Akira Kuro­sawa’s ground­break­ing style con­tin­ues to in­spire film­mak­ers, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Es­sen­tial Kuro­sawa

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

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