“Cinematic beauty,” Akira Kurosawa told Bert Cardullo in 1992, “must be present in a film for that film to be a moving work.” (1) And Kurosawa’s films certainly were moving. He had a reputation for being an authoritarian director, but not one lacking in wisdom or humility. At the heart of Kurosawa’s oeuvre lay the drama of a character’s mettle being put to the test, a test which invariably demanded that same wisdom and humility. If cinematic beauty was one side of the Kurosawa coin, then the other side was violence. Violence, whether physical or emotional, was a crucial part of that test.
A meticulous craftsman, Kurosawa also had a reputation for undertaking painstaking pre-shoot preparation and for going to great lengths to establish the authenticity of scenes, arranging rooms and battlefields alike as a painter would organise a canvas. Indeed, it was painting that first captured his imagination as a child.
Flipping through the pages of Peter Cowie’s lavishly illustrated and large-sized tribute to Kurosawa, one is left wondering why it took so long – 2010 having been the centenary of the director’s birth – for such a book to appear. As Cowie openly declares in his short preface, the visual power of Kurosawa’s work “deserves a pictorially driven tribute” (p. 31), and the many superb stills included here more than serve to remind us that he was very much a visual artist. Viewed alone, the illustrations in this book – over 200 – speak volumes for both the violence and beauty of Kurosawa’s films. Candid photographs of him at work and selections from his own artwork blend well with posters and film scenes to give full scope to the breadth of his cinematic imagination.
Take Kurosawa’s first film, Sanshiro Sugata/Judo Saga (Sugata Sanshiro), which he directed in 1943 when Japan was at war and censorship was rigid. Neither sentimental nor propagandistic, it proved a remarkably vivid portrait of one man’s struggle with himself as well as his foes. The three black-and-white stills chosen to represent the film show Sugata (Susumu Fujita) at crucial moments in his struggle, first stubbornly immersed in his teacher’s pond and then in the grips of battle with his rival. They afford an accurate window not only into the subject of the film but also into the film’s visual style, a feat that is repeated throughout the book.
Perhaps the most evocative picture is that taken from Dersu Uzala (1975) and spread across pages 8 and 9. It shows Captain Vladimir Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) and Dersu (Maksim Munzuk) gathering reeds for a fire on a desolate plain of nothing but snow and reeds. The actions are frantic and the men are clearly alone with each other, facing the cold in a wilderness that is both beautiful and threatening, the embodiment of the Kurosawa aesthetic.
But this is more than just a coffee-table tribute. It is also an insightful introduction to the inherent themes and qualities of Kurosawa’s oeuvre, not to mention Kurosawa himself, presented with a fresh and illuminating passion. Cowie certainly is passionate about Kurosawa, whom he sees as a “man’s man” more akin to John Huston and Sam Peckinpah than fellow Japanese directorial giants Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, and he has no trouble in dropping the name Ingmar Bergman, about whom he has famously written (2), or the names of other significant directors when the opportunity presents itself. And yet Cowie does not let that passion cloud his appreciation of Kurosawa’s admittedly flawed oeuvre or prevent him from accepting Kurosawa’s ultimately melancholic fatalism.
Cowie presents Kurosawa’s oeuvre in four discreet chapters: The Man and His Formative Years, Images of the Modern World, The Historical Imperative, and The Literary Connection. Each explores something of the Kurosawa philosophy and its reaction to the world at large as a part of the overall process of a man’s journey through film, reaching the “apotheosis” of his career “as an auteur of epic films” with Ran (1985) (p. 212).
After Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa yielded to the times and produced two propaganda films – The Most Beautiful (Ichiban Utsukushiku, 1944) and the lacklustre Sanshiro Sugata Part II/Judo Saga Part II (Zoku Sugata Sanshiro, 1945). Neither film served to suggest what was to come, although Cowie does find in the factory scenes in The Most Beautiful reminders of the “heyday of Soviet cinema” (p. 55).
