The Hidden Fortress

Widescreen, Big Ideas: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa

When Akira Kurosawa made the conversion to a wider screen, he did so by making six consecutive films in widescreen, with a degree of success as resounding as it was influential.

In the late 1950s, as color film and widescreen formats were rapidly becoming industry standards. Akira Kurosawa was highly reluctant to make the change to color from the rich, brilliant textures of black and white film. It was yet another example of the director’s legendary stubbornness and would last through the entire 1960s. When he finally did switch to color in 1970 with Dodeskaden, he made up for much lost time, featuring vivid primary colors in a way many found overly calculated and self-conscious.

But in 1957, he did embrace the other technological innovation: the widescreen format. The industry standard was roughly 4:3 (standard fare at the movie theatres or equivalent to what was until high definition television one saw in one’s home). Widescreen, copyrighted under various names such as Panavision, Vistavision, Tohoscope, and others, made the ratio of the screen width more than twice the height.

In Japan, screen dimensions were often even more “squarish” and more confining at 1.33:1, as is the case in Seven Samurai. Contemporary viewers of this classic are usually taken back watching the opening sequences until they get used to the lack of horizontal breath, especially in a film from the late 1950s, a time of epic filmmaking. In direct response to the challenge of upstart television, the movie industry had to make the most of its larger, more visually impressive format to distinguish itself and remain relevant. Films featuring casts of thousands, rich colors, and stereophonic sound presented epics larger in story and visual scope. The tiny boxes in viewers’ homes could not compete. Cinema became a format that implied spectacle, modernity, and importance in the world of the arts. When Akira Kurosawa did make the conversion to a wider screen, he did so by making six consecutive films in widescreen, with a degree of success as resounding as it was influential. The six films that Akira Kurosawa made in Tohoscope represent the director at the height of his international reputation and during the most autonomous period of his career.

Kurosawa often looked to the West for source material, as in 1951, when he made an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Just prior to his first widescreen venture, The Hidden Fortress, he had completed two films derived directly from Western sources: Throne of Blood, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and later that same year, an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. He would again turn to Shakespeare for inspiration in The Bad Sleep Well (Hamlet) and Ran (King Lear).

The Hidden Fortress
The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress is a rousing adventure, the most unabashed piece of entertainment to come out of this period of Kurosawa’s career. It is not strictly a samurai film but an adventure featuring the samurai period elements of class division, feudal terrains, and unequivocal clan loyalties. It is specifically Japanese in these ways. If not the overall pacing, the basic storytelling is very western and, therefore, easily accessible to western audiences. Of course, this is true in nearly all of Kurosawa and is the point of departure for the primary disagreement in assessing his work.

From Western audiences’ viewpoint, there are enough elements of the “exotic” blended with Akira Kurosawa’s masterful storytelling and classic John Ford-based action to be immediately satisfying. To the Japanese, the immediate appreciation and understanding of Kurosawa by western audiences meant that either he wasn’t “Japanese enough” or worked with international audiences in mind. Among the Japanese intelligentsia and critical writers during the period in which these films were made, the prevailing thought was that in the pantheon of Japanese film masters, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi were “more Japanese” and should be more greatly regarded. The Japanese public may have disagreed, as The Hidden Fortress with its great spectacle, superior action and storytelling, wonderful cast, and stirring score was Kurosawa’s greatest commercial success.

Much has been written about the influence of The Hidden Fortress on George Lucas and Star Wars, including structuring the story around the viewpoints of the lowest characters, the vast horizontal landscapes, and the morally ambiguous action hero. The story element of crossing a hostile border while protecting a sheltered young princess is something of a re-visiting of one of Kurosawa’s very early films (Those Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail (1945), the source of which was a historically based kabuki play. However, the degree of influence is less important than the appreciation of classic storytelling told in two completely different settings.

