If you're a fan of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and in the Los Angeles area, I'd highly recommend checking out the free exhibit of his work at the Motion Picture Academy. I just saw it this past weekend, and it closes after this upcoming Sunday, December 14th. It's been ten years since his death now. Apparently, some of these materials were compiled in anticipation of his centennial in 2010, so there's a chance something similar will return then (and I hope, tour a few other places in America). Here's information about the exhibit and hours and about parking and directions. There's also a recap of some related events they held.
All of Kurosawa's thirty-one films (more depending on your count) seemed to be represented in some fashion, if briefly. However, the highlight is the many reproductions of his pictures for three of his last films, Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985) and Dreams (1990). Most are the original size, while some are blown up. Kurosawa used a mixed media technique, employing different combinations of pencil, ink, crayon, pastel and watercolor. Some pieces are quick sketches, but most are more finished works. Some of his Dreams pictures favor watercolors and a softer feel, while at least one blown up Ran portrait features bold slashes of color in crayon.
As Kurosawa describes in his book Something Like an Autobiography, he originally studied to be a painter, and his idol was Van Gogh (who features in the "Crows" segment of Dreams). Never one to do anything by half measures, when Kurosawa moved into filmmaking (winning a competitive apprenticeship), he burned his old paintings, reasoning that an artist has to focus. He also attempted suicide in 1971 after his first commercial failure, Dodes'ka-den (1970). Here's how Kurosawa himself explained his return to art, in the introduction to the book for Ran (paintings and the screenplay):
I intended to be a painted before I became involved in film. A curious turn of events, however, brought me to cinema, where I began my present career. When I changed careers, I burnt all the pictures that I had painted up until then. I intended to forget painting once and for all. As a well-known Japanese proverb says, "If you chase two rabbits, you may not catch even one." I did no art work at all once I began to work in cinema. But since becoming a film director, I have found that drawing rough sketches was often a useful means of explaining ideas to my staff.
There were difficulties from the start with budget negotiations for Kagemusha. For a while it seemed that this work would never see the light of day. Exasperated, because I wanted people all over to the world to understand what ideas I had for the film, I began to draw almost daily, turning these images into "still pictures." I completed several hundred pictures at the time.
The same thing happened with Ran. A long time passed before production got under way. As I had done earlier, I used this time to draw pictures illustrating the images I had for the film. This book contains those works. Are they worthy of being called art? My purpose was not to paint well. I made free use of various materials that happened to be at hand. At best, they are remnants left from making the films. My experience with Kagemusha, however, did teach me that drawings can be extremely useful in filmmaking, as a way of giving concrete expression to my ideas for the movie, which is why I redoubled my efforts with the drawings for Ran.
When I was young and still an art student, I used to dream of publishing a collection of my paintings or having an exhibition in Paris. These dreams were unexpectedly realized with the publication of my pictures for Kagemusha. Life is strange indeed. Now the drawings for Ran have been made into a collection. Inquiries about exhibitions are coming in from all over the world. It all seems like a dream.
I cannot help but be fascinated by the fact that when I tried to paint well, I could only produce mediocre pictures. But when I concentrated on delineating the ideas for my films, I unconsciously produced works that people find interesting.
(translated by Margaret Benton)
Some of Kurosawa's pictures have been exhibited before, and some books of his work have been published in English, but most have been out of print and hard to find (my copy of the Ran book took a while to track down). The exhibit does feature a slim book with pretty representative samples of his work for $25. It was produced by this Japanese company, which has some other merchandise (but the exchange and shipping rates might be steep).
The exhibit features plenty of other materials, but you can give them all a thorough look-over within two hours, less if you don't want to read through all the letters or scan through all the photos included in a biographical interactive display. Many of the Japanese posters for Kurosawa's films are displayed, as are some pretty interesting Polish posters. Several of his many awards are present. Video displays show Kurosawa's lifetime achievement Oscar presentation, as well as clips from Ran, Throne of Blood, Dreams and other films. Several copies of his shooting scripts are on display, all of them covered with handwritten notes and tiny sketches. They also have his watercolor and calligraphy kits, stone stamps and wooden sandals. His storyboards for several films are there, most notably for "Crows" from Dreams, and there are several paintings for an un-filmed sequence, "I Fly," for the same film. There's not much armor displayed, but several costumes from Ran are there (some, like Kyoami the Fool's kimono, had designs hand-painted on them by Kurosawa, which I hadn't known before). There's a funny cast photo of Rashomon with actors Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyô hamming it up for the camera. George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped Kurosawa secure funding for Kagemusha, and letters from them about suggested cuts and an opening scroll for the American-released version can be read (Lucas is more deferential). One of the neatest items for me was a small picture for Ran, where Kurosawa had sketched the swirling routes of entry and exit through the courtyard for the armed forces in the first, epic battle sequence.
