in his two samurai adaptations of Shakespearean tragedy: Kumonoso-jo, his 1957 black-and-white version of Macbeth, obscurely titled Throne of Blood in English though "The Castle of the Spider's Web" (or "Cobweb Castle") is its more literal and pertinent translation; and Ran—meaning "Chaos"—his 1983 adaptation of King Lear in cinemascope and color.

Both these films are set in a sixteenth-century period of Japanese history called gekoko-jo (literally, "overthrow by underlings") when central government had broken down and the country was torn by struggles between the samurai of rival warlords (daimyos), a period not unlike that of England's War of the Roses. The two adaptations thus belong to a subgenre of Japanese historical film known as chambara or ken-giki (sword theater): a form usually exploited merely for costume melodrama which Kurosawa is one of the few directors to explore seriously. He is remarkable among his colleagues not only for the pains he takes to establish authenticity in the minutest detail of his sixteenth-century mises-en-scène, but also for the rigor with which he interrogates the paradoxes of bushido (literally, "way of the warrior"), the ethical code that dictates samurai behavior and is still an important factor in contemporary Japanese life. With a family of samurai descent, a father who was an instructor in a military academy, and an admired older brother who committed suicide (which Kurosawa also attempted in 1970), Kurosawa's attitude to bushido seems always to have been ambivalent. Some aspects of it—its regimentation and brutality—he has always disapproved of; others (for example, its emphasis on loyalty and duty) he admires; and this ambivalence of attitude was subject to particularly severe strains in the middle of the 1950s.

Japanese education has traditionally had a Confucian moral concern with family obedience and duly to the Emperor, but in the years leading up to and during the Second World War (when Shakespeare's plays were banned from Japan), traditional samurai ideals of plain living, skill at martial arts (Kurosawa himself is an expert at "Kendo" swordsmanship), and obedience to authority were exploited as tools of an aggressive militarism. Kurosawa calls this period "the Dark Ages," and in his early films after the war he reacted against it by a humanist emphasis on individual responsibility and concern for the marginalized unfortunates of Japan's very hierarchical society. A typical example of this phase of his work is Ikiru (1952), in which a meek old clerk, discovering he has cancer, uses his final energies to steer plans for a children's playground through the venality and sloth of a bureaucracy to which he has been unquestioningly subservient for forty years.

Such an emphasis can be seen as a reflection of the existentialism which dominated European thought immediately after the Second World War, but it also taps traditional Japanese respect for hoganbiki—sympathy for a loser who nevertheless retains spiritual integrity. The same victory-in-defeat also concludes the most famous of Kurosawa's samurai films, The Seven Samurai (1954), in which the "magnificent seven" (as a Western adaptation named them) rescue a peasant village from bandits but recognize sadly at the end that the community they have saved no longer has a place for them: by acting nobly, they have made themselves redundant.

The Seven Samurai marks, in fact, a swing in Kurosawa's attitude back to sympathy with the positive aspects of bushido, for which there seems to have been two causes. The first of these was growing resentment at the American army of occupation's attempt to eradicate all aspects of Japanese military tradition; the second, a revulsion from the ruthless postwar capitalism which Kurosawa saw transforming traditional Japanese society for the worse. Relations with the USA, which had been strained by the 1950–53 war in Korea, deteriorated further because of American testing of atomic bombs in the Pacific Ocean from 1946 to 1958, with the test on Bikini atoll in 1954 providing a point of especial provocation because fall-out from the explosion killed several Japanese fishermen, causing panic about possible contamination of the fish supply that has always been a staple of Japanese diet. Record of a Living Being (1955), the Kurosawa film immediately before Throne of Blood, has a protagonist who responds to the Bikini test by trying to persuade his family to emigrate from Japan, only to have them cynically commit him to a lunatic asylum in order to seize his business assets. The experience of political impotence and frustration portrayed so strongly in this film seems to have had the effect of diverting Kurosawa from consideration of immediate social problems to a deeper, more metaphysical concern with the roots of human—and specifically Japanese—self-destructiveness. And Throne of Blood, with its focus on the collapse of samurai ethics, was the vehicle for this shift of focus.

As a code of conduct, bushido has inherent contradictions because it combines elements from irreconcilable philosophies. It combines Shinto reverence for martial prowess and Confucian insistence on obedience to authority, on the one hand, with influences from Chinese Taoism and Zen Buddhism, on the other, which emphasize instead the individual's personal responsibility for his actions while at the same time devaluing all earthly phenomena in favour of a belief in the spiritual oneness of all things after death. Awareness of such a unity behind the transience of earthly experience creates a bitter-sweet emotion that the Japanese call mono no aware, a paradoxical feeling, not unlike Virgil's "lacrimae rerum," of sad thankfulness before the evanescent loveliness of ordinary life. The calm acceptance of this complex mood is the goal of most classical Japanese art.

However, such a combination also produces paradoxes that have been called "highly dramatic and even schizophrenic." At an ethical level there exists recurrent tension between giri-absolute loyalty to one's family and overlord, with its emphasis on the duty to revenge and praise of ritual suicide (seppuko)—and ninjo, one's own moral intuitions of right conduct, as taught by traditional Buddhism. More metaphysically, there are tensions within the Buddhist tradition between self-sacrificing, salvationary Amida Buddhism (represented by Sue in Ran) and the total world renunciation of mystical Zen; and, most fundamentally of all, there is a paradox within Zen teaching itself, where the demand for responsible moral choice clashes logically with the perception of all life as samsara—an insubstantial experience of delusion and pain that can merely be exacerbated by the exercise of human will, producing tragic cycles of repetition known as karma: fate as negative recurrence. Stephen Prince has called this latter paradox "one of the main dialectics informing Kurosawa's works," and it is crucial for our understanding of both his samurai interpretations of Shakespeare.

Besides these socio-political and philosophical contexts, we must also take into account Kurosawa's stylistic and semiotic borrowings from traditional Japanese painting, theater, and music, and his respect for the aesthetic principles that underlie them. In painting, for instance, the style of his samurai films is much influenced by picture scrolls of the Heian and Kamakura periods, in which the unrolling of monstrously detailed battle scenes is contrasted with depictions of the delicate, rectilinear architecture and formal rituals of Japanese domestic life. Kurosawa, who began his career as an artist, has made a special study of these scrolls, and a modern practitioner of the style, Kohei Esaki, was enlisted as artistic advisor for Throne of Blood—though the style is perhaps even more central to Ran. The black-and-white photography of Throne of Blood reflects more strikingly the influence of suiboko-ga, the Japanese art of ink brush-painting, represented by the starkness of the film's dark mountains, trees, armour, and heavy fortress architecture and the black, volcanic soil of the lava slopes of Mount Fuji where most of it was shot. Characteristically, suiboko-ga leaves large areas of its pictures blank, stimulating a sense of mystery and distanced universality, and such aporia are represented in the film by the blanketing grey fogs and swirls of sulphur fumes and obscuring rain that block out parts of many of the frames.

