A Look Back: Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

This is the third in a three-post series where I share my school reports from my first real film class, Film History. These were the first serious writings I did on film, and they offer a look back at the foundations that would eventually lead me to start writing reviews here at Silver Emulsion. I recently found them in a box while preparing to move, and I hope they are as entertaining to you as they are to me (they won’t be). These were written about twelve years ago during the Fall of the year 2000, when I was a spry nineteen years old. I will be re-creating the documents with the same formatting and images to the best of my abilities with the WordPress editor. Also, I’m leaving in any grammar errors or other things that I might want to change. It’s all about posterity and not falling into the George Lucas trap. Anyway, enjoy! Maybe.


Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

“I simply make a film as I want it to be,” Akira Kurosawa replied when asked why he shoots his films the way he does. It is this independence, this incredible cinematic vision, that has given Akira Kurosawa the nickname of The Emperor. His films not only inspire and teach but also entertain with top notch acting and visuals. Kurosawa never settled for second best and it comes through in every single one of his films, especially the three films I have chosen to focus on: Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Ran. These films were all pivotal to Kurosawa’s career, Rashomon made him famous, Yojimbo was his biggest commercial success, and Ran was the film that he felt to be his best. All of the films are set in the past, in Japanese history. As a student, Kurosawa was very interested in literature, especially Dostoevsky and Shakespeare, and the kodan, a story-telling entertainment where traditional samurai tales were told. Obviously, these interests molded themselves into the films Kurosawa made and shaped his style and vision into something the world had never seen before.

Rashomon was made in 1950. Kurosawa shot it in the then standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but other than that nothing was standard about the film. Rashomon weaves four separate, varied accounts of the same events, a murder and a rape. Everything is told through flashbacks except for the few scenes at the Rashomon gate, which act as bookends of sorts. The viewer is never told which story is the truth, you are left to decide for yourself. And it is this fact that makes it such a great and daring film. Kurosawa didn’t try to rationalize everything at the end, as many filmmakers would have tried to. An exchange towards the end of the film, between the priest and the commoner, sums up what I feel the main message behind the film to be. The priest says, “It’s horrible. If men do not tell the truth, do not trust one another, then the earth becomes hell indeed.” The commoner replies, “Absolutely right. The world we live in is hell.” The last scene in the film, when the woodcutter takes the abandoned baby hone, lightens up this statement and adds a bit of hope for humanity.

Rashomon (1950)

The camera in Rashomon is incredibly free, pushing through leaves and branches in a first person perspective. There are also a few tracking shots of people running through the forest, a common Kurosawa shot that comes up many times in his later films such as The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa’s tight framing style is present as well, but not as well developed as in Yojimbo. When I say “tight framing style” I mean that Kurosawa uses every bit of available space on screen to showcase something. Japanese film critics called this style Kurosawa’s “silent film technique.” For example, there are many shots of the wife, the husband and the bandit in one frame. Each shot with the three in it has them in different relations to one another. Sometimes, the bandit will be the dominant one in frame, and so on. This further showcases Kurosawa’s focus on the composition of the film and its image. There is also extensive use of contrasting shots. A shot of the woman will be held for a certain amount of time, followed by a shot of the bandit held for the same amount of time, then followed by a shot of the husband, again held for the same amount of time. Also, probably the biggest and most often copied trait of a Kurosawa film, the wipe transition, is here but it is used sparingly, but still extremely effectively. Kurosawa uses wipes in place of a fade out to show time passing. The fade out generally has a softening effect on the image and the film’s impact on the viewer. There are only five wipes in the entire film, compared to twenty-three in Yojimbo. But for Ran, Kurosawa used no wipes at all and one fade out. In part, I feel this is because Ran was shot in color. To me, wipes just don’t look right on color film. There are always exceptions to the rule, like the original Star Wars Trilogy for example, but for the most part wipes are a technical device of black and white filmmaking, and I think that Kurosawa felt the same way. Another reason for the lack of wipes in Ran is due to the change in Kurosawa’s style and approach to filmmaking after his attempted suicide. This new, more philosophical Kurosawa started to surface before the attempted suicide, in his 1970 film Dodes’ka-den.

