At the outset of this introduction to the films of Akira Kurosawa, I want to raise the issue of cross-cultural viewing or ‘reception’. I am not Japanese. And, furthermore, I do not speak or read Japanese. I must own up to this, in response to the challenge to do justice to Kurosawa’s cinema in a complete and comprehensive critical overview. Not being or speaking Japanese puts me in the position of that huge community of non-Japanese audiences and critics who have seen Kurosawa’s films over the years and have loved and been intrigued by them. (1)
An urgent, if all too familiar, question arises: does one have to be Japanese, or speak Japanese, in order to fully understand and appreciate Kurosawa’s films? This question can be understood as a particular example of the wider question about how one understands any film, artwork or artefact that comes from another culture, from the ‘other’ as one would say today in the parlance of cultural and post-colonial studies. From the time of Kurosawa’s emergence in the international film scene in the 1950s as a major ‘auteur’ with the award-winning exhibition of Rashomon at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, this has been a more or less implicit question animating much of the critical work done on his films. (2)
The most common response to this question has been to point to the ‘Western’ characteristics of Kurosawa’s cinema, in terms of form, content and artistic vision. Kurosawa has frequently been called the ‘most Western’ of Japanese filmmakers. (3) In this vein, influences on Kurosawa are found in the American Westerns, above all, those of John Ford. The characteristic Western tales of lone heroes in starkly delineated social conflicts and Ford’s mise en scène of figures in monumental landscapes and dynamic conflicts figure prominently in these accounts. Other evidence of the Westernness of Kurosawa is found in the fact that he frequently adapted literary material from European and American literature, from Shakespeare (Throne of Blood [Kumonosu jo] 1957, Ran 1985) to Feodor Dostoevsky (The Idiot [Hakuchi], 1951) and Maxim Gorki (The Lower Depths [Donzoko], 1957) to the pulp fiction writer Ed McBain (King’s Ransom is the basis of High and Low [Tengoku to jigoku], 1963). Also, his earlier studies in painting were inspired by a mix of Japanese and European modernist influences, including Vincent Van Gogh. Some have argued this also fed into his compositional preference for widescreen ‘landscapes’. (4)
At the level of the auteur’s personal vision, Kurosawa was feted in the 1950s and 1960s as one of the great auteurs of universal and enduring significance because of the humanist and humanitarian themes that pervade his work: a compassion for individual suffering, a quest for justice through personal rebellion against corrupt social structures, a concern for the existential crises of ‘man’ in the face of death, social pressure, and the apparent meaninglessness of life’s struggle.
These themes, influences and inspirations are not denied by Kurosawa himself, though he insisted that he did not seek to directly copy the directorial style of any director, whether it be John Ford or Sergei Eisenstein (another filmmaker whose work Kurosawa himself cites in his Something Like an Autobiography (5) as having had a significant impact on him as a young cinephile). But while he had no problem admitting that Western film and art were a significant part of his own cultural development, he insisted that his films were made for Japanese audiences first and foremost, and that he felt he was the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers. (6)
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Kurosawa here, it can be seen that the question of whether one needs to be or speak Japanese to best understand his films is not so much resolved as it is complicated by the mix of Western and Japanese cultural practices and codes operative in the conception, production and reception of his films. In a way, the emphasis on Kurosawa’s ‘Westernness’ by Western critics (and also by some Japanese critics and distributors) deflects the question. The quite widespread view that Kurosawa absorbed enough Western influences to give us a ‘Westernised’ window onto Japanese stories and aesthetics has tended to obscure the question posed by the ‘otherness’ of Japanese culture, language, and tradition equally present in his films.
My introduction to Kurosawa’s work, then, must return to this question of how to understand, interpret, appreciate, and value the films of this Japanese filmmaker. I cannot answer it definitively (were that possible) in the space available, but I hope to repose the question so that it can be reactivated in and through the (re)viewing of some of Kurosawa’s works in this Cinémathèque program. To accomplish this initial reposing of the question of cross-cultural communication – of what can be communicated across cultural barriers of language, social structures, mythologies, behavioural codes and traditions – I shall refer to an extraordinary comment penned by the famous French film critic and theorist, André Bazin, in a review of Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece, Living (Ikiru). (7) In this review, Bazin is discussing precisely this issue of how to understand the appeal of Kurosawa for Western audiences. He initially expresses a view corresponding to that described above, saying that Kurosawa uses his Western influences ‘to reflect an image of Japanese tradition and culture that we can assimilate through our eyes and our intellect’. (8) Further on, however, he complicates this initial proposition, betraying his characteristic eye for the complexities that lurk beneath easy explanations of difficult problems. Bazin says that Ikiru is a specifically Japanese film, but in the same way that Fritz Lang’s M is German and Welles’ Citizen Kane is American: that is, they all are both particular to their cultures but also universal in their humanism. Bazin then likens Kurosawa to James Joyce, who ‘used the vocabulary of all languages to reinvent English-an English that we could call pre-translated and yet untranslateable’. (9)
A pre-translated, untranslatable language. This is what Joyce invented, and what Bazin compares to Kurosawa’s film Ikiru. This description evokes the idea that the film is both specifically Japanese and yet somehow universally understandable, universally translatable. But this formula captures the paradoxical, contradictory element of this idea, that something that is particular to one culture, one language, can be simply and transparently converted into another language or languages.
This is the paradox of translation itself, which is always undertaken with the assumption that this transparent, universal element exists and can be communicated in the translation. But different languages exist, their differences are prior to any translation: as Jacques Derrida tells us: ‘Before language, languages’. (10) That is, before the idea of Language as such, as a system of communication instantiated variously in all the world’s languages, and as the underlying and unifying correspondence that makes possible translation from one particular language to another, there were multiple languages, differences, incomprehension, incommensurabilities, otherness.
Nevertheless, translation occurs constantly and inevitably, and it exists in the framework of a promise to be a faithful, complete and full translation. Kurosawa’s films can be thought of as translations, not only of Western forms of filmmaking and storytelling, but also of competing Japanese cultural practices and traditions. Central to Kurosawa’s concerns is the issue of Japanese identity per se, itself a major preoccupation of the Japanese since at least the Meiji restoration of the mid 19th century, which set Japan on a course of active modernisation of its social, political, industrial and economic institutions and practices. The fate of Japanese identity amidst this ‘Western’ style modernisation and industrialisation was of widespread and ongoing concern in Japan right up to the Second World War. And the post-war occupation of Japan by US-led forces up to 1952 and the re-writing of Japanese political, economic, military and social models under the Occupation Authority only served to reanimate and even exacerbate those concerns. This is the period of Kurosawa’s greatest work according to some, and it does not fail to address these events, even in the period films (Jidai geki) made in the 1950s and 1960s, four of which will be screened in the Cinémathèque program.
Let me conclude my introduction to the question of the cross-cultural by saying that if Kurosawa’s films are translations, so then are the efforts of critics and filmgoers who watch them. Translations of a ‘pre-translated yet untranslateable language’. Between the pre- and the un- lies the translation, the effort of translation. In a sense, the translation is always ‘pre-‘ because the codes, forms and traditions that are drawn upon always impose a meaning in advance of its use in any particular film, adaptation, or scripting of a story. But having been accomplished, the particular film is then in a way untranslatable because there occurs in it elements that are specific, singular and unique to it as a film, as a work, as an interpretation. This is the situation one finds oneself in when addressing this question about the Western reception of these Japanese films. But it is one which confronts the viewer of any film, or work, or language that comes from the ‘other’. Indeed, even one’s own language, as Derrida has pointed out in a more recent text, always comes from the ‘other’, is not wholly one’s own. (11) Nevertheless one is destined to translate, one cannot do otherwise.
