The Emperor’s Cinema

Karthick RM writes about Peter Wild’s study of Akira Kurosawa, and about his own viewing of the auteur’s cinema.

9 min read

“Kurosawa is a philosopher who works in film.”

– Donald Richie

When I first watched Rashomon (1950), followed immediately by Seven Samurai (1954), I knew that the film-watching experience would never be the same for me. Kurosawa’s films were not just therapy, they were an aesthetic conversion. Conversion happens when an idea becomes the absolute standard by which you view life. Kurosawa’s films became the standard by which I view cinema. Besides watching all his films, I read whatever book I could get on the Japanese master. I had discovered an artist whose films transcended what is called national cinema and provided a truly universal cinema, comparable to what Shakespeare is to literature, Mozart to music, da Vinci to painting. Indeed, some of Kurosawa’s films bring out the perfect synthesis in the cinematic medium—of story, sound and image. Kurosawa is often referred to as the emperor; his empire is the history of art.

Several critically important works on Kurosawa have been written, but two are compulsory reads for Kurosawa fans, for those interested in Japanese cinema, and cinephiles as such: Donald Richie’s The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1998, expanded and updated edition, with additional chapters from Joan Mellen) and Stephen Prince’s The Warrior’s Camera (1991). These books not only introduce Kurosawa as an auteur with a unique signature, and discuss in detail the brilliant compositions of his films, but also reveal Kurosawa as a philosophically inclined filmmaker whose influences were drawn from global sources, and who made his impact globally.

Peter Wild's Akira Kurosawa

Peter Wild’s Akira Kurosawa (2014) is a recent work in the Critical Lives series of Reaktion Books that complements this reading list. It provides a concise and elegant introduction to the work of Kurosawa. Kurosawa concludes his Something like an Autobiography with this line: “There is nothing that says more about the creator than the work itself.” Wild remains true to the spirit of this statement and focuses more on Kurosawa’s work than the man himself.

“Akira Kurosawa remains an artist who is not only one of the greatest Japanese film directors of all time,” Wild asserts, “but also one of the greatest film directors any country has produced.” No one till Kurosawa, and one could also say that no one after him pushed Japanese cinema to its furthest extents, and broke the barriers of the national and the particular to arrive at the global and the universal. An oft repeated criticism against him is that he did not make authentic Japanese movies. Authentic cinema revolts against imagined cultural authenticities and national boundaries. Kurosawa was authentic to cinema, not Japan. Kurosawa’s unique and unparalleled adaptations of Shakespeare tower over those of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier. His films based on the stories of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gorky conveyed the full depth of these Russian writers. And his ‘Japanese Westerns’ easily compete with the best Westerns of John Ford. Coppola emphatically said that while most directors are known for one or two films, Kurosawa is known for eight or nine. Kurosawa’s command over film language, style and aesthetic was such that even his lesser films leave a deep impact on the viewer. Indeed, there can be no consensus on what are his greatest films, and what are his lesser films. In the rest of my review, I will focus mostly on what are generally considered to be the lesser films of Kurosawa, and assert that they are still unique creations that deserve critical viewing.

While critics usually look at Sanshiro Sugata 2 (1945) as one of Kurosawa’s lesser films, Wild claims that the film is not wholly without merit. Indeed, as a martial arts sports-drama, it is miles ahead of several films that were made in this genre for decades later. Wild also brings attention to the fact that Kurosawa begins his effective use of the axial cut from this film. The Idiot, the most faithful adaptation of Dostoevsky’s eponymous novel till date, though it was a critical and commercial failure, was great in its failing. No less a person than Tarkovsky called it a wonderful film. The Idiot is also remarkable for a disorienting performance by Setsuko Hara, Yasujiro Ozu’s muse and the star of his most famous films, who is cast against type as a dark brooding character, exuding pain and confusion on the screen whenever she appears on it. While Hara’s roles in Ozu’s films are characterized by composure, in Kurosawa she is marked by turbulence. This was Hara’s second and last film with Kurosawa. The first one, No Regrets for our Youth (1946), saw her playing a carefree rich girl who is drawn to anti-establishment activism by her lover. After her lover is killed by the Japanese government, she goes to his family in the village and spends her life as a farmer. This again was an unusual role for Hara.