Important though such pictorial influences are, however, the main formal influence on Kurosawa's style for these two Shakespearean adaptations is the traditional masked dance-drama of the Noh, which was a product of the same gekokojo period. Kurosawa is drawn to Noh because, he says, "it is the real heart, the core of all Japanese drama. Its degree of compression is extreme, and it is full of symbols, full of subtlety." He is influenced in both films, though particularly in Throne of Blood, by the shuramono subgenre of Noh, in which ghosts of famous warriors re-enact past violence in the hope of eventual redemption; and there are also touches in both films of other Noh subcategories which deal with desperate women, madness, and demonic possession. In both, too, the facial make-up of the dramatis personae is based on specific Noh masks, which has the effect of depersonalizing and universalizing character; costume, posture, and gestures constantly reflect Noh stylization; traditional referents—like the crows in Throne of Blood or the stone fox head presented to Lady Kaede in Ran—are used as a form of symbolic shorthand; and there are even reminiscences of specific Noh plays, especially in the presentation of the Forest Demon in Throne of Blood and the blind boy, Tsurumaru, in Ran. The disembodied shrill of the nohkan (Noh flute), invoking "a world infinitely distant from ours, filled with suffering we cannot comprehend," and accompanied by the thud and rap of two contrasting drums, is also crucial in both films, representing, for example, the surge of feeling of Asaji, the Lady Macbeth figure in Throne of Blood, as she waits for her husband to murder their overlord offstage, or the conscience of Hidetora (the Lear character in Ran), as the stripling he has blinded uses his flute to express despair and grief. Such music is not merely emotional background, moreover, but adds an independent semiotic to the action, helping to produce the distance between character and audience that is essential if the action's universality is to be grasped. This distancing has led some Shakespearean critics, accustomed to a closer sympathy with tragic protagonists, to censure both Kurosawa adaptations as "lunar," "ice cold," and even "emotionally unsatisfactory"; but in Noh one is not supposed to identify too personally with the characters. To do so would be to surrender to samsara and lose spiritual transcendence.

Finally, as regards context, these influences have fostered certain cinematic techniques that have become virtual Kurosawa trademarks. As in Noh, scenes of tensely stylized stillness alternate with bursts of violence; and, in accordance with the Zen principle of mushin-no-shu (unselfconsciousness), there is little introspection or analytic dialogue, with action and visual imagery carrying more significance than words—another great difference from Shakespeare that has bothered critics unfamiliar with Noh semiotics, though it has been praised enthusiastically by such Shakespearean film-makers as Peter Brook, Grigori Kozintsev, and Peter Hall. Kurosawa's early work is notable for its skill at fluid tracking shots, where the cameras keep pace with rapidly moving characters (as in the scenes where the Macbeth and Banquo figures, Washizu and Miki, gallop madly through the forest at the beginning of Throne of Blood), though by the time of Ran this technique is used more sparingly. By shooting from different angles with three cameras simultaneously (and even five for the great battle scenes in Ran), Kurosawa is able to create a dynamic montage of violent action, with occasional sequences in slow motion—or even momentary "freezes"-pointcd by an abrupt cessation of sound to emphasize a particular image (and to add a dreamlike quality to it): as when the mysterious arrow that kills Washizu pierces his larynx, all sound ceases, and for an instant his warrior's scowl, based on the haita mask of Noh, changes to the yase-ototo mask's recognition of death. And increasingly, Kurosawa has combined long takes and stationary cameras with telephoto lenses so as to foreshorten and flatten perspective to the two-dimensional, surface orientation traditional in Japanese art. As a result, characters seem closely related to background, and visual imagery detached from normal perspective—according to Kurosawa himself—acquires "a weight, a pressure [that is] almost hallucinatory, making the rhythms of the movements emerge." An excellent example of such two-dimensional flattening is provided by the shots of the ranks of "forest" advancing on Washizu's stronghold at the end of Throne of Blood, which the telephoto lenses transform to the semblance of a relentlessly cascading waterfall. And in Throne of Blood (though not in Ran) the distancing effect of such "metacinematic" devices is enhanced by sometimes changing scenes with an obvious horizontal "wipe," in place of the less stylized "dissolve" favored by Western directors.

All these factors, but particularly the paradoxes of Zen and semiotic stylizations of Noh, need to be kept in mind if the significance of Kurosawa's relation between Nature and Society in the two samurai adaptations is to be interpreted aright. Despite more striking resemblances than their Shakespeare originals—castles, mountains, cloud vistas, galloping horses, scurrying samurai in insect-like armor backed by fluttering pennants, and cool geometrical interiors of ritualized behavior—the implications of Throne of Blood and Ran are ultimately very different. Whereas the vision of King Lear is bleaker and more problematic than the Christian context of redemption established for Macbeth, Ran—although it too has been condemned in recent criticism for "pessimism" and "fierce bitterness"—is actually much less negative and more open than Throne of Blood. But this can only be grasped if the films are placed in a proper Buddhist perspective.


The impression of Nature offered in Throne of Blood seems almost completely negative, and is closely linked to the protagonist's state of mind. The film is shot in bleak surroundings and stormy weather; and, exploiting the dream structure of shuramono Noh, the story of Washizu's fall is presented as a recapitulation, set within the framework of a prologue and epilogue occurring many centuries later. Such a structure inevitably establishes a strong sense of negative Fate, with Nature seeming to determine human destruction.

After titles shot against a "web" of intertwining branches, the film opens with thick mists parting to reveal a stony mountain landscape, darkened by fog and rain and beset by howling winds, with the camera panning into a declivity with curiously regular sides to focus on a fenced-off post on which is written "Here stood the Castle of the Spider's Web." Underneath these shots comes the shura-like chant of a male chorus:

     Behold within this place, now desolate, stood      Once a mighty fortress, lived a proud warrior      Murdered by ambition, his spirit walking still.      Vain pride, then as now, will lead ambition to kill.

The same emphasis on human delusion is chanted again at the end, and it also occurs twice within the story proper. At the beginning of the formal banquet where Washizu will see Miki's ghost, an old general begins a dance to a guttural Noh recital of the disasters that punished an ambitious warrior of the past, only to be interrupted—Claudius-like—by the guilt-stricken Washizu; and the same insistence on the vanity of all human endeavour is also the burden of Kurosawa's replacement for Shakespeare's three witches, the old spinning-woman who is really a Shinto demon, the forest's spirit-of-place.

After this prologue, the mists close, and when they reopen we are transported back into the sixteenth century, with a castle in what Kurosawa calls the "Black Style" now filling the declivity. The action proper begins with messengers alerting its daimyo, the Duncan-figure Kuniharu, of the defeat of a rebellion by one of his generals, Fujimaki (Cawdor), and the repulse of an invasion by the daimyo of the neighbouring province, Lord Inui. There follows a deservedly famous sequence in which the heroes of these wars, Washizu and Miki, summoned to receive promotion, get lost in the maze-like paths and bewildering half-lights of a forest that has been adapted—as is several times emphasized—into an outer defence-work for the daimyo's castle:

When I went into the way castles were constructed in those days [explains Kurosawa], some of them made use of the wood which was grown as if it had been a maze. Therefore, the wood was named "the wood of spiders' hair," meaning the wood that catches up the invaders as if in a spider's web. The title The Castle of the Spider's Web (Kumonosu-Dju [sic]) came to be in this way.

Developing "Fair is foul and foul is fair" in the song of Shakespeare's witches and Macbeth's "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." weather and lighting in this forest are a disconcerting mixture of fog, rain, flashes of lightning, and gleams of sunshine, with thunder alternating with what sounds like distant laughter. An interesting gloss on the traditional menace of such contradictions can be found in the first episode of Kurosawa's more recent film Dreams (1990), entitled "Sunshine and Rain." This recounts a Shinto story told to Kurosawa by his mother about evil fortune coming to a boy who stumbles on a wedding of foxes in a wood where sunshine mingles with rain—foxes being frequent Shinto avatars for malevolent spirits (as can be seen in the stone fox head presented to the evil Lady Kaede in Ran).

