I want to keep this column a constant, weekly thing, so the subject matter may seem an easy one, considering how on the record I am about Akira Kurosawa and his films. He's probably my favorite filmmaker next to Steven Spielberg, so I really didn't dig terribly deep for topic ideas this week. I'm working on a few things here at Casa De Nord, including my first YOU KNOW FOR KIDS article in at least a year, so when it came time to write this I wanted it to be fairly easy. A couple of weeks ago I talked about Kurosawa briefly in my Best Theatrical Experiences list, but I can't help returning to the man again.
Of course I ended up thinking about my top five Kurosawa movies for half the night. In the end, the positions of these five are fairly solid in my estimation, although 1 and 2 are razor-thin close in my personal rankings. I also gave it a lot of thought on why Kurosawa is one of my favorite filmmakers. You'd think that would be fairly easy as well, but for me personally, my conclusion is this - in each film that Akira Kurosawa made, you can see the struggle between his optimism and his pessimism in practically every frame. In the later years, it felt very much like his pessimism won out, until his final films from DREAMS onward, where Kurosawa made peace with his place in the world. MADADAYO may be a lesser film in the catalog, but as a final film I think it's a statement of love.
Again, your list may vary. But I have the feeling we'll have little argument on the top two, at least. Here we go:
5. RED BEARD
For a lot of people, RED BEARD is a lesser film in the Kurosawa catalog. It's mostly significant that it's Kurosawa's and Toshiro Mifune's last collaboration together, and you can see the tension between actor and director between the frames. Mifune was an actor who liked to stay busy, and because of Kurosawa's demanding shoot he was unable to seek other work while the movie was in production. Kurosawa was always a filmmaker who took his time, and RED BEARD was a long shoot even for him. Much has been written about Kurosawa and Mifune's relationship, and RED BEARD was the end of a long and fruitful friendship, although they were always cordial to each other in public and in interviews.
For that RED BEARD gets something of a bad reputation, but I think it's unwarranted. This story of a small town doctor and his student in feudal Japan feels very much like Kurosawa's statement on the treasures and rewards of simply being a good person to others. It's also the last movie in his roster for quite some time - it took Kurosawa five years until DODESKADEN was released, a movie that was such a critical failure in Japan that Kurosawa, depressed, attempted suicide. After RED BEARD, Kurosawa went down a darker path where his movies were concerned, struggling to make more, and was considered an anachronism to a Japan that was eager to move forward. But RED BEARD feels definitive to me, a moral treatise on humanity's empathy towards one another.
RED BEARD also seemingly launched a million doctor television shows - from MARCUS WELBY M.D. all the way to HOUSE. Dealing with the medical needs of people in unorthodox ways seems especially relevant today, and RED BEARD has stood the test of time for that alone.
Make no mistake. RAN is a masterpiece. It is truly epic filmmaking, done on a scale not seen in Japan before (at $12 million, it was the most expensive movie in Japan ever made at the time). The battle scenes are unlike any filmed before, and Kurosawa's use of color makes RAN one of the most gorgeously shot movies of his catalog. It's remarkable how beautiful it all is, considering that RAN, at its heart, is probably the bleakest, most pessimistic movie of Kurosawa's career. Kurosawa's wife died during production, and it is definitely a movie about loss, and the idea that everything you believed in is falling apart before your very eyes.
Kurosawa's loose adaptation of KING LEAR starts out simply, and then escalates into massive war and battle. Hidetora decides to give rulership of his kingdom to his three sons, but as their squabbles grow into all out hatred, Hidetora goes mad with grief, and simple divides which were at first cracks in the earth become canyons and chasms. RAN is a brutal film, full of pain and sadness, and no one comes out clean. Despair is the one true constant.
For that reason, RAN is a difficult movie for me to fully embrace. It's so antithetical to my own worldview that emotionally, it's hard to imagine that this is the same man who made such optimistic movies earlier in his career. Not that Kurosawa movies were all bundles of joy - at their heart they recognized the conflict between the world as we would like it to be and the glaring reality of the truth - but there was always hope. In RAN there is no hope. The center cannot hold. It is undeniably a masterpiece, one of the greatest war movies ever made, and one of Kurosawa's greatest movies. It's just one I do not return to often, because it is a primal scream from the depths of hell, and there is no escaping it. The pit swallows all.
