Akira Kurosawa — Composing Movement
"Akira Kurosawa — Composing Movement" (h/t Batocchio at Vagabond Scholar)
by Gaius Publius
Akira Kurosawa is a master director in the same sense that Shakespeare is a master writer and Beethoven a master composer — every part in place, complex in ways that can defy reason, yet accessible and popular to the point of being, almost, a cliché. Immensely popular, yet undeniably in the top rank of the top rank. Who said great art can't delight masses of people? Yet few of the great ones accomplish what these artists have done.
So because it's Friday and the weekend looms, I'd like take a break from California drought news to present the short film above, an examination of Kurosawa's visual mastery that will delight and inform — perhaps even open your eyes to why Kurosawa, so popular, is also so good.
If you haven't heard of him, Kurosawa is most famous for his samurai films starring the amazing Toshiro Mifune (pictured above and below), including Seven Samurai, which was remade into The Magnificent Seven; Yojimbo, remade into A Fistful of Dollars; Throne of Blood, a remake of Macbeth; and Ran (which Kurosawa considered his masterpiece), a remake of King Lear. Each of these films, plus a few others, are described below.
Toshiro Mifune (right) in Yojimbo (click to enlarge)
If you haven't yet clicked on the video, I urge you to do so. It's eight minutes of your life you'd gladly spend the same way twice. Kurosawa is a delight, magnificent as a visual filmmaker, and this "video essay" by Tony Zhou — "Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement" — is the best teaching film I've seen. Be sure to full-screen it. You won't be sorry. (For more of Tony Zhou, see his Tumblr blog, Every Frame a Painting, and his YouTube channel of video essays.)
A Guide to Six of Kurosawa's Best
From the same Batocchio (the "Vagabond Scholar") who provided the Tony Zhou link, but from a different post, I offer this, a guide to several of Kurosawa's best. There's more at the link. This discussion is from a longer one called "The Key Nine" — all are worth your attention. Batocchio, in a very fine piece of film characterization, writes:
Rashomon (1950): A rape and murder occur in the forest, but the four different accounts of these events conflict. What's truth and what's perception? This film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an Academy Award, establishing Kurosawa's international reputation. Its core device has been copied many times since.I deliberately included one of Kurosawa's contemporary-era films, Ikiru, in the discussion above. There are several others worth your time to discover. Check out the description of Dreams, one of his last films, at the same link as the above.
Ikiru (To Live, 1952): A petty bureaucrat discovers he's terminally ill, and turns first to hedonism but then struggles to find some deeper meaning or last gesture. This one starts slowly, but is well worth the time, with a great performance by long-time Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura. There's some funny and occasionally very dark satire in this one, including a wonderful bureaucracy montage. (There's also a scene of overacting that makes me wince, but hey, it was the young actress' first film.) The story cycles around and ever closer in on Kanji Watanabe (Shimura), building in emotional power. There's a scene in a park near the end that's one of the most moving I've ever seen. It's true of many Kurosawa films, but this one will really stay with you.
Seven Samurai (1954): One of the greats. Poor farmers recruit samurai to protect them from 40 bandits intent on stealing their harvest. This was often called an "eastern Western," and many an action film and buddy film owes it a debt. Even though the full version runs 207 minutes, it clips along, because there's so much energy, humor in between the drama, and we really come to care about the characters and their fates. Takashi Shimura as the unflappable lead samurai Kambei and Toshiro Mifune as the manic Kikuchiyo are standouts. This one's been remade several times, most notably as The Magnificent Seven. (A Bug's Life also borrows from it, although very loosely!)
Throne of Blood (1957): Kurosawa's version of Macbeth, incorporating elements of Noh theater. It features an intense Toshiro Mifune and very controlled Isuzu Yamada as his wife. The supernatural scenes are effectively creepy (with some great lengthy camera shots) and the climax is unforgettable. Many critics consider this one of the great Shakespeare films, probably because Kurosawa keeps Macbeth's core story and drama but delivers the visual equivalent of poetry. Noted stage director Peter Brook hated it, however, because it didn't use Shakespeare's actual text. I've read that this was one of T.S. Eliot's favorite films, but have never been able to confirm that. (The actual title in Japanese translates closer to "Castle of the Spider's Web.") ...
Yojimbo (The Bodyguard, 1961): A nameless, scruffy ronin hires himself out to two rival gangs who've overrun a town nominally run by corrupt officials. He plots to set them against each other and themselves, and as Pauline Kael put it, he becomes a bodyguard who kills the bodies he's hired to guard. As with many Japanese "action" films of the era, this has long stretches of drama and anticipation, punctuated by short bursts of action and violence. The same rhythm's in most of Sergio Leone's films, who remade this one as A Fistful of Dollars (and Walter Hill remade it as Last Man Standing, inviting Kurosawa to the premiere). I never get tired of this film, which has some very dark comedy, starting with the very tiny dog near the start (you'll see). Kurosawa really exploits the scope format in this one, and luckily the old, horrible pan-and-scan video versions are largely gone now. I've read one analysis that makes the case that Kurosawa was in part satirizing the film studio heads with whom he often clashed. Mifune's character was a strong departure from the then-common portrayal of samurai as upright, clean, and outwardly noble. He reprised his cool, unassuming warrior in many other films even if his character name changed, and John Belushi based his SNL samurai sketches on him. ...
Ran (War/Chaos, 1985): Kurosawa does King Lear, mixed in with some Japanese history, a new invented subplot and some of his own notions on loyalty. This one starts slowly but builds in power. Seriously, see this on a big screen if you can – the use of color and the scope of the first epic battle sequence and its aftermath are simply stunning. Several sequences and images are unforgettable, and Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) is one of the great screen villains. (Lady Macbeth ain't got nothing on her – watch that grasshopper! And don't forget the tale of the stone fox.) Kurosawa considered this one his masterpiece, but also noted that while it was the culmination of his life's work, it was not the conclusion. DVD notes – the Fox Lorber transfer is notoriously bad. The Masterworks version is much better, but Amazon reviewers rate the Criterion version (which I don't currently own) as the best. That DVD package also includes Chris Marker's documentary on the making of the film, AK, which is worth a look. ...
Toshiro Mifune, detail from the Yojimbo poster
If you watched Kurosawa films growing up — because, samurai! — you grew up loving them. I hope Tony Zhou's video essay helps you see what you missed before. You'll enjoy them that much more. It's a terrific examination of Kurosawa's visual mastery.