Initially confident, Washizu and Miki become disoriented and finally lose all self-control. Washizu fires an arrow at the lightning, to be met with a mocking laugh that provokes the warriors to charge even deeper into the trees with weapons at the ready. This futile attack is filmed brilliantly by a camera tracking beside their galloping horses behind screens of brush and branches, reinforcing the cobweb metaphor of the title (and incidentally relating the audience with the forest, not the warriors). Then, unexpectedly, at the heart of the storm and forest, they enter a calm and sunlit clearing. In its centre is a frail thatched hut of poles, whose inhabitant—obscured initially by a tree trunk that for the first time decisively separates the two warriors—is chanting in a low, sepulchrally toneless voice about the vanity of human pride:

     Men are vain and death is long      And pride dies first within the grave …      Life must end in fear.      Only evil may maintain      An afterlife for those who will,      Who love this world, who have no son,      To whom ambition calls,      Even so, this false fame calls.      Death will reign, man lives in vain.

This is the Spirit of the Forest, an asexual old woman seated spinning—like Fortune with her wheel or the Greek fate Clotho in Western tradition—a web of human destiny that seems to be equated with the labyrinthine paths of the forest.

Noh influence is particularly strong in this scene. Kurosawa says it was based on a specific Noh play: "In the case of the witch in the wood, I planned to replace it with the equivalent to the hag which appears in the Noh play named Kurozuka"—in which traveling monks encounter a demon in the guise of an old woman, spinning in a frail thatched hut; and, though Kurosawa does not mention it, there may also be traces of another Noh script, Tsuchigomo ("The Spider"), in which a warrior has to defeat a demon spider disguised as a priest, in a set that literally represents the spider's web. Kurosawa also says that he "showed each of the players a photograph of the mask of the Noh which came closest to their respective role, which in the demon's case was a mask called Yamanba ("the mountain witch"). The face of the actress is thus made up to resemble the unrealistic white immobility of this mask; and her white robe and posture (sitting with one knee raised and eyes lowered), her slow hieratic gestures turning the spinning wheel, and her curiously atonal voice are all typical of Noh. The flimsy hut of poles is a well-known Noh locale, familiar from several other famous plays besides Kurozuka, and its fragility contrasts ironically not only with the surrounding forest but also with the massive timbers from which the castles are constructed. Significantly, the spinning wheel has two spools, a larger one from which the demon spins onto a smaller, accelerating as she forecasts Washizu's brief career and slowing to forecast that of Miki, whose descendants will prolong it. These double spools seem to relate the karma of mankind as a whole, as lamented by the chorus, to the more limited but matching fates of the two warriors. After her prophecies, the demon vanishes, merging into the while mists as later Washizu's wife will apparently merge with darkness. The hut too vanishes, and the warriors find themselves among mounds of skeletons in antique armor, samurai like themselves who perished long ago.

Fleeing this vision, they get lost again, in another celebrated film sequence. This time they are not misled by labyrinthine paths but bewildered in dense fog, a more subjective image of their own confusion. Kurosawa uses a static camera to record them crossing the same location no fewer than twelve times, in varying combinations of distance and direction and with gradually diminishing speed, until suddenly the mist clears again, as it did after the opening chorus, to reveal once more the Forest Castle in the distance. Significantly, this vision now separates the nervously jocular comrades to either side of the screen, a division that the tree before the demon's hut began.

The brilliance with which this sequence conveys mental confusion has often been remarked on; and later, when Washizu alone visits the demon a second time, in search of reassurance against news of unexpected tempest and an imminent attack, the forest's expressionist significance becomes more marked. Vistas are even more distorted and weather more grotesquely incongruous: lightning comes from several directions simultaneously; the demon now runs behind the brush parallel to Washizu's gallop, like the camera in the earlier tracking sequence; she no longer sits, but aggressively stands to address him; and having given him the misleading assurance that he will be safe until the forest moves on the castle, it is she who openly laughs at him, no longer a disembodied voice among the trees. She conjures up, not symbolic figures and future kings as in Macbeth, but ghosts of warriors from the forest charnel heaps, to recapitulate their ancient savagery in antique dress and armour. They accost Washizu from every direction, forcing him to rein his horse into tight circles to confront them—a pattern that is used often in the film to signify entrapment, repeating the structure of the whole—while, reversing his first, more innocent reaction, he now vows to raise a mound of bones like those he fled from earlier.

Like the witches in Macbeth, the demon and the forest are being used here partly as symbols for Washizu's state of mind, but clearly they are also more significant than this, metonymic rather than metaphoric, because they also exist independently. Like Shakespeare's hags, they raise the possibility (and problem) of a predetermined fate. Critics of the movie invariably interpret the forest and the castles as rival, antagonistic signifiers, whether these are seen as Nature's amoral energy subverting human efforts to establish civilized order—as in Jack Jorgens's interpretation—or, conversely, as natural vitality overwhelming the exploitative hierarchy of a feudal aristocracy, as Elihu Pearlman has argued subsequently. Such opposition is certainly a major part of the film's effect, but beneath the differences between Nature and Society lie similarities that are finally more important. In both Kurosawa movies, but especially Throne of Blood, they are perceived ultimately as collaborating.

Within the castles, for example, the presentation of the Forest Demon is paralleled by sequences in which the Lady Macbeth figure, Asaji, dominates. These too are dense with reminiscences of Noh. Like the demon, the actress playing Asaji wears the white, immobile make-up of a specific Noh mask, in this case the shakumi mask of a beauty no longer young and about to go mad: "The actress who wears this mask, when she gets angry, changes her mask for one the eyes of which are golden-coloured. This mask represents that state of an unearthly feeling of tension and Lady [Asaji] assumes the same state." Asaji's white robe, low voice, seated position with one knee raised and eyes averted, her positioning in the cinema frame, and the contrast between her tense stillness and Washizu's facial grimaces and restless pacing are all reminiscent of the demon scene; while her gliding walk, the muted clack of her tabi (sandals) and sussuration of her silk kimono over the wooden floors, like the rustling of the demon's spinning wheel, are all familiar minimalist effects of Noh.

The action of Shakespeare's play is considerably pared down by Kurosawa in order to emphasize that Asaji's evil is much more unqualified and active than Lady Macbeth's. Though she echoes the source's incitement of Washizu's ambition and scorn for his timidity, Asaji's crucial argument is one that docs not appear in Macbeth but fits instead the central samurai concern with political loyalty and betrayal. She plays upon Washizu's paranoia by arguing that Miki is sure to betray him to their daimyo, and easily quashes his own feeble appeals to giri by reminding him that Kuniharu, unlike the saintly Duncan, himself came to power by murdering the previous overlord. It is Asaji who then leads Washizu by the hand to the tatami (mat) from which Kuniharu has recently held court and persuades him to sit hubristically upon it, and Asaji who, leaving him squatting in a glaring stupor, goes to drug Kuniharu's guards, then returns to check that they are unconscious, seeming in one striking sequence to vanish into, then rematerialize from, the darkness itself, as the Forest Spirit had earlier disappeared into fog ("Come thick night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell.") It is Asaji, not a visionary dagger, who forces a spear into Washizu's nerveless hands and compels him from the room to commit the murder. And after he returns, sinking back into his stupor, it is she who wrenches the spear from his bloody hands and plants it on a drunken guard; she who carefully washes her hands in an exquisite basin (made specially for the film); and even she who flings open the doors to raise the alarm personally. There is no fainting, real or feigned, with Asaji: she lacks both Lady Macbeth's compunction and her ragged nerves. Later it is also Asaji who suggests the ruse of Kuniharu's funeral cortège to gain entrance to the Forest Castle left under Miki's guard; and in the ghost scene she is even more contemptuously forceful in controlling Washizu's panic and later in reminding him to inquire whether Miki's murderer has also killed the son. Whenever she absents herself, Washizu loses control, murdering first one of the guards, then his hired assassin.

