Long Live the Emperor!

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RICHARD CORLISSThe movie studio boss walked out on a screening and later bragged that he didn't understand the film he had financed. The local critics panned it: monotonous, too complicated, way too Western. When Rashomon won the top prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, the Japanese cultural establishment was baffled. Only the rest of the world got it and its director, Akira Kurosawa. When he died of a stroke last week at 88, he was the most esteemed Japanese filmmaker--outside of Japan.At the time, Rashomon, the tale of a violent act refracted through the conflicting testimony of four witnesses, was a significant act of diplomacy. It alerted the world that Japan, feared and hated for its wartime belligerence, could produce a work of art that posed powerful and subtle questions about violence, sexual predation and the need for human beings to lie to save their lives. It also signaled the eruption of Toshiro Mifune, the movie's feral bandit, into stardom. And as the film's title entered the international language, so did its director immediately establish himself as a filmmaker of the top rank.When a director is the first to emerge from his country into the world spotlight, his films are often thought to embody a peculiar national spirit. So Kurosawa, with his period parables of honor defended and defeated, represented Japan to the West. That notion proved off-kilter; the more delicate films of Kurosawa's great peers, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, emitted a more redolent whiff of the Japanese character. Indeed, local audiences were suspicious of the Emperor, as Kurosawa was called for his imperious ways, and studio bosses tired of his perfectionism and big budgets. Most of his later films were made only through outside supporters: French producer Serge Silberman (Ran), U.S. directors Francis Coppola and George Lucas (Kagemusha). In 1990 Lucas and Steven Spielberg gave Kurosawa an Oscar for life achievement.It is fairer to say that Kurosawa brought the West to Japan--in his adaptations of Dostoyevski (The Idiot), Gorki (The Lower Depths) and Shakespeare (Macbeth into Throne of Blood, King Lear into Ran), in his vigorous editing style and bravura nihilism. His films appealed around the world partly because, in text and texture, they eloquently spoke the common language of film.PAGE 1  |  
Whatever Kurosawa borrowed from the West, he gave back tenfold. No other foreign director can approach his influence on the Hollywood-style movie. Three of his films were remade in the West, including Seven Samurai, his 1954 epic of freelance warriors who help a village of farmers beat their plowshares into swords (as The Magnificent Seven). Lucas insists that The Hidden Fortress, the 1958 adventure about two bickering commoners who help a rebel princess, provided the story map for Star Wars.But Kurosawa's influence was deeper, broader. He was one of the first to aestheticize violence, to make it sexy, make it hurt. Every face-off in pouring rain can be traced to the drenched battles in a half-dozen Kurosawa classics. Yet he did not find combat romantic; to him it revealed the brutality of man, of life. To see the random carnage in Saving Private Ryan's Omaha Beach scenes is to be reminded of Spielberg's debt to the muddy, bloody climax of Seven Samurai, the poetic overkill of Mifune's death in Throne of Blood. I will paint the whole forest with blood! he earlier shouts. Kurosawa did the same to whole movies, in irradiated chiaroscuro; he was an action-painter on celluloid.The exuberance of Kurosawa's imagery was matched by a vision almost comic in its bleakness. In Yojimbo, is everyone corrupt? The visiting inspector is paid off in geisha girls. And tough? The town's most successful entrepreneur is the coffinmaker. Even Kurosawa's modern-day films were set in a landscape of mortal betrayal. The businessmen of The Bad Sleep Well (1960) are samurai in business suits, gangsters in skyscrapers, with a code of honor no less remorseless. Men still die for it. When a boss says to his employee, I trust you completely, it is the surest death sentence.The director, who attempted suicide in 1971, was obsessed with men on the long march toward the grave. He pushed many of his characters in that direction, seemingly believing, with Mifune in Yojimbo, Better if all these men were dead. But he could show compassion to the damned. In his most human film, the 1952 Ikiru, a petty bureaucrat learns he is dying of cancer and resolves to do one good thing: fight for the creation of a city park. As played by the superb Takashi Shimura (who was in 21 of Kurosawa's 30 films), the bureaucrat has a drab intensity that scares people; his eyes are translucent cups holding tears that never fall onto his cheeks. Yet he is as close as Kurosawa came to putting saintliness on screen. At the end the park is built, and the man's spirit rocks gently on a swing.Kurosawa, who kept making films long after many in Japan gave him up for dead, had that same holy determination. His films are his monument; they will enthrall and haunt us as clues to the ways a man can battle life and face death.  |  PAGE 2