Here's the movie that launched a thousand other movies (although the same could be said of SEVEN SAMURAI) and every spaghetti western ever made owes a huge debt to it. YOJIMBO is Kurosawa at perhaps his most playful, and in Toshiro Mifune he has found a samurai truly for the ages. This "thirty-year old mulberry field" finds himself in the middle of a conflict between two despicable clans, and how Sanjuro plays them off each other is a joy to see. Mifune's having fun here, playing an utter badass, but what's great about YOJIMBO is how damn smart it is. There's crosses and double-crosses, and through it all Sanjuro endures. It's no wonder that YOJIMBO has influenced so many films since. It was even good enough to warrant a sequel, the only film other than SANSHIRO SUGATE, made very early in his career, to do so.
For people coming new to Kurosawa's movies, YOJIMBO is always the one I recommend first. For one thing, it's incredibly accessible - all Kurosawa's films were, in my opinion, but YOJIMBO more so than most. It's got action, humor (even though it's of the black variety), a great setting and Mifune probably at the height of his abilities. It's not terribly long, and because the movie's been referenced so much in modern filmmaking, it's remarkably easy to follow for even a novice to Japanese film. It also has all the themes of Kurosawa's best work - the war between our better natures and our unerring ability to fuck it all up.
Plus, it's so damn entertaining. Everyone seems to be having such a good time that it's hard not to share in it. It's rare for Kurosawa movies to play in theaters these days, and that's a terrible shame because at his heart, I believe, Kurosawa wanted nothing more than to entertain and enlighten audicnes everywhere. YOJIMBO is proof of that. YOJIMBO at its time was a wildly successful movie for Kurosawa, and SANJURO, the sequel, is just as much a pleasure to watch.
I say this every week, but these final two choices are so close to me that it really depends on the mood I'm in on how I rank them. For me, while my number one is my absolute favorite Kurosawa movie, IKIRU may well be his best. Here Kurosawa's themes of the goodness of humanity versus our cynical, darker aspects of our nature are in full effect, and IKIRU has, in my opinion, the finest performance of any of his movies. That would be Takeshi Shimura's Kanji Watanabe, a bureaucrat in modern post-war Japan, who with his discovery that he has cancer decides to live a life that matters. Shimura is stunning in IKIRU, and carries the movie on his back, even during the final third where he is only seen in flashback.
Kurosawa could have made a movie steeped deep in sentimentality, and lesser filmmakers would have done so. But IKIRU is remarkable in just how unsentimental it all really is. When the emotion becomes overwhelming, Kurosawa pulls back, except in a few instances. And in the movie's final third, where his co-workers, friends, and family examine Watanabe's life like so many tea leaves, perhaps trying to find the answers to their own lives there, Kurosawa does what is perhaps his most remarkable feat as a director - he earns every bit of emotion and power by making examples and by not overdoing the emotions on display. When they do come, it is as powerful as a gut punch. Watanabe on the swing, for me, is the most iconic scene in all of Kurosawa's movies, and what it means in context is triumphant.
There is a cynical streak in IKIRU that is undeniable. Kurosawa, through his films, seems to think that without an extraordinary event in someone's life, they will always choose the easier path, but there is always hope that they won't. That somehow, a good deed will emerge, and it doesn't necessarily take a great tragedy to bring it out. Perhaps IKIRU is Kurosawa's statement that we need the darkness in our lives to motivate us to great deeds. It's certainly true of his life, and it seems to be true of humanity as a whole. What IKIRU mourns is that it shouldn't be always thus - that to make the world a better place, we need simply to reach out and act.
To me, IKIRU is the essence of Akira Kurosawa, and the most important film in his catalog. It is a complete and utter masterpiece, and Takeshi Shimura is devastating, powerful, and flat out great in it. Toshiro Mifune is great in so many of Kurosawa's films, but Shimura, for me, gives the greatest performance of all his movies. IKIRU can quite literally change someone's life. That is the mark of greatness.