Setsuko Hara [right] in The Idiot
Setsuko Hara [right] in The Idiot
A digression: By any standards, Rashomon is one of Kurosawa’s best, the film that put Japanese cinema on the map. Wild notes how Rashomon won the Golden Lion at Venice despite stiff competition from the films of Western giants like Renoir, Bresson, Kazan and Wilder. It is the most commonly misunderstood film of Kurosawa, often described as postmodern. But in Rashomon, Kurosawa has not made a postmodern film. A deeper reading of the film would reveal that Kurosawa is not arguing for the multiplicity of truth, but of narratives and the fragility of facts. The story of Rashomon, of facts that may have happened, is discussed between a dazed woodcutter, a priest whose faith is shaken, and a cynical commoner who thinks everything is a lie. The basic event is that a bandit overpowered a samurai and raped (or seduced?) his wife in front of him, and later the samurai is found to have been killed. The woodcutter is a witness to this, but he is an unreliable witness as he may have stolen an expensive dagger at the scene of the crime. The bandit, the samurai, the woman, and the woodcutter all edit facts, just as news is edited, or films are edited. But truth is irreducible to fact, just as the truth of cinema is irreducible to the editing of film. At a moral level, Kurosawa is perhaps hinting that there is no truth in violence (the bandit), sensuality (the woman), pride (the samurai) or greed (the woodcutter). The truth of Kurosawa’s cinema is revealed when the woodcutter, as if in repentance, carries away an orphaned child, restoring the priest’s, and the viewer’s, faith in humanity. Truth, to Kurosawa, is in the courage of compassion, not in the facts we edit or the stories we make out of them. My one criticism of Wild’s book would be that he does not write in depth about such undercurrents in Kurosawa’s philosophically inclined films. But then, only so much can be covered in crisp books of this sort.

After Rashomon, Kurosawa had a mostly smooth run (with the exception of The Idiot) for the next 15 years, making landmark films with his iconic collaborators like Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. If some of Kurosawa’s best films were with Mifune, it would not be an exaggeration to say that almost all of Mifune’s best films were with Kurosawa. Other directors like Hiroshi Inagaki and Kihachi Okamoto saw a super-star in Mifune, while Kurosawa aptly utilized a highly versatile actor. Their artistic relationship culminated and ended with Red Beard (1965), a film that showcases Mifune’s talent as a majestic actor and captures the essence of Kurosawa’s existentialist humanism. But at the core of existentialism is angst, and that would be the mood to dominate Kurosawa in the next several years to come.

After a failed collaborative attempt with Hollywood, Kurosawa attempted a novel film with mostly non-professional actors, which turned out to be a commercial disaster. Dodesukaden (1970) was a disappointment for Kurosawa, so much so that he attempted suicide after this film. While the film was a failure in Japan, it won the Grand Prix in Belgium eight years later. The film is anything but disappointing, and film scholars in recent times view it more positively. The first colour film of Kurosawa, it is also an emotionally appealing film that aesthetically shows the lives of the underclass in bright colors, giving their existence vitality and complexity. The film’s title is an onomatopoeia, taken from a word that a character Rokuchan, a mentally challenged child, creates for the sound of a trolley car. Kurosawa brilliantly draws us into the highly imaginative mental world of Rokuchan, as he builds a trolley car out of thin air and rides it through the dump that the film is set in. In this powerful scene, as Rokuchan drives his trolley, kids try to bully him, calling him a freak and throwing stones at him. Rokuchan however pays no attention and goes on his path—a metaphor for the misunderstood artist who has a single-minded devotion to his work despite facing brickbats from critics. The film ends with a long pan of beautiful images that Rokuchan has drawn on the walls of his house.

Dodesukaden is also a film that deals quite a bit with sex and infidelity. But where someone like Nagisa Oshima would have inserted long and explicit sex scenes to shock and titillate the viewer, Kurosawa plays a more subtle game. There is the teenage girl who is raped by her stepfather, but takes her anger out on a decent boy who is interested in her. She ends up stabbing him. There is the old man who refuses to forgive his once unfaithful wife, and he is compared to a dead tree for his inability to forgive a genuinely repenting soul. There are two couples who swap partners but are comically nonchalant about it. And there is the worker married to a prostitute who has given birth to children from other men, but who loves them as his own, for he sees fatherhood as a bond of affection and trust. Without careful handling, these characters would have emerged as sloppy sentimentalist figures or farces. Kurosawa humanizes them, giving them a depth and dignity that they do not actually have in real poverty. There are pros and cons of such portrayals but I will not go into that here.

