The Author, His Text and Context: Akira Kurosawa’s Black and White Movies
“When filmmaking runs that deep, it never becomes familiar”. Scorsese’s remark on Kurosawa reminds us of how little we understand, not only of cinema but of life itself. Irrespective of all the disciplinary appreciations and criticisms we undertake, none of us can fully decipher an auteur’s philosophical foundation. Cinema, just like other major art forms has developed across continents – in cultures across the globe presents their respective identities. To be able to perceive works of such a vast domain demands a considerable level of education in the history and politics of arts, of individual allegiances, of national identities, and of ideological evolutions. From the very little that we perceive, we can rely only on humility. It would be an impiety to assimilate all of Kurosawa into such a compact discussion. Thus, this selective approach.
Pudovkin and Eisenstein often opposed each other on their views on “shots”. Writing about dialectics in cinema, Ritwick Ghatak embraces Eisenstein – “every shot is in conflict with one another”. According to Ghatak, no shot has an individual meaning or purpose, but when two shots combine, by their correspondence signifying a correlation between that of thesis and antithesis, a third meaning is achieved – the synthesis. The part of a movie which does not pertain to any direct visual experience is this synthesis – a personal understanding which facilitates us to appreciate a film. When we talk about cinema in its absence, we are naturally inclined to dive into that synthetic segment of our consciousness where the cinema ensues, performing itself to deliver newer expressions every time. Therefore, the viewer becomes an active performer at the outset of the filmmaking process. That is, if by film making, we intend to also include meaning making. Our entry into meaning making of Kurosawa’s cinema can be approached by investigating his most popular identifying remark – “most western of Japanese directors”. The statement itself raises a load of questions, a considerable section of which has the possibility to engage in Japan’s political identity as a nation. But then, the other counterpart ought to be considered too – the viewer’s cultural identity. It is undeniably to Kurosawa’s credit that Japanese cinema was introduced to the international audience. His widely acclaimed Rashomon (1950) still receives accolades for being such a significant milestone in world cinema. On the contrary, to understand the western-ness of Kurosawa Akira, we must visit at least once to Yasujiro Ozu’s Japanese-ness. Although mostly Japanese in content, Kurosawa’s form carried a certain pace which can be identified to some extent as a western influence on the director. In his childhood, his father used to take him to the movies from where he recalls his memory of a “masculine” William.S.Hart.
“An image remains emblazoned in my mind of William S. Hart’s face. He holds up a pistol in each hand, his leather armbands decorated with gold, and he wears a broad-brimmed hat as he sits astride his horse. Or he rides through the snowy Alaskan woods wearing a fur hat and fur clothing. What remains of these films in my heart is that reliable manly spirit and the smell of male sweat.”
On the other side, Ozu’s visual appeal appears brimming with traditional Japanese settings. The Tatami shot is actually unique to the Japanese way of sitting on their knees. The camera is therefore not too low, yet at such a height that it produces incongruence for viewers unaccustomed to this particular cultural performance. In fact, the slowness of shots, simple yet appealing frame composition signifies a quality of sublime unsurpassed by his contemporaries. Returning to Kurosawa, the appearance suggests the opposite. His content is more “masculine” with a constant mechanism of action. This gendered attribution has its origin in Japanese culture dating back as early as in the Heian period. The horizontal, illustrated narrative handscroll of that period known as Emaki serve as some of the earliest depictions of otoko-e (men’s pictures) and onna-e (women’s pictures) styles of painting. As an annotation to the gendered remarks, we have two examples. One is The Siege of the Sanjō Palace (1160), depicted in the “Night Attack on the Sanjō Palace” section of the Heiji Monogatari handscroll (otoko-e) and the other one is Tale of Genji handscroll which typically deals with court life, particularly the court ladies, and with romantic themes (onna-e).
Night Attack on the Sanjō Palace (handscroll detail)
The Tale of Genji
It would appear as if Ozu belonged to the onna-e while Kurosawa pioneered the otaka-e. Kurosawa, being inherently Japanese, with a genealogy leading back to Abe Sadatō (1012-1062), son of Genji warrior Yoritoki who died in the Battle of Zenkunen, was overwhelmingly influenced by his cultural identity. Behind the director’s auteurism lies culture. Culture-as-author is perhaps the most prominent understatement for any creative pursuit. Kurosawa is no exception.
“No matter where I go in the world, although I can’t speak any foreign language, I don’t feel out of place. I think of the earth as my home. If everyone thought this way, people might notice just how foolish international friction is, and they would put an end to it.”
