Comparing Akira Kurosawa’s Early and Late Films

by Robert Moore

21 October 2010

There are some striking differences not only between the earlier films of Kurosawa and the later films, but in the very different ways that people have responded to these two different groups of films

Contrasting Kurosawa’s earlier period with his late period has generated some fascinating debate. The Early Period (sometimes called the Creative Period) extends from his brilliant 1943 debut Sanshiro Sugata and Red Beard in 1965. The Late Period begins in 1970 with Dodes’Ka-den and concludes with his final film, Madadayo, in 1993. Critical opinion differs intensely about each of these periods, though in very different ways.

No one to my knowledge has debated the genius of Kurosawa’s films from roughly 1948 to 1965 (except for some of critics of the far left and several Japanese New Wave directors and critics who followed them, in particular Nagisa Oshima, who critiqued Kurosawa on both stylistic and political grounds—though interestingly a couple of decades later Oshima reversed himself and began to pay homage to Kurosawa). What debate that exists over these films hovers around issues such as whether I Live in Fear is underrated or whether Throne of Blood is his greatest film instead of Seven Samurai (a debate cherished by Formalist critics). There is also rather diverse opinion over Red Beard. No one questions its formal genius, but many view it as disguised sermonizing and too simplistic to be credible, while others find it inspiring and deeply moving (some very good critics lie on either side of the debate—I’ll confess that it is one of my favorite of Kurosawa’s films). There also exists debate over various themes in this period, but all in all, there is close to universal agreement that in these years Kurosawa functioned as a genius of the first rank.

The debate over Kurosawa’s Late period is of a different order. While no authority on Kurosawa that I know prefers the Late Period to the Early Period, there are strong disagreements as to its value. Many Kurosawa scholars and critics see it as a period of steep decline, while others see it, while a period of lessened creativity, as nonetheless one in which he made a series of films that as a body deserved assessment as its own self-contained group of films. So on one extreme are some who feel that Kurosawa had a second group of films that can be contrasted coherently with the earlier films, while on the other end some feel that almost all of these films (except Ran) can be more or less dismissed.

I personally am of two minds on the question of the Late Period. While I strongly prefer the earlier films to the later, I certainly don’t see the Late Period films as being all that bad. That they are not as brilliant as films like Stray Dog and Rashomon and Ikiru and Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood and Yojimbo and High and Low and the rest means little, since some extremely great directors have not made any films as good as Kurosawa’s eight or nine best. While Kurosawa would still be considered one of the half dozen greatest directors of world cinema based on his pre-1965 work, had he only made the films of his Late Period, he would still have been considered an interesting director. What is more problematic is the degree to which one can speak of the late films as constituting a coherent body of work. Are they coherently interconnected, or just a string of films that actually have very little in common with one another except that they were directed by Kurosawa?

One of the complicating factors in speaking of Kuroswa’s Late Period is the very slow arrival of films following Red Beard. Kurosawa made 23 films in the first 22 years of his career (1943-1965), but only managed to make seven in the final 28 years (1965-1993). It is easy to track the development of his early films because there were so many of them and because they appeared with such regularity. From 1965 until 1980 Kurosawa would make only two movies in Japan (Dersu Uzala was filmed in the Soviet Union). There is not only a large gap between the Early and Late Periods, but a significant gap between many of the later films. Just compare the five year gaps between Dodes’Ka-Den (which itself followed a five year gap) and Dersu Uzala and Kagemusha and Ran. In any five-year period from 1943 until 1965, Kurosawa never made fewer than five films, while in this 20-year period he made only four total. Is it possible that there is less continuity between films than one might fairly imagine?

There were two films that, had they been made, might have created more continuity between the two periods. Kurosawa was prepared, after the expiration of his agreement with Toho in 1965, to make The Runaway Train in the United States. For nearly two years he worked on the project, excited about coming to America and working with top-of-the-line equipment (in all his black & white films he was generally working with extremely old cameras), large budgets, and famous international stars (Lee Marvin and Henry Fonda were rumored to be in the running for the film). But problems in the script developed and conflicts between production methods in Japan and Hollywood emerged. Although Kurosawa and his producer, Joseph E. Levine, had hoped to make four films together, they would make none. (The Runaway Train would finally be filmed in 1985, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky and starring Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, and Rebecca DeMornay).

