It takes a big man to admit the fact that he hasn’t seen one single movie from a director as famous as Akira Kurosawa. It’s especially embarrassing if you’re a mildly successful movie blogger such as myself. But it was true. Was being the operative word, as I’ve chosen to dedicate this week’s For Science to the start of my Kurosawa journey. It begins with four films, from a range of time periods, all of which center on one particular historical period: feudal Japan. This is a time and place where Kurosawa set many of his films, films that led to him being known as one of the most influential filmmakers of all-time. My goal is to explore what makes him so influential. And over the course of several For Science editions (more of which will come later), I will take a look at clusters of his massive, 30-film deep filmography. We begin, as I’ve explained, in feudal Japan.
It’s impossible to say that one film is Kurosawa’s most famous or iconic, but it is safe to say that Rashomon was one of his first great films. Since its release in 1950, it has influenced dozens of films — all of which take on the concept of one event, as seen through the eyes of several key players. In this story, Kurosawa focuses on the murder of a man by a bandit, and the subsequent disappearance of his wife. The witnesses include the wife, who comes back to tell her side of the story, the bandit, played by the insane Toshio Mifune (more on him later), the man who was murdered, speaking through a medium, and a woodsman who may or may not have seen the whole thing go down.
What strikes me about Rashomon is the accelerated complexity of it all. The entire story is based on the stories that characters are telling each other, or the court, and what feels at first like a simple case of murder quickly turns into tangled web of deceit as the perspective shifts. We, the audience, shift with the perspective and are left to question what actually happened, even in the very end. The performances are amazing as well — such incredibly physical emotion from the murdered man (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyo), as well as wild performance from Mifune. It is a bleak tale, and one that gives me the sense that Kurosawa wanted us to know that ‘bitches be crazy’ was a theme back in feudal times as well, but it’s an expertly woven story. It’s a simple concept that turns complex and forces the audience to answer a basic question: are men inherently good, or are they evil? And how would we know?
Seven Samurai (1954)
If there’s one thing I dread, it’s long movies. It has more to do with the fact that I’m generally fidgety and have signs of mid-life ADD, and less to do with my love of great storytelling. So to say that I was knocked on my ass by Seven Samurai would be an understatement — never before have I been so glued to a three and a half hour subtitled, black and white movie. I didn’t even think it was possible, to be honest. The credits in this movie are so long that the subtitles seem to submit to their will, stopping some two minutes prior to the end of the Japanese credits. I know what it means though, this movie is by Kurosawa — and it’s going to be something special. What I didn’t expect was to see flashes of so many modern stories in this film. I was completely unaware of the fact that Pixar used it as basis for A Bug’s Life. Seriously. It tells the story of a small farming village that has come under attack by a group of savage bandits. And in a last-ditch effort to save themselves, they send several of their own off to find samurai who will come and protect them in exchange for food. As it turns out, they can only assemble a rag-tag team of seven samurai, some of whom aren’t very valiant, but all of whom are dumb enough to take the job.
There are several things that stick out to me upon my first viewing of Seven Samurai, aside from the fact that I instantly wanted to watch it again despite its gargantuan runtime. One is that this movie is, at times, hilarious. At one point is very self-aware — Toshiro Mifune’s character, who’s been a raving, drunken lunatic through the entire film, is asked by another character why he’s always yelling — and it is constantly jabbing away at the audiences with quips from its samurai. It is also filled with characters who we can’t help but care about — the lowly farmers — and characters we can’t help but be in awe of — mostly the cool, confident, unselfish badass Katsushio, played by Isao Kimura. His character is perhaps the most awesome quiet hero I’ve ever seen on film. And he’s a second-level character in the grand scheme of things. The film is also one that pays us back with an amazing series of escalating battles in the final act. Up to that point, the story is so well fleshed out that it feels as if no aspect of the samurai’s journey has been left unfilmed. And in those closing moments — some 40 minutes worth — the samurai engage the enemy in not one big battle, but a series of calculated, exciting battles. It’s like the end of Braveheart, but broken down and stretched out in order to make it feel even bigger and more important. Now that’s a trick. Not to mention Kurosawa’s seemingly effortless ability to engage his audience for such a long period of time. No wonder Pixar wanted to adapt this into a story about bugs. It’s simply a badass movie.