A notable anonymity spans across time and history which derive from this inclusive approach. How differently do we perceive a cinema set in the 14th century? We are not always inclined to be historians in front of the silver screen and in the process end up appreciating the human character embellished by defined circumstances of the historical setting. The understandability of characters and their performance is based on how much the audience is able to relate with it. Therefore, even if films go back and forth in time, it is essentially the human nature and force of circumstances that occupy primary concern. This point of view of the audience did guide Kurosawa to such an extent that he continuously treads into history. His is the dialectics of time and history. Frederick Kaplan captures the essence of this concept by suggesting that “Kurosawa uses cinematic technology to explore the dialectic between time and history; he deals cinematically with the past in order to deal ideologically with the present and future, and, more specifically, with class struggle and the role of intellectuals in that struggle.” At a time when the filmmakers had only begun to explore the extent of cinematic capability, Kurosawa’s motivation to enter the Japanese genre system of moviemaking seems to have generated from his own potentiality. Seven Samurai (1954) is guided by such a motivation in which tragedy plays an important role while the social role of an individual is continuously questioned by slowly doing away with the idea of individual heroism. This period piece set in 1586 during the Sengoku period, also suggests a symbolic reference to those Japanese who were lost forever to the second world war. To call upon specific historical facets requires a force of implication from the present. In 1954 the National Safety Force and the Maritime Safety Board were reorganized into the Self-Defense Force (Jieitai) in apparent violation of the Article 9 of the 1947 constitution, which “renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use offeree as a means of settling international disputes.” Seven Samurai reinvents Jidaigeki at the hands of Kurosawa. At the beginning of the movie, samurai culture becomes a notion of class distinction – as we find the peasants being thwarted and denied by Samurais. The first instance of a heroic character is when Shimada Kanbei rescues a kid taken hostage by a thief (by disguising as a monk). The heroism slowly develops into a communion of seven characters who are essential “one”. The lament at the close of the movie deeply addresses that sense of loss. The peasants sing joyously as they begin their harvest. As the camera cuts to the three samurais – the screen turns silent, the joyous ritual of the villagers becomes peripheral – the three of them stand in front of the funeral mounds of their comrades. The lament becomes even more symbolic when the Kanbei suggests their victory as pyrrhic: “In the end, we lost this battle too. The victory belongs to the peasants, not to us.” The final frame shows us the layered funeral mounds where the wind blows fervently – their heroism is transformed to a non-existent solitude. The frame resonates with Rilke’s lines –
“Remember: the hero lives on. Even his downfall
Was only a pretext for attained existence, a final birth.”
Final shot of Seven Samurai
Irrespective of its setting, Rashomon (1950) maintains similar anonymity to bring out the politics of narration. The movie is not about judgement; it speaks of vice, virtue, and crime, but not of punishment. Its stylistic execution places the judge in the audience’s seat and vice versa. This dissolution of the fourth wall gives the authority of judgement to the audience. But the audience remains lost within the labyrinth of narratives questioning the nature of truths, assaults and betrayals which are all, as the movie suggests – subjective. Subjectivity, therefore, derives from multiplicity. The narratives either accuse others, or glorify their own virtues, or even lament to their own unfortunateness. With a storyline containing a story within a story, it approaches in such a way that in the end, the characters who were contemplating on the nature of truth’s subjectivity are tested of their own convictions.
The narrators. Only the Samurai or husband (second from left) is portrayed in a different setting. He is dead. His character speaks from a non-material realm. Its subjectivity is two times deeper.
Even though samurai films span throughout Kurosawa’s career, his portrayal of violence is not the outburst of physical exertions. The Bushido code influenced by Zen Buddhism marks the virtues of a samurai. Nitobe Inazo interprets the samurai code of chivalry and expands into rectitude or justice, courage, benevolence or mercy, politeness, honesty and sincerity, honour, loyalty, character and self-control. Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962) for example are movies which intend to promote many of those qualities through a “hero” but it seems what Ritwik Ghatak remarks of Seven Samurai is more appropriately applied to this featurette. According to him, when an artistic endeavour intended to deliver a generous and virtuous tale turns into a mere thriller, it is of no use. One can argue that Kurosawa intended to make it a thriller. But, then, an opposing statement would be – has he not made thrillers based on a more contemporary setting? Stray Dog (1949) was a crime thriller. Yet, in its essence, instead of mere heroism we find an underlying tone of persistence. When a successful and seasoned senior detective Sato invites his apprentice detective Murakami to his house, the dialogue between them speaks directly about the then-contemporary crisis in post-war Japan:
Murakami – …. All those years in the war, so many men became beasts at the slightest provocation, over and over.
Sato – Right. Must be our age difference. Or maybe it’s the times. What do they call it? Ap..Aple…
Murakami – You mean Après-guerre?
Sato – That’s it. You’re part of that post-war generation. Maybe Yusa is, too. You identify with Yusa too much.
Murakami – Maybe you’re right.
Murakami – There are two après-guerre types: like you or like Yusa. You’re the real thing. Yusa is ap… aprè… après-nothing.
