Programme Note: Akira Kurosawa Centenary
Since the success of Rashoman (1950) at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, which exposed many Western audiences to Japanese cinema for the first time, it has become commonplace to describe its director, Akira Kurosawa, as one of cinema’s great humanists. The word ‘humanist’ is often employed lazily by critics and academics in the ‘West’ to describe and explain the international popularity of foreign filmmakers such as Kurosawa, who achieve success by way of their apparent ability to transcend national boundaries and tastes, and appeal to a ‘universal’ sensibility. Such a characterisation neatly aligns Kurosawa with other great Japanese filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, also renowned for the empathy with which they portray the characters in their films, creating a stereotyped and homogenous vision of postwar Japanese cinema.
The image of Kurosawa that emerges from the films screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre however, to mark the centenary of Kurosawa’s birth, is much more complex. On the one hand, it is an image of a filmmaker deeply in touch with the traditions of Japanese art (including cinema), as well as the social and political milieux of modern Japan. On the other hand, it is an image of a filmmaker not only strongly influenced by foreign cinema and literature, many instances of which provide the basis for some of his most famous works, but also very influential upon the development of other cinemas beyond his homeland of Japan.
A brief survey of some of the films that comprise the forthcoming Kurosawa season serves to illustrate the different understandings of him as a filmmaker outlined above. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) for instance, one of Kurosawa’s earliest works, demonstrates his conscious engagement with the history, codes and conventions of Japanese Kabuki and Noh theatre.
In this adaptation of the Kabuki classic Kanjincho, which is itself an adaptation of the Noh play Ataka, Kurosawa reveals his clear preference for the aesthetics of Noh, taking the play back to what he believed to be its Noh roots. Kurosawa achieves this by employing and emphasising a number of the stylistic traits of Noh (in terms of costume, props and music). Kurosawa’s approach was somewhat radical at the time, given that so many of the characteristics and so much of the terminology of Kabuki informed the development of early Japanese filmmaking. Indeed, as film scholar Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto observes, in its privileging of Noh over Kabuki The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail amounts to no less than a critical, deliberate “re-examining [of ] Japanese cinema and its history.”1
But Kurosawa was not simply concerned with the past. He was also clearly concerned with contemporary social and political issues. Drunken Angel (1948) for example, in addition to being a psychological thriller, represents a stark depiction of poverty in postwar Japan. The devastation caused by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, as well as the paranoia of the Cold War, also loom largely in the background of I Live in Fear (1955), in which the film’s central character is slowly driven mad by the threat of nuclear annihilation. The Bad Sleep Well (1960) meanwhile, made during the same year as the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty, as Rachael Hutchinson has noted, contains a none-too-subtle indictment of the post-Occupation Japanese government’s continued subservience to the US.2
Few filmmakers however, have worn their influences on their sleeve as openly as Kurosawa did, or been as candid about the inspiration they derive from foreign sources. As Kurosawa himself remarked in an interview conducted by Tony Rayns in 1981, extracts of which were recently reprinted in Sight & Sound: ‘I saw hardly any Japanese films when I was young. It was only when I started training to become a director that I saw a lot of Japanese films, first silents, then sound films. There were many fresh and interesting Japanese films in those days, and I learned a lot from them. But I was also very intrigued by the work of important foreign directors like King Vidor, Rouben Mamoulian and William Wyler; their films became an important basis of support for my life afterwards. And I absorbed a lot from the French avant garde and German expressionists.’3
Foreign literary influences, old and new, also abound in Kurosawa’s films. Perhaps most famously, Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985) are interpretations of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear respectively, while High and Low (1963) is an adaptation of American crime writer Ed McBain’s 1959 ’87th precinct’ novel King’s Ransom. The Idiot (1951) meanwhile, is based upon Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel of the same name, as is The Lower Depths (1957) upon the play by Maxim Gorky.
At the same time, there are few filmmakers who have had so visible and widespread an influence upon world cinema as Kurosawa. From European arthouse classics to spaghetti westerns to Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters, films like The Seven Samurai (1954), The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961) provided templates for films as diverse as The Virgin Spring (Bergman, 1960), The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960), A Fistful of Dollars (Leone, 1964) and Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), the last of which, along with Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) completely changed the face of Hollywood filmmaking.
Kurosawa’s films therefore, perhaps ironically, have achieved global success and significance because of their considered particularity, rather than by deliberately appealing to an imaginary set of universal human values. By combining carefully chosen foreign influences with his own knowledge, experience and artistic vision, as well as the invaluable contribution of collaborators such as composer Masaru Sato and art director Yoshiro Muraki, Kurosawa created a body of work that continues to fascinate audiences around the world, straddling boundaries between East and West.
Dr Christopher Gow, University of Glasgow
1 Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema (Duke University Press, 2000), p.111.
2 Hutchinson, Rachael, ‘Orientalism or Occidentalism?: dynamics of appropriation in Akira Kurosawa’ Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film, (Wallflower Press: London; New York, 2006), p.180.
3 Rayns, Tony, ‘Kurosawa: The Last Emperor’ Sight & Sound vol.20, no.7 ( July 2010), p.32.