The Bad Sleep Well

Less acknowledged but equally exacting is the influence The Bad Sleep Well (the first film that Akira Kurosawa produced independently of Toho) had on director/writer Francis Ford Coppola, who said, “The first 30 minutes of The Bad Sleep Well seem to me as perfect as any film I have ever seen.” Coppola uses it as a template for the opening sequences in all three films of his Godfather trilogy. This is particularly true of the first film, which, like The Bad Sleep Well, opens with a wedding sequence that stylishly delineates a great deal of plot and character information while a celebratory public ceremony counterpoints a darker inner reality.

Although The Bad Sleep Well is scarcely a direct adaptation, in the manner Throne of Blood was to Macbeth, there are clear similarities to Hamlet in the characters, plot and theme. The hero, played by Toshiro Mifune, plans measured revenge that takes us through a corrupt corporation’s public and private sides. In addition to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Bad Sleep Well incorporates the indigenous Japanese tradition of vengeance as a relevant source. The avenging hero shares with Ôishi Kuranosuke, the leader of the revenge in the classic Japanese story of the 47 Ronin, a great deal of ingenuity and seemingly endless patience. The primary interest is with the elemental ethical issues of good and evil, basic to all revenge tragedies, and the inevitable moral price that must be paid to exact revenge, no matter how justified.

Kurosawa said that with The Bad Sleep Well, he wanted to make a film of social significance. That represents something of a return to the type of contemporary set film that first established his reputation in such works as Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. The film was made in 1960, during the early stages of that Japanese “economic miracle” that signaled recovery from the devastation of World War II. It was an era of growing prosperity that would, in time, evolve into the opulence of the “bubble economy” of the 1980s. In this early phase, however, the chief preoccupations were corporate survival and ruthless expansion by highly competitive businessmen, a corrupting mindset that Kurosawa would revisit in High and Low.

Yojimbo
Yojimbo

The widescreen format of The Bad Sleep Well served both style and substance. As in The Hidden Fortress before it, an unusually large number of scenes feature three people, such as the three principal villains, the police in their office, Nishi with his two confederates, and the trio of Nishi, his wife and her brother. These were shot either on a flat plane to form a triptych composition or with one or two people foreground to create a triangular formation. Throughout the film, doors are constantly opened and shut, seeming to symbolize a border between the public and private personas and serve as passageways into the “true nature” of the characters. Elevator doors open and close like stage curtains, setting off contrasting groups of passengers, a door is slammed in the faces of reporters, and a series of bank doors create a labyrinth for access to laundered money; while shoji screens are opened to reveal a married couple’s true relationship.

The irreverent morals and black humor, the artistry of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and the ever-contemporary sounding score of Masaru Sato make Yojimbo just as rewarding today as it was nearly 50 years ago when it was released. Similar to the realism Rashomon and Seven Samurai brought to jidai-geki filmmaking, Yojimbo had a direct influence on heightened graphic violence on screen. While Rashomon and Seven Samurai were early and accurate renderings of how physically difficult it is to actually wield a sword, it is in Yojimbo and Sanjuro that the residual effects of that swordplay has on human flesh – the depiction of severed limbs and arterial spurts are shown graphically for the first time.

In Yojimbo, as in most Kurosawa films, nature’s elements are a compelling character within the story. An untimely visit by officials is prolonged by heavy rain. The dust and wind that travel down the main street are among the many references to American Western films that Yojimbo became known for, though the first screen appearance between Toshiro Mifune and a gun-toting Tatsuya Nakadai is most memorable. The introduction of the gun — a new weapon — implies a new set of rules and morals. The sword, the eternal symbolic soul of Japan, has become quickly outdated, and by that implication, the code of morality and way of life it represented ends with it. Thus this battle between sword and gun might also be viewed as a struggle between East and West, or perhaps maintaining the East against the oncoming West, a last stand for the traditional against the technical, and even a struggle between good and evil.

Mifune’s character in this film is often referred to, even in later non-Kurosawa films as Yojimbo, meaning “bodyguard,” and is one of the actor’s most original and engaging characters. Blending broad and subtle reactions, the first ten or so minutes of Yojimbo is virtually a silent film as Mifune assesses his environment and the people in it. Unshaven and unconventional, it is his wit and superior swords skills that allow him to survive in an imperfect world, even if only by virtue of making his own rules and remaining detached from alliances of any kind.

