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The Director’s Heart: Akira Kurosawa, 1910-1998

The Director’s Heart: Akira Kurosawa, 1910-1998

Articles - Crossing the Line

The essence of a director is more than the sum of
his skills; it’s in the stories he chooses to tell. Throughout
50 years of filmmaking, Akira Kurosawa’s reputation as a superior
craftsman was never in dispute. It’s as evident in the panoramic
sweep of his battle scenes as it is in the poetic grace with which
he could denote the passage of time. But his enthusiasm for the
possibilities of his art went beyond a mastery of technique. Kurosawa,
who died in September of a stroke at the age of 88, saw film as
a dynamic and versatile language with which he could praise the
forces of nature, decry the evils of man, shed light on the problems
of his country, and celebrate the resilience of the spirit.

"The root of any film project for me is this
inner need to say something," he once wrote. Whether a samurai
epic or a modern detective story, what he had to say always revolved
around the conflicts that thrived in the hearts of his characters:
dreams vs. duty; honor vs. self-interest; nobility vs. survival.
In each of his 30 films he gave voice to these elemental struggles-the
tug-of-war in the soul of life out of which all things flow.

With the acclaim that followed the international
release of his masterpiece Rashomon in 1951, and The Seven Samurai
three years later, Kurosawa became better known in the West than
any other Japanese filmmaker. His popularity awakened the rest
of the world to Japan’s film industry, while eliciting respect
and homage for his own work from filmmakers abroad. The Seven Samurai
inspired The Magnificent Seven in 1960, while another samurai film,
Yohimbo (itself based on Dashiell Hammett’s "Red Harvest")
was the basis for Sergio Leone’s 1964 western, A Fistful of Dollars.
While a handful of Japanese critics frowned on Kurosawa’s kinship
with American westerns and film noir, the director considered the
opportunity to link together traditions as culturally distinct
as the Japanese Noh play and the American gangster film part of
the power and pleasure of making movies.

Dreams

"I am a man who likes Sotatsu, Gyokudo and
Tessai in the same way as Van Gogh, Lautrec and Rouault," he
told his critics. "In short, the Western and the Japanese live
side-by-side in my mind naturally, without the least sense of conflict."

He was born in 1910, in Tokyo’s Omori district, the
youngest of eight children. His father, a teacher, took his family
to the movies often because-contrary to the opinions of his fellow
teachers-he believed they had "educational value." Although
the young Kurosawa would later frequent the silent-movie house
where his older brother Heigo worked as a benshi, narrating foreign
films for audiences, he considered movies little more than a pleasant
diversion. His own artistic aspirations were as a painter. Although
he failed the entrance exam to art school at 17, he painted on
his own and was good enough to have two of his works exhibited.

For a while he led a bohemian life, painting and
sketching, immersing himself in the writings of Dostoevsky and
Gorki (whose works he would later film), and living cheaply with
friends whose leftist activities occasionally drew the wrath of
the police. Kurosawa’s own politics were less dogmatic. He was
an artist first-albeit an increasingly frustrated one, unable to
break through to what he felt was a strong personal style.

Dreams

By the age of 22, he wrote in his 1982 memoir,
Something Like an Autobiography, "I lost confidence in my abilities,
and the act of painting became painful for me." After working
a few years as a commercial artist, he answered an ad placed by the
Photo Chemical Laboratory, a new film company looking for assistant
directors. Applicants were to submit an essay on "the fundamental
deficiencies" of Japanese films and what they’d do to correct
them. The assignment, Kurosawa later admitted, appealed to his "sense
of mischief." Inspired as well by the memory of his brother
Heigo (he’d committed suicide three years earlier, after the advent
of talking pictures had eliminated the need for benshi,), the keen-witted
25-year-old Kurosawa, who’d spent so much of his leisure time watching
films, wrote the essay that was to launch him into the world of making
them. His earliest successes were as a screenwriter, winning two
awards from the Ministry of Education before directing his first
feature in 1943. Based on a novel about the origins of judo, Sanshiro
Sugata focuses on the relationship between a student and his teacher. "I
like unformed characters," Kurosawa said at the age of 72. "This
may be because, no matter how old I get, I am still unformed myself." The
beginner "entering the path to perfection" was one of his
favorite themes. His best treatment of it is the poignant and intricately
constructed Ikiru (1952), the tale of a dying civil servant determined
to do something meaningful with his final days. A story of spiritual
rebirth, Kurosawa also made Ikiru to criticize the disregard Japanese
bureaucrats had for the people they were hired to serve.

