Kurosawa (2001)

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.

Madadayo (1993)

Madadayo is the last Akira Kurosawa film available through Netflix because it is the last Kurosawa made. (He died 5 year after making Madadayo). I’ve watched all the rest of the films available through Netflix and it’s been quite a journey!

Madadayo is about a German professor who resigns his professorship to write full time. His students have great affection for him so students of all ages continue to visit him until his death. They have a fairly elaborate celebration in honor of his birthday every year after his 60th. They call it his Mou ii kai. Every year, they have a tradition. They ask him “Mou ii kai?” (“Are you ready?”).  And every year he responds, “Mada dayo” (“Not yet!”) and drinks a very large glass of beer that gets substantially smaller as he gets older. 

This is what kids say when playing hide and seek in Japan. The kids who are seeking call out “Are you ready?” and the kid that is hiding responds “Not yet”.

Kurosawa was 60 years old when he tried to commit suicide because of a failed film (Dodeskaden) so it’s probably no coincidence the Professor is 60 years old at the beginning of the film. His home is bombed and this man who has had a fair amount of prestige and respect all of his life ends up living in a tiny gardener’s shack. The professor makes the best of it, but is clearly distraught.  Japan is in shambles and so is the professor.  Luckily, Kurosawa’s suicide attempt wasn’t successful because he made six films after Dodeskaden, several which are highly acclaimed (Ran, Dersa Uzula, Dreams).

What amazes me is the beauty with which the Professor’s wife is presented. There is something gorgeous about her devotion. As a modern American female, there is also something disturbing about it. Why is it the professor is allowed all of these ups and downs but the female is presented as the steadfast rock?  The movie shows changes in this regard over the years. At the beginning of the film, there are only men at the Professor’s Mou ii kai party.  At the end of the film, there are both women and children. And honestly, there is something beautiful about service and devotion – especially if it is to someone who is likewise devoted to you. It’s not always about what we “get”, but also about what we “give” and in the giving, we get.

There is no open critique of the American occupation, but it is clear that the professor doesn’t know what to make of them. As the movie progresses, the characters start using more English and self-centered capitalism is obviously encroaching upon the old “honorable” ways as presented in the scene between the potential new landlord who seeks only financial compensation and the old landlord who genuinely cares about his tenants so refuses to sell the property to the potential landlord when he discovers his intentions to block the professor’s view, even though the sale of that land would get him out of poverty.  (Wish someone had done that to the extremely self-interested people who built the huge house on the edge of Mt. Bonnell that blocked the beautiful view of downtown Austin everyone had enjoyed from the park for years upon years! I literally cried the first time I saw it!)

The other thing I noticed upon a second viewing, is that the professor is terribly upset about the loss of a cat. Not sure why I didn’t connect with this upon first viewing, but upon second viewing I remembered having a cat who once disappeared and how extremely upsetting that was for me. I found it as a stray in the rain in college so took it in. It lived with me through my first husband, my second marriage, my first child, my second child, and all of our crazy moves through California. When we reached our final destination in California, it ran out and never came back. I can relate to the projection of what has happened to you on a lost pet because that time period was absolutely horrific for me and the loss of a treasured pet made it that much more tragic – especially since I didn’t know what had happened to him. I could only imagine. That’s exactly what the professor does with his cat, Nora. He imagines it trying to find it’s way through the ruins of bombs which are still smoldering. Nora is lost, as is the Professor, as is Japan.

Everything is in ruins from the view of the house his students built him. But when he finally comes out of his depression, everything is rebuilt.

I was raised in American Suburbia and my children are being raised in Suburbia. The mantra in suburbia is do what makes money. Do what gets you prestige and notoriety. The professor tells the kids at the end of the film to find something they really like and that when they find it, to work very hard for their treasure. If they work hard at their treasure, it will become their career. That is not what I was taught, but it’s what I believe and what I hope I’ve given my children even though I didn’t inherited it. Maybe it’s impossible to give to your children what it is you’ve never had, but both my kids seem to get it, anyway.  Jury’s still out, of course. Jury’s still out for me, for that matter.

