The Master: Akira Kurosawa

by Monte Yazzie

You can learn a lot by listening.

As a teenager who would hang out at the local record store, the corner bookstore, and the video rental store on a consistent basis, I began to hear the random banter of store clerks passionately defending the best album of 1993, the seminal author of the last fifty years, or the greatest films in the history of cinema.

These encounters led me to music, literature, and film that were far outside of my maturity level at the time, like my utter confusion at 15 years old with Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” or the jaw-dropped look on my face at 17 after watching Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo”. To say that these films left an indelible impression on me would be an understatement. Fast forward nearly twenty years, and I still find myself listening in the middle of conversations, some onlookers may call them arguments between impassioned film critics either defending or attacking the validity of what was just screened.

Still, there are some films that reach the realms of “sacred territory”, and there are some filmmakers who, regardless of what their film may be about, are immediately granted the “must watch” label. It’s hard to question the validity of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, a genius Japanese filmmaker who is responsible for many of the technical film forms, character compositions, and narrative structures seen in contemporary cinema and within works from acclaimed filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. Or, as a film-loving friend of mine once proudly exclaimed, “Kurosawa is your favorite director’s favorite director”.

Mr. Kurosawa tackled numerous genres of film with fearless enthusiasm, starting his career with the character-driven martial arts saga “Sanshiro Sugata”, the noir-driven “Stray Dog”, and the war-time relationship drama “No Regrets for Our Youth”; these superb films all arriving before the monumental acclaim of the film that would make Mr. Kurosawa an internationally recognized auteur. Looking into the five different decades of Kurosawa’s film career will display a filmmaker who excelled in every aspect of the filmmaking process and a director who always sought to tell stories in innovative, inventive, and intriguing ways until the end of his career. While it would be easy to look at the films that have defined this legendary filmmaker’s career, “Rashomon”, “Seven Samurai”, “Ikiru”, “Sanjuro”, “Yojimbo”, “High and Low”, and “Throne of Blood”, I think it is interesting to look at where filmmakers of Mr. Kurosawa’s caliber started and where they ended.

 

The Beginning: 1943 - 1950

Akira Kurosawa began making films at the age of 26, working mostly as an assistant director. Young Kurosawa learned the process of filmmaking by working with one of Japan’s leading filmmakers, Kajirō Yamamoto. Many of Mr. Kurosawa’s early works were made during World War II, and the influence of the war can be felt throughout much of his early work, which sways heavily into structures of propaganda.

No Regrets for Our Youth

No Regrets for Our Youth

Postwar Kurosawa allowed more freedom for the filmmaker; look no further than his first film after the war to feel the director’s criticism of Japan’s involvement. Kurosawa did this with a story about a young girl struggling with life and love in the shadow of uncertainty for her country which is on the brink of entering a war. The film, “No Regrets For Our Youth”, also boasts one of Mr. Kurosawa’s only female protagonists in the exceptional performance of Setsuko Hara who plays a transforming young woman named Yukie.

Drunken Angel

Drunken Angel

All of these early steps were leading to the highlight film of the 1940’s for Kurosawa. In his amazing career catalog, the 1948 film “Drunken Angel” often times gets under-appreciated. This melodrama places two unlikely characters, a cynical alcoholic physician and a handsome mobster suffering from tuberculosis, in an awkward relationship that moves into something more complex than what is displayed on the surface. While at the core of the story is the common theme of good versus evil that would continue largely throughout Mr. Kurosawa’s entire career, the film creates something more multifaceted out of the relationship between these two men. Underlying themes of honor and sacrifice motivate both men into action but also promote changes that display the postwar sentiments felt by those looking to change the mentality of the past for Japan. It’s a fascinating relationship when analyzed through this lens of the culture at the time.

