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The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune
The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune
Stuart Galbraith IV; Stuart Galbraith
Faber & Faber, 2001
848 pp., 84.4

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by Carl Plantinga


An Emperor of Art

The life and films of Akira Kurosawa.

When Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa died in 1999, at the age of 88, he left behind a remarkable body of work, the fruit of a lifetime devoted to the art of film. As he said of his life, "take 'myself,' subtract 'movies,' and the result is 'zero.'" Kurosawa directed more than 30 painstakingly crafted films in various genres and on diverse subjects, among them serious period and contemporary dramas, adaptations of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, rousing fantasy-adventures, and epics designed as nothing less than meditations on the plight of the human race.1

Along the way, Kurosawa earned countless awards (including two Academy Awards for best foreign language film and a special Academy Award for lifetime achievement) and won the respect and admiration of international audiences and the world's premiere filmmakers. It is often said that movies were Japan's most important cultural export of the 1950s and '60s, and among the several notable Japanese filmmakers of the time, Kurosawa was by far the best known.

Kurosawa always had a hand in writing his films' screenplays, and took an active role in all aspects of his films. He was influenced by diverse sources, ranging from Shakespeare to 19th-century Russian novels, from Hollywood Westerns to the Noh play. In turn, he had a marked impact on a generation of filmmakers, especially in the United States. Martin Scorsese noted that Kurosawa's "influence is so profound as to be almost incomparable. There is no one else like him."

As a director of films, Kurosawa was among the best. He left behind a rich storehouse of fascinating characters, engaging tales, and dense, compelling fictional worlds. Western filmmakers had rarely looked to the Japanese for inspiration before Kurosawa. If imitation is the highest complement, then Kurosawa has been highly praised indeed. For example, George Lucas drew heavily on Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) for both characters and storyline in Star Wars (1976); Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone fashioned their spaghetti Westerns after Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962); and The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a remake of The Seven Samurai (1954).

Kurosawa is revered not just for the stories he told, but for his style in telling them. He could stage action as well as anyone, and more generally, was a fine visual storyteller. He favored the kind of simplicity and realism characteristic of what is sometimes called "the classical Hollywood style," and mastered the art of combining realism and lyricism. He loved to use sweeping tracking shots, especially in action scenes. He also used climatic elements, such as wind and rain, to contribute to mood and meaning. He staged the battle at the end of The Seven Samurai, for example, in a driving rainstorm that establishes a dark undertone to the victory. In lesser hands, such devices can seem clumsy, forced; in Kurosawa's films, they are seamless, unobtrusively powerful.

Kurosawa's films are not only well-crafted but also thematically rich. It is hardly necessary to stress this in the case of films such as the meditative Ikiru (1952) or the cautionary Throne of Blood (1957), his retelling of Macbeth. Yet even the samurai adventures are full of ideas. On one level, The Seven Samurai is an exciting adventure film about seven rootless samurai, or ronin, who defend a village of farmers from bandits. Along the way, however, the film asks us to contemplate the nature of loyalty and commitment, and of class differences.

In conjunction with Kurosawa one often thinks of the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (pronounced "mee-foo-nay"), who starred in 16 of Kurosawa's films and through them became an international star. A physical, intuitive actor with a dynamic camera presence, Mifune learned his craft under Kurosawa's tutelage. Kurosawa appreciated the actor's "quickness" of reaction and "fine sensibilities." Although Mifune had good range and played diverse roles, he became best known for one character, the samurai warrior of The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro, with his cynical laugh, characteristic shrug, and imposing, unpredictable physicality.

While many books examine Kurosawa's films, less is available about his life and person. Until recently, Kurosawa devotees relied mainly on the director's 1982 account of his life, Something Like an Autobiography2, which Kurosawa curiously chose to end with the international success of Rashomon, the 1950 film that brought Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to the world's attention. Since Kurosawa produced nearly all of his best work after Rashomon, and continued to make films into the 1990s, this leaves much of his productive life—and many painful and contentious events—untouched.

For these reasons, the appearance of The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, by Stuart Galbraith IV, is timely and welcome. Galbraith's work is a dual biography, spanning the filmmaking careers of these two men whose lives intertwined. The title refers to the informal appellations sometimes used to describe Kurosawa and Mifune. Mifune's fierce eyes and sheer presence won him the nickname "The Wolf," while Kurosawa was called the "Emperor," in part for his imperial manner on the film set.

