Every Akira Kurosawa Film - tuesday 2013-06-18 0833 last modified 2013-06-18 0833
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My first exposure to the films of Akira Kurosawa came through Star Wars. The storyline for Episode IV, the chronologically first film of a now sprawling franchise best known to audiences as Star Wars, less commonly as A New Hope, is alleged to be nakedly derivative of The Hidden Fortress, a jidaigeki genre film of Kurosawa's. I knew nothing of Kurosawa's place in film history then, I just knew as a Star Wars buff that I wanted to see how true such a heretical accusation might be.

It's true. George Lucas takes nearly the entirety of The Hidden Fortress and transplants it into a magical future and in space, borrowing set pieces from other Kurosawa films for good measure. Kurosawa, himself inspired by the Westerns of John Ford, produced a body of work that also serves as direct inspiration for later well-known westerns, like The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars, as well as any production that re-tells one story from several different characters' points of view. He was always his own screenwriter and editor. His impact on modern film is so omnipresent that it's hard to describe. Sometimes movies like Last Man Standing pay explicit homage to Kurosawa; it's usually more lovingly subtle. Yoda, in his final incarnations of the Star Wars prequels, takes on mannerisms of a Kurosawa character, rubbing his head when in thought in the same fashion as the chief samurai in Seven Samurai. When someone's artistic genius echoes down the decades to reverberate in the motions of a little green computer-generated alien that just about everybody has imitated at least once - and it's him they're paying tribute to, not the character or actor, great as he was - that puts Kurosawa right at the beating heart of cinema.

Kurosawa's directorial beginnings were coincident with World War II, thus a couple of his earliest works are propaganda pieces. Not all propaganda is easily dismissed; Sergei Eisenstein, Leni Riefenstahl, and D. W. Griffith are equally famous and infamous for their cinematic mastery and odious subject matter. This division is not easy to make, but Kurosawa's propaganda, boosting anti-American, anti-western sentiments as well as domestic industriousness, struck me as uniformly terrible in plot and character development. There's also one studio film Kurosawa was forced to direct that he later renounced; I didn't watch it. This is telling, after a fashion. Kurosawa does not tell others' stories well unless he's adapted them himself to be his own, as he does more often in his later works. Very few film makers operating within a studio system get to have this sort of control over their artistic works, and it speaks to his ability to handle the administrative side of movie making as much as his artistic vision that he often got to make the movies he wanted without issuing the sort of unholy terrors the less administratively inclined artist may produce.

As the cinema of Japan moved on to an American censored film industry in its post-war period, in which criticism of the US and Allied powers was forbidden, as was any indication that censorship was taking place (so you wouldn't be able to black out text or re-dub scenes; you had to rewrite text and re-film scenes), Kurosawa started to move into the twin directions of feudal period pieces and telling his own stories of modern life in Japan. But his first (short) film post-war was banned altogether for portraying feudal values, not released to the public until a later international treaty freed it for distribution, so his first non-propaganda releases were set against the backdrop of a defeated nation worn down by its loss. Yet these earlier films carry a distinctively optimistic tone, perhaps reflecting the philosophy of the writer / director at that time in his life. In No Regrets for Our Youth, a young woman carries out her duty towards her radical, idealistic husband's legacy and moves out to his family farm to help grow their crops in the face of the community's anger at his perceived treachery against national interests; she earns the family's respect and herself learns to love manual labor (the film is notable as about the only time Kurosawa paints a realistic and positive portrait of a female character; usually they're characterized by highly inappropriate and hysterical laughter). Other films from the same period highlight the relationship between two central characters, whether it's a poor couple learning to find happiness despite poverty, a doctor and his recalcitrant patient, or a veteran cop mentoring a younger one. The medical theme in particular recurs throughout this phase. Perhaps the Kurosawa tendency to shroud his protagonists in brusqueness (to the point of rudeness) and opaque motives pierced by moments of extreme compassion are best narratively served by clearly intelligent and skilled medical professionals who must meld bedside manner with technique well beyond the laymen's grasp.

Rashomon, Kurosawa's first period piece, won him international attention for its brilliant story, told from each major character's perspective, none of them recognizable as The Truth, a postmodern conundrum faced at each level of society - what was the huge international war we just lost really about? - but never illustrated in quite such a form. For the next decade and a half, early period Kurosawa turns out a number of positivist masterpieces, films that are rewarding and generally uplifting to the viewer, and while not all the protagonists survive, the optimism is omnipresent. It's in these films that his collaboration with the inimitable actor Toshiro Mifune developed and multiplied. The two together made masterpieces, including The Seven Samurai, Ikiru (one of my absolute favorites), and Yojimbo. He develops themes of the strong protecting the weak and moral uprightness fighting against corporate and criminal bullies. This is strong material in today's climate of Anonymous, Occupy, etc.

The end of this positivist phase is marked by Red Beard, the last time Kurosawa and Mifune would work together, his final film in black and white, and the end of his prolific run of movie making. In the final three decades of his life, Kurosawa made just seven films, compared to 23 in his first two. And, as alluded to, these films are more challenging to watch and are no longer so easily labeled as positive, some of them ranging into to downright nihilism. Kurosawa attempted suicide during these years as his work failed to achieve commercial success and made making his films much more difficult to produce. This despite earning deep critical respect from today's respected elders of American film, including Spielberg, Coppola, and Lucas, who dominated the 70's through the 90's and who all helped to bring Kurosawa some of the funding needed to put him back behind the camera.

These films defy categorization, from the junkyard neighborhood vignettes of Dodesukaden to the nearly dialogue-free Siberian countryside of Dersu Uzala and the carnage-strewn and hopeless period tragedies Kagemusha and Ran. Kurosawa still tells his stories masterfully, but he also seems to be fighting against his earlier legacy in both his tone and pushing the envelope in the same fashion, something perhaps unavailable to anybody, even him, given the lengths to which he had already advanced his art.

Kurosawa's final three films are one set of vignettes about his Dreams, affective, creepy, and, in one unsettling short, continuing a theme of terror about nuclear attack and radiation, an accusation about said nuclear attacks on Japanese soil as an American war crime, echoed by Richard Gere's character (his face is so unexpected in this film that the Pretty Woman guy is ultimately a bit hard to buy), and, lastly, Madadayo, about an elderly professor, Kurosawa's avatar, passing on his accumulated anecdotes to students who gather every year to celebrate his impact on their lives. These final films are not his strongest, though I doubt I could be anywhere nearly as useful in my field at the age of 83. Madadayo seems to read as the director's homage to himself, something he'll have to do if nobody else will - but really, why not? He'd already made his name doing things nobody else did to great and enduring success his entire life.

If you feel like watching any, I would start with The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and then Ikiru.

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