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1. How was Kurosawa's greatest film, RAN, not nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1985?
Answer: In the later years of his career, Kurosawa got little respect from many Japanese filmmakers and the industry. A glaring sign of this was Japan's failure to submit RAN for competition in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars. Kurosawa had not attended the Tokyo Film Festival, where the film premiered, and many people felt the snub to RAN was payback. The film's producer and financier, Serge Silberman, tried to get it nominated as a French co-production (which it was) but failed. American director Sidney Lumet helped organize a campaign to have Kurosawa nominated as Best Director. Kurosawa got the nomination, but the winner that year in the director category was Sydney Pollack for OUT OF AFRICA.
2. What led to the breakup between Kurosawa and his top star, Toshiro Mifune?
Answer: Why do marriages end? There is never only one reason and often not clear ones. Kurosawa and Mifune made 16 films together. Their last, RED BEARD, was a long time in production, and Mifune missed other acting opportunities. He was dedicated to RED BEARD, but would have been happier to pursue other work. He needed that income to keep his own production company afloat. The period after RED BEARD was a difficult time in the careers of both men, and Kurosawa did not respect many of the projects in which Mifune appeared, most notably the American television series SHOGUN. Mifune kept busy, while Kurosawa had great difficulty getting projects funded. Mifune was also involved in a very public divorce, which nettled Kurosawa's traditionalism. This mix of personal and professional tensions, rivalries, and resentments kept the two men from working together again, despite overtures from Mifune to reconcile. The breach was quite devastating to Kurosawa's work. He never again made popular films, the tone of his work got colder, and his later characters lacked the force that a strong star persona can bring.
3. Why is it taking so long to get more Kurosawa films released on DVD? In his filmography, there's only a relative handful that have been issued so far on DVD. Are you aware of any timetable for more releases?
Answer: While DVD is a great medium for home viewing, it has proven to be somewhat less satisfying as a means for viewing foreign film. The work of many foreign directors can be hard to find on DVD. Kurosawa's work is better represented on DVD than the work of many other overseas directors. Currently, on Region One DVDs (those marketed in North America), one can find RASHOMON, SEVEN SAMURAI, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, YOJIMBO, SANJURO, HIGH AND LOW, DERSU UZALA, RAN, and MADADAYO. Criterion is the leading producer of foreign film classics on DVD, and the company is committed to Kurosawa as one of its house directors. In fall 2002, Criterion will release RED BEARD, and its future plans include a DVD of IKIRU and a remastering of SEVEN SAMURAI.
4. Why is RASHOMON not one of your essential films?
Answer: You're quite right to ask why RASHOMON isn't on the essential film list. It's a classic of film history and a key work in Kurosawa's career. Its success at the Venice Film Festival rescued him from the box-office failure of his previous picture, THE IDIOT, and stimulated the interest of Western viewers in Japanese film.
It's very hard to select only seven films as "essential" from the work of a director as great as Kurosawa. Thus, one could ask why, as you did with RASHOMON, pictures such as THRONE OF BLOOD or HIGH AND LOW were not on the list. In my view, Kurosawa's two masterpieces are IKIRU and SEVEN SAMURAI, but so many of his other films are so very, very excellent that one can seem curmudgeonly not to include them at the top of the list. In choosing seven films, I wanted to steer people toward some great pictures, like SANSHIRO SUGATA and DRUNKEN ANGEL, that are not as well known as RASHOMON.
5. Kikuchiyo, portrayed by Toshiro Mifune, is the axis around which the entire film SEVEN SAMURAI rotates. He is the central and most important character! Why do you consider Takashi Shimura the star and not Mifune?
Answer: In SEVEN SAMURAI, Toshiro Mifune was a bigger star than Takashi Shimura, and Kikuchiyo is a pivotal character, but he is not the film's hero. Shimura's character -- Kambei Shimada, the leader of the seven samurai -- is the hero. The master-pupil relationship, for example, so common in Kurosawa's stories, exists between Kambei and Katsushiro, the young samurai who falls in love with a village girl.
As for acting, the power and charisma that Mifune brought to Kurosawa's films are beyond question, but Shimura had a greater range as an actor than Mifune. He brought qualities to the films -- chiefly, gentleness and compassion -- that Mifune could not replicate as well.
6. What are two themes of Akira Kurosawa's work, and what visual effects does he use to amplify these themes?
Answer: Kurosawa's great theme in his pictures from 1947 to 1965 is the necessity for humane action (helping others) in a cruel and oppressive world. This has accompanied his attraction as a dramatist to historical periods undergoing chaos and social disintegration. Kurosawa found the contrast of humane action amid social chaos to be very compelling and to offer great opportunities for cinema.
