Director: Akira Kurosawa

by | Apr 27, 2020 | 0 comments

A Review of First Half of the Japanese Auteur’s Career

A war always has an incredible ripple effect on a society. From the trauma of violence and loss, to the psychological scars that breed fear and selfishness for one’s own protection. After the defeat of Japan in World War II, Japanese society was left in ruins both literally and emotionally. In the subsequent decade the country would continue to be torn between those that accepted the new American-leaning perspective of Japan, while others harkened back to the days of empire. Through it all the pessimism was battled by Japan’s artists of the time, most notably Akira Kurosawa in cinema. Cinema had become one of the major pastimes for Japanese since the pre-war period, and Kurosawa was just getting his footing as a director in the war years, allowing him to start his bolder ventures in the 1950s.

After the incalculable cruelties that were seen in war, there is no doubt that a large portion of the world, including the Japanese, lost its faith in humanity and in the power of empathy. That is why Kurosawa’s early films seem to be specifically directed towards softening this human pessimism. This results in many of Kurosawa’s films starting with an extremely skeptical point of view, but the characters and tone are mellowed into a touchingly selfless aura by the end. This will be apparent in the four films being discussed: Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961).

Rashomon is the first of these films, adapted from the 1920s short story “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The film essentially centers around the case of a murder. We are told of this murder by a lumberjack, who found the body. The facts as we find them are that a couple was walking through the forest when they encounter a famed bandit. From then on, all we know is that the male partner of the couple is killed. As viewers, receive multiple accounts of what happened, unable to trust any of the versions shown – even the supposed “truthful” one in the finale is littered with select omissions. This exploration of truth is a fascinating look at how facts and history are established, something very conflicting coming about right after a war, where the history and “bad guys” are being written about and decided by the victorious armies. In fact, the actual story of what happened in the forest is so diluted by second-hand accounts that it is hard to trust any of the statements made. We viewers are told this story through Kurosawa himself, the lumberjack who heard these witnesses at the trial, who in turn might or might not have seen the actual murder. However, Rashomon goes beyond this simple analysis of how history and narrative work; rather it is showing the pessimistic view in which many Japanese saw society: as selfish and full of people that were only self-serving for themselves. This series of lies and contradictions of course contrasts with the supposed justice system in the story.

Ingeniously Kurosawa never shows the supposed judges or jury of the case. Instead the witnesses and accused are all declaring their stories straight at the camera: at the viewers themselves. This throws the case onto viewers’ laps, of creating their own meaning of truth themselves, and not letting others create narratives for them. By playing towards this pessimism about human nature, however, Kurosawa smartly burrows under the skeptical armor of viewers of the time and is able to bring about a certain hope and optimism with his final moments of the film. After the lumberjack is found to have been lying with the “true version” of the story, in order to hide the fact that he stole a valuable knife, is given a chance to redeem himself when the men listening to his story find an abandoned baby. The lumberjack, scolded for following the untruthful patterns of the witnesses, offers to care for the baby despite his humble means (he states he already has a number of children). This choice helps not portray any character as a saint, which would have put off viewers, but instead colors them grey, allowing for a redemption to come about from so much selfishness and lies.