The numinous centre of their castle, equivalent to the demon's hut (or Lady Kaede's "gold room" in Ran), is the "forbidden room" into which Washizu and Asaji have to move to accommodate Lord Kuniharu's visit. Washizu's defeated predecessor, Fujimaki, committed seppuko in this room rather than face punishment for treachery, and the rectangular patterning of its floor and walls is marred by a monstrous, shapeless stain of blood across the three planes of one corner. Both Washizu and Asaji show themselves aware of this ("It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood,") though they interpose a flimsy screen of arrows between the stain and the tatami where they kneel. This replicates the contrast between the frail poles of the demon's hut and the circumambient menace of the forest with its mounds of skulls. While Kuniharu is being killed (offscreen), Asaji occupies this room alone, her habitual icy composure broken by furtive glances at the stain, until, unable to bear the tension further, to a sudden shriek of nohkan and rapping drums she rises for a spasmodic dance in front of the stain—half ecstasy, half terror—as if acting out the violence, like Lady Macbeth's retrospective sleep-walking: a scene that is pure Noh.

Far from being spared knowledge of Miki's murder, as in Shakespeare, in Throne of Blood it is Asaji herself who urges it. Washizu is ready to confirm Miki's offer of support by naming the latter's son his heir, but Asaji insists again that Miki will betray them; and when this no longer convinces her husband, she forces Washizu's hand by claiming to be pregnant herself. Most critics take this assertion at face value, and even praise it as Kurosawa's happy invention to explain Asaji's madness; but her claim is clearly opportunistic, one more manipulation of Washizu. When subsequently it is announced that she has "miscarried," the furtive old woman who brings the news consistently blocks Washizu's attempts to visit his wife. Instead, he has to retreat to the audience chamber where, gazing at his daimyo's regalia, he sums up Macbeth's famous aria of despair ("all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death,") with one great, self-condemning cry of "Fool!" Moreover, in Asaji's final scene, when Washizu discovers her dry-washing her hands behind a screen improvised from her own disheveled kimono—continuing even when he removes the bowl and for the first time speaks her name—she neither has words of remorse nor makes any reference to a child. And this is the last we see of her. There is no announcement of her death, still less any suggestion of suicide. In bushido, after all, suicide is honorable, and the omission of it in Asaji's case is surely meant to contrast with the elaborate mourning for the seppuko of Lord Kuniharu's widow, which Kurosawa has inserted into the story earlier. The only oblique reminiscence of Asaji at the end is that her disingenuous warning that "Arrows will seek your life not only from the front but from the rear" proves ironically prophetic of Washizu's actual death.

The scene in which Washizu learns of his wife's madness also has an interesting symbolic dimension. The squealing, panicky waiting women who bump into him (so different from the discreet servant who announced the "miscarriage") relate to the immediately preceding sequence in which his audience chamber was invaded by flocks of screeching, fluttering birds, who even perched on his head and shoulders, clinging (as arrows will do later) to his wooden armor. Besides fleeing from the besiegers' lopping of branches, foreshadowing the castle's eventual invasion, and exposing the already strained morale of its defenders, these birds also relate to earlier birds of ill-omen associated with Asaji. Lady Macbeth's "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements" is actualized in the croak of a crow when Washizu's servants first see the bloodstain in the "forbidden room"; this is heard again as Washizu is persuaded to murder Kuniharu, with Asaji opportunistically interpreting it, "That means the castle is yours"; and it occurs for a third time as Washizu goes to perform the murder, when there is a brief shot of a raucous night bird crossing the sickle moon that is Kuniharu's insignia. Crows are traditional symbols of death in Japanese culture, and may also have a further special significance for Kurosawa. The eighth vignette in Dreams is called "Crows" and is about the suicide of Vincent Van Gogh, Kurosawa's favourite artist, after completing his ominous final painting of "Crows Flying over a Corn Field."

In contrast to the sinister significance of birds, uncontaminated giri is identified with horses. When Asaji first persuades Washizu to kill his daimyo (in the "North Castle" that, ironically, was awarded him for loyalty), the submission of his giri to her browbeating is emblematized by overexposed shots through open shuji (sliding screens) to either side of him. In the courtyard beyond, a horse that previously we have seen walking peacefully with its groom (in a scene where Washizu's retainers praise the pastoral tranquillity of their new abode) now frantically resists attempts to discipline it within the tight circuit of a training rope. A similar scene occurs later in the same courtyard (which by now has passed to Miki) when Miki's horse resists saddling for the ride on which its master is to be murdered, thus reinforcing the warnings of Miki's son; and it is the same horse's return without a rider that economically signals that the murder has been done (Shakespeare's assassination scene having been cut). This reinterprets the madness of Duncan's horses mentioned in Macbeth, and again the symbolism has resonances in Kurosawa's other work. His first success was a film actually called Horse (1941), which includes the prototype of the sequence in which Washizu and Miki keep passing the same location in a fog, as a mare searches frantically backwards and forwards for her foal; and it is the dead chieftain's horse alone who is able to recognize the "shadow warrior" as an impostor in Kagemusha (1980), Kurosawa's samurai film preceding Ran, with devastating results.

Finally, though at first sight the spareness and neat geometry of beams, railings, shoji, and tatami in the castles (with even fog clouds formalized into a decorative pattern on the walls of the Forest Castle's audience chamber) seem the antithesis of the formless intertwinings of the forest, it soon becomes evident that the castles too are labyrinthine: not only in sudden unexpected openings of shoji and a complex of railed passageways that resemble the entrance and exit ramp of the Noh stage (the hashigakari), but also in the visual patterning of their timbers and especially the railings of their balconies, which form another network, like the forest branches, through which the cameras increasingly seem to spy on Washizu. This comes to a climax in the last scenes, in which, Noh-like, all action concentrates on the accelerated "dance" of Washizu's final destruction.

This death scene has been criticized as too prolonged and exaggerated, as Washizu dashes up, then down the staircase between his watch-tower and the courtyard, in dense clouds of arrows which leave his body grotesquely porcupined with shafts. However, his impulse to mount, then compulsion downward are a last reprise of the tragic de casibus (like Hidetora's magnificent descent from the burning keep to confront massed enemies in Ran); the angled railings between which he is shot and the tangled mats of arrows that he constantly has to break through recall both the web of the forest branches and the arrow screen of the "forbidden room"; and the way he keeps being backed literally into corners is reminiscent of the bloodstained corner where Fujimaki killed himself. The number of arrows is not unrealistic, moreover, if we assume most of the rebellious troops in the courtyard are now shooting at him—a final terrible emphasis on the leitmotif of treachery-itself-betrayed—and also take account of the fact that samurai armor was wooden, so that arrows could stick into it without necessarily piercing the body (there are similar images in Ran and in the misha-e scrolls). And when, bristling with shafts, he dies stumbling towards his rebellious troops retreating into the fog before him—in a shot that replicates the murdered assassin stumbling towards Washizu himself, as he backed towards the fog pattern on the walls of Forest Castle—his image from behind resembles that of the many-legged (and self-destructive) scorpion that has been impressed upon us as his personal insignia.


