Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985) is currently playing in a new 35mm print, making the rounds of the nation's top art house screens this summer, in conjunction with the film's 25th anniversary and with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kurosawa himself. Ran is a great film, and a very good choice if you're going to try and represent Kurosawa's career in one single stroke. It has the epic sweep and impressive battle sequences of his famed samurai films, but it also has a measure of dignity and reflection that mark many of Kurosawa's other, lesser-known films. (It is based on Shakespeare.) Ran was very well received and resulted in Kurosawa's one and only Oscar nomination for Best Director (he lost -- believe it or not -- to Sydney Pollack). But it was also the last hurrah of his career.
He went on to make three more films. Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) and Rhapsody in August (1991) received small, art-house releases but met with mixed responses. They're both lovely little films, but they do lack a sense of confidence and cohesion. After that he made the great Madadayo (1993), which, for some reason, could not find a distributor. Gene Siskel included it on his Chicago Tribune top ten list for 1998, but did not show up here in San Francisco until the fall of 2000. The film is about an elderly and beloved ex-teacher who celebrates his birthday with his former students. They perform a ritual together, in which the students ask the teacher if he is ready to die. His response is a joyous, "madadayo" (or "not yet!"). Perhaps Kurosawa, too, was not ready to go, but his financiers never again ponied up for a new film. Kurosawa died on September 6, 1998, with Madadayo as his final film.
In the 1940s, America did not see Japanese films, for the very good reason that Japan was our enemy during WWII. But a few years later, in the early 1950s, an influx of masterworks began to trickle in, including Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story and Kurosawa's Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Kurosawa was considered the most "Western" of these filmmakers, and his two films struck a nerve with Americans. (By some accounts, he was more popular in the States than he was in Japan, even though most of his films ended up here in truncated versions.) The samurai must have seemed like cowboys, but in a new and exotic setting, not to mention the gorgeous and fluid visuals of those films, which brought action to a new level of art. Seven Samurai has gone on to become arguably the most popular and beloved of all foreign-language films in America (not the highest-grossing, to be sure, but the best-loved).
Meanwhile, Rashomon became one of the most influential films of all time. It's the template for dozens of other films in which different points of view offered entirely different version of reality; this of course re-asserts the notion that there is never one true reality, at least not that any one person can understand. The films made a star out of the grunting warrior Toshiro Mifune, and guaranteed a future of samurai films for both Mifune and Kurosawa, including the extraordinary Throne of Blood (1957), which is based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, plus The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962).
Yet Kurosawa made another film in-between Rashomon and Seven Samurai, called Ikiru (1952). It did not fit in with the samurai films, it was not Western-looking at all, and it was promptly ignored. It shows Kurosawa at his most gentle, telling the story of a bureaucrat, who has lived an empty life in service of his paper-pushing job. When he discovers he has cancer, he decides to do something meaningful for a change. Of course, it sounds dreary, but it's as simple and as dignified as any film could possibly be. The climactic image of the man swinging on a children's swing can wrench tears from a stone. By the way, the star of this film, Takashi Shimura, also plays major roles in both Rashomon and Seven Samurai, and yet still remains fairly unknown.
And so it appears that Kurosawa was stuck. He was the guy who made samurai films. He must have had a very difficult time making anything that was not a samurai film, but the miracle is that he actually did, even if nobody went to see them. I love his pre-Rashomon film Stray Dog (1949), a contemporary police drama. In it, a young Mifune plays a rookie cop who loses his gun and spends the rest of the film scouring the city streets to get it back, while its new owner goes on a killing spree. It's astonishing to see Mifune in this film, holding himself rigidly and with uncertainty in every frame. It proved that he was an actor of great range who, sadly, was similarly shoehorned into playing the one samurai character.
Mifune also starred in the later cop drama High and Low (1963), another of Kurosawa's best films. It's a masterpiece of widescreen cinematography and staging, with Mifune playing a wealthy man who must decide what to do when his chauffeur's son is kidnapped, mistakenly, instead of his own son. It was based on an American novel, by Ed McBain (really Evan Hunter, who coincidentally wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock's The Birds the same year). Despite that, it remained one of Kurosawa's little-seen movies for some time, and indeed, the first time I saw it, the image of Mifune in a suit was somewhat startling.
Their next together must have been an even harder sell: Red Beard (1965). It's a three hour-long hospital drama wherein Mifune plays the title character, a stern director of a public medical clinic. A young doctor on his way to a cushy job as a personal physician drops by for a visit. He's shocked and aghast when he learns that he must stay on. The two doctors butt heads while medical emergencies crop up, but once again, we're in the master's hands here, and the material never once gets maudlin or melodramatic. Unfortunately, it was Kurosawa's last film with Mifune and his last in black-and-white.
Then Kurosawa hit a low point. The Japanese film industry began focusing on quickie programs for television, and was no longer interested in Kurosawa's long, expensive films. It was five years before he could make his next film, Dodes'ka-den (1970), and its failure -- coupled with Kurosawa's fear that he was losing his eyesight -- resulted in a failed suicide attempt. He recovered, and the Russian film industry came to his aid, with funding for another epic, Dersu Uzala (1975). It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.
It took another five years to make another film, and this time it was Americans Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas who rescued him. (Lucas in particular must have felt he owed Kurosawa a debt, since he had borrowed heavily from The Hidden Fortress in the writing of his original Star Wars.) The result was Kagemusha (1980), a large-scale, yet simple samurai epic that pleased everyone. It made a reasonable amount of money in the West, and received another Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, and a second nomination for Art Direction. Which brings us back to Ran.
I may have made it sound like I detest the samurai films and prefer the dramas; that's not the case. The samurai films are absolutely superb; it's just that they hardly need any more praise or explanation. If I have to choose a favorite Kurosawa, which is a difficult task, I usually choose Rashomon. I appreciate its genius and its narrative flow, and Kurosawa's masterful use of movement and silence, as well as the mood-setting rainfall in the wraparound sequence. But I usually choose it for sentimental reasons. It was my first Kurosawa film, and I saw it at particularly good time in my life. I also love it because a favorite high school teacher loaned me the videotape; seeing Madadayo in 2000 reminded me of that teacher.
My friend, the former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Judy Stone, interviewed Kurosawa several times, and by her claims, he was a gentle and thoughtful soul, closer to the man who painted beautiful storyboards for each film than the man whose films have a high body count. She quoted Kurosawa thusly: "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?"
The point I wanted to make here is that, even though Kurosawa is already one of the most popular, beloved and hugely influential of all foreign-language filmmakers, Americans still have a long way to go to discover who he really was. Thankfully, the Criterion Collection has spent years releasing -- and re-releasing -- a great number of his films, including a 2008 box set of five rare "post-war" films (ranging from 1946 to 1955), and a $400, 25-disc box set of almost all his films. And since his popularity continues, there's no reason not to hope.