This cautious optimism is further explored to a greater extent in Ikiru, which looks at the life of an indifferent government bureaucrat, who after being diagnosed with stomach cancer realizes he has not lived life to its fullest potential (“ikiru” meaning “to live” in Japanese). The film first picks up with a diagnosis of the frustrations of government bureaucracy, as civilian petitions are given the run around through tedious departments, who always kick the can down the road. When our protagonist is given his cancer diagnosis his first instinct is to start reflecting on his own life, realizing the tragedies and saddest moments of his life: adopting an orphaned son, his wife’s death, and his son going to war. At the same time we hear his own son talking to his wife about cashing in on his father’s inheritance and pension plans, showing a heart-breaking greed. This results in our protagonist, Watanabe, looking for a way to squeeze the most he can from life. His search leads him to lavish spending on clothes, drink, and women. But it isn’t until a succession of encounters with an ex-coworker that he realizes that life’s satisfaction is in exploiting what one already has. Thus we see Watanabe throw himself into his governmental work and jumping through many hurdles to try and get a park construction approved for an impoverished neighborhood. It ends up being his last act before he dies, but it leads to the final third of the film where his coworkers, at his funeral, start to theorize about Watanabe’s radical change and whether it is admirable or meaningless. The entire third act is a debate over human nature, whether it was Watanabe’s job to provide for the poor and be selfless, or if he was truly transcending human sacrifice and trying to change bogged institutions. Even the internal debate of his own son seems to fit with this conflict of human “goodness,” made apparent when the son refuses to believe that his father would not have told him about his illness. It is hard for many of the funeral attendees to accept that Watanabe was not looking for attention or drama in his grand finale, something that the capitalistic society has shown to revere. It is because of this seeming lack of logic in Watanabe’s late persistence that he becomes such a symbol of inspiration for his co-workers, albeit fleetingly. In the end we see his “sacrifice” to have little overall effect on how his government department in run, but a sliver of influence is left on a few of his co-workers. This ending, however, is seen as a clear avoidance by Kurosawa at showcasing a solved society with the actions of one man. Instead, this more conflicted finale urges viewers to take action themselves, as Watanabe’s ripples alone are not enough to salvage the greed and indifference of an entire society. By setting a rather slow-burn pace, Kurosawa is able to explore the realistic alternatives that Watanabe could have gone in with the realization of his terminal illness. This allows the final revelations of solidarity and goodness to not appear as cheesy or preachy, but rather as a true fulfillment of Watanabe’s life purpose. This is certainly aided with a heart-wrenching performance from Takashi Shimura, but it is also heightened with the contrast that Kurosawa makes with the materialistic world that is slowly consuming Japan.

After the American occupation of Japan, the Japanese economy soon set to rebuilding and entering the capitalist markets. Kurosawa, however, saw this rapid economic change and surge as being detrimental towards the humanity of the Japanese people. That is why Ikiru is littered with the unfulfillment that materialism and Western capitalism can have on Japan. Throughout Watanabe’s first “night out” we hear American music and are littered with the abilities of purchasing new clothes and lavish drinks. Watanabe comes to a realization that money has little of a role to play in bringing him happiness, it is in his own solidarity to others and in his gentle contemplation of the present that he finds peace. This made most apparent in his slow swinging at his new park as snow falls to the ground on the night of his death. He is completely alone, and yet feeling at ease with himself for the joy and comfort that his efforts will bring to generations of inhabitants. While not a blatant repudiation of “Americanism” in Ikiru, it is a caution against it, against the shiny glimmer of money, which doesn’t bring the completeness that one seeks in life.

Knowing the difficulty that a contemporary Japanese story can have in convincing audiences, Kurosawa chose to give his next film some historical distance from the present in order to provide a space for moralistic clarity. This might have been a motivation to what led to Kurosawa’s undertaking of his most fantastic epic, Seven Samurai. The film, about a group of samurai who choose to help a village of peasants, besieged by bandits, was so influential it has been remade countless times in various countries. The story is set in 16th century Japan, and yet the same themes as were seen in Rashomon and Ikiru make their way in. Even though Rashomon is also set in the past, it doesn’t use history in such a blatant way of distancing as Seven Samurai, instead using it as a way to give the story a fable-like sense.

Given the film’s three-hour length, Kurosawa is able to litter enough action scenes to keep mainstream audiences as interested in the characters, as well as his more paused and contemplative moments. Including so many characters also allows Kurosawa to have a diverse set of personalities, from the wise and contemplative Kambei (played by Takashi Shimura) to the arrogant and bombastic Kikuchiyo (played by Japanese legend Toshiro Mifune). This in turn gives Kurosawa the ability to show how a wide array of different perspectives can all be mellowed into doing a solidary act, such as defending the peasant village for nothing in return. Not even the sought glory that samurai stories usually have is given here as a motivation for any of the seven to defend the village. This is one of the frustrating aspects that taints many of the remakes, which give the “saviors” more materialistic motivations to fight. However, Kurosawa doesn’t paint any of his characters as saints either; he keeps all of the characters and groups in a spectrum of grey area. Even the bandits are shown pity, with the merciless execution of one by a crowd of villagers. The scene showcases the rage that each side can have toward one another, but the slaughter still horrifies viewers no matter whose side one is on. The peasants are further colored grey, when shown that they would frequently pursue wounded samurai in the past and finish them off for their armor and weapons. This angers the seven samurai set to defend them, but it is the bombastic Kikuchiyo who defends the peasants, claiming that after so much suffering, rape, and murder, how did the samurai expect peasants to react? It is a brilliant display of the endless cycle of violence, where one can’t quite pinpoint who began all the slaughter, but it is clear that it is a contagious chain of revenge. The cruelties are shown to be perpetrated on both sides, with an expedition of peasants and samurai burning the bandits and their captured women alive in their cabin as the most blatant blurring of moralistic lines.

