THE ESSENTIAL KUROSAWA AT ACMI
David Stratton is one of Australia's most respected and trusted film critics having headed the famous ' Movie Show' for many years. He has been selected by Melbourne's acclaimed Australian Centre for the Moving Image (aka ACMI) to put together a comprehensive season of Akira Kurosawa classics, many screening in 35mm;
During the ‘golden era’ of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa was by far the best-known Japanese director internationally. His films were not only accessible, they were marvelously executed. He made no secret of his love of Hollywood cinema, especially the work of John Ford, but his lyrical, dazzling, breathtaking style in turn influenced a younger generation of Americans – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese among them. But he was also a great humanist, and his films explore the problems and concerns of ‘ordinary’ people as much as they do the exploits of the warriors for which he is so celebrated.
- David Stratton
Fri May 26th & Thurs June 8th
RASHOMON (1950 / DCP)
In a dark forest, a woman is raped and her husband, a samurai, is murdered by a bandit. Four versions of the story unfold, each point of view offering a different perspective, a different ‘reality’. Through a medium, the dead samurai claims he killed himself, unable to live with dishonour. The bandit insists the sex was consensual and that he killed the samurai in a duel. The West was almost entirely ignorant of Japanese cinema before Rashomon screened at Venice in 1951 and won the Golden Lion. Essentially a story about the subjective nature of truth, the film is set in the 11th Century. The source lies in two short stories, Rashomon and In the Grove, written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who died in 1927; he has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe. The film is notable for its adventurous photography, its innovative employment of light and shade, and for the skilled direction of the actors, notably the startlingly physical performance by Toshiro Mifune as the bandit accused of the crimes. Kurosawa had already made a dozen films prior to this extraordinary breakthrough and he deliberately set out to recreate the look and atmosphere of silent cinema.
Sat 27th May 2:30pm & Fri June 2nd 7pm
SEVEN SAMURAI (1954 / 35mm Print)
Set in the 16th Century, the film introduces the peasant inhabitants of a remote village who live in fear of the annual raid by vicious bandits who steal their crops and rape their women. They hire seven samurai, professional warriors, to protect them, and though the money they offer is paltry they find a leader (Takashi Shimura) willing to recruit a team and accept the challenge. Kurosawa’s admiration for the American western, and his love for the films of John Ford, became evident to western audiences for the first time with this thrilling epic, though at the time they were denied the opportunity of seeing the film in its original form – believing that, at about 3 ½ hours, the film would be too taxing for foreigners, the Japanese producers insisted on shortening it by almost an hour, which is how is was seen for many years (including its Australian debut at the Sydney Film Festival). The meticulous build-up to the vigorously staged action that constitutes the last third of the film is vital to establish the characters of both the peasants and the samurai, with Toshiro Mifune’s ‘fake’ samurai the film’s most intriguing character. Hollywood has twice transformed the film into a western, in 1960 and again 2016.
Saturday May 27th 7pm
IKIRU (1952 / 35mm Print)
The international success of Rashomon gave Kurosawa more creative freedom and he used this to make one of his finest films, Ikiru, which is translated variously as Living and Doomed. It’s the story of a Kenji Watanabe, an office worker, superbly played by Takashi Shimura, an actor can be seen in almost every Kurosawa film but who rarely played a leading role. This ‘ordinary’ bureaucrat, in late middle-age, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the news leads him to re-assess his life, and to his determination to achieve something worthwhile before he dies. The film is one of Kurosawa’s most humanistic, but also one of his most ironic as the later sequences indicate. The director said that the film was inspired by thoughts of his own death and of the legacy he would leave behind him. The most important aspect of the film lies in the fact that we do not see ourselves as others see us, so that Watanabe’s aspirations are misconstrued, or simply unappreciated, by his colleagues. It’s a film that can be interpreted in more than one way, and in that sense it can be compared to Rashomon, though in every other respect these two great films of the early 50s could hardly be more different.
Sun May 28th 2:30pm & Fri June 2nd 6:30pm
YOJIMBO (1961 / 35mm Print)
Once again, Kurosawa demonstrated his love for the Hollywood Western with this archetypical story of a lonely warrior who arrives in a lawless township. In hundreds of Westerns, this character would be ‘the fastest gun’, but Sanjuro, the character Toshiro Mifune so engagingly plays here, would be better described as ‘the swiftest swordsman’. The people in this particular town are far from law-abiding. They consist of two rival gangs, each one as bad as the other, and a few honest citizens simply trying to get along. When Sanjuro arrives he quickly demonstrates his expertise with the sword so that each side is eager to hire him. The main difference between Mifune’s character and that of Western heroes like Gary Cooper or Alan Ladd is that Yojimbo is a mercenary – he’s in it for the money. If the plot sounds familiar it’s because, just three years later in 1964, Sergio Leone ‘borrowed’ it (without acknowledgment) for the first of his celebrated Clint Eastwood Westerns, Per un pugno de dollari (A Fistful of Dollars). A comparison of key scenes from the two films will show that Leone followed Kurosawa pretty faithfully, including inserting some of the smaller details. Yojimbo was so successful that Kurosawa made a sequel, Sanjuro, the following year.
Sun May 28th 5:30pm
THRONE OF BLOOD (1957 / 35mm Print)
Kurosawa has been both admired and denigrated for the influence Western culture has had on his films. Apart from his debt to the American Western, he has shown a great fondness, and understanding, for the work of giants of Western literature, including Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare. He has made three films inspired by plays written by the latter: The Bad Sleep Well is a very loose adaptation of Hamlet, while Ran is a Japanese King Lear. The Throne of Blood takes Macbeth and transforms the tragedy into a grimly beautiful exploration of ambition and self-delusion. While sticking closely to the original, apart from a few minor details (one witch instead of three), Kurosawa made the film in the style of Noh theatre, resulting in a drama that blends realism with extreme stylisation. Toshiro Mifune gives his usual commanding performance as the Macbeth character, but even more impressive is the Lady Macbeth character, memorably portrayed by Isuzu Yamada, who is one of the very few villainesses in Kurosawa films and, as she glides through the sleeping castle at night, one of cinema’s most impressive manipulators.
