"Ars bene honesteque vivendi"


  • Introduction:

Kurasawa has fascinated me since my student days, and represented my first entry into the world of Japan, which was then so different to anything I had experienced in Europe. He also tackled Shakespeare and created two excellent purely Japanese versions of Macbeth and Lear, thus encouraging me to think of Shakespeare as globally accessible over time. Kurasawa, in so many of his films, has drawn me into this so different world of his Japan, while underlining the universal challenges we humans face, regardless of where we happen to be “thrown.”

During my walkthrough of Shakespeare, I had to watch his Throne of Blood (his version of Macbeth) and Ran (his adaptation of Lear) and was again greatly moved by his creations. I felt I needed to explore all of Kurasawa’s work, and so began a chronological viewing of his films, using Richie’s Commentary. I used various DVD versions of the films, some of good print quality, others not so good. Criterion versions are always superb.

Kurasawa was a cineaste of genius, but lived a very difficult life. His resonance with me lies in his rendering of Shakespeare to all Japanese people.

Kurasawa’s Films:

  • Sanshiro Sugata 1 (’43) and 2 (’45). Commentary by Richie is good and I have nothing to add. The first film is very good, second is a patriotic repeat, but still great mastery.
  • Rashomon ‘50 is an excellent film. The fights are overchoreograhed and slightly ludicrous, although the fear of combat comes through in the final fight. We never really know just what had happened, and just what is motivating each character, other than that they play different roles in each narrative. But what cinema! Fellini in the hat and gossamer veil of the woman; Bergman in the forest; the rain at the gate; the gratuitous adoption of the baby which impacts the priest so deeply. Richie’s commentary is good too. The film is cynical in so many ways, yet profoundly challenging as to the role we play each day, in a Shakespearean sense. A bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream in all of this, with lust and love, spousal expectations and disappointments, and of course the entire sense of being in a dream (appearance versus reality) throughout the whole film. The music does not impress me. But it is a mesmerizing film, and one that remains as fresh today as when I first saw it as a student.
  • The Quiet Duel ‘49 – My DVD is a very poor print, and Richie does  not rate the film very highly, so I have skipped it.
  • Ikuru  ’52 is a far superior film. Brilliantly created slow movement through the mirror of his empty life, encased with the recognition by all of his colleagues of what he has done to break out, yet all of them incapable of following his lead. Heartbreaking in its potrayal of the corruption of modern life within organizations, most of whom are dedicated to their own survival, and not to action as such. Very sobering and moving. Is it dated? Perhaps in its pace, in its then contemporary Japanese setting which may no longer apply, but the analogy is still powerful. Does the basic existential assertion of self-creation still apply? I believe so. So it remains a powerful film, despite its length. The music is better, and the song has a haunting melody. Shimura in the lead role fails to capture the essence of Watanabe, as Kurasawa himself has pointed out, and this is perhaps the key weakness of the film. Could Mifune have pulled this one off? Who knows, but Shimura, for all his effort, does not. Again, as mesmerizing as when first seen. Great handling of time – past, present, with flashback from funeral. Richie seems to miss the point about Watanabe’s “passion” for the playground project. This is basic to the “action” and is what transforms Watanabe and differentiates him from his colleagues at the funeral. He has found a purpose, something that enables his passionate self to respond completely and thus create himself at the same time. This hidden, passionate self is unknown to his son, and so they remain strangers, even while connected in a bond of family. The women from the project seem to have known him, seen him as he has become, and loved him in their own way; even the policeman has been struck by his happiness. It is a call to arms, in so many ways: “carpe diem”; valorize the now; take destiny into your own hands. It all makes abundant sense to me. Altogether a remarkable film.
  • Seven Samurai ‘54:

This is also a remarkable film; too long, but fascinating. There are some great scenes and dialogue, mixed with triteness and banality. I find Mifune slightly over the top, and some of the humor very odd. Overall, there is very little to commend life to us in this film. At least in Ikuru, the main character does create something, albeit credit goes to others, and no change follows in those around him. Here, the farmers “win”, as they always seem to (as in survive?), and the Samurai do not; but they do not lose either; they live to fight again until, like the other four, they die in battle, which is their ultimate purpose, or so it would seem. Very bleak, but marvelously crafted. I would not rank this above Ikuru, as Richie does. There is a throwback to homeostasis and Damasio; survival of the organism and the species, monumentally presented in the portrayal of the farmers, and even of the samurai. The bandits do not seem to fit, probably because they have no social role as such, which the other two classes have. In essence, they do not “work” in Paterson’s language, even though they survive. Shakespearean portrayal of civil war is not far from all of this; it is a disaster for everyone.