At the end of Stray Dog, as Murakami pursues and chases down Yusa. As they both fall to the ground grappling, they become symbols of post-war Japan – struggling to regain its balance and come out of its extremities.
At the end of Stray Dog, as Murakami pursues and chases down Yusa, they both fall to the ground grappling; they become symbols of post-war Japan, struggling to regain its balance and come out of its extremities.
The samurai ethos that Yojimbo lacks is eloquently captured in Kurosawa’s directorial debut Sugata Sanshiro (1943), a.k.a. Judo Saga. A samurai’s ideological affiliations to Zen Buddhism appear in two different aspects in Seven Samurai and Sugata Sanshiro. While Seven Samurai is about the execution of philosophy, Sugata Sanshiro is about comprehending the philosophy. Sanshiro, the protagonist aimed at learning jujitsu, eventually ends up being the disciple of Shogoro Yano of the Shudokan Judo school. The movie has a broader ground which remains overlooked – the difference between jujitsu and judo. For that one needs to understand the difference between a “Do” and a “Jutsu”. “Jutsu” refers to the fighting method linked with martial disciplines of war, rather than with the sporting or aesthetic practices of modern Japan. “Do” or “Way”, stresses on philosophy with moral and spiritual connotations as a pathway to the practice of martial arts; the ultimate aim being enlightenment and personal development. The physically talented yet reckless Sanshiro gets involved in brawls and while confronting his master for his recklessness, he says that he is willing to die if he is asked to do so. When Yano dismisses his conviction, he jumps into a pond, unwilling to come out as long as his master pardons him. At the end of a cold moonlit night, sunk till neck in mud, Sanshiro achieves enlightenment when he sees a lotus blooming. In Buddhist art, a lotus in full bloom signifies enlightenment and its ethos lies in a traditional proverb from zen philosophy that says – “May we exist in muddy water with purity, like a lotus.”
Sanshiro’s moment of Enlightenment
A lack of poetic sense that Ritwik Ghatak imposes on Seven Samurai, can be found in Ikiru (1952). A contemporaneous piece with a subtle complexity in point-of-view is actually a dying man’s desperate search for meaning in life. With the generation gap widening between him and his son and diagnosed as having stomach cancer, he is presented with the absurdity of life. Watanabe’s search for meaning involves overcoming existential despair. Takashi Shimura’s exceptionally melancholic acting elevates him as a memorable actor.
“Life is brief;
Fall in love, maidens
Before the crimson bloom
Fades from your lips
Before the tides of passion
Cool within you…”
As Watanabe sings the song in grief, a teardrop waits in his eyes.
But the movie does not end there. it goes on to amalgamate poetry and politics. This turn in plot structure is an interesting deviation from the conventional closures. With almost fifty minutes of screen time left, our protagonist dies. The rest of the movie is an ensuing debate and argument between bureaucrats with an attempt to define and dissect Watanabe’s character. Two things are juxtaposed in this movie – the individual who acts, and the bureaucrats who choose criticism over action. The song repeats once again at the end of their debate. Watanabe sits against the snow on the swing at the park he built. This time it is not grief, but contentment. He has no regrets.
Twice he sang, both times, he lived a different life.
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) eventualises one of Kurosawa’s experiences as an active participant in the underground political actions of the Proletarian Artist’s League which he joined in 1929. In the movie, leftist protagonist Noge enters a coffee shop unaware of the detectives waiting to catch him. He enters, takes a seat. The realization of his threatening situation comes too late to him and he is arrested. It was in a coffee near Komagome station that Kurosawa had run into a situation so similar that the only difference was Kurosawa not being caught. Although based on the 1933 Takigawa incident, the movie propagates a deeper meaning of revolution which originates from the individual’s deeper self. Noge, unlike Yukie, is a professional revolutionary. Although she spends a brief married life with Noge, she does not understand the essence of revolution. It is only after Noge’s death that she begins her journey to become a woman with an ideological conviction. Revolution is born from within, not from mere determination, but from a consistent struggle. The toughest struggle is with the self. From ideology of politics to the ideology of personality, Yukie embodies both; and she emerges victorious.
