No. 57 | March 22, 2010
Many movies I have seen, many others I have not. If anyone ever asked for the greatest movie I had never seen, my first response might be How would I know if I haven’t see it?—which is true but not a satisfactory answer. My next response would have been Seven Samurai, the epic from Japanese master film director Akira Kurosawa. Why I had never seen the film I’m not entirely sure. I’d seen enough Kurosawa that I had no doubt about his greatness. I’d read glowing praise of the film from voices I respect. I’d had the Criterion three-disc DVD set on my shelf for several years. It was just sitting there, waiting for me to set aside 207 minutes of my life to take it in in all its glory. I suppose, like a bottle of wine of a certain vintage, it was not something to be enjoyed too lightly. I needed to wait for the right occasion.
Akira Kurosawa was born 100 years ago Tuesday. As the film world celebrates the great director’s centennial, I’m happy to say I am not waiting any longer. I opened the box—at last!—and watched Seven Samurai this past week. It was worth the wait: it is indeed a great film.
The seven samurai of the title are hired to protect a small village of farmers in 16th-century Japan. Kurosawa time and again returned to the medieval period as a setting for his films—a setting about as foreign as you can imagine to the modern Western world. Yet Kurosawa is often considered—and sometimes criticized for being—the most Western of the great Japanese directors. His appeal, I suspect, is not his choice of subject matter (though the way of the warrior tends to translate from one culture to another better than other stories), or his crisp, fluid, masterly direction of action sequences, but his ability to create characters, sometimes by the dozen, with depth and clarity, in moving and memorable ways. In Seven Samurai Kurosawa brings a whole village to life. There’s a complexity and a balance to the storytelling that’s unusual to see in any film, and Kurosawa pulls it off brilliantly.
What Commodore Perry’s expedition in the 1850s meant for the opening of Japan to the West, Kurosawa’s Golden Lion at Venice in 1951 meant for the opening of Japanese film to the West. Rashomon introduced the world to Kurosawa, and also led to the discovery of other greats of Japanese cinema, most notably Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) and Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu).
Rashomon was my introduction to Kurosawa years ago. The first time I watched I was intrigued and mystified, so I played it again. The solution to the mystery was still beyond knowing. The film is famous for its lack of a solution in the traditional sense, but Kurosawa was not making a comment on truth so much as on the human character—how our needs determine what we allow ourselves to believe. Among other things, Rashomon is many times an apt metaphor for how we view movies—what we see is what we bring.
Ikiru may seem like an unusual movie for Kurosawa, a director known for his grand epics of centuries past. Set in a contemporary, urban Japan, as a number of Kurosawa’s early films were, Ikiru follows the final days of Watanabe, a government worker who is stricken with cancer and finds, for the first time, passion and meaning in his life. The sight of Watanabe sitting on a swing, singing in the snow, in the playground he built, is one of the great images in all of cinema. Ikiru is Kurosawa at his simplest, humanist best, and it remains my favorite of his works.
I say that knowing I need to see Ran again. I’m older now. I may appreciate it in ways I hadn’t before.
In a career that spanned more than half a century, Akira Kurosawa made dozens of films. Some are among best movies ever, others are just as good as anything you’ll see this year. This week’s theme will feature five of Kurosawa’s best, with commentary from notable writers then and now.
Meanwhile, I’m looking for the next “greatest film I have never seen.” It may be sitting on my shelf right now.
Our theme this week
Films of Akira Kurosawa
About Akira Kurosawa
Views & reaction
The effect of the film on me, personally, was electric. I saw it three times on consecutive days and wondered each time if there was another film anywhere which gave such sustained and dazzling proof of a director’s command over every aspect of film making. Even after fifteen years, whole chunks of the film come vividly back to mind in all their visual and aural richness: the woodcutter’s journey through the forest, shot with a relentless tracking camera from an incredible variety of angles—high, low, back and front—and cut with axe-edge precision; the bandit’s first sight of the woman as she rides by, her veil lifted momentarily by a breeze, while he lolls in the shade of a tree, slapping away at mosquitoes; the striking formality of the court scene with the judge never seen at all; the scene of witchcraft with the medium whirling in a trance, and the wind blowing from two opposite directions at the same time… No, there was no doubt the Japanese cinema was something to reckon with, and a good probe into its past achievements was called for.
—Akira Kurosawa (1966), from Our Films, Their Films (1994)
Rasho-Mon, which created much excitement when it suddenly appeared upon the scene of the Venice Film Festival last autumn and carried off the grand prize, is, indeed, an artistic achievement of such distinct and exotic character that it is difficult to estimate it alongside conventional story films. On the surface, it isn’t a picture of the sort that we’re accustomed to at all, being simply a careful observations of a dramatic incident from four points of view, with an eye to discovering some meaning—some rationalization—in the seeming heartlessness of man.
—The New York Times, 1951