From Kurosawa a documentary on Kurosawa…
Kurosawa was heavily criticized in Japan for appealing to an international audience but he did more than anyone else to show Japanese society to the west. It was upsetting to him that he was criticized for being western because his films were thoroughly Japanese even though they appealed to westerners.
Kurosawa was born into a samurai family and had a very formal upbringing. On Sept. 1, 1923, a massive earthquake struck the Tokyo region of Japan. The fire storm which followed killed two-thirds of the city. Akira was very young and his brother took him to look at the ruins. For an entire day, they wandered around the city and saw every kind of corpse imaginable. Akira was horrified, but if he involuntarily looked away, his brother scolded him to look carefully. His brother told him that if you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened; but if you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of. For his brother, it had been an expedition to conquer fear.
His brother had bucked his samurai upbringing and became a professional silent film narrator. Akira, on the other hand, appreciated the lack of narration in silent films. When he became a film maker, he left out all unnecssary dialogue in his films.
Originally, Kurosawa wanted to become an artist so was following in his brother’s footsteps as far as following a more unconventional life. His brother, however, suffered from his unconventional choice and he and his girl friend committed a double suicide. Akira became the only son and he began to feel a sense of responsibility toward his parents which made him impatient with his aimlessness. He became much more earnest about making films.
His first three films had to follow the demands of National Policy. He married the leader of the girls in The Most Beautiful. He says it isn’t one of his best pictures, but it is the one most dear to him.
During Sept. 1945, American occupation began and lasted 7 years. The Americans were in Japan to introduce democratic ideals. Japan had never been invaded before and now thousands of troops were sent to Japan. The Japanese were told to indure the unindurable so offered no resistance. The new administration wanted to repress feudal values, so The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, which Kurosawa was directing during the occupation, was not allowed to be released. It was only released after the occupation ended. I haven’t seen this movie because it is one of the few Kurosawa films that isn’t readily available.
The freedom and democracy of the post war era were not things Kurosawa had fought for and won. They had been granted to him beyond his own power. He decided it was important to approach them with an earnest and humble desire to learn in order to make them his own. Most Japanese, on the other hand, simply swallowed the concepts whole without really knowing what they meant. The occupation army was a sort of liberation army for Kurosawa because it gave him freedom in his films he hadn’t previously had, but that same freedom caused a sort of ugliness among much of Japanese culture. After the extreme austerity the Japanese they had endured, many Japanese reveled in their new found freedom. Kurosawa saw this reveling as troubling. Drunken Angel reflected this social conflict.
Rashomon confused Japanese audiences but became a huge success in the West. It won the Golden Lion award at the Sundance Film Festival. It was Rashomon that made Japan known to the rest of the world. But since foreignors understood it, Japanese critics claimed the film was un-Japanese. It was always upsettting to Kurosawa to be told he was making films for Westerners. The Japanese critics said the film was awarded for exoticism rather than on its own merits which infuriated the Sundance jurors. They said that all human beings share the same problems and a film has to be able to depict this. Kurosawa claimed he had never had any intention of being world famous. He was just trying his best to be Japanese.
After Rashomon, Kurosawa’s films focused on people trying to live virtuous lives. He said he could be found in the characters of his films. Self-sacrifice and moral committment resonated with Kurosawa’s samurai background. But with Red Beard, Kurosawa entered a transitional period. His next film wasn’t well received and he attempted suicide. After that, his films were very pessimistic which isn’t surprising because Kurosawa lived to make films and all of a sudden he found himself having to beg to be able to make them. That’s how he ended up making Dersa Uzula in Russia. If that film hadn’t gone well, he may never have made another film. But it ended up winning the Academy Award for best foreign language film and Kurosawa went on to make several more highly acclaimed films even though he still had to rely on funding outside of Japan.
He died at the age of 88, shortly after making Madagayo.