Thursday, April 8, 2010

In Heaven or Hell with Kurosawa

For this film lover, there has been no other director who had an influence as direct, exciting, life-affirming and worshipful as Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998). His films are bombastic: the emotions expressed therein are so highly keyed that an infant would know what was going on in any particular scene. The violence is full of painterly relish and joy in the act of editing. They are all-encompassing; Kurosawa made films dealing with subjects as varied as gangsters, detectives, old age, the effects of atomic warfare on Japan, Shakespeare, Capitalism, slums and dreams (and Samurai). They are accessible; the root of every film is self-evidently an examination of Good and Evil in Humanity, and whatever subject he’s taking on is just a means of getting the audience hooked on this basic theme. The point is that every person is intimately familiar with Good and Evil, and not just from films.
 Last month, Kurosawa would have been one hundred years old. His oldest film is sixty-seven years old, and his last film was made seventeen years ago. What follows is a replay—off the top of my head, in no order—of four scenes from his films that come to me immediately when I think of his name.

1. Seven Samurai

Nowhere is Kurosawa’s scenecraft more evident than in Seven Samurai (1954), in the scene of Toshiro Mifune’s fantastic monologue. Mifune is dressed in old-fashioned samurai garb, complete with a helmet and mail.  He sits like a punished child in front of the other six samurai; he has uncovered old samurai arrows and gear that clearly came from samurai killed by the farmers. One samurai says, “I’d like to kill every farmer in this village.” This causes Mifune to leap to his feet and burst in to a tirade. In alternating close-ups of Mifune’s snarling face, and his patient comrades, listening with pity, we hear Mifune expose the truths about farmers. The farmers have been hiding rice underground. They have secret farms in the canyons. Mifune tosses the old samurai gear against the wall of the shack. “Listen!” he shouts. “Farmers are lying, stingy, foxy, cowardly and murderous! That’s what they are!” He tosses two handfuls of arrows against the wall. In the dénouement of his rant, he laments what samurai have done to farmers to make them that way. He crouches in front of his friends and starts sobbing.
Kurosawa was a great director of scenes rather than images, and I mean that in a very precise way. Kurosawa’ biggest contribution to cinema was not his use of cinemascope or telephoto lenses; it was his development of scenecraft. In the sixties especially, as well as the following decades, scenes would take a backseat to a director’s skill with fragmented imagery, symbolic gestures and the pure expression of moods. But Kurosawa would have none of that. Mifune’s farmer monologue is a controlled, step-by-step scene, derived from theater in its form, but unabashedly cinematic in its presentation. Because Mifune’s monologue would be a mere spectacular theatrical presentation were it not for the samurai gear and arrows: first examined, then violently discarded. Mifune’s body, looming over the camera, at various distances, is the object that the other objects answer to, and which anchors the space surrounding it. This use of objects not just as props but also as incentives for motion, and in spatial relation to people, is what made Kurosawa’s scenecraft cinematic.

2. The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well (1960) ends on a peculiar note, atypical of Kurosawa. The president of the company Public Corporation, Mr. Iwabuchi (Matsayuki Mori) walks in to his office through the backdoor, immediately following the twin funerals of his son and law and an employee. He sits at his desk and starts making a phone call to his secretary; then, a pan to the left, as his son, Tatsuo (Tasua Mihashi) and daughter, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa) throw open the main door. Iwabuchi rises in surprise. Tatsuo tells his father that he knows all about his sins of the past, and that he and Yoshiko never want to see him again. They slam the door, gone forever. Iwabuchi moves back to his desk, distraught. Then his phone rings; it is his secretary calling him back. Iwabuchi answers and tells her that he is planning on resigning as the CEO of the company soon and will be going on vacation. He then tells her to sleep well, although it is the middle of the day. Realizing his mistake, he apologizes and says that he has not slept recently and confused day for night. After a final cursory apology he hangs up the receiver. His arm is extended in a slow and unnatural manner; he is bent over only slightly, as if choosing not to repent. We fade out on this gesture.
Kurosawa was given to irony, but never of such a sleek and cynical sort. He also did not employ the fade-out nearly as often as he did throughout The Bad Sleep Well, and whenever he did employ the device, it was to suggest closure. In The Bad Sleep Well, his fade-outs suggest ongoing corruption. They are a way of not bothering to tell the viewer what comes next, because the viewer knows already. Mori’s striking pose is not the ultra-emotive sort of gesture Kurosawa usually got from his actors, but one of intense containment. Never again did the master take such a subdued yet icy tone. It recalls the tone Stanley Kubrick strived for, and then turned in to gloss, in his mature films.