Yojimbo was made eleven years and eight films after Rashomon. Kurosawa’s technique grew dramatically from Rashomon and is in full swing with Yojimbo. The film has been remade twice, as Sergio Leone’s awesome A Fistful of Dollars and as the horrible Bruce Willis film Last Man Standing. Yojimbo tells the story of Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshiro Mifune), the “samurai with no name” who comes to town to find it divided and at war with itself. Both equally evil sides want him to fight for them but Sanjuro has other things in mind. He plays both factions into his hands and comes out on top, with both defeated. Toshiro Mifune puts on one of his greatest performances ever as Sanjuro and the supporting cast is great as well. It’s also worthy to note that Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Unosuke the gun-wielding villain, is in a few other Kurosawa films, most notably playing Lord Hidetora in Ran and playing the title role in Kagemusha.

Yojimbo (1961)

Yojimbo was shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The use of widescreen in this film is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Every inch of the frame is strikingly beautiful and well composed. I don’t think anyone would argue the fact that Yojimbo is easily Kurosawa’s best filmed movie. For Yojimbo, Kurosawa used Kazuo Miyagawa as his cinematographer. Miyagawa, who at the time was regarded as Japan’s best cameraman, had worked once before with Kurosawa, as cinematographer on Rashomon. Miyagawa was especially known for his balanced framing and use of deep focus, present in both Rashomon and Yojimbo. And in Yojimbo, you can see not only Kurosawa’s evolving style, but also the advancement of Miyagawa’s. Kurosawa employed his three camera technique (first used in The Seven Samurai) to shoot the action scenees. Kurosawa used this style of shooting action scenes many times throughout his career, including in Ran. He said that he used it because when you are working with elements that you can’t fully control, such as horses, rain, smoke, etc., it’s better to shoot it from three angles so that when you get it right you have many angles to cut to in editing without sacrificing continuity.

The weather plays an incredible role in Kurosawa’s films. It is the rain in Rashomon, Ikiru, The Seven Samurai and many others. When John Ford met Akira Kurosawa he said to him, “You really love rain.” Kurosawa replied, “You really have looked at my films.” The wind in used in Yojimbo, both as a visual effect to enhance the scene and as a symbol of power. A small trail of leaves behind Sanjuro is kicked up by the wind after he slays three bandits. Before Tatsuya Nakadai’s first appearance in the film, Kurosawa shows us a shot of a huge, raging gust of wind coming into town, throwing dust and dirt into the air. Then Nakadai walks into town with his pistol in hand. This has the same effect as a shot towards the end of the film, as Sanjuro comes back into town to confront Nakadai and the remaining bandits. He seems to be closed in by the buildings of the town, trapped by the bandits at the other end of the road, certain death at hand. But behind him is a furious, whipping wind, symbolizing Sanjuro’s unmatched physical power. And of course, Sanjuro triumphs.

Ran was a project that Kurosawa had been working on for over a decade. Between films he would return to the script for Ran and work on it. After it was completed though, there was another task at hand, getting the necessary funding for this ambitious project. Finally, funds were found and in 1983 production began. Whenever Kurosawa was asked what he thought his best film to be, he would always reply, “The next.” But after Ran was completed, Kurosawa simply answered, “Ran.”

Ran tells the story of Lord Hidetora and his three sons. It is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The story begins with Lord Hidetora giving his eldest son, Taro, complete control over the family and the land they hold. His second son, Jiro, gets a castle and the accompanying land. And the same for his third son, Saburo. But Saburo protests and is eventually banished by Hidetora. Taro, influenced by his wife Lady Kaede, whose family was killed by Hidetora, banishes his father. From there, the brothers begin to fight with one another, killing to become the Great Lord of the Ichimonji clan.

Ran (1985)

Ran is a film filled with metaphors. One of the first is at the beginning of the film, when Lord Hidetora, his sons and the neighboring lords sit in a circle after the hunt. This is the only time a circle of people, a symbol for unity and peace, is shown in the film. After this scene, everything basically turns to chaos, the film’s translated title. For instance, there is a scene after Taro has become the lord of the house in which he has Hidetora come into his room. Lady Kaede is seated beside Taro and on the floor in front of and below them is an empty mat for Hidetora to sit on. As soon as he is seated, he forms a triangle between the three. This suggests that had Hidetora not stormed out at the end of the scene, the triangle may have evolved into a circle once again and war may have been averted. Another metaphor can be found in the scene when Lord Jiro is about to make love with his brother’s wife, Lady Kaede. Jiro kicks his recently deceased brother’s helmet aside and takes his wife.