The section on Tora! Tora! Tora! covers some of that sad chapter, and has several of Kurosawa's Tora sketches. Kurosawa wrote the Japanese scenes and was slotted to direct them as well, but there was a contentious fallout, in part due to differences between the American and Japanese studio approaches, and (it was charged) Kurosawa's well-known perfectionism. I've read some very contradictory accounts on this. Several letters are on display in the exhibit: a glowing letter from 20th Century Fox praising Kurosawa for his screenplay, a gracious note in reply, a complaint from Fox about escalating miniatures costs, a plea for more pre-production time and funds from the Japanese studio (they apparently felt rushed and penny-pinched on paying the art director and such), and a rather disconcerting letter from a Japanese studio exec to Fox praising them and blaming all fallout on Kurosawa and his "illness" – he appears to be accusing Kurosawa of being intractable if not incurably mentally ill. Kurosawa was dubbed "the emperor" by some, was definitely strong-willed and passionate, and later did have a famous falling out with longtime collaborator Toshiro Mifune (with a late-life reconciliation). But footage of him working shows him as very gracious to actors and crew, and in his writings he's often effusive in praise of them. Most of his ire seemed reserved for studio execs. During his lifetime, Kurosawa often seemed more appreciated outside of his native Japan. Kurosawa was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for Ran, and it won for Best Costumes, but wasn't even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film because Japan chose to submit another film instead, in part (some believe) to snub Kurosawa.
Obviously everyone isn't a Kurosawa fanatic, but he had such a great eye the exhibit isn't bad for just a quick, casual tour. In my case, my dad took my brothers and me to see Kurosawa's films at a young age at D.C.'s Biograph theater (a pox on the scoundrels who wouldn't allow renewal of its 30-year lease and let it become a CVS). It's testament to the energy of Kurosawa's storytelling that young American kids found his films so appealing (the swordfights helped, but the comedy and drama played well, too). As I grew older and started looking at film more seriously, I found plenty to study in his technique, from the dynamism of the earlier films to the more stately compositions of the later works. Toshiro Mifune's still one of my favorite actors, and I wound up writing part of my undergraduate thesis on Kurosawa. So seeing some of these materials was quite a treat.
I imagine anyone eager to see the exhibit needs no introduction to Kurosawa's films. And even people who haven't seen his films have probably seen a film or two influenced by him. Thankfully, most of his films are now on DVD in good versions, and the same is increasingly true for other "classic" Japanese directors such as Mizoguchi, Ozu and Kobayashi. But for the hell of it, here's my cursory overview of Kurosawa's films, in chronological order. Most of the films in the first set are period films, and specifically samurai films (although if you see films of the same genre from the same era, Kurosawa's really stand out). As with Bergman, Kubrick and a handful of other directors, Kurosawa's remarkable for the number of standout films he made. If you can, see these on a big screen, particularly the scope films and later epics.
The Key Nine
Rashomon (1950): A rape and murder occur in the forest, but the four different accounts of these events conflict. What's truth and what's perception? This film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an Academy Award, establishing Kurosawa's international reputation. Its core device has been copied many times since.
Ikiru (To Live, 1952): A petty bureaucrat discovers he's terminally ill, and turns first to hedonism but then struggles to find some deeper meaning or last gesture. This one starts slowly, but is well worth the time, with a great performance by long-time Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura. There's some funny and occasionally very dark satire in this one, including a wonderful bureaucracy montage. (There's also a scene of overacting that makes me wince, but hey, it was the young actress' first film.) The story cycles around and ever closer in on Kanji Watanabe (Shimura), building in emotional power. There's a scene in a park near the end that's one of the most moving I've ever seen. It's true of many Kurosawa films, but this one will really stay with you.
Seven Samurai (1954): One of the greats. Poor farmers recruit samurai to protect them from 40 bandits intent on stealing their harvest. This was often called an "eastern Western," and many an action film and buddy film owes it a debt. Even though the full version runs 207 minutes, it clips along, because there's so much energy, humor in between the drama, and we really come to care about the characters and their fates. Takashi Shimura as the unflappable lead samurai Kambei and Toshiro Mifune as the manic Kikuchiyo are standouts. This one's been remade several times, most notably as The Magnificent Seven. (A Bug's Life also borrows from it, although very loosely!)
Throne of Blood (1957): Kurosawa's version of Macbeth, incorporating elements of Noh theater. It features an intense Toshiro Mifune and very controlled Isuzu Yamada as his wife. The supernatural scenes are effectively creepy (with some great lengthy camera shots) and the climax is unforgettable. Many critics consider this one of the great Shakespeare films, probably because Kurosawa keeps Macbeth's core story and drama but delivers the visual equivalent of poetry. Noted stage director Peter Brook hated it, however, because it didn't use Shakespeare's actual text. I've read that this was one of T.S. Eliot's favorite films, but have never been able to confirm that. (The actual title in Japanese translates closer to "Castle of the Spider's Web.")
The Hidden Fortress (1958): Kurosawa made this one as a fun romp, and it was his first film in scope (Tohoscope, in his case). It was one of Lucas' inspirations for Star Wars, and you'll see the plot similarities. Many of Kurosawa's films center on camaraderie, honor and heroism, and several feature mentor-student relationships, all of which fit nicely with Lucas' Jedi storylines.