With his Russian film Dersu Uzala (1975), Kurosawa had his first international collaboration with the Soviet Union’s Mosfilm. The film is based on the travel journal of Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev. Arsenyev’s friend Dersu Uzala, a Nanai tribesman and hunter, is the titular character of the film. The film, a visually sumptuous treat, expresses Kurosawa’s concern about the erasure of harmonious natural life by modern civilization, a theme repeated in the vignette Village of the Watermills in the anthology Dreams (1990). While Dersu Uzala had a lukewarm reception in Japan, it won the Oscar in 1976 for Best International Feature Film. Yet, Joan Mellen, noting the Rousseau-like adulation of nature by Kurosawa, calls it an otherwise lifeless film. This is an unnecessarily harsh judgment. Uzala is actually one of Kurosawa’s liveliest characters. He teaches the city dweller Arsenyev that true life is in living with nature. What actually makes the film weak is its flawed philosophical premise. Kurosawa attributes sin and corruption to civilization and harmony and peace to nature. But the idea that there is peace and harmony in nature is not a natural idea, it is fundamentally a cultural idea. In a scene that establishes his character, Dersu tells Arsenyev to leave behind some food at an abandoned hut in a forest so that those who might come after them would not starve. There is nothing natural about this compassion. It is a civilizational value.

With Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), Kurosawa not only made a powerful return to the epic, but also showed that existential angst needn’t just be represented on cinema through disturbed individuals, broken relationships or pseudo-rebellions against society (à la Godard), it can be artistically reproduced at an epic scale. Ran, a brilliant adaptation of King Lear, is said to be Kurosawa’s final statement. The film ends with a long shot of a blind man at the edge of a precipice with no one around him and no gods to save him. This is us. In the two films after Ran, Kurosawa came back to a theme that was a concern to him in films like Ikiru (1952) and Record of a Living Being (1955), namely ageing in a changing society. However, unlike these earlier films, his last two films were not received well. They are significant all the same.

In Rhapsody in August (1990), four children visit their grandmother, Kane, who is a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb. Having lost her husband and several members of her family in this cataclysmic atrocity, she is traumatized, but does not allow her dignity and endurance to slip for a single moment. The film is also an intergenerational story captured crisply. Kane’s own children have moved on from their native village Kyushu, and they look up to the American model of progress. Kane herself is unable to move on from Kyushu, and though she has forgiven Nagasaki, she is unable to forget those lost. The grandchildren represent a synthesis, a progeny of those who moved on, but who have moved back in space and time to be with their grandmother, to remember together. After all, only our memories keep the dead alive.

Madadayo (1993), Kurosawa’s swansong, was criticized for its “mawkish sentimentality.” This film, based on the writings of the Japanese author Hyakken Uchida, is the most autobiographical in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. If Kurosawa’s Dreams captured his fears, anxieties, inspirations, wants, desires and hopes, Madadayo captured his spirit, his Herculean will to create. The title takes from a children’s game of hide and seek in Japan, where the searchers call out “Are you ready?” and the one on the move responds “Madadayo!” [not yet]. The film follows a retired professor who is immensely popular with his students. He ages through changing times and seasons in post-war Japan, retaining his wit, liveliness, and humanity. Over the years, the students regularly host a party in his honour, where he is challenged to drink a big glass of beer. They ask him “Are you ready?” (To leave? To quit? To die?) and he responds triumphantly, “Madadayo!” When Kurosawa received the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1990, he said, “I really don’t feel that I have yet grasped the essence of cinema. Cinema is a marvellous thing, but to grasp its true essence is very, very difficult.” The 80-year-old director of some of the greatest films in the world said that he was still learning cinema. He would not quit. Madadayo!

About the author

Karthick Ram Manoharan is Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Wolverhampton where he is working on the political thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy. He is the author of Frantz Fanon and co-editor of Rethinking Social Justice. Cinema is as necessary to him as food and water. Sometimes, he thinks that Kurosawa is a god.

Cover image: Sketch of Akira Kurosawa by Satyajit Ray

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