Sanjuro

In Sanjuro, the sequel to Yojimbo, Mifune reprises his role within a profoundly different environment. Yojimbo takes place in a small town, in its own world of bad characters and morals where Mifune fits right in among gamblers, yakuza and outlaws; Sanjuro takes place within a more formal, more refined world where bad deeds are carried out discreetly. Because the ronin Mifune has long been freed from the constrictions of proper, reserved samurai behavior, Sanjuro can be viewed as something of a comedy of manners, playing heavily upon its “fish out of water” elements.

Much of the humor–and this is a very funny film–comes from his disregard or impatience with traditional conventions and protocol. In the unforgettable climax of Sanjuro, a close-quartered stand-off that draws heavily on the elements of a quick-draw gunfight, Kurosawa makes full use of all the cinematic tricks of the classic western. The static composition of the long single take is there, as is the minimizing of sound but for the wind, the swoosh of the sword, and the unearthly sound effect of the gurgling of the cut. The director’s patience allows the dramatic tension to build before suddenly, jarringly collapsing in a shocking gout of blood. This scene, highly influential in all action genres, as it introduced the arterial spurt, is still impressive today even after decades of, often gratuitous, screen violence.

High and Low

The structure of High and Low is most unusual of Kurosawa’s wide-screen works, with the first act confined to a single set of a luxury high-rise apartment. While the set itself may be limiting, the action is not. The staging is nothing short of remarkable, with character movement, plot delineation, and developments all played out in the confined setting of an air-conditioned high-rise apartment overlooking the sweltering city. The latter part of the narrative, a train sequence, seems even faster-paced following the claustrophobia of the initial section of the film. It plays in real-time and the split-second timing of the narrative is largely due to the timing of the staging, filming, and editing. The manhunt that closes the film, even more than the beginning, is about procedure, hearkening back to the high-intensity motif of Kurosawa’s earlier Stray Dog.

In Red Beard, Kurosawa revisits the relationship between teacher and reluctant pupil, a theme found many times in his work including his first directorial effort, Sanshiro Sugata through Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog, Seven Samurai, and even Sanjuro. The vast scope of this film (Seven Samurai is the only film prior to it with an intermission) led critic Donald Richie to comment that it seemed the director came to “some sort of conclusion,” as a film-maker and had “pushed his style to the ultimate,” a sentiment with which the director agreed.

The story takes place during a time of transition in Japanese history when the age of the samurai was about to end, and Western influences were becoming more prevalent. Red Beard also marks closure to many aspects of Kurosawa’s career—it is not only his last widescreen film but also his final black and white effort. Music is an extremely key element in all of Kurosawa’s work, and Red Beard was his last film with composer Masaru Sato, who wrote every score for the director beginning with Throne of Blood in 1957. Yet nothing exemplifies more clearly and sadly the era’s closure than the fact that the great collaboration between director Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune, a relationship that spanned 16 remarkable films in 17 years, ended with Red Beard. It is also the end of the most prolific era of Kurosawa’s career, in which he made 23 films in 25 years. After making Red Beard, it would take five years until his next feature, and the next 28 years would yield but seven films.

Red Beard

Orson Welles famously commented that the only thing widescreen was useful for was filming rattlesnakes. Perhaps the comment had in part to do with the types of films being made in widescreen, films more concerned with spectacle rather than character and story. Then again, he may have been reacting to the difficulty in painting on an entirely different shaped canvas. Neither of these speculative obstacles hindered Kurosawa, as it would be challenging to find another run of six consecutive films, in any director’s filmography, as impressive as these.

If, as it is sometimes suggested, the films in discussion fall short of the consensus masterworks that preceded them in Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai, they fall just short. Along with Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Throne of Blood, and Ran, they represent the next tier of Kurosawa’s legacy, ranging from very good to great. If these wide-screen efforts were the only films he made, there’s a good chance that Akira Kurosawa’s legacy as a timeless and influential master filmmaker would be lessened, but amazingly, intact.

+ + +

This article was originally published on 13 October 2010.

FROM YOUR SITE ARTICLES
PopMatters