There are, common film wisdom holds, three seminal Japanese film directors from the classical era: Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa.
They're the holy trio, the Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock of Japanese cinema from its late embrace of sound in the 1930s to Kurosawa's final burst of productivity in the years before his death in 1998. They came to define a complex movie world that alternated between exacting visions of postwar life in modern Japan to a mythic past that was informed by centuries of feudal history but somehow seemed relevant to recent and current conditions.
It's not a coincidence that Japanese filmmaking attracted attention on the world stage after the debacle of World War II. The movie industry was rebuilt under heavy American influence; when Kurosawa finally met John Ford, his idol, the American reportedly remarked to the younger man, "You really like rain."
And it was Kurosawa, the youngest of the Japan's cinematic trinity, who produced the film that electrified the Western film world: At the 1951 Venice Film Festival, Rashmon took the top prize, the Golden Lion, and Kurosawa received the award for best director. Rashmon quickly came to be a sui generis shorthand for the slippery concept of truth, a one-word description of any event that can be described differently by each witness.
Japanese cinema has since moved on from the classical era but continues to be a world leader in pushing the boundaries of film narrative (something that can't be said for the once-mighty Italian film industry—or even America's non-blockbuster product).
It was always Kurosawa who was most popular on these shores, even if Ozu and, more recently, Mizoguchi, have often commanded more critical interest. To celebrate the centennial of his birth, the Carolina Theatre of Durham is embarking on something that is all too rare in our region: a serious film retrospective that includes one brand-new 35mm print, of Ran.
Series curator Jim Carl, senior director of the Carolina Theatre, has thoughtfully divided the offerings between the imperishably famous feudal epics (future fodder for Western remakes Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai), literary and allegorical touchstones (Throne of Blood and Ran, Kurosawa's takes on Macbeth and King Lear, respectively; and The Hidden Fortress, which is better known as Star Wars), along with modern-times realist masterpieces (High and Low, Stray Dog). And there's one film that most of us will be encountering for the first time: I Live in Fear, his tale of a Tokyo man determined to move his family to Brazil to escape (another) nuclear holocaust. —David Fellerath
Our writers contribute their thoughts about Akira Kurosawa's work below.
The most breathless moment of Kurosawa's dramatic thriller High and Low comes around the 55-minute mark, as we find ourselves suddenly on a bullet train filled with undercover police agents. One character nudges another awake: We're at work—this isn't a weekend getaway. Another pretends to trip and uses his misstep to pass a secret, critical note. Kurosawa cuts to exterior angles of Japan's landscape zooming by. A handheld camera runs to keep up with a sweaty, bald detective. And there at the window is the iconic Toshiro Mifune, about to literally throw all the money he has ever had out the window. The scene is captivating, dense with action and visual information. It's funny and incredibly sharp in its observations of quotidian life, of the detective as working man.
But the thing that really makes this kinetic set piece so incredible is that it makes you realize you've spent the past hour in the confines of a single apartment watching an engaging moral drama play out—think Hitchcock's Rope without the theatrical studiousness and visual gimmickry. The premise is simple and perfect: a blackmailer, attempting to capture the son of a wealthy executive (Mifune), has accidentally kidnapped the son of the executive's chauffeur instead. No matter, the kidnapper demands his ransom from the wealthy man anyway.
As opposed to the train scene and the rest of the film, in the long first act the camera does not move often, and then it does so with smooth subtlety. The key device is blocking; the positioning of actors in the frame tells the emotional story just as effectively as the characters and the dialogue. For the second half of High and Low, Kurosawa will not return to this technique, instead transforming his film into a first-rate policier with a wealth of urban exteriors and on-the-move camera work. High and Low is as good as any film of its kind. The fact that it actually feels like two perfect movies means that it's twice as good. —Nathan Gelgud
Director Akira Kurosawa collaborated throughout his remarkable career with actor Toshiro Mifune. You might recognize Mifune as the feral bandit of Rashmon or the most eccentric of the seven samurai. As you watch Stray Dog, you might think, as I did when I first saw the film, where is Toshiro Mifune? It's quite a shock to realize he is the suavely handsome young police officer chasing his stolen pistol.
Stray Dog (1949) was the first police procedural in Japanese cinema, and it benefits from the oppressive atmosphere of postwar destruction and sweltering summer heat. It's quite remarkable that a Japanese director would make a film in a genre so closely identified with his nation's former enemies, but then Kurosawa always embraced Western culture and intended this film as an homage to French thriller author Georges Simenon. The pursuit through the back alleys and black markets was documentary footage shot by assistant director Ishiro Honda, disguised in the shabby clothes the army gave him when he was mustered out. Honda would go on to direct the ultimate Japanese anti-war film, Godzilla. Like many film noirs, the hero and villain are two sides of a coin, both former soldiers scrambling for a foothold after World War II.
Some actors rarely play roles in which they are sexually attractive; others play little else. A performer is his (or her) body, voice, mannerisms and ability to assume different characters, but he is limited (until the advent of CGI) by makeup, costume and theatrical craft. Mifune is known for his character parts in some of Japan's most famous films. That's why it's so shocking to see his hotness here and in Drunken Angel (1948, not included in the series). In one, he is a cop and in the other a gangster, but in both he relies on his considerable allure. Soon he would obscure his movie star looks, during a career in service to a brilliant director who demanded much from his muse. —Laura Boyes
In my tender elementary school days, I found myself oddly troubled by an episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Titled "Every Chipmunk Tells a Story," it involved Alvin, Simon and Theodore telling a series of conflicting flashbacks about how Dave's piano came to be destroyed and filled with rice pudding.
What bothered me about it was there was no one flashback explaining what really happened; we were only presented with the various self-serving flashbacks. I was perhaps 7 or 8, and this was my first exposure to the legacy of Akira Kurosawa, specifically his classic tale of conflicting stories, Rashmon, which is unfortunately absent from the series but should be added to your must-watch list at home. (According to the Carolina Theatre, Rashmon wasn't included in the program only because the film was recently screened elsewhere in this area.)
Its plot has been recycled in various media over the last six decades. Fourteen years after it was first released, it was remade as a 1964 Paul Newman Western, The Outrage, for which Kurosawa was credited in the script. It may rank as one of the few opportunities to see Newman, Edward G. Robinson, Laurence Harvey and William Shatner all in the same place.
There are, of course, dozens upon dozens of other films that have used the Rashomon structure, ranging from war drama (Courage Under Fire), crime (The Usual Suspects), animation (Hoodwinked) and lame comedy (One Night at McCool's).
And there have been plenty of TV shows that have referenced it, from a Diff'rent Strokes episode called "Rashomon II" to a CSI called "Rashomama." Even Marge Simpson once reminded Homer that he enjoyed Rashmon, though Homer retorted, "That's not how I remember it."
My favorite may be one that doesn't really exist; a background poster in an Evan Dorkin cartoon for a film called "Rashomonster," which featured the tagline, "Who really destroyed Tokyo?" Of all Kurosawa's films, Rashmon may be the most purely influential, simply because its idea that there is no one truth, that everyone's perception of reality is ultimately self-serving, only becomes more relevant as media and networking become a great part of people's daily lives. —Zack Smith