quinta-feira, 29 de dezembro de 2011

Akira Kurosawa: Tradition in a Time of Transition

(Akira Kurosawa filming Dersu Uzala, 1975)

Known as the ‘Emperor’, Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) began his career as a painter, did illustrations for popular magazines and joined Japan Proletariat Artists’ Group in the late 20s. In 1936 he answered an advertisement seeking assistant directors in the studio that later came to be known as the Toho Motion Picture Company. He learnt basic filmmaking in Kajiro Yamamoto’s group for six years, wrote scripts and began to direct films. His Rashomon, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1951, gave him international fame and recognition. No Regrets for Our Youth, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Ikiru established him as one of Japan’s leading directors.
He won the Academy Award for his Siberian epic Dersu Uzala. After Kagemusha won the Golden Palm at Cannes it was distributed worldwide by 20th Century Fox.
Kurosawa is also known for his adaptations of western classics like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and King Lear (Ran) as well as his use of elements from Kabuki and Noh and his work with his regular actors, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. He innovatively used new cinema techniques like long lenses and multiple cameras in his sword-fighting and samurai films and Panavision and multitrack Dolby sound in Kagemusha.
He was preparing a new film when he died on September 6, 1998.
Tadao Sato looks at Kurosawa’s work in the context of postwar Japan and the ‘discovery’ of Japanese cinema by the west.

(Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune)
By Tadao Sato

In the postwar period, Japan found itself oscillating between the extremes of an inferiority and a superiority complex vis-a-vis the west. In this article I will discuss what bearing this had on Japanese films in general and on Akira Kurosawa in particular.
When Japan opened its doors to the outside world, breaking the shackles of isolation in the mid-19th century, it was shocked to find that most of Asia had been colonized by the west and Japan lagged far behind in terms of scientific advancement. This gave birth to a deep sense of inferiority and in order to overcome it Japan tried to emphasize its spiritual tradition which was believed to be superior to that of the west. One such tradition was bushido – the feudal samurai spirit characterized by values like valor, loyalty, a sense of mission and self-sacrifice. A number of people believed that if this samurai spirit were enhanced, Japan might be able to unite Asia under her lead and pose a strong challenge to the might of the west. This in turn, gave birth to a feeling of superiority with regard to Asian countries which suffered a crushing blow during the Second World War. Japan then entered its most humiliating period ever. The postwar history of Japan is one of a recovery from this inferiority complex and a regaining of self-confidence.
For more than 50 years from 1910 when mass production of films started in Japan, nearly half of the 300-odd films produced annually had feudal themes where the protagonists were either samurai or gangsters (yakuza), who had a samurai-like code of conduct. Such films were called jidaigeki (period films). Feudal themes being filmed in such large numbers over such a long period is something that has no parallel anywhere in the world.
Such themes, which could be said to belong to the genre of action or stunt films loved by audiences the world over, also reflected the Japanese desire to identify with the samurai. The positive impact of these films was to lift the morale and the self-respect of the Japanese, but at the same time they definitely led to the growth of a militant spirit in the country.
Kurosawa made his directorial debut in 1943 with Sanshiro Sugata, just before the Japanese collapse. It is the story of a judo expert who was inspired by the samurai spirit at a time when the samurai class had ceased to exist. The scene where the protagonist knocks down an American boxer was seen as symbolizing the victory of the Japanese samurai spirit against western aggressiveness. The film was a runaway hit so a second part was also made.
In 1945, after Japan was defeated in the Second World War bushido came to be regarded as an outdated reactionary sentiment. The Japanese wanted to forget about bushido altogether and learn, instead, about democracy. However, surprisingly enough, it was the samurai films that came to be known and appreciated by westerners, principally after Kurosawa won international renown with Rashomon in 1950.
While jidaigeki became famous the films that portrayed modern Japan were ‘discovered’ by the west only in the 70s, through the works of Yasujiro Ozu, Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura. Kurosawa himself made several films on contemporary life, starting with Ikiru. For my generation of Japanese who spent their youth in the immediate postwar years, films like No Regrets for Our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, which vividly portrayed the realities of that age and carried a strong moral message, gave us the courage to live. And additional factor was that we discovered that films could also be a source of entertainment. However, in my opinion, only a handful of people saw these films outside Japan.
For foreigners, the modern lifestyle of the Japanese, where people seemed to have lost their traditional values, were morally confused and were only imitating the west, was of little interest. In contrast, the jidaigeki, in which the pre-modern lifestyle and the value system of the Japanese was portrayed in a glorified manner, proved more attractive to the outside world. But not all Japanese jidaigeki were appreciated by the foreigners. Among the films which won international acclaim in addition to those by Kurosawa were only a handful such as Harakiri by Kobayashi Masaki, and Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff by Kenji Mizoguzhi.
In the mainstream jidaigeki there were many stereotyped stories and acting styles and most of them were associated with the thoughts and emotions typical of a feudal society. The manner of expression of loyalty between the ruler and the ruled was stylized to the minutest detail and was embedded in tradition. Breaking the shackles of such a stylized from was the hallmark of Kurosawa’s jidaigeki.
These period films were made in special studios, by specialist directors and stars and enjoyed tremendous popularity. Interestingly, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Kobayashi were not products of these studios. All of them made primarily gendaigeki (contemporary-life films) and took to making jidaigeki as an experiment. They believed that employing the realism of modern drama while making jidaigeki could by highly interesting.
In his first jidaigeki – Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945)– Kurosawa took up a noted work entitled Kanjincho, known for its accurate representation of feudalistic behavior patterns with various Kabuki themes and, while retaining its basic form, he made a daring and successful experiment by parodying it into a modern musical comedy.
His second jidaigeki was the famous Rashomon but in this work he took up a story set two centuries ago when feudalistic thought and behavior patterns were yet to be established. It was thus a unique film which was totally unrelated to the mainstream jidaigeki.