And so we come to the conclusion. Washizu's body is covered by swirling mist; there is a brief, foreshortened glimpse of the "forest" advancing wavelike on the castle; then the fog closes in like a "dissolve" and clears for the last time to return us finally to the opening framework of barren mountain, solitary memorial, and choric chant about the pointless persistence of ambition:

      Still his spirit walks, his fame is known,       For what once was so now is still true,       Murderous ambition will pursue       Beyond the grave to give its due.

This is certainly more pessimistic than Macbeth. Washizu dies ignobly at the hands of his followers, not bravely in single combat with the Macduff figure (Noriyasu); there is no equivalent of the scene where Malcolm proves his worthiness to be the next king; and though there is a brief glimpse of Noriyasu with the surviving sons of the two heroes, it has been established that the troops they lead belong to the invading daimyo, Inui, who is a far cry from the saintly Edward the Confessor in Macbeth, resembling rather the invader Ayabe who continues civil war in Ran. At the end of Throne of Blood the political succession is left wholly at risk, without any sense of re-established order to offset Washizu's death and the chorus's lament.

The original wording of that threnody equates Nature with the attacking force, and there are two details of the film (not in the published text, and unnoted by previous critics) that relate to this and qualify the mainly negative impression of Nature in the film. In his comment about historical models for the forest labyrinth, Kurosawa emphasizes that such mazes were man-made defence works. References within the film confirm this, and Noriyasu is easily able to evade the labyrinth by instructing his soldiers to ignore the paths and march straight through the trees. The deadly and misleading aspect of the forest, then, is not Nature's but something that has been made by man. And this process is shown continuing at the end. In the final glimpse of the attacking besiegers we are shown not only lopped-off branches, as in Shakespeare, but whole uprooted trees transported on carts; and the terrain of the prologue and epilogue is no longer wooded at all, but barren, stony, totally devoid of vegetation, as if "the catastrophes precipitated by Washizu's action make desolate the whole world." Nature has been rendered destructive because of its perversion by man.

This agrees not only with the traditional Japanese reverence for Nature—and Kurosawa's own especial sensitivity to natural beauty—but also to his presentation of Nature in other films, particularly the unexpectedly lovely scenery of Ran. His attitude is spelled out, almost too clearly, in another film, Dersu Uzala (1975), in which a Russian engineer learns respect for Nature from a primitive Siberian hunter but is helpless to prevent the hunter's death and even the obliteration of his grave by technological "progress." Similarly, in "Peach Orchard," the second episode of Dreams, tiers of dolls in antique samurai costume tell the young boy who represents Kurosawa himself that he will never be able to return home because his materialistic relatives have cut down the family peach orchard, except for one small tree that bears a single flower.

These films are easily interpreted as Kurosawa's rejection of the ruthless industrialization of postwar Japan, but there is another deeper influence involved. If his critique of samurai bushido stems from his resistance to Japan's own militarism, his shifting attitude to Nature is influenced, just as strongly, by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the continuing threat of accidental nuclear disaster. He has two films specifically about the American bombings: as was mentioned earlier, Record of a Living Being (1955) was made as a protest against the poisoning of Japanese fishermen by the Bikini explosion in the previous year, and the refusal of a Japan intent on rapid industrialization to recognize its ecological danger; and, more recently, Rhapsody in August (1991) is about the difficulty that Japanese even today have in confronting the experience (and therefore learning the lessons) of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. In Dreams there are also two sequences about accidental nuclear disaster: "Mount Fuji in Red" simulates the holocaust that might be caused by the explosion of a nuclear power plant; and in "The Weeping Demon," the sole survivor of such a disaster is conducted through a nightmare landscape of mutations by a demon who complains that Nature has vanished from the earth because humanity has poisoned the environment. This "Weeping Demon" is a kindred spirit to the laughing, punitive demon in Throne of Blood, but relates also to the "Weeping Buddha" on the saintly Sue's scroll in Ran.

The last episode of Dreams, "The Village of Waterfalls," shows a beautiful bucolic village of children, presided over by a wise old man who warns against destroying the paradise of Nature. In the press kit for the film, Kurosawa notes, "The theme here is nostalgia—nostalgia towards the loss of Nature and with it, the loss of the heart of humankind"; and during the course of the joyful funeral with which the episode concludes, the wise old man explains that "Living in harmony with nature makes a friend even of death." This is pure mono no aware, and the same mood is caught in the beautiful panoramic sunset with which Ran on one plane concludes, while the cortège of Hidetora and his son, passing in deep shadow in the foreground, represents on another plane the tragic karma experienced in Throne of Blood; and between the two experiences, alone in the middle distance, hesitating on the brink of his family's ruined castle, is the enigmatic figure of blind Tsurumaru, who Kurosawa has said is representative of modern man: "The solitary blind person represents for me the essence of humanity today … [But] my film is not … despairing … it is more of a warning: 'Concentrate your efforts on becoming happier, and not on heading for even greater unhappiness'." The karmic aspect of Nature in Throne of Blood is thus incorporated into a larger, much more complex comment in Ran. Within the system of Buddhist thought, Kurosawa's presentations of Nature in his samurai adaptations of Shakespeare can be recognized not as the contradictions they seem at first to be when interpreted out of cultural and historical context, but as complementary visions.

Julie Kane (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3555

SOURCE: "From the Baroque to Wabi: Translating Animal Imagery from Shakespeare's King Lear to Kurosawa's Ran," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2, 1997, pp. 146-51.

[In the following essay, Kane follows the translation of animal imagery from King Lear to Ran, as it is affected by the Japanese concept of minimalism.]

One comes away from viewing Akira Kurosawa's Ran, a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear set in sixteenth-century Japan, with the distinct impression that Shakespeare's poetry has been jettisoned in favor of visual imagery. Screenwriters Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Ide Masato have seemingly pared dialogue to the minimum necessary to advance the plot. Where Shakespeare's King Lear takes sixty-nine lines of gorgeous blank verse to divide up his kingdom, for example, Kurosawa's Hidetora spends only a few staccato sentences. The viewer's impression of linguistic minimalism in Ran is borne up by former visual artist Kurosawa's reputation for distrusting the spoken word.

Therefore, it comes as a surprise to discover that Kurosawa's screenplay does, in fact, retain much of the poetic "infrastructure" of King Lear. The same thematic imagery-patterns of birds, beasts, and insects which run like dark rivers of the unconscious through Shakespeare's blank verse are present in Kurosawa's choppy dialogue lines, only transformed from a western to an eastern cultural context. Helping to obscure this parallel is one overriding cultural difference: Shakespeare layers his similes and metaphors one upon the other with a glorious European Renaissance love of excess detail, while Kurosawa strives for the austere Japanese aesthetic ideal of wabi:

The Japanese have, par excellence, what the Scriptures of Zen in China sometimes advised in vain, a knowledge of where to stop. In their gardens, as in their architecture, in the arrangement of flowers as in their dress, the minimum is expressed and the maximum left for the beholder to supply…. The elaborate and ornate, sometimes beloved of China, was to be avoided, "as building up a wall or barrier instead of letting the thought of the artist pass free and full with the mind of the beholder. A hint, a suggestion, sufficed."

