Brothers in Arms

A 14-film retrospective charts the turbulent partnership of Akira Kurosawa and his warrior muse

 

One advantage of seeing a film like Drunken Angel alongside Kurosawa's better-known samurai epics is that it helps to recalibrate the somewhat jaundiced consensus on the filmmaker--namely, that he was primarily an imitative artist who transposed American Westerns wholesale to the exotic East. Kurosawa's films, in this view, were the equivalent of knockoff Japanese versions of American cameras. Typically condescending is this 1956 Cue review of Seven Samurai: "The Japanese lately have been full of surprises. Having for some years watched Hollywood mystery films, they turned out a picture called 'Rasho-mon' [sic]. Now, having been treated to many U.S. gun-and-gallop Westerns, our Oriental cinema cousins have ground out a Far Eastern Western that may well turn out to be the daddy of them all."

True, the impression of Kurosawa one gets from Seven Samurai or Yojimbo is of a master technician, a dispassionate general moving pieces around a chess board. The former film in particular is almost pure spectacle, a brisk visual poem on violence--as though Kurosawa were making the world safe for Michael Bay. So, too, Kurosawa made liberal use of non-Japanese source material: Shakespeare for Throne of Blood and The Bad Sleep Well, Dostoyevsky for The Idiot, and an Ed McBain police procedural for High and Low. In some sense, Kurosawa seems to have presaged the synthesizing, globalist cinema of contemporary filmmakers such as Wong Kar-wai and Ang Lee.

From gangster to master: Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's 'Red Beard'
Cowboy Pictures
From gangster to master: Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's 'Red Beard'

But Kurosawa was far more influential than he was influenced. Proving that imitation is really just the sincerest form of theft, makers of Westerns churned out both sanctioned remakes of his films (e.g., John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven) and illicit ripoffs (e.g., Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars). And the swift economy of Kurosawa's visual style left a far deeper impression on New Hollywood directors such as Scorsese and Spielberg than did the arty, arguably boring films of Japanese contemporaries such as Mizoguchi and Ozu. Indeed, The Hidden Fortress (March 5 and 6), in which Mifune winningly lampoons his haughty samurai persona, had its own Hollywood remake--a modest little picture called Star Wars. (Hence as well the use of Kurosawa's favorite editing technique--the horizontal wipe--and the inexplicable Meiji-era couture in the more recent installments of Lucas's samurai-in-space odyssey.)

Still, it's some of the lesser-known Kurosawa-Mifune collaborations that cast the most lasting spell. The 1949 neorealist noir Stray Dog (March 14 and 15), for instance, again places Mifune opposite Shimura as a rookie detective in the sweltering, lawless waste of postwar Tokyo. When the detective's gun is lifted by a pickpocket on a crowded train, he's sent on an increasingly desperate race to retrieve it. Simple enough. But Kurosawa adds a layer of moral shading--suggesting, as did Carol Reed in The Third Man, that hero and killer share a Janus identity. Indeed, the film's pivotal scene is set at a quiet dinner, during which the Mifune character and Shimura's veteran detective discuss the case. Mifune's young cop, a part of Japan's disillusioned war generation, admits sympathy for the killer; Shimura's older cop argues that good and evil are still matters of individual choice. But an ambivalent mist lingers: By the film's finale, when detective and criminal wrestle, exhausted and mud-caked, in a field, it's impossible to tell them apart.

Understandably, the war's ruinous aftermath cast a pall over Japanese films of the '50s. Though always a half-hearted nationalist, Kurosawa himself had been pressed into making quickie propaganda reels for the Imperial government; Mifune, for his part, had a lucrative second career playing Admiral Yamamoto in all-star war pictures. Yet it's in 1955's I Live in Fear (March 17 and 18) that Kurosawa and his star come closest to engaging the oppressive anxiety of the postwar years. Here Mifune is cast as a 70-year-old businessman who, obsessed with the possibility of nuclear attack, wants to move his family to South America. It's a tribute to Mifune's range that he plays the part without ostentatious makeup: Walking with a hip-shot gait and squinting through thick bifocals that hang on the very tip of his nose, Mifune suggests an ancient sea turtle perplexed to find himself stranded on land.

I Live in Fear (the original title, Record of a Living Being, is far more evocative of the film's universality) was released a mere year after Godzilla, which also starred Takashi Shimura. If rather more melodramatic than that film, I Live in Fear shares a serious moral concern with the specter of atomic apocalypse. In Kurosawa's film, though, the threat comes not from mutated dinosaurs--a reification of anxiety direct from the postwar Japanese id--but from within. Having survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film suggests, the Japanese now risk fear-induced paralysis--a moral ambivalence shading toward numbness. It is, in the end, Mifune's old man who sees the danger most clearly--and he is declared insane for his trouble.

 

Their considerable individual merits aside, films such as Stray Dog and I Live in Fear also belie the idea that Kurosawa was primarily a maker of "pure cinema"--a master of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The sense one gets from these early works is, rather, of a cautious humanist, sympathetic to the weakness of the individual, but cynical about the rigid feudal codes that gave rise to Japanese militarism. Viewed in this light, even lesser slash-and-grab pictures such as Yojimbo and Sanjuro (both screening March 7 and 9) seem blackly comic satires on the futility of war.

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