Obituary: Akira Kurosawa
Monday 07 September 1998
WHAT IS CINEMA? The answer to this question is no easy matter. Long ago the Japanese novelist Shiga Naoya presented an essay written by his grandchild as one of the most remarkable prose pieces of his time. He had it published in a literary magazine. It was entitled "My Dog", and ran as follows: "My dog resembles a bear; he also resembles a badger; he also resembles a fox . . ." It proceeded to enumerate the dog's special characteristics, comparing each one to yet another animal, developing into a full list of the animal kingdom. However, the essay closed with, "But since he's a dog, he most resembles a dog."
I remember bursting out laughing when I read this essay, but it makes a serious point. Cinema resembles so many other arts. If cinema has very literary characteristics, it also has theatrical qualities, a philosophical side, attributes of painting and sculpture and musical elements. But cinema is, in the final analysis, cinema.
If there exists a cinema to which all of these attributes pertain, one which nevertheless remains supremely cinematic, it is that of Kurosawa himself. In a career spanning 50 years he made several films of literary inspiration, including adaptations of Dostoevsky (The Idiot), Gorky (The Lower Depths) and Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, a chillingly powerful version of Macbeth), others which consciously emphasised a fundamental and pervasive theatricality through the use of stylised studio sets (e.g. Dodes 'Ka-Den, 1970), others belonging to what Westerners would regard as an oddly European tradition of philosophical humanism (e.g. Ikiru, 1952, a memorable portrait of a dying man's last, humanitarian gesture) and still others for whose multicoloured, sumptuously composed visuals the most accurate term would be "painterly" (e.g. Kagemusha, 1980).
Nor could one deny the sculptural or musical qualities of his films, whether in the powerful physicality with which almost all of his protagonists have been invested (e.g. the feudal overlord of Ran, 1985, spikily caparisoned like a besequinned insect) or in his deployment of narrative threads within a film like leitmotiven (e.g. the quartet of fugually inter-related versions of the "truth" in Rashomon, 1950).
It was Rashomon which, at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, first brought to dazzled Western eyes not only Kurosawa's own brilliance (his film was awarded the Festival's Golden Lion) but the very fact of the Japanese cinema's existence. Yet it was no less than the director's twelfth film preceded in the canon by at least one work arguably its equal, Stray Dog of 1949.
Kurosawa was born in Tokyo in 1910, the youngest of seven children of a veteran army officer. Having failed to make a satisfactory living for himself as a commercial artist (like Eisenstein, the film-maker whose sensibility was closest to his own, Kurosawa was a witty and incisive caricaturist), he was hired in 1936 as assistant director to Kajiro Yamemoto, who became his teacher and mentor. Graduating to the director's chair via a number of screenwriting chores, he made his debut in 1943 with Judo Saga, a well-received melodrama in which his notoriously finicky perfectionism was already in evidence: for a scene in which the hero suicidally leaps into a pond, the tyro director insisted that the sound made by lotus blossoms when they burst open be clearly audible.
Following the international triumph of Rashomon, a film often described as "Pirandellian" for the way in which it explores the ambiguity of reality through the dramatisation of four mutually conflicting accounts of a single incident, Kurosawa quite simply became the most famous Japanese film-maker in the world (even if, for many cinephiles, his reputation would be surpassed by those of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu). Paradoxically, the quality of his work apart, this pre-eminence has derived from the fusion of a hyper-Japanese "exoticism", founded essentially on Samurai history and folklore, with a conspicuous leaning towards Western cultural archetypes, a fusion which has made his films rather more accessible to non-Orientals than those of his compatriots.
Thus, in such Samurai romances as The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), there can be detected the influence (openly acknowledged by Kurosawa) of John Ford's Westerns. Conversely, one of the director's most universally admired films, The Seven Samurai (1954), an epic, three-hour-long tale of a maverick band of mercenaries who ride to the aid of a tiny village beseiged by marauding bandits, was remade in Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven; and Rashomon, too, was subsequently Westernised (in both the geographical and generic sense of the word) as The Outrage, though the result in this case was notably less convincing. As for the so-called "spaghetti westerns" of Sergio Leone, they could not have been filmed without the example of Kurosawa's historical epics.
