When I was growing up in Cincinnati a good day was school skipped and a matinée at The Movies, a great repertory cinema downtown. This was the kind of theater that showed, along with first runs, Quadrophenia at midnight on Thanksgiving or Aguirre: The Wrath of God on a Monday afternoon. It was 1986 and I saw an ad for Akira Kurosawa’s Ran in the paper. I knew it was based on Shakespeare and was set in feudal Japan (or among samurais as I would have thought then) and not much more. I had certainly never seen a Kurosawa movie and probably not many foreign films either. I was blown away (the colors! the clouds!) and skipped school several more times during the run to see it (though one, admittedly, only served as space for a teen-age make-out session). To this day the film’s score will stop me in my tracks. I began to proselytize for the Church of Akira almost immediately.
All that skipping was dooming my high school career, but I was coming to reject such a career anyway. Like most teens I wanted to get away, to see the world. Politics or artists like Kurosawa were capable of opening far more vistas to me than the Cincinnati Public Schools, where young people were warehoused, ever could. Each first viewing of a film contained revelations, repeated viewings more. I would end up seeing most of his catalog several times, often hitting the rare video store in the college neighborhood that carried international fare with a good friend. Though our preference for Kurosawa’s periods differed, our appreciation of the Master grew with each new discovery. We still discuss Kurosawa all these years later. We probably always will.
I may be one of the few people with a Kurosawa tattoo. Years after Ran came out I was working at a tattoo shop and hanging out one evening with an artist, a gifted artist, and we watched Ran twice in a row together all the while he was sketching with chalk and getting lit. At the end of the night he felt compelled to tattoo the picture he saw. I couldn’t refuse; the moment demanded it. I proudly wear his artwork now, it’s a masterpiece in itself. Later on, traveling through Kyushu in Japan I hiked the volcanic Mt. Aso where some of the stunning battle scenes of the film were shot. A great experience. My two most prized possessions are original Japanese posters of Red Beard, a wonderful film about a doctor to peasants starring the incomparable Toshiro Mifune, and Ran. I could go on, such has been my passion for Kurosawa’s films.
In no order here are my top ten Kurosawa films: High and Low, Ran, Yojimbo, Stray Dog, Red Beard, Dersu Uzala…wait, this isn’t working. Looking at a list of his films, I can’t choose. An artist that creates not a single masterwork but many, and in such different periods of a career and life, should be viewed as a whole. Kurosawa’s development, from early optimism (when he joined the Proletarian Artists League and was a fellow traveler of the Communist Party) to the sorrowed pessimism of his twilight, is a single journey. One that has to be taken in its entirety if it is to be fully appreciated, to accompany us on our own journeys.
And a what a beautiful journey it is! Kurosawa first painted many of the scenes that would populate his films. Nearly every frame is exquisite, some scenes produce awe. His later action sequences are perfectly realized ballets, but ballets of blood; spellbound, you are forced to watch the horror. They are the exact opposite of, Saving Private Ryan because there are no heroes, only a writhing mass of victims.
His early action sequences are as masterfully wrought, but are also imbued with a sanguinity he would come to lose. The final battle in the Seven Samurai is still unequaled in emotional intensity and unlike later Kurosawa in this battle there are heroes. You don’t just root for the villagers, you stand with them, sharing their combat. The images conjured by Kurosawa strike deep and remain with you. There are silences in Kurosawa, the images acting as metaphors for feelings we don’t quite have words for. A relatively simple scene in Kagemusha in which a priest opens a window to frame the snow and mountains outside is jaw dropping in its precision and elegance, but it is the emotions conjured that haunt.
I find Kurosawa to be such a sympathetic person. Kurosawa was the most human and personal of directors; it’s why he translates so well. He was also remote, though I’ve never found him aloof, at least as an artist. In some ways his personality is totally modern; the alienated man. Kurosawa was an artist whose work will long be a reference for a century he helped to define. That we should be so selfish and so self-destructive was a deep disappointment to Kurosawa. His personal life contained all of the tragedy and despair inherent to this mortal coil; in the early 70s he slashed his own throat and wrists. As a young man Kurosawa’s brother Heigo would succeed in committing suicide. That an artist of such gifts would not want to live; such is the human condition. In work like Ikiru he focused on the individual asserting their humanity, the assertion being a confirmation of it. In his later years his views of our species soured. He was tormented by the threat of nuclear annihilation and our war against nature; it invaded his dreams. Nightmares he shared.
I wouldn’t dare to write a review of Kurosawa or attempt to place him culturally more than I already have. Others have done that and will do that way better than I, who am just a big fan. If you’ve yet to enter the world of Kurosawa or have only just visited, you could do far worse with your time than investigating this giant of 20th century art. The mirror he holds up may reflect more darkness than light, but it is the light that allows us to see in the dark. Below is a lament and an affirmation, the watermill sequence from Dreams. An old man rues that in destroying nature we are destroying ourselves, that the light of our cities prevents the darkness needed to see the stars. A funeral procession follows, but it is a joyous celebration. Youtube does no justice to Kurosawa (he filmed for the screen). Most of his films have been restored and released on DVD, the Criterion Collection being the place to go.
To The Maestro on his one hundredth birthday, long will he live.