Every prospective cinephile is faced with several mountains they must climb at some point. You cannot call yourself a true film buff before having scaled Mount Welles, Mount Renoir, Mount Ozu, and so on. Hence in the last few weeks I decided to ascend a little more of Mount Kurosawa, getting closer towards becoming a completist of the Sensei’s filmography. I chose to watch three films from three different periods of his life, and see how each fit into the context of his overall career and relate to each other.
The Quiet Duel (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)
The Quiet Duel (1949) was made two years before Kurosawa’s international breakthrough Rashomon catapulted him to a new status. Even at this early stage, his collaboration with the two acting legends he’d most frequently work with had already begun. Takashi Shimura and a fresh-faced Toshiro Mifune star as, respectively, a father and son duo of doctors, and one of the highlights of the Kurosawa films of this period is seeing the pair of them in action before their more famous roles.
As the younger Dr Fujisaki, a selfless surgeon who accidentally contracts syphilis from a patient during a war-time operation (in a tense opener full of chiaroscuro lighting, rhythmic drumming and heavy rain outside), Mifune anticipates his later role as the phlegmatic, heroic physician of Red Beard (1965). The hospital setting also evokes that later film, and it is there that the bulk of Quiet Duel takes place, after a cut from the opening scene moves us several years forward into the post-war era.
The reason for such a setting is quite clear. Kurosawa diagnoses post-war Japan as suffering from a malady, and disease becomes a metaphor for the malaise contaminating it. Poverty, social destitution, war widows, the occupation by the Americans — Kurosawa chronicles it all, as he did in the two films either side of Quiet Duel, Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949). Japan is in desperate need of reconstruction after the nuclear attacks and the war its militaristic regime led it into have left it almost destroyed.
Mifune’s Dr Fujisaki is set up as an epitome of the responsibility that can see Japan rebuild. An innocent victim of syphilis, he dutifully chooses to isolate himself in order to protect others, and focuses on his job at the clinic. His war-time fiancée, who patiently waited for the war to end, is left in anguished confusion by his refusal to marry her. Too ashamed to tell her the real reason, he sacrifices both their happiness and can only release his pent-up anger in monologues to his father (Shimura). In one such scene, Mifune does a fine job of making his character more complex than just a reticent saint, hinting at his sexual frustration (“If I’d known I’d get syphilis anyway, I might have done things differently” he laments at his own self-control) and bitterness at the care-free irresponsible life enjoyed by the soldier who contaminated him.
Nakada, that soldier, is the polar opposite of Fujisaki. Much like Stray Dog parallels the fates of a detective and a criminal and contrasts the ways they respond to misfortune, The Quiet Duel is a film about two people intertwined in their fate but with divergent attitudes, one conscientious, the other reckless. It therefore serves as an early example of Kurosawa dealing with what would become one of his major themes: fate, how it deals with people and how people deal with it.
Overall though, it’s hard to see talky melodrama as a register that suited as visually minded an artist as Kurosawa. Narrative proceedings are a tad implausible, even for a 1940s setting, and leave us asking several questions — why can’t Fujisaki tell his fiancée and put her out of the misery of not understanding, at least? There’s also little of the technical flourish later Kurosawa is associated with, notwithstanding occasional touches of genius like those tense, noir-ish first minutes and some deep-space compositions throughout. But we don’t even have the trademark wipe cut yet!
The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958)
In 1958, we’re right in Kurosawa’s golden period. He’d just filmed his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, and the stunning Throne of Blood, his Noh theatre inspired take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He pushed the Bard’s tale into even darker territory with a vision of man’s total dependence on his own pre-destined fate, dispossessing him of any free will. After such heaviness no wonder his next film aimed for a more comic touch, reinventing the samurai genre with an ironic self-awareness that would be developed further in Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The Hidden Fortress is a classic adventure that shows why Kurosawa was, along with Hitchcock, one of the few masters able to combine artistic merit and mass appeal in completely satisfying ways.
All the ingredients that form his trademark visual style come together here. It was his first film in Scope format, and he takes to composing for the widescreen frame like a natural. Already in place were his favoured shooting method of simultaneously rolling multiple cameras (allowing a wider choice of angles in the editing room later on) and the growing reliance on a telephoto lens to compress long distances in the picture. It all works to sumptuous effect in this tale of a samurai general (Mifune again) escorting his clan’s princess (Misa Uehara) out of enemy territory. The expensive sets impress, especially the war-torn 16th century Japanese citadel with hundreds of extras fleeing down stairs outside the castle’s exit. Kurosawa’s dynamic camera and editing also know how to take full advantage of a swashbuckling Mifune at his athletic and charismatic best, showing off his speed and skill on a horse and with a spear.