  • Throne of Blood ‘57:

This is a brilliant film, based on MacBeth, but highly personalized by Kurasawa. The scenery is striking throughout; the forest scenes in particular; but the Evil Spirit scene is wonderful. There is, for me, a definite tendency to over-act, and Mifune is over the top for most of this film, but that must have been the effect Kurasawa was looking for – that peculiar Japanese samuarai feel of shout-bark, silence, and constant movement/repose. The nihilism is profound, very Shakespearian in this regard. The Lady MacBeth character (Asaji) is superbly written and played, and she dominates the drama in a very significant way, While much of her speculation may be questionable, there is no doubt in Kurasawa’s (or my) mind that once you set out on the path of violence (physical or otherwise – “ambition” as the Evil Spirit intones) there can be no turning back, and deeds get worse and worse, as every shadow leads to suspicion, and therefore “he must go”, etc. Richie quotes Kurasawa on this film: “I keep saying the same thing over and over again. Why – I ask – is it that human beings cannot get along with each other, why can’t they live with each other with more good will? The Throne of Blood, he added, was to show several of these reasons.” P.119. So, a very Shakespearean creation by this master of film, completely transcribed into an overwhelmingly different yet mesmerizing context. Outstanding in every way.

  • The Lower Depths: ’57:

This is a brilliant film version of Gorky’s play, adapted to a Japanese setting. It is a horrendous insertion into the hopelessness of the absolute poor, and is difficult to sit through. There are touching moments, but the overall sense of despair is unremitting. Lots of sake and alcoholic oblivion, with the women no better than the men: all villains in a world of total despair. Nihilistic in a Shakespearean sense. The filming, however, is superb; the set, the shots, the editing – everything technical about this film is superb. The acting is overplayed for western eyes, and this can be irritating, but the overall sweep of the film is sustained.

  • Hidden Fortress ‘58:

This is an exceptionally long film (over 2 hours). There are certainly some great shots, but I find Richie just a little over the top in his commentary. I do not see how this fits with Ikuru, Rashomon or Throne of Blood. It is a comedy, perhaps something of a send-up of other types of films, but the spear duel was a longueur of mammoth proportion, as was the fire dance; and the portrayal of the two farmers is over the top. Nihilistic in so many ways, yet this amazon princess dominates the film to such a degree with her animus in every shot except for the scene with the poor girl, and the one shot with the flower. The ending was right out of Magic Flute! Bizarre piece. Very well filmed, of course, but bizarre nevertheless.

  • The Bad Sleep Well ‘60:

This is a very slow moving film about corruption and revenge gone wrong. It strikes me as being over the top in its histrionics because it is set in contemporary Japan.

  • Yojimbo ‘61, Sanjuro ’62:

Kurasawa’s blockbuster hit with Mifune as a ronin. It is a straightforward John Ford western-type film transposed to mid-Japan. It is relatively fast-paced, barely credible, but wonderfully shot and edited. Everyone in the film is less than admirable, and I doubt if there was any deeper motive in Kurasawa than to make a really good adventure film without the undertones of Seven Samurai. In this it was, and remains successful. I doubt if I would watch it again. I skimmed through Sanjuro ’62 which tends to sequel Yojimbo.

  • High and Low ‘63:

A great film, shot in widescreen, based on a US gangster novel but transformed into a critique of Japanese society and the human condition in general. First half shot indoors in modern apartment, second half in the lower depth of city. Business leaders are corrupt, ruthless, without forgiveness; Mifune is oustanding; the police are portrayed as good people with basic human instincts. The cinematography is exceptional. The pace is always slower than one feels necessary, but the overall effect is superb. The final scene is memorable – Mifune alone, back to camera, determined to start again to make good shoes and beat out the bad guys. No great vision of humanity here, no real social program, but just more of the same. A bit of Shakespeare’s late nihilism?

  • Red Beard ‘65:

A Masterpiece.  Very long (185 mins) but fascinating.  Richie mentions Dickens, and there is no question that there is a flavour to this film in its compassion, despair, tenderness, and sense of the common family of humanity. Mifune towers over the film, but the other characters also shine. The music is very good, especially Haydn. Richie mentions that Kurasawa had the crew meet on the first day and listen to the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. There is a very real sense of affinity between them. The filming is truly ooutstanding; the sets; the characters; the locations; the shifts in perspective; the politeness of it all, the captivating exporation of the mouse and the tenderness of the girl. Quite an extraordinary event. It is hard to believe that this was the last time Mifune worked with Kurasawa They had created something very special on screen. Richie’s commentary is extensive.

  • Dodeskaden ‘70:

This is an extraordinary film, shot in staggering colour.  At 244 minutes it is a long film and its lack of central character/theme makes it drag slightly. It is a devastating look at poverty, and at humanity, with its mix of good and bad, etc. It is almost a comedy, but not quite, but it lacks focus in a way. It is not a great film, but a good one; almost an experimental one for Kurasawa. He had come off of the Tora disaster, and needed a success, and was advised to be simple, which this film is, It is touching, tender, wistful, not as angry as Kurasawa’s best (there is no character who seeks to redress the poverty, but all seem to accept it as the way things are).  Mifune is glaringly absent. But the colour! And some of the haunting scenes. The set is reminiscent of Miracle in Milan, and some of the early Italian new wave. Overall, a very good film.