The prolonged failure to make his first American film was immediately followed with a second, bigger fiasco. Twentieth Century Fox invited Kurosawa to direct the Japanese half of the epic retelling of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tora! Tora! Tora!. He was partly interested in the film because he had been led to believe that David Lean would be directing the American half. Instead, Richard Fleischer took the helm (as Stuart Galbraith aptly put it, a journeyman rather than an auteur). After a host of other misunderstandings, Kurosawa realized that he did not want to be a part of the project. Unable to quit because of contractual considerations, he deliberately engaged in erratic behavior, in effect forcing Twentieth Century Fox (the studio that would later finance Kagemusha at George Lucas’s urging to fire him.

The result is that whatever flow from Red Beard in 1965 to his later films was interrupted by the misfires with failed projects of the late ‘60s and then a neverending search for the next 28 years for funding for his films. Dodes’Ka-Den, a small film shot on a small budget and completed in only a few weeks, in part was a move to make movies again after those epic failures.

The desire to see a divergence between the early and later periods is understandable. But as a group, the later films can best be characterized less by what they have in common with one another than what they do not have in common with the earlier films.

Vast changes took place following Red Beard. One was the break between Kurosawa and his long-term leading man Toshiro Mifune. Their collaboration was the greatest between any actor and director in film history. Some have cited the collaboration between John Ford and John Wayne as comparable, but while Ford was a director of Kurosawa’s stature (Ford was a major influence on Kurosawa and there are rumors that Kurosawa wore sunglasses in later years in emulation of Ford), Wayne’s performances in Ford’s films were not as brilliant as Mifune’s in Kurosawa’s. In fairness to Wayne, however, Wayne may have been better in his non-Ford films than Mifune was in his non-Kurosawa films. Away from Kurosawa, Mifune could be mediocre or even downright awful. Other directors did not know how to pull out of Mifune the performances he provided for Kurosawa. Without Kurosawa he was, in fact, an actor of the second rank. (Just as Mifune is compared to Wayne, so some have tried to portray Takashi Shimura as Kurosawa’s Ward Bond, but that does a disservice to Shimura, who was a splendid actor, whether working with Kurosawa or anyone else.)

The reasons for their split were many and generally trivial. Kurosawa resented Mifune having made a commercial while sporting his facial hair from Red Beard and was extremely angry that Mifune expressed some resentment that his two-year commitment kept him from undertaking other projects (Mifune received a flat fee for Red Beard, so that the longer it went on, the further his money was stretched). The reasons strike others as insufficient for the split that took place and most who knew both Kurosawa and Mifune without exception blame Kurosawa for making it permanent.

Kurosawa would never again find an actor as perfect for his films as Mifune and no lead performance in any film after Red Beard would be as strong (Tatsuya Nakadai starred in both Kagemusha and Ran, but despite being an outstanding actor—his role in the three-film epic The Human Condition is one of the acting highpoints of Japanese cinema—he was ill-suited for Kagemusha and far too young for Ran, and his performances in both films has come in for considerable criticism over the years). In both films one can only imagine how much better than might have been with Mifune in the roles. Mifune tried repeatedly to mend fences and work together again, but while Kurosawa eventually would be on talking terms with him socially, he remained implacable about hiring him for his films.

Each of the earlier films featured extraordinary groups of actors, many appearing repeatedly in Kurosawa’s films, like Mifune, Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, and Bokuzen Hidari appeared in one film after another. In the later period Kurosawa did use some actors repeatedly (such as Hisashi Igawa, who appeared in five of his final seven films, most memorably as Kurogane in Ran), but frequently key roles had weak or even amateur actors (as in Kagemusha, where many roles were given to unkowns after a highly publicized casting call to the general public to which thousands responded), but he never again work with the kind of crack cast he did in his earlier career.