I don’t know if I would have liked Madadayo so much if I hadn’t seen so many other Akira Kurosawa films and especially if I didn’t know a bit about his history.  I think I probably would have despite the fact that most say this is a film for Kurosawa fans, only. The acting and the story line is fantastic! Of course, I have spent a lot of time with Kurosawa over the past several months so can’t be particularly objective about this. Personally, I think it is a fabulous film. I’ve liked Dreams and Madadayo as much as any of Kurosawa’s other films, except, perhaps, Ikiru which remains my favorite.

Rhapsody in August (1991)

I saw Hiroshima Mon Amour about a year and half ago because Hubert Dreyfus used it as an explanation of Kierkegaard’s Preamble of the Heart in Fear in Trembling. It’s about a man whose family has been completely wiped out by the Atomic Bomb. The woman is European and has also suffered great loss thanks to the War.  But nature is far stronger than human destruction and human beings can either accept this nature (which is often considered to be “lower” because it is finite) or resist it. The woman resists it, but the man accepts it and this acceptance, which requires the complete absorption of the loss (rather than a resistance to it), allows him to become what the woman cannot. The women becomes resigned, but the man follows his lower nature and is stronger for it. The woman says she knows what it is to forget, but the man knows that she does not know because she cannot internalize the loss like he has been able to do. The internalization requires forgiveness which likewise requires faith. (Dreyfus said the man represented Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith because he is able to embrace the contradiction of remembering and forgetting.)

Rhapsody in August is a much different film than Hiroshima Mon Amour, but it is likewise about forgiveness and remembering and forgetting. Kurosawa was in his 80s when he made this film so it is likely about Kurosawa trying to come to terms with it, himself.

He presents the event through the eyes of the grandchildren of a man who has died when the Atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. They are visiting their grandmother while their parents are in Hawaii, visiting American relatives.   The grandmother’s brother had moved to Hawaii, married an American wife, and created a very successful pineapple farm they hope they can take part in. The brother, however, is dying and wants to see his sister, the grandmother.  Her children encourage her to come, in part, to ensure they can take part in the family business. The grandmother says she will come, but only after the anniversary of the bombing which is honored by the older generation even though it has been almost completely forgotten by her children and is virtually unknown to her grandchildren. The grandchildren explore Nagasaki while visiting their grandmother and slowly learn about what happened from both the city and their grandmother’s recollections.

Meanwhile, the grandmother’s brother in Hawaii has sent his Japanese-American son (Richard Gere) to be with the grandmother during the anniversary of her husband’s death (the bombing). Her children are very worried about his visit because they don’t want him to be offended by the memories of the bombing. This doesn’t make any sense to the grandchildren at all, and the grandmother is very clear that she doesn’t blame the Americans. She says it is the fault of war, not people. Clark (Richard Gere) doesn’t apologize for the politics, he apologizes for what it is the woman has suffered. It’s offered as a genuine expression of human compassion, not a critique of politics. It’s an admission of his, and that of the subsequent generations’, failure to recognize what it is the grandmother and others have suffered. She accepts his apology which is an offering of  forgiveness. Again, the apology isn’t about the bomb having been dropped, but an apology for the lack of true human connection.

I think that is significant. Like Hiroshima Mon Amour, it deals with an existential paradox – that of remembering and forgetting: we forget (are able to move on) by remembering.

Maybe it seems trite, but break the word re-membering down and it implies bringing members back together.   Reconnecting. That is what the man is able to do in "Hiroshima Mon Amour" that the woman is not: he’s able to fully internalize his grief which allows him to walk the line between the paradox. This allows him to live and love in a way the woman cannot. The woman can only be comforted by resignation which denies possibility while possibility remains open to the man despite his great loss. That’s what Clark and the grandmother do in Rhapsody in August and why the grandchildren know they have witnessed something very nice. They re-member. And thereby, they are able to forget.