Before examining the ways in which the baroque animal imagery patterns of King Lear have been transformed into the wabi-esque animal imagery patterns of Ran, it might be useful to consider the cultural parallels which make such a "translation" possible. For example, both seventeenth-century England and sixteenth-century Japan had a "scientific" rationale for assigning animal traits to humans. For Shakespeare, it was the medieval practice of "physiognomy," which, "by analyzing the physical appearance of Man and finding its analogue in the appearance of certain animals with certain discernible traits of character, prognosticated similar behavior in men." The Japanese counterpart for this practice was the correlation between the year of one's birth and one of the twelve sacred animals said to have attended Buddha's funeral: "A child in Japan is expected to be born with the same traits as the animal of his birth year."

Besides employing similes and metaphors to draw comparisons between human beings and animals, both Shakespeare and Kurosawa utilize the "animal parable" to illustrate certain philosophic or plot-related truths. In both King Lear and Ran, a Fool delivers the majority of such animal parables, as his marginal status permits him to speak the truth disguised as nonsense without fear of retribution. Although Shakespeare draws on the Western animal fable tradition originating with Aesop to model his parables, while Kurosawa draws on the Japanese magical animal legend, it is likely that both literary traditions trace their roots to the Indian "Beast-Tale."

Still another parallel between the cultures of seventeenth-century England and sixteenth-century Japan enabled Kurosawa to translate Shakespeare's theme of "man reverting to beast" from King Lear to Ran without difficulty. Both medieval Christianity and Buddhist theology posited hierarchical "levels" of existence in which human beings inhabited a realm superior to that of animals. Confucian thought, like medieval European philosophy, held as well that the universal order was a reflection of the moral status of a kingdom. Therefore, unkingly behavior by a Lear or a Hidetora could indeed be the cause of "man reverting to beast"; in fact, since Buddhism taught that a human being could be reincarnated as an animal, the concept carries a literal meaning in Ran, while it is merely metaphoric (and quite horrifying enough, at that) in King Lear.

After having been banished by his father, Edgar in King Lear assumes a disguise that will bring him "near to beast." Lear, choosing to live outdoors rather than cede to the conditions for living with his daughters, speaks of becoming "a comrade with the wolf and owl," then follows up with the observation that "Man's life is cheap as beast's," setting the tone for the best-known man/beast metaphor of the play: "unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art." The man-becoming-beast imagery pattern has its counterpart in the language of Ran. Even Hidetora's kind-hearted son Saburo, protesting his father's naive plans for dividing his property, allows that "This is a world where men's evil, cruel instincts are exposed, where you cannot live unless you throw aside your humanity and all noble feelings!" Turned out by his elder sons, the once-proud Hidetora admits to being "hungry and tired like this, wandering aimlessly like a beast." Hidetora's Fool, Kyoami, wails that "Men are beasts! Kill them all and the world will be paradise!"

Moving from the cultural to the personal "correspondences" which make translation of animal imagery possible, one can't help but notice that the entire oeuvre of each artist is characterized by a fondness for the animal image. The indefatigable Audrey Yoder has counted over four thousand allusions to animals in Shakespeare's plays, of which over 2,500 are comparisons between animals and human beings. King Lear alone contains 171 references to animals, including 98 animal comparisons. Shakespeare reveals an insider's knowledge of horsemanship, hunting, falconry, and birdwatching.

The mere English-language titles of some of Kurosawa's other films suffice to reveal his fascination with the animal symbol: Horses, The Song of the Horse (made for TV), The Story of a Bad Horse (unfilmed, but for which he wrote the screenplay), The Den of Beasts, Stray Dog, Dragon's Tail, What the Birds Knew, and Castle of the Spider's Web (an alternate title for Throne of Blood). In Stray Dog, the folk saying "Mad dogs can only see what they are after" becomes the central metaphor for a detective story in which "Dogs chase cats and cops chase robbers." In Dersu Uzala, a boar-hunter ruptures his bond with nature by shooting at a sacred tiger. Kagemusha is about a petty criminal who impersonates a dead lord, fooling the dead man's wives, men, and grandson, but not his horse, who throws and kills him: "The animal—a very Kurosawa-like touch—simply knows." And no one who has seen Kurosawa's Throne of Blood can forget the image of a terrified horse wheeling around a courtyard, refusing to be saddled for the ride which will mean its master's death; nor the shadows of hundreds of birds flocking into a castle as the forest they inhabit is being hacked to pieces. It hardly comes as a surprise, then, to learn that Kurosawa elicited the precise performance he wanted from Toshiro Mifune in Rashomon by taking him to a Martin Johnson jungle film and telling him to emulate the lion.

Not only do Shakespeare and Kurosawa share a fondness for employing animal imagery in their works; they also share the same quirky passion for horses and loathing for dogs. In King Lear, the horses are not metaphorical, but real: noble animals associated with the personage of the king, frequently called upon for rescue in limes of trouble: "Saddle my horses," "Prepare my horses," "How now, are the horses ready?" and so forth. Dogs connote low status, servant-like groveling, and insincere fawning. Edgar speaks of himself in the role of Poor Tom as having "a semblance / That the very dogs disdained." Goneril's offensive steward Oswald is called a "whoreson dog," "cur," and "son and heir of a mongrel bitch," while Kent refers to Lear's daughters as being "dog-hearted." As he begins to regain his senses following his bout of madness, Lear himself ruefully admits that "They flattered me like a dog."

Kurosawa characteristically associates horses with human qualities such as nobility, truth, and loyalty. Saburo and Tango, the two most heroic characters in Ran, are frequently framed in the same shot with their horses: immediately after their banishment, for example, they sit in identical positions in a meadow while their horses graze in identical positions directly behind them. The viewer is apparently supposed to think of "chivalry," which is the characteristic associated with Japanese children born in the Year of the Horse. And dogs fare no better in Ran than in King Lear, carrying the same associations of servitude and lowliness. Jiro, Hidetora's second son, is the focus of the dog imagery in Ran: it is probably no coincidence that a well-known Japanese children's rhyme has "The dog of Master Taro, and the dog of Master Jiro" licking up spilled cooking oil. Jiro's councillors employ dog metaphors to persuade him to murder his older brother Taro, since dog-language is what he seems to understand. "The hunting dogs will not follow their master if he lets the game go," one cautions; "If you are not fleet, then you are our game," another adds. "How the dogs howl!" Jiro responds, but goes on to describe himself "groveling at my elder brother's feet," just like one of the pack. Jiro interprets Kurogane's wise counsel against war as fear of war, and calls him a "mouse posing as a mastiff," while Hidetora, equally unwilling to hear the truth, reduces his Fool to tears by calling him a "cur" and whipping him. Incidentally, the child born in the Japanese Year of the Dog is apt to be "faithful and lovable, but weak-willed."