Takashi Shimura, who plays the boozing physician Sanada, exceptionally composes the character. Mr. Shimura is at one point unredeemable only to turn at another point in a completely different direction that makes his character filled with honor and esteem. It’s a complicated composition that Mr. Shimura deftly handles. “Drunken Angel” is often known for bringing Mr. Kurosawa and longtime acting collaborator Toshirō Mifune together for the first time. The team would eventually go on to make 16 films together throughout Mr. Kurosawa’s career. Mr. Mifune’s undeniable charisma and authority can be felt the moment he arrives on screen in this film as the ill mobster Matsunaga. The performance displays the power that Mifune can deliver just by walking on screen or uttering a line of dialog. With the mobster the actor builds a convoluted character, one that can see his ultimate fate and struggles to follow a code of honor that will display the weaknesses that he is trying to hide. These characters display Mr. Kurosawa’s ability with working a script; he forms these characters from simple representations into sincere characters challenged with difficult choices. The director would continue to demonstrate this ability as his career matured.

Rashomon

Rashomon

“Rashomon” is a film adapted from a short story by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa. It was the masterpiece that made the world pay attention to the Japanese auteur. The 1950 film details a single incident, the murder of a samurai and the possible rape of his wife, through the flashbacks of four different perspectives. It’s a mystery, a story that manipulates the truth. This theme of the perception of truth will also continue in different ways throughout his career.

From a technical perspective, this film was a painstaking effort for Kurosawa to complete. It’s a perfect example of the director’s uncompromising dedication to the vision he established. Kurosawa would wait until the natural lighting was perfect for the scene, he would also utilize the surrounding natural settings to build crucial elements fundamental to the film, everything was in the details. Take for instance one of the best scenes when a moving camera follows the mystery of the story into the woods. The use of ambient sound, the score written by Fumio Hayasaka, the editing structure, and the ingenious imagery combine to create a silent moment that speaks volumes. It would not be long for the world to take notice, as the movie would reawaken the world to Japanese film at the Venice Film Festival. It would continue to impress as it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

“Rashomon” challenged the way filmmakers were making films; it brought Japanese film to a new realization of possibilities and levied an expectation for Mr. Kurosawa’s next and later works.


 

Ran

Ran

The End: 1985-1993

In 1985, Mr. Kurosawa crafted another masterpiece with the film “Ran”, an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. “Ran” is a grand spectacle, beautifully photographed to the point of being almost overwhelming; the film is influenced by everything Mr. Kurosawa did before it. From the sweeping samurai sagas to the complicated human dramas, the film is a constant metaphor for the changes of culture and political landscapes but also for Kurosawa’s life as an artist. You can feel the contemplation of the past but also the insecurity for the future, both for him and for the art. It’s a darker film unlike many in his catalog. This late career film of Kurosawa, who at this point in time was intermittently making movies, is at times pessimistic and cynical, a call back to the structure of an early character of the physician Sanada in “Drunken Angel”. Everything that has composed the samurai sagas for Mr. Kurosawa’s career is here, but it’s more honestly brutal and sided towards the worst characteristics in people.

In medieval Japan the elderly warlord Ichimonji is retiring, he is turning over power to his three sons. However, power comes with temptation and corruption and Ichimonji’s youngest son Saburo knows this and disagrees with the decisions of the group. Saburo is banished and control is given to the older sons, Taro and Jiro, who become selfish with power that leads them to broken promises and war. It is up to Saburo to save his family.

“Ran” is just one example of the incomparable filmmaker contemplating the future, much of the films made after 1985 have this deliberate theme in place. Working with symbolisms and metaphors to make personal statements about different philosophies, life lesson, and world perspectives completely inundated much of his late work. Kurosawa knew that with each new film it had the potential of being his last and final film. The director would become more intentional and thoughtful with his work, painstakingly planning out every scene with great detail. The intricacy is on full display in “Ran”.

Mr. Kurosawa is responsible for creating many of the camera movements, edits, and choreography seen in modern action cinema. The filmmaker placed the viewer into the middle of the action, dashing and sweeping across the screen with the actors and deliberately cutting the scenes to feed the appetites of the viewer with moments peaked with powerful anticipation and exhilarating payoff. However, in “Ran”, the style is different from his past work. The world is bigger, instead of showing the intimacy of battle, Mr. Kurosawa pulls the camera back and displays the world embattled and a humanity that is destroying itself. It’s a scenario that doesn’t try to showcase style but is still packed with substance from an artist trying to explain a perspective from his mind with images. It’s brutal and bold and beautiful.

