Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema by Peter Cowie

During the production of Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s three assistant directors asked for clarification on the film’s story, which they found “baffling”. Kurosawa explained the key ideas:

“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves,” he said. “They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are… This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego.”

Apparently, the explanation worked for two of them. The third man never got it. In retrospect, Kurosawa wrote, “[We] never did get along. I still regret that in the end I had to ask for his resignation.”

In her 1962 review of Yojimbo, Pauline Kael called Rashomon “the classic film statement of the relativism, the unknowability of truth,” while Seven Samurai is “incomparable as a modern poem of force,” and Yojimbo is “the first great shaggy-man movie.” “Other directors attempt to recreate the pastness of a story, to provide distance, perspective,” she writes. “For Kurosawa, the setting may be feudal or, as in this case, mid-nineteenth century, but we react (as we are supposed to react) as modern men. His time is now, his action so immediate, sensuous, raging, that we are forced to disbelieve, to react with incredulity, to admire.”

Kurosawa’s work seems to bring out the thesaurus in writers. Superlatives are inadequate, and run out too soon. Roger Ebert summed it up in a 1998 obituary article on Kurosawa by describing the auteur’s list of work as “a roll-call of greatness” (Chicago Sun Times).

This year marks Kurosawa’s centenary, and in celebration, Rizzoli has published Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema. An extraordinarily lavish work, this is destined to be the default coffee table Kurosawa book.

Amongst the overwhelming collection of beautiful film stills (notably the powerfully emotive faces of stars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura), movie posters and reproductions of Kurosawa’s notebooks, scripts and paintings, there’s also a fascinating series of essays by Peter Cowie (author of books on Ingmar Bergman and Francis Ford Coppola) and three introductory pieces, from Martin Scorcese, famed Kurosawa biographer Donald Richie, and Kazuko Kurosawa, the director’s daughter.

This book could be the companion to a museum exhibit on Kurosawa. He is such a towering figure, and his work so influential, that not only do the big words run out, but his legacy faces staleness and sterility from its aura of institutionalized “greatness.” As Donald Richie writes in his introduction: “[A]t present Kurosawa runs the risk of becoming a Great Classic–that is, omnipresent but dead… When the dead become classics, however, they turn into monuments. What was most alive about them disappears.”

Fortunately for film fans, and for Cowie, Kurosawa’s work and life seems to have been consciously designed as a puzzle.

“Kurosawa seemed to be able to work with movement, with composition, with rhythm, with variations in scale, in a way that was beyond anyone else in cinema,” writes Scorcese, who once appeared in a Kurosawa short film in the role of Vincent Van Gogh. “And he was a great humanist, with a fierce, even desperate desire for humanity to abandon its endless resorts to terror, destruction, fear, and intimidation.”

Kursawa’s films ranged from samurai epics to entertainments, retellings of Shakespeare, crime dramas, haunting portrayals of flawed people struggling to make the right choices, and often failing.

“Had he been a Western filmmaker, Kurosawa might have been termed a fatalist, with his essential understanding of failure, futility, and death,” writes Cowie.

“As a Japanese, however, he shared with other great artists the sense of mono no aware. Man is but a floating gourd on the river of life, taken here and there by unforseen currents and, like the hapless “double” at the end of Kaegemusha, ultimately at one with the elements. The melancholy of a Kurosawa catharsis becomes the shield that guards sadness from despair.”

The image of the floating gourd recalls another passionate, poetic and puzzling artist, Arthur Rimbaud. “Lighter than a cork, I danced on the waves,” he wrote in The Drunken Boat:

And from that time on I bathed in the Poem

Of the Sea, star-infused and churned into milk,

Devouring the green azures; where, entranced in pallid flotsam,

A dreaming drowned man sometimes goes down;

The dreaming drowned man circles back to the final image from Kagemusha, one of Kurosawa’s later masterpieces, and also to an image of the dead bodies his witnessed following the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Rimbaud and Kurosawa seem to connect over a sense of death-obsessed melancholy. Here’s where a particularly haunting detail emerges from Cowie’s text, and it relates to the spectre of suicide in Kurosawa’s life and work. It’s there on page 91. Cowie mentions it and then moves on, and while this isn’t a flaw in the work, it does point to an avenue that seems to beg exploration. In describing Kurosawa’s deep depression following several failed projects, Cowie writes:

“Kurosawa was in his own lower depths, having slashed his neck and arms with a razor in his own bath on December 22, 1971… Kurosawa apparently made thirteen attempts to commit suicide, though his darkest moment came in that winter of 1971.”