As Kurosawa's prestige increased in the West, however, it began to be eroded in his own country, to the point where, in 1971, having been virtually inactive for a decade, he made a much publicised suicide attempt. For younger Japanese film-makers, especially during the socially divisive period of the late Sixties, he had come to seem aloof and passeist, one of the most visible representatives of a detested Establishment, no longer deigning to direct his fastidiously patrician gaze at the problems besetting the society in which he lived.
For producers he was a cantankerous perfectionist, fewer and fewer of whose increasingly costly films proved to be commercial successes. For audiences he had become an irrelevant anachronism. In fact, so much was Kurosawa the classic "father figure" who has to be "killed" for succeeding generations to breathe more freely, it is possible to interpret Ran - the film which, with Kagemusha, brought the director once more into the forefront of world cinema - as autobiographical in theme. Ran, it should be said, was a (surprisingly faithful) adaptation of King Lear transposed to medieval Japan, in which the play's ungrateful daughters had been turned, significantly, into no less ungrateful sons.
I remember with what impatience I awaited, in 1980 in Kyoto, the first early-morning showing of Kurosawa's latest film, Kagemusha, the first since his 1975 Russian co- production Dersu Uzala, writes James Kirkup. I skipped classes to do so. There was a long queue all round the movie house when I arrived there at 9.30 am for the first screening. I got one of the last seats in the front row.
People of all ages - young, middle-aged and elderly - the sort of generation- bridging audience one used to see at revivals of films by Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse, created a pleasurable sense of tension and expectancy. But when the film started, with a spectacularly cut wild boar hunt, I began to feel a lowering of spirits in the spectators. I admired the pictorial effects of composition and colour in the use of authentic historical costumes and in vivid battle scenes: but that was all. True drama was missing.
The whole movie had a heavy rhythm and an animated waxworks look. The false beards and eyebrows and the coarse-looking wigs were really unconvincing. Something of the static historical epic Dersu Uzala had impeded Kurosawa's usual cinematic sense of flow. That film was the beginning of a decline into pageantry with Ran (1985; an inept version of King Lear), Dreams (1990) and Rhapsody in August (1991). The Master had lost his old incisive touch, and though those films had a respectable success in Japan they were not revived, and stirred little interest abroad: many in the Cannes Festival showing of Dreams slept right through it.
When Madadayo came out in April 1993, I caught an evening show in Nagoya. There were no queues round the block at 6 pm The audience was made up almost entirely of the elderly, and no wonder: today's hardboiled, pragmatic young know nothing about the literary, historical and social background of this film set in the periods before and just after the Pacific War. It was a Japanese "Mr Chips" of appalling old-fashioned sentimentality, and I distrust and resent directors who deliberately set out to bring tears to an audience's eyes. In one of his rare interviews in the popular magazines, Kurosawa stated:
I want to be known as an artisan, not as an artist. A movie should reflect its age. I made Madadayo because of what my granddaughter told me about her life at school today. I wanted to show what edu
cation was like in the old days, and to set an example for teachers at the present time. We can learn a lot from their lessons, but we can learn even more if they will show their essential humility in class. Nowadays that kind of teaching is rare. The old type of friendly relationship between pupils and teacher no longer exists. Teachers now no longer visit pupils' homes, saying they have no time after classes.
From my own experience of teaching in contemporary Japan, I could appreciate in Madadayo the immense gap now separating the standardised learning-by- rote education of today, aimed solely at getting students through certain kinds of tests and final examinations, and the deeply humanistic teaching personified in the film by the old sensei or master in his relationship with the uniformly-dressed, impeccably-behaved pupils in their final year. When he announces his forthcoming retirement, there is the first of the tear-jerking scenes as a student stands up and begs the old teacher to go on teaching, using the word Madadayo, meaning "not yet!" which becomes the leitmotif of the movie.
Such a scene is unimaginable in present-day Japanese schools. It could hardly appeal to the younger generation, and even less to audiences abroad unfamiliar with the social setting. But a certain type of elderly Japanese likes the formalism of such movies, in which they can check from their own lives the details of how one should behave on visiting one's professor, on attending a wedding ceremony or a funeral, or a New Year's Day visit. I could sense the audience's eager eyes on the lookout for errors of etiquette. The sheer physical elements in the wearing of certain clothes and footwear were closely scrutinised, as well as the styles of speech, the modes of respectful address, in the portrayal of which Kurosawa is truly the Master. But these have little interest for Western audiences.