This wasn’t the end for Mr. Kurosawa. Three more films prevailed after “Ran”, a personal fairy-tale that composes a majestic collection of Japanese folklore and the actual sleeping visions that Mr. Kurosawa encountered in the film “Dreams”, the heartfelt memories of an elderly woman struggling with the past and its effects on the present in “Rhapsody in August”, and one of the most poignant farewell films from any filmmaker in the tribute to Japanese writer, educator, and national treasure Hyakken Uchida in “Madadayo”.

In these final films, Mr. Kurosawa provides an insight into what is important to him as a person but also what was and is important to him as a filmmaker. He continued to compose brilliant imagery that was both realistic but also, unlike some of the middle-career earlier work, far more fantastic and filled with bold brush strokes from his imagination, such as many of the scenes composed during the stories in “Dreams”. These films display his political point of view with steadfast honesty. The contemplations of the government’s involvement in matters of war that distinctly emphasized themes in his early work in subtle ways are so much more defiantly and purposefully structured without words in his later work, for example, the pain of Hiroshima and the image of a playground’s melted jungle gym in “Rhapsody in August” speaks volumes.

Still, even though these latter works speak and compose subjects and characters that are different in tone than his early movies, in the director’s final film Mr. Kurosawa displays that characters are powerful tools capable of promoting significant change by simply providing an opportunity for someone else to experience happiness. Try and keep from smiling when you realize that one of the most influential and arguably one of the greatest filmmakers titled his farewell film “Madadayo” which when translated means “not yet”. The legacy of this master still lives on.

Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai

Oscar Snubs?

by Colin Boyd

There Are No Oscar Snubs

In 1942, Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning only for Best Original Screenplay. Because it was perceived as a takedown of the all-powerful William Randolph Hearst (which isn’t totally untrue), the Hearst papers ran a smear campaign against the movie and its wunderkind creator, Orson Welles, in the lead-up to the Oscars. And it worked: The movie was booed whenever its name was called during the ceremony.

When the Oscar nominations were announced this week, there was immediate outcry about what did not receive nominations. “Why Ava Duvernay’s Oscar Snub Matters,” wrote Scott Mendelson in Forbes. “Oscar Snubs: Jennifer Aniston, LEGO Movie, Selma Director, More,” charges a pitchfork-carrying Hollywood Reporter. But what is a snub? Webster’s says it’s to “ignore in a deliberate and insulting way.” So let’s break that down.

Ignore

Did Oscar voters really pretend David Oyelowo did not exist? Or is it more likely that, in a stacked Best Actor category that also did not include Jake Gyllenhaal’s haunting work in Nightcrawler, which was probably better than the overlooked performance everyone is talking about this week, Oyelowo simply did not get the minimum number of votes required to be a nominee?

Deliberate

Reese Witherspoon  in  Fox Searchlight's   Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon in Fox Searchlight's Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon, who produced two films with Best Actress nominations — her own (Wild) and that of Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) — saw neither up for Best Picture. Was this on purpose, some sort of punishment not just of Witherspoon but also of the actors, crews, and studios or distributors involved with their production? Or, is it more likely that, even though Best Picture is a broader category than the others in terms of total nominees, neither film received as many nominations as the four obvious front-runners (Boyhood, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Imitation Game), leaving it fighting for the final few slots along with every other film that did receive a nomination and those that just missed the cut?

Insulting

“Where are the nominees of color,” they’ve been screaming. Well, unfortunately, even though African-American actors and others of color have done much, much better with the Academy Awards over the past decade than during the previous 75 years of the Oscars combined, there were no nominees in a major category this year. No actors, writers, or directors. So what does that say? Is it an open-hand slap in the face to those who did good work this year or is it more a reflection of an industry that still doesn’t make films for urban audiences in a proportional manner? And that, this year, there were not a ton of options for voters to even see. If there’s an insult, and there is, it’s that the studios don’t make enough movies for black and Hispanic audiences that rise above the easy opening weekend haul.

Here’s the deal

There are no Oscar snubs. There are no secret meetings of voters deciding whose work to eliminate because they’re black or a woman or anything else. This first got under my skin with The Dark Knight, a film nominated for nearly every technical award imaginable, won Best Supporting Actor, but was not nominated for Best Picture. The peals of disappointment rang through every message board: “The Oscars hate comic book movies!” This is an extension of the logic that the Oscars hate science fiction, because we haven’t had a space movie win Best Picture.