Kurosawa was exacting in his demands and required perfection from his actors and crew. He often found himself battling movie executives over many issues, including extravagant budgets. For example, he spent $1.6 million to construct a castle for Ran (1985) at the base of Mr. Fuji, only to burn the edifice down for one of the film's climactic scenes. Kurosawa had a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian who, like the American director John Ford, would sometimes pick out one unfortunate actor on a production, and as Galbraith writes, "abuse him mercilessly." Mifune, who revered Kurosawa, was asked about his experiences working with him: "Wonderful! But painstaking. He is such a perfectionist that he will reshoot an entire scene if a single chopstick is out of place."

After the day's shooting was over, Kurosawa would hold court before his cast and crew over drinks and supper, giving advice and telling stories about past productions. Galbraith writes that Kurosawa's spectacular success led to "a growing arrogance." At a 1980 news conference at the New York Film Festival, after a screening of his film Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior (1980), the 70-year-old Kurosawa expressed his credo: "I have something I want to say and I know how to say it. I will let nothing get in the way of that."

While all of those who strive for greatness depend on God's gift of native talent, some also have focus, energy, and a strong work ethic. Such was the case with Kurosawa, to an extent very few of us will ever approach. While engaged in a production, Kurosawa would sometimes work himself to the point of total exhaustion. As he became older, shooting would sometimes have to be stopped while the director recuperated from such fatigue or the various illnesses it brought on. It was said that Kurosawa engaged in no small talk. Typically his only subject of conversation was the project he was working on, and his favorite project was always the next one. Kurosawa was so focused that he lost track of his family. For a time, Galbraith reports, he was so consumed with his work that "he couldn't remember [his daughter's] age, what school she attended, or even whether she was single or divorced." Both his daughter, Kazuko, and his son, Hideo, were resentful for a time, but later warmed up to their busy father and worked on his films.

Although Kurosawa had many successes, he also experienced painful setbacks. Of Kurosawa's life story, Galbraith gives us a mosaic of events and anecdotes. Kurosawa's ancestors had been samurai, and bushido, the samurai code of self-sacrifice and moral commitment, was part of his upbringing. Kurosawa married the actress Yoko Yaguchi in 1945, and the two remained married until her death in 1985. The director rose to international prominence when Rashomon won awards at major international festivals, and for the next 15 years, it seemed, he could do no wrong, turning out film after film to great acclaim.

But after the release of Red Beard in 1965, Kurosawa entered a dark period. At that point the Japanese film industry was in a slump, and Japanese critics, who had long criticized Kurosawa for being "too Western," now found him to be old fashioned. Having trouble finding financing for his films in Japan, Kurosawa agreed to co-direct the American production Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), but could not stomach American production practices and was fired after an apparent nervous breakdown. His next film, Dodes'ka-den (1971), was both a box office and critical failure. It began to look as though Kurosawa might not direct another film. Depressed and humiliated, he attempted suicide in 1971.

After he gradually returned to health, Kurosawa's filmmaking comeback came with the help of foreigners. First was the opportunity to direct a film in the Soviet Union with Soviet resources (Derzu Uzala, 1975). Then, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola used their leverage to get him financing for the epics Kagemusha and Ran. Kurosawa would go on to direct three last films, the contemplative Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991), and Madadayo ("Not Yet" 1993). Madadayo was released when Kurosawa was 83 years old.

Galbraith's decision to write a dual biography is understandable; Mifune became a star under Kurosawa's tutelage, and Kurosawa made some of his best films with Mifune. In other respects, however, the dual biography seems strained and desultory. For one, Mifune and Kurosawa ceased working together after the 1965 release of Red Beard, and had only insignificant contact after that point. Galbraith makes much of Mifune's and Kurosawa's parting of the ways, but ultimately their separation was unremarkable and inevitable. The production of Red Beard, in which Mifune starred, dragged on for two years, and Mifune, by this time a famous man with his own production company, needed to think carefully before accepting another long stint with Kurosawa and his painstaking methods.

The Galbraith book promises to narrate the lives of Kurosawa and Mifune, but this massive, 823-page tome reads as much like a an annotated filmography as a biography. Galbraith concentrates more on the films and careers of these two men than on their personal lives. The book goes into much detail about the production, financing, and distribution of each film. Galbraith also provides plot synopses, recounts the reactions of critics in the popular press, describes Kurosawa's techniques and style, and assesses the significance of the films for the men's careers.

Ultimately, however, the book fails to provide a sustained analysis of what makes Kurosawa a great director. Neither do we learn much about Kurosawa's theology, politics, or worldview. What is it that Kurosawa was so intent on expressing? Kurosawa thought that humans were constitutionally incapable of telling the truth about themselves. He added, though, that it was much more difficult to avoid the truth when writing from the perspective of a character (or as he put it, "pretending to be someone else"), and that he was certain that he revealed himself through his characters. As Kurosawa says, "There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself."

