Textbook on Film

The Political As Personal in the Films of Kurosawa

by Miguel Douglas

11 October 2010


Record of a Living Being, Kagemusha and more

Record of a Living Being confronts the new nuclear reality that the world was coming to grips with in the aftermath of World War II—a world that the Japanese had a keener, more intimate fear of than any other citizenry. As America and Russia continued testing of nuclear weapons, the response of the Japanese—the only nation to have experienced the devastation of nuclear weaponry firsthand—was one of profound fear and anxiety. It should come at no surprise, then, that Kurosawa elicits this same response throughout the course of Record of a Living Being a film dealing with one man’s utter obsession with the possibility that all he knows and loves could be wiped out in a split second.

Kurosawa’s most famous collaborator, Toshiro Mifune, gives a remarkable performance as a man so consumed by fear that he sees fleeing Japan for South America as the only sane reaction. Like The Most Beautiful and No Regrets for Our Youth, Record of a Living Being portrays on screen events and experiences that he shared with his audience, committing the history of post-war Japan to celluloid as it happened.

During the post-war era, Japan had developed extremely popular peace movements that advocated against testing and subsequent usage of nuclear weapons. The Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs was formed during this time, and millions of people signed petitions opposing the weaponry as well. With Record of a Living Being, Kurosawa investigates the rational—and at times seemingly irrational—reasoning contributing to the paranoia surrounding nuclear weaponry. Dealing with the philosophy of Kurosawa though, the fears of Nakajima (Mifune) are representative of the fears of his nation, and to an extent, of the world. Nakajima acts as an avatar for the collective mindset of the Japanese people at the time, one of paralyzing fear and uncertainty.

Never one to underestimate the significance of history, Kurosawa explores the mutual fears of Japan and the world through intimate, sometimes uncomfortably close focus on a single character, distilling a major social issue to an intensely personal story for the sake of narrative. Free from the excesses of political and social thought, the film focuses on a single man and his family facing a crucial dilemma to which there is no simple answer and through it, crafting an intimate, relatable, and thought-provoking experience. A very personal film for Kurosawa, Record of a Living Being remains a fascinating examination of the fears of post-war nuclear era that drives home the director’s long held view that history isn’t always as simple as it appears to be.

Late in his career Kurosawa delivered perhaps his most direct linkage to Japanese history, this time focusing on bringing famous historical figures to the screen in the stirring epic Kagemusha. Always an avid student of history, Kurosawa’s initial thoughts for Kagemusha stemmed from his readings on the Japanese daimyo Takeda Shingen (1521-73). As one of the three prominent daimyo’s racing towards the common goal of unifying Japan—along with Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga—Shingen had been noted within historical texts for using a body double in order to confuse his enemies, a historical footnote that is the backbone of the story of Kagemusha. Kurosawa further implements history into the film by following the external conflict that existed between Takeda Shingen, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Oda Nobunaga, the three daimyos aspiring towards a Japan unified under their own rule. Once a combined alliance of three, Ieyasu and Nobunaga eventually separated to form their own alliance against Shingen, setting the stage for the battles of Kagemusha. Kurosawa injects many of his own narrative devices to produce a story more fitting for the screen, but remains largely faithful in allowing the basic structure of the plot to remain true to history.

Never one to forsake history for plot, Kagemusha equally delivers a foray into a highly stylized world—with a heavy focus on reality versus fantasy—while using real life figures to build its foundation. While other directors would simply insert historical fact to please admirers of history, Kurosawa explores the era by filling in the blanks in historical knowledge with his own stirring but believable fictions. Simply put, real characters and situations abound in Kagemusha, but Kurosawa examines the dynamics of power and persuasion on a more personal level—far from what a dry interpretation of historical fact would offer. This offers an intimate, authentic feeling examination of situations that would otherwise be too huge and complex for audiences to conceive of, once again narrowing the scope of the film in order to develop a more fitting narrative structure.

While some historical films might present history as simply fact, or others might present it as entirely subjective, with Kagemusha, Kurosawa masterfully mixes both elements in constructing a film that is more than the sum of its parts. More importantly though, he showcases that neither aspect should take precedence over the other, successfully combining the two to create a film commonly recognized as one his most lasting masterpieces.

There are numerous reasons to consider Akira Kurosawa as one of the most prominent filmmakers to have ever lived, but his adherence towards showcasing history within that of his own storytelling is perhaps one of his most important gifts. Considering the tumultuous era in which he lived, Kurosawa addressed multiple facets of both the historical past and present within his films, always careful to address issues that concerned him as well as Japanese society. As he progressed as a director, Kurosawa did not create films simply for entertainment purposes, but rather crafted works that make us question what history has to offer towards our understanding of the present. His most considerable asset was that of presenting a visceral tale within the confines of a larger historical scope, bringing about the grandiose nature felt throughout most of his works. The narrative structures of his films allowed for the audience to sympathize with his powerful stories while still allowing for an elaborate presentation of history to shine through. This certainly satisfied both the ordinary viewer as well as the history buff, and garnered Kurosawa much respect for his intricate approach. In retrospect, what Kurosawa did was create cinema that focused on the strength of history while vividly recreating the details in-between. We can learn lessons from Kurosawa’s films, and that alone raises his artistic presence far beyond many directors during his time—and like his films, powerful enough to continually resonant within the present as well.

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