Setsuko Hara as Yukie
High and Low (1963) step deeper into Japan’s contemporary condition. Based on the 1959 novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain, the film’s title literally translates to “Heaven and Hell”. This solidifies an axiomatic motif. High and low can be treated as aspects of morality expressed in Gondo (played by Toshiro Mifune) and Takeuchi (played by Tsutomu Yamazaki). It can also be perceived as the image of Japan that ranges from the complacent and affluent “heaven” to the needy and nihilistic “hell”. While Gondo lives in a mansion looking over the city enjoying modern luxuries like air conditioning, everybody else has to deal with the blistering heat in the “hell” of the bustling city below. An efficient police force is found patrolling the problematic zone where the high and low collide. The modern world in which High and Low take place is unavoidably an American world or perhaps the post-American world of a Japan trying to emerge from the years of occupation and accustoming itself to a new era of unbridled economic development, bringing along new kinds of social unease and dislocation. The bullet-train sequence is a strong enough metaphor to explain this affiliation. The use of anamorphic ratio serves to capture the wide landscape of metropolitan Japan from Gondo’s residence and at the same time creates an exceptional sense of distance between characters caused by their moral dilemmas. It becomes a remarkable feat in the stylistics of spatial organization. A sequence shot in towards the end of the movie in which Takeuchi visits the bolthole of junkies uses a stark contrast of light – a chiaroscuro sequence. Framing the antagonist with his reflective spectacles eerily juxtaposes hell and crime on the visual level. The movie ends with a confrontation between Gondo and Takeuchi moments before the latter is to be hanged for a capital crime. Kurosawa chooses to superimpose their reflections as the moral virtuosity of Gondo is revealed by Takeuchi’s emotional breakdown. Takeuchi is taken away; the shutter falls and Gondo remains where he was – staring at his own reflection. The conflict between the self and the other is a complex process. It depends crucially on the location of the “other”. In High and Low, the conflict is between the two aspects of “other” – that within the self and the one outside – Gondo’s conflict within himself, and the society’s conflict within itself.
The characters sit across the frames – the distance between them is unusually prominent
Takeuchi visits the bolthole of junkies
Cultural affiliations of Kurosawa have urged critics into debates on adaptation. But when we discuss the Throne of Blood (1957) it is the Japanese-ness of the movie that concerns us. Behind the Japanese-ness is Kurosawa’s extravagant implication of the Noh in cinema. Macbeth was written for the stage. Noh can be perceived as a lyrico-dramatic tone-poem where dance, mime and rhythm, are distinguishing characteristics. The actors move in front of the camera in a dancing rhythm, defying cinematic realism. Masks to play an important role in Noh. To some viewers encountering Kurosawa films for the first time, Toshiro Mifune’s energetic acting in Rashomon might seem justified because of the character but they also might identify his high-pitched expressions in Throne of Blood as an exaggeration. This is where Kurosawa’s stylistic mastery takes place. In cinema, literal masks are not employed but are executed by implying specific types of expression on the actor’s façade. Kurosawa says in his interview to Sato Tadao that he showed Mifune (who plays the role of Washizu/Macbeth) the Noh mask called heida, a mask of a warrior, and to Yamada Isuzu (Asaji/Lady Macbeth) the shakumi mask, a face of a beautiful middle-aged woman on the verge of madness. Also, the witch in the woods looks like the mask called yaseonna (old lady). Tradition guide artists in many ways and many times it paves the path to a realm of high art – Throne of Blood belongs there. Shakespeare gave a story – Kurosawa showed us how universal that story could be.
Theatricality in Throne of Blood
“Poverty is a political problem they say. But what has politics ever done for the poor?” At the beginning of Red Beard (1965) is this query (or accusation). Two approaches are in contradiction to one another – while for the newly recruited doctor, “the pain and loneliness of death frighten me.” But for Kyojō Niide (Red Beard, played by Toshiro Mifune), “there is nothing so solemn as a man’s last moments”. The absurdity of human existence lies in the unending conflict between the heart and the body. Yasumoto’s progressive growth as a morally responsible doctor lies in an inherent realisation that comes through contradictions. Kurosawa’s last black and white movie, although rarely mentioned, is the ultimate statement of Kurosawa as an auteur. Critics who accuse the film of patriarchal authoritarianism have dissected the narrative quite deeply and yet their understanding remains extremely superficial as they fail to notice Otoyo’s growth and role in the movie. These opposites are assimilated – existentialism and humanism converse with each other in the film. Even a movie as prosaic as Red Beard executes such a metrical form that through an extensive play of cinematic imagery – its overall essence becomes poetic. Poetry and science; prose and metre amalgamate in one movie. Red Beard is the last Kurosawa film in which Toshiro Mifune appears, marking the conclusion of a remarkable collaboration of two illustrious artists. It marks a milestone as the conclusion of a phase in Kurosawa’s career.
“there is nothing so solemn as a man’s last moments”
Kurosawa always makes his presence felt in his movies. His cultural identity actively participates in narrative creation and stylistic execution. To understand the miniscule annotations, one must dive deeper into Japanese history and culture. Most importantly, the idea of “orient” which we interpret from colonial and post-colonial perspectives does not define Japan’s situatedness. Its imperialist history must be taken into consideration for further study. If we step into the world of his colour films, those annotations become even more necessary as colour itself is a semiotic element; and for a director like Kurosawa, the silver screen is nothing different from a canvas. This is where we end and begin; then begin again.