3. Ran

            Ran (1985) has a mid-section that is one of the most discussed sections of the film, chiefly because it announces itself, with a loud and booming voice, as the section the film has been building up to. The film—aside from being a version of Shakespeare’s King Lear-- is structured like a long classical symphony, and fittingly, the classical score by Toru Takemitsu rumbles throughout, truly getting showcased in this over-ten minute long wordless battle sequence. The scene is signaled by the cry of one character—“Hell is upon us!”—and is followed by wide shots of the blue army storming the fortress of the red army. The yellow army assists the red. The primary sounds are of horses galloping, and the cuts that move us closer to the action depict fire, smoke, bloody corpses and showers and showers of arrows. Inside the fortress sits the indisposed Lord Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai); it is his sons who are fighting against each other, in dispute over the land and castles their father ceded to them. Takemitsu’s music truly carries the scene, and Nakadai—sitting blank-faced, in the midst of the fire and arrows, yet remaining unscathed—is an unreal presence. But one senses Kurosawa’s insecurity in this sequence. He cuts too often, and does not hold on the galloping hordes of men for long enough. He does not give the vastness of the landscape its due, or the mechanics of the battle. He is more concerned here with exactly what his scenesmith-ery opposed earlier in his career; wild and unhinged imagery. While it is an impressive sequence if only for its sheer scope, I pine a little for Kurosawa the scene craftsman when I view this scene, and feel that Kurosawa the art-film appeaser is not quite welcome.

4. High and Low

            Possibly my favorite Kurosawa film and truly one his least appreciated, High and Low (1963) ends in the classic style Kurosawa had refined by  that point. Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) sits in a prison across from the incarcerated drug dealer and kidnapper Ginjiro (Tsutomo Yamakazi), who wished to speak with him. They watch one another through a thick window, which reflects both men’s faces against one anothers, as the shots alternate between Gondo and Ginjiro. Gondo says he doesn’t see why they have to hate each other. Ginjiro—neurotic, at the breaking point—smirks and begins telling Gondo about his life; poverty, abuse, trembling whenever he walks past someone on the street. He talks of how he envied Gondo, a wealthy shoe manufacturer, who’s son he kidnapped, and who lives in a mansion on top of a hill. “I’m not afraid of going to hell,” Ginjiro says. “I’ve been in hell my entire life.” He pauses, then adds, “But if I had to go to heaven, I’d really tremble.” He stands and screams in gradual agony as he claws at the glass; the guards rush in and take him away. A metal shutter closes over the window from the inside, leaving Gondo to stare at his own reflection.
            High and Low is named not just for the physical location of Gondo in relation to Ginjiro, but also for the way it blends “low” genre storytelling—the pulp fiction of Evan Hunter, in this case—with classical filmmaking and morally driven themes. The film is structured in three coherent acts, and veers from theatrical ensemble piece to chase film to methodical police procedural. But it ends, in the same way most of Kurosawa’s films end, on a morally ponderous note.
Kurosawa could get too ponderous. It sometimes seemed that his characters could not exist without a monologue in which they stated the philosophical theme of the film. His sense of morality could verge on corniness. But in a film like High and Low, the big statements are held until the very end, and the backbone of the film represents all of Kurosawa’s strengths. He was adept at blending genres, because he treated them on an equal playing field; a costume drama was no more expressive than a samurai movie. He forced the East to meet the West, cinematically, and found that the two could have a fruitful partnership. He crafted scenes that felt as if they were already there, waiting to be snapped up by some strip of celluloid. That Kurosawa was a Japanese man made no difference, because he seemed to accumulate everything-- trashy, artful, scenic, laughable and inscrutable-- from both spectrums of the globe at once. He was a genuine maker of World Cinema.