As a result, stylistically, he loved bold effects and contrasting techniques. His bold effects include the intense wind and rain that are regularly featured in his films, the aggressive wipes that join scenes, fast-moving camera shots, montages of violent action, and atypical editing devices such as reverse field cutting, where the edit point shifts the field of view from one shot to the next by 180 degrees. His preference for contrasting techniques is evident in his fondness for long takes (shots of long duration) and montage. In THRONE OF BLOOD, for example, he alternates between lengthy, static scenes and fast, violent montages.
Kurosawa loved this kind of rich, bold contrast, and it enabled him to give cinematic form to the periods of social disintegration to which he was drawn as an artist and to the theme of humanely transforming an unjust world.
7. Why was Kurosawa encouraged by the United States to make films after World War II when it was obvious that he was a propagandist for the Japanese army? Consider the case of Leni Reifenstahl, the great German filmmaker, who made TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, probably her only real propaganda film, but admittedly is an international artist who is forever blackballed from making any more films, which was not the case for Kurosawa. In many ways the Japanese committed atrocities as bad as the Nazis'. In regard to POWs, they out and out killed American and British prisoners. What Kurosawa did during the war was or has been lightly covered.
Answer: In no way is Kurosawa comparable to Leni Reifenstahl, the filmmaker whose work glorified Nazism. Kurosawa did not want to join the army and was relieved when he was declared physically unfit to serve. Kurosawa was not an opportunist, as some filmmakers were, changing political stripes according to the times, making war films to suit the Japanese censors and then antifeudal films to suit the Allied powers occupying Japan.
As a filmmaker, he hated the wartime constraints under which he labored, and his first film, SANSHIRO SUGATA, ran afoul of the wartime censors, who regarded it as being too American in its focus on an individual. He only made one film that was propagandist, THE MOST BEAUTIFUL, though it is not a hymn to war. It's a portrait of women working at an optics factory making lenses and binoculars. Kurosawa's mentor at the studio, Kajiro Yamamoto, not Kurosawa, made films glorifying the Japanese soldier. Kurosawa's other films of the period, chiefly SANSHIRO SUGATA and SANSHIRO SUGATA, PART II, have some anti-Western elements, but these are quite minor. Kurosawa's main characters do not uphold tradition. They are very individualistic, and they question society rather than seeking to live in harmony with it.
8. What were the words on the fan that Mr. Kurosawa received from the abbot? I think they were "Benefit All Mankind." Is that right?
Answer: Yes, you are correct. The abbot of the Komyoji Temple, where RASHOMON was filmed, wrote three characters on a fan forming a Chinese poem, "Benefit All Mankind."
9. The introduction to Kurosawa and his work on the WETA site says that he is the only non-Westerner among the masters of world cinema. What about India's Satyajit Ray and his THE APU TRILOGY, DAYS AND NIGHTS IN THE FOREST, THE LONELY WIFE, and THE MUSIC ROOM?
Answer: As fine and unique a filmmaker as Kurosawa was, there are many other non-Westerner masters of cinema. Japan's Yasujiro Ozu was among the greatest directors the medium has ever produced, and some scholars and critics place him higher even than Kurosawa. As you point out, Satyajit Ray was an outstanding filmmaker whose work is an essential part of international film. Ray and Kurosawa were both part of the international art film movement of the 1950s, when the films of high-profile directors were in active distribution, popular at film festivals, and playing in art theaters in urban areas. Kurosawa, though, was the best-known Asian filmmaker in the West and the most popular, and this is what sets him apart from people like Ozu and Ray.
10. I am currently reading and very much enjoying your book THE WARRIOR'S CAMERA. Now I want to see more of Kurosawa's films as they were intended. Do you know of any way to get high-quality VHS or DVD versions of his movies outside of the Criterion Collection (all of which I already own)?
Answer: Thank you for the kind word about my book. Most of Kurosawa's films are in distribution on VHS, with varying levels of image quality. The best-quality tapes will feature transfers from print material that is only one or two generations away from the original camera negative. The worst are transferred from positive prints struck from dupe negatives, which themselves are quite poor. Unfortunately, without looking at the tape, you often can't know what you're getting. But, if you look carefully, you will find good opportunities to see his work, especially many of his early films.
The other issue to bear in mind with VHS is aspect ratio. All of Kurosawa's films after 1958 were made in various wide-screen ratios, and VHS copies that are not letterboxed will do violence to his compositions. For his earlier work, this is not an issue. Fortunately, many of the relevant titles are letterboxed on VHS. Don't spend time with tapes that are not.
On DVD, most of his films are available in the Hong Kong market from Mei Ah Laser Disc Co., and you can locate these online. The image quality on these disks is quite good, but, unfortunately, the subtitling is awful, and many of the characters' names have been changed. If you know Japanese, this is not a problem -- you can always turn the titles off.