1. SEVEN SAMURAI
Far better writers and reviewers than me have written about SEVEN SAMURAI, so I can only write about what the movie does for me personally. I think SEVEN SAMURAI is epic storytelling at its finest, and while there are so many characters to keep track of and so many events in the movie to follow, what makes SEVEN SAMURAI work best is that each of the characters feels fully-developed and whole. Much is made of Mifune's portrayal of Kikuchiyo, the farmer's son born into poverty who wants to abandon his predestined role, but SEVEN SAMURAI is so strong because of all the characters. There's Takeshi Shimura's Kambei, the leader, weary of war and yet compelled to do good whenever he can, and I love Shimura in this almost as much as IKIRU. His Kambei and his Watanabe could not be more different. There's Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyuzo, perhaps the most badass samurai of all, and yet even he yearns to live a life of meaning. Minoru Chiaki's Heihachi is looking for friendship and his good humor helps bring all of the samurai together. Isao Kimura's Katsushiro is a rich boy playing at being a samurai, and through his eyes we see much of the new generation clashing with the older world's values and ideals. Yodhio Inaba as Gorobei the tactician and Daisuke Kato as Shichiroji, Kambei's friend and fellow lieutenant round out the seven samurai who for just the food on their plates decide to help save a small farming community from bandits.
I guess what I respond to the most in SEVEN SAMURAI is how the characters interact with each other and give the story resonance and emotion. SEVEN SAMURAI always feels full because of it. We care about everyone in the movie - the townspeople wracked with fear and grief, and the samurai, trying to find their place ina world that seemingly has moved on. We even have some empathy for the bandits, who are probably starving and attack the village out of need and not out of malicious intent. Kurosawa seems to be able to see all sides in everything. In SEVEN SAMURAI you can see a society in flux, much as Japan was at the time, and how they come from a tragedy so much stronger and bound together is probably one of the movie's most resonant themes. As the old ways are passed, a new way of life emerges, unattached from the traditions of the past that held them back.
But perhaps what I love most about SEVEN SAMURAI is that it's just so enjoyable to watch. There may be a stigma attached to it - it's considered one of the greatest movies of all time, after all - but there's nothing homeworky or difficult about SEVEN SAMURAI unless you just flat out don't like reading subtitles, in which case you're likely beyond help. So many epics fail to achieve what SEVEN SAMURAI does and that's all due to giving us characters we care about, building a rapport with the audience, and telling a compelling story that's about more than just good guys and bad guys. SEVEN SAMURAI stands the test of time because it's such a great, rich story. It really isn't more complicated than that. It's full of action, it's funny, and so rich with emotion and empathy. Perhaps SEVEN SAMURAI is the grandfather of the modern action movie, but so many of these basic lessons have been lost - it really is about the story, stupid.
There are so many great works by Akira Kurosawa that this list seems hardly representative - KAGEMUSHA, THE BAD SLEEP WELL, STRAY DOG, DREAMS, HIGH AND LOW, RASHOMON, DRUNKEN ANGEL, THRONE OF BLOOD, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, THE LOWER DEPTHS, DERSU UZALA, and many others are all there for the viewing. I wish Criterion would just hurry up already and put them all on Blu-Ray, IKIRU especially, but they're all out there if you want to find them. For those who have never dived into his catalog before, and may feel intimidated by Akira Kurosawa's films, I'll only say this - you'll be surprisedby just how much you find yourself in common with these movies. Kurosawa didn't make movies to be put on a pedestal and enjoyed by the snootiest of cinema fans. He made movies for the people. He made movies to be seen, and enjoyed, and loved by everyone. We all share common bonds, across the years and across the oceans, and Kurosawa's movies assure us that all our struggles are universal ones. We are not alone, Kurosawa says, and we never will be, even in our bleakest moments of despair. Even RAN is about the losses of a path not taken, and its tragedy one of disconnect. Will this ever change? Will out fight ever end? Will we finally despair and succumb to regret and hopelessness? Like MADADAYO says, "Not yet. Not yet."