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990)

I absolutely loved Akira Kurosawsa’s Dreams! These dreams are supposedly based on those Kurosawa actually had at various times throughout his life. I’m not sure if these were day dreams or sleeping dreams or both, but they are beautiful. This is supposedly the most “Japanese” of all of his films and therefore the most difficult for Westerners to understand. But I think my mind makes more sense of symbolic imagery than it does logical realism so I had no problem with it at all and was never once bored, as is the claim of many Western viewers. I think the film is absolutely gorgeous! Some say it is a very self-indulgent work and perhaps it is, but I thought it was both insightful and universal.

"Sunshine Through the Rain" is about a little boy who wants to play in the rain because the sun is shining. There’s an old Japanese superstition that says the foxes hold their wedding ceremonies when its raining and the sun is shining so little boys can’t go out to play. Of course, the little boy does go out to play and it has very serious consequences. The boy is noticed by the fox and must kill himself unless he can gain forgiveness from the angry fox. So the boy goes off, seeking forgiveness from the fox. I can’t begin to imagine what Kurosawa meant by this, but I related to it in terms of religious superstition. There is all of this beauty we are taught to ignore because if we witness it, we are headed straight to Hell which is a sort of suicide. I get the feeling Buddhism has elements of this crazy Hell within it every bit as much as does Christianity. It’s the nature of superstition no matter the religion! Mess up according to social custom and you will be eternally doomed!

"The Peach Orchard" is about a young boy, too.  Again, he’s not supposed to leave the house but he follows a girl who shouldn’t exist out into the peach orchard which shouldn’t exist, either, because it’s been cut down. There are spirits of the peach orchard which chastise the boy for being a part of having the orchard cut down. The boy cries, assuring them that he loved the orchard and was devastated that it was destroyed. The spirits believe him and there is much dancing and jubilation at this realization, but in the end, the peach orchard remains chopped down – except for one small peach tree branch that is flowering.  What it made me think of is what starts out as the innocence of children.  When you are a kid, you don’t feel you are at fault for everything adults are doing to the world, but as we get older, most of us end up being more part of the problem than part of the solution because we have unconsciously adopted our parents views and their deeds. The ending makes me think of my favorite Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax which is likewise about deforestation and consumerism. All that’s left is a single seed but in that seed and the younger generation is hope.

"The Blizzard" is about four mountain men making their way through a terrible snow storm. All finally choose to give up but one who, even though he encounters an alluring spirit that tries to lull him into death, chooses life. And with this choice, he realizes his camp is just minutes away which invigorates his fellow men who are all encouraged to get back up and make their way to “home base”. That, to me, could speak to so many different possibilities: the desire to give up on what matters most deeply to you because it is so incredibly counter-cultural; the cultural desire to give up on life because it seems far too bleak ;  and the idea that you’ll never know what lies just around the bend if you do decide to give up.

"The Tunnel" is about a Japanese military officer who believes he is at fault for the death of his platoon. He has to try and convince them they are dead and releases his guilt to them before they march back into the tunnel. I watched this and for the first time realized how difficult it must be for military officers who “lose”.  How do people deal with this sort of loss when it involves so many lives and those lives have been destroyed at your order? There is a very strange dog that meets the officer prior to entering the tunnel and returns after the tunnel, too.  It was a Soviet tactic to use dogs laden with explosives. Maybe the Japanese used them, too? I don’t know how the dog fits into the dream, but it’s definitely nightmarish! Of course, its just as horrible to use animals to aid in killing as it is human beings! I guess I have a difficult time understanding war as anything other than a nightmare. How did humanity ever get to the point of believing killing and violence are justifiable? When the ex-military officer sends the dead away, they obey without question. Ah! There’s the link! The Soviet dogs were starved and then trained to search out food under tanks. Once they were trained to search for food under tanks, they were sent out to search for food under enemy tanks which, of course, they wouldn’t find. But they went under the tanks looking for it anyway and all of the explosives they carried were detonated which killed them and destroyed the tank they were under.  You get trained to do as you are told and so you do as you are told, unquestioningly, despite the despicable consequences.

