22 Mar 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 57 | March 22, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial

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

akira kurosawa_3akira kurosawa_2akira kurosawa_4

 About Akira Kurosawa

  • Born March 23, 1910, Omori, Tokyo
  • Studied Western painting, literature, and philosophy
  • Worked in the 1930s and ’40s as a writer and assistant director
  • Worked for leading Japanese director Yamamoto Kajiro
  • Directed more than a dozen films starring Toshiro Mifune (Drunken Angel, Seven Samurai)
  • Directed more than twenty films with actor Takashi Shimura (Ikiru, Seven Samurai)
  • Well known for the rich themes, visual style, and complex narrative structure of his films
  • Transposed Western story elements to Japanese settings (Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, westerns)
  • Influenced generations of filmmakers around the world (John Sturges, Sergio Leone, and many others)
  • Won countless awards for his films in addition to the career honors listed below
  • Died September 6, 1998, Setagaya, Tokyo

Career honors

  • Academy Awards:  Honorary Oscar, 1990
  • Awards of the Japanese Academy:  Lifetime Achievement Award, 1999
  • Blue Ribbon Awards (Japan):  Special Award, 1999
  • Directors Guild of America:  Lifetime Achievement Award, 1992
  • Mainichi Film Concours (Japan):  Special Award, 1999
  • Moscow International Film Festival:  Honorary Prize, 1979
  • San Francisco International Film Festival:  Akira Kurosawa Award for Lifetime Achievement in Film Directing, 1986
  • Venice Film Festival:  Career Golden Lion, 1982
Select list of films (writer and director, except as noted; he also edited and produced many of his films)
  • No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
  • One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
  • Drunken Angel (1948)
  • Rashomon (1950)
  • The Idiot (1951)
  • Ikiru (To Live) (1952)
  • Seven Samurai (1954)
  • Throne of Blood (1957)
  • The Hidden Fortress (1958)
  • The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
  • Yojimbo (1961)
  • Sanjuro (1962)
  • Red Beard (1965)
  • Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) (writer only, Japanese sequences, uncredited)
  • Dersu Uzala (1975)
  • Kagemusha (1980)
  • Ran (1985)
  • Dreams (1990)
  • Rhapsody in August (1991)

Rashomon (1950)

Men are only men. That’s why they lie. They can’t tell the truth, even to themselves.

The story
In this complex narrative, a woodcutter and priest recount a story to a commoner while they wait out a rainstorm at a gatehouse called Rashomon.  The tale they tell is about the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband, as retold in flashbacks of four characters—a bandit, the wife, her samurai husband, and the woodcutter.  Each version of the story contradicts the others, and the truth of what happened is not possible to know.

Views & reaction

Satyajit Ray:

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)

 Bosley Crowther:

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

 Time Magazine:

Roger Ebert:

Shortly before filming was to begin on Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s three assistant directors came to see him.  They were unhappy.  They didn’t understand the story.  ”If you read it diligently,” he told them, “you should be able to understand it, because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible.”  They would not leave:  ”We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don’t understand it at all.”

Recalling this day in Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explains the movie to them.  The explanation is reprinted in the booklet that comes with the new Criterion DVD of Rashomon.  Two of the assistants are satisfied with his explanation, but the third leaves looking puzzled.  What he doesn’t understand is that while there is an explanation of the film’s four eyewitness accounts of a murder, there is not a solution….

Rashomon (1950) struck the world of film like a thunderbolt….  Its very title has entered the English language, because, like “Catch-22,” it expresses something for which there is no better substitute.

—The Great Movies II, 2002

Rashomon (1950)
Akira Kurosawa, director

Quote of Note
Adela Quested
:  I do so hate mysteries.
Richard Fielding:  We English do.
Mrs. Moore:  I rather like mysteries—but I rather dislike muddles.
Richard Fielding:  A mystery is only a high-sounding term for a muddle.
—Adela Quested (Judy Davis), Richard Fielding (James Fox), Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), A Passage to India (1984)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 23 Mar 2010 @ 05:33 PM



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