Akiro Kurosawa Reconstruction Project (Japan)

, 2013-05-28

 Akiro Kurosawa Samurai Season at the Star and Shadow

The Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro shown between 5 May13 and 26 May 13

Ticket price for each screening: £5

Mostly we see films piecemeal, drip fed to us by the cinema release system. Of course that's the way the industry works, everyone wants to see the latest movie. But some directors make us catch our breath: we may have clocked Darren Aronofski, Sofia Coppola, George Romero, Alfred Hitchcock and realised that these guys make films we like to see.

And seeing a number of films close togather by the same director can take appreciation to another level. Buying the box set and spinning the discs is sometimes the only way. But the small screen can fail to do justice to some films, so the best way to see retrospectives is at the cinema.

Today this is a rare treat. In Newcastle, however, we are lucky enough to have cinemas that do programme retrospectives.

With director retros, the pleasure lies not just in viewing some good films but also having the chance to understand the concerns, obsessions and beliefs that drive particular directors to make the films they do. What method might lie in the madness of movie making?

For Instance! I am intrigued by the way Hitchcock's films constitute a discrete mapping of his psycho sexual disturbamce. His beautifully sublimated scenarios probe his own repressed feelings: his need to rage against his mummy, to control and mentally torture woman, his castration and his inferiority complex.

Akiro Kurosawa, the Japanese director recently had a retrospective season of his Samurai films at the Star and Shadow Cinema, curated by Chritian Barron.

I went to see: the Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo and Sanjuro and I wondered if the claim for Kurosawa being a great director might extend beyond histechnical prowess. Was some ulterior deeper vision in his output?

I was not disappointed.

As I watched his movies I became aware of an underlying concern worked into the grain of these films. These Samurai movies are epic in scale and handsomely photographed, the scene on the prison camp steps in Hidden Fortress is jaw dropping. But what struck me most was the intrinsicly Japanese quality of Kurosawa's material. These films in their imagery represent the quintessential the spirit of Japan. This is Japan!

First and foremost Kurosawa's sets. The dwellings with their screens, shutters, lattice work, eaves, and opened rooms, these constitute a full depiction of the traditional spaces that lie at the very heart of Japanese life and identity. Yojimbo is outstanding in this respect, and these sets also provide Kurosawa's camera with stunning opportunities both to frame and to light his shots.

The costumes also have a symbolicly essential Japanese quality all made using traditional Japanese designs. These patterns on the shirts and shifts worn both by peasant and the samurai most notably in Sanjuro, refer back to and affirm ancient Japanese ornamental traditions. And the erotic style in which the men's garments are worn, tucked up to reveal the flesh, signifies a culture that is not ashamed of the body. By the way first in the roll of honour here is Toshima Mifune whose bared bottochs and thighs, particularly in Hidden Fortress, provide a feast for the eyes.

Factor in the role played by rice, by rain of tropical intensity, by fire and finally by the people. The people Kurosawa depicts are men of short stature. At times the screen is filled almost to bursting with small bald headed little men. But they run - at full speed! It's as if Kurosawa is saying: “Yes! We are: little people, but we have the energy!”

These expressive visuals extrude in imagary the essential symbols of Japan: its soil, its culture its people, a representation of traditional Japan that Kurosawa then proceeds to subvert. 

Kurosawa was the son of a samurai, but knew the traditional order of Japan had to change. In the mid twentieth century, Japan an industrialised nation was still ruled by a Mediaeval militarised power structure. This lag in social change led to the disaster of Hiroshima, American occupation and the forced adaptation of an alien culture and democratic political system.

Kurosawa determined to use his position and ability as a film maker to support these democratic political changes, which he saw as being necessary.

I imagine Kurosawa having an Eurika moment as he watched John Ford movies and realised that Samurai could be transformed into a kind of cowboy! Korosawa's genius was to recreate the Samurai as a cowboy, appropriating the form of the Hollywood Western, as a means of recasting Japan's past as mythe.

Over his symbolic elequent images of old Japan, Kurosawa castes the shadow of the Samurai. The Samurai represents the new man, epitomising the new values needed to remake Japan: individualism, lack of repect for authority, the refusal to accept fate, and In short Kurosawa's Samurai got attitude big time, and Toshiro Mifune was to Kurosawa what John Wayne was, to John Ford, without of course the exposed thighs and bottocks, to John Ford.

And the music! Kurosawa uses traditional Japanese music to good effect, but at the most dynamic moments, particularly in the Seven Samurai he cuts to jazz, an uncompromisingly modern sound created by black of slaves and released into the world as everyone's music. It's the sound that liberates the action from the past.

So that's it. I think the four Samurai films were intended as a project conceived to resolve the innate Japanese tensions between her traditions and her need to develop democratic social relations. As if Kurosawa was saying that Japan should always be grounded in her traditions, but never in such a way that she be hostage to this past.

I think Kurosawa's claim to be a great film maker rests on one key insight: cinema creates mythes and in making his Samurai movies he stays constant to this realisation.

Of course the ultimate fate of these films was to be reimported back into the tradition of making Westerns, this time to Italy and Sergio Leone and the man who has no name. But there again we never catch sight of Clint Eastwoods naked buttocks or thighs.

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