15 June, 2002Issue 1.1Asia & AustraliaFilm & TVThe Arts

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At War with His Critics

Leonard Epp

Joan Mellen
Seven Samurai
BFI Film Classics Series
British Film Institute, 2002
79 pages

Roy Stafford
Seven Samurai
York Film Notes Series
York Press, 2001
91 pages

Akira Kurosawa’s legacy of devoted and insightful filmmaking has made him one of Japan’s most well-known and one of the world’s greatest directors. A global reputation and an undiminished popular reception have not, however, secured him and his work from general attacks in film criticism. Many studies of Kurosawa’s work, for example, involve the analysis of his films in the context of a critique of his national character, and as a result he is often accused of being overly Western in his technique, his ideology, and his influences.

A second and equally dominant theme in Kurosawa criticism is the tendency to construct from his life and work a narrative of continuous descent into political and artistic failure, and into intellectual isolation. Ultimately, such comprehensive accounts of the nature of Kurosawa’s 30 films misrepresent, under overloaded terms like ‘humanism’, what is in fact a dynamic and complex commitment to the creation of ‘shakkaimono’, or as critic Donald Richid defines it, ‘meaningful films about social issues seen in personal terms’. Furthermore, such accounts tend to oversimplify the changes in Kurosawa’s 50-year directing career, by characterizing them as deviations from a central goal or project, which is something of a theoretical daydream.

Two recent books published in the United Kingdom have sought to resolve the tensions provoked by these dominant and contentious themes. Both take as their subject Kurosawa’s most internationally famous film, Seven Samurai, which serves as a synecdoche for a range of issues central to an understanding of his work as a whole.

Roy Stafford, in his York Film Notes Series Seven Samurai, attempts to address the problematic and reductive debate concerning an opposition between Japanese and American nationalism by complicating the notion of influence and moving beyond the confines of an oversimplified East-West divide. He suggests that a more global context should be brought to bear on considerations of Kurosawa’s films.

Joan Mellen, in her BFI Film Classics Series Seven Samurai, likewise seeks to provide a more charitable ground for analysis by attacking head-on the received opinion concerning Kurosawa’s political failures and by demonstrating the weaknesses of a critical-political hegemony which condemns Kurosawa for not being what he never claimed to have been. His consistent focus on the importance of the individual in action is in this context his greatest success, the result of an exhaustive effort under sustained fire.

Kurosawa was born in 1910 in Tokyo, the son of a military father who came from samurai lineage. His father encouraged him to develop an interest in the newly emerging medium of film, an interest further supported by his brother Heigo’s employment as a benshi, or narrator of silent films. The young Kurosawa’s interest was, however, in painting, and he entered school to train as professional painter. But this skill, which would later aid him in preparing painted representations for highly visual films such as Ran, could not secure him an adequate living. Thus in 1936 Kurosawa, looking for work, answered an advertisement for the position of an assistant director from PCL Studios. He was accepted to work under the direction of the man who was to become his greatest teacher, Kajiro Yamamoto. It was in the following years that Kurosawa developed the technical skills and work ethic for which he would later be renowned.

Kurosawa’s first films were directed during and immediately following World War Two, and were produced under the constraints of wartime and occupation censorship. Though his first film, Sanshiro Sugata, a striking depiction of a struggling young martial artist, was relatively unaffected by political influences, the wartime Japanese government was of course anti-Western, and preferred representations of devoted and unindividuated workers who were subordinate at least to a ‘social’ goal, if not also to a received and semi-feudalistic notion of an ‘authentic’ Japan which was under attack from Western cultural influences. The American occupation forces, in their turn, sought to subdue representations of feudal loyalty, and banned Kurosawa’s 1945 film They Who Tread on the Tiger’s Trail. Perhaps tainted by an early and disappointing membership in Japan’s Proletarian Artists’ League in 1929, and certainly affected by the aura of institutional control over the lives of individuals, Kurosawa developed a strong tendency to promote the self-directed, individual struggle over the random and unpredictable tendencies of mass-movements, which so often perpetuated forms of tyranny under the guise of promoting the greater good.

Kurosawa’s first break into international recognition was Rashomon (1950), which won the first prize at the Venice Festival. It was followed by a very weak and overly literal adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot in 1951, a failure which taught Kurosawa valuable lessons in later adaptations of Shakespeare. (Throne of Blood was based on Macbeth and Ran on King Lear.) In his next film, Ikiru (1952), he wisely chose an original story, that of a lonely civil servant whose heroic struggle in the face of bureaucratic indifference is one of Kurosawa’s most striking depictions of an isolated effort to make personal life meaningful through the fulfillment of a social object.