“Crows" is about Vincent Van Gogh, played by Martin Scorcese!  I LOVE Vincent Van Gogh so absolutely adore this dream! Kurosawa said he was talking to Scorcese about the deterioratin of color in old films and quit focusing on what Scorcese was actually saying because he had the sense he had encountered his energy before. He kept trying to figure out where he had come across that energy and realized it was in Vincent Van Gogh! Van Gogh killed himself the same month he painted Wheat Field with Crows.  This is one of my favorite dreams. See what you think of it!

"Mount Fuji in Red" is about a nuclear power plant melt down. This is the sort of night mare I grew up having. We did all of those crazy drills in elementary school for nuclear bombs which scared the living day lights out of me. I was always convinced I’d never see my grandchildren because humanity would have destroyed itself by then. I can only imagine how scary a nuclear power plant would be to the Japanese when they had already dealt with the horrors of the Atomic Bomb! But it’s one thing to have another country do something that horrific to you, and another to have that sort of horror inflicted upon you by the desires of your own people – not that they desired horrors, but that they were willing to take the horrible risks that involve nuclear power for the sake of convenience. Of course, we’re revisiting that in a big way here in the U.S. It does make you pause!!!  Is convenience and comfort worth the risk?

"The Weeping Demon" is about what I grew up fearing – the nuclear holocaust.  A man is wandering through a desolate landscape and encounters a one-horned “demon” who is actually a mutated human which he claims has occurred because of the nuclear holocaust. These mutations have crated a classification according to the number of horns that have grown on their head. Those with the most horns consume those with less horns. But the more horns (the greater the consumption), the greater the agony.  Nature has been completely distorted. Dandelion weeds grow larger than humans and very little else grows. The “weak ones” are those who aren’t as consumeristic and they are the ones that go first because they are consumed. Immortality is punishment so the willingness to die is almost a sort of sanity even though it still registers within the individual as insanity.  The most consumeristic of the demons pray for death but are condemned to live in pain for eternity. Eventually, consumerism creates the ultimate separation. The mutated human asks the wandering man: Do you want to become a demon, too? And the man runs… down, down, down, down into nothing.

The last dream, "Village of the Watermills", is probably my favorite.  It’s kind of like looking at -what’s that sociologist’s name? Daniel Quinn!  It’s kind of like looking at Daniel Quinn’s idea of givers and takers. Members of modern society are primarily takers. They believe they should get something from whatever it is they give because they perceive a lack therefore they must take. But tribal civilizations didn’t have this mentality – they were givers. They were appreciative of what they received. So rather than expecting something from what it was they gave, they gave because they were appreciative of what it is they perceived to have received. That’s based on the heart of nature. But as is stated in Kurosawa’s dream, most don’t understand the heart of nature because they don’t realize that they are going to perish.

I haven’t purchased any Kurosawa films yet, but I would definitely like to own his dreams!  (Wonder how many horns that produces!!)

Ran (1985)

Ran is the very first Akira Kurosawa film I ever saw. I borrowed it from the local library and have now seen it several times since. “Ran" means something like chaos and revolt and it is loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, except Kurosawa gave his characters a history.

Ran is such an interesting story. It’s based around the same time period as Kagemusha, but is probably more fictionally based than historically based. A Great Warlord is getting very old and decides to divide his Kingdom between his three sons. All but one son is corrupt. Saburo is the youngest and is the most honest. He observes that Hidetora (the Great Lord) has ruled during a time of disloyalty so how can he expect his sons to be loyal? Hidetora takes this as disrespect and disloyalty and disowns him. Turns out Saburo was right. Hidetora’s sons turn against him.

Kurosawa once said “Hidetora is me”. Hidetora is in his 70s and losing his kingdom and Kurosawa is in his 70s, and losing his ability to get funding for his films. In 1970, his film Dodesukaden was a flop and bankrupted the company he had started with three other directors. Kurosawa actually tried to commit suicide. He survived, but by the time he made Ran, he was almost blind. Also, his wife died during production. Kurosawa had hoped to one day to be a mentor to young directors but was extremely disappointed in the lack of interest of the younger generation. It’s interesting that with Kurosawa’s attempt at suicide and his brother’s actual success, Kurosawa never allows his characters to commit suicide. They are condemned to live. Stephen Prince, who provides the commentary on the film, says Hidetora is condemned to live and cannot escape the Hell of eternal return. (Camus & Nietzsche?)