Kurosawa believed the director’s role encompassed
every aspect of production, from coaching the actors to mixing
the sound. While his painter’s sensibilities were responsible for
the stunning visuals that many regard as his claim to genius, he
was also an excellent editor with an intuition for rhythm and timing.
(1963’s High and Low contains some of his finest work in this area.)
On all his productions, he’d do a nightly rough-cut of each day’s
shooting to give himself, his cast and crew an immediate idea of
the direction a film was taking.

Akira Kurosawa

His grasp of all the aspects of film reached its
first zenith in The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s personal rebellion
against the "wholesome" oversimplicity which he felt characterized
most Japanese films. For Samuari’s monumental battle sequences, which
he knew would be impossible to match-cut in the way he envisioned
them, he used three cameras running simultaneously:

"I put the A camera in the most orthodox positions,
used the B camera for quick, decisive shots and the C camera as
a kind of guerrilla unit." He would continue to make use of
this technique for the remainder of his career, even in films where
the action level was low, because he found it allowed his cast
to be more natural. "With multiple moving cameras," he
pointed out, "the actor has no time to figure out which one
is shooting him.

Kurosawa could be a tough man to work for, storming
off projects when things didn’t suit him, and having sets torn
down if the slightest detail was wrong. He treated his actors gently,
yet could demand Promethean efforts of them as well, as during
the filming of Throne of Blood (1957), when he insisted that Toshiro
Mifune wear a protective vest and be shot with real arrows.

He was no more demanding on his cast and crew than
he was on himself. In 1970, after years of difficulty raising money
for his projects, he made Dodes’kaden, about the inhabitants of
a Tokyo slum. The film, though one of his most heartfelt, got tepid
reviews and, for the first time in his career as a director, lost
money. The following year, despondent and suffering from a chronic
stomach ailment, he attempted suicide by slashing himself 22 times
on the arms, hands and neck. Discovered by his maid in a blood-filled
bathtub, he eventually recovered not only his health and spirits,
but his career. In 1972 he received an offer from the Soviet Union
to write and direct anything he liked. The resulting project, Dersu
Uzala, took four years to complete, and won an Oscar for Best Foreign
Language Film. He would make five more films before he died. Among
them, Ran (1985) and Dreams (1990) stand out as two of the most
visually arresting of all time.

Kurosawa’s staff sometimes referred to him as kaze-otoko,
or "wind man." The name dates back to his first directorial
effort, Sanshiro Sugata. The final sequence, a magnificently staged
fight to the death between two martial-arts masters, takes place
in a wind-swept field in which the combatants are all but obscured
by the tall, swaying grasses that envelop them. The human drama
Kurosawa creates by allowing us only a few glimpses of the fighters’
flying limbs is enhanced, then ultimately dwarfed, by the overpowering
presence of the punishing wind with which they both must contend.

In this one scene, barely five minutes of film, Kurosawa
shows us that the greatness which would follow over the next half-century-the
fluency with visual issues/31/images, the instinct for knowing whether to
make a scene unfold, or explode-had already taken root. And it’s
here that he begins to explore the relationship that would fascinate
him for the rest of his career, the one between man and nature.

In all of his films, Kurosawa delighted in framing
his characters against vast backdrops of sky-not merely for the
beauty shot, but to contrast the scope of man’s endeavors with
the enormity of the world around him. Likewise, it is hard to think
of another director who managed to use rain with such success as
both a narrative and pictorial device. It provides the veil of
uncertainty through which much of Rashomon is told; carries us
into the netherworld in the opening segment of Dreams; engulfs
the savage necessity of the climactic battle in The Seven Samurai.
It’s easy to come away from Kurosawa’s films with renewed awe for
the power and magnitude of nature. If we allow them to show us,
in nature’s beauty and terror, in its ability to destroy and restore,
a perfect reflection of ourselves, then we’ll begin to have some
understanding of what was in the director’s heart all along. MM

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