But think of the size of the conspiracy that would keep The Dark Knight out of a new 10-movie race for Best Picture. There are over 6,000 Oscar voters; they would have to be cagey enough to make sure the Batman movie was in the running in precisely the categories you’d expect but massage their ballots enough to purposely keep it out of Best Picture. Think, for a second, about how silly that sounds.

So, while there’s no good explanation for the absence of The LEGO Movie in Best Animated Feature Film, please remember that votes for anything provide all of the context you’re ever going to get. It’s yes, or it’s no. The assertion that Academy members are out to get this movie or David Oyelowo because he’s black or Reese Witherspoon’s movies because she’s successful enough as an actor and nobody needs her producing anything is asinine and totally unsupportable by the system against which everyone is railing and wailing.

Is there bias at play? Of course. Voting is inherently biased. It’s picking favorites! And there’s every possibility that members vote for names they recognize and admire without seeing every nominee (the list of people who see every eligible film is bound to be very short). But something nefarious, a system that ignores admittedly great work in a deliberate and insulting way? Put down the pipe.

Touch of Evil

By Colin Boyd

TOUCH OF EVIL

Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles
Written and directed by Orson Welles
Universal, 1958
National Film Registry – 1993

 Touch of Evil made a small ripple as a seedy little crime movie in 1958, but since then, that ripple has become a tidal wave of appreciation for not just the film but also its director, Orson Welles.

Welles could never live up to Citizen Kane, his debut made as a 25-year-old maverick that would eventually be remembered by most critics as the greatest, most influential film of all time. It's doubtful that any director could match Kane, regardless of whether or not it was their first film. Welles had other obstacles, however.

He struggled both in and out of Hollywood for years trying to make one movie after another until 1957: First came the stolen ambition of his Kane follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, which was notoriously re-edited by RKO. Then came an uncredited stewardship of the forgettable Journey Into Fear and the mostly average spy caper, The Stranger. The Lady from Shanghai, a bizarre noir, was his next film as a director, followed by a low-budget Macbeth. Before landing at Universal for Touch of Evil, Welles also made a film called Confidential Report, or Mr. Arkadin. Fans love it. Nobody else has ever seen it.

Welles recalled the unusual circumstances which lead to his involvement with Touch of Evil in an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich for the book, This is Orson Welles:

"I had just acted in the Jeff Chandler Western for Universal (Man in the Shadow), and they sent me another script -- a very bad one that took place in San Diego, with a crooked detective in it. And they said, 'Do you want to play it?' I said, 'maybe,' and I was still wondering whether I could afford not to make it when they called up Chuck Heston and said, 'Here’s a script -- we’d like you to read it. We have Welles.' And he misunderstood them and said, 'Well, any picture that Welles directs, I’ll make.' So they got back on the phone quick and said to me, “Do you want to direct it?' and I said, 'Yes, if I can rewrite it.'
“Well, they said they’d let me do that if I wouldn’t get paid as a director or a writer -- just my original salary as an actor. So I had about three and a half weeks to go before it began, and I locked myself up with four secretaries and wrote an entirely new story and script."

Based loosely on the Whit Masterson novel, Badge of Evil, Touch of Evil showed the undoing of a corrupt policeman of a Mexican border town. Comeuppance of the rich and powerful had always been a thematic element of Welles’ films (think of George Minafer Amberson’s just desserts or the fate of Charles Foster Kane); however, in Touch of Evil, the betrayal suffered by the powerful Captain Hank Quinlan was not as a result of a changing society — at least, not primarily — but rather at the hands of his close associate, Pete Menzies. This sort of personal betrayal was evidenced again with brutal emotional bareness in Welles’ Chimes at Midnight.

That theme so common in Welles’ films was mirrored eerily by his own personal and professional life. In the two-thirds of his life that followed Citizen Kane, Welles would never again approach the acclaim or attract the attention he did with his film debut. Instead, his career was an uncanny exhibition of missed opportunities and commercial failures. His own comeuppance came over the course of 40 years, a period during which Welles — regarded as one of the greatest of all film directors — could only navigate 12 films to completion, leaving about that many in bits and pieces along the way. In many ways, and to a lot of people, Touch of Evil would be Welles' last hurrah.