Prince also says that Saburo would have been the hero in an earlier Kurosawa film.  He has all the traits: defiance of tradition, non-conformity, fearless speaking out, and non-traditional behavior.    But Kurosawa stopped using heroes in his films after Red Beard.

Prince says the true warrior in the film is Lady Kayeda who holds a deep rage against Hidetora because she was married into the family which made her father and brothers relax, but Hidetora killed them anyway and took over their castle. Lady Kayeda lives to destroy the house of Ichimonji to avenge her family.

Lady Sue was also married to one of Hidetora’s sons and Hidetora killed them as well, putting out the eyes of Lady Sue’s brother in return for his life. But she doesn’t harbor rage. Instead, she embraced Buddhism which allowed her to forgive. Prince suggests that Kurosawa sees this as a valid way to transcend the cycle of violence that everyone else in the film is part of.  If others could be as sensitive to Lady Sue’s peace as Hidetora becomes in his older age, then perhaps the cycle could be ended. The problem is, they aren’t sensitive to it and Lady Sue becomes yet another victim of the cycle of violence.

Prince says the question Kurosawa repeatedly asks is why human beings kill one another. In his earlier films, he’d sentimentalize the killing. But in his later films, he stopped backing away from the horror and quit sentimentalizing. Killing is horrible and all technology has taught us is how to kill each other more successfully.

Kagemusha (1980)

Kagemusha is gorgeously filmed. You can tell Kurosawa was trained as an artist by the beautiful way he makes use of color. I also learned a lot about Japanese history from Stephen Prince’s commentary on the Criterion Collection version.

Did you know that the Samurai warriors in medieval times had a system of homosexuality? I had no idea. The pages of the war lords were hired, in part, to perform homosexual acts with the war lords and there are many stories of war lords having deep love affairs with their pages. Prince says that popular Japanese culture doesn’t like to admit to this, but Kurosawa was too careful of a historian to suppress it so alludes to the love affairs of both Shingen and Nobunaga with their pages.

Kagemusha means Shadow Warrior and takes place in the 1570s. It’s about the warring feudal factions just prior to the unification of Japan. Kurosawa focuses on the Takeda clan, according to Prince, because Kurosawa saw it as much more traditional and classically Samurai than the other clans (although Prince points out that this wasn’t really true) and they were the great losers. For Kurosawa, their loss represents the vanishing of the Samurai world. The clan is Buddhist and its leader, Shingen is a Zen practitioner known as the mountain, in part because of the calmness that he has acquired through his Zen training. Buddhism gave Shingen and his generals the conviction that if they lived an honorable life, they’d live in paradise in the next world. This gives them a sensitivity to beauty in the midst of death and violence that doesn’t exist in modern society.

The main theme in the film is that of “doubling” and the relationship between illusion and reality. Shingen was known to use doubles. His brother, Nobukado, doubled for Shingen, but the protagonist of the story is the thief, who at first reluctantly doubles for Shingen, but eventually seems to almost channel Shingen. Prince says that Kurosawa is exploring the limits of individual expression in the feudal system. At first, the thief is skeptical about those who hold political power which is like most of Kurosawa’s heroes, but the thief does not end up being the typical Kurosawa hero who holds out against the system. He fully gives into it and becomes willing to die for the Takeda clan. He loses his skepticism and gains respect and obedience to the laws of the clan.

Prince says that Kurosawa is beginning to view history much differently than he did in his younger days with this film.  Rather than celebrating the rebellious hero as a critique of society, in Kagemusha, Kurosawa celebrates the institution. Kurosawa now sees a sort of beauty in the individual being swallowed up by the institution and he does not treat the inhumanity that is part of the system as something to critique, but simply how things were at the time. He’s far less sentimental about history in this film than in his previous films. Freedom in such a system is equated with selfishness. Kurosawa sees history as a sort of process of chaos and apocalypse.