What do we find about Kurosawa's outlook when we view his films? Kurosawa is often and rightly called a humanist, but it was an ambivalent humanism that sometimes gave way to misanthropy. In Yojimbo, for example, Mifune plays an unemployed samurai, or ronin, who wanders into a miserable village in which two scheming clans make war on each other. Judging both clans to be worthy of his contempt, he eggs them on in their fight, and at one point sits on a tower, smugly watching the two groups kill each other off. Galbraith writes that here Mifune "is really Kurosawa, amused by the ridiculousness of the world around him."

More often, however, Kurosawa's characters realize that the world is not as it should be, and long for redemption. At the end of The Bad Sleep Well (1960), evil seems to triumph as the sympathetic protagonist is assassinated and justice defeated. The dead man's friend falls to his knees, tearing out his hair and yelling "It shouldn't be like this!"

Kurosawa also wonders about the existence of God in the midst of death and chaos. The epic Ran forcefully shows the structural effects of evil, as an elderly warlord, Hidetora, witnesses the destruction of his family, the result of his own violent past. By the film's end, everything seems to have gone wrong. Hidetora's loyal servant yells to the sky: "Are there no gods? No Buddha? If you exist, hear me! You are mischievous and cruel! Are you so bored up there that you must crush us like ants?" A high-ranking samurai replies to him, "It is the gods who weep. They see us killing each other over and over since time began. They can't save us from ourselves." Are the gods mischievous and cruel, or simply unable to help?

The last scene of Ran exhibits another casualty of Hidetora's cruelty, the character Tsurumaru. Hidetora had killed Tsurumaru's parents and had Tsurumaru blinded to render him unable to take revenge. Tsurumaru has become an ardent follower of Buddha in an attempt to release his seething hatred. Kurosawa shows the man groping along, cane in hand, atop a high cliff. He stumbles, nearly falls off the edge, and regains his balance, but not before dropping his sacred scroll bearing the image of Buddha, which tumbles to the ground far below. In the film's last image, Tsurumaru remains balanced precariously at cliff's edge, blind and without his god or the possibility of redemption.

Kurosawa called 1975-1985, the period of Derzu Uzala, Kagemusha, and Ran, his pessimistic period. More hopeful are films such as Ikiru and Red Beard, in which Kurosawa maintains the possibility of redemption through social action, or to put it another way, through the love of one's neighbor. Ikiru (1952) is a brilliant film through which Kurosawa pushes the hardest toward a religious understanding of life. Ikiru ("To Live") tells the story of a petty bureaucrat, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), who discovers that he is dying of cancer. Faced with his impending death, Watanabe searches desperately for some kind of comfort in or meaning to his life. He meets a young writer who he thinks can show him life's pleasures. A night of drinking, gambling, and strippers, however, leaves him sick and repulsed. He meets a young woman, in whom he senses the vitality and beauty of life that now escapes him. He attempts to develop a friendship with her that is never sexual, but nonetheless awkward; through her he learns what he must do. Watanabe finds some measure of redemption in using his position to help build a long-desired park in a poor area of the city. At Watanabe's wake, when the viewer learns of his actions, we also see the deputy mayor and other civil servants wrongly take credit for the park. So Watanabe's act of love, the means by which he gives meaning to his life, goes unacknowledged by the broader community.

Throughout his work, Kurosawa magnificently portrays fallen humanity and the structural effects of evil. Ever distrustful of the group, Kurosawa implies that redemptive action must be undertaken by the individual, regardless of any recognition such action might bring. Questions remain, however. In the face of such fallenness, why should we engage in humanistic behavior? Why should we work for others, or love our neighbors? Kurosawa does not recognize the existence of a God who, through the example and sacrifice of his Son, provides for us a model of servanthood and love, and gives us hope for redemption even through the tears of this suffering world. Yet Kurosawa gets us part of the way there. At their best, his films embody a powerful plea for redemption, and a call to actively seek out the source from which such deliverance might be found.

Carl Plantinga is professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College and the author of Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film (Cambridge Univ. Press). He is currently working on a book about the expression and elicitation of emotion in American film.

1. Many of Kurosawa's films are available on dvd, including nine in the excellent Criterion Collection (www.criterionco.com), with usually excellent transfers from film to dvd and interesting commentaries from scholars and filmmakers. Among these are The Hidden Fortress, High and Low, The Lower Depths, Rashomon, Red Beard, Sanjuro, Throne of Blood, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Ikiru.

2. Akria Kurosawa, trans. Audie E. Bock, Something Like an Autobiography (Knopf, 1982).

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