THE GREAT TRAILBLAZER
Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking style continues to inspire filmmakers, writes Philippa Hawker
Some celebrated filmmakers can never be taken for granted, no matter how familiar you might be with their work. For Martin Scorsese, this couldn’t be more true of Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese director. “Every time I take a fresh look at [his] images, they shock me, it’s as if I’m experiencing them again for the first time.”
This inventive, elusive filmmaker is the subject of Essential Kurosawa, a season of 10 films selected by Review’s film writer David Stratton, screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne and at the Sydney Film Festival. The season focuses on films from the 1950s and 60s, inevitably highlighting Kurosawa’s collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, one of cinema’s most celebrated and fruitful partnerships. They made 16 films together, seven of which are in the season.
Mifune has a ferocious physicality, something Kurosawa recognised immediately when he saw the actor in an open audition. “The speed with which he expressed himself was astounding,” Kurosawa said, “such that he said in a single action what it took ordinary actors three movements to express.”
Kurosawa cast him as a gangster in the 1947 film Drunken Angel, noting that his charisma was an asset and a burden — it threatened the balance of a movie focused on two very different central characters. “There was no way of preventing him from emerging as too attractive on screen,” he concluded ruefully, “other than keeping him off the screen”.
The earliest work in the season is the still unsettling masterpiece Rashomon. It caused a sensation at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, launching Kurosawa internationally and bringing attention to Japanese cinema in general.
It is easy to reduce its significance to the notion for which its title has become a byword — the idea that different accounts of a single event can be vastly different. The film is almost a prisoner of its reputation: as a narrative device, the so-called Rashomon effect has become commonplace. Yet there’s nothing schematic about the way the film unfolds. Its offkilter, disconcerting approach makes it difficult to pin down or define, well beyond the shifting aspects of its storytelling.
Mifune plays very different characters in Kurosawa’s historical films: he is a bandit in Rashomon, a comic character in Seven Samurai; a feudal lord who has something in common with Macbeth in Throne of Blood, a film that draws equally on Shakespeare and Noh theatre; a heroic general in the exhilarating adventure The Hidden Fortress; a ronin, or wandering samurai, in Yojimbo.
He’s a contemporary character too: in High and Low (1963) — set in the “business is business” world of postwar Japan, and based on an Ed McBain thriller — he plays a shoe company executive whose takeover plan is interrupted by a kidnapping attempt on his son. And in Red Beard — his final film with Kurosawa — he’s an autocratic 19th-century rural doctor.
The contemplative Ikiru (1952) is the only film Kurosawa made between 1948 and 1965 in which Mifune does not appear. Its central character is played by Takashi Shimura, an actor even more ubiquitous than Mifune in Kurosawa’s body of work: he appeared in 22 of his movies, including his first feature.
Ikiru, inspired by Tolstoy’s The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, explores the fate of an ailing bureau- crat whose impending death gives him a belated impetus to find meaning in life.
Many filmmakers outside Japan claim Kurosawa as an influence, many indirectly, some directly. The Hidden Fortress is widely acknowledged as an influence on Star Wars; Yojimbo was a model for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars; Seven Samurai has twice been remade as The Magnificent Seven. Intriguingly, Vince Gilligan, creator of TV’s Breaking Bad — in which a high-school chemistry teacher with inoperable cancer decides to assure his family’s future by producing and selling crystal meth — cited Ikiru as an influence. He said in a radio interview that his show shares its central premise: “If we found out the exact expiration date on our lives ... that would free us up to do bold and courageous things, good or bad things.”
For Kurosawa, things changed after Red Beard (1965), which ran over budget and overtime and caused a rupture with Mifune. Not only was it his final film with his most visible star and the last in black and white, it also marked a change in his fortunes. He began to fall out of favour; his reputation at home was in decline, his ability to find financing severely curtailed. He continued making films, but less Kagemusha frequently and with varying success. The Essential Kurosawa season highlights this last stage of his creative life with two period films on a grand scale, Kagemusha and Ran.
Made five years apart in the 80s, they are visually striking works that display a memorable use of colour, and show a director continuing to explore the possibilities of his medium.
Ran, his dazzling yet bleak version of King Lear, contains action sequences shot in a very different way from previous films. And its secret subject, as Kurosawa said at the time, is the threat of nuclear apocalypse. As always, a Kurosawa period film is never ensconced in the past; it is also an engagement with the present.
is at ACMI, Melbourne, until June 8, and at the Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 7 to 18.
A Venice Film Festival poster for Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), left; a scene from (1980), below