Shakespeare and Kurosawa also share the unusual trait of identifying with the creature who is hunted. Shakespeare, asserts Spurgeon, "practically stands alone" by comparison with the other Elizabethan dramatists "in the evidence of his sympathy with the animal hunted or snared … he alone … thinks of the point of view of the 'poor bird' fearing the net and lime, the pitfall and the gin, of the falcon mewed up, and of the bear tied to the stake." In King Lear, a subcurrent of animal victim-imagery reinforces the theme of Lear and Gloucester's torture at the hands of Lear's elder daughters. Lear's Fool foreshadows the two men's victimization, speaking of "Horses … tied by the heads, dogs and bears by th' neck, monkeys by th'loins." As he is about to be blinded, Gloucester sees himself as a baited bear "tied to th' stake, and I must stand the course," while Albany sees Lear, softened by the experience of suffering, as such a "gracious aged man" that even "the head-lugged bear" would lick him, triangulating the king with both the bear and the earlier image of Gloucester-as-bear. Two of the most horrifying similes of the play hinge on the conceit of the hunter becoming the hunted: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their 'sport" muses Gloucester as he wanders newly blinded. "Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep" cries an impassioned Albany to an unfeeling Goneril after learning of her cruelty to Lear.

One can trace a similar theme of hunter-turning-hunted in the films made by Kurosawa prior to Ran. In Stray Dog, a detective chasing a criminal begins to identify with his prey: "when they finally meet, the recognition is mutual and instant." In Dersu Uzala, the boar-hunter becomes the victim of the tiger he has attempted to kill. In Ran, Kurosawa takes the cluster of animal victim-images which Shakespeare metes out to both Lear and Gloucester, and refocuses them with laser-like intensity into the single image of Hidetora-the-boar-hunter becoming Hidetora-the-hunted boar. In the opening scene of the film, having just felled the wild boar with his bow-and-arrow, the aging warrior Hidetora draws the first parallel between himself and his prey: "That was an old boar. Its meat is tough; it stinks—hardly edible. Would you like to eat old Hidetora?" Christopher Bannon also reads the image of the boar into Hidetora's nightmare following the hunt scene: "The dream terrifies him, for he at least subconsciously has recognized a natural kinship with the boar and its mortality." As we have come to expect with Kurosawa's animal symbols, the boar is one of the twelve sacred animals of the ancient Japanese calendar, imparting to infants born in its year a personality which is "courageous, but often headstrong and reckless." Those are the qualities which have vaulted Hidetora into the position of Great Lord, and they are the same qualities which will cause his downfall. After having been expelled from the castles of his first and second sons, Hidetora links himself with the symbol of the hunted animal once again; but this time he connects the two terms directly, with a simile, rather than merely juxtaposing them: "hungry and tired like this, wandering aimlessly like a beast." When Taro and Jiro's armies trap Hidetora in the Third Castle, Kurosawa's screenplay notes have him "looking for his dagger as desperately as a hunted animal"; and the shots of Hidetora's dead hunter-soldiers bristling with the arrows-of-the-hunted reinforce the symbolism.

Following the aesthetic principle of wabi, Kurosawa is able to telescope the prevailing imagery-stream of King Lear—that of "a human body in anguished movement, tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, dislocated, flayed, gashed, scalded, tortured and finally broken on the rack," as Spurgeon puts it—into the existing metaphor of Hidetora-as-boar. "Rotten flesh has to be cut off, even if it is your own," he says rather jovially after felling the boar in the film's opening scene. Cutting dead or living flesh, not to mention eating animal flesh, was taboo in Japanese culture from the early sixth century A.D. to the mid-nineteenth century, on account of the influence of Buddhism; by employing such a metaphor, Hidetora reveals his lack of faith in redemption from the human condition. Hidetora's son Taro, by suggesting that they eat the boar, commits out-right blasphemy: Kurosawa may even be alluding to the myth that Buddha died from eating putrid pork, contrasting the animalistic natures of the Ichimonji clansmen with Buddha's near-perfection. Later in the film, as Hidetora's two elder sons prepare to wage war on the castle of his third son, Kyoami the Fool exclaims, "It sinks. It is the smell of rotten guts." Clearly, the "rotten flesh" has not been cut out after all, and is now eating away at Hidetora, his family, and society.

In King Lear, the female villains Goneril and Regan account for twenty-one of the play's ninety-eight comparisons of people to animals. Goneril alone is the subject of fourteen such comparisons, while she and Regan together garner six, and Regan scores one on her own. Separately or together, Goneril and her sister are likened to foxes, vultures, serpents, sea-monsters, vicious cuckoo birds, kites, wild geese, pelicans, wild boars, wolves, tigers, dogs, and centaurs; the "serpent" metaphor is particularly pervasive. Although seemingly various, these images share connotations of sharp-toothedness, predatoriness, and treachery. As they accumulate, they add subtle unconscious resonance to the overtly portrayed actions of Lear's two elder daughters viciously "preying" on him.

Kurosawa also apportions the "lion's share" of his animal imagery to his female villain, Lady Kaede. Like Goneril and Regan, she is likened to multiple animals known for their viciousness and/or treachery: a biting hen, a snake, and a fox. But whereas Shakespeare draws on Western Christian mythology to emphasize the metaphor of evil-woman-as-snake, Kurosawa remains true to his Japanese cultural heritage by developing the metaphor of villainess-as-fox. The fox in Japanese mythology carries two distinct sets of associations:

One fox is the symbol of abundance and he is the messenger of Inari, god of the harvest…. Other legends present the fox as a mischief-maker, similar to the badger. He is capable of transforming himself into a priest, or a woman, or whatever suits his fancy.

When Kurogane, returning from his mission to kill Lady Sué, unwraps the "head" for Kaede and exposes a stone fox's head, Kaede correctly identifies it as being from an Inari shrine. Kurosawa is deliberately associating Lady Sué—who, like Inari, is beloved by the Japanese common people—with the benevolent aspects of the fox-legend. But the metaphor quickly expands to encompass both poles of the duality. Kurogane "rattles off" several legends of foxes impersonating women in order to warn Jiro of Kaede's hidden, treacherous nature:

You, too, my lord, must be careful. Foxes often take the form of a woman in order to work their evil deeds…. Far away, in Central Asia, a fox, which disguised itself as the wife of King Pan Tsu, made the king kill a thousand men, and later in China, during the Chou dynasty, there was one who became the queen consort of King Yu and destroyed his country. Here in Japan, the fox served at court as Princess Tamamo and worked even more treachery. It is said that she finally turned into a white fox with nine tails. After that there was no trace of the white fox. It is possible it might have settled down around here. Be careful, my lord, be careful!

Just before Kurogane kills Kaede, he calls her a "vixen" to her face, and accuses her of fooling the lord to bring down the House of Ichimonji. Kurosawa is subtly but clearly alluding once again to the legend of the trickster fox impersonating a woman.

In the first act of King Lear, as Goneril is divesting her father of most of his soldiers, the Fool warns Lear: "For you know, nuncle, / The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it's had it head bit off by its young." Hidetora's Fool, Kyoami, offers a nearly identical warning-parable to his master just before the crucial battle between Saburo and Jiro, his "dirty egg" and "beautiful egg" sons:

A snake's egg is white and beautiful. A bird's egg is spotted and dirty…. The little bird deserted the dirty egg and sat on the white one…. A snake emerged from the hatched egg…. The bird raised the snake, only to fall prey to it…. The bird was stupid.