  • Kagemusha ‘80:

This is a spectacular film, in colour. A somewhat rambling story, with too many long shots of action for action’s sake. The pacing of the film is a challenge, but the acting is outstanding; the settings extraordinary; and the costumes superb. All, of course, created on storyboards in colour by Kurasawa, so the film had already been “shot” entirely in his mind! An interesting portrayal of a warlord plotting and planning, with the tragic consequences of father/son for everyone. Redone after a fashion in The Last Samurai produced in Hollywood. Good credits from Lucas and Coppolla. The Criterion version is superb. There is a huge cast of extras (soldiers) all costumed, so it must have cost a fortune, but seems to have been shot quite quickly, doubtless because of the storyboards (over 200 of them)

  • Ran ‘85:

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Lear, this is a magnificent film in spectacular colour. There remains the pacing issue, the over-acting, as in all of Kurasawa’s films, but there is much more drama in this one. For one thing, the new queen is a woman with passion and a complete Lady MacBeth persona, not just in words, but in action. The scene where she attacks the new king is unforgettable. I found the film very moving, and very much in the mode of Kurasawa’s stark view of life, where men continue to choose to kill one another endlessly and for no real reason. The music is better, the costumes superb, the movements of the armies, the flames, the plain, all are spectacular and there is an overall sense of cohesion which has been lacking in too many of his films. It must rank as his best overall.

  • Dreams ‘90:

A pastiche of different episodes, a bit disjointed for me, but beautifully filmed in colour. “The Crows” is particularly good.

  • Madadayo ‘93:

Also in magnificent color, this is a haunting film, about a life well lived, with its own buffa tragedy (the cat), but with its own comedy too, although I found the Japanese humour very strange and difficult to follow. It is not clear why the professor should be deemed to be “solid gold”, nor why his pupils remain so loyal to him. There is an excessive amount of drinking and intoxication in the film which I do not comprehend. Perhaps Kurasawa is trying to present his own idea of his own life, with all his delusions thrown in. The wife is very loyal, but plays no real role in the script, and is secondary to the cat (although she too is caught up in the buffa). There are lots of touching moments, lots of interior scenes in such cramped quarters, and some hint of what the Tokyo bombings must have been like. The war, its destruction, and its aftermath are all hinted at, and shown visually. So the film haunts in its allusiveness and subtlety. Quite outstanding. It may even be a slightly Falstaffian view.

  • The Documentary:

This is an uneven piece, quite superficial in many ways. The shots of Tokyo after the great earthquake where so many people were burned to death hints at what the bombing of Tokyo must have been like, but Kurasawa does not delve into this. He drinks a lot in this film, and they show one of the whiskey commercials he shot at his home. They skip over his attempted suicide, and barely mention his obvious addiction to alcohol. His crews speak well of him, but not with great affection, more of respect for his talent.

  • Summation:

I have walked through 20 of Kurasawa’s 30 films  leaving  10 unseen (7 predate 1951; I have seen Dersu Uzala ’75 on TV, leaving Record of a Living Being ’55; and Rhapsody in August ’91 still to be viewed). Ikuru, Throne of Blood, Ran are my top 3; Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Red Beard, Doseskadan, Kagemusha are next tier, while Bad Sleep Well, The Lower Depths, High and Low, Dreams and Madadayo are third tier; with the rest at level 4. All of the films are of very high quality in terms of cinema – the shots are breathtaking, and the editing is superb. The music does not always achieve greatness. There is throughout a tendency to overact, but this may a part of my lack of appreciation of Japanese culture. The sets are always extraordinary.

Richie’s commentaries I find to be useful, with a wealth of detail. I am struck by the positioning of Kurasawa. He is born into a world which is about to become a turmoil dominated by war (with China, then with the US, culminating in the disaster of bombs rained upon a civil population with a ferocity hitherto unknown to mankind reaching its apex with two atomic bomb explosions over two cities). His films seem to capture this haunting sense of the ephemeral; nothing remains, all passes. He fastens on the Samurai who are essentially unattached humans; they serve a master and must die with him; they have no intrinsic sense of self-worth; and this lack of individuality permeates his films. Mifune creates a break-out character, but only within the limits of the samurai framework; he passes on, parallel to the US western “hero” who is rootless, ruthless, but caught up in some notion of what is “right” (e.g. “High Noon”). Life is extremely tough in Kurasawa’s films; tragic, if you will. Shakespeare and Dostoievsky haunt his imagination, but only in tragedy. Kurasawa has none of Shakespeare’s comedic sense, where he can introduce dreams/imagination. Even “Dreams” lacks any humor, and the humor in Madadayo is bitter, drunken, and difficult to grasp. Kurasawa drank a great deal; he also attempted suicide; he apparently wanted to die on the set. He seemed to believe that without his films, he himself was empty, a nothing. So Kuraswa is a dilemma to be encountered. Because he is Japanese, he can present a narrative in film in a wholly different way from Western filmmakers; he can recall the past history of Japan as Shakespeare did of England, yet invest it with his own views on the futility of it all. His nihilism equals the late Shakespeare, but has no offset in comedy or romance. Just the stark reality of a universe where men slaughter one another with a repetitive zest for no real purpose beyond the egoism of the warlord, while everyone else buys into this game. A voice of protest without much hope thrown in. A remarkable achievement over such a long life. Above all, his films in colour are in a class of their own. And he strikes me deeply in globalising Shakespeare.