As for betrayal, it has been suggested that Welles wrought his abandonment by John Houseman, his closest associate through Citizen Kane, and by virtually every studio he ever worked for. Perhaps out of bitterness over what he perceived as disloyalty throughout his career, Welles began to professionally focus on the subject of a once-mighty figure betrayed by a close associate with The Lady from Shanghai, and that thread remained constant through even his multilayered documentary of art forger Elmyr de Hory, F for Fake. In Touch of Evil, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) betrayed crooked cop Hank Quinlan (Welles) after decades of looking the other way while Quinlan framed suspects in the name of justice. "The surface themes of Touch of Evil are easy to spot, remarked Roger Ebert, "and the clash between the national cultures gets an ironic flip: Vargas reflects gringo stereotypes while Quinlan embodies clichés about Mexican lawmen. But there may be another theme lurking beneath the surface."

Welles was never able to complete Touch of Evil in the way he would have liked. He claimed years later that Universal executives had barred him from the lot after viewing Welles' original rough cut of the picture, not allowing him to oversee final editing.

"I was so heartbroken when it turned out I couldn’t go on with it. I was so sure I was going to go on making a lot of pictures at Universal, when suddenly I was fired from the lot. A terribly traumatic experience. Because I was so sure. They went out of their way to compliment me every night of the rushes, and 'When are you going to sign a four- or five-picture contract with us? Please come and see us.' Every day they kept asking me to sign the contract.
Then they saw the cut version and barred me from the lot...the picture was just too dark and black and strange for them...there’s something missing there that I don’t know about, that I’ll never understand. It’s the only trouble I’ve ever had that I can’t begin to fathom. And I really thought I was home again, you know and, 'I’m going to be at Universal three or four years making pictures' -- the way they talked. Then suddenly I couldn’t get on the lot."

What remained, even in its initial theatrical form, was the stuff of a swaggering genius. Welles' famed opening shot, at that time the greatest tracking shot ever captured on film, established the entire setup as well as the protagonist (Heston) in just over two minutes of daring, swooping crane moves, accompanied by an unforgettable theme by Henry Mancini.

"I've always regretted that they put titles over it, because it was meant to be done in the clear, with the titles at the end of the movie. It's a shame to see stuff written over something that's important," lamented the director years later. Fortunately, the titles were removed for the 1998 theatrical and DVD re-release of the film.

Welles loved the opening, but was more enamored with a sneakier piece of uninterrupted filmmaking, shot on the first day of production. "There's, technically, a much more difficult crane shot...it runs almost a reel, and it's in the Mexican boy's apartment — it's in the three rooms where the dynamite is found in the bathroom and all that," remembered Welles. "It has inserts and long shots and medium shots and everything. We had breakaway walls."

The principal cast, terrific for a film of its budget, also included Janet Leigh as Inspector Vargas' loving wife, a damsel in distress, Dennis Weaver as a slightly askew motel clerk, and Marlene Dietrich, one of Welles' oldest friends in show business, as a broken down fortune teller named Tanya.

It's Tanya who delivers the classic line to Quinlan that many have also applied to the last quarter century of Welles' career: "You haven't got any (future). It's all used up."

When Touch of Evil was released as the B picture of a double feature in early 1958 in the United States, it had an unspectacular run supported by very little publicity. The film did win Grand Prize at the Brussels World’s Fair film festival and performed well in Europe. Said Welles, "It's made quite a bit of money, according to Chuck Heston, who owns a piece of it."

The little B movie that Universal was afraid of is today regarded as one of the best examples of American film noir ever made. In 1993, five years before the Universal restoration of the film that took into account 58 pages of Welles' notes on how the film should be edited, the National Film Registry selected it for preservation. That restoration, along with Hitchcock's Vertigo (also originally released in 1958), stand as the most valuable examples of the practice.

The new version of Welles' troubled noir gave it new commercial and critical life. The re-release finally made the film a box office hit. Time Out, the British publication, has since ranked Touch of Evil No. 8 on a list of the all-time greatest movies, while Sight and Sound, the publication that first heralded Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever in 1962 (a rank it held for five decades before dropping to No. 2 in 2012), has it listed at No. 26 on their most recent poll of filmmakers.

Touch of Evil was the last film Welles ever made for an American studio.