In the late sixties a disastrous encounter with Twentieth Century Fox in the production of Tora! Tora! Tora! left Kurosawa bitter and unemployed. He didn’t make another film until 1970, and, perhaps as a result of its poor reception and the unwillingness of Japanese production houses to fund any of his extravagant projects, he attempted to kill himself in 1971. In 1975 he received an offer from a Russian organisation, Mosfilm, under whose aegis he produced, in Dersu Uzala, a melancholy representation of the alienation of man from nature as a result of progressive urbanisation and industrialisation. In 1980, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas found funding for a period film, Kagemusha, and in 1985 Kurosawa found backing for the long-contemplated Ran. These later films, most critics testify, are bleak in both style and content, and express more of a desire to be resolved to the certainty of death and failure than to celebrate the virtues of existence or promote hope.

Kurosawa made three further films before he died in 1998. He wrote the scripts for each of them entirely on his own, deviating from his prior policy of writing scripts col-laboratively. Dreams (1990) attempts to visualise various dreams which Kurosawa claimed to have had throughout his life, Rhapsody in August (1991) confronts the consequences of the bombing of Nagasaki, and, finally, Madadayo (1993) tells the story of a retired professor who eventually reconciles himself to the death which he knew was inevitable but for which he did not yet feel prepared.

Kurosawa’s most directly discernible influence in popular international cinema is a result of the magnificent storytelling and characterization in his samurai films. The Hidden Fortress (1958), for example, has been cited by George Lucas as an important source for Star Wars, even providing (in the form of two hapless farmers) the inspiration for the electronic antics of C3PO and R2-D2. Yojimbo (1961) and its weaker sequel, Sanjuro (1962), introduced into popular cinema the figure of a hero without name, commitments, history — or scruples. The formula has inspired, among others, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and, more recently, Last Man Standing.

But Kurosawa’s most famous film, Seven Samurai, stands out from the rest in its outstanding cinematography, characterization, and fast-paced, compelling action. Kurosawa’s representation of honourable but unemployed warriors, caught in the final historical moment of their tradition and banding together without promise of real remuneration to save a distressed and ultimately unappreciative populace, makes it something of a symbol of Kurosawa’s awareness of the importance and the evanescence of individual commitment in a social arena. Six rogue samurai and one farmer with samurai pretensions (played with incredible power by Kurosawa’s favourite leading man, Toshiro Mifune) are hired to protect a town of hapless, selfish peasants who are plagued annually by a gang of bandits, who are themselves made up of former samurai. Led by the wise Kanbei (played by another Kurosawa favourite, Takashi Shimura), the samurai help the townspeople to overcome their irresponsible selfishness and to sacrifice themselves for the collective good. But the nature of the transition from ancient to modern warfare weakens the authority of the samurai, and each of the four who are killed die from gunshots. When the battle is over and the bandits are vanquished, the townspeople return to their rural occupations and leave the samurai again masterless. Kanbei, reflecting on the homeless life of the samurai ends the film with the sad but pregnant lines: ‘We lose. Those farmers… they’re the winners’.

In the early 1970s New Wave Japanese directors reacted against Kurosawa’s reputation and his perceived cinematic authority. They rebelled against what they saw as an American style which was overly individualistic and too directly influenced by westerns in the style of John Ford and others. This was perhaps their most damaging attack, leveled as it was against a director who prided himself on his ability to make films first and foremost for a Japanese audience.

In his York Film Series volume, Roy Stafford straightforwardly claims that it is impossible to reduce the complexities of global cross-cultural relationships to the simplified issue of ‘influence’, or to the question of the extent to which Kurosawa was essentially either Japanese, or Western. Consequently, for Stafford the film is part of a collaborative effort that is not reducible to notions of national cinema or the single auteur. Kurosawa may have been influenced by American westerns, but he transformed the received form and developed it in a particularly Japanese fashion. With the distance of history behind him, Stafford thinks himself able to overcome local prejudices and a binary nationalism to show the extent to which various aesthetic styles and techniques are taken up and modified by Kurosawa. ‘Perhaps only now,’ he writes, ‘nearly fifty years after its initial release, can Seven Samurai be viewed objectively, the “illusion” peeled away to reveal the “reality”‘.