Aside from the substitution of the snake—one of the twelve legendary Japanese birth-year animals, and the one whose character is fittingly "crafty, jealous, and untrustworthy"—for the cuckoo, a sweet and rather minor figure in Japanese mythology who welcomes the migrating spirits of the dead, the translation is nearly literal. Retained intact is the notion of a parent bird neglecting "legitimate" offspring to dote on a "changeling" who suddenly turns on the parent and kills it.

Another nearly "literal" translation of a key animal image from King Lear occurs following the senseless deaths of Saburo and Hidetora. Kyoami, having just spat in the direction of "heaven," rails, "Is there no God or Buddha in this world? Damnation! God and the Buddha are nothing but mischievous urchins! Are they so bored in Heaven that they enjoy watching men die like ants?" The passage should be recognizable to even the high school student of Shakespeare as the counterpart of the lines spoken by Gloucester following his gruesome blinding and recognition that he has wronged his son: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods;/They kill us for their sport." Linking the image of boys toying with the lives of insects to the image of gods sporting with the lives of human beings, both passages terrify with the suggestion that human suffering may be ultimately meaningless.

The question we must finally ask ourselves is: Why has Kurosawa taken such care to preserve Shakespeare's animal imagery patterns in a work that pares language to a minimum? No doubt, for the same reasons Shakespeare employs such a vast amount of animal imagery in King Lear. To reinforce the theme of human beings reverting to beasts, says Caroline Spurgeon, and to intensify the dark and painful atmosphere of the work. To communicate the inner visions of imaginative characters whose thoughts are linked "to nature, to the elemental powers" suggests Wolfgang Clemen, and to provide a sort of pidgin "language" by which characters isolated in their own mad private languages can understand one another. And, certainly, as these and other critics have noted, to reveal character in one quick, bold, vivid stroke. In this capacity, the animal image functions like the Zen koan, the verbal construct which can bring about sudden enlightenment.

In his 1983 memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa broached the subject of why there are so few explanatory passages in his screenplays: "It's easy to explain the psychological state of a character at a particular moment, but it's very difficult to describe it through the delicate nuances of action and dialogue." Using Shakespeare's animal imagery as his model, but adapting Shakespeare's aesthetic of excess to the Japanese aesthetic of wabi, Kurosawa has succeeded in communicating the psychological states of the characters in Ran clearly, efficiently, and dramatically. The poetry of his screenplay adds a significant level of artistry to the poetry of his camera.

Michael Wilmington (review date 20 March 1998)

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SOURCE: "Kurosawa's Madadayo a Fully Alive Story," in Chicago Tribune, March 20, 1988, p. A.

[In the following review, Wilmington lauds Kurosawa's film Madadayo.]

The cinema has given us very few artists of the stature of Japan's Akira Kurosawa, director of the haunting mystery Rashomon, the raging battle epic Seven Samurai and the melancholy tragedy Ran. Poet of action, dark comedian and great storyteller of the human condition, Kurosawa has stood at the summit of his profession for over half a century, in the company of John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir and very few others. He is the acknowledged all-time master of cinematic action, but, more than that, a painter of primal emotions, sadness, savagery, terror and pity.

That is why the Chicago premiere of his most recent film, Madadayo, at Facets Multimedia, is such an essential event, one which no movie lover should consider passing by.

Yet it's also a sad occasion, and not only because it is probably the last new film we will ever see from the now 87-year-old Kurosawa. Madadayo—the story of the Tokyo twilight years of a well-loved teacher—was made by Kurosawa in 1993, over four years ago, and, since then, it has not acquired a U.S. distributor or received minimal exhibition. (Facets is showing it by special arrangement with the Japanese company.)

Why? Madadayo (which means "Not yet"—the cry of the professor every year at his reunion party) is fully engaged and alive, beautifully written, acted and filmed.

Based on the life and works of Japanese writer Hyakken Uchida (the teacher of the story), it was a highly personal project that Kurosawa wrote and edited, as well as directed, a film into which he put all his heart. Madadayo, despite being ignored and dismissed by the distribution establishment, is not at all a cinema curio. It is, instead, one of a great filmmaker's greatest works.

Set in Tokyo during the World War II and postwar era, Madadayo is a portrait of an old teacher and his community of ex-students, but also of the culture of Kurosawa's youth and young manhood, a meditation like the films of his longtime model, John Ford, on a vanished past. The film begins in 1943, with the last class of Uchida—who is played with infectious humor and beautiful control by Tatsuo Matsumura (of the "Tora-san" series). A teacher of German who is approaching 60 and has decided to retire and devote himself full time to writing, Uchida has unique rapport with his students and their fathers, many of whom he also taught. They roar with laughter at his witty and caustic barbs, cheer him lustily. Some of them later show up at his comfortable house for an impromptu celebration of his 60th birthday, with saki and beer. Unbeknownst to them all, a tradition has begun.

Later, Uchida's house is bombed and destroyed during the air raids, his library and possessions mostly burned. He is forced to live in the tiny gardener's hut of a ruined mansion. Some of his students, moved, decide to buy him and his quiet, equally sardonic wife (Kyoko Kagawa) a new home, with a special garden and pond. And eventually, they hold another birthday party, where the main event is Uchida's downing—in one breath—a huge flagon of beer, after which he cries "Not yet!"

For the next 18 years, we follow Uchida, his wife and his old students, through change after change, party after party, now an annual event with family members of all generations. Uchida's impoverished landlord refuses to sell the adjoining property to a cruel buyer who wants to erect a huge building that would blot out Uchida's sun. Uchida loses his beloved golden stray cat, becomes too distraught to eat, and his students organize a huge search party. Of such seemingly small events is his life now composed.

But every year, the party grows. The penultimate scene is a gala of the early '60s, which we sense may be Uchida's last. And the film's last image is the old man's dream after the party, where, once again, he cries "Madadayo!"

To Westerners, Japanese films often seem very sentimental, and Madadayo, though typically Japanese, is not the kind of film we usually expect from Kurosawa, master of the samurai epic and battle scene. Meditative, benevolent, humorous and full of an achieved wisdom and tolerance, it is a movie that instead recalls the mood and quiet power of Kurosawa's 1952 classic of old age and death, Ikiru.

And not only Ikiru. The film also echoes another Japanese classic, 24 Eyes, a highly popular Keisuke Kinoshita film, which, in 1954, actually defeated Seven Samurai (and Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff) in a Kinema Jumpo poll for Japan's best film.

Asked why he made Madadayo, Kurosawa replied: "I simply wanted to portray someone who I think was a wonderful person." He does. And that makes it even more of a tragedy that distributors have kept us from this film—and, perhaps even worse, from the several films he might have made afterward, that, in fact, he was planning before Madadayo's poor reception from film companies damaged his future chances.

In Japan, the word "sensei" means teacher or master, and that is what they call Kurosawa. It is a title he richly deserves and rightly shares with the gentle, intellectual, decidedly non-samurai Hyakken Uchida. And, of course, "Sayonara" means "Goodbye," which would be the sentimental salutation to make in this review. How typical that Kurosawa chooses, instead, "Madadayo!" So that is what we should wish for the sensei: that this film, fitting as it might be, is not his farewell. That we see him and his world again. And that meanwhile, all of us who love Kurosawa's films will see the master's wonderful tale.


Kurosawa, Akira (Vol. 16)