Mon May 29th 7pm & Sat June 3rd 2:30pm
RAN (1985 / DCP)
Like Kagemusha, Ran was only able to be financed with help from abroad, in this case France. Kurosawa’s last great epic film this, like so many of his other films, is set in the 16th Century but this time the director has drawn, once again, on Shakespeare for his inspiration, and the story is a re-working of King Lear, with the three daughters of the original replaced by three sons. Keeping the bare bones of the original, Kurosawa once again revels both in the pageantry and colour of his battle scenes and in the personal tragedies of the characters involved in what is obviously a pointless conflict. The word ‘ran’ means ‘war’ or sometimes ‘conflict’, but Kurosawa said at the time he was reaching back to the word’s older meaning – ‘chaos’. It’s a pessimistic film in which the director’s constant theme – the difficulty of upholding human values – results in apocalyptic destruction. Of particular interest is the character of the Fool, who is played by Peter [Shinnosuke Ikehata], who at the time was well known as a transvestite and singer. Again, Tatsuya Nakadai plays the leading role, that of the elderly ruler whose plans for transition to the next generation are foiled by greed and stupidity.
Tues May 30th & Tues June 6th 7pm
KAGEMUSHA (1980 / DCP)
Kurosawa only made two films during the 1970s, and one of those was made in the Soviet Union. He was finding it extremely difficult to raise finance in Japan, and it was only with the support of two American admirers – George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola – that he managed to make Kagemusha, which was at the time the most expensive Japanese film ever produced. Again, the setting is the 16th Century, the period of clan wars, and the background to the story is basically true. When clan chief Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai) is fatally wounded he persuades the clan’s hierarchy to replace him secretly with a kagemusha (or double), also played by Nakadai, a thief who was spared the gallows because he bears an uncanny resemblance to Takeda. In this film, Kurosawa is examining the meaning of power. The enemy believes that the powerful Takeda is still in control, but the reality is very different; yet as long as the subterfuge works, the dead clan leader’s power remains in place. The battle scenes are magnificently staged, but the director leaves in no doubt his attitude towards the madness of war and in particular the pointlessness of this kind of internecine conflict.
Thurs June 1st 7pm
THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958 / 35mm)
20th Century-Fox introduced the widescreen system they called CinemaScope in 1953; the old 3 x 4 standard screen was replaced by the relatively vast 2:35:1 ratio, and before long the system had been licensed to other companies. Toho called the system TohoScope, and Kurosawa used it for the first time in 1958 on a film that set out to be nothing more than an elaborate entertainment. Set in 16th Century Japan, a time of civil wars, the film establishes the conflict between rival Feudal Lords. When the clan to which Princess Yukihime is heiress is defeated by their neighbour, she manages to escape with her clan’s war funds, 170 pounds of gold bars. A pair of scruffy, would-be samurai discover the gold, but they are quickly overcome by Rokurota (Toshiro Mifune), a fearless samurai loyal to the Princess and her clan. What follows is a rollicking adventure, with significant comedy elements, in which Kurosawa uses the Scope ratio with peerless imagination.
Famously, this is the film that inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars, which also has a Princess in distress and other characters that were derived from Kurosawa’s film. Some contemporary critics believed that the ragged foot-soldiers were inspired by Laurel and Hardy.
Sat June 3rd 6:30pm
HIGH AND LOW (1963 / 35mm Print)
Rather surprisingly, the origin of Kurosawa’s contemporary drama of crime and punishment is a book, King’s Ransom, by American writer Ed McBain. Toshiro Mifune stars as Gondo, a wealthy businessman who lives in a fine house on top of a hill overlooking the city. He’s about to swing a deal that will make him very rich when he receives a message to say that his small son has been kidnapped – and an unrealistically high ransom is being demanded for his safe return. But the boy is safe: it was Gondo’s chauffeur’s son who was kidnapped by mistake. So the question is: Is the son of a chauffeur worth the same as the son of a businessman? Using the Scope ratio with his usual brilliance, Kurosawa divides the film into two distinct parts, parts that are aptly described by the film’s title. The first half of the film unfolds inside the house on the hill, as Gondo agonises over what to do. The second takes place down in the city where people like the kidnapper live in abject poverty – the film is sometimes known in English as Heaven and Hell. Like Hitchcock, Kurosawa isn’t interested in making a whodunit or a mystery: for him the question is Why?
Sun June 4th 5pm
RED BEARD (1965 / 35mm Print)
During the two-year production of this film – filming took longer than any Japanese film up to that time, including Seven Samurai – Kurosawa announced that he “wanted to push the confines of movie-making to their limits”. How he attempts this makes Red Beard one of his most challenging films. It’s the story of a young man (Yuzo Kayama) who becomes intern to the veteran doctor known as Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), who runs a public clinic. It’s the doctor’s view that personal sacrifice for the common good is what makes a man’s life worthwhile; that only by complete dedication to the poor and needy can a doctor find fulfilment.
In this sense, the film has some thematic connections to Ikiru (Living), but the film delves further into the subject, suggesting that the old doctor’s feudal attitudes are becoming less relevant, yet that no modern doctrine is sufficient to take their place. The film’s powerful philosophical and ethical elements suggest that Kurosawa was, in a way making a summation of his life’s work with this film – it proved to be his last film with Mifune and his last film in black and white.
Program notes by ACMI