Madadayo was received fairly coolly by the critics in Japan. But it was Kurosawa's 50th anniversary in the world of film: the unforgettable Sanshiro Sugata was made in 1943. So there was much publicity surrounding the event, and I was fortunate to see an opulent retrospective exhibition of "The Emperor's" work in the Hankyu Department Store's art gallery in Osaka.
Kurosawa often stated that he wanted to be a painter, not a director, and always made numerous drawings and paintings in preparation for each scene in his movies. Many of these were on display, and were reproduced as posters or on T-shirts. There were coffee mugs, lighters and so on decorated with a Kurosawa silhouette, and episodes from most of his films were running on video screens along with a recent television interview. But I was struck most of all by the exquisite painted costumes used in his later historical works, and the accompanying accessories and jewellery, made with such care and attention to detail.
On the way out, there was a large photo of Kurosawa flanked by George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg at the Cesar ceremony for Kagemusha. Spielberg had scrawled across the top in thick black marker ink: "Akira, I look at this picture and all I can see is you. With gratitude, Steven Spielberg." But in fact, when I looked at this picture, all I could see was Spielberg's ugly scrawl. It seems significant that Spielberg is said to be contemplating his own re-cut version of Kagemusha, along more acceptable Hollywood lines.
Kurosawa was sacked by Darryl Zanuck from Tora Tora Tora (1970) because of his directorial manner, utterly at variance with local style, and the movie was taken over by Richard Fleischer. In a recent book by his nephew, we are told that Kurosawa "went mad" in the 20th Century-Fox studios and smashed the display cases holding the priceless swords, soldiers' costumes and other documentary equipment he had brought with him from Japan. There were rumours of a suicide attempt on his return to Japan, but I found no evidence for this.
Certainly Kurosawa was at odds with the modern world and the cut-and- dried methods of Western studios, for he liked to do everything himself, thus offending specialists jealous of their camera angles, placing of characters, lighting, close-ups and so on.
One result of this battle with business efficiency in the art of the film was that Kurosawa became a fervent ecologist. He deplored the fact that in Japan nearly all the rivers have had their banks cemented over, so that for a vital scene in Dreams he had what he called "the devil of a job" to find a natural river bank. "There's no scenery left in Japan" he growled. "It's impossible to make samurai movies there now."
He was reported to be difficult in his handling of actors. Shimura Takeshi, the cancer-doomed anti-hero of Ikiru (1952) said that Kurosawa worked with great intensity, creating a tension like that in a fully-drawn bow, so that actors were always wondering when the arrow of the director's anger might be released. But he admitted that in the face of any kind of incompetence the Master's anger was always justified.
Kurosawa was said to be unable to handle women characters, but the best performance in Madadayo comes from a beautiful veteran actress Kyoko Kagawa as the old teacher's wife, a performance of great subtlety and restraint. And in Rhapsody in August there was a wonderful scene of an old woman with a broken umbrella battling her way through a typhoon: she was played by Murase Sachiko. The other good actor in Madadayo was an enormous ginger tom-cat, totally un-selfconscious: but he could not steal his scenes with Kyoko Kagawa. Kurosawa was said to love children as actors. But in his last films, the children look all-too-contemporary, and he cannot accommodate them to the historical backgrounds.
One of Kurosawa's last pronouncements came after praising the mastery of Satyajit Ray's The Stranger (1991), a big theme so simply handled. The Emperor declared that films with too much theorising and pretentious ideological ideas were "the bottom of the bottom" in movies. He saw the end of the world in the death of nature and the exploitation of natural resources, and declared that his last film would be on that theme, and that he would call it The End - the first time "The End" would appear at the beginning of a film. That touch of bitter humour illustrates well the sadness of a great director's final years.
Akira Kurosawa, film director: born Tokyo 23 March 1910; married 1945 Yoko Yaguchi (died 1985; one son, one daughter); died Tokyo 6 September 1998.
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