We have a very welcome guest contribution from Andrew Spitznas, M.D., to commemorate 100 years of Kurosawa.
“Although human beings are incapable of talking about themselves with total honesty, it is much harder to avoid the truth when you pretend to be other people.”
– Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)
Were he still alive, Akira Kurosawa would have celebrated his 100th birthday today.
Kurosawa never forgot that audiences went to the cinema to be entertained. However, Kurosawa’s films were not mere entertainments. Even in such lengthy works as his 3-hour masterpiece, Ran, the tension and narrative urgency persist until the haunting finish. As a viewer, we laugh at the clownishness of the samurai wannabe Kikuchiyo in The Seven Samurai, yet we cannot fail to be moved as we learn of this character’s tragic history.
The formative event in his own childhood occurred when, in the immediate aftermath of the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, his older brother dragged him around Tokyo and forced him to gaze upon massive scenes of death and conflagration. As young Akira attempted to turn away from the carnage, his brother sternly told him, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.” These words became a lifelong motto for Kurosawa, as he pushed himself and his audiences to stare directly at human wrongs and tragedies, whether war, poverty, child abuse, or class discrimination.
Nonetheless, Kurosawa succeeded (most of the time, anyway) in representing moral dilemmas to his audience, rather than preaching about them. In viewing his films, I feel moved to become a better person.
Hearing the venerable Dr. Niide of ‘Red Beard’ tell his young trainee Yasumoto, “There is always some story of great misfortune behind illness,” challenges me to see my patients as fellow human sufferers instead of viewing them as a set of abnormal labs or a dysfunctional organ system. Watching Kurosawa hilariously skewer modern Japanese bureaucracy in Ikiru served as a personal antidote during my years as a government employee, urging me to aid, not obstruct, those in need of my department’s assistance.
A spiritual and psychological honesty permeates Kurosawa’s films. While feeling inspired by his hopeful exhortations towards social transformation in his postwar films Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, there are also other times when the pessimism and even despair of his films of the 1970’s and 1980’s resonate in my soul. However, I then find relief when the elderly characters in his final three films live serenely and with an Ericksonian ego integrity in the face of poverty and loss, perhaps best exemplified by Kane, the survivor of Nagasaki in Rhapsody in August.
I would be remiss if I did not also make mention of the visual qualities of Kurosawa’s work. In his editing, scenes of action, and his use of telephoto lenses to create an impressive depth of field, he was a pioneer. When he finally arrived late to the usage of color film in 1970, he employed it with an unforgettable vividness: the disturbing garishness of Dodeskaden and the deathly hues of Kagemusha immediately come to mind.
My heart sinks when I watch the final scene of his final film, 1993’s Madadayo. The lead character, an elderly professor, dreams of himself as a child playing hide-and-seek in a hayfield at sunset, calling out to his playmates that he still has not hidden. “Ma-da-dayo” (“No, not yet”), he sings. I, too, wish to call out – not yet, Kurosawa-san, you still have beautiful films to make.
Ed. note: Andrew also contributed several capsule reviews on Kurosawa films to the Arts & Faith Top 100 Films list. From his take on Dersu Uzala: “The product of several months of on-location filming with an all-Soviet cast in Siberia, Kurosawa effectively uses his trademark long range lenses in Dersu Uzala to reveal wide natural tableaus in which the human figures are often silhouetted miniatures in massive landscapes. Kurosawa always excelled in depicting violent turns of weather, and here we see windswept plains that can quickly claim lives with their brutal chill. And although Dersu is only his second color film, he masterfully captures deep-red sunsets coloring broad fields of ice, ominous moonlit nights, summery forests, and ice-clogged rivers. With such immense vistas, violent movement, and intense color, it may be argued that Nature is actually the main character in this film.”