Shingen dies and the thief impersonates him. The thief (who I don’t think is ever given a name) does this so well that it is almost as though Shingen lives through him. Prince says that Kurosawa makes use of the Noh theater here. There is a tradition in Noh theater of ghost warriors which is deeply informed by Buddhism – that there is a deeper unity which informs the sorrows of life. Kurosawa doesn’t go so far as to create a ghost warrior, but there is the definite sense that Shingen’s presence is felt through the thief.

What happens once it is discovered that Shingen is dead? The thief clearly no longer has meaning and the Samurai class structure inhibits the recognition of the inherent nobility of the thief and what he has done for the Takeda. The power of ritual and code both crushes free will and does great violence to the sense of self. So he’s tossed out of the clan but has become too heavily identified with it to leave it so dies for it.

Do the Takeda have meaning without Shingen? They don’t. Their house is built on nothing more than a shadow figure.   What Kurosawa is doing is following his beloved Samurai world to the point of extinction.

When Nobunaga finds out about Shingen’s death, he sings a song from the Noh theater. This is really interesting to me.  Prince says that Nobunaga was poised to unify Japan and had it been he who unified Japan rather than Leyasa, Japan would have been part of the cosmopolitan world rather than closed off to it. Nobunaga was not a Buddhist and found it problematic. He was friends with the Jesuits and with the Portuguese traders. There is an interesting scene where he and Leyasa are sitting together and Nobunaga introduces Leyasa to European Sake (red wine). Clearly, Nobunaga is has had this wine several times before and enjoys it. But Leyasa takes a sip and makes a terrible face. Prince suggests that this is Kurasawa’s way of showing that Leyasa is going to have a very different leadership style over a unified Japan than Nobunaga would have had if he had not been killed.

Anyway, even though Nobunaga was not a fan of Buddhism, he did love the Noh theater which is deeply informed by Buddhism. So the song he sings in honor of Shingen is very Buddhist:

Life is brief,

Nothing in this world is permanent,

All vainishes quickly,

All is illusion.

This is a sort of counterpoint to the warlords’ desire to gain land, hold power, and to rule over others. Their rule is very materialistic and this is what the Noh seeks to remind people. Kurosawa wants to show that the way of the Samurai is ultimately death. In fact, the code was a natural path toward death and distinction. Suicide was a way to show loyalty.  If your lord died, then those under him would kill themselves so that they couldn’t serve another lord. The thief isn’t a Samurai, yet he has taken on the rituals and codes of the Samurai so in the end, there is nothing for him but death.

Dersu Uzala (1975)

I wasn’t sure I had the correct Akira Kurosawa when I first started watching Dersu Uzala because it’s Russian!  But watch it for a while and it’s unmistakably Kurosawa.

Dersu Uzala won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1975.  It’s based on a true story by Vladimir Arsenyev about his journey across Siberia. I had no idea the Siberian Wilderness was so gorgeous. I always imagined it as stark and bleak.

An expedition is led by Captain Arseniev which is making its way through the mountains. They encounter Dersu Uzula on their travels. Dersu Uzula is a Goldi. These are people native to regions in the Far East who are called Nanai (the Russians used to call them Goldi.) The Nanai in Russia live on the Sea of Okhotsk, on the Amur River, downstream from Khabarovsk, on both sides of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, as well as on the banks of the Ussuri and the Girin rivers (the Samagirs). Captain Arseniev asks Dersu to become their guide, which he does and he is extremely skilled and quickly gains the respect of all the men even though they laughed at some of his ways in the beginning.

Captain Arseniev and Dersu Uzala become very close friends over the course of their travels.  It’s amazing how adept people can be at living off the land – especially in territory as severe as Siberia! Dersu is completely at home in the forest and has no use whatseover for the city.  But his lifestyle is slowly being encroached upon by civilization.

It’s a fantastic story, especially since it’s based on actual memoirs!