But the film is perhaps best known for being told from the perspective of its lowliest characters: two hungry, cowardly and unheroic peasants. Desperately trying to survive in this war-ridden feudal Japan, they bicker over any piece of gold or scrap of food coming their way. Their quarrelsome nature and greed is exploited by Mifune, who uses the clan’s gold as a tempting carrot to make them unknowingly aid the princess’ escape. Two comical, cowardly characters framing the story, a princess in jeopardy, and a loyal general at her side… it takes but a few name-changes to recognise the blueprint that George Lucas later openly borrowed.
One interesting deviation in Kurosawa’s narrative formula though is that the Princess Yuki actually turns out to be the most admirable character. She is no mere Princess Leia waiting to be rescued. It is her, not the heroic but cold Mifune, whose outlook ultimately matches the virtues Kurosawa values most. She more than any character empathises with those less fortunate than her, realising it is only the luck of the draw that made her a princess and others peasants or servants — highlighting the theme of fate again. Through an epiphany later in the film, she reaches a Zen-Buddhist state of mind, making her strong enough to accept whatever comes her way with composure even when facing execution.
As entertaining a romp as Hidden Fortress is, the world the characters inhabit, as often in Kurosawa’s films, is one of chaos and wanton violence. These two registers, the comic adventure and the depiction of a society in turmoil, each reinforce the other and removing either one would lessen this masterpiece.
Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa, 1975)
Moving forward to the post-Red Beard (1966) period and the breakdown of his collaboration with Mifune, we enter some of the darkest days of Kurosawa’s life. The pain that his aborted participation on Tora Tora Tora caused, the critical and commercial failure of Dodes’ka-den (1970), and his 1971 suicide attempt, left Kurosawa at his lowest ebb, unsure if he’ll ever be able to work in Japan again. It’s widely been remarked that his humanist credo faded, leading to his pessimistic and more abstract final films. But he still fit into his work one final likable and heroic character, that of Dersu Uzala, a Siberian trapper. His story was recorded in the diaries of Vladimir Arseniev, the Russian soldier and explorer who befriended him at the turn of the 20th century.
Kurosawa, whose love for Russian culture saw him adapt Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gorky, knew these diaries and had long thought about turning them into a film. It was therefore the ideal project when Soviet studio Mosfilm offered him the chance to make a film in the USSR. But Dersu Uzala was also a wistful eulogy to what Kurosawa had left behind in his past and the tone exudes that. We first encounter Arseniev in 1910, searching for the grave of his friend Dersu, before a flashback structure takes us to 1903 and how the two met. It gives the film an aura of nostalgic memory, making it the story of Arseniev looking back to a time and a friend he greatly misses.
It’s on a surveying mission in unexplored Siberia that Arseniev first encounters Dersu, whose deep knowledge of the local territory and how to survive in it will prove invaluable. His know-how, kindness, and warmth make him an inspirational figure and Arseniev is sensitive enough to be receptive to Dersu’s innate wisdom. So we also have the last in a long line of master-disciple relationships which recur throughout Kurosawa’s filmography. It would also be his last widescreen film and his only one in colour (subsequently he’d mostly favour shooting in 1.85:1), and Kurosawa makes strong use of both elements to visualise the simultaneous beauty and hostility of the nature surrounding the men. From the very start, his trusty telephoto lens collapses the forest into a sea of trees dominating the horizon, while the palette of earthy, autumnal greens and browns add to the nostalgic aura.
Filming on location in Siberia, Kurosawa has the men framed in long-shots, dwarfed by the wilderness and snowscapes. One such example is the most remarkable scene of the film’s 160-minute duration, the first time Dersu saves Arseniev’s life. Wordless for almost fifteen minutes, the sequence is tense due to an impending snow blizzard, and we watch Arseniev and Dersu desperately try to build a shelter before the worst of it hits them. The pacing, the composition, the use of the telephoto lens — it’s all masterful and is reminiscent of the way Kurosawa’s own idol, John Ford, represented the relationship between men and their environments.
As much as Dersu knows the wild like the back of his hand, he is woefully inept when it comes to the pragmatic matters of so-called civilised life, barely understanding the concept of money. Later, after a meeting with a tiger has unwanted ramifications, Dersu is distraught and predicts his own downfall. Here the theme of fate pops up yet again, the cruelty of which Dersu is no stranger to having lost his family to smallpox, and his own prophecy comes true. Dersu’s eyesight begins to fade and he is no longer able to shoot or hunt. Reluctantly, he agrees to join Arseniev back in the city, but is like a fish out of water there, and the sad irony of his death seems inevitable.
Among many things then, this is a film about limitations and feeling your powers dissipate with old age, a feeling Kurosawa perhaps was starting to relate to at this stage of his career and life. For all its nostalgic beauty, the world depicted in Dersu Uzala is another harsh one, anticipating the de-personalised long-shots, abstractness and lack of humanism of Kagemusha and Ran. The difference however is that Dersu offers virtues absent from those two subsequent films, and he can rightfully be called Kurosawa’s last hero.