Yojimbo (The Bodyguard, 1961): A nameless, scruffy ronin hires himself out to two rival gangs who've overrun a town nominally run by corrupt officials. He plots to set them against each other and themselves, and as Pauline Kael put it, he becomes a bodyguard who kills the bodies he's hired to guard. As with many Japanese "action" films of the era, this has long stretches of drama and anticipation, punctuated by short bursts of action and violence. The same rhythm's in most of Sergio Leone's films, who remade this one as A Fistful of Dollars (and Walter Hill remade it as Last Man Standing, inviting Kurosawa to the premiere). I never get tired of this film, which has some very dark comedy, starting with the very tiny dog near the start (you'll see). Kurosawa really exploits the scope format in this one, and luckily the old, horrible pan-and-scan video versions are largely gone now. I've read one analysis that makes the case that Kurosawa was in part satirizing the film studio heads with whom he often clashed. Mifune's character was a strong departure from the then-common portrayal of samurai as upright, clean, and outwardly noble. He reprised his cool, unassuming warrior in many other films even if his character name changed, and John Belushi based his SNL samurai sketches on him.
Dersu Uzala (1975): This was Kurosawa's second film in color, and it centers on the friendship between a Russian explorer in Siberia and a trapper-guide, Dersu Uzala. Much of it is shot outside in the wilderness, and sequences involving a river and racing to survive a blizzard are especially memorable. Dersu doesn't fare as well with encroaching civilization, and is haunted by thoughts about a tiger he feels represents his fate. This poignant piece won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Be warned that the Kino DVD for this is not a good transfer. Also, Dersu's failing eyesight was something that was happening to Kurosawa at the time, quite a scary prospect for a filmmaker (apparently his sight stabilized). Kurosawa shot this in Russia with Russian funding, because he was having difficulties getting backing in Japan.
Ran (War/Chaos, 1985): Kurosawa does King Lear, mixed in with some Japanese history, a new invented subplot and some of his own notions on loyalty. This one starts slowly but builds in power. Seriously, see this on a big screen if you can – the use of color and the scope of the first epic battle sequence and its aftermath are simply stunning. Several sequences and images are unforgettable, and Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) is one of the great screen villains. (Lady Macbeth ain't got nothing on her – watch that grasshopper! And don't forget the tale of the stone fox.) Kurosawa considered this one his masterpiece, but also noted that while it was the culmination of his life's work, it was not the conclusion. DVD notes – the Fox Lorber transfer is notoriously bad. The Masterworks version is much better, but Amazon reviewers rate the Criterion version (which I don't currently own) as the best. That DVD package also includes Chris Marker's documentary on the making of the film, AK, which is worth a look.
Dreams (1990): This is a series of eight short films with a rough through-line based on actual dreams Kurosawa had, with some references to his own life peppered throughout. Most are fantastical in some fashion, from a young boy illicitly spying on a fox wedding to a ghost platoon to a spooky mountain encounter in a blizzard to a man walking into and through several Van Gogh paintings. Some of the later sequences aren't as strong, but all are visually arresting. I know several people who saw this film first of all of Kurosawa's movies, and it seems to receive quite a bit of affection. You may be familiar with the poster of a young boy underneath a rainbow (shown further below).
Other Noteworthy Films
Stray Dog (1949): A policeman loses his gun, which is later used in a crime. He's obsessed with getting it back and bringing the man to justice. This stars familiar Kurosawa faces Mifune and Shimura, and also offers an interesting look at post-war Japan.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960): An unconventional revenge tale set in a corporate world, with elements of Hamlet, and again starring Mifune. It ends a bit abruptly for my tastes, but has some great scenes.
Sanjuro (1962): This sequel to Yojimbo sees our hero as mentor and protector to a group of young, inexperienced samurai. It's not as good as Yojimbo, but still fun. It may be most famous for the final duel's "explosion of blood," which a generation of Japanese filmmakers copied. Kurosawa was dismayed that they ignored the rest of what he was trying to do. There's yet another sequel of sorts, Yojimbo meets Zatoichi, not directed by Kurosawa but starring Mifune alongside the star of the popular Zatoichi series (a blind warrior).
High and Low (1963): Based on an Ed McBain crime novel, this film focuses on a rich businessman and an attempt to kidnap and ransom his son. However, the criminals accidentally capture the
Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior, 1980): Partially based on historical events, a warlord with two rivals is injured and a peasant is pressed into serving as his double. The double becomes increasingly entangled in the growing major military and political struggle, while also growing closer with his "family," particularly a young boy. It's gorgeously shot, with a nightmare sequence probably my favorite part. This won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. The American-released version is a bit shorter and tries to provide some historical overview for unfamiliar audiences. It's a good film in its own right, but it also feels a bit like what Kurosawa later said it was – a dress rehearsal for Ran.
Rhapsody in August (1991): Children visit their grandmother, who's a survivor of Nagasaki and still sometimes troubled by nightmares of it. There's a memorable sequence where she describes the explosion as a giant eye opening. Richard Gere appears as an American cousin visiting. This is a smaller, personal film, and Kurosawa's focus isn't on the war per se, but its human impact, particularly on one family. It has a fair share of funny and light moments as well as poignant scenes.
Feel free to pass on your own comments and recommendations.