Throne of Blood (1957)
With Throne of Blood, Kurosawa takes on the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, combining that old playwright’s beautiful and terrifying moral tale with an intimate, haunting setting. Deep inside the Spider Web forest lays the Spider Web Castle, where the Great Lord sits ready to hand over great praise to his two most trusted generals, Washizu (Toshiro Mifune, back for another balls-to-the-wall performance) and Miki (Akira Kubo). But before the two men can reach the castle, they are visited by a spirit who lays down a prophesy in which Washizu will someday rule the main castle, to be followed by Miki’s son. Of course, this means that Washizu — at the encouraging of his insane wife — must first kill the Great Lord. He does so, and eventually must come face to face with what he’s done.
By now, I’m beginning to see what others see in the work of Kurosawa. In his films, he never turned away from the opportunity to show his audience something truly awe-inspiring. In Throne of Blood, Washizu’s reign is threatened by a defected general and the armies of his enemies. And a second visit from that crazy spirit tells him that he will never lose in battle, unless the forest itself decides to attack the Spider Web Castle. It drives him mad — mad for blood, insane in the quest to protect his reign as great lord. And then, the unthinkable happens — Kurosawa moves a damn forest. Yep, as predicted by the spirit, the forest rises up to attack the Great Lord’s reign. And it happens right in front of our eyes. Keep in mind that this movie was made in 1957. There was no CGI, there was only manpower and practical effects. This scene is achieved through Kurosawa’s unflinching will to do something truly spectacular. And he follows it with an incredibly intense, gruesome death scene. It is as if he’s saying to the audience, “hey, did you like that part where I moved the entire forest in front of your eyes? Watch the way I kill this character off.. Now that’s impressive.” Of course, he’d be saying it in Japanese. But you get the idea.
Finally, a movie in color. For me, this is where the curiosity about running the Kurosawa tables began. I received a copy of Ran to review as part of the StudioCanal Blu-ray releases. It is to be thanked for this unbelievable journey — one that not only saw me sit through Kurosawa’s three and a half hour samurai opus Seven Samurai, but also Ran, a two and a half hour tale of greed and war. And I did it all in the same day.
The film opens with a beautiful, vibrant shot of a family meeting in a great valley. The costume colors, the incredible views. They all add to what can only be described as a breathtaking opening scene. The story goes like this: the Great Lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) is retiring, and he’s handing his entire kingdom over to his eldest sun Taro (Akira Terao). And despite the pleading of his youngest son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) and the level-headed assessment of his aids, he goes through with it. Banishing Saburo for his insolence, he moves forward with a plan to live out the rest of his life with his eldest son. When that doesn’t work out — his eldest son, along with his crazy daughter in-law take a hard line with the old man and decide that he deserves no respect, nor does he have any authority any more — he goes to his second son, who also sets him out to pasture. He heads out to the family’s third castle, where he stays until he is attacked viciously by his two eldest sons. At this point the family begins to tear itself to pieces in a series of unimaginably cool war sequences.
Once again, Kurosawa shows us that age-old adage ‘bitches be crazy,’ as he chooses a story that places men in the path of women seeking revenge, a revenge that will ultimately be the end of them. This time it is the old man’s daughter in-law who manipulates both of his older sons, causing them to meet in a bloody brother-on-brother feud. And that’s just one layer of the story. There are so many, that I could probably write 2,000 words on this one film alone. Know this: the film is grand and vibrant, with intense colors and fantastic shots that lead one to believe that Kurosawa was not of this world. In particular, there is one shot when the old man’s stronghold is being attacked and burned. The director moves from one shot showing the old man sitting in a burning room as arrows fly in around him, to another where the old man is walking calmly from the engulfed castle. It is as stunning a shot as I’ve ever seen. And I’m not being overly hyperbolic here. Watch Ran. The movie will kick you in the chest with awesome.
Final Thoughts (for now)
If this first round of experimenting with Kurosawa has given me anything, it is a thirst for more. His storytelling is as lean as anyone who’s ever directed and his films are as breathtaking and truly awesome as anything I’ve ever seen. In fact, that’s the major takeaway I have from these first four films — I was constantly in awe of his ability to pull off the unthinkable visual moment. He moved a forest, delivered one hell of a death scene, illustrated the unflinching nature of the truly selfless samurai and wowed me with incredibly hues. And all of this in just four of his 30 films. All of this in just one day of my life — 10 hours of my weekend. I can’t even begin to imagine what sort of awe-inspiring cinematic adventures lie in the rest of his filmography.