(Rashomon, 1950)


Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival in 1951. It came as a complete surprise but, subsequently, when it was screened in many countries, it won widespread acclaim. With Rashomon Japanese cinema arrived on the world map which was a significant development not only for the history of Japanese cinema but also for world cinema since, until then, only American and European films were shown and appreciated worldwide and there was almost complete ignorance of films being made in other countries. In a number of Asian countries, films were being made in large numbers from the beginning of this century and there were many which were classics. But they were not known internationally.
Teinosuke Kinogasa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, among others, had been making films since the 20s that were well-known within Japan but not internationally. Even if there was a rare opportunity of showing them in the west, they did not attract much attention. The Japanese, therefore, tended to believe that the standard of their cinema was much lower than in the west and that since Asian films were very slow, they were unacceptable to outsiders. No Japanese was present at the Venice film festival when Rashomon was screened, because no one expected it to win the Golden Lion.
Westerners also could not imagine that films with international appeal could be made outside America and Europe. For that very reason, Rashomon came as a big surprise to the outside world and paved the way for a new age when it was accepted that good films could be conceived and made throughout the world and not just in America and Europe. Kurosawa’s films made an impact because they had thoughts and emotions which were universally understood.
Rashomon opens with a robber who meets a travelling samurai and his wife in the woods, dupes the samurai, ties him up and rapes his wife in front of him. Such a shocking story had never been filmed anywhere before this. That such a barbaric act had been filmed at wall was symptomatic of the transitional period that Japan was passing through after World War II and it also symbolized a liberation from existing morals. Kurosawa was the most celebrated Japanese director of the time and he not only successfully filmed such a shocking scene but showed deep insight into people’s emotions. The film offered a sophisticated analysis of attitudes and feelings: the tendency to over-estimate oneself, the tendency of the protagonists to fabricate tales to suit their own ends, the strong sense of honor. The film had a unique beauty and intensity – neither purely Japanese nor western – and it was this fusion of traditional Japanese and western aesthetics which impressed people everywhere.
The nucleus of the story is three eyewitnesses who make contradictory statements; they fabricate their statements not to save themselves but to present themselves in the best possible light. They even stake their lives on the question of honor.
This was the intrinsic part of the samurai culture and the main theme of traditional drama. The most representative work on this theme was the noted Kabuki work, Chushingura, the story of 47 samurai who were prepared to sacrifice their lives for the honor of their lord. This is linked with the feudal values of loyalty to one’s master and the pre-modern attitude of vendetta. Although one of the most representative works of Japanese traditional drama, the story cannot be called universal in the modern context. Rashomon, while retaining the behavioral pattern of proud men with these feudal values from the traditional theater, analyses the pattern from the modern point of view of individualism. It tries to show that the desire to show oneself in a good light can easily end up in self-deception. It liberates the Japanese from the traditional them of belief in loyalty, honor and pride and develops it into a more universal theme. Moreover, by showing Japanese women with strong sense of self, under-played in traditional theatre, he provides a counterpoint to the theatre of men. Here the strong character of women as seen in modern western theatre or literature is quite apparent. In the court scene Kurosawa uses traditional Japanese landscape architecture very skillfully, making it seem like modern abstract painting. In the scene where the spiritual medium (miko) appears, the effects of both the tradition of Shamanism and the surrealism of modern western art are present. In this way, Rashomon is a unique blend of elements from traditional Japanese and modern western cultures.
Japan’s Pacific war against America and England was, in a sense, a violent outburst of its long-held inferiority complex as much as an expression of a distorted sense of honor. Samurai pride which was damaged by this inferiority complex against the west gave rise to an illusion that Japan had a mission to fulfil – to guide Asia, to liberate it from western imperialism. It will be an exaggeration to say that in Rashomon there is a criticism of the extreme sense of honor among the Japanese. But making this film in the fifth year after the debacle of the war had a historical meaning. Rashomon was a special film which was totally different from the mainstream jidaigeki. Usually in the sword-fighting scenes in mainstream jidaigeki, the spectators would become active participants. For years, therefore, specially trained actors enacted these sequences so acrobatically that they became unrealistic. Since Kurosawa did not want an unrealistic sword fight between the robber and the samurai, he used actors like Toshiro Mifune and Masayuki Mori who had never acted before in a jidaigeki, gave them swords and made them engage in a realistic fight which was totally different from other films.