Stafford develops his point by offering short descriptions of Kurosawa’s stylistic innovations in both camera work and sound. His pioneering use of multi-camera filming and telephoto lenses in Seven Samurai became an inspiration and a practical lesson for directors the world over. In his attempt to make wide interdisciplinary and international connections, Stafford’s description of the influence of Japanese painting techniques in Kurosawa’s cinematic art is illuminating, and an extended discussion of sound effects and musical scores is likewise a valuable addition to popularly accessible works on Seven Samurai.

The book is also useful insofar as it contains highlighted words which are explained in a special section on terminology, though it is significantly weakened by the almost total absence of photographs: essential scenes are represented in drawings more appropriate to a child’s textbook. Ultimately, Stafford’s Seven Samurai is a useful introduction to Kurosawa’s work and to Japanese film in general, but its most interesting addition to Kurosawa criticism is its insistence upon a move away from reductive and misleading discussions of national identity.

Joan Mellen’s contribution to the British Film Institute Classics Series, Seven Samurai, begins with a rather incoherent though informative of various aspects of the film; like Stafford’s book, it is rather short and in the style of a brief introduction to Kurosawa’s contribution to cinema. But she reveals her real agenda in a section on Kurosawa and his critics, which is in fact a detailed and vehement repudiation of the politically motivated mischar-acterisations of Kurosawa’s work which have tended to descry his ‘humanist’ individualism and his intellectual ‘failures’. Kurosawa, she writes, adopting a common metaphor by making of him some sort of warrior, ‘was at war with the critics’. She takes apart, in some detail, the criticisms of No√´l Burch, James Goodwin, Stephen Prince, Tada Sato, and Michitaro Tada. Western critics are attacked for their ‘infatuation with “theory”‘ and the misrepresentation of history, while in Japan, ‘a pseudo-Marxist view has approached the film from a similar premise, distorting Kurosawa’s perspective’. A failure to acknowledge the reality of the real world leaves postmodern critics foundering in an ahistorical, underdeter-mined intellectual schema, utterly incapable of any accurate representation of Kurosawa’s sociopolitical commitments; the New Wave directors are merely ungrateful and jealous. The only critic who fares reasonably well is Donald Richie, a benevolent Kurosawa expert whose The Films of Akira Kurosawa (to which Mellen has made contributions), though it perpetuates the myth of the director’s descent into seclusion, remains one of the classics of American criticism of Kurosawa’s work.

Though it is presented in a scatter-gun fashion and directed not only against critics but, perhaps too openly, against many facets of contemporary criticism, Mellen’s central point comes across quite clearly. Film critics should not condemn directors for failing to make the kinds of films the critics would like to see; this is a form of tyranny and requires decided resistance. Given his initial contact with a politically motivated censorship which was the common ground between Marxism and Imperialism, Kurosawa’s vision is one of a freedom which bows neither to received opinion nor to the bigotry of those who toe a fashionable line. Hence Mellen’s blunt quotation from Kurosawa himself: ‘I felt that without the establishment of the self as a positive value there could be no freedom and no democracy’. In the end, it is not Kurosawa to whom the narrative of failure applies, but to history: ‘Seven Samurai at the last becomes an elegy, a window into Akira Kurosawa’s heart. From the vantage of the post-war moment, he mourns how and when Japan lost its best self. The history which followed would for him move in an ever downward moral direction’.

The recent retrospective of Kurosawa’s work sponsored by the British Film Institute, coinciding as it does with the release of Mellen’s widely-directed rhetoric is not merely an attempt to perpetuate an appreciation for his wide body of work. It is also an attempt to generate the wider critical and theoretical understanding necessary for a charitable — and just — representation of his contribution to cinema, which does not reduce critical discussion of his work to received clichés concerning the nature of his influences, or the quality of his national character. The reception by established critics, we may safely wager, will be predictably defensive; but the reception by a new generation of audiences and film students, more distant as they are from the political and social events, and theoretical constructs, which have dominated critical discussion of Kurosawa’s oeuvre, is rather more difficult to anticipate.

Leonard Epp is a Canadian graduate student at Balliol College, Oxford, and is currently conducting research on the rhetoric of obscurity and clarity in 1790’s British political literature, with a view to writing a DPhil thesis on Coleridge and Romantic Obscurity.