There were other obvious contrasts between the earlier and later films. Many have stated that the later films were more pessimistic than the earlier ones, but it isn’t all that clear cut. Many of his later films were not all that pessimistic, such as Dreams, Rhapsody in August, and Madadayo. And many of his earlier films had streaks of pessimism, most famously Rashomon, but also films like I Live in Fear, Throne of Blood, and The Bad Sleep Well. What may in fact be at work is something else. Kurosawa was, among many other things, a moralist. In getting across his moral lessons he often resorted to heroes, like Watanabe, the dying bureaucrat, in Ikiru or Kambei, the samurai who is driven by compassion for the farmers to assemble a group of samurai to protect them in Seven Samurai. But Kurosawa also resorts to cautionary tales. He shows the weak-willed Washizu in Throne of Blood, who lacks the moral center to enable him to withstand the suspicions and the proddings towards ruthless ambition of his wife. Or the group of moral reprobates in The Lower Depths, none of whom are capable of living lives of any moral significance. While Kurosawa urges us to be like Kambei or Watanabe, he also cautions us against being like the misfits in The Lower Depths or like Washizu.

Not all of Kurosawa’s later films presented cautionary tales. This largely results from the only strong film from his later period, Ran, which is filled with selfish, weak-willed, and vengeful characters. Kurosawa is not in that or any of his films insisting that all personal projects are futile or doomed to fail, but only that certain ones are likely to. Still, it is true that his earlier films were filled with heroes who did manage to succeed in their quests, while his later films were filled with characters who inevitably were overcome by forces they could not defeat.

Some of the contrasts between the two periods—and here the claims of substantive differences between his early and late films are more substantial—pointed at formal or stylistic differences. On more obvious levels, the earlier films were in black & white while the later films were in color. Both periods features use of multiple cameras using telephoto lenses, though in the later films he did not flatten the image to the degree that he did in the earlier, especially in Red Beard, where a character both appears to be running and not to be moving, or more famously where the insane woman enters the room of the intern. From one angle she appears to be only a step away, but on the axial cut she is shown to be as far as 15 feet away. Kurosawa used increasingly long scenes in the final films, with fewer cuts, and also used fewer and fewer close ups. Many who find the later films disappointing (and I find myself in this group) do so in part because of the more static camerawork and de-emphasis on composition through editing. Part of what makes masterpieces like Ikiru and Seven Samurai so thrilling is to watch his editing (in Japan it was said that he was one of the world’s great directors, but that he was the world’s greatest editor) and the exciting ways he would manipulate the camera.

There was also a move away from careful character development (which went along with his abandonment of close ups) in the late films, focusing instead on imagery and art design. The point of the films seemed to be less to be concerned with the way in which characters were changed or molded in the films, than the way the entire images were framed.

For me personally, I cannot view the later films without a sense of tragedy. In 1965 Kurosawa was by an measure one of the great figures in cinema, comparable to such towering figures as Eisenstein, D. W. Griffith, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini. Despite this, no studio in Japan was willing to provide him the means to make a film. A man who should have been designated a National Treasure was kept from plying his art. One can nod at the reasoning for why this happened:  TV driving down box office receipts and thereby making costly feature films economically risky; the long period of time Kurosawa took making Red Beard, going over budget and also tying up two of Toho’s most bankable stars in Mifune and Yuzo Kayama (the latter at the time not merely one of the largest movie stars in Japan—more popular, in fact, than Mifune—but a huge pop music star as well); and the general demise of the Japanese movie industry (Kurosawa was hardly the only Japanese director who was unable to find work—from Kagemusha on, Kurosawa’s friend and former Assistant Director Ishiro Honda, who was the father not only of Gojira aka Godzilla and all of the other famous Japanese monster movies, worked on his films as an assistant because he could not get any directing jobs). But it nonetheless remains unfathomable how a genius of Kurosawa’s magnitude was unable to find projects within the Japanese film industry.

Of the many films that he should have made but was unable to, the one that fills me with the most regret is the adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death”. If there is an unfilmable story, one would have thought Poe’s story might be it. One dies to know what Kurosawa had in mind for it.

In looking at Kurosawa’s later period, the larger tragedy is not that those films as a group were not as strong as his earlier films, but that there were so few of them. How many more films should he have made but couldn’t? Five? Ten? Fifteen? And how many of those unmade films might have withstood comparison with his best work? These films that he should have made but couldn’t represent one of the great tragedies in the history of film.

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