(Shichinin no Samurai, 1954)

The Seven Samurai

The Seven Samurai was an attempt, after the experiment with Rashomon, to look again at a fight set in the 15th century between a bandit gang and a group of farmers led by samurai. This too was totally different from mainstream period films.
However, it is debatable whether Seven Samurai was really a work of realism. Since at that time there was hardly any historical study of the lifestyle of the masses, Kurosawa used his imagination and came up with a story where farmers who did not know how to fight, took on a group of bandits by engaging the samurai. Today, however, studies are available about the life of Japanese farmers of those times which provide much greater detail. According to these studies the farmers, when threatened, were well-equipped to take on even the regular forces of the Daimyos, what to speak of bandits. Not only were they well-equipped, they also had an elaborate set of rules. For instance, there was a rule that if an intruder entered the village, the first person to notice him would shout for help and everyone would immediately rush there, leaving whatever work they were doing. Those who failed to do so would be punished by the village authorities.
If we take these recent studies to be accurate, then the portrayal of farmers in this film who, without the guidance of the Seven Samurai would have been defenseless, is not correct. In fact, Kurosawa tended to glorify the samurai but did not have much regard for the traditions of the farmers, merchants and artisans. This is amply substantiated in subsequent films like Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
However, it was customary in mainstream jidaigeki to portray samurai as heroes and the common masses as ordinary people with no courage, and Kurosawa was not the only one to do so. Moreover, in the mainstream jidaigeki, men who did not come from the warrior class but still behaved in a heroic manner, were mostly the yakuza or professional gamblers. Yakuza films – which are a genre by themselves – are mostly of this type. Kurosawa, being a moralist, did not think of glorifying such rogues or, in other words, of making a yakuza film. However, he once cast Mifune in the role of a yakuza, The Drunken Angel, which was of course not a jidaigeki film. Kurosawa portrayed this character in a highly critical manner, as a weak-willed, foolish person. But young cinegoers idolized and appreciated him. Subsequently, Kurosawa cast Mifune in a youth’s role who had a strong sense of justice in The Quiet Duel and Stray Dog, as if trying to prove that he had no heart for yakuza.

(Ikiru, 1952)

Of Morals and Men

Kurosawa was critical of himself for glorifying the samurai too much. He cast Mifune as a strong samurai, a superman in Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The violent scenes in these films had an influence on the mainstream jidaigeki and brutal sward fights became popular. Kurosawa held himself responsible for this new phenomenon and he went on to make Red Beard to counter this trend. It portrayed a team of doctors who devote themselves to the treatment of the poor, the weak and the sick.
Shugoro Yamamoto, on whose novel this film was based, was an exception among period novel writers who always wrote entertaining works glorifying the samurai. Unlike the others, Yamamoto wrote about the moral behavior of the common masses – poor people who have self-respect and the forms in which it manifests itself. In Red Beard too there are several episodes where poor patients maintain their moral stance even in trying circumstances. After Red Beard Kurosawa made Dodeskaden based again on Yamamoto’s novel, on the moral values of the lower classes.
However, Kurosawa who showed an unusual power of expression when portraying strong samurai, did not show the same sort of expressive power when portraying self-respect among poor and weak people. Dodeskaden was not as successful as his other films – either in Japan or abroad.
In the later part of his life, Kurosawa maintained his international reputation with Kagemusha and Ran. These films were excellent works which were as beautiful, as paintings, but they did not carry a powerful message. His old Japanese fans defended Kurosawa by saying that he was accepted internationally only when he made jidaigeki. On the other hand in his modern films, Dreams and Not Yet, he displayed his talent as a painter, but as drama they were tame and, therefore, not successful.
In conclusion, one can say that Kurosawa drew upon the positive elements of past morals, like bushido and other traditional forms, and offered them as a moral support for the Japanese who were shattered and were suffering from an inferiority complex. In this respect, he showed an unparalleled creative power. But the work that was a true expression of these bushido morals was ironically not one whose protagonist was a samurai; in Ikiru the protagonist is an ordinary civil servant who is ‘doomed’. This petty official, on learning that he has only six more months to live due to cancer, tries to fulfil his obligations within the limited time, devotes himself to the masses and then quietly dies a satisfied man.
This was the true bushido spirit that was revived after World War II and it was this spirit which led to the recovery of Japan after the war.

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