There’s a brief mention of a later diagnosis of gallstones, as well as a suggestion that he was following in the samurai tradition (from which his father descended, and imprinted on Kurosawa as a child). Then we move on to Kurosawa’s next projects.

Thirteen times. It isn’t clear if Cowie means that Kurosawa attempted to kill himself on 13 separate occasions, of if the single attempt that day in December involved 13 total cuts to his arms and neck. Either option is troubling. For an artist as prolific and “great” as Kurosawa, to attempt suicide (13 times or with 13 cuts) certainly suggests the concepts of death and suicide as powerful elements to his point of view.

Kurosawa’s autobiography bears this out. In Something Like An Autobiography, he never mentions his suicide attempts, choosing instead to end the volume around the time of Rashomon‘s success. However, he relates two dark and death-haunted stories that would seem to have affected much of his subsequent work.

As a child, he witnessed the aftermath of the Kanto earthquake, which involved not only death and destruction due to the quake, but also from a massacre of Korean residents in Tokyo, whom many Japanese believed to be somehow responsible for the event. His beloved older brother, Heigo, made the young Kurosawa observe the carnage, with heaps of dead and broken bodies everywhere.

“I saw corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at an intersection, and every manner of death possible to human beings displayed by corpses,” he writes. “When I involuntarily looked away, my brother scolded me, ‘Akira, look carefully now.'”

By looking at them now, he will learn to face fear, Heigo told him. “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened,” Heigo said. “If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.”

Sadly, that fearlessness (whether true or bravado), seems to have left an opening for despair to take hold in both boys’ lives. As an adult, Heigo found success as a silent film reader, but the advent of “talkies” ruined his career, and some time later, Heigo took his life.

Kurosawa relates the story in a chapter titled, “A Story I Don’t Want to Tell.” When he sees Heigo’s body, he can’t look away, unconsciously following Heigo’s instructions to him years before.

“At the entrance to the room I found myself unable to move. A relative who had come with my father and me to recover the body said to me in an angry voice, ‘Akira, what are you doing?’ What was I doing? I was looking at my dead brother. I was looking at the body of my brother, who had the same blood as I flowing in his veins, who had made that blood flow out of his body, and whom I esteemed and who for me was irreplaceable. He was dead. What was I doing? Damnation!”

He describes his guilt at not taking his mother’s concerns seriously. She had told him prior to his brother’s suicide that she feared he would kill himself, but young Kurosawa “laughed it away, saying, ‘People who talk about dying don’t die.'” “I could not forgive myself for what I had said to my mother,” he writes. “And how terrible the results had been for my brother. What a fool I am!” With such early exposure to death and destruction, and the suicide of a loved one, it doesn’t take much (admittedly armchair) psychology to wonder if those events left Kurosawa with a decidedly melancholy, if not outright angry and despairing bent.

In an interview included with the DVD of Dodes’ka-den, one of Kurosawa’s principal assistants, Teruyo Nogami, describes visiting Kurosawa in the hospital following his suicide attempt. “I wanted to ask why he had done such a foolish thing, but before I could get the words out, he just said, ‘Sorry.'”

During production and publicity for his next film, Dersu Urzula, “foreign reporters had no compunction about asking Kurosawa straight out why he’d wanted to kill himself,” Nogami says. “He always answered the same way: ‘At the time, I couldn’t bear to go on living, not for one more minute or second.’ What made his life so unbearable he never said.”

Donald Richie discusses Kurosawa’s suicide attempt in Alex Cox’s 1999 documentary Kurosawa: The Last Emperor. “He slashed himself to the extent… that one recognizes this is not suicide, this is a call for help,” Richie says.

Kazuko Kurosawa also appears in Cox’s film (offering a brief but strangely fascinating detail that when Heigo committed suicide, he did so together with a geisha). She describes her father and his brother as being, “like opposite images of the same film,” and this resonates again with Kagemusha. In that film, following the death of a powerful warlord, his brother, who had been acting as a double for him, says: “The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own. I was my brother’s shadow. Now that I have lost him it is as though I am nothing.” This also relates to a suggestion raised by Richie in Cox’s film that Kurosawa’s difficulty in financing his films (i.e., making films, period) led to the suicide attempt because, “if he didn’t work, there wasn’t any Kurosawa around.”

