A woman is frantically pacing around a bare courtyard. She is drenched in sweat, shaking a talisman at the sky and at the earth — suddenly, she drops it and stands still. She races toward the camera, hesitates as if about to divulge a painful secret, and opens her mouth. But the voice we hear is that of a man's spirit, traveling from another world: "I am in darkness now."
This chilling image is one devastating moment among many in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, the 1950 film that won the Venice Film Festival's first prize and announced his career to the world. (In America, it was the first Japanese film to win the Academy Award for a foreign film.) For an artist so skilled at pure storytelling, he created an astonishing number of images that linger in the viewer's mind.
Kurosawa (1910-1998), like so many artists who went on to greatness in other fields, wanted to be a painter. But at a critical point in his life (both his brothers had died, leaving him as the only son), he was plagued with doubt on two fronts: He felt he was incapable of developing a singular personal vision as a painter, and he worried that he'd never make a living at it. One day he came across an ad in which a film studio was recruiting assistant directors; the first phase of the application was to write an essay about the deficiencies of the Japanese cinema, suggesting ways in which those aesthetic problems could be fixed. (Hey — that's just how Hollywood recruits folks today!)
After making a few films in the constrictive atmosphere accompanying WWII, Kurosawa made Rashomon (on DVD from the Criterion Collection), which was groundbreaking in more ways than one. As even many non-film buffs know, the story is structured in such a way that it forces the audience to question everything it is told. Four versions of a rape/murder are played out before us, with the action itself restaged as each narrator speaks. Even today — after half a century in which "the Rashomon effect" has been a common narrative device — movie audiences tend to accept what they see at face value; in 1950, a challenge to that tendency was a shock.
But Kurosawa wasn't the kind of artist who was satisfied with one level of reinvention. Very subtly, he used the image itself to challenge the audience: As each of Rashomon's narrators begins his testimony, he sits in an open courtyard with no visual distractions, addressing the camera directly. Though we may not understand it consciously, this cut-and-dry set-up encourages us to accept the testimony. The director then shows us the action his narrator describes, which should further cement the truth of the story — but all the action takes place in a sun-dappled forest, where leaves and their shadows make both image and action difficult to digest. The film's story, technique, and underlying philosophy combine to create an enigma that has tantalized audiences for more than half a century.
Rashomon alone might have ensured Kurosawa's critical standing, but it wasn't long before he was making the films that guaranteed a long-lived popular following. Seven Samurai (Criterion) was released four years later, and stands as a paradigm of the action film. The film's bold visual style and thrilling action sequences have made it a classic even among those who have little patience for art cinema, and the elements of the story (seven rogues save a town that isn't exactly full of innocents) were universal enough to inspire one of Hollywood's most enduring Westerns, The Magnificent Seven.
North America wasn't the only continent to raid Kurosawa's work for inspiration. Italian director Sergio Leone, in his breakthrough Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars, copped liberally from Kurosawa's 1961 Yojimbo (Criterion). (Walter Hill did, too, in the Bruce Willis vehicle Last Man Standing.) It's entirely possible that Clint Eastwood would have become a star without the Man With No Name persona, but chances are we owe a movie icon to Kurosawa and Toshiró Mifune, who played the part of the masterless samurai in Yojimbo. Here, Mifune finds himself caught in a turf war where both sides deserve to lose. In what seems to be nihilism but really demonstrates the character's ideals, he plays one side against the other until the village is devastated.
Kurosawa and Mifune revisited this character in Sanjuro, a far more comic picture, in which the wandering swordsman finds himself leading a band of idealistic but naïve samurai who want to root out corruption in their clan. Mifune swaggers and shrugs through the role, casually explaining how every brave act the youngsters make is a blunder. Again, he's hardly a typical hero, but he saves the day. Together, these films are probably the most entertaining and accessible point of entry for Kurosawa newcomers.
They also highlight the strengths of Mifune, who made 16 films with the director and is as inseparable from his reputation as Marcello Mastroianni is from Fellini, or Cary Grant from Hitchcock. Or, in a more telling comparison, John Wayne from John Ford. Kurosawa was heavily influenced by Ford's work, and fully aware of the correlation between his take on the samurai myth and Ford's on the world of the cowboy. Mifune's imposing physical presence, his fierceness (in Sanjuro, he takes one angry step forward and 50 warriors jump back — and you believe it), and his ability to inject self-aware humor into his performance all echo Wayne's work; never mind that Mifune went on, in films such as Red Beard (just out from — you guessed it — Criterion), to demonstrate more depth than action films demand of an actor.
Kurosawa drew on more English-language sources than the Western, though. He made a modern crime story in High and Low (Criterion), based on an Ed McBain novel, and updated Shakespeare's Macbeth for the vicious Throne of Blood. Even Yojimbo, which the West adapted, bears a striking similarity to Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, though the filmmaker refused to acknowledge any influence. In Japan, this sensibility hurt Kurosawa's reputation; his countrymen seemed to want their artists to speak for and to them alone.
In the '70s, Kurosawa suffered, thanks both to Japan's underrating of his work and to an aborted attempt to work with Hollywood on Tora! Tora! Tora! But the influence he'd had on these shores worked to his advantage: American filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas (whose Star Wars borrowed heavily from Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress) produced the director's comeback Kagemusha, paving the way for the King Lear adaptation Ran (DVD, Wellspring) as well as more personal films in the '90s: Dreams, Rhapsody in August, and Madadayo. (Throughout most of this period, Kurosawa shared directing responsibilities with his former assistant Ishiró Honda — though this was never reflected in the credits.)
Whatever his nation thought of him, Akira Kurosawa is their most treasured cinematic export, giving the West both a taste of Japanese culture and a sense that it's not as alien from our own as we might have thought. And he did it with an artistry that was second to none. Not bad for a man who didn't think he quite had the stuff to make it as a painter.
TEXAS PUBLIC RADIO'S CINEMA TUESDAYS: DERSU UZALA
7:30pm Tuesday, July 30, $10 members, $12 non-members
AMC Huebner Oaks
I-10 W. & Huebner Road
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