11. Where can I hear the wonderful score from the closing scenes of IKIRU? Anywhere online? The humming character on the swing hasn't left my mind since I saw GREAT PERFORMANCES' KUROSAWA.
Answer: That's a great scene in the film -- the character Kanji Watanabe in the park, singing that song from his youth, in the softly falling snow on the last day of his life. There is a CD collection of the music from Kurosawa's films. KUROSAWA: THE FILM MUSIC OF AKIRA KUROSAWA is available at Amazon.com, though it's priced higher than a typical CD. It features music from each of Kurosawa's films from IKIRU (1952) to DREAMS (1990). The scores for most of these films were written by Masaru Sato, but the early ones -- IKIRU, SEVEN SAMURAI, RECORD OF A LIVING BEING -- feature the work of Kurosawa's close friend Fumio Hayasaka. (Hayasaka was dying during the making of LIVING BEING, and Sato completed his score.) In many cases, the music is from the opening title sequence of a film, but in some cases it's a new arrangement of the score. You may not hear Watanabe humming the song, but the title music from the film does paraphrase the melody.
12. Which famous director said that Kurosawa is known as "one of the few true visionaries ever to work in our medium"?
Answer: That was Steven Spielberg, no slouch himself in the visionary department! And, he was right, of course. He said this in his speech introducing Kurosawa at the 62nd annual Academy Awards ceremony in 1990, where Kurosawa received a special Oscar recognizing his impact on cinema.
13. What did Kurosawa say when he received the honorary Oscar in 1990?
Answer: Kurosawa made some beautiful remarks upon accepting his award. He said he was deeply honored but wondered if he really deserved it. He said that he felt he did not yet understand cinema and had not yet grasped its true essence, something that was very difficult to do. He promised to keep making movies and to try as hard as he could to understand cinema. If he could do so, perhaps at that point he might deserve the award.
These remarks showed an astonishing humility before the medium, an outlook that demonstrated Kurosawa's true passion and reverence for film. Kurosawa had spent his life making films, many of them among the greatest ever. And yet, after all this time, his remarks showed that he not only remained devoted to cinema, but also honored it as profound, possessed of great secrets, and worthy of study. This outlook no doubt helped Kurosawa achieve what he did. He never thought that cinema was just a form of pop entertainment, and he hated it when the marketing side of the industry took over the movies. As that occurred, in fact, he had trouble getting funding for new projects.
14. In RASHOMON, when the woodcutter and the monk discuss the crime, both speak about being unable to comprehend it. What troubles them seems to be either the conflicting testimonies of the witnesses or, more likely, the nature of what happened. The monk particularly seems aware of the terrible times in which they are living, yet to him this crime seems much worse. The woodcutter, of course, witnessed the crime itself, and his version of events, presented last, does not make the crime out to be particularly heinous. What is it they cannot understand? Is it that the participants each presented different accounts of the crime (thus exposing the human tendency to distort the truth and present oneself in a positive light), or is it the crime itself? If the latter, I do not think we are convinced that the crime warrants such a reaction. What is your opinion about this?
Answer: This is an excellent query. If the crime in the forest seems, perhaps, less horrific than the reactions of the witnesses might imply, this may be due to the uncertain nature of the offense. What exactly occurred? A suicide? A murder? The accounts change from one story to the next. Moreover, in other films, such as YOJIMBO or RAN, Kurosawa depicts human cruelty in vivid and graphic terms, in contrast to the suggestiveness by which RASHOMON works. What happens in the forest remains a mystery. One cannot know whose account is true, and that is Kurosawa's point.
What troubles the monk and the woodcutter, then, are not the details that should come to light in a police procedural, i.e., the facts of the case. They are haunted by what all of the disparities in the accounts point towards -- the collapse of human reality itself. The ethical and moral connections among people, which make society possible, require that there be fundamental agreements about the nature of the world and people's behavior in it. In RASHOMON, Kurosawa gives us a dark fable about the inability of people to connect in this way. As a result, the world itself vanishes, as an inter-subjective reality, replaced by the vanity and lies that undermine a knowable existence.
It is this possibility -- that life itself is the basest kind of illusion -- that so horrifies the monk and the woodcutter. At the end of the film, Kurosawa himself backs away from the bleakness of this vision. He tries to cancel it out with a redemptive act -- the woodcutter adopts the baby. But this gesture, meant to transfigure all that we have seen, is perhaps not enough to overcome the disturbing glimpse of nothingness that the crime in the dark labyrinth of the forest has provided. When he made THRONE OF BLOOD and RAN, Kurosawa expressed his pessimism without hesitation. But, like other films of the late 1940s and early 1950s, RASHOMON is more ambivalent. Kurosawa believed that society could change, and in this respect, RASHOMON was meant as a warning -- but a dark voice of doubt had begun to speak in his mind.