Kurosawa thus seeks to indicate that things are not as clear “good” and “bad” as one might have expected. But the core message of the film is more focused on how the samurai sacrifice themselves for practically nothing in return, not honor, money, or even love; only because it was the right thing to do. As a result, the last line of the movie indicates that the samurai had lost the battle too (after four of the seven are killed), with the peasants being the only real victors.

The messages here could be directed to a number of people or institutions, be it the triumph of the proletariat (Kurosawa was known to be in left wing groups in his youth), the price of exploitation, or selfless sacrifices. The condemnation of capitalism and Americanism finds a way to manifest itself as well, with the use of firearms, which end up being the only thing that kills the benevolent samurai, indicating the destructive power that such imports bring towards the honorable aspects of Japan. Kurosawa again is seeking to show how the individualism that plagued Japanese society needed to be overturned for the good of everyone.

Kurosawa would not return to the samurai “genre” until Yojimbo seven years later. However, this would prove to be a more extreme and different film than the delicate balance of Seven Samurai. Yojimbo shows a nameless samurai as he arrives at a town torn between two rival factions. The two warring families are slaughtering each other and the town. Our protagonist thus comes up with ideas to pit the two gangs against each other and destroy each other. This is a more extreme way of thinking of the division of Japanese people and of the cycles of violence. It shows how no side has a moral excuse anymore (as the peasants did have in Seven Samurai). The result is that Kurosawa deems both of the families apt for extermination; which is what ends up occurring in the film. Perhaps I’m reading too deeply into the parallels between the town and its representation of Japan, but Yojimbo seems to be an act of frustration by Kurosawa at the inability for conciliation to occur between the two sides of Japan, and thus his indication for both to be wiped out.

Again, materialism makes a way into the story, as the families deal in the silk, prostitution, sake, and gambling trades, all industries deemed lavish and corruptible. The use of a gun in the film is another allusion to the destructive influences of Americanism, and how they transcend the more “honorable” ways to fight in unfair and consequential ways. In this sense, Yojimbo might be the most subtle socialist film ever made. Kurosawa also seeks to shock his audience in this film with his depiction of violence, which is much more graphic (a severed hand, gallons of blood pouring out), seeking to horrify viewers with the actions of these two gangs and their destructive ability on the Japanese body. Frustrating for the Japanese auteur, his violence depictions actually ended up inspiring more gore-filled Japanese flicks as audience demand grew for it in subsequent years.

All four films show a progression of Kurosawa as a filmmaker seeking to harness a newfound optimism in post-war Japan, only to become frustrated with the new capitalistic system put in place that further bred greed and individualism. Kurosawa proved to be a key player in Japan’s post-war period, having his films showcase many characters who are unabashed by their shows of emotion and their unfiltered recklessness (most embodied by frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune). After so many decades under a rigid and conservative imperial system, to see characters – especially males – so blatant about their vulnerabilities and emotions proved to be revolutionary and liberating for Japanese audience. Kurosawa’s cinema allowed a certain burst of expression and emotion to come forth similar to how Almodóvar would embody the burst of emotion and sexuality in post-Francoist Spain in the 1980s.

The influence of the Japanese auteur on his own domestic culture as well as international cinema is incalculable. He alone was able to provide ample material to keep the Western genre alive in the United States, not only with The Magnificent Seven (1960) remade from Seven Samurai, but Yojimbo also helped spark the Sergio Leone trilogy Man with no Name, starting with an almost shot-by-shot remake of the Japanese film in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). That trilogy would go on to launch the career of movie star Clint Eastwood, indirectly thanks to Kurosawa. However, it shouldn’t be discounted that Kurosawa himself was influenced by earlier Western films, and thus confirms a certain cycle of international cinema influencing each other. Whether one can go as far as to say that Kurosawa was able to capture the cinematic pulse of Japan in the post-war year, one can certainly admit his influence and careful perspective of the dangers of the New Japan ended up capturing a desperation of hope that is still resonant all these decades after.

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