Suicide arises again when looking into Rashomon, the film that brought Kurosawa his international fame. He based the film on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, of whom Haruki Murakami wrote, “there is an undeniably breathtaking ferocity to the uninhibited, slashing style of the stories that he wrote in his first five or six years.” “Style and literary sense: these were, to be sure, the keenest weapons in Akutagawa’s authorial arsenal, but they also became his authorial Achilles’ heel,” Murakami writes in his introduction to Rashomon and 17 Other Stories.

Unfortunately for Akutagawa, his gifts as a writer caused him deep despair later in life. He took his life when he was only 35, using Veronal, footnoted in the collection as “a brand-name barbituate that Virginia Woolf had used in an early suicide attempt.”

“Precisely because these weapons of his were so sharp and effective, they hindered him somewhat when it came to establishing long-term scope and direction for his literature,” Murakami writes. “[A]n unbridgeable gap begins to form between him and the movement of time in the world around him. Just such a gap almost certainly added to Akutagawa’s psychological burdens and impelled him towards suicide.”

In another parallel with Kurosawa, the Kanto earthquake appears in a late story by Akutagawa, where he also describes seeing vast numbers of dead and decaying bodies.

“The odor was something close to overripe apricots. Catching a hint of it as he walked through the charred ruins, he found himself thinking such thoughts as these: The smell of corpses rotting in the sun is not as bad as I would have expected. When he stood before a pond where bodies were piled upon bodies, however, he discovered that the old Chinese expression, “burning the nose,” was no mere sensory exaggeration of grief and horror.”

The scene ends with the narrator thinking, “Too bad we didn’t all die.”

Discussing his documentary, Alex Cox seems to identify with that similar combination of skill and darkness in Kurosawa’s work: “Buñuel and Kurosawa are the greatest of directors, for me,” he says. “Buñuel for his sense of humour and his stories, Kurosawa for his technical mastery and epic despair.”

Cowie identifies similar traits in other literary giants who inspired films by Kurosawa. “He shared with Tolstoy and Thomas Hardy a sense of destiny, the idea that life is at the mercy of the collision and interaction between ungovernable forces,” Cowie writes in his chapter “The Literary Connection”.

The “ungovernable forces” resurface in Cowie’s chapter on “Formalism and the Elements”. “The five elements, according to Chinese philosophy — fire, earth, water, wood, and metal — play a crucial role in several Kurosawa films, as does air, which the Greeks regarded as a basic element,” Cowie writes, before examining the role of each of these elements and others in various films.

“The violence of natural interventions–rain, storms, fog, snow–offers a contrast to the exquisite formalism of Japanese interiors, indeed to the formalism of Japanese life itself,” he adds later, suggestive of the earthquake experience that impacted Kurosawa’s childhood.

For casual or hardcore Kurosawa-philes, this book has a very high wow-factor. Together with the insightful essays, the book’s visuals make it worth the price. It isn’t likely to become the single, dominant mainstream text on Kurosawa (a good combination would include this book, Kurosawa’s memoir, and Richie’s biography, along with as many DVDs as fit the budget), but it is certainly the most beautiful.

The price and heft of the book must be considered. As interesting as the essays are, the book seems geared more towards the illustrations and photos, which are downright mind-blowing. It’s a lush production: glossy and thick pages, high-quality photos, artwork and film stills, and a dust jacket that unfolds into an incredible poster depicting a scene from Kurosawa’s Ran. This is the kind of book that elicits a “whoa”, before reading a single word.

At $75 ($92 in Canada), and weighing in close to five pounds, this probably isn’t an impulse buy. Nor is it the sort of book to be thrown in a backpack to be read and re-read, leaving pages dog-eared and coffee-stained. It’s fun to browse, albeit kind of uncomfortable to keep in your lap, while watching a Kurosawa movie.

Cowie approaches Kurosawa’s life and work from six angles, one for each chapter:

  • The Man and his Formative Years
  • Images of the Modern World
  • The Historical Imperative
  • The Literary Connection
  • Formalism and the Elements
  • Riding into History

They offer a fascinating examination of Kurosawa’s work, and leave tantalizing mysteries unsolved about the darker influences that affected his life. Perhaps anticipating those mysteries, Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography that the answers lie in his films: “Although human beings are incapable of talking about themselves with total honesty, it is much harder to avoid the truth while pretending to be other people. They often reveal much about themselves in a very straightforward way. I am certain that I did. There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself.”

When pressed, it appears that Kurosawa could distill his work into an even simpler statement. Cowie quotes a 1993 interview with Kurosawa: “I suppose all my films have a common theme…If I think about it, though, the only theme I can think of is really a question: Why can’t people be happier together?”

RATING 8 / 10