“I suppose all of my films have a common theme. If I think about it, though, the only theme I can think of is really a question: Why can’t people be happier together?”
“To be an artist means to search, to find and look at these realities. To be an artist means to never look away.”
Born: 23 March 1910, Tokyo, Japan.
Died: 6 September 1998, Tokyo, Japan.
Directing career: 1943-1993.
Movement: The 1950s ‘Golden Age’ of Japanese Cinema, Post-war Global Art Cinema.
Traits: Humanist ideals and themes, heroic figures, master-disciple relationships. Dynamic scenes, use of multiple cameras, use of long-focus lens. Cross-screen ‘wipes’ to transition between scenes.
Collaborators: Toshiro Mifune (actor, 16 films), Takashi Shimura (actor, 21 films), Takao Saito (cinematographer, 18 films), Asakazu Nakai (cinematographer, 11 films), Shinobu Hashimoto (screenwriter, 8 films).
The Quiet Duel (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.
The Hidden Fortress (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. (Mar 2015)
High and Low (1963)
This film does not seem to quite have the reputation it merits within Kurosawa’s oeuvre. High and Low (or Heaven and Hell by its more suggestive Japanese title) is ambitiously split into two halves. The first half is all set inside the hilltop villa of wealthy industrialist Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, in one of his greatest restrained performances), from which he can look down on all the city of Yokohama. It begins with corporate drama, as Gondo and three executive directors of the National Shoes company argue about its future; unbeknownst to them Gondo has mortgaged all he owns to raise enough money to buy majority shares. Soon it becomes gripping chamber drama imbued with moral dilemma: Gondo gets a phone-call from a kidnapper who claims to have his son and demands 30 million Yen — all that money to buy out the company is now in question. But it soon becomes clear the kidnapper abducted the wrong boy, not Gondo’s son but his chauffeur’s, and why should Gondo pay all his hard-won cash to save the life of this lowly worker’s offspring, not even his own kin? The kidnapper does not budge all the same, in his next phone-call he reiterates he will kill the boy, no matter whose son it, if Gondo doesn’t pay and can his conscience take that?
This is a devilishly enticing premise and despite the first hour almost all taking place in Gondo’s living room, Kurosawa makes it deeply cinematic by the visual dynamics: movement either of the camera or of the actors within the frame. The precise way he choreographs compositions enclosing people in his widescreen frames, like pawns on a board of moral chess, and with his compressing telephoto lens and multiple cameras is pure cinema. This one setting never feels bored because of the endless possibilities of composition and angles. Usually the most afflicted parties (Gondo, the chauffeur, Gondo’s assistant who plans to sell him out, etc) are on the very edges of the frame, tussling emotionally and verbally, while Tatsuya Nakadai’s cool, affable inspector and his gruff, baldheaded sidekick occupy the middle, watching on silently with intelligent, concerned glances. These are shots one could look at all day, and find new things to notice, or tease out symbolism just in the way which character moves when or stands where.
Sure there is also a touch of exposition in the very beginning; the way the execs introduce us to who Gondo and everyone else is seems a bit too on-the-nose, and overall, if one looks at it with a dispassionate eye, the plot is a bit too stacked in favour of coincidences to heighten the moral tension of the situation. But this matters little, we are taken in, by the acting, the cinematography, and any case Kurosawa soon flexes his post-classical muscles in other ways. The very minimal use of music, for example, serves the suspense well, especially in the bravado train sequence, central to the film and an absolutely terrific scene. From that point on, we will no longer be in the ‘Heaven’ of Gondo’s villa, but instead down in the city. The film enters its second half and takes a leap into unexpected territory by switching genre, mood, and almost totally setting aside its lead protagonist (until the final scene by which point his and our metaphorical journey through hell will come to a close). Those expecting Mifune to dominate the whole film will come in for a surprise when they realise the longer half is almost entirely without him then, an even more radical move than Kurosawa’s elliptical jump into the final act of Ikiru, where his main character is missing too. The fascinating thing is that now the film becomes something else too, a police procedural, a meticulous investigation, a city-wide man-hunt, and follows this down to every small detail.
Kurosawa, for example, renders cinematic a lengthy police task force meeting, in which each separate team assigned to the investigation gives its individual report — the devil now is in the details. And as there always seems to be in Kurosawa, there is a map explanation scene (and of course the hilly geography of Yokohama is also central to the film’s heaven-hell, upper class-lower class divide). Something about the nuts-and-bolts of operational processes clearly excited Kurosawa, you will find a scene of some kind of a map with someone describing some sort of plan over it in most of his films. This second half’s attention to, and immersion in, meticulous detail brings to mind the similar mood of Fincher’s more contemporary Zodiac, even if the surprising two-halves structure is closer to that same director’s Se7en. Like that film, this second half has its share of diabolical turns and twists, but also — not uncommon for Kurosawa of course — a strong dose of social commentary.
This time his depiction of the lower class milieu, the poverty, the economic and moral squalor, is not without reminding us of 1949’s Stray Dog, where he also had sympathy for those forced into crime by hardships (ironically this time the descent is more due to Japan’s ‘economic miracle’, Kurosawa seems to be saying, rather than post-war depression). One wonders, for instance, if Nakadai’s closed-doors presentation to the press isn’t the frankest discussion of heroin the Japanese cinema had yet seen to date. Such a scene would not have been so open in the Hollywood of the time, even despite the Hays censorship code being on its last legs. Most memorable though, is the sequence wandering into a den of destitute prostitutes and junkies, probably not altogether uninfluenced by Dante’s journey through Inferno (we know Kurosawa read plenty of Western literature, but anyway that is the vibe we get through this apocalyptic setting). Kurosawa the erstwhile Marxist just pops out for a while here, where is the economic miracle for these people, he makes the audience have to ask themselves. Then, of course, there is that final scene, Mifune wheeled back in, both by the narrative and by the kidnapper, and that concluding note, mysterious and hellish all at once.
High and Low deserves to be mentioned around Kurosawa’s best films. If the first part shows us he can make even a chamber drama, within a cocooned wealthy villa, thrillingly cinematic, the second half suggests he might have been the equal of Rosi, Pontecorvo or Costa-Gavras in the procedural drama genre. If that’s not enough, he even throws in a splash of colour (a tuft of pink smoke, a crucial clue) onto the black-and-white canvas of his film, thirty years before Spielberg and Schindler’s List. (April 2017)
Dersu Uzala (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 heroic figure. (Mar 2015)