The final message of Ran is much like that of Rashomon. At the end of the film, Kyoami the jester and Tango a loyal warrior of Hidetora, sit by the dead bodies of Hidetora and his son Saburo. Kyoami screams, “Oh, there is no Buddha in the world? Buddha, hear me. Are you so bored up in heaven that you enjoy watching men die down here? Is it amusing to hear them cry?” Tango strongly replies, “Enough! Do not slander the Buddha. It is he who is crying. Men — they are so stupid that they believe that survival depends upon killing. No, not even Buddha can save us. Don’t cry anymore. This is as it is. Men seek sorrow, not happiness. They prefer suffering to peace.”

Unlike Rashomon though, Ran has no ray of light, no hope at the end. In Rashomon, there is the scene with the woodcutter taking the abandoned baby home and the rain letting up. In Ran, there is only the final shot of the sunset against the castle ruins, the blind Tsurumaru almost falling off the edge to his death. He drops the scroll he is carrying and then camera cuts to a closeup of it, a painting of Buddha. Kurosawa described Ran as being a series of events as they would be viewed from heaven. The last shot suggests that Buddha is looking down on the folly of these men we are watching. Men killing their own flesh and blood for nothing more than land and power. It’s as if in the thirty-five years separating Rashomon and Ran, the world could show Kurosawa nothing to change his outlook on the state of humanity.

Kurosawa attempted suicide in 1971, shortly after the release of Dodes’ka-den. The box-office failure of that film, along with the two year long struggle between Kurosawa and Darryl F. Zanuck about his involvement in the production of Tora! Tora! Tora!, and the increasing difficulty to find funding for his films led him to suicide. But in Japanese culture suicide is not looked on as bad for an artist. It is viewed as a natural response to experience and to the exhaustion of life’s possibilities. For an artist over the age of sixty, suicide is regarded as a heroic act of homage to his art, that with the diminishing of his creativity, his life should end as well, since until then his art and his life have been inseparable.

Kurosawa died in September 1998. He won many awards for his numerous films, but like other greats in cinema such as Stanley Kubrick and Ernst Lubitsch, he never won a Best Director Oscar despite being nominated and worthy many times. He leaves with us an indelible mark on all of cinema that will never be surpassed. The images from his films will live in my heart until the day I die. And each time I watch a Kurosawa piece, I get a wonderful feeling inside of me, that I am not able to express with words. I think Kurosawa himself said it best when he wrote, “There is something called cinematic beauty. It can only be expressed in a film, and it must be present in a film for that film to be a moving work. When it is very well expressed, one experiences a particularly deep emotion while watching that film. I believe it is this quality that draws people to come and see a film, and that it is the hope of attaining this quality that inspires the filmmaker to make his film in the first place. In other words, I believe that the essence of the cinema lies in cinematic beauty.”


Akira Kurosawa on the set of Ran

“Take myself, subtract movies and the result is zero.”


 Works Cited

A.K. Dir. Chris Marker. Perf. Akira Kurosawa, Tatsuya Nakadai. Orion, 1985.

Gianetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Kurosawa, Akira dir. Ran. Perf. Tatsuya Nakadai, Jinpachi Nezu, Mieko Harada. Orion, 1985.

Kurosawa, Akira dir. Rashomon. Perf. Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura. RKO, 1950.

Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. Trans. Audie E. Bock. New York: Vintage, 1983.

Kurosawa, Akira dir. Yojimbo. Perf. Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai. Toho, 1961.

Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. 3rd ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.

 

Kurosawa doing what he does best,
Directing.


Geez, and I thought the Passion of Joan of Arc review was long. If I felt like a badass film critic after the last two papers, then this paper would be my cocky victory lap. I thought it to be my crowning achievement at the time. There’s something to be said for youthful arrogance, but goddamn, this one is pretty bad as well. It pains me to say it, but it’s true. You can see my younger self circling quality ideas but never seizing them, something I still do sometimes, but hopefully y’all never noticed. There’s also a number of other, more positive things that still come up in my reviews today, and it’s these that make me smile. In them I can see the person I was and inklings of the person I thought I was in my head. Hmm, one of these days I’ll have to give Kurosawa, one of my all-time favorites, better representation here than this.

Well, it was a fun look back, and next week I’ll be back to the future with brand-new reviews of who knows what. OK, OK, I know what, but I’m not telling.

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