Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kurosawa - One Last Time in 2010

2010 is the centennial of Akira Kurosawa's birth. The Stanford Theater and PFA have had Kurosawa programs to celebrate the anniversary. Now, Viz Cinema has programmed another Kurosawa program although it focuses on Kurosawa's work with Toshirō Mifune. The series runs from December 18 to January 6 and features seven films - Red Beard, The Idiot, The Lower Depths, High and Low, Stray Dog, Drunken Angel and Seven Samurai.

I believe The Lower Depths is one of the few Kurosawa feature length film that I haven't seen.


I have yet to write about the Kurosawa program at the PFA (June 4 to Auguest 29). The massive series included 29 screenings including many Kurosawa films I hadn't previously seen. I watched 13 films in the series. I skipped every screning of a film I had previously watched. The two films from the series which I wanted to see but was unable were The Lower Depths and Dreams. I have seen Dersu Uzala on a VHS tape my father recorded from the Turner Classic Movie series on Kurosawa earlier this year.

The only other full length Kurosawa film which I have not seen, according to IMDB, is Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946). Kurosawa was contractually obligated to direct the film despite not liking the script so he disowned it. According to IMDB, the film hasn't been screened in Japan since its initial release and has never been shown in the United States.


All 13 films were in Japanese with subtitles and directed by Kurosawa.

Red Beard starring Toshirō Mifune; (1965)
I Live in Fear starring Toshirō Mifune; (1955)
Sanshiro Sugata starring Susumu Fujita; (1943)
Sanshiro Sugata II starring Susumu Fujita; (1945)
The Most Beautiful with Takashi Shimura; (1944)
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail with Susumu Fujita; (1945)
No Regrets for Our Youth starring Setsuko Hara and Susumu Fujita; (1946)
The Idiot starring Setsuko Hara, Masayuki Mori and Toshirō Mifune; (1951)
Dodes'kd-den; (1970)
The Quiet Duel starring Toshirō Mifune and Takashi Shimura; (1949)
Ran starring Tatsuya Nakadai; (1985)
Rhapshody in August starring Sachiko Murase; with Richard Gere; (1991)
Mādadayo starring Tatsuo Matsumura; (1993)

A few notes - Red Beard was the final collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune. Dodes'kd-den was Kurosawa's first film in color. 2010 is the 25th anniversary of the release of Ran so the film screened at the Landmark Lumiere for a week and the Castro Theater in November. Sanshiro Sujata (1943) was Kurosawa directorial debut.


Given that it has been 3 to 5 months since I watched the films, I don't see much need to recap the plots. They are Kurosawa films after all so they is a wealth of material written about them.

I was most looking forward to Sanshiro Sujata and its sequel Sanshiro Sujata II. Since both films were made during WWII, I wondered how Kurosawa responded to the censorship of the Japanese government. Could Kurosawa's artistry and storytelling skills shine through the propagandists edicts of government censorship boards. The films disappointed me. I'm not sure if the problem was censorship and wartime deprivations or Kurasawa not yet having "found his voice." I never really found myself emotionally invested in Sanshiro Sugata (the title character), a young man coming of age with the help of the principles he learns through judo training. The films featured action scenes galore but I found them uncompelling; perhaps because I found the lead character uncompelling.

Having seen two film made during WWII, I was not anxious to see The Most Beautiful. The film was billed as more overtly propagandist than the Sanshiro films. As I started watching the film, I saw more familiar techniques by Kurosawa. Sentimentality, self-sacrifice and suffering were at the forefront. In The Most Beautiful, a group of young women (teenage girls really) live and work at a factory making lens for gunsights. Using a large ensemble cast of young women in his second film, Kurosawa seemed to have reached his zenith with regard to directing women. I don't recall another film where the main character was a woman until 48 years later when he directed Rhapsody in August.

The Most Beautiful features young women who are bit naive. They look upon their work as a contest of sorts and their patriotism seems more lke youthful idealism. It's hard to square the girl's work with the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army so as I watched the film, I divorced the two thoughts in my mind. The enjoyment of the film comes from Kurosawa's manipulation of the audience's emotions. Whereas I was apathetic to Sanshiro Sugata, the girls in the lens factory have an exuberance and esprit de corps which is infectious. The propaganda film set in a wartime factory is tranformed by Kurosawa into an examination of group dynamics among young women. The Most Beautiful turned out to be one my favorite films of the series.

After maintaining a punishing schedule in the 1950s, Kurosawa slowed his pace in the 1960s. By my count, Kurosawa directed 13 films between Roshomon (1950) when his international reputation was established and Red Beard (1965). Between 1965 and 1990, Kurosawa only made five films - Dodes'kd-den (1970), Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985) and Dreams (1990). Having seen four of the five films, I can say I'm less enthusiastic about Kurosawa's later works.

It is with some surprise then that I found his two works to be among the most enjoyable of the PFA series. Starting with Dreams, Kurosawa made three films in four years. Although the films were not well received upon their release, I was pleasantly surprised by them. The final two films in Kurosawa's filmography are Rhapsody in August (1991) and Mādadayo (1993). Work has been done to complete a documentary Kurosawa made about Noh theater so a new Kurosawa film may be forthcoming.

Rhapsody in August is about three generations of a Japanese family and how the bombing of Nagaski still affects them 46 years later. The key role of the grandmother who survived the bombing is played by Sachiko Murase in the final role of her 60 year acting career. Providing a counterpoint are her four grandchildren who are growing up in the Japanese economic boom years of the 1980s. Kurosawa explores issues related to the generation gap played out against the specific backdrop of Japanese society which experience profound change in the 45 years after WWII.

In Mādadayo, Kurosawa returns to overt sentimentality and male bonding as a group of men celebrate their university professor's birthday each year. The begins in the aftermath of WWII and continues into the 1960s. As the character's age, so does the nature of the party. What starts as a stag beerfest turns into a multi-generational banquet. Tatsuo Matsumura plays the aging professor who inspires such devotion and affection in his students.

Also noteworthy is No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) where Kurosawa teams up with Setsuko Hara three years before she would begin her celebrated collaboration with director Yasujirô Ozu in Late Spring (1949).

Beyond the Kurosawa-Hara teaming, No Regrets for Our Youth is more political than most Kurosawa films. Perhaps to atone for propaganda films during the war, Kurosawa casts the university peace protestors of the 1930s as his heroes. Hara is metamorphisizes from spoiled child of intelligenstia to a traitor shunned by the poor rice farmers she lives amongst.

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