“Kurosawa”: the documentary (2001)

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It would be hard to make a movie combining clips from Kurosawa movies and recollections of those who knew him that I wouldn’t like. The 2001 documentary “Kurosawa,” directed by Adam Low is an excellent movie even beyond the intrinsic interest of its subject, with interesting comments from Kurosawa’s son and daughter, various collaborators, Donald Richie (who did much to introduce and explain Japanese cinema to American audiences, including writing a book The Films of Akira Kurosawa), the great Japanese director Ichikawa Kon (Fire on the Plain, Harp of Burma, The Actor’s Revenge, etc.), two American admirers whose careers were advanced by appearing in westerns based on Kurosawa’s (James Coburn, Clint Eastwood; “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo” respectively), and two of the major Japanese stars of Kurosawa’s (and others’) movies, Kyô Machiko and Nakadai Tatsuya.

There is archival footage of interviews with Kurosawa himself, readings by Paul Scofield from the memoirs Kurosawa wrote (that, like him, are mostly about the art rather than the man), narration by Sam Shepard. And there is color footage of Kurosawa directing (from home movies shot by US servicemen) from “The Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” (1945) and (from Chris Marker’s documentary on the making of it, “A.K.”) “Ran” (1985). Plus showing Kurosawa directing the last scene in his last movie and thanking the crew (Madadayo, 1993) and one of the Suntory whiskey commercials he directed starring himself during the 1970s when he could not get financing for the movies he wanted to shoot, even after the international success (and Oscar) for the movie he made in Siberia, “Dersu Uzala” (1975). (He was able to make the great “Kagemusha” in 1980 with funding from “The Godfather” and “Star Wars” franchises.)

As James Coburn put it, the recurrent theme in Kurosawa’s movies was trying to live honestly. This was a challenge to the lords and samurais of his historical movies, the policemen and civil servants of his contemporary (in the 1950 and 60s) movies, and the doctors in “Red Beard” (which, in the 90 minutes of additional interview footage on the DVD both Coburn and Eastwood say is their favorite Kurosawa movie), “The QUet Dule” and “The Drubken Angel”. Self-sacrifice is another recurrent theme, though perhaps more broadly Japanese than Kurosawa-specific.

Kurosawa’s associates make it clear that for all his legendary unwillingness to compromise his vision, he was very concerned about the welfare of his company (within the Toho Corporation). His 1971 suicide attempt seems to have been partly motivated by anguish at letting down the others with whom he had founded a production company with the flop (and the one Kurosawa movie I dislike), “Dodes’ka-den.” (The DVD extra footage has fairly extensive discussion of the disasters preceding the suicide attempt and the inability to get financing that drove him to Siberia, and make it clear that if “Dersu Uzala” had failed, there would have been no more Kurosawa movies, which means the two towering masterpieces “Kagemusha” and “Ran” would not have been made.)

Everyone who speaks on screen agrees that “Red Beard” was the end of an era, not just in being the last Kurosawa movie starring Toshiro Mifune, but in look (specifically, camera fluidity and black-and-white filmstock), and in theme (less focus on conflict is the claim, that does not convince me until after “Ran”). My only real disappointment with the movie was that there was nothing including Mifune’s comments on the long relationship that was integral to so many masterpieces that ended with the protracted (two-year) “Red Beard” shoot. Surely, there must be Japanese television footage of Mifune saying something or another about Kurosawa!

Richie and others explain that with the Japanese cult of their own uniqueness, the success of Kurosawa movies in the West, beginning with the Golden Lion “Rashomon” won at the Venice Film Festival, made some Japanese believe that Kurosawa must be insufficiently Japanese (that is, if someone not Japanese understands and appreciates something, it can’t be truly Japanese, because to be truly Japanese is necessarily opaque to non-Japanese). This resentment-fueled rap engendered many difficulties for Kurosawa in Japan. (Ichikawa, who has also had external recognition, but also has made many movies not available in the West, does not address this tangle.)

Although lacking Mifune’s perspective, the movie does have that of Mifune’s only peer, Nakadai Tatsuyo. Nakadai and Kyô Machiko both mention Kurosawa’s insistence that they not blink. Nakadai also relives the experience of being all alone in the burning castle in “Ran” and having to avoid stumbling when he emerged with eight cameras on him.

In addition to the pleasure of the film clips and seeing various Kurosawa collaborators (including groups of them returning to the sites of shooting “Rashomon” and “Ran”), there are superb shots of Kurosawa’s house near Mount Fujiyama and of his tombstone being washed, and a very effective use of the ending of “Ikiru” for Kurosawa’s death. (I don’t understand the need for the bridge of urban streets, though having “Throne of Blood” playing on a giant screen many stories up one tall building is amusing.)

I did not expect the movie to explain the genius of Kurosawa or even his psychology. (I already knew he was descended from samurais, had attempted suicide in 1971, and was unable to get his projects funded during the 1970s, undoubtedly costing the world half a dozen or more Kurosawa films.) Kurosawa said that his self minus movies was zero. Planning and shooting movies was his life and “his favorite movie was always the next one.”

The movie runs nearly two hours and there is another 90 minutes of interview footage, a Kurosawa filmography, and weblinks (they seemingly only work in Windows). I have no idea how the movie would function as an introduction to Kurosawa for those so unfortunate as not to have seen at least some of his masterpieces. For someone like me, who venerates the body of work Kurosawa generated, the documentary is not just fascinating but inspiring.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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