Film: Riding into the sunrise

Kurosawa created the popular image of what a Japanese film should look like, yet his best-known works were nipponifications of the Hollywood Western.
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AKIRA KUROSAWA, who died last Sunday, was, at least insofar as his reputation in the West is concerned, the most eminent of all Japanese filmmakers. He was arguably, indeed, the most famous of all Japanese artists.

His two most renowned titles, Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, form part of the world's collective heritage of filmic masterpieces and his demise was covered by Britain's newspapers not only on their obituary pages, as one would expect, but, exceptionally for a non-English-language filmmaker, as an item of genuine news, an event of import and interest to more than just the closeted little community of film students. (As ever, though, the British press was outclassed by the cinephilic French. Last Monday's edition of the Parisian daily Liberation devoted no fewer than five pages to his career, garnished with tributes, no less gushing for being brief, from such admirers as Spielberg and even Jacques Chirac. As for Tony Blair, ah well, if it had been one of the Spice Girls...)

Yet if you asked one of those film students, whether a scholar, a historian or just a fanatical buff, to name the finest Japanese director, the answer would be unlikely to be Kurosawa. At least two other candidates would take precedence: Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. For many cinephiles, Kurosawa's work fatally lacks latency. It harbours no shadow-zones of mystery requiring the intervention of some expert interpreter (the movies that buffs love best are those that have to be deciphered) and, perhaps above all, it belongs too much to the public domain. Put bluntly, he has come to be regarded in informed circles as something of a cliche, a director whose worldwide fame and prestige, however merited, have had the irksome consequence of obscuring the immensely rich and multifarious archipelago that is Japanese cinema.

In the arts, and particularly in the cinema, there's nothing unusual about so radical a disseverance of general and specialised taste, but Kurosawa's case is unique. For what it comes down to is that ordinary filmgoers consider him (to the extent that they know his work at all) the most quintessentially "Japanese" of Japanese directors, whereas, for a majority of specialists, he would probably be considered one of the least. Even stranger is the fact that, in a sense, he was both at once.

Take those of his works with which spectators in the West are most familiar, the sequence of Samurai romances: The Seven Samurai, most memorably, but also The Hidden Fortress, Sanjuro, Yojimbo and the two sumptuous sagas of his last years, Kagemusha and Ran. Epic of sweep, picaresque of narrative, imbued with the ostentatiously grandiose values of feudal Japan - courage, self-sacrifice, a stoic submission in the face of death - and stuffed with characters (peasants, warriors, geishas), customs, costumes, exteriors and interiors which could hardly be more alien to contemporary Western experience, they are, in a word, exotic.

Paradoxically, though, it's precisely that exoticism which has made them accessible, more accessible than Mizoguchi's proto-feminist melodramas and Ozu's sublime, static comedy-dramas of domestic minutiae. Or, rather, not so paradoxically, for the exotic is just what we Westerners find most reassuring when confronted by artworks produced by another, bafflingly different society. Kurosawa's films, in short, conform uncannily to just about everyone's off-the-top-of-the-head notion of what a Japanese film should look like.

Yet there's more to it than that. As Wittgenstein once whimsically observed, differences resemble each other more than similarities do. Kurosawa admitted on more than one occasion that he had drawn the inspiration for his Samurai films from Hollywood westerns - most notably those of John Ford - as much as from his own country's medieval folklore. And it's certainly true that the Samurai period occupies much the same position in Japanese history, as also the same myth-generating function in Japanese culture, as the 19th-century settlement of the Western states in American history and culture. What's remarkable in Kurosawa's case, however, is that the traffic travelled in both directions. The Seven Samurai, a film partially modelled on the example of the Hollywood western, was of course subsequently remade as a Hollywood western, John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven. (So, in fact, was Rashomon, by Martin Ritt as The Outrage, though the less said about that the better.)

Nor is that by any means the end of the cultural mirror-effect. In the Sixties, the Italian cinema, having exhausted the always limited appeal of the "peplum", that pseudo-epic genre that specialised in brawny Hercules and Macistes rippling obscene biceps beneath dainty mini-togas, imperturbably started to churn out ersatz Hollywood adventures, the complacently self- styled "spaghetti Westerns". Except that, when one watches these films now - by far the best of them were Sergio Leone's - one is struck by their astonishing resemblance, in both visual style and narrative parameters, not to The Searchers or Rio Bravo but to Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The same lonely, tumbleweedy township beset by opposing gangs of marauding bandits, the same taciturn loner who cavalierly plays one side off against the other (in Kurosawa, it's Toshiro Mifune and, in Leone, it's Clint Eastwood), the same magisterially choreographed violence - everything, superficially, may look different, yet everything, in all its essential tics and tropes, is virtually identical.

Again and again, the potentially alienating effects of what might at a casual glance appear, from a Westerner's point of view, most exotic about Kurosawa's films are neutralised by the sometimes overt, sometimes discreet references to the Western culture that so fascinated their director. Versions of Macbeth and King Lear set in medieval Japan (respectively Throne of Blood and Ran)? Why should that be off-putting to British audiences, for example, who have become used to seeing, on the stages of our national theatres, productions of the same plays set in Little Italy, say, or Auschwitz? (These days, a staging of Macbeth set in Scotland would be nothing short of revolutionary.) Or a cunning pastiche of an Ed McBain procedural thriller relocated in contemporary Tokyo (High and Low)? What could be more postmodern?

It's not surprising, then, that in the closing years of his life, when he started to face horrendous problems setting up his films, Kurosawa was financially and morally aided by such cine-literate Hollywood luminaries as Coppola, Spielberg and George Lucas (in the interstellar jamboree of whose Star Wars trilogy can be detected fleeting traces of Samurai mytho- iconography). In one of the cinema's more implausible casting coups, Martin Scorsese actually played Van Gogh in a garish episode of Dreams, the director's extraordinary, but also extraordinarily uneven, portmanteau fantasy, while Richard Gere, an Armani smile in an Armani suit, made a cameo appearance in the work that followed Dreams in the canon, Rhapsody in August. The circle was complete.

One final point. Just as Kurosawa's own monumental stature has obscured the richness and variety of Japanese cinema, so the richness and variety of his own body of work risks being obscured by the disproportionate attention paid to his historical films. Both now await, and deserve, rediscovery.