The question is, then, what to translate, and how best to translate. And this is always an ethical question, even when it seems to be simply a case of finding the most ‘correct’ or aesthetically suitable word, image or edit. Kurosawa knew this. His cinema can be understood as a sustained effort at translating stories, from both Japanese and non-Japanese sources, that explore and question the ethical possibilities of group and individual behaviour in the class and social structures of society, and in the course of specific historical and cultural developments and destinies. His diverse aesthetic borrowings and experimentation need to be seen in this light. Throne of Blood’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth via Noh theatrical traditions of staging and performance, the reframing of Gorky’s social satire in 19th century Japan’s Lower Depths (Donzoko, 1957), the encounter with absurdist literature and the Japanese new wave in Dodes’-kaden (1970), the breathtaking reinvention of the Ford action mise en scène in Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954), the merging of Western lone wolf and ronin figure in his direction of the wonderful Toshiro Mifune in both Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), the inheritance of an Eisensteinian conception of dialectical montage throughout, his debts to both European post-impressionism and modernism as well as to traditions of Japanese painting and calligraphy; all of the formal choices and experiments of Kurosawa’s cinema need to be thought through the challenge he set himself to make his art translate a profound and complex questioning of Japanese and human possibilities. If, as so many of his critics and admirers in the West asserted in the 1960s, Kurosawa’s is one of the great humanist film projects, I would say that what is truly significant about its humanism is the way his films engage in a powerful questioning of the problematic but unavoidable humanist assumption that deep down we all share basic traits, social needs and values. The danger that the different, the ‘other’, the ‘untranslatable’ will be annihilated as a consequence of this assumption of sameness is never forgotten in Kurosawa’s films. This is why, as Gilles Deleuze has argued, Kurosawa’s cinema is above all a cinema of the question, of questioning, an action cinema certainly, but a cinema of action in question. (12)
- My love and sense of intrigue began with immemorial perceptions of the ‘Samurai’ films such as Seven Samurai, in conjunction to be sure with the internationally popular TV series, The Samurai, itself inspired by the post-war reinvigoration of the Jidai geki or period films at the hands of Kurosawa and others. Kurosawa’s intelligent action films have been no small influence on my lifetime interests in both film and the martial arts.
- In fact, investigation of the circumstances surrounding the inclusion of Rashomon in the Venice Film Festival is the best place to commence such a questioning. The film’s distributor, Daiei Studio, did not even consider Rashomon when asked to nominate a film to go to the international film festival. It was eventually selected at the urging of Guilliana Stramigioli, head of Italiafilm in Japan. According to Japanese film historian, Donald Ritchie, in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, 3rd Ed. (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996), its prize at Venice was a profound shock to the Japanese. It was a film not made for export and as such, it was assumed it would not be understood by a foreign audience. Some critics could not see how a period film would be of interest to the West. ‘Eventually’ says Ritchie ‘they decided that it was because Rashomon was “exotic”… and that foreigners liked exoticism’ (p. 80). The cross-cultural reception of Kurosawa’s work has been a topic of debate from the outset of his international fame, both in Japan and outside it.
- See Stephen Prince’s The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1991), p.12, for a list of some of the numerous descriptions of Kurosawa in this vein.
- In this regard note that one of the episodes in Dreams (Yume, 1990) is a fantasy in which a character enters into a Van Gogh landscape.
- Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, trans. Audie Bock, Knopf, New York, 1982
- See Prince, pp.18-21.
- André Bazin, The Cinema of Cruelty, ed. Francois Truffaut, trans. Sabine d’Estée (Seaver Books, New York, 1982), pp.200-203.
- Bazin, p.201.
- Bazin, p.202.
- See Jacques Derrida, ‘Des Tours de Babel’, trans. Joseph F. Graham, Difference in Translation, ed. Joseph F. Graham (Cornell Univ. Press, New York, 1985), p.186.
- See Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other, or, the Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998).
- See Gilles Deleuze’s extraordinary, insightful discussion of Kurosawa’s work in Cinema One: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986), pp.187-192. Deleuze’s comments were the inspiration behind ‘Action in Question: Akira Kurosawa’, a 2 day course held at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School in 1999 as a tribute to the work of the recently deceased Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. This paper is a modified version of the introductory lecture of the introductory lecture of that course.