It was in the relative freedom and contradictory world of post-war Japan that Cowie presents Kurosawa finding his feet as a humanist director. No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun nu kuinashi, 1946), One Wonderful Sunday (Subarashiki nichiyobi, 1947), Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi, 1948), The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru ketto, 1949), Stray Dog (Nora inu, 1949) and Scandal (Shubun, 1950) offer a critique of the new society unfolding around Kurosawa that reached its highpoint with Ikiru (Living/To Live, 1952), and continued sporadically thereafter with I Live in Fear/To Live in Fear (Ikimono no kiroku, 1955), The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, 1960), High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku, 1963), Dodes’ka-den (Dodesukaden, 1970) and Dersu Uzala, before reappearing in his twilight years with his final three films, Dreams (Yume, 1990), Rhapsody in August (Hachigatsu no kyoshikyoku, 1991) and Madadayo (1993).
From the melodrama of the earlier films, Cowie distills Kurosawa’s visual style and touching characterisations, finding “the flair of [a Sergei] Eisenstein” in No Regrets (p. 58), the sentiment of Frank Capra in One Wonderful Sunday (p. 59), something of “Bergman’s youthful vision of the world” in Drunken Angel (p. 60), and a “meticulous creation of the urban milieu” in Scandal (p. 71). While he does not offer much criticism of these films, Cowie at least recognises their limitations – something Kurosawa transcended with Ikiru, the second film (the first being Rashomon ) in which he truly articulated his genius as a director. While he finds rewards in the middle-period films, particulary Dersu, Cowie is clearly left deflated by Dreams, Rhapsody and Madadayo. His treatment of each is more matter-of-fact than appreciative, though he thanks Madadayo for “not yielding to didacticism as much as” the other two (p. 102).
Falling back to Rashomon for his third chapter, Cowie presents an enthusiastic portrait of a director and an actor (the indefatigable Toshiro Mifune) as alter egos in the sequence of films that encapsulated both Kurosawa’s brilliance and his reputation in the West. Indeed, Rashomon, Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954), The Hidden Fortress (Kakukshi toride no san akunin, 1958), Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (Tsubaki Sanjuro, 1962) embodied much of the wider world’s understanding of both Kurosawa and Japanese cinema. Bold, brash, violent and humorous, each is rightly presented as a film to admire.
Cowie has no difficulty in affording Kurosawa sufficient praise for these period classics, or in deciphering precisely what made them so engaging and so influential. Of Seven Samurai, for example, Cowie declares that the film “possesses an internal rhythm of its own – a tension roused not merely by the imminence of attack but also by the interplay of feeling between the samurai themselves” (p. 131). And in Red Beard (Akahige, 1965), it is Kurosawa’s “astringent, rigorous direction” that “banishes” any notions of melodrama (p. 169).
Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior, 1980), which won for Kurosawa the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Ran remain for Cowie “masterpieces on a titanic scale” (p. 43), visually enthralling and richly textured. But whereas Kagemusha is presented here as part of a superlative historical canon, Ran is instead covered in the fourth chapter devoted to Kurosawa’s more problematic literary adaptations.
In terms of its ambition, The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951) may well be Kurosawa’s most disappointing work. Adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 19th-century novel, The Idiot saw Kurosawa overreach himself, something he did again in adapting Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (Donzoko, 1957). Cowie avoids labelling either film to any extent a failure, preferring instead to let them preface the triumphant Shakespearean adaptations Throne of Blood (Kumo no su-jo, 1957) and Ran.
With Ran, Kurosawa made his most telling use of colour photography, a medium he had avoided using until Dodes’ka-den. Cowie briefly discusses Kurosawa’s use of colour in a fifth chapter devoted to this and Kurosawa’s cinematic relationship to painting, music, theatre, and the elements (water, air, fire and earth), all of which the illustrations bear out as key facets of the visual power and composition of his films.
Overall, Cowie’s book is a success because it reminds us that film demands to be seen and that, short of watching the films themselves, pictures paint a thousand words – especially if they are well chosen, as they are here. It is, however, but a short and tantalising introduction to Kurosawa’s work. The last major study of Kurosawa’s films was Mitsuhiro Yohimoto’s Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, published in 2000 (3). A decade is a long time and a new study of this master director would not be unwelcome.
Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema, by Peter Cowie, Rizzoli, New York, 2010.
- Bert Cardullo (ed.), Akira Kurosawa: Interviews, Conversations with Filmmakers series, University of Mississippi, Jackson, 2008, p. 167.
- Peter Cowie, Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography, Limelight Editions, New York, 1992.
